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This is the start of Seeds of Aether – Book 1: The Secret of Xeer

The body of the guard dropped, leaving the rancid smell of smoldering flesh crumbled on the floor beside his already smoking companion.  Melted tissue had dried on the uniforms which was now stained by blood boiled from the inside. The war still waged above in the streets.  The sound of buildings being ripped apart and chunks of granite and marble flying from their holds in foundations had dwindled to a mere echo.  Screams of the dying long since faded.  Blood smeared the finely polished marble floors and streaked the tapestries that hung spaced with precision except for the few that had been dislodged from the trembling earth which only rarely was felt this far beneath the surface.

Stepping over the bodies of the guards, the killer brushed off debris from his finely woven cloak and elegant red silk shirt and moved down the stairs and into the corridor that led to the Vault of Shadows.  The corridor was empty now.  He found it odd to have two mortal guards protecting something they considered so important.  Granted, the Exalted at the top of the stairs had proven quite the trial, but not having one down here seemed pointless.  They had known why he was coming, and the army outside proved they knew that he was coming.

It seemed strange to him that his life had come to this.  Less than forty years ago, it would have been him upstairs standing guard against what he now sought.  He had been, and he knew this without the slightest hint of pride or condescending, the world’s foremost healer.  All of that had changed now.  Now he fought in a war on the side of darkness.  On the opposite side of the conflict above was his closest friend from the days he walked in the light of the creators breath.

Here the battle would truly be decided. Those that fought outside didn’t fight for prize or reward though. They fought for their very survival and their perseverance could not be underestimated.  Even he would never deny the will of the human spirit. Neither could his old friend. He knew the lengths that Ahliarin Nepharin could go and the punishment the woman could withstand. He had pushed those limits himself.  She had actually given him pause for concern on his previous lack of faith in his brethren.  He still had confidence though.

He felt a sense of poetic justice to a point and even a sense of pride for his friends cunning. Ahliarin was quite the tactician much to his surprise.  The war with the dreadlords of the dark and the Exalted raged on above; lasting longer than he expected, but he got what he needed. He had made it to the Vault of Shadows. The secret he searched for was within his grasp; locked behind this door to be long forgotten.

He stood before the vault door in a state of reflection. For forty years he waited for this moment. Knowledge was to be shared for all, not to be hidden in the depths by those who thought they could control it. He felt a measure of anticipation crawl up his spine.

           The vault itself was protected by magic but it would take little effort to remove the bindings. Reaching out he tapped his own powers, allowing himself to merge with the elemental waves. Patiently, as he was not in a rush, he went to work on the mystical bindings; today after all was his victory. Nobody had really expected any person to enter this room. The anticipation crawling up his spine had now spread throughout his entire body.

           He worked at the layers of mysticism that enwrapped the door. Each of the five elements of life was delicately placed in twisting loops and curves in an intricate mass of confusion. He knew what needed to be done. He had long since performed a ritual that had let him see and study this room through Ahrimans Gift.  He smiled as he slowly peeled away each of the elemental binds that covered the doorway. Then, it was gone.

           He laughed a blood curdling laugh that echoed through the halls. Reaching for the door he twisted the long gold handle pushing the door inwards.  Inside the room was extremely plain and void of decoration. They used it for storage of dangerous information. Information that they wanted nobody to access didn’t need an elaborate room. However, for how bare it was it still held a small table and chair off to one side and to the other a medium oak bookshelf filled with different volumes; perhaps the writings of the scholars who had done the research. On the wall in the back was a sword with ancient symbols on it.  There was also a mace that looked to have spikes of bone.  There were rods and cloth, axes and armor he recognized as orcish.  Resting on a wall over the desk was the skin of an ancient serpent.  Nothing in the room had even the slightest speck of dust. What drew his attention was the small artifact sitting on a marble pedestal in the center of the vault.

           A small statue of a material he couldn’t quite identify, rested upon the altar.  The statue seemed somewhat plain to him.  It looked nothing like the twisted visage of the one which it was modeled after.  It was smooth as marble but it was not of it.  It was not quite steel and not fully stone.  He had some experience with artifacts and foci but this seemed a little odd to be sealed away.  This was what he was looking for though, that he was sure of.  Unfortunately he had no understanding of the where to start with it.

           He didn’t have time to think about it. Pushing his curiosity aside he stuffed the statue down into his pouch. It was time to go. He still took a moment to look at the bookshelf briefly.. On its shelves rested books with no markings, mostly journals pertaining to the research and function of this statue and other items stored within. He opened one of the books to take a quick look; his curiosity fighting back. The page seemed like everything thought by the scholar must have been crammed on the pages just by the sheer tiny size of the lettering. He focused his eyes, looking at the very fine print.

           Several different attempts at using the statue of unknown origins have resulted in nothing. It would seem that those that believe it’s purpose of accessing the Aether have given up hope. I stand not so sure as I have spent time tracing it’s origins back as far as I possibly could. While the statue itself is not of Dae’mon creation, it is speculated that the it may be of a counterpart. One can believe that the statue itself has proved to be resistant to any form of damage.

           “You can’t do this Arron.” The voice behind him had the ring of familiarity to it. He should not have stopped to look at the book.  Was it fate that had the one person who knew him best be the one to keep him from this? Not that it mattered. There was nothing that Ahliarin could do that could stop him, he was touched by Ahriman, Master of Evil.  That enhanced the power he already had.

           Turning he dropped the book and saw his old friend, standing in turn with her forever faithful watchdog companion, Syke Vor’shen. She held the elements, ready to strike.  The killer spat at that name however.  Arron was no longer him.

           “The man you knew as Arron died a long time ago, Ahliarin. Lan’drahl stands before you.” He spoke with a certain level of scorn mixed with pride. He had earned his title. He was first amongst Ahriman’s chosen and he would be addressed as such.

           “Lan’drahl is nothing more than your sad delusions. You know what the Council said about this room,” she scolded. Anger ran through his mind, her insolence at degrading him boiling his emotions.  He never used to let that kind of thing get to him, but he learned the value of pride.

           “Who are they to say who has access to what,” he shouted. “This is my time old friend. A life spent working for something. Something that I now possess.” Who did the Keeper’s think they were to keep this from him? He pointed at the book resting next to his foot. “They didn’t even know what it did. The preconceived idea of what they thought it could do didn’t warrant locking it away.” Especially if it was tied to Aether.

           “Arron,” she shook her head. “What you have is bred from pure evil. The very thing you swore to eradicate.” Again, more speculation on what she had been told. She had been converted fully. He remembered when she stood with him to question everything. Now, like all the others, she accepted what she was told.

           “A different life we had then, Ahliarin,” he shot back. “Those were ideas of a dream long dead. Dreams that were for that moment. I have new ideas and new dreams and the way to them rests here.  Even those that researched it thought it was tied to evil but not created by it.” His hand now rested on the statue. He didn’t want to risk losing it by weaves of child’s play.

           The tower shook.  Even here, beneath the foundation deep in the recesses of its archives the war could be felt.  They both quickly recovered their footing.

           “Your blood will be spilled before you can exit even one foot from this hall, that I promise you.” An expression crossed her face, but then was gone. It was all he needed though, he knew that face; a mixture of concern, betrayal and most importantly, fear.

           Her beloved pet drew his sword. He had cuts and wet blood up and down his arms so he wouldn’t be at full capacity. Then, he licked one, leaving a small dropping of blood on his chin.

           Arron Durin let aether energies fill him. This was his last obstacle and he would not be denied. He wrapped the doors to the vault in waves of air.

 

* * * * * * *

    It didn’t really matter exactly what happened outside at this point. What mattered was what happened here. Syke Vor’shen let the Blood Focus wash over him. He felt his body change, almost feeling lighter, energy rushing into him, the pain from the scars disappearing. The sword in his hands grew lighter.

           The man who now called himself Lan’drahl stood across the hall, at the entrance to the Vault of Shadows. Somehow he had gotten through the bindings that sealed it from the world. He knew Ahliarin had Shifted and was tapping the elements. He still had to approach this cautiously. By himself he stood no chance against Lan’drahl. Remembering the litter of Exalted corpses on the way down he worried that with Ahliarin it might still be impossible.

           Suddenly it happened. The large doors that had long guarded the vault flew past Lan’drahl, ripping from their strong iron hinges and soaring down the hall towards them with great force. He rolled underneath coming up with his sword flying in a wide arc. His speed was increased and he felt the strange sense of balance that came with the Blood Focus. Lan’drahl had taken a step back deftly dodging the swing.

           He lunged forth looking to impale the dark Exalted with his blade but felt it stop. Something was holding it. The blade lifted throwing him back hard against the wall as a fireball soared under him absorbing into the Shield surrounding Arron’s body. Pain reared through him on impact, but he easily forgot about it in the Blood Focus.

           Part of him wanted to look back to check on Ahliarin but he had faith she was okay. To fortify the thought, the other side of the door flew passed him coming to a loud crash deep in the vault; deflected easily by their foe. He lifted himself to his feet, running directly after another ball of elemental flame, hoping that its impact dissolved the shield. He swung, bringing his sword up in a vertical slice that was yet deflected by Lan’drahls own steel. He felt the air around him go stiff as Lan’drahl’s own fire struck him, pushing him back and absorbing into a shield.

           A white stream of light shot nearby obliterating the already weakened shield. He turned lunging for Lan’drahl’s chest again, but just as quickly felt himself thrown back into his mistress. They both hit the floor, Syke rolling with his increased balance came right back up to his feet. He felt the air loosen around him, a sign that Ahliarin had lost the shield or relinquished.

           “Do you see now,” Lan’drahl spoke, his eyes a fountain of determination and hatred. “My power comes from a greater source and your feeble attempts prove wasteful.”

           Something made Syke look to his left and just barely dodged out of the way as he watched the other door ramming into Ahliarin’s back sending her crashing forward again; the door falling to the floor.

           Syke wasted no time, he rushed forward sword coming up in a flurry. Lan’drahl dodged deftly, easily avoiding it until he caught it.  Syke felt the blade heat, melting one end and forcing him to drop it as well.  He had to admire the confidence and control of Lan’drahl and his ability to seem so casual.  It added to the sense of peril.

           Lan’drahl was intense, focused and determined. He would fight to the death here. Syke had to be prepared to kill him if Ahliarin could not bring herself to. He felt himself get shoved by something invisible. He flew sideways crashing against the wall. The pain shot through his body but in the Blood Focus he was able to push it away. Quickly he was back on his feet, charging again for his foe.

           Lan’drahl kept most of his attention on Ahliarin, she would have a shield of her own forcing a sort of stand off but Syke knew that she wasn’t as powerful as him. Syke got the time he needed and dove into Lan’drahl with everything that he had, both of them crashing hard, again Syke deftly rolling to his feet.

           That was his mistake, something hit him in the back burning painfully as he fell into the wall. He felt the heat of it, the pain of it, flooding through his body, as he could feel Ahliarin’s pain to stack on top of it. He felt the air around him solidify as he was yanked back, falling next to the charred remains of the guards. Looking at their singed bodies he knew he was at least wrapped in a shield from Ahliarin. She lay on the floor, the scrapes from being tossed around, dripping blood that contrasted the white marble floors.

           Lan’drahl stood over Ahliarin, whatever they had done with their magic he hadn’t seen, but as he expected Arron was the victor. He wondered if it was his lack of faith that helped turned the tide. The Vault of Shadows had been penetrated; the statue meant to be forgotten, lost to her old friend.

 

* * * * * * *

    One could still hear the screams of those who could be considered innocent as they fell to the might of the shadow. Ahliarin stared up into Arron Durin’s eyes. She would never call him Lan’drahl.  Behind the deep brown lie hatred. He stared down for what seemed like a lifetime. He had won.

           “You should have let things be old friend. It pains me to have to end your life.” He spoke without the slightest hint of regret. She did all she could, she smiled up at him refusing to admit defeat.

           She was still touching the elements, the energies helping ignore the pain even a little. His shield was gone, as was hers and she could still feel the pain that ripped through Syke. He was alive at least. She hadn’t been sure if the shield she gave him would hold.

           “Then do what you failed to have Temachus do months ago. Kill me, even though you think there is nothing I can do to stop you at this point. Take my life and all the things I stood by you for will be lost.” Now she was furious, her anger driving every word, taking form in a new hatred for the man she once trusted. All her anger stacked; the betrayal of Arron, her failure, the punishment and torture at the hands of Temachus. All of it become a ball of rage within her, all focused to center her in a new type of calm.

           “Compelling!” He grinned. “As I told you before, the man you knew is gone and with it his compassion and caring for things that he had.” She watched as the waves coalesced, he pulled in all five elements into a tangled elemental curtain. She could do nothing. “I wished I could have left you alive,” he smiled again. “Temachus will be overwhelmingly disappointed. You were always his favorite.”

           She could feel the tears well up in her eyes. She didn’t know if it was the thought of what Temachus had done to her or because her once trusted friend was willing to give her back to the horror of his acts. Most likely, it was both. A part of her in fleeting hoped that there was nothing to the vault itself. That was the last hope she had that all the fuss could have possibly been for nothing. She knew as Arron did that what they believed of the vault was all hypothetical.

He spoke again and it almost seemed as if a little compassion existed in his tone. “Don’t think Ahliarin, that I will ever forget my dear old friend. Sadly, I feel she died the same day you sided with the bureaucrats.”

Then he grunted, his eyes going wide. A sword stuck out through his chest and the waves dispersed. The sword came out and Syke nodded to the fallen guards at the end of the hall where he had gotten the sword. She pushed, all thepower she could muster with waves of Air, the blast hitting Lan’drahl, throwing him down the hall. He landed with a thud. He started coughing, trying to stand as she did.

She could see the waves of his power surrounding him, panic taking him as he tried to heal what he could. Which wasn’t possible. One could not heal himself; only stave off the wound temporarily.

           He pulled out a statue of a man, made of a strange material and she could see the the waves once again surround him, taking each element and merging it with the statue. The statue must be what he had taken from the Vault of Shadows. She felt her breath leave her body. One should not use artifacts they didn’t know how it worked. Especially one so feared as the statue. Syke moved quickly running the sword back through Arron.

At first it looked like everything was okay. Syke, the sword still driven through Arron, stared into his dying eyes, the waves of Power surrounding him vanished. And so did hers. She didn’t let go of it. She tried to tap it again but there was nothing. She couldn’t even feel it. The statue, whatever it was, fell to the floor. The noise of the battle overhead stopped. All was still. The air around her got very stuffy, the pain that she was ignoring rushed back into her.

Syke looked back at her, realizing something was wrong. Pulling the sword free he dropped it and started to run to her and stopped.  The statue melded with the floor, almost as if melting into it.  Time slowed down. A light shot through the floor, multicolored hues enveloping Arron. Aether?  Was this the power he explained to her before his soul was lost? Ahliarin could feel it. It was physical. “This is not the end,” Arron whispered. Slowly what was his very essence faded from existence.

Syke snapped out of his trance and ran to Ahliarin. Something pulled on her. The light pulled on her. She felt herself becoming lighter. It seemed as if she were dying, but the feeling of it felt so soothing. The rapture of it tingled her entire body, taking away the pain. She wanted to surrender to it. Syke tried to pull her up, but she fought. The beauty of this feeling was so overwhelmingly great, she didn’t want to let it go. It felt better then anything, it was like a perfect blend of everything that ever brought joy. It was joy incarnate. She felt herself let go, giving her all to the beauty of the light. Then the darkness took her.

Dark clouds rolled across the morning sky.  East they drifted, spilling out over the plains of Dakhol.  Rain hammered down with ferocity yet the trees seemed to reach out as if attempting to soak in every last drop after the hot, dry summer.  Jagged forks of lightning pierced the plains sending deer, rabbits and other indigenous wildlife running in all directions seeking some refuge from what was to come.

The land itself was dried out with grass worn from the wear of the season. The coming storm brought much needed water. The frequently traveled road was almost barren except for a few covered merchants wagons. They offered shelter within their enclosure and the people in them would be seeking the nearest sturdy protection they could find. The road itself, once used for sparse travel, was now a well worn path of trade making the transition into mud.

Wind blew down, echoing the west as it flew through small farms and villages. Inhabitants here were long since indoors as the dark clouds boiled; thunder drumming across the sky. A hundred leagues east, not even the rain reached the small growing town of Lyonz. Grey clouds began to encroach horizon looking out from the Lion’s Gate and a slight breeze moved over the walls still under construction.

Numerous cargo ships lined the docks along the river Caern. Boat captains shouted with increased determination at their crew to get their goods unloaded before the expected fury of the storm reached them. In the grand Market Square, which offered goods from all over the land that came in by those boats: spices, silks and decor enough to satisfy the dynamic of the different cultures, only few of the shops had closed in an attempt to get as much business as possible.

Twisting north through the three story thatched roof of inns and houses and specialty shops it flowed through North Gate and out into the forest and through the thick collection of pines and evergreens that made up the Blackwood.  The name came from that deep in the forest sunlight was sparse and never quite made it to the soil.  Almost as if the unique black bark of the trees themselves was absorbing it.

