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The Road to Ice [PoChaNoWriMo]

Discussion in 'Creative Archive' started by Chibi, Nov 2, 2010.

  1. ((And this starts my contribution to the PoChaNoWriMo. It's a big project I've had in my mind for a long time, and it is set in Ercovea. *points to the other thread* I don't have many hopes that I'll finish this, but you never know.))

    Prologue

    The tavern was squat and ugly in the pale moonlight, filled with loud, raucous laughter and swears from spilled drinks and anything in general. Yellow light spilled from the grimy windows, giving light to the rats and streets urchins outside. A sign hung loosely above the door—meaning it was hanging by only one hinge; it read 'The Broken Sword' and had a picture of a sword snapped in half on it.

    Inside, the tavern was filled with sailors, merchants, homeless people, and drunks. Not terribly unusual for a tavern so close to the docks. The sailors were laughing and languishing in their time off from sailing, trying to enjoy as many drinks and girls as possible. They all seemed to be one massive crowd, all of them interconnected with the other. Two men were an exception to this however, they sat in a shadowed corner of the tavern, away from everyone else. They seemed to be watching the crowd, their drinks untouched. Suddenly one of the men tapped the other on the shoulder and nodded his head at the entrance, where two figures were just entering. They were both garbed in dark cloaks with the hoods pulled up to hide their faces. One was slightly shorter than the other and slipped easily through the ass of people towards the men's table.

    They sat down hurriedly, and even through the cloaks they looked tense. When they were closer, it was clear that they were not men, but women. After making sure that they were in the shadows, the women pulled off their hoods so they could see better. One of them had a round face, with tanned skin and dark auburn hair that fell all the way to her hips. Her eyes were a startling violet and burned with a sort of rigid intensity; she had a certain predatory look to her, and any men who noticed her decided not to take their chances and left her alone, no matter how pretty she looked.

    Her companion, while shorter and younger-looking, had a startling beauty to her. It was almost unnatural, but only to a human. Her face was angular with high cheekbones, with an almost fae-like quality to it. Her eyes and eyebrows were slanted like a cat's, and the irises were a rich dark brown. Wheat-gold hair fell straight to her elbows and the tips of two delicately pointed ears poked out of it. Many heads turned in her direction, but no one dared move closer for fear that the red-haired woman would attack them.

    One of the men leaned forward, squinting at them. "You're late," he growled, keeping his voice low so no one would overhear.

    The blond woman, the elf, looked annoyed. "It's your fault for setting a meeting up in this part of the city. Someone tried to mug us." Her voice had an almost musical quality to it, and even though she was just speaking normally she seemed to catch the men off-guard. She raised an eyebrow as if daring them to tell her that getting attacked was her fault.

    "And?" the man asked, not really caring about the answer.

    The red-haired woman examined the back of her thick gloves."The poor bastard's out cold in the gutter, passed out drunk it looks like. He must have gotten into a fight too, because he had three broken ribs and a cracked skull." She said the words carelessly, but the way she clenched her jaw told a different story.

    The man rolled his eyes and turned to his smaller, thinner companion. "Mr. Demar, these are the two women who responded to your ad. Their names are Gwenith Alder and Ilona."

    "Gwen," the red-haired woman growled in irritation.
    The smaller man nodded and leaned forward. "Why do you want the job?" He asked. His voice was barely above a whisper, but it sounded so serious that it grabbed the attention immediately.

    The women looked at each other, puzzled. People usually didn't ask that sort of question. Ilona finally shrugged. "We need the money, and your offer is quite generous, and I've seen some pretty expensive rewards. It also gives us a chance to leave Iceberry before the army recruiters come knocking down our door and drag us up north to fight the armies."

    The men exchanged glances. Some massage passed between them, but it was impossible to tell what. "You have to travel a long way," Demar said and waited for protest.

    "How long?" Gwen asked, crossing her legs.

    "You have to get to Srak Iessial Allenaho," Demar answered, stumbling over the long word. He watched Ilona's eyebrows dip into a frown. "Do you know this place, miss Ilona?"

    Ilona shook her head. "No, but I know what the name means. 'Icy castle of ghosts,' or 'icy ghost castle' to be more literal."