Devon Talroon, of the king’s Civil Guard pulled his cloak tight as he brought the gelding out of the woods and off towards the bridge that crossed the snibar creek.  He looked westward now that the trees had cleared, out over the mountains at the grey clouds moving towards them.  He hoped they made it back before they made it to Lyonz.

He looked over at Jeb, a veteran of Lyonz Civil Guard who had a disgruntled look across his wrinkled face that twisted his lip and left his brow relatively crunched.  It had been about two years since he had first entered the ranks of the Civil Guard.  For his own reasons he chose to patrol the outside of the growing city.  That had to do with his friend Vidicous Korinon, who left the city and now lived out here doing small things for the people of Dermall’s Waters; the small isolated village they were coming to.    The rest of it had to do with the Captain of the Civil Guard, Aletar Radchek who wasn’t too fond of him.

The hollow thud of hoofs on the wooden planks that made the bridge echoed in the quiet hours.  To the north a wheel ticked in time with the water circulating through it.  The creek itself flowing underneath would have been the only sound without the village children running up the trail to meet them.  They were always excited when the Civil Guard came, having questions about their swords catching those that broke the laws of the king.  Some of them knew his horse, named after his father.

They came in a mass, keeping only a slight distance, yelling their questions to the riders.  Some of the older ones were curious of the world outside their isolated village of thatched roofs and single story homes.

Devon could only smile as he rode by them while Jeb shouted obscenities while directing them from the horses and making sure they weren’t in a direct path.  Jeb hated children and had never wanted them either; which to the women of Lyonz was probably why he was alone.  He didn’t mind it however, in a few cases even threatening to let the horse eat them or some other crude promise.

The road turned north, running parallel with the creek and the village opened up into a large clearing that was the town square.  There were already at least fifty citizens that had gathered to address their complaints with the lack of reflection of the taxes they paid to the king.  Devon wasn’t quite sure he understood it either.  That was the purpose of the village elected mayor and his seat of council.  Every visit though, they had all gathered in the village to address complaints they thought the Civil Guard would do better than the mayor.

Several shouts from the gatherers prompted a loud “QUIET,” from Jeb which lowered their voices to mere murmurs.  It didn’t stop several of the shouts from getting out.  The Conkles and Pritchetts always stood at the forefront, arguing about the others and land lines and  trespassing, but something did catch his ear.

Altor, a farmer up towards the mountain trail of the abandoned mines, who was relatively mad from the time he spent by himself, had been yelling about demons coming down out of the mountain.  This was an interesting twist to past stories of dragons that torched his shed which turns out he burned it down on accident.  There was also the story of creatures no more than an arm in length that were stealing his hogs, which ended up being wolves.

Jeb’s attention had been off to the west side of the clearing.  There stood the Widow Adiri, an older woman who, while he wouldn’t say it, was the only reason the older man took this patrol.

With Jeb’s loss of attention, the crowd had grown larger and also gained more commotion.  Several different people were complaining about the mayor and his apparent inability to manage his duties.  This brought responses from some of his advisors and soon everybody was part of the argument.  It all quieted down when the door to the mayor’s house opened and he stepped out.

A relatively older man, his dark hair was starting to gray at the tips.  Garred was a butcher by trade which some of that showed by his large size.  He was plump but you could tell he had some muscle and was quite a hard man.  Some say he had served the nation of Moraten in the war and retired here before the arm of the king made it to this out of the way village.  He looked around at the crowd and shook his head.

    “Perhaps some of us have nothing better to do then to stand around and harass the Civil Guard.  I think we all know the routine and if you have questions and concerns they should have been brought to my attention over the last week.”

    “What about the request that have been brought to you Garred?” Jon Conkle shouted from the middle of the crowd.

“I have already received some, but not enough to reflect the crowd here now,” he continued like Jon never spoke.  “Those that I have received have been reviewed and will be explained to these gentlemen as necessary.”

The crowd didn’t move, but stood there staring hopefully until the mayor shouted.  “Go, home,” he pointed to their houses with his cleaver.  Everybody was quick to go about what they were doing and the mayor turned back to them.  “It doesn’t matter how many times you boys show up here, it’s like they never bothered to learn proper protocol.”  Jeb sniffed at being called boy by a man less than two hands his age.  “However, I do have a few points of note today that I felt needed to be brought up.”

Devon looked at Jeb, waiting for the senior soldier to lead the way, but the man’s attention was still on the widow Adiri.  “Jeb” he asked and the man startled.

“You take this one boy, I think you’re ready for it.  Most likely it’s the same rubble as the rest.  Besides, retirements coming soon, making you the senior guard on this route.  About time you learn this stuff on your own.”  His voice was raspy with his age and those that didn’t know him may think he was angry, but that was just Jeb.

Since Devon had been a part of the Civil Guard, Captain Aletar Radchek had never had any fondness for him.  He had a small group of them that always followed him around.  That group held the same in liking for him.   Most likely Radchek would assign one of them to take charge in Jeb’s retirement.  At one time Jeb was one of them, but that had worn off in the last few months as his retirement grew closer.  He found their conversations became plentiful and his interest in Devon’s own ethics slowly grew to prominence.   Devon wondered if there was more to it.

Needless to say, the last few months had increased the respect Devon had for the older man.  He was even less disgruntled in recent weeks and slightly more jovial.  Devon was sure some of that was the widow Adiri, whom he had already discussed his intent to retire to the quiet village.  He had even mentioned acting as a liaison to help keep the crowd down when the guard came through.

He nodded as he dismounted along with the elder man who took his own gelding and led it towards the widow’s home.  Turning his attention back, the mayor was holding the door open to his home.  He took one look back while tying off his mare and headed in.

The house was smaller than it looked on the outside; that could be just the amount of clutter the man kept.  To the left was a makeshift kitchen with a handmade stone oven and a small wash basin where he cleaned his dishes and knives.  Next to the kitchen was a small set of stairs which twisted up to the right.  In the back of the large area remaining was another door out the back which most likely led to his butchery.  The rest was filled like a little study that had several shelves with books and ledgers and hundreds of parchments which also littered the desk.  There were three chairs in the room aside from the one at the desk meant for guests which the mayor motioned to as he removed the bloodied apron he wore and Devon sat expectedly.

   “So, they are entrusting you for this task now lad.  Can’t say I blame them.  Good enough head on your shoulder and don’t actually taunt the people here.  Most of them respect you and that should go a long way.”

“They respect the sigil itself.  They doubt me and my rank.”

He stroked his moustache thoughtfully as he ruffled through the papers on the desk pulling out a small stack.

   Most of what he covered were typical complaints, only what he considered to be pertinent to the growth and foundation of his village.  The Conkles wanted an official representative to come out and detail property lines to gain some of the Pritchett families lands.  Another similar letter about the Conkles from the Pritchetts.  Many people said the feud was as old as the village itself.

   There were also large amounts of reports of wolves coming down out of the mountains, more so than usual and livestock that have been lost because of it.  They had set up traps that had been traded for but the wolves seemed to be figuring it out and if Garred himself didn’t know better, the beasts seemed angry for the traps.

   At last, while he seemed hesitant of the fact, he pulled out the report from Altor.  He shook his head and handed over the report itself.

   “Now normally as you know I don’t take anything Altor says seriously, this one seemed to hold a thread of merit.”  Turning he went back over to one of the shelves and started running his finger over the bindings.

   Devon looked at the report.  It had scribblings off to the side that resembled a small humanoid creature.  The report itself explained a person that resembled a boy of twelve years, with a dark greenish brown skin.  Tufts of white hair protruded out its ears with a long trail hanging down to its mid back.

    “You think Altor really did see a demon?” Devon asked suspiciously.

   Pulling an old tattered book with brown binding off the shelf he turned to face Devon as he turned through the pages.  “Not exactly,” he said looking studiously as he moved from page to page, “but I think he saw something.”  It looked as if he found what he was looking for and laid the book out displayed with an image eerily similar to the one scrawled on the report.

   “You think it was a Kog?”  The picture in the book had tied the label to an ancient race of creatures that were long since thought extinct.  “I thought they had been wiped out by a plague or something.”

   “That do be the tale of it all lad.  Truth be told nobody knows what happened to them, and with the vast emptiness of the Highlands to the east and endless range of mountains to our west i think it’s not inconceivable they removed themselves.”

   He regarded the mayor thoughtfully, but carried on.  “Why do we want to think it is a Kog?  Everybody is aware of the stories of Altor.  Right now, I’m sure that this particular story is a village joke.”

   “That it is lad and I’d like to keep it that way for now.  There are several representations of the Kog society from the old days.  Some have them stealing babies in the night and sacrificing them to their bestial gods.  Others have them working side by side with human craftsmen.  The latter tells of a race that has an undying respect for all forms of life and never in my life have I seen wolves destroy the traps of man.  I would think whatever he saw, was saving those animals from our decided fate and returning them to their own nature.”

“Either way, it was freeing wolves that were taking our livestock and creeping closer to the homes of the king’s taxpayers.  Or we should be expecting it at the worst to be here for the children and should expect a little added guard for which these villagers pay.  If anybody goes telling them there may be a vicious demon nearby it will cause panic or they will assemble their flames and pitchforks and hunt it down.  If that doesn’t lead to an accident it may very well lead to the death of a race long since thought extinct but possibly peaceful in their own right.  Right now Korinon has taken to the mountain range out at least few days travel to track anything down, going in both directions.”

    “You’ve seen Vidi?” Devon asked a little too enthusiastically.

    “Not in about a week,” the mayor said with a flashing look of concern.  “I expected him back two days past.”

   “Well at the very least,” Devon responded “I think we can send an extra patrol on the notion of protecting the citizens of the Kings Realm from drastic measures and to keep them at ease, but I should warn you, High Captain Satori will not send patrols to chase ghosts through mountain passes.”

    “I don’t expect that he should.” The mayor smiled.  “You will do good to take over for that old mule of a man.”

   For the next hour they prepared the final report, touching on certain items and why they were left out and fine tuning the details of the important ones.  As they left the building they found Jeb outside with a few of the village children performing a trick with a coin that seemed to vanish into thin air.  Children shouted what had happened to it, numerous things that could have happened to it and with a flourish it was back in his hand.  He looked up as they approached, and made one last grand gesture throwing the coin up.  Suddenly it was gone, neither floating in the air or in his hands.  The children looked everywhere for the coin, he appeared to retrieve it from one of their ears.

   Devon stood there a little taken aback.  The same man who was shouting obscenities at the children was now playing tricks and games.

He kindly shooed them away as he returned the coin to his pouch and mounted his horse.  He nodded to the mayor and together they rode out of town, children running after asking for another trick which he just told them another day.  Jeb was always a different person after his time with the Widow.

Devon looked back over his shoulder.  Dark clouds were encroaching the mountains.  The storm was coming.

Soon after the bridge they started entering the wooded area that led to the Black Wood. Here it was a light forest with with a good twenty steps between trees. The Black Wood got it’s name not just from the fact that it was so heavily wooded that a bright day was like dusk within it’s depths, but that the bark on the trees themselves were like the deepest recesses of night.

“You seem to be in a good mood Jeb,” he pointed out. “More social with the children then I’ve ever seen you.” The old man hid a light smile the best he could.

“Adiri thinks I should be a little more friendly with them, seeing as I’ll have my own in six months.”

Devon only smiled at him. “You don’t like kids though you say.”

“Well, when you get as old as I am reaching, and you’ve already lived for yourself well enough over, what could it hurt to give what you got left to somebody else.”

The trees themselves soon grew thicker and closer together as they entered the heart of the Black Wood. The amount of afternoon light they should have had without the clouds would have left them with early dusk light. Now they only had late dusk.

“Do you think I’ll take on the lead guardsmen for this patrol?” Devon asked breaking the short silence.

“I will put in a good word with Jorgan boy. Radchek has in head in the clouds some days and an ego even higher. If anything, this route is relatively peaceful and I think I make Radchek see, you keeping charge out here keeps you out of his way.”

Devon frowned. He hated feeling like the outcast to the rest of the Civil Guard. Most of them looked for a reason to pick at him. Several of them had pushed him to a point of reacting with force to which he was promptly reprimanded on bogus claims.

He turned his attention back to the trail. It was a relatively tangled path of rock and dirt that narrowly made its way up the slight slope of the terrain and followed the creek. Also, the trip itself was typically peaceful; birds chirping in the trees, the sound of the waters and the serenity of solitude. Not many people used the trail and Devon was not very knowledgeable of each turn and bramble. Jeb had pointed out a few things about the terrain to watch out for.

They would be to the main road soon, maybe another two hours and they could head down High Road directly into the city. The creek itself ran right to the High Road so keeping close to it made it easy to not get lost.

His mind drifted to his friend: Vidicous Korinon. It had been several months since he had last seen him. Even though he had taken his seclusion from the city, he still made it in to do trade for the people of Dermall’s Waters.

Off to the south he thought he saw something for a moment but then it was gone. Probably a deer spooked at his passing. They were quite abundant up here as there were laws against hunting without a license in this region. A chill wind blew through the area, forcing him to pull his cloak tight. He looked over to Jeb who seemed to not even notice the cold. He nodded to the south where they both saw what he may have seen earlier. It kept a steady distance from them though and there only seemed to be one.

With brigands in the Highlands, land pirates so to speak, you still had to keep your eye out. Even since the Civil Guard began patrolling the area outside there were still incidents in which the two forces collided. Whatever it was didn’t appear to be a threat but they still kept it within sight.

The trail broke south, spinning up around a tiny embankment into the core of the Blackwood. If there was anything in this general direction it probably knew that he would be following the trail this direction. As the hill climbed, the wood became thicker and the pines branched out in large groupings blocking most of the ambient sunlight that still filled the cloudy sky. On a bright day the Black Wood seemed like it was dusk. Today, with the clouds rolling high, it would be near night.

He stayed on the trail as it reared back towards where it ran along the creek. Slowly he made his way deeper into the Black Wood. No matter how many times one entered this section of the trail it made him feel a little unsafe. Today it felt like a dark shadow covered the world and sucked the light right out of it.

He was glad to be returning home. Tomorrow would start the festivities of Cailúra; a week long appreciation of life. Mostly it was a party for everybody to shirk off most of their responsibilities. It was however where one of common blood could find themselves dancing with a noble. He wouldn’t be able to part take in the full week, as the guard would be on high alert He had always liked the festivities, each night ending in a cavalcade of brightly multicolored fireworks that illuminated the dark skies. Lyonz regional governor, Rahldrin Thamad, appointed by the High King of Moraten, always made sure that the event was a spectacle to remember.

He caught a flicker of movement again to the south beyond the creek; a shadowy figure off in the distance moving between the trees. It was now closer. . At this point, he guessed, he couldn’t really pretend that it was a deer. Whatever it was, he was starting to feel it was following them. Luckily, even in the Black Wood, with the cloud cover there was still a reasonable amount of light.

He felt the urge in the darkness of the woods to touch the handle of his sword. He thought some of it was to make sure it was still there. Something about the Black Wood made even the most weathered traveler uneasy. If you were being followed and knew, the feeling increased.

The road he was traveling to, the High Road, also led north of Lyonz and then out into the High Wilderness. That area itself was known for brigands and thieves and it was hard to patrol. Lyonz Civil Guard never went more then a mile outside of the city walls unless in pursuit. So it could very well be somebody they had chased out of the city who came here for hiding. That would be just as much reason to stay clear. Granted the Civil Guard wasn’t perfect. Many times they had chased people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still, even though they was traveling relatively slow, whatever it was followed.

“On your toes boy,” Jeb muttered.

He took a moment to look at Jeb and when he looked at back the form was gone. Jeb seemed to be more upright in his saddle. He apparently no longer thought it was wildlife either.

Birds were no longer chirping he realized. Normally, this deep in the Black Wood there was always birds chittering away. He wondered if the form was the reason they weren’t present. Most likely it was the coming storm. Something unnatural creeping through the woods that scared away the natural. The thought sent shivers up his spine.

As if to echo his thought the shadow appeared up ahead moving through the trees. It wasn’t trying to remain hidden so it had to know he was there. So it was either scared of him and was avoiding conflict or it was following him. It moved quickly, on foot deftly moving from point of cover to point of cover. It could have been just a wild animal, maybe a deer, but one could never be too cautious. He gripped the hilt of the sword at his side, ready to pull it in a heartbeat if needed.

It could have been a nomad. They traveled everywhere and the stories that followed were always compared to brigands and thieves. The few who had bothered to enter Lyonz never seemed to be frightful to Devon though. Most often seemed to be weary of city folk. That, however, was under the cloud of city walls, in the watchful eyes of the Civil Guard.

The black form darted out across the trail, traveling on two legs; no, it wasn’t a deer. It moved faster then a normal human too, leaping over brambles and dodging branches. That’s when he realized. It didn’t make any sound. Out here, with fallen leaves and broken twigs and sticks in the dead quiet, everything made a sound. He felt a lump in his throat and his heart began to race. This was something else and here, far from the protection of the city, it seemed to have the advantage.

It’s actions almost appeared to be studious. It was taking in it’s prey, watching their movements and reactions. It wanted to be seen. Without thinking he fell into formation, falling a few strides back from Jeb and trotting along the creek.

Jeb heeled his mare to a quicker pace and Devon followed. It had stopped behind a tree not twenty yards away. There was no doubt that it knew they were coming after it. Jeb had his sword out now, his arm slouched slightly as whoever it was they did not want to appear a threat they just wanted answers. What kind of person would be out here unless they knew their way around.

Jeb dismounted and again he followed suit, stepping up around Jeb’s flank.

“By order of the king’s law, executed by the civil guard in the name of Governor Rahldrin Thamad, you are hereby ordered to show yourself and relinquish any weapons.” Jebs voice was firm but carried the authority of an elderly man. Nothing moved, not even a sound came from the other side of the tree. Devon felt his hand shiver on his hilt and stilled it. Jeb approached the tree cautiously bringing up his blade into a defensive position. He made a full circle around the tree and they stared at each other blankly.

“There’s nothing there,” he stated with confusion. Devon was sure his face reflected the same emotion. There was nowhere it could have went from that location without being seen. Devon looked around, Jeb following his tracks back around the tree.

“Where could they have went?” Devon asked.

“They couldn’t have.” Jeb replied. “Mount up, boy. I’m going to check it’s path and double back.” Devon moved back to his horse and climbed back into the saddle then trotted up to reign in Jeb’s. He slowly trotted up to the tree the shadowy figure first hid behind. Jeb came back from the trees and looked around at the ground.

“Whoever they were I feel like I’ve seen a ghost. The tracks end here.”

“That is not possible.”

“It is possible boy. There are things in this world more deadly then man, and more cunning then a politician.”

Devon shivered again in spite of himself. He never wanted to believe in the stories of the creatures of Ahriman, lord of evil. Nobody in Lyonz had ever seen any proof, although they say in the north, there were orc heads on pikes abound. He was comfortable with the thought of never having to see proof either.

Jeb sheathed his sword and climbed into the saddle and was quickly knocked out again, crashing to the ground with a thud, the breath knocked out of him. He rolled quickly to attempt getting to his feet but a dark figure landed in the mid of his back pushing him to the ground. It hissed, something very deep Devon couldn’t hear. He quickly lept from his horse and pulled his sword.

The figure pulled a dagger, twisted in shape and glared back at him. It’s face was human in shape but dark and mis-shapen. It’s eyes burned with a deep red that radiated hatred, pain and malice. It’s skin was the color of ash and it’s body look as frail. It occurred to Devon, this looked nothing like the Kog image that Altor described, but none the less it did look like a demon.

He stared at it, frozen by fear. Jeb had somehow turned himself over and was now fighting to get his sword out of it’s sheath. The struggling caught the creature off guard as if it thought it could will Jeb not to move, and he stumbled off. Devon, almost felt as if the beast could as he felt inhibited from any motion. It recovered quickly, spinning and thrusting that dagger directly into Jebs side, a smooth motion which caught him between the ribs. His body slumped and fell to the ground.

Devon moved out of fear at this point, bring his sword up he darted for the shadowy figure. It limply turned to him, seemingly no care in the world. Devon’s foot caught a branch sticking out from the ground and he found himself stumbling. The sword flew from his hands and slid across the ground, he rolling alongside with it. He twisted over, holding himself up with his arms scooting backwards away from it as it casually stepped closer in a slithery fashion, licking the blood of the dagger.

It crept up on him and again Devon felt frozen. His ability to act sucked away he completely stopped. He looked up into the creatures eyes and the look of pain had been replaced with that victory. The lion had it’s prey.

All that followed was a slight whistle in the air and the monster fell back. An arrow protruding from it’s shoulder. The dagger it carried stuck in the trunk of a nearby tree, the bark falling away around its point of impact. Devon looked around trying to find the source.

Rustling from nearby pushes produced a figure with another arrow nocked and ready to fire. Shrouded by an old and beaten cloak that Devon recognized all too clearly. Vidicous Korinon.

“The next one will hit you where it matters beast.” said Vidicous.

The creature looked at him, then Devon and then at his dagger.

“Don’t even consider it, that dagger is mine now.” The creature knocked a similar knife at his hip and appeared to forego the dagger with a “for now” glance and leaped over to Jebs body and with one hand pulling it up for cover. From his vantage point, Devon could see it sink it’s jagged, rotted teeth in Jeb and then dart into the trees.

“Vidi? How did you…? What was…? How did you find us?”

His friend peered at him for a moment and then pulled back his cloak. His reddish brown hair had grown, and he had a beard that was at least a month old growing, even if it stayed trimmed. His bright blue eyes shown in the darkness of the woods as he looked Devon over.

“It felt….evil.”

 

* * * * * * *

 

Devon seemed a little older, Vidi thought as he stared at his long time friend. If only for maturity. What was that thing? Was that a ihr’drin? A shadow imp, the covert scouts of the Ahriman. He thought about the stories of the War of the Drin. He thought Ihr’drin, or shadow imps, were fairy tales created to keep children from wondering to far into the Blackwood. So far from the north? Like everybody else, as he got older he dismissed the stories as myths. Nobody had ever seen one of these so called creatures. What was it doing in here?

His horse, Allihn had appeared to sense his unease and trotted up next to him. Only then did he snap back to Devon asking him about Jeb. Quickly he ran over to the old man and wrapped a scarf around the mans wound and loaded him up on to his horse.

“Follow me, and stay close,” he ordered and Devon climbed on to his own horse and took Jebs reigns. He walked over to the tree and pulled the dagger out and placed it into his saddlebags. Climbing back on Allihn, he spun the horse around at a quick trot heading towards the main road.

There were no more sighting’s of the shadow beast. He kept quite a vigilante eye on his surroundings. Whatever it was must have been scared away although he knew that wasn’t true. A part of him was sure it was still out there, he thought he could feel it watching him even if he could no longer feel it. It made him more uneasy cause he wasn’t sure why he had felt it in the first place.

It would seem odd to him still that a minion of Ahriman would be in this region, let alone in the Blackwood. Even considering the forest was a little dark and somewhat eerie, most people of an adult age knew it to be anything but.

He guided Allihn down the trail, still keeping to a quick pace; better safe then sorry. Devon kept on point, even though he was still visibly shaken still. He kept looking all around them.

Slowly light began too creep back into his surroundings as he neared the boundary of what was considered the Black Wood. As the trees thinned out he found himself looking back the way he had come a little bit more. If there was anything still following him it would be easier to see them now.

Even as the trees thinned out a little he still saw now sign of it. His scanned the entire span of woods behind him and didn’t catch even the slightest oddity. He still thought he could feel its eyes on him. Bumps still ran up his arms and he was sure it wasn’t just the unease of the situation. They had been there since shortly before he first realized he felt the creature.

Soon the trail broke away from the creek to go a little further up another small embankment. He followed it up, around a small bend where the terrain itself became a little rough and Allihn had to work to get up it. At the top, the forest ended quickly against the High Road, sunlight shining down in the opening in the wood where the seldom traveled dirt trail passed. The clouds were quickly coming in from the west now.

He dismounted and helped keep Jeb on his horse as it climbed the embankment too. Devon followed closely to make sure there were no issues to. He handed the reigns back to Devon and told him to head on to the city then mounted Allihn.

Bringing himself up on the road he reared the horse back and took one last look back at the forest. It was still out there he knew, but it had lost of it’s chance at doing anything in concealment.

Spinning back around he heeled Allihn across the small bridge meant to carry wagons and carriages across the creek and headed to the distant spires of the city of Lyonz. From where he saw the spires of noble houses and the governor’s mansion, Vidicous estimated the time to get back to Lyonz would take about an hour.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t sure Jeb would make it that far.

He kept the pace back to the gates as moderate as possible, so as not to cause more damage to Jeb.  He still wanted to be away from the Blackwood.  He felt the eyes on him all the way down the main road. He didn’t know what good it would do seeing how quickly the form moved through the trees, not to mention how it just vanished.

He peered at the sky, the sun had been taken over by the clouds rolling in from the west. They moved quickly, almost like an avalanche coming down a mountain. The storm would be here shortly. He could already feel it.  Hopefully, if the clouds stayed at that pace, it would be gone just as soon.

Just outside the walls of the city were a few buildings spread out from each other, dwindling the farther north they went. There were several houses, the bigger ones being closer to the wall. There was at least one blacksmith and baker along the main road. Up ahead the city had well taken shape and soon enough he would be at North Gate.

As he approached, several people outside their shops or houses stopped to stare.  They knew something was wrong.  Devon had passed by with Jeb hunched over no more than twenty minutes prior to this.  Even in the city there were many people that feared the unknown of the Blackwood and the thieves in the Highlands.  Surely this only solidified their belief.

He tried not to look at the people coming out.  By now Devon’s name would be spreading around town and his was about to follow.  There was a time in Lyonz that him and Devon together meant mischief.  The sigil of the Civil Guard would be enough to keep them from overreacting.  It was only a matter of time before it fell on the ears of Captain Aletar Radchek.  The man never liked him or Devon and any moment he had would be too harass them.

At a decent pace it would take him under an hour to reach the gates. He heeled Allihn and to a gallop to make it in half the time.

When he got to the gates there was a cart there with three soldiers aside from Simon and Leland.  Devon stood off with them.  The medic was climbing up into the cart with Jebs near lifeless body.  Two of the guards glared when they realized it was him but said nothing.

“Did you bandage this up?” the medic asked.

“Yes,” he replied simply when he realized the medic was speaking to him.

“Very nice work,” she yelled as the cart started back to town.  “It may have given him the only chance he had.”  She said that with a bite meant for the soldiers who were glaring, who quickly fell in line escorting the cart back to the city.

He dismounted now, joining Devon, Simon and Leland.  At this point nothing would stop word of his presence from making its way around the city.  Not that he cared.  Devon would have to hand in the report.

The citizens that were out had stopped watching him and began pointing at the Civil Guard and the cart they were pulling.  They were ushered into the city by Leland, who was was turning his attention back to Simon and Devon and it looked Jeb’s horse had been escorted away.

Their faces were all grim.  One of their own had fallen.  Devon seemed to be stumbling over his words to explain it; Simon frustrated with trying to understand it.

“Master Korinon,” Leland announced, forcing a smile of acceptance.  “Pleasure to see you in good health.”

Vidicous nodded.  “I do wish it were under better circumstances Lieutenant.”  Out of the corner of his eye he noticed a guardsmen waiting just inside the gate. “I’m guessing he’s here to escort me to the High Commander?”

Leland nodded.  “Both of you actually.  Standard procedure”  Devon groaned off to the side.  “How are things outside of the hustle of city living?”

“I’m not quite sure anymore.”  Vidicous responded.

    It was only then that Vidicous realized that the bumps on his arms were no longer there. He frowned. “Have you noticed or heard anything suspicious coming from the highlands, Leland.” It made little sense though.  Whatever that thing actually was, it probably would be staying clear of the city.

“Ha,” he laughed in spite of himself. “Hasn’t really been much of any activity in these parts since that last brigands tried to sneak in that drug of theirs by swimming around the docks.  Besides, wouldn’t expect many passing out of any of the gates with that storm coming.” He looked over at his partner. “Rumors even speak of winds blowing roofs off of houses out west.” His face took on a more curious look. “Something bothering you lad?”

Vidicous shook his head. “Let’s just say there is a storm coming.  The weather may have me down.”  He didn’t really want to bring up shadow that could cause a panic and he was sure High Commander Jorgan Satori would skin his hide.

“Aye,” he laughed again and looked around but went on. “Last winter, Simon here got so down from the weather that he hid from it in mugs of ale.” Simon didn’t share the same amusement and shot his friend an annoyed glare. “But I do see your point, I do. The weather has a funny way of tampering with one’s feelings. I myself, shortly after Rita died, found myself crying during normal spring showers for no reason. Almost like the dark clouds pulled on my very sadness.” Leland frowned.

    Vidicous barely remembered the man’s wife, really only seen chasing kids away from her house. She always seemed like a grumpy old woman. They used to have bets on exactly how many cats the woman actually had. It was when they tried to count them through the window that she came out with a tattered old broom. He kept the cats after she died, he said it helped ensure the fact that she was always with him. To Vidi, that thought seemed a little morbid but people had different ways of coping.

    Leland apparently didn’t find solace in keeping the cats around. After about a month he gave them all away and joined the Civil Guard. Since then the rugged old man seemed a bit more jovial, maybe feeling like he had something worth living for again. Love was a strange thing he thought and sometimes through it you could measure a person.  Suddenly the awkward silence filled that gap and Vidi took the opportunity to escort Devon to the waiting guardsman.

    Leland added, “I will keep an eye out for you lad. If I see anything strange, I’ll let you know.”

A page was there to take Allihn for him as well.  Devon said very little.  He was overwhelmed with what had happened and what he was afraid was going to happen when they reach the Hall of the Civil Servants.

    Many of the people that didn’t give him the looks knew him quite well.  He was sure that it was him being with Devon Talroon more than anything.

Not much had changed at first glance but for those who knew the city it was easy to see some shops had closed and others had been built in this part of Lyonz.  There were three major roads that led into the city.  The High Road  they were on came in from the North Gate.  From the south was the Caern Road which followed the river south to Loirria.  Finally, the great Lyonz Gate, which had the massive lion headed stonework headed from the west and the center of the king’s realm.  They all met in the middle of the city at Market Square.

They merged into the main part of the square itself, turning east to where the barracks and keep were located.  The air had grown colder, the clouds darker and they had very little time before the storm hit.  They had to excuse themselves through a group of people he didn’t recognize part way through market square.

Part of him didn’t very much like the crowd this day.  People who wanted to take what was yours always liked days where tensions were high.  It made things easier when people were too frantic to notice their coin purse disappearing.  Granted he was with a member of the Civil Guard, for some those were targets of entertainment.

The square itself was relatively large.  Many vendors and traders had permanent fixtures around and in aisles throughout the open field of cobblestone.  The idea was to stray away from the necessity of having carts.  Many stands were clearing their goods, if not already done and the proprietors were preparing to retire for the day.

As they crossed the main road in the square he looked around at all the people.  Most of them he had known his entire life.  Some of them were the ones that gave him looks.  Old man Naselik had been at the same location in the square for thirteen years always offering quality cotton-based dresses.  His wife was probably slaving away at home, tailoring them at this very moment.  She had developed a knack of making them look exotic without over embellishing.  Many women kept buying more to have some very elegant looks without paying the price for the silk.

On the other side of this section of the square was Bartol, who for half that time had been selling jewelry and other accessories appealing to most women’s sense of self esteem and glamour.  At one of the corners was the widow Hamsten who was always offering some flavor of pie or roll and a large collection of custom baked breads.  She occupied the space next to Serreh, whom his mother had used for the last several years for incense.

There were other traders in the city that set up for only a few days and then set sail back down river.  They were hawkers from Nerein and Loirria and in the middle Madam Preine who sold spices.  She kept proper at all times.  Usually she wore a dress of fine silk in deep colors of blue or violet and sometimes green with low bodices indicating her preference for Loirria fashion.  A young man two booths down, with tight breeches and shirt, who looked uncomfortable standing on land was a seafarer.  He constantly fiddled with his boots like they were irritating or uncomfortable; perhaps he wasn’t used to wearing them.  Another relatively husky woman off to his right sold a custom blend of spices that she says came direct from Eldraa and had an accent that reinforced her claim.

They took a side street that was also referred to as Lyonz center.  To the east was the city hall and the governor’s chair.  To the left was the walled off barracks, with stone statues of soldiers with swords that crossed above your head as you entered.

The courtyard was basically a large training ground.  To the simple flat where guards were training against each other or targets for archers.  Behind that stood the barracks.  The barracks themselves weren’t large, meant for sleeping and washing and not much of anything else.  While most of the Civil Guard had homes here, during training they were to eat, sleep and breath everything Civil Guard.  To the right the path led directly to the keep.  A massive collection of granite and arrow slits, the keep was the second largest building in Lyonz next to the governors hall which also consisted of offices of city officials, the dock masters as well as the Trade commission.

Normally the High Commander had an office at the top but Jorgan Satori was a genuine man who believed a leader should never be so far divided from his soldiers.  Therefore he kept a room on the main floor so he was easily accessible to those who needed him.

The keep inside was polished and shining at all times.  The servants here lived by the same expectations of task and duty that the soldiers were.  The floor was made of a fine marble and the walls were lined with torches every thirty feet or so.  Vidicous was sure that the measurement that it was, was exact.  They went through the main entry hall and through two large doorways that led into the main room.  Mostly this room was reserved in case of war.  However, since it was so readily accessible to all, it had become the location where Jorgan operated.

“You two,” his deep rumble of a voice barked.  “Sit.”

A weathered man with an air of confidence about himself.  When he spoke, it was with purpose.  Not a man who prattled around with nonsense.  His hair was long and gray and he kept it pulled back and he kept a thick moustache.  His brown eyes always carried a look of stern compassion though.

There were guards in the room as well, standing by the entry way in case he needed to send them out for a private meeting.  As well as two pages which stayed posted close by to run errands.  Usually they were no more than ten years in age, taking the first steps to learning the discipline to become a member of the Civil Guard.

To the back of this room was a singular doorway which all high ranking members of  the guard knew what lie behind.  It led to tunnels underneath the keep that could be used to escape the Governor and officials in the face of a threat.