    "It's inside Icewood," the other man explained.

    Ilona's eyes grew huge and Gwen raised an eyebrow. "The Ice Palace!" She hissed, then looked around to see if anyone had heard. She leaned in closer. "You can't be serious!"

    Demar expression clearly said that he was. "I assure you Ilona, I'm being completely serious."

    "Okay, hold on for a second," Gwen said, holding up a hand. Demar noticed that she wore the same thick gloves that warriors usually wore. "When you say Icewood, do you mean that frozen forest in the middle of the dwarf kingdoms?"

    "The same," Ilona replied.

    "We need you to retrieve something from the palace inside the forest." Demar said, interlocking his fingers on the table.

    Ilona shook her head again, more violently this time. "We can't," she stated simply.

    "You mean you won't," the larger man said with a glare.

    "No, we can't!" Ilona glared right back at him. "The dwarven kingdoms are almost impossible to get into now! And if we do manage to get in, we can never enter the Ice Palace. Do you know why no one goes in there? Not because it's haunted, but because those doors are cursed to stay shut forever."

    This seemed to be news to the men. They exchanged uneasy glances. "Cursed by magic?" Demar asked, a tinge of worry in his voice.

    "Well of course," Ilona answered, just stopping herself from rolling her eyes.

    "You're an elf, are you not? You can use magic to open the gates." Demar said easily.

    Ilona bit her tongue. When she was certain she wouldn't start yelling, she said, "I can't do any of those complicated spells. My people dabble with magic, we're born with magic so we don't take it as seriously as you humans do. I couldn't unravel such a complicated spell."

    "Then get a mage to remove it," the other man said quickly. "If it was a mage who cast a spell then a mage can remove it."

    Gwen rolled her eyes this time. "Look, that place had been closed for years. If no one's gotten into it now, no one ever will. Besides, we don't even know any mages."

    The men looked ready to say something, but were interrupted by Ilona. "Well. . ." the elf said, somehow thoughtful, mischievous, and doubtful at the same time. "I do know this one guy who might be able to do it."

    "Yes?" Demar asked impatiently.

    "He's a Magus, and he's really good," Ilona went on.

    The rest of the table gasped. "He's one of the Magi?" The larger man said. "He would be perfect!"

    Ilona nodded, smug and smiling. "Not only that, but he's the youngest Magi ever, or so they say."

    Demar's eyebrows rose in astonishment. "Cinder Maere?" He asked in surprise.

    Ilona smiled even wider. "You heard of him?"

    "Of course I've heard of him," Demar snapped. "He's rumored to be so powerful that he was made into a Magi when he was twenty-two; that's about half the age of your regular Magus." He regarded Ilona with a cool gaze. "So you know him?"

    Ilona nodded slowly, fighting back a smile from the memory. "Yes, I do. If anyone can remove the magic around the palace, he can. The only problem is getting him here."

    "Let me guess, he's in Taersis?" Gen asked, knowing where all the mages and Magi gathered. Ilona nodded once more. "Then tell him you need him here."

    Ilona snickered, "It's a bit more complicated than that. Cinder is practically the law unto himself, and if he doesn't want to come then not even wild horses could drag him down here."

    "Find a way," Demar said shortly. "So that's a thief to steal the rod, a mage to open the gates, and a warrior to protect them. Sounds good."

    "Two warriors," Ilona corrected. At Demar's look she went on, "Cinder has a twin brother who's a warrior. They hardly ever separate."

    "More's the better," the other said.

    Gwen rapped her knuckles on the table for attention. "Hey, Demar," she said. "You said we had to steal a what?"

    Demar gave her a wary glance. "A rod," he said after a moment. "A blue one, it shouldn't be too hard to find."

    "Is it magical?" Ilona demanded, narrowing her eyes.

    "No," Demar answered, too quickly.

    Ilona knew he was lying. She quickly stepped on Gwen's foot to stop her from saying anything. "Okay then, I'll have to send a message. What time do we meet back?"

    "Two weeks," Demar said immediately. "Same time, right here." He stood up quickly, shook their hands, and left.