Jorgan called over one of the guards which stepped over to them and held out his hand.

“The report from Dermall’s Waters?”  he said simply and waited.

Devon handed it over and the guard promptly left the room.  Only then did Jorgan turn his attention to them.  Again that deep rumble echoed through the room.

“What, exactly, happened in the Blackwood?  I know very well the information that was delivered to me which is why I wanted a first hand account.  I would also like to understand your involvement as well Korinon.”  Both of them moved to the desk.

Devon took a deep breath and began telling the story from the first time he had seen something to the south of them.  His voice got a little shaky when he started discussing the shadowy figure.  He explained the face of ash on it, the ferocity and swift movement and the frail appearance in great detail.  How he thought it was over when the arrow came out of nowhere.  Then at the last moment what happened with Jeb.

“I don’t know what it was Commander, but it wasn’t human.” Devon finished up with relief that the retelling was over.  Even with his look of stern compassion there was a measure of disbelief from Jorgan in Devon’s description of whatever was out there.  Not like he made it up, but that he over exaggerated what he had seen.  He also had a tinge of impatience as he turned to Vidicous.

“You don’t want to hear what I have to say,” Vidicous shot out boldly receiving a very dominant look of disapproval.  He and Jorgan had a bit of falling out at their last meeting.  Vidicous was once a member of the Civil Guard and after a disagreement with some methods used by various members he handed his tabard to Jorgan and walked out.

“Do not stand in my hall and even think to tell me what I do and do not want.”

“I meant that more in the manner of the confusion and disbelief I have myself.”

He explained the report of the Kog from Altor and how he had been tracking it to no avail and how on his return through the Black Wood he felt tension and urge of panic and followed his instincts.  Devon stared at him with complete shock.

“Boy,” Jorgan stood up from on the other side.  “The fact that you are in my keep is a clear sign that I at least respect your opinion.”  His tone grew cold and the compassion disappeared as he continued.  “I have led many a men and done this for a long time.  What are you not telling me?”

“It was an ihr’drin.”  Vidicous cut in straight to the point.  Jorgan stared out him for a moment.

“Boy.  I have no time for stories and less for games.  Ihr’drin have never been seen this far south.  Now I have to wonder if you are intentionally trying my patience.  Do not have me lock you up for civil disobedience.”

“There are two reasons you won’t do that Jorgan,” Vidi bit off that last with an emphasis on not using the mans rank.  “One I have done nothing disobedient, and I would hate to think you have to make up stories like those you call your men.”  Anger flashed across Jorgans face.  A direct hit to the man’s integrity over those he has chosen to serve under him.  “Two,” he reached into his pack and pulled out the knife and stabbed it into the commanders desk.  “what do you make of this?”  The guard behind them once again drew his sword this time getting it from its sheathe.

They all stared at the dagger for a moment, and watched the wood around where it stuck in the desk.  The wood itself slowly turned gray and then black as it rotted out in a circle about three inches in diameter.

Jorgan grabbed the page and told him to retrieve his sister and the page was off.  He rushed and told the soldier to not let anybody into the room or to touch the knife and ran out of the room.

They sat back down while they waited.  Devon stared at the dagger for the better part of ten minutes.  The guard wasn’t sure whether he should be watching them or the dagger, but even though they were men, Vidicous could see that he wanted to watch the dagger like it was a snake about to strike out.

“Vidi,” Devon said at last.  “I’m scared.  Do you really believe that was an imp?  I know it matched the stories, but an imp?  Here?”

Vidicous said nothing.  He had spent a long time in the Blackwood and mountain trails north of Lyonz.  This is the first hint anybody in this region had to believe anything like this.  Granted, when you had never seen it, and most of it was children’s tales or rumors from other countries, you didn’t take full credence in it.

There was a commotion in the hallway and the current guard stuck his head out.

“I’m sorry Captain, but I’m under orders to let nobody into the room by the High Commander himself,” he spoke softly.

Vidicous sighed.  Captain.  That meant one thing.  On the other side of that door was Captain Aletar Radchek.  If he knew Vidicous was in the room, it was an easy gamble that he would find a way in. That would be increased if he knew Devon was with him.

“Actually, Sargeant,” and he heard Radcheks firm voice come in from the hall, “I’m here to relieve you with these two.”

“With all due respect Captain, my orders come directly from Jorgan and I….”

“I will take full responsibility for my actions, Wil.  No punishment will befall you for my actions.  Men, you have heard it.  No punishment shall come to Wil, should I enter the room.”

“Sir!”  He heard from two additional voices salute from the hall and then the door opened.

Radchek sent the two guards to stand a good distance on either side of the desk.

He gaze ran around the room itself and he scoffed when he saw Devon and Vidicous.  One could plainly see that Radchek was proud of his position.  His sword was polished and always had a shine to it.  His white cloak, marked with the emblem of the Civil Guard was always flowing cleanly and his white breeches and red shirt were always bright except for a few scuffs, he may have gained today.  He wasn’t one who ever rose above his station, but he knew how to push the limits.  Jorgan was clear on the regulations and duties, but Radchek was fanatical to some extent about his cause.

“I almost didn’t believe my ears.”  He stepped a little farther into the room.  “One of my men lies near death in the west tower and here you are at the middle of it.”  He shook his head.  “When I had heard the far fetched story of a minion of the shadow being the responsible party I had to see for myself who thought that story would be believable.”

“The proof is on  the desk,” Devon said pointing to the dagger.

“Quiet boy!” he barked.  “Needless to say, now that I see that it is you two, I find myself at a complete and total lack of surprise.  You alone are not worthy of wearing the mark of the guard.  This one,” he looked at Vidicous, “was at least smart enough to realize his inability and did the right thing.”

“We both know why I left Aletar,” Vidicous replied all too casually.  Something crossed Radcheks face and Vididous was sure it was frustration.

“Captain,” he corrected Vidi.  He grinned to himself.  “Now look what we have.”  He stepped down into the room and over to the desk.  He traced his finger along the edge, outside of the tainted area.  “The presumed weapon that struck Jeb, being a weapon of dark power and you being the one in possession of it.”

Vidicous flinched inside.  He knew what the man was driving at.

He turned from the desk to look at them again.  “What do you have to say for the evidence currently at hand?”

“I say it’s none of your business.”

“Oh but as the Captain of the Civil Guard, all things pertaining to those under my command is my business.  Especially when his life hangs in the balance.”

“I would agree with that,” Vidicous retorted, “but I am dealing directly with the High Commander and I would hate to think how he might react if you interfere with his authority.”

“Now you listen to me, you no good, wretched, worthless excuse for a man.  I will have answers.”  He slammed his fist on the desk, his face contorted by rage.  “Far too many times, you have interfered when you shouldn’t.  Now you have done something that not only directly impacted the well being of one of my soldiers, but have started rumors that has the rest of them all along with innocent civilians in a panic.”

“It’s not a rumor,” Devon jumped in.  “I saw it….”

“Quiet,” Radchek interrupted him again.  “If you so much as blink from this point on Talroon, I will have you on charges.”

Vidicous stepped over to Radchek.  The man was quite confident and from what he had seen, with good reason.  He had been referred to as a natural with his sword.  The guards at the desk placed their hands on their hilts.  Vidicous stared at him directly in the eyes.  Close enough to feel each others breath.

“If you really feel it necessary to flaunt your permission, or punish somebody, I’m right here.”  The man stared down at him, he was about a foot taller.  Something in his eyes said he accepted this challenge and if it weren’t for the location it would happen now.  Soon.

“Aletar,” the deep rumble of Jorgan’s voice echoed through the room.  “Stand down Captain.”  Radchek took a moment longer to stare him down and then turned his attention to Jorgan walked over to him.

“I came as soon I received word of the situation.  What is Jeb’s status?”

“Only time will tell,” A middle aged woman with shoulder length red hair stepped around Jorgan.  She wore a simple brown riding dress that hugged her form tightly.  She had a stern face and eyes like Jorgans.  One could easily tell they were related.  She stepped passed everybody and made her way to the desk.

“You are dismissed, Aletar”  Jorgan said.  “Take those two with you, they are not needed.”  Jorgan made a motion with his hand and the other two approached.  All three of them bowed and made their way out of the room.

Aletar turned back.  “Commander?”  Jorgan looked at him.  “Anything that has happened is my punishment to bear.  Wil should be abolished of any backlash.”  Vidicous and Devon both started in surprise.

Jorgan nodded only and they walked out.  Wil let out a sigh of relief.  Alena walked around the desk studying the dagger.  He thought she actually hissed at it.

She stood there, extending her arms and upturning flat hands.  Jorgan walked up beside her and Vidicous could swear something extended from her, like a white light, but it was so faint he wasn’t sure.  She held out her hand and Jorgan placed a cloth in it which she use to wrap around the hilt and pulled the blade from the desk spinning the cloth around the entire length.  Only after there was no visible part of the blade did she set it down and then turned her attention to them.

“I figure it’s safe to say that the Civil Guard attire means you are Devon Talroon?”  Her voice had a melody too it, even firm and soft.

Devon only nodded.  Vidicous wasn’t sure who this woman was other than Jorgan’s sister.  There was something in her eyes though that said she tolerated no funny business.  “I knew your father, and while I will admit we had our disagreements, nobody of this world had more integrity.  I hope that is a trait that he passed on.”  Devon said nothing but stared at her in confusion.

“Let me see your hands,” she ordered staring back at Vidicous.

He held his hands out and again thought he saw a faint white stream come from her and to his hands.  He didn’t feel anything.  She studied them for a long time.  Her eyes never wavered, but they looked as if she was seeing a lot.  “There is no evidence that you have touched the dagger at all.”  She looked confused for a moment but it was gone quickly.  He felt like that statement should mean something but he had no idea what.

“Jeb will live?” he asked.

“For now that is not certain.  Lucky for him he has strength.  I don’t know how that will take him, but whatever he has to live for is what’s keeping him with us.  As for the medic, she will be fine.  I will send word to the Archbishop to call on a cleric.  The men of Northwind may be his last chance to cleanse him of the taint.”

“He has a child on the way.”  Devon spoke up for the first time since Radchek left.

“Well let’s hope that thought gives him the strength to keep going.”  She turned to Jorgan.  “I am not sure yet at this point of the situation.  As it stands there is no evidence of what you say.  For now, that dagger needs to be locked up in the deepest dungeon you have and nobody should have access to it.  I must speak with Raldrin now and explain that the threat has been removed and that he should send out a patrol through the Blackwood in the morning.”

“Before you could send them could you check the request from Mayor Garred.  He has a request for a few patrols.”

Jorgan nodded as she left and he had the sensation the nod was not for what Devon had just said.  “Your lucky boy that I am not charging you for a new desk.”

“For that one you have my apologies.”  Vidicous grinned.

“For now, as I have received your report, an internal investigation is being opened up.  During which, I can not have you leave the city.”  He sounded worried but on the last his voice was firm meaning bad things will happen if he does.

“Is there anything I can do, Commander?” Devon asked.

“You can return to the chapel and speak with the Bishop.  Explain to him only the need of a clerics gift.”

Nobody said anything for a moment but Jorgan finally continued on.  “You are both excused.”

Neither one of them hesitated to be leaving.  The day had already included more trouble than it was worth.  They considered going to check on the status of Jeb but decided they had other things to do.  The trek back through the courtyard however drew the eyes of every soldier present.  Word had gotten around quickly.  He knew the main cause.  To reinforce his belief, standing just inside from the city street, Radchek was talking to the two guards that were with him inside.

There were less people in the streets now and he was sure the square would be next to empty.  He couldn’t wait to be back at the Golden Mane.  He couldn’t shake the feeling that Alena was not telling him something.  Had Altor really seen the imp, or was there a Kog out there as well.  If there was a Kog, or the Imp for that matter, both were good at covering their tracks.  Devon had covered that land for days in both direction and never even go so much as a hit as anything being there next to traps that had been disabled.  And there really wasn’t much more that could happen today.

They turned onto the Moraten Road and headed off to the square.  It was almost empty here with only a few people still packing up.  The clouds had covered the sky and grown darker in the time they were inside.

He hoped he had time to stop by the blacksmith shop.  Allihn would need new horseshoes before he took him back out.

“He’s following us,” Devon said.  Vidicous realized he was already getting lost in thought and turned back to see that Radchek was coming up the street behind them, but managing to keep some distance.  He guessed there was more to happen today.  He tried to ignore it but the guards were always there.  They were waiting for something to happen so they could pounce.

He stayed on his path until he got to the Loirria road and headed down to check the blacksmith shop.  Master Kall really was a master at his craft.

His walls were adorned with many different works.  Along each he had several variations of swords, but mostly he had the different styles of horseshoes he made and other tools.  He also made the sword that Vidicous carried in the forest.

Master Kall came out to see who had entered.  He had a bell over his door that rang every time somebody entered so he could hear it in the back.  He was a large man, not originally from Lyonz, that was apparent from his soot covered blonde hair.  Sarin wasn’t from here either.  Even Devon had the same lineage.  Blonde hair was something from the west she said.  He generally wore no shirt and one could see that his arms were well formed from years behind the forge.  He did always wear his apron when working though.

“Ah, Vidicous,” he spoke deeply through his thick beard.  “Picking up or dropping off.”  He was also kind of scatter brained.

“Dropping off,” he answered.  “Allihn is in need of reshoeing.”

“I’ll send Flint to summon you when it’s done.”

That was really it.  The conversations with Master Kall were generally short.  He was a man of business, not words and he tried to keep it that way.  Vidicous had, in his time, seen light coming from Kall’s forge all hours of the night.  Kall waited until he left and looking back Vidi could see him return to the forge.

Radchek could be seen standing across the street waiting.  He was most likely going to harass as much as he could.  That’s when it occurred to Vidicous.  He had actually issued a challenge to the man while in the keep.  That wasn’t something he really wanted to deal with, but if anything he would do it in the square.  Might as well get Radchek out in the open, if anything people would see him for what he was.

He walked into the square and turned to face them.

“Is there something I can help you with Captain.”

“Not really, just making sure you stay out of trouble, boy.”  His tone was amused and the guards with him were snickering.  He was just trying to antagonize at this point.

Vidicous laughed.

“Well I guess the Civil Guard has nothing better to do then follow their own.”

“Talroon is of no consequence to me,” Radchek went on.  “I’m more interested in the one with blood on his hands.  Not the one who helped cover it up.”  He really did wish there were more people around for this.

“Well then, why don’t you just make something up to take me in.  That seems to be your standard anyways.”  The direct hit was always the cleanest.  He could see now the rage Radchek had towards the slap on his integrity.

“How about false accusations on a member of the Civil Guard.”  He stepped forward with his hand on his hilt.

“I would really hate to the think the King of Moraten allows this kind of behavior from one who serves under his banner.”  A cloaked figure, a woman by figure, stepped in between them, cloak pulled back exposing a hilt with four stars on it.  Whoever she was, she was a general somewhere.  “If you were under my command you would be flogged in public view.”

Everybody just stared at this woman.  Her speech was slurred a bit, not like somebody who was drunk but just a thick accent.  Radchek only bowed and had his men follow.  Whoever she was, he didn’t want trouble from her.  As she turned Vidicous saw it.  Opposite the stars was the symbol of one who had mastered the blade.  Her cloak was also marked with the sigil of a general over a crashing green wave.  The Jade Typhoon.  Strapped to her leg was a dagger, which was nothing like the one the imp had but seemed to have a strange steam as well, however it was white.  He wondered why she was so willing to display it.  It occurred to him at that moment that nobody else had mentioned the steam off the dagger in the keep.  It had to be something magical and magic weapons and items were outlawed in Moraten and all of its lands.

She pulled back the hood of her cloak.  Long blonde hair fell over her right shoulder in a braid.  Dark green eyes seemed to take in and measure the guards as they left.  Probably a handsome woman a score ago but age was catching up to her.  Not that he would say that too her.

“I figure thanks is in order.  I personally didn’t see any other way to rid myself of him without just giving him what he wanted.”

“It’s the least I could do,” she casually responded.  “Your true father sent me a very long way to find you.”  His head snapped back to her, taking in her eyes, reflecting no emotion in the cold recesses.  Thunder cracked overhead to emphasize her words.  Devon had a look of complete confusion, his mouth gaped open to the ground.

Raindrops started to fall as the weather encroached the city walls.  The storm was here.

Thunder roared at her words and it felt like an eternity that Vidicous stood there not really knowing what to say.  The woman was quite patient in allowing him to collect his thoughts..  Sarin told him his parents were lost in the war.  This was impossible.

“I thought you said your parents were dead?”  Devon asked, echoing his thoughts with much in the way of confusion still covering his face.

“They are,” Vidicous responded hesitantly; still not sure how to take the claim.

“Your true father is very alive and well, this I can assure you Vidicous.”  She knew his name.  Granted she could have learned that from half the city.  He released a breath that he didn’t even realize he had been holding.  The stranger had still not broken eye contact.  Her stance had changed a little though, something that could be considered more relaxed if that were possible.  She was a lion; a lion that could strike at any moment in that pose.

“My parents are dead, lost in the war.    My mother told me this long ago.”  Whoever this woman was something about her eyes reflected a sense of hatred, and a slight sense of betrayal.  Interestingly enough, it was gone as quick as it came and it was mention of his ‘mother’ that provoked the glare.  She readjusted herself, possibly trying to find the words to reproach the situation.  What could this woman possibly have to feel hatred towards a midwife?  Vidicous had always been confident of his ability to get a sense of a person off of the small quirks they themselves didn’t always know they had.  This woman seemed to have a lot of quirks.  Almost like she was focused on something she was struggling with inside.

Since the woman first approached him, something in the back of his mind already bothered him.  Like her accent.  He had heard faint traces of it from his mother at times.  The cold lack of emotion other than what he had just seen behind those green pools of eyes brought very little in the way of sympathy or understanding.  There was something else to this woman’s statements no matter how much truth it was based off.

“I understand that this may come as a shock.  Your mother did have an active role in the war, but I assure you, your father’s life did not expire.  She had regained some of her briefly lost demeanor.  “Look, I’m sure this is a lot to take in and you may need time to cope with it.”  Finally breaking eye contact she tilted her head to the sky.  The falling rain was starting to increase with each passing moment.  “And you,” she said looking to Devon.  “I would watch out for that arrogant captain.  He may not have everything right, but he has his pride.  Don’t get in the way of that.”

“I’m sorry, you may have me confused with somebody else, but my parents are lost.  I apologize you have wasted your time.”  He offered her a polite nod of the head and started heading off to the Golden Mane.  His mind was racing, trying to piece together everything that Sarin had told him about his parents.  They were from the western lands during the war, although he was told his mother was from this continent from birth.  He received his last name from his grandfather’s line to carry it on.  She could have been telling the truth though.  Why would Sarin tell him otherwise though?  Unless she was hiding something, but why lie about his parents?

After a moment Devon had ran to catch up to his brisk stride.  He needed  to get home and out of the rain.  There were things to think about.

“When you are ready to claim your birthright, I will be here,” she yelled behind him.

Birthright?  His parents left him no birthright.  He had to admit.  His curiosity was peaked a little bit.  He was never comfortable with the information Sarin gave him on his heritage.  Many times she made him feel as if she were attempting to avoid the conversation entirely.  He often got information on his godfather from Dar.  His godfather was once world renowned for his research into scientific and metaphysical philosophies.

Their friend Keira, daughter of the proprietor of Bran Ranch, often found herself with much time to spare and quite frequently let herself escape into books.  From the information that she read he had not been seen since the Magi Wars.  Some writings indicated that his research helped directly instigated the war.  Finding writings on what this research consisted of was either nonexistent or some say held in vaults in the Exalted towers in Terra Moon.  Dar always told him of a man of ambition, who wanted to change the world.  A man who was always cheery and willing to help accomplish new ways of performing old tasks.

Dar admitted to never having met Vidi’s parents though.  The only person who could have information seemed not to have it or want to give it.  After a time he let his heritage go; it became as productive as beating one’s head against the wall, leading to the headache that followed.  However, he still wondered from time to time if he had uncles or aunts or any other blood relatives.

Devon became increasingly questioning of the situation; not being quite sure what he was trying to understand.  He wanted to know everything while Vidicous tried to explain that Devon knew everything he had to tell.

    “What if your father is alive?” he asked.  “You could have a whole different life.  Away from this wretched city.”  Devon had dreams of leaving like his father did.  Since his mother died he had only the church and stories of a great man’s life, that he felt was far from his own.

    “Look,” Vidi snapped.  “I don’t see any reason why Sarin would lie to me and something about that woman didn’t seem on the level.  She was hiding something.

    “But what if she is telling the truth?”  Devon asked, excitement still pouring from his words.  “What if your parents are alive?”  He looked at his friend as they came to the corner that would send them in different directions.  “Aren’t you even the least curious?”

    “Maybe,” Vidi replied with an annoyed tone.  “I think though it’s time for you to be heading back to the clerics to inform them of todays events.

    Devon frowned.  Almost as if he just remembered the horrific events of the Blackwood and Jeb.  “You’re right.” he said.  “Aside from the bad, it was good to see you again old friend.”

    “Agreed,” Vidicous replied and then headed down the street and into the stables of the Golden Mane.  Pado was still there, probably trying to get immediate tasks completed.  An older man, whose wife had come down with a sickness recently, was quite the hard worker.

At first glance, he looked too scrawny and old to be performing the work that he did.  He never wavered or put up a complaint.  He wore overalls and boots to keep the dirt and horse droppings off himself and carried a long pitchfork for the hay.  Around his waist he wore a small belt that had several different tools he kept on him for quick repairs.

    Vidicous noticed that Allihn had been returned to his stable.

    “Ah, look what the storm rolled in.  Rumor be there is quite some panic today and you in the middle of it?”  Pado didn’t even look up from his work.  “What did you do this time, you little beast.”

    “That’s a long story, you old bastard.”  He shot back with a smile.  “Why don’t you get out of here before the storm picks up.  I’ll finish up here.”  Most everything he knew about horses came from Pado.

    “Will do, Vidi,” and with that he finished up nailing down a plank for something he was building and set things aside. He put on his coat and bowed before leaving.  Mostly to get the “last word” as he knew Vidi hated people bowing.  Pado had worked these stables since long before he could remember.  He was a good man.

    Vidicous really wanted to be alone anyway.  So far today, fought to save friends life, came face to face with an ihr’drin, been harassed by his nemesis and informed his father was alive and looking for him.

    Inside the door he was quickly overwhelmed by the smell coming from the kitchen.  Whatever Mistress Falynn had brewing in there made his mouth water.  He caught several different scents; meat, potatoes, vegetables and fresh bread.  He didn’t waste any time looking though, he could eat later.

He strode through the swinging doors out into the main common room.  It was a large room with three different fireplaces to keep it warm in the winter.  There was a small stage in the back in case anybody came to perform for a night or two for pay.  The room at the moment was starting to get people.  Travelers who came through here generally had reasons, whether it was trade or just passing through.

    His stepfather stood off to the side arguing with Maddie, the primary serving girl.  Dar was the proprietor of the Golden Mane.  He had inherited it from his father who had inherited it from his grandfather all the way back to when it was supposedly the only inn standing.  He wore a full beard, dark and curly with little specks of grey.  Not a large man but he had developed a little plump.  Maddie was two hands older than Vidi but relatively plain.  Dar was always making sure that his customers were well taken care of and if one didn’t get a refill on drinks soon enough he was sure to make sure the servants didn’t repeat the mistake again.

    His mother was over apologizing to one of the customers for the service, most likely the reason Maddie was receiving a lecture.  His mother was a skinny woman and completely disproportionate in height to her husband.  Her hair was blonde and pulled back in a braid like usual.  It was at that moment he realized the braid was not unlike the one the woman in the market had.

The young woman she spoke to had dark brown hair that fell in waves.  She had to be within a hands count his youth.  She wore a simple dress but it was a deep green that seemed to accentuate everything about her.  It was when his mother came over and closed his mouth that he realized he was staring at the young woman.

    “When you’re done gaping,” she said with disapproval, “go drop off your things and tell me of the chaos at North Gate in the kitchen.”  He turned away quickly and felt his cheeks warm.  As he walked towards the back stairs he took a look back and saw the young woman glance in his direction and for a second he thought he saw a look of confusion on her face.  He didn’t have time to deal with that right now.  He continued down the hall and up the stairs to the second floor.  His room was at the end of the hall.

    The room wasn’t very well adorned either.  As he opened the door he saw the same old things he had a thousand times.  Just inside the door was a small dresser with a book about horses on it and to the right a book case that held very little, especially in  the way of books.  The same old bed and small desk resting to the left of it, with a window overlooking the Lions Gate.  It seemed odd they kept it, as he had a cabin in the Black Wood along the mountains.

    He dropped his saddle bag on the bed and unstrapped his sword and laid it beside and headed back down to the kitchens.  He could tell from the smell that Falynn had added pie to the menu.  As he went through the common area he made sure not to look back at the young woman.  Part of him however wanted to see her again. Heading straight for the kitchen doors he pushed them open and went inside to meet with his mother.

    Like Dar, Vidicous knew that Sarin Laphwin was only a step parent.  She had told him that she was a midwife to his real parents who were lost in the war.  She moved here to protect him from fallout.  This is where she met Dar, an old friend of his godfather, Sid Allihn.

    Dar was very welcoming of a child at the time and as a father, even if not his blood father, Vidicous had no complaints.  He occasionally asked about his real parents and his godfather, but Sarin offered very little.

    Dar was a little more free with information on Sid though.  He said that before the war, his godfather was one of the brightest men of this age.  A little of that made Vidi proud and in respect he had named his trusted horse after the man.

    His mother was in the back, in a small section reserved for different orders and paperwork.  “Now sit down and tell me what sort of trouble you’ve gotten yourself into with the Civil guard.”

    “Jeb is dead, or very close too.”  He said it simply and matter of factly.  Her brow crunched in sadness.  “He was murdered.  By an Ihr’drin.”  Her face went pale and he eyes locked with his.  She always had an ability to tell when he was telling a lie.  Part of raising somebody he figured.  She sat there without saying anything and he continued on.

    “A woman, with a braid like yours and the sword of a general met me in the street today.”  Sweat had developed on her brow now and he drove each word home.  “She said she was sent by my father.”

    He waited for an answer but all she did was excuse herself, feeling under the weather.

    Dar caught his arm as she stumbled through to the common room.  “Let her go.”  It was more of a personal request than an order.  Vidicous stared at the door a little longer.  He was quite aware that something he said, to her meant that her past had caught up to her.  Whatever it was, it scared her.  He could give her time to get her thoughts.

    “Very well, there are still things to be done in the stables.” and he turned and walked out.

He went about making sure all the horses were fed.  He let his mind wander, trying to piece together everything.  He still wasn’t sure if it was all even related, or even how.  No matter how hard he tried he couldn’t shake the idea that the woman from earlier was being truthful.  His mother’s reaction reinforced that.  She had always been so tight lipped about his family that he was suspicious.  She had never wronged him or treated him unfairly and as far as parents go, she raised him well enough he figured.  Had she lied to him though?  He would give her time and there was no way out of answers.

He wasn’t sure how long he had been out there.  It felt like a couple hours.  He moved on to the horses though.  Allihn snorted at his approach.  He never liked being locked away in the stables.  He was bred to run free.  He checked on the other horses as well.  There were two specifically that stood out.  They were horses bred and used for long travel.  The first was black like the deepest night and the other was a passive grey mare.  He took some time to look them over.  He checked their legs and back; running his hand up their necks.  He could feel their endurance.  These horses could go for some time if needed.  They were also well trained and neither of them flinched at his approach considering he was unfamiliar to them.

“She is beautiful isn’t she?”  He hadn’t heard anybody else join him but he turned, staring down the young woman he saw in the common room.  It took him a moment to recover from the initial surprise.  Her voice was as melodious as the rest of her was beautiful.  She still wore the same green dress she had earlier.  Her hair fell down around her shoulders, framing her face.  “Her name is Chanta, an old word for peaceful.”  She smiled at him for a moment caressing the grey mare’s neck.  “Are you okay?”  She smiled as he stumbled over what he was going to say.  “Not one for words?”

“Yes, she’s very beautiful,” he answered at last.  Her voice was odd for somebody so young.  Listening to her tone and sternness one would think she was twice the age she looked.  He wondered if she was of distant nobility.  She had a certain air of superiority in mannerisms but at the same time a relative kindness that seemed a sharp contrast.  “You take very good care of her,” he continued, recovering his footing.

“Oh yes,” she laughed.  “I’ve had her since she was born and she has been there when I needed her.”  She turned, taking her hand from the mare’s neck and looked him straight in the eyes.  “I figure I should at least return that favor.”  That gaze was penetrating, searching his being, but something about those beautiful eyes, he found himself unable to look away.  “Have you lived here all your life stableman?”

That was an odd question.  It seemed relatively direct from somebody that he had just barely met too.  He thought about the strange woman from earlier.

“As long as I can remember,” he forced a laugh.  She gave him a relatively curious look but spoke no more of it.

“Well don’t allow me to distract you from your duties.”  She gave a slight nod of her head and turned back to the inn without giving him much of a chance to say anything.  The look in her eyes sent small shivers up his spine.  It was a look that said that there was more, something hidden.  He stared after her for a couple minutes before returning to brushing down the horses.

When the next person entered he was ready and it did not take him by surprise.  Unfortunately it was not somebody he cared to talk to.  The stranger had returned.  She removed her cloak as she stepped into the stables from outside and started shaking out the rain.  As she stared him down he realized he didn’t know her name.  Why did nobody give names anymore when everybody knew his.  This woman he had at least met.

“It seems like a simple life for you here Vidicous.”  She spoke with an air of frustration; not much but it was there.  He just stared at her and sighed.  “I hate meeting you under the circumstances and I do apologize for not giving you more time to think about our previous discussion.  However, matters are taking me back out of your pleasant city at first light and on to Moraten.  That gives me very little time to discuss the situation with you.”

He realized what his problem was with this woman.  Behind those cold, emotionless eyes was a woman who expected no question.  To her, he should just believe and follow.  She was definitely military regardless if the signs of being a general were true.  Jorgan had that same look, but his held compassion.  How did she know his mother though?  She said his mother sent her to find him.  Maybe she was telling the truth.  However, he did want to gauge her as a person.

“What situation do we have to discuss?”, he asked with a tone colder than he intended.  “As I said before, my parents died long ago and you must be mistaken.”  She looked frustrated at the statement but that was just his build up.

“I understand what you have been told and I must again assure you that the information you believe is not correct.  I knew your birth mother.  As I have said before, long ago your true father sent me out to find you.  She has waited a long time to meet you.”  She looked again like she had some footing in this conversation.  He realized something else in her tone she may not have.  She didn’t like his mother.

“Well, I will need to talk to Sarin about it all, I don’t see why she would lie to me about this.”  He would too.  Sarin was going to come clean.  He got what he wanted from the statement though.  The look of pain and betrayal when he mentioned his mother earlier.  This woman had hurt where Sarin was concerned.  He would find that out as well.

“I understand your concern Vidicous.”  He could visibly tell she was forgetting about his Sarin again.  Like the pain was faded but still ran deeply.  “However, as I said I shall be leaving at first light and it would be better if you could leave with me.  As I know that won’t happen I ask only that you take this to think about it.”  She pulled out something wrapped in cloth that was clipped to her belt and leaned it against the wall.

“What is it?” he asked.

“This is your birthright.”

“You still haven’t given me your name.”

“You are right.”  With a flourishing bow, she continued.  “My name is Gwen Soren.  First of command to the defenders of the Jade Typhoon.”

“And betrayer to the Light, criminal to the Nations of the Covenant and all around not a nice person.”  Alena Satori stepped into the stables, with Jorgan at her side.  It made more sense when he learned she was his sister.  Looking back he saw Gwen’s face take on the look of war.  Alena kept herself serene and Jorgan remained blank and emotionless.  This new entry to the conversation was not somebody Gwen was expecting to run into.  “I never would have thought to find you in the heartland.  I find it difficult to believe that there is anything to interest a criminal here.”

He kept his eyes on Gwen.  He saw fury cross her eyes and her stance became more tense, rigid.  “I was absolved of my crimes witch, and your accusations are offensive and without merit.  For somebody who dances on the strings of a council and helps instigate unjust wars, I doubt you should talk to me about betrayal.”  She gazed back at Jorgan for a brief moment and then back to Alena.  Vidicous would rather be dancing with the imp then between these two women.  “My business here in this city or with a stableman is none of yours or the councils and has not been for years.”

Tilting her head, Alena simply smiled.  “No, you are correct.  Your business in these lands is not my concern.  I just happen to be a passerby looking to do the right thing.  One who is absolved of their crimes however is not necessarily free of guilt.”  Alena stepped forward non threateningly.  “I do find it concerning, as does the High Commander of the Civil Guard, that you show up the same day that one of his own is murdered by an Ihr’drin.”  Gwen’s eyes went wide.

“I had nothing to do with that, I have been absolved of your accusations, you have nothing to tie me to that attack and if you don’t mind, I really should be going.”  She turned for the stable door and looked back.  “I hope you come to a decision soon.  I really must be taking my leave by sunrise.”  With that she left, back out into the pouring rain.  They all stared after her for a time and then looked at each other.  He really did not like having Alena’s eyes on him.  He put his attention back on the horses trying hard to pretend there was nothing out of the ordinary.

Reaching up and patting the midnight colored mare on  the neck he turned back to her.  Like Gwen, Alena had cold calculating eyes.  “Your horse is well cared for, like Chanta.  Does she have a name as well?”  She continued to study him  The look he had gotten from Sarin as a child when he misbehaved.  It was meant to make him uncomfortable and it was working.  Too many things had happened today and he didn’t like feeling he was the center of everyones attention.

“Muincar,” she responded finally with a light smile.  “It means trusted friend.  And she is just that.”  She nodded to Jorgan who turned back towards the inn, leaving the two of them alone.  He found it odd that with a simple nod this woman commanded the High Commander of  the Civil Guard.  He felt her eyes: staring, penetrating and concerned.  The last one he found interesting.