    After they disappeared, Gwen whirled upon her friend. "Why did you stop me?" She demanded.

    "We need the money," Ilona replied. "Look, it's not terribly important. Magical things are locked inside haunted castles all the time. Besides, if we have a Magus with us he'll be able to tell us if it's dangerous." She pulled her hood up and left, Gwen following behind her. The moons lighted their way as they slipped into the street, silent as shadows.
     
  2. ((FYI, I did make maps of the continent Casta, seen in four separate parts: here, here, here, and here. There's also a bunch of background information inmy gallery as well.))

    Chapter 1: The First Step to Adventure

    Exactly two weeks later, Gwen and Ilona were walking back down the street to The Broken Sword, looking around for trouble. This time Gwen carried her sword, a giant black-bladed monstrosity with a blade that had a very slight curve to it. Ilona was wrapped in a large green cloak that fell to her shins, and on the inside was an array of knives, lockpicks, and other things useful to a thief. They passed sailors, most of the drunk, who leered at them and whistled. They ignored the sound and walked on. When they got to The Broken Sword they pushed open the front door and slipped in.

    The setting was much like before, only this time a pair of minstrels were signing an awful rendition of "The Pearl Queen" on one side of the room. Ilona winced at the noise and headed for Demar and his assistant, who were occupying the same table they had before. Someone bumped into her, a man with a crooked smile and looked so drunk it was a wonder he could see straight. She shoved him away in disgust and anger, and he stumbled away and crashed into someone else. His friends roared with laughter.

    "Careful," Gwen muttered as they broke free of the crowd. "We don't want to cause a bar fight. Especially on a Saladay."

    Ilona opened her mouth to retort that it was actually a Sylphday, but then remembered that it was past midnight and kept her thoughts to herself. As they sat down Demar leaned forward. "Well?" He asked, both impatient and tense.

    Ilona noted the change and filed the information away for later. "Cinder and Caron Maere arrived yesterday. They should be here."

    "They're not," Demar's partner said.

    "They will be," Ilona replied tolerantly. "They just need some time to get here. It's been a month since they've been to Iceberry, apparently."

    Demar took a drink from the mug in front of him. He tried to hide his disgust and looked at something over their heads. "Is that them?" He asked with a gesture.

    Ilona swiveled around with Gwen to see where he was pointing. "Yes," she answered, her breath coming out in a sigh of relief.

    The men they had just pointed out were standing in the doorway, pausing to scan the crowd. One was a bit shorter than the other, which was because he was hunched over slightly. He wore long red robes that were inscribed with brown runes along the hems, and his hood was up, hiding most of his face. He leaned on a staff that he held with both hands, which was made of a light-colored wood and held a huge blue crystal which was stuck in a dragon's claw. His companion was easily one of the largest men Demar had ever seen, and one look at the broad muscles and the large partially hidden sword made him glad that this man was on his side. The robed man nodded in their direction and made his way over. As he got closer Demar noticed that there was something red around his neck, covered with spikes and red scales.

    "You said they were related?" Demar asked doubtfully as they neared.

    "Twins," Ilona replied. "I know they don't look like it, but they are."

    Well that was a bit of an understatement. Demar could now see that the Magus was pale, the kind of waxy paleness that only a sick person had. He could see the skin drawn over the skull, which made his nice cheekbones stand out, but the overall thinness and paleness made him look like a robed skeleton. In stark contrast the warrior was muscled, tanned, and looked quite handsome. The Magus sort of folded himself into one of the most shadowed corners and his brother sat right next to him. Demar noted with a shock that both of their eyes were a dark gold color, like honey.

    Ilona saved them from an awkward silence by saying, "Hey guys. Cinder, Caron, this is Mr. Demar. He's the one who's employing me."

    Cinder regarded him coolly. Demar tried to hide his disappointment. He had hoped that this man would have a powerful sort of presence, like a Magus should have, and so far he got none. "So will he be the one to tell us why you called us here?" Cinder as, his voice soft and velvety.

    His words made Gwen frown. "You didn't even tell them what we're doing?" She asked Ilona, who looked rather sheepish.