“May I ask,” she continued on once the door closed behind Jorgan, “how it is that you became associated with this woman?”

From the start it was quite apparent these two women were not on good terms.  She loathed Gwen Soren and if he guessed right, was afraid of her as well.  The presence that Gwen had though made Vidicous feel uneasy also.

“I have never met her before a few hours ago to be honest.”  He answered honestly.

“What is it that she asked of you young Master Korinon?  If you choose not to answer, that is your choice.  I ask not because I wish to know your business.  I ask because I wish to know hers.  She has…a history.”  Her gaze never changed and she never even batted an eyelash.  She just stood, taking him in, watching him, studying him.  He found himself wanting to tell the woman everything, but stopped.

“She said she was sent by my father.  I told her she was mistaken as my father died in the war.

“Korinon though, do you know of where the name comes?”

“Not really, nothing more than it belonged to my grandfather.”

“Well I hope for your sake she is telling the truth.  I do warn you that I do not feel Gwen Soren could or should be trusted.”  She turned to walk back in.

“Alena?”  She turned back with a curious expression.  “Have you met Sarin before you stayed in this inn?”

She frowned.  “No, I cannot say that I have.  I have heard the name Laphwin before and recall it once to belong to Imperial nobility.  Did she know your mother?”

“She never talks about her but claims to be her midwife.”

“Then I believe you have one last person to ask.”

He grimaced.  “I think now is the perfect time to do that,” and he walked passed Alena and into the inn.

Opening the door to the inn that led into the kitchen he received a disgruntled look from Falynn.  She looked down at his boots and shook her head.  She did not approve of that dirt coming into her kitchen.  He moved over to the table Sarin sat at earlier and removed the boots and laid down the package he had received and moved them to his room.

“Thank you sweety,” was all she said as he headed into the common room.  The room was jovial, even for the storm that was now in full force.  People were always happy to be inside drinking and having a time.  All three fireplaces were burning and somehow Dar had managed to get a bard who stood on the small stage telling a grand story of old times.  His stepfather sat behind the bar, continuously wiping it down with a rag that he kept thrown over his shoulder.  He only nodded, knowing Vidicous would not be swayed this evening.  He heard a few customers shouting to the bard about which stories he should tell or songs he should sing.

His mind raced.  Trying to understand exactly how everything tied together.  Alena had reinforced the strange readings he had gotten from Gwen.  There was a darkness in that woman.  She hid things.  How did she know to find him here?  If his father was alive, why didn’t he come on his own?

He moved on down to the end of the hall and knocked on his mother’s door.  He waited a few moments before knocking again.  There was no response, but he could hear movement in the room.  He wasn’t sure what she was doing but he wanted answers.  He creaked the door open slowly and stopped.  His mother lay on her bed, turned away toward the open window.  Rain hammered down outside of it.  Why do you have your window open?  Cold air poured in from the outside.

“Mother,” he called to her.  She didn’t move.  She must be sleeping.  He thought to turn around and leave but decided he wanted answers now.  It did occur to him then that he had just heard movement within while knocking.

Maybe she had taken some of the leaf that Maddie carried around.  That always seemed to help her get to sleep.  He walked around the bed, trying not to frighten her awake and instead kneeled down beside her, to shake her gently.  She was staring at him.  Well, she was staring at something, eyes wide open and off in space.  He tried to shake her and realized she had no reaction.

A long black dagger stuck out from her chest.  Her eyes glazed over from when death took her.  Blood covered her front and soaked into her linens.  Like the one before this dagger had no hilt, just one long flow directly into the black metal that formed the twisted blade.  The blade itself had a similar vapor rising off the other one did.  The vapor disappeared after only a few inches.

He heard something to the side and in the corner, not too far from the window was a small dark form.  It’s red eyes glowed through the ashy flesh he remembered.  Up close, the skin appeared loose on its bone.  It’s nose was shriveled and looked of death and its mouth was twisted and had no lips.  The imp had returned.

“Who are you?”  he started towards it, but it lunged forward causing him to take a step back instead.  His eyes went wide and his body tensed.  What stood before him was after all monsters from children’s stories come to life and it was a bit closer then it was in the Blackwood.  That’s when he realized the bumps on his armed had returned.  Ihr’drin.  A shadow imp.  Fear overtook him, he couldn’t move.  His mind raced, thinking of anything.  It had him and his sword was in the room.  He stared it down the best he could.

“I am not here for you Riftwalker.”  Its voice was scratchy and broken, almost like it had trouble forming the words.  It just just stared at him, glancing momentarily at the window.  It was looking to escape.  Then there was a knock at the door.  Vidicous turned and it moved to the window looking out.

He ignored the continued knock at the door.  Emotions raced through him and he stared at the dagger.  Alenas words bounced back to him.  No man shall touch the blade of the shadow and live.  Pushing that aside, he considered that he held it twice with no effects.  The knock at the door again.  He would have to deal with whoever it was later.  He heard the door start to open and quickly pulled the dagger from his mothers chest and followed the creature out the window.  Thunder roared outside as he splashed into a puddle.  His boots were still resting in the kitchen.  He saw a form take off around a corner and started after it.  Behind him he heard a scream that pierced the night and broke through the storm.

 

***

 

Maddie didn’t like bothering the mistress, but Master Dar had called for her specifically.  There was nobody else to help and the common room had grown quite full since dusk.   She was comfortable in the fact that she was only doing this under the master’s orders.

She was dreadfully tired though.  She had been there since morning that day.  She was still unsure why she hadn’t left yet.  She was off a few hours ago.  She figured with the storm she didn’t want to be alone and that’s all her home was, loneliness.  She frowned at that.  She wouldn’t get anything extra for staying but the comfort of being around other people on this most dreadful of nights.

She laid the towel she was carrying and the empty mugs on a table in the back and head back into the common room.  She looked around and took a deep breath.  She wished that just once today she could take part in this; the socialness, the excitability, the entertainment.  No Maddie, there was work to be done.  She headed down the back hallway so that she could get to the mistress.  Maybe with the mistress there, Master Dar would give her a break.

She knocked on the door.  She heard movement so the mistress must still be awake, but as was proper she waited until summoned.  She stood there for a few moments and knocked again, this time a little bit harder.  Still nothing.  If she took too long the master would have her hide and possibly dock her some wages to teach her a good and proper lesson.  She didn’t want to upset the master so she slowly pushed open the door.  As the door cracked open she froze.

    There in the middle of the mistresses bed was the mistress, but she was covered in blood.  Her eyes had a look of fear and her own son, master Vidicous pulled a black blade from her chest and leaped from the window.  She screamed and fainted straight away.

 

***

 

Vidicous tried to catch the imp, but it was quite fast.  The imp however didn’t know where it was going or was trying to lose him.  What the imp apparently didn’t know was how intimate with these streets.  It wouldn’t want to be caught inside the walls by the civil guard or the clerics; either one would kill it on sight.  He tried to focus.  He tried to pull on whatever it was that he felt in the Blackwood that led him straight to it.

He considered the feeling in the Blackwood.  He was a hunter.  The imp was his prey.  His blood boiled.  Lyonz was his jungle, the buildings it’s trees.  He would find it and kill it, but he would make it suffer the way it had just made him suffer.  It would feel his pain.

He felt a rush of something, feeling something pulling him down a side street and followed it.  Containment.  He had to keep his prey in his jungle.  It had violated his domain and should not be allowed to leave.  He knew from the blackwood the imp was not in it’s domain.  This was less so.  Lyonz was his domain.  He had at one time played or patrolled down the majority of these streets.

He found himself turning down so many streets, feet splashing in already deep puddles that he might get lost in all the turn arounds.  The stones hurt beneath his feet but he ignored it and held on to that beckoning deep within.  Predators didn’t need boots.  He ran up so many streets, several of them multiple times.  The imp was trying desperately to lose him, somehow also knowing he was staying close.

This was his home and the imp would suffer for violating the sanctity of his layer.  He would spill its blood in his streets.  The imps life fluid would be warning to others of  the penalty for trespassing in his lands.

He followed it as it tried to run through the the valley of Market Square and the canyons of the chapel grounds.  There was not many places for it to hide though.  He came around a corner and saw it look back at him.  Looking around frantically it darted down another street.  It feared, as it should.

The imp turned down the Loirria road, not much caring at this point who saw it.  He turned the same street, passing in front of the Hall of Judgment.  It would be judged.  By his hands.  A hunters hands.  It turned back north into small alleyways and down a dead end.

Vidicous came around the corner and quickly fell backwards to avoid being trampled as the imp leaped at him but he still managed to block its way.  There was nowhere for it to turn now.  It’s only choice was to wait or break through.  It chose the latter.  It lunged, Vidi deflecting swipes from ferocious claws and used his weight to push it farther into the dead end.  It stared at him as it did in the inn.  Fear was there, but it was a shadow to its rage.  He still held the dagger, blood coagulated on the blade almost like the metal itself dried it.  Anger flared through him, drowning out the rest of his emotions.

“Do not seek vengeance for your fake mother.”  It spoke again, in  the same scratchy rasp it had before.  “She was punished for her crimes against the great lord.    You must not die tonight.  Your time will come, but it will not be by my hands.”

He rushed forward.  The imp bringing its arms up defensively.  He swung hard and fast, trying to break through the imps reflexes.  The imp had no problems deflecting his blows.  Vidicous was adept with a sword but knife fighting was a different form altogether.

He could tell the imp was toying with him though.  It was fighting only defensively, not making a single offensive strike in his direction.  Vidicous growled, throwing everything he had into each swing, but each was cast aside.  He danced quickly, moving around the alley trying to gain some advantage.  In one instant he felt his hand slip on the handle of the foreign knife.  That’s all it took.  Taking the small opening he had given it, the imp readjusted itself quickly, claws raking down Vidis face.  Pain rushed into him, the hunter panicked and he fell to the ground with a thud, dropping the dagger and holding his hand over his eye.  He felt a thud to his chest and watched it pull its foot away as he fell backwards.

Air rushed out of him, leaving him gasping, fighting to get it back.  He stared up at the Ihr’drin, eyes full of rage and pain.  Casually, it looked down at him. It looked as if it were smiling, if that could be said about the twisted face it wore.  “If you know what’s good for you Riftwalker, you will stay down”.  With that it turned away, heading down a street.  He heard a horn sound in the distance.  Vidicous however, was never really one that knew what was good for him.  Pulling his hand from his eye he saw the wet blood from his face and climbed to his feet and went after it.

The imp must have expected him to listen because it slowed down it’s travel.  Taking time to study its location and landmarks to find its way.  Everywhere it went, it kept to the shadows and peered around the corners before proceeding forward.  He remembered the horn, the sound of alarm for the Civil Guard.  It headed closer to the docks, it was heading to blood alley.  Blood alley was the area known most for crime in the city.  He didn’t really want to know what or rather who it would be looking for there.

All along Blood Alley the sounds of laughing and fighting poured out of different taverns and inns.  It turned down a side street used for moving products from warehouses as to keep the main road to the docks clear.  As it he neared the street he could hear voices.  One of them he recognized with her harsh accent.  Pearing around the corner he saw Gwen Soren, the imp and an unknown man.

“Skar,” said the man.  “I trust the traitor has expired?”  Vidicous heard nothing in the way of a response.  They stood under a small awning from an abandoned warehouse out of the rain that still hammered down on the city.

He could barely make out the conversation through the sound of thunder and rain.  He took a deep breath.  He wasn’t going to be able to get to the imp with her right there.  He was quite sure that she knew how to use the sword.  If she didn’t she wouldn’t make that good of a general.

He desperately wanted to know who the other man was.  he crept forward cautiously, keeping himself hidden behind upturned crates so as not to make a sound.

“…that my business in Lyonz is done.  Don’t expect to see me again unless you get to Xeer before me.”  Gwen spoke softly still.

The shady man only laughed.  “Master has been searching for young Korinon for some time.  Ahriman beckons.  You will see me again.”

Ahriman.  The Lord of Evil.  The Bringer of Hate.  The Fallen.  There were so many names he had heard used for him he couldn’t even count them all.  He sat there stunned for a moment.  He wasn’t the hunter.  He may have felt like the hunter for a brief time but now with this realization, it all came crashing down.  He was the prey and shadow had crept into his jungle.

“Now I must be going.  I hope in the future you find yourself treading lightly Gwen.  You above all know the consequences.”

Gwen only laughed and turned to leave.  What was the Riftwalker?  He at least now knew that Alena was right.  Gwen had ties to the shadow.  Why was Sarin killed?

He stepped out from his hiding place and drew on everything he had and threw the dagger.  The imp grabbed it in flight with ease.  They all three turned and saw him and Gwen quickly ducked away.   He didn’t recognize them: middle aged with brown hair that was kept short.  The man cursed at the imp.

Something crashed into the back of his head.  Pain welled out through his body, his vision became dizzy and the world spun.  He felt his muscles going, failing him and he crashed to the ground.  He tried to move, but his body didn’t respond.  From his position.  The man said something else but it made no sense.  Like he was talking.  The imp, Skar, rushed forward, leaping up has the darkness took him.

 

***

 

Radchek had been waiting for this moment for sometime.  The Korinon boy had killed his own mother and at this point he was assured he wounded Jeb and the Talroon boy was covering for him.  He knew the boy was trouble, but he honestly didn’t think he was the type to kill.  The reasons for the arrest didn’t really matter to Radchek though.  He would be glad to put the Korinon boy where he belonged.  Then following it would be Talroon.

He had followed the boy through a good span of the warehouse district.  He lost him at one point but caught him heading down blood alley, confirming his suspicions.  Why would anybody be in Blood Alley on a night like this unless they were up to no good.

What could have happened to the boy to make him snap?  Maybe it was all those trips he took alone into the Blackwood.  He remembered his conversation in the command hall from earlier.  The boy seemed to think he was above the law.  Tonight, he would learn different.

Radchek kept his pace slow.  While the rain hammered down and the thunder roared, he still didn’t want to risk making too much noise.  Nobody was out tonight, even in Blood Alley.  Noises flooded from outside of the different low class inns and taverns down the main stretch that gave the street its name.  Most, even criminals wanted  to avoid the storm.  They wouldn’t get much in  the way of coin purses besides.  Luckily the wind had died and was only a precursor to the actual storm and not a constant.

He caught sight of the boy stalking down and alley.  He smiled to himself.  It was his time.  Although he did not see the murder weapon,  this was still a day of victory.  He crept closer, keeping his distance and not wanting to give up his element of surprise.  The boy stood next to a small building, peering around a corner.  He was watching something, or somebody.

Radchek stood for a moment.  Maybe he could benefit from this.  Not only catching a killer, but at the same time saving somebody else from his wrath.  He stalked up, still remaining as quiet as possible.  The rain poured down, covering him still in already soaked heavy clothes.  Korinon didn’t move, he just waited there.

He was a little curious as to what was around the corner now.  He didn’t want to run into an ambush as he was by himself.  He could handle the boy on his own.  Now he wasn’t so sure the boy was alone; or at least what was around the corner.

Korinon stood, stepping out around the corner and loosed a dagger like the one in the keep.  He was now unarmed.  Well this was just going to be too easy.  He rushed forward, bringing the hilt of his sword up and raking it across Korinons head.  The body wavered, stumbled around from the shock of the blow and fell.

“This time you have nowhere to turn,” he smiled.   You are now in the custody of the Civil Guard of Lyonz for crimes against his majesty and the civilized people of his lands.”

Remembering that Korinon was studying something, Radchek looked up to make sure whoever it was was okay.  He froze.  What he found was not what he expected.  The strange woman who had helped Korinon earlier was at the end of the alleyway disappearing down the side street and a man he did not recognize standing back in the shadows.  Next to him was a creature of the night drawing a dagger similar to the one they held in the keep.  A minion of shadow.

If the stories were true, and Vidicous and his wretched friend had spoke the same, he was staring at an Ihr’drin.  A shadow imp.  The creature itself was true to the stories of appearance.  It looked as though the creature was half man and half monster, face twisted in a constant look of pain.  It seemed taller than most men and relatively frail but it looked at him with an overwhelming glare of hatred.  A hatred for life.  A hatred for his interference.

The woman looked at Vidicous one last time and then disappeared down a street.  “Kill him,” the man said.  The creature readied its dagger and rushed forward, leaping in the air over the Korinons body, dagger coming down with all its strength.

Radchek found himself taking several steps back, taking small nicks from the blade it carried.  Thankfully nothing which broke the skin.  It swung with the blade in a frenzy.  He found himself frantically trying to deflect the speed of the blows.  His sword bounced back and forth deflecting each one as quickly as possible.  the creature showed no sign of slowing, pressing forward at a constant pace.  The hatred in its eyes boiled, seething for Radcheks own blood.

Muscles burned all over his body, trying to keep the imp from advancing.  He let himself breath as Jorgan had trained them, centering himself, finding his focus.  The world shattered, falling way.  There was nothing else, only him and an imp on a field of black, no interferences, no distractions.  His breathing came more easy with his focused mind, his body feeling a little less tense.  He was in the moment, one with his sword.  He turned quickly and the imp found himself off balance as his momentum carried him passed his opponent.