    "No," the elf replied. "I knew they wouldn't come if I did."

    Demar was always good at interpreting the mood of a crowd, and right now he sensed and argument coming. "Look, it doesn't matter," he said before it could start. "You're learning right now." He brought forth a large piece of parchment, which he rolled out to reveal a map. "You need to get here," he pointed to the northern region of the map, where a ring of mountains were clustered. His finger tapped a section inside of the mountains, where someone had drawn an X.

    Cinder pinched the map between two bony fingers and pulled it closer. While Caron had grown troubled the moment he realized it lay northward, Cinder looked merely interested. He had the look of someone who was considering the possibility of success or wondering if it would be suicide. Gwen leaned over and frowned at the distance; only Ilona avoided looking at the map.

    "You have heard the armies coming down from the north, yes?" Cinder asked after a few minutes, looking up from the map.

    "Of course," Demar's assistant replied irritably. "Who hasn't?"

    "They've gotten bigger," Caron said. "And they're starting to move. Before they were hiding out in the mountains, but now they've come down and they've reached the Collapsing Chasm. People say that they're going to invade soon." As he spoke he tapped on a long valley that marked the border between Thoraibin and Casta, the dwarven and human lands respectively.

    Demar felt a knot of dread in his stomach. He hadn't expected the armies to move so soon! "Can't you Magi fly?" He asked, glad at how calm he sounded.

    A small, knowing smile twitched at Cinder's lips. "Yes, but I'm not going to carry you all over an angry army. Not to mention my drake can't carry that many people for long periods of time." After his spoke the thing on his neck moved, and a draconian head rose up on a long and sinuous neck. The head was long and narrow, with horned crests and fierce golden eyes. A firedrake, Demar knew immediately, the companions to the red Magi. When the drake slid fully into view, it was only as big as a housecat, and resembled a red and gold dragon, but with more horns and spikes decorating the head. It glared at Demar, an unnerving intelligence in its eyes.

    Something about Cinder's superior smile made Demar really dislike him. Ilona was also good at interpreting crowds and quickly jumped in. "We could just go around," she said, her finger dragging across the map to show her path. "It'll take longer, but we'll get there."

    "Then how will we get into Thoraibin?" Cinder interjected. "The Collapsing Chasm is the only way we know."

    "There's Brighthill Crossing, and Castlemoor's supposed to have an entrance."

    "In theory," Gwen added. "No one's ever confirmed it. And from what I've heard the dwarves don't like anyone using their paths except for themselves."

    Ilona scowled at her and Caron looked at the map himself. "It'll mean we have to go through Ellessearimensati," he said.

    "I know that," Ilona sighed irritably. "I am an elf, if you haven't noticed. I can get us through there."

    Demar tried not to say anything. They were losing precious time! His hands gripped the table so hard that they turned white. He tried to keep his face blank, which was really quite hard. His partner was watching him worriedly, but he ignored it.

    The Magus' voice broke through his thoughts. "You never told us what we were supposed to do."

    Demar started a little, then composed himself. "You have to get to the castle Srak Iessial Allenaho, inside Icewood."

    "Ah, the Ice Palace." Cinder said, an odd smile playing on his lips. The drake on his shoulder let out a low hiss. "Isn't that the place that's never supposed to open?"

    "Yes, magic keeps the doors shut," Demar explained.

    "I see," Cinder replied, his face saying that he now realized the exact reason why he was here. "And you want me to remove the spell. It's nice to be in such high demand."

    "And why do we have to go into a cursed palace?" Caron asked, "Those gates were probably sealed for a reason."

    "It doesn't matter now," Demar's assistant said. "What lies inside the palace is what counts."

    Demar winced at his partner's poor choice of words, something that did not go unnoticed. "It's a rod, about this big," he said and held out his arm. "It should be blue, made out of crystal with metal decorations."

    They digested that information for a while. "What does it do?" Ilona asked at last; he had gotten out of explaining earlier, but not now.


    Demar knew trying to downplay it would fail, they were too smart. "I can't tell you that," he replied truthfully.

    Immediately the thief grew hostile. "Why not?" She demanded, her eyes suddenly fierce. "You can't expect us to get it while ignorant! What if the rod explodes the moment we touch it?"