Radchek quickly brought the sword up, laying a deep gash in the imps back, dark blood sliding down his blade.  The monster howled in pain, but refused to relent.  It spun around quickly, eyes exploding with a look of death.  It lunged back at him, ignoring what should be severe agony, the blade again slowing with the battle.  However, this time Radchek was a little more prepared.  The imp expected him to keep his blade out more, but he wedged it in, deflecting the attacks.  He winced as he felt the blade slice his arm, but it allowed him the quick jab he sent into the creatures throat making a big slice.

The imp stumbled backwards in shock.  Radchek stayed on top of it though, thrusting the sword forward in quick small swipes trying to keep it from regaining any momentum.  It tried though.  His muscles burned, he could feel  the sweat pouring off him amidst the heavy rain.  This thing had taken two wounds that would drop any regular man and it still stood.  There was one left thing for him to do.

He ducked down, ramming the thing in a shoulder rush that knocked it off its balance.  Spinning he kicked it hard in it’s knee, hearing a loud crack of the bone and brought his sword down, taking it’s dagger hand.  It screamed in agony, the piercing shrill killing all other noise.  Radchek had stepped back, taking a moment to cover his ears from the pitch of the sound.  It looked at him, breathing deeply.  “This is but a small victory human,” it said in a deep scratchy rasp.  “Enjoy the life that you have managed to keep this night.  You and young Vidicous will not keep them long.  We are coming.”

“Not today demon,” he responded, almost out of breath.  He stepped forward, swiping the imps head clean off.  No sound followed this time.  No scream filled the air.  The only thing left was the corpse, himself and Korinon.

The pain of his arm brought him back to reality.  He panicked.  A strike from that knife meant death.  Slowly, people were sticking their heads outside trying to find the source of the shrill they heard a moment ago.  All the evidence he had now washed away.  Korinon was fighting the imp.  He could put a man in a cell to teach him a lesson, but not lock him away for a murder he didn’t commit.  He yelled at one of the citizens to rally the guard and send for Alena Satori right away.

He fell back to sit for a moment, looking back to Korinon.  The boy was innocent.  Alena had said that his mother was killed by a dagger like the one locked away in the keep.  The boy was actually seeking vengeance and sadly, Radchek had kept him from it.

    He woke in a sweat, breathing heavy.  Riftwalker.  For some reason the title itself would not leave his mind.  What did it mean?  The Ihr’drin, Skar the man had called him, had referred to him as that.  The man had referred to him as Ahriman’s prey in a manner of speaking.  Ahriman, the master of all things evil.  He did not like the sound of this.  Was his father alive and was he aligned with the shadow?

    Taking a moment to sit up, Vidicous looked around the room.  Out the window he could see that the storm was gone.  From the look of it, it seemed to be late afternoon.

    The clothes he had last worn were nowhere to be seen and his boots were no longer in his room.  His sword and the pack he carried were sitting in the corner of his room.  Leaning next to them was the cloth given to him by Gwen.  He shivered inside.  The table that sat to the side of his room had been moved over to his bed and there was a plate of warm stew, bread and cheese.   Part of him wanted  to eat all of it right then, but most of him didn’t want food at all.

    If it was afternoon, and if Gwen spoke true, she would be gone from Lyonz.  He wondered if she would come back.  If she did return would she bring more imps?

    His entire head ached.  Reaching  back he could feel the lump from whatever attacked him from behind.  His face burned also and he could feel the scars from where Skar had scratched him.

    He took a deep breath, laying back down again.  His mother was dead, or at least the woman who had raised him.  Part of him wanted to cry for his loss, but he couldn’t.  There was a void in his soul that held his pain.  A hole inside that held his emotions at bay.  Even the rage he felt for Gwen was currently locked away.

    Could he stay here?  Could he run?  Was it possible to hide from Ahriman?  From the stories he didn’t think so.  He had to make a decision though.  Jorgan had told him not to leave the city.

    He had always felt like something was missing.  With recent events, he was more convinced that they should stay missing.  If his father was alive, maybe he could find him.  He looked out the window.  The only person who had answers he wanted to talk to was now dead.  Killed by a creature in relation to the only other person he knew who could have the information.

    There was a knock at the door.  It was a soft knock, so not to disturb him if he was still sleeping.

    “Come in,” he called and the door cracked open.  Dar stepped into the room, ushering somebody away as he squeezed inside.

    “You can speak to him later, Lady Satori.  Right now the boy does not need to be pestered with questions and accusations.”

    “I will speak to him later Master M’Gil,” he heard the voice of Alena.  “There are many questions that have come up since last night and your son rests in the middle of it.  Questions of matters that I, and I’m sure your Governor and King would agree are of the most importance.”

    “You are in my inn woman, and I don’t take kindly to threats.”  His voice took on a dangerous tone.  “For now you will accept that he will speak to you when he is ready. “  With that he slammed the door and turned to Vidicous.  His face took on a more serene and sympathetic look.  “I’ve had to fight that cursed woman about coming in here since the sun rose.  Persistent she is, but she needs to learn a little more respect I think.”  He shook his head.  He had called her Lady Satori. The inclusion of Lady meant something about her status.

    “How are you feeling boy?  You’ve been muttering since they brought you back last night.  You gave Maddie quite a sure fright.  You mind telling your dear old father what happened?”  The man looked down at him with concern.

    Leaving out being addressed as Riftwalker, he started with his feeling in the Blackwood which led him to the Ihr’drin.  He had trouble explaining that feeling again when he discussed chasing it through the storm.  He didn’t know how he knew, he just knew.  He explained Gwen approaching him in the street and that she was sent by Vidi’s father and his conversation with Gwen and Alena in the stables.  Dar raised an eyebrow at that as he was always under the assumption that Vidicous’ father died in the war too.

    “She never actually addressed your father by name?”  Vidicous shook his head.  “I have heard of this Gwen Soren.  She was a fierce General in the Magi Wars.  After the wars she was supposedly tried for crimes against humanity, but was freed on lack of evidence.  It does indeed sound suspicious lad.”

    Explaining finding Sarin with the glazed look in her eye almost pushed through his emotional wall.  Tears started to well up in his eyes.  He felt again the first look of shock as he stared at the blood soaked sheets.  Today it all seemed like a nightmare, vague and distant.  Dar even started to tear up as he described the scene.

    He paused for a long moment before going into the chase.  He gave as much detail as he could remember.  He trusted Dar implicitly and wanted to gather as many pieces to this puzzle as he could.  Dar would understand.

    Dar raised an eyebrow again at it all though.  “Lad you are crazy as they said,” he laughed.  Vidicous could only stare at him for a moment, unsure of if he had heard his father correctly.  “Most men don’t believe those things exist.  Those who do are hard pressed to chase one through darkened streets in the middle of a storm.”  They both laughed.  What he did wasn’t the most sane thing he’d ever done.  Rage, the need for vengeance had overridden his thinking.

    His stepfather took it all in though.

    “I’ve spent my whole life trying to learn more of who I am from her and now it’s too late.  When it seems to be absolutely necessary.  Maybe she didn’t know for sure, but the way she avoided the conversation, left a lot of room for doubt.  Now I’m feeling that there was a reason she wasn’t telling me.  Not that she didn’t know.”

    “Your assessment may be correct lad, but even now I can only tell you bits and pieces that I learned over time.  Most of it seemed completely irrelevant at the time, but after these events, maybe more light can be shed.  I had promised your mother that I wouldn’t bring it up to you.  She had her reasons, light shine on you they were right.  While I didn’t agree at the time, it may have been those reasons that got her killed.”  He finally came over and sat on the end of the bed.  His eyes took on a more serious look.

    “I have mourned for Sarin and shed my tears for the loss of her.  She was a mysterious woman in many ways to me yesterday as she was when she first showed up.  There are still things that I’ve brought to her attention that she refused to answer.  I was always told if I loved her, and I truly did, I would let her past go.  Even over time, details emerged that I would ask about because they just didn’t make sense.  Always I would receive the same answer.  Like you, I stopped questioning.  Never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed or foreseen even the slightest relation to the details of her murder.

    “The facts I am about the tell you are broken and inconsistent.  They are however, the only details I have.  Sid Allihn is only your godfather by circumstance.  I’m not quite sure what that means to be honest, but while I knew Sid as a good friend, I don’t know of his relation to Sarin or your real parents other then he told her to come to me for help.  Your father I know nothing about.  Even the family name.  All I know is it is your grandfathers name.  If your father does live and is associated with Gwen Soren, I can only make my own judgements of why Sarin took you when she did, but that is only speculation.

    Vidicous just stared intently, taking all of this in.  Nothing seemed to make sense anymore.  While he may have never known who he was, he was starting to think his ignorance was better than the present.

    “Shortly after I met Sarin, she told me she was sent by Sid.  At the time I hadn’t seen the man for nearly ten years.   I had no idea what I was supposed to do for the lass, but I took her in as a favor to an old friend.  She would never say why, only that she couldn’t talk about it.  She gave me her name and yours and because I trusted Sid I left it at that.  At first, when you were just a babe, she shared your room with you.  I let her work here for her room and she proved to be quite efficient.  I let her run the numbers and slowly the Golden Mane became better then it was in the past.  She was quite educated.  When I asked how she learned these things again I hit a wall.

    “Somewhere in the middle passion intervened.  As I loved her, I let the past die with the promise of the future.  Even then, things came up that seemed so outrageous my curiosity got the best of me.  I learned of the name Laphwin.  It was known in the western lands to be the family name of a noble house in the Jade Typhoon Empire.  Again when I asked, I hit a wall.”  He shook his head again.

    “What I know of your mother though boy, is that she was good at keeping secrets and had that education.  Whatever she had before the war, the best I can tell, she gave it all up for you.”

    Vidicous continued to sit there, spellbound.  Sarin was a noble?  How did she know Sid?  What did all this have to do with his father?  He frowned a moment, looking back at Dar.  Why was a noble a midwife?

    “I think you just gave me more questions than answers.”

    “I know what you must be thinking lad and I must be telling you.  If you go, this room will always be here waiting for your return.”

    “I’m not sure I’m going anywhere.  Not yet anyway.”  Vidicous shook his head.  He really didn’t know what he was going to do.  “I wouldn’t even know where to begin.  I’d be alone and all of my trusted friends here.”

    “Speaking of the friends, the Bran’s are here.  Somebody burned down the barns and killed half the horses.  I didn’t really want  to bring it up, but I’m concerned it may influence your decision and for that you deserve to know.”

    “The ranch is gone?”

    “Not all of it.  Keira’s father was injured though.  I have had Teran Midow following her around like a lost puppy all day.”

    Teran Midow was a noble youth whose family had a monetary interest in the ranch.  It did after all breed some of the best horses in the world.  He never seemed like a bad guy and was always quite jovial and sociable.  He did tend to have a problem with the status quo.  His parents felt as if they should have been given the status of Governor.  This is what started the feud between them and House Callus.  Most people knew that Teran took an active interest in the ranch only because of Keira.  The only one that seemed not to notice was Keira herself.

    Dar stood, taking a look back at him.  “You really should eat though lad.  Nothing will get your energy back better then a nice meal.  I’ll send your friends in, in a few moments.  Get dressed quick and eat before it gets any colder.”  With that he left.

    Vidicous only nodded to him and found the urge to get out of bed.  He quickly dressed and sat down to his food.  Luckily his boots had been brought up too.  He thought about what Dar had said.  Dar knew him probably better than anybody else besides Devon.  With all these new questions, Dar expected him to want the answers to go with it.  Before he thought all the answers rested with Sarin or Gwen.

    There was a short knock before the door opened and all he heard was the tail end of a disagreement in the hall.

    “…will wait until I am finished child.  I have waited long enough.”  Alena was back.

    Another deep rumble echoed into the room.  Jorgan, was with her.  “Under the orders of High Governor Raldrin Thamad, through the action of the Lyonz Civil Guard, by command of High King Jerich of Moraten, we will be questioning the current suspect and witness Vidicous Korinon, in regards to the activities of Gwen Soren and the Ihr’drin that was killed last night in Blood Alley.”  The imp was dead?  He wondered how any men could compete with the speed and endurance that creature possessed.

    “Under command of Governor Thamad?”  Dar questioned in a menacing tone.  “I think, Lady Satori, that you should learn a little patience and at least let a wounded man rest.  If the Governor commands it though, so shall it be.”

    “I understand your concern Master Dar and can only assure you that we mean the boy no harm.  However, he has details that I need while they are still fresh in his head and you were inhibiting the retrieval of valuable information.”  With that the two of them strode through the door closing it behind them.

    She quickly looked around the room, possibly verifying to herself that they were alone.  Her eyes were cold and questioning.  Jorgan showed little in the way of emotion except for maybe a hint of impatience.

    “You, Master Korinon seem to be  the center of attention lately.” She mused, mostly to herself it seemed.

    “Not something I was aiming for.”

    “I’m sure you have a lot of questions going through your head and I will do the best I can to answer those and all I ask in return is that you answer mine.  Are we agreed?”

    She sat there, waiting for him to answer.  With that gaze on him, the moment before he spoke seemed to stretch on forever.  It was a different gaze then she had in the stables though.  This one wasn’t meant to cause discomfort, it was meant  to do the opposite.

    “Agreed,” he responded, nodding.

“As per our conversation yesterday I believe you when you say you had never met Gwen Soren before.  As you heard through my words with her, there are things in her past that are questionable.  Do you find it interesting that you met the imp in the Blackwood the very day you met her?  Or that it is responsible for the death of your mother and was seen with her shortly after?”

    He looked at her for another long moment.  There was so much to get into  and everything seem jumbled around.  Should he tell her about the imp referring to him as Riftwalker?  He would wait on that.  He wanted to see what she knew.  “I chased that beast through half the city before I caught it.  It was the one that told me it was not my time today and my mother was punished for her betrayal.  Aside from that I haven’t spoken to her since you interrupted us in the stables.”  He felt it better to show he thought of her interruption as a blessing rather than a burden.

    “What happened when you followed the imp?”

    “I chased it down Blood Alley, where she was talking to a man I couldn’t see.”  She looked at Jorgan, but neither of them said anything.  “From there it’s quite hazy, something took me from behind and all I remember was the imp leaping at me with its knife out.”

    “That is everything?”

    “No, but now I get a question.”  Jorgan went to speak but Vidicous cut him off.  “Before you get into it, I don’t give a damn what your mandate says about questioning suspects and witnesses.  I was approached and told that if I answer her questions she will answer mine.  So far she has asked three.”  They both looked surprised.  He was sure that neither were used to being talked down too but he didn’t care.  They weren’t the ones being hunted.  “What was Gwen tried for?”

    She smiled, taking a deep breath before she answered.  “Near the end of the Magi War, as the forces of the empire were losing ground, it was uncovered that a few shadow hands were working in the background of everything.  They pulled the strings of the Emperor before it was uncovered.  When questioned on the rest of the associates, Gwen was listed among them.  When the emperor gained his free will he surrendered almost immediately.  Gwen however refused and was even said by some to be working with an unknown woman to bring down the empire from within.  That woman was never found.  Gwen was charged with being a shadowhand but I could never prove it.  I needed the woman that linked it all.  With the information you have provided me today, if she is caught, she will be retried.”  She looked at him simply, waiting for his next question.

    “What do you know of Kogs?”  Again they looked at each other but said nothing.

    “Not much is known about their way of life.  Some societies are said to live in the mountain ranges to the southwest, near Gandarn.  They removed themselves from human societies and now only work closely with select few, choosing the solitude of their mountain dwellings.”

    “I believe you Vidicous.  I don’t particularly think you have any reason to lie about this unless you’re not saying something.”  He shook his head no.

    Jorgan finally cut in.  He described the events from the perspective of the people left in the inn.  Alena just watched him.  The scream he had heard was from Maddie.  Apparently she was the knock at the door when he followed the imp out the window.  She never saw the imp, only him removing the dagger himself and leap out in what she thought was an escape.  Oh light, Maddie must have thought that he had killed Sarin.  Word quickly went out to the patrons that brought the Civil Guard into the common room.  From Maddie’s tale, they looked for him.  It was Radchek that found him.  He apparently found Vidicous because of the growling and howling he had done running through the streets.

    Bloody hell.  If Radchek had been the one to find him it was a curious situation why he wasn’t already in the hang man’s noose.

    “We shall take this as a statement from you lad,” Jorgan said abruptly.  “We may need to discuss this with you again so that we can make sure all reports are cohesive.”  He nodded and started for the door.

    “I do appreciate your time Vidicous and I do apologize for being so abrupt.”  Alena spoke in a comforting manner and he thought her apology was sincere.  “We will give you your time to rest and hopefully we can speak again if anything comes up.”

    The last part caught Vidicous’ attention, but he said nothing to her about it.  He didn’t want to really talk about it anymore.  Now it was time for him to act.  He had apparently as much information as he could glean from this city and he doubted with what he had learned today if he had any other option.  Part of him did want to know what else Alena knew.

    “If you wish it, I will send your friends in, they have been quite worried and desperate to speak with you.”  She turned and Jorgan followed her out the door.

    It didn’t take long and the door opened.  Keira ran through it, throwing her arms around him, sobbing into his chest.  Behind her, Teran and Devon followed quietly.  Devon shut the door behind him.