    The sudden change in her was frightening, and Demar tried to soothe her. "It won't explode, I promise. The truth is I'm not supposed to tell you and we're not really sure of the rod's power ourselves."

    He knew that was the wrong thing to say, if Ilona's expression was anything to go by, but Cinder came in. "Don't get too wound up Ilona. We're doing this for a good cause."

    Ilona looked at him as if he had just spoken in dwarvish. "A good cause?!" She repeated, her voice rising. Luckily, the two minstrels were arguing over a set of lyrics, and the yelling of the crowd was masking her voice. "Cinder, we may be getting paid fifteen-hundred gold pieces, but our lives aren't worth that?"

    The mage's eyebrows shot up and his eyes suddenly turned brighter. "You never told us we were being paid fifteen-hundred in gold," he said. "A princely price. However," he turned to Demar. "If it'll help the resistance then it might be worth it."

    Demar nearly had a heart attack. "Don't say that out loud!" He yelled, looking around for listeners. His assistant looked ready to leap across the table at them.

    Cinder's smile was smug while the rest of the table was stunned. "I'm right, aren't I? You're both part of the resistance against the invading armies and this rod is something that will help you."

    "I said don't say it out loud," Demar growled. "But you can't possibly know that."

    "On the contrary, I can," Cinder replied. "You've been edgy, impatient for us to accept your terms. You would only be impatient if you were running out of time, and the armies are getting closer to invading Casta every day. Now, you would not want us to go into Thoraibin and risk being captured unless it was vitally important, o this is no small matter. You have superiors who don’t want you to tell us too much, and even then they're not telling you everything. And they're paying us an outrageous price; you're not a noble, you don't have the shoes or the attitude, so someone else must be getting the money, indicating you're part of a group." He watched their faces grow from shocked to amazed. "And after all that I saw this." He reached out and pushed one of Demar's sleeves back, revealing a mark on his skin that resembled a bird taking flight.

    Demar felt a shock got through him as the mage touched him, like electricity. He jerked his arm back and yanked his sleeve down, but not before the others saw the mark. He rubbed his arm where it was shocked, knowing now that this man had to be very powerful. The easiest way to identify a Magi was to touch them; the sheer amount of magical power they had under their control would go through a person's body like a static shock. Demar looked up and saw Cinder's eyes, which now seemed to smolder with intensity. Suddenly Demar found the powerful presence he had been expecting before.

    "Whoa," Ilona said, leaning back from the sudden rush of information.

    "And this rod will be used as a weapon against the invading armies, right." Gwen said, her tone indicating it wasn't a question.

    "Something like that," Demar's assistant said.

    Gwen was tapping her chin in thought, while Ilona looked as if she had just licked a lemon. "It will be difficult," the warrior woman said at last. "But it's for the good of Casta. Not to mention we'll be avoiding the army recruiters, so I'll do it." Ilona winced at her words.

    The twins still had not decided; from the way it looked they almost seemed to be in some silent communication. The drake looked at Cinder, his eyes all too clearly questioning. While they were silent, Demar began to notice just how alike they looked. Cinder finally looked up and said, "We'll do it."

    Demar released the breath he hadn't realized he had been holding. "Thank you," he said. "I appreciate it." He held out his hand, palm up. There was a coin in it.

    Ilona sighed and placed her hand over Demar's, instructing the others to do the same. When they did, suddenly a burning sensation traveled through their palms, originating from the coin. It lasted for only a moment, but when they drew their hands away there was an angry red circle in their palms. "Pleasure doing business with you," Demar said, standing up. He drew his cloak around him and left with his partner in tow. They disappeared as if by magic through the crowd.

    Caron scratched his hand. "What was that?" He asked, looking at Cinder.

    "A psychological trick," the mage replied. He gently soothed his drake, who was hissing constantly.

    "What?" Gwen replied tonelessly.

    Ilona stared at her hand. "It's a tradition among adventures and people who employ them. In the old days the adventurers' hands would be marked, and every time the travelers tried to deviate from their quest the mark would burn them like fire. They don't do that anymore, but it's part of tradition." She stood up and looked at the twins. "Thanks, you guys," she said sincerely.

    "It was nothing," Caron replied while Cinder remained silent.

    "What do we do now?" Gwen asked, eyeing the drunk crowd behind them.

    "We'll get supplies tomorrow," Ilona declared, suddenly leader-like. "We have to set off as soon as possible, before the recruiters grab us for the resistance army." She went through the crowd and left; the others had no choice but to follow her.

    The air outside was cold and crisp, and their breath misted as they breathed. Cinder pulled his robes tighter around himself and Ilona didn't seem to feel the cold at all. Beggars and sailors watched them from the alleys, but didn't approach. "So, are you staying anywhere?" Ilona asked.

    Cinder glanced around at the muggers no doubt listening. "No," he lied. He was at least thankful that they still had all of their packs with them. The firedrake on his shoulder glared at the sailors, his golden eyes flickering like flames.

    "Good," Ilona said with a sly smile. He knew he would say that. "You can stay with me and Gwen."

    Gwen looked at her friend as if she had just told her to strip in the middle of the street. "Excuse me?" She demanded, "My place is not big enough for four people!"

    "Sure it is," Ilona replied. "You just don't want guys in your house."

    Even in the darkness Gwen's flush was visible. She stomped ahead, not looking back. Ilona watched her go sadly. "Don't mind her," she said quietly. "She's like this to all men. She'll warm up to you eventually."

    "You sure?" Caron asked, watching the figure ahead of them.

    Ilona bit her lower lip. "Yeah. . . I think." She saw Cinder's look and hastily added, "She'll have to. We'll be spending a lot of time with each other, after all."

    "Hmm," Cinder replied, tapping his staff against the ground. Suddenly his drake, who had been looking behind them, hissed threateningly and lashed his tail "What is it, Dreyken?" He asked, turning around. The drake's hiss turned into a growl and his eyes narrowed.

    "What's wrong?" Caron asked worriedly, looking back.

    "Dreyken says that someone's been following us," Cinder replied. "He frightened them off, he said."

    It was true. In the shadows halfway down the street, a figure was rapidly hurrying away. He was covered in rags that hid him perfectly among the street scum, and the fake eye patch along his perfectly good right eye completed the look. He limped badly, and did a pretty good impression of it too, and his oaken walking stick was actually used for beating off muggers and thieves instead of helping him walk. He had been seen, and the anger of it burned in his stomach like a coal. However, it was not too important; he had already heard everything he needed to hear.
     
    #2 Chibi, Nov 2, 2010
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 19, 2013
  3. ((Missed this yesterday because this thing was so long, which is to be expected I guess :p ))

    Chapter 2: Setting Off

    Gwen's house turned out to be a fairly small setting on the quiet Tide Street, located near the trading docks. It was built from dark stone and made to keep the constant winds out, and yet it had a bare look to it. She let them in without a fuss and acted rather solicitous in comparison to earlier. She asked them if they needed anything, then hung her sword on the wall where over twenty more were also gathered. Caron looked around at the shields and swords hanging everywhere—the only decoration to the place, if you would call it that—in total amazement. Gwen pretended not to notice and went into another room that was presumably her bedroom and shut the door.

    "Gwen's a swordsmaid," Ilona said when she noticed Caron's stare. "You give her any sword and she can wield it. She very proud about it and takes her life as a warrior very seriously." She paced around a bit, tossing her packs at the foot of a faded couch. They hadn't noticed before, but the elf looked tired and somehow washed out, it was startlingly because elves always seemed to have an eternal beauty to them, and it was just wrong seeing dark circles under her eyes. She threw herself onto the couch and finally noticed their stares. "What?" She demanded, her tone hostile.

    "You look tired," Caron admitted and almost looked embarrassed by having to admit it. "I dunno, more. . . human, I guess. We've never seen you tired before."

    For a moment Ilona looked at them as if she literally couldn't believe what she was hearing. Then she laughed, and even that sounded worn out. "Oh, you," she teased, curling up on her side. Even then she still looked tense. "To tell you the truth I feel tired. But then again, when the fate of an entire country rests on your shoulders it's hard not to, I suppose."