He wasn’t really sure what to say to Keira; let alone his other friends.  He held her though.  He looked at both Devon and Teran.  Devon seemed extremely worried.  Teran seemed uncomfortable and reflective.  He could see why, part of his families money just went up in flames.

Devon was wearing new clothes and had bathed.  He looked lost as well.  Other then that look of discomfort, Teran was the picture of noble elegance.  He wore a rich purple shirt, with bright golden cuff links tucked into black breeches.  His boots were the highest quality of black leather.  About his shoulders draped a long elegant black cloak with his families crest embossed.  Many had said that Teran was a handsome man.  The young women in Lyonz would have been with him even if he wasn’t of nobility and it has  been said that some have.  Vidicous found it interesting that no matter his rumored relationships with young women in the city, none of them continued after Teran met Keira.

“Her father was burned badly.”  Teran murmured.  The Magi downstairs was able to heal some of it, but she could do nothing for the pain.  She said she could do nothing about the mental anguish and his mind had suffered the whole way to town.  To him, the wounds are still there.”

“Alena?”

Teran nodded.

“That answers a few questions I had about Jorgan.”

“What are we going to do?”  Keira asked through her tears.  “We have lost so much.”  Her hair was wet and stuck to her forehead in places, slightly messy.  She looked several years younger than she actually was and most would consider her innocently cute.  To Teran, there may be nobody as beautiful.  She always kept her straight honey hair in a braid and today was no different.  She had piercing green eyes that seemed to be stripping away information and knowledge from everything she saw.

Nobody said anything, but she finally released the grip she had around Vidi’s neck.  Today she wore a bright yellow shirt, tucked into light grey trousers.  She was accustomed to a farm life and even with the boyish attire, her feminine softness stood out.  She did find the time to let her hair out and put on dresses though.  For the festivities like would start tonight, she normally would have been in a dress, but if they left the farm in a panic, he could understand why.

“How are the horses?” he asked trying to get Keira talking.

“Half of the lot were slaughtered.  Flat out butchered for no reason.  The bodies suffered rigor mortis immediately and the bodies rotted as if dead for a week.  Why would anybody do this?”  He didn’t answer.  He wasn’t sure how much they knew.  Even though that seemed to be a rumor already.  Should he bring it up to his friends?  Something was pulling on the back of his mind.  Something that should be apparent.

“How are you feeling?”  Teran asked, Devon looking ashamed he hadn’t asked first.  There had always been a tension between those two since Tyre left.  Devon always feeling like he was constantly trying to prove that his life was as important as those that called themselves nobility.  “Looks like you got quite the scrape.”

Vidicous touched his face, running his fingers along the scars that now ran across his left eye.  They still burned, like a fire was lit under his skin.

“Nothing that won’t heal,” he said.  He found it interesting that nobody had brought up Sarin yet.  All three of his friends had known her for quite a long time.  “The wounds will mend and I will recover from my losses all in good  time.”

He turned to Teran and could feel his emotion change.  Enough that Teran flinched back at his gaze.  “Tell me what you know about Moraten.”

Everybody stared at him blankly.  Even Keira took a step back.  Maybe they were all  thinking he was crazy.  He didn’t care.  Teran would know something he could use.  His family was nobility and he was actually born there and returned several times in his life.  He would have somebody that could help him for whatever he was going to do.

“What about it?”  His face took on a more interested expression.  “Moraten is a huge city and in comparison, Lyonz might as well be a backwater village or tribal community.”

“What are you planning to do?”

“I don’t know yet, but I’m pretty sure that it isn’t staying here.”  He glanced at Keira.  “It would seem that there has been enough problems brought to those that I care about.”  All of them turned away from him whispered back and forth.  That’s when he realized.  The imp first struck Devon in the blackwood, and then the ranch was burned down.  Finally his mother was killed.  Anybody in this city would have known the people he was close too.   Ahriman was searching for him.  When you can’t find your prey, you set a trap to draw it to you.  He fell back on the bed, the full weight of his words coming home.  Was it likely Gwen sent the imp to kill those close to bring him to the city.  Everybody that was hurt was because of their proximity to them.

Finally Keira looked up at him, her serene caring stare washing away some of his harsh emotion.  “I’m sorry about the loss of your mother, Vidi.  I think we all loved her.”  Tears that had cleared started to form at her eyes again.

“Thank you.  All of you.”  He forced his sadness down, fighting back his own tears, trying not to think of the look on Sarin’s face.  That image he knew, would haunt him for the rest of his life.  “However, if I don’t do something now, her killer will go free.”  And Gwen has more to answer for then why she had Sarin murdered.

They all looked at him.  They knew he was serious.  Vidicous was never the type of person to make exaggerated boasts.  Dar had always told him something he found very important.  If you tell the truth you are done.  If you tell a lie, later you will have to tell another to verify the first and each lie will have to be greater than the first.  Soon you find yourself in a tangled web and only lost time on your hands.  Right now, he didn’t want to lose any more time.  Gwen had most of the day ahead of him.  If what she had told him were true, she would be stopping in Moraten.

“Dar supports this.  I need answers and the place for that is not here.”

“I’m coming with you,” Devon said.

“No you’re not,” he snapped.  “What lies with what I follow is evil and for all I know, there may not be a homecoming.”  Everybody became silent.  Devon shuffled his feet but pressed on.

“There is nothing for me here.  And you have always been there for me.  Now it’s my turn to be there for you.  Besides, Tyre is in Moraten.”  he could see Teran roll his eyes at that.  The feud continued.  Devon took on an expression that he had never seen from him.  For the most part his friend had always been carefree and jovial or timid and isolated.  He had seen looks of fear and panic, happiness and sadness.  Even looks of anger.  The look he had now was not hopeful, but sheer determination.

“What aren’t you telling me?”

Devon shuffled his feet under Vidi’s gaze.  There was something.

“I spoke to the clerics after Jorgan questioned me about Gwen.  She was in Shidona the day my father was found dead.  You are not the only one with questions.  Right now I’m prohibited from leaving the city by edict of Thamad.  Which probably means until Jeb wakes up to validate our story.  If he ever does.”

“Fine.”

“I’m coming with you too Vidi,” Teran jumped in.

“No!”

“I have connections in Moraten and having me there is better than naming me.  The crime is a lot different up there and you will find the nobles question everything.  If anybody suspects you are not as you say you are, they have assassins for the smallest of things.”

That was a lot more direct than Vidicous was expecting.  He was right though.  Those people knew Teran, some of them anyway.  With his knowledge of the city he could assist in tracking down Tyre and maybe even Gwen.

He looked at Keira, his frustration coming out.  “I suppose you want to go as well?”

“Can I?”  She asked with growing excitement in her eyes.

“Oh light,” he cried.  “Your father would quarterhorse me.  He shook his head.  “I just found out that most of the city thinks I’m crazy and all the guests in the common room.  I’m not.  You three are.”  What could he do really?  There was no way to actually keep any of them from following.

He looked out the window.  The sun would be setting soon and the start of the festival would follow.  With the amount of excitement that would ensue, if he wanted to leave this was going to be the best opportunity.

“I’m leaving tonight, just after sundown.  With the amount of people that will be flooding the square, hopefully nobody will notice my exit from the city.”

“We can’t get anywhere leaving at nightfall.  If you’re trying to avoid attention you want to avoid anybody coming into  the city as well.  So, with my family here we can spend the night at the ranch house.”  She said that so matter of fact that there was really nothing else to say.  It was decided.

There were a few things he needed done so he set everybody about specific tasks.  Devon needed to get all their stuff to the horses in the inn’s stables.  Keira was to go spend time with her family.  If her father was hurt that bad she should spend the time she could with him.  To Teran, he gave one additional responsibility; he wanted him to bring Radchek to West Gate.

“What do you want that pompous, arrogant man for?”  Devon had a look of concern on his face.  Like it would all be over before it started.

“I have my reasons.”  He longingly looked at his friends.  By now they knew he was serious.   “ Now, I have to make appearances downstairs and keep a few promises.  There are certain eyes and ears that I don’t need until I’m gone.”  he meant Alena and Jorgan.

They all split up and made their way to their task.  Keira went back to the private room that was set aside for them by Dar.  He went down to the kitchens, giving his plate to maids and thanking Falynn for a wonderful meal.  That’s when he realized he had actually eaten.  She just stared at him with a sympathetic gaze that actually gave him a chill.  Sympathy from Falynn was like the sun rising at midnight.  It just didn’t happen.

In the back of  the kitchen, at the table where just the day before his mother had been working on a mound of paperwork sat Dar.  He was trying to make sense of all the notes she had so he could at least make some semblance of the inn that was currently full.  His towel was draped over his shoulder and his face was resting in his hands.  He was probably exhausted, no doubt.  When they had spoken earlier he appeared to not have slept in a while.  Vidicous understood.  When you had full rooms and the only bed you had left was the one your wife was just murdered in, sleep probably didn’t come to mind.  Vidicous said nothing as he stepped up, resting his hand on Dar’s shoulder.  The man startled, turning to see who was behind him.  He could see the man was just hiding his tears.

“Good to see you out lad,” he sniffed out a laugh.  “Well, I guess you couldn’t resist the opening of Cailura.”  Dar’s gaze crossed the scar on his face.  “Hmm.  It does look better then when you were brought in.  The young lady with Alena Satori said she could not fully heal it as some of it was caused from darkness beyond her capabilities.

“There is another Magi with Alena?”  He felt a shiver run up his spine.  He never thought of magic being used on others, but the idea of it being used on him was quite scary.  He considered the white light he saw in the keep.  Magic itself, or rather Exalted magic was outlawed in Moraten since the Magi War.  The Magi themselves weren’t illegal, just the practice of it.  In rare conditions could the governor issue a pardon?  Saving lives warranted a pardon.

“Aye lad.  Before she came along I might have thought your face looked as if you lost a fight with a bear.  It seems she did it some good.  She said it would probably feel worse then it was.  Now it looks like you spooked a big cat.  She mentioned meeting you in the stables last night”  He laughed to himself.  In all honesty, Vidicous hadn’t even thought of the scar except for a couple moments.  He could feel it burn though.  It must be the same as what was done for Keira’s father; not  being able to heal the mental anguish.

“I’m leaving.”  Dar gave him a small nod of understanding.  “Devon, Keira and Teran are coming with me.”  That look of understanding took on a hint of ‘I wish I could go with’ mixed with a bit of ‘avenge her.’  Even though he said nothing else, he took out a pouch of coins and handed it to Vidicous.

“Go make your appearances boy.  If Jorgan gets wind of this, you may be in a noose before the sun finishes setting.”  He knew Dar would never betray him; to Gwen, Alena, Jorgan or the King himself.  There were plenty of times growing up where he hadn’t done it for Sarin either.  They returned each others smiles and Vidicous returned to the common room.  Outside the sun had not yet set so there were still plenty of people around the tables.  He did not see Alena but he did see the young girl from the stables last night staring into one of the fireplaces.  He wanted to ask her name, not knowing bugged him.  He went back into the kitchens and picked up a small bottle of nicely aged wine and a pair of glasses.

He brought it all back to the common room and approached her table sitting down the two glasses.  She turned and looked at the glasses and then up at him.  Outside he was so lost he didn’t quite see her deep brown pools she had for eyes. He could feel himself being sucked into them.  They held a certain allure and mystery that made him want to know more.  Those eyes just gazed at him, studying, searching.

“No thank you,” she said and he frowned.

“Well, I had hoped to at least give my thanks to the one that helped me,” he ran his finger along the burning scar.  “I shall now walk away with my embarrassment in tow.”

She smiled up at him.  “Alright,” she laughed lightly.

He smiled back and took the cork out of the wine and poured some into each glass before sitting.

“So why do you sit here by yourself, staring into the flames?  There is about to be a celebration.  I’m sure the thrill of a larger city like Terra Moon may have a lot going for it, but I like to think we here can do good for ourselves.”  She laughed again.

“I myself, Master Vidicous, am also more fond of the smaller cities.  In fact, I was just thinking about my home, which is a small village called Rivers End.”  A country girl.  He always respected the people from the outlying villages.  They seemed to be good people, with good values and only sought to make their way through the day.  They had internal squabbling like bigger cities, but it was more frustrated because they they all knew each other.  That always made him feel safe, just like Dermalls Waters.

“And does the beautiful young woman from Rivers End come with a name?”  He thought she may have blushed a little, but she recovered her composure quickly.

“I do apologize, I am called Nami.”  He felt a sense of victory for some reason, but at the same time he felt a little lost.  When he came over to the table he had the goal of getting her name.  Now that he had it, he felt unsure of how to proceed.  He sipped at the wine for several moments trying to regain the momentum he had when he walked over.

“Well Nami, it has been my pleasure to have met you and Chanta and to have received your assistance.”  He finished his wine and sat staring into the fire with her for what seemed like forever before he stood.

As he did, Alena had pulled up an empty chair and sat with them.  “I’m glad to see you are feeling better, Master Korinon.”  She had a slight smile to her face, one that held a bit of compassion.

“Please, call me Vidicous.  He smiled back and made sure that was intended for Nami just as much as it was for Alena.

“Ok, Vidicous.”

He bowed to each of them as he took his glass.  “The bottle is on the house, I will have one of the servants bring another glass.”

He stayed there until shortly before dusk.  He had helped several different patrons with drinks and clearing of plates.  He could feel several different eyes on him throughout.  Two sets he knew belonged to Alena and Nami.  One of them came from a lone table where the bard was drinking.  He probably wanted to learn the story circling the rumors of this young man.

The last set of eyes he felt stung painfully.  Maddie watched him cautiously, a look of fear and concern anytime he noticed her.  Did she really believe he could do such a thing?  She didn’t hide the fact that she was intentionally keeping her distance.  he took a moment to carry in a few sets of dishes to the kitchen and found Dar waiting for him.

“Your friends are outside lad.”  He had a look of heavy concern that crossed his brow more then his face.  “Allihn would not let any but Keira touch him, but she is finishing up with him now.  Your stuff has all been moved to the stables, including that new wrapped thing.  I don’t know what the Lady Satori told you, but after spending a little bit of time with her companion, I think she has a deeper interest in you then that Soren lady.”  Vidicous was right.  She was hiding something.

He gave Dar a hug.  He had a feeling this could be the last time he would see the man. For several moments it felt like neither of them would let go.  When it was finished though, neither of them said another word.  Vidicous stared at him for another moment and then headed outside into the stables.

They all stood there.  Everyone of them with a horse.  Everything was already packed and even his sword was already slung across Allihn.   Today, a new hunt began.  Once they all mounted, they took a side street to the Moraten Road.  From where the Golden Mane was built, West Gate was only several minutes away and he had one more thing he wanted to clear up.

They were quickly at the gates and there was, at the time only a few people looking to get through.  Teran had accomplished his main task and he saw Radchek standing off to the side waiting for him.  He dismounted Allihn and asked for the others to stay back.

The man visibly shaken.  Like Dar, he also appeared without an adequate night’s sleep.  His hands were wrapped in bandages and it looked like the cloth went up onto his forearms.  he stepped forward, not taking his eyes off of Radchek.

“I think I owe you an apology, Korinon.”  His eyes were intense and there was a new level of serious to his visage.  he seemed like a man, who once seemed in control, now questioned his own reality.  He had now seen things.  Things that only existed in fairy tales for most.

“I think you owe me less of an apology then I do my own thanks.”

“Why did you request me Korinon,” he asked.

“Always to the point, aren’t you?  Very well, I have a favor to ask.”

“Favors don’t come free, but I’m listening.”

“We are leaving and there are certain eyes in the city right now that probably would prefer it I stay here.  You, better than everybody else, knows what has come upon me.  You alone, of those that I know, have fought it.  From the look of it, you felt his steel.”  He nodded to the bandages.

“And in return?”  He took on a look of curious interest.

“Devon Talroon, will never again be a blight on your community.”

“To be rid of that buffoon on my soldiers is enough to ensure that your presence through the gate is not known.  However, you know as well as I do that what you offer cannot entirely be guaranteed.  For that, I assure you what I offer is not either.  I would believe that Lady Alena is that which you wish to keep your activities unknown.  I also am aware that you have been prohibited from leaving Lyonz.  I am putting my neck in the noose but I will ensure my guards forget your passing but I will not risk their careers.  Knowing this woman, if she wants you, she will find you.”

“Then as we have an agreement we will be on our way.  Turning to leave, Radchek grabbed his arm.

“I don’t like you Korinon.  You are a thorn in my foot.  You tread now towards dangerous grounds.  keep your head up, watch your flank.   Come back alive.”  He could see in the man’s eyes it was sincere.  There was a certain feeling going along with it that also said, our slate is clean, unless you don’t keep your word.

They gave each other a polite bow and Vidicous headed back to Allihn.

“What was that about?”  Devon asked, curious

“I told you, my own reasons.  Let’s go.”

They all progressed themselves out of the west gate and the city walls.  The guards did not prohibit them leaving and as they passed, he saw Radchek instructing the guards before heading off to the other gates.  As they entered the main stretch of the Moraten Road he knew one thing.  Now, he was the hunter.