    Her words made Caron feel uncomfortable. "I wouldn't go so far as the say that," he replied quietly.

    "Hmph, we'll see," Ilona replied. Her voice was already quiet and fuzzy. "Go to sleep you two. Or at the very least shut up so I can sleep." In moments her breathing began to deepen.

    "You can have the chair," Caron whispered as their friend fell into a deep sleep.

    Cinder shrugged as a response. "If you wish," he said and laid his staff against the arm of the chair. The blue crystal on top flickered for a moment then resumed its natural sky blue color. Like a child, he curled up sideways in the chair, his skinny frame somehow fitting the chair's insides perfectly. Dreyken climbed up onto his stomach and curled up like a cat, intending to sleep right there.

    Caron laid at the foot of the chair, thankful that there was at least a rug on the floor. Unlike his brother, who could seemingly fall asleep at will, Caron found it harder to rest. Ilona's words kept buzzing in his head like an irritated insect swarm, and again and again he felt his eyes drawn to Gwen's huge black sword. Finally he fell asleep, visions of the weapon still flashing in his mind.

    * * *​

    The noise woke Cinder. The sound of soft, stealthy footsteps. The mage was an incredibly light sleeper when he wanted to be, and from his time spent as a mercenary trained him not to immediately open his eyes, as another would do. Also because of his training he came awake all at once, yet no outside person would know.

    :Chosen?: A fuzzy, sleep-clouded mindvoice asked inside his head.

    One of Cinder's fingers gently stroked the back of Dreyken's head as the drake stirred slightly. :It's nothing,: he replied, using mindspeech to communicate with his drake, which was the only way drakes could speak. He opened his eyes a little, two dark gold slits appearing. "Where are you going?" He asked the owner of the footsteps.

    Ilona nearly jumped out of her skin and whirled around. She was dressed in her usual attire, brown leather from nearly head to toe and soft-soled boots that made only the softest of scuffles when she walked, and a large bow slung over her shoulder. Two small utility belts crossed over her torso in an X fashion, and a matching pair of daggers were attached to them. A larger utility belt was around her waist, crammed with small and large bags, packs, and other compartments for storing things. It took her a moment to recover. "Out," she said breathlessly. Gods, he even sleeps like a thief, she thought to herself. "Every adventurer needs supplies."

    "Mhmm," Cinder replied, reaching out and tapping his brother on the shoulder to wake him. The moment caused Dreyken to flutter to a nearby table so he could stretch himself out.

    "You haven't introduced me to your drake," Ilona said. "We missed each other the last time I was with you."

    "His name's Dreyken," was Cinder's reply. He slid off the chair and reached for his staff. It flickered at his touch.

    Ilona bowed slightly and Dreyken lowered his head in response. "I'm honored," she said, holding out her hand. Dreyken sniffed it and then rubbed his head against it, making an almost purring noise. "You might want to get ready," Ilona told the brothers as she petted the drake's head. "Gwen will be down in a few minutes, and she won't leave any of us behind in her house."

    The twins nodded and began moving. It wasn't even sunrise yet, but they were used to waking up early. Once being employed by the military, they knew how to get ready and moved quickly and efficiently. When Gwen finally opened her head out of her room she saw them just finishing with their packs. The woman was wearing a form-fitting black dress that went to mid-thigh, decorated with a single vertical strip. She wore a warrior's casual armor, which consisted on greaves and gauntlets, and oddly she didn't include the breastplate. From the rattling in one of her packs it was apparently stuffed in there for later use. She merely had to strap her sword and shield across her back and throw her black cloak over her shoulders before she said she was ready to go.

    The sky was just lightening when they slipped out and headed for the shopping district. They didn't talk that much as they headed for the stores and trading district, which were already open and buzzing with activity. Cinder quietly slipped away into an apothecary to buy spell ingredients and who-knows what else while the others bought supplies and food. In addition to a coil of rope, Ilona bought almost an entire quiver of arrows, even though she hardly looked as if she needed more. Despite Gwen's coldness, she and Caron seemed to think along the same lines and after a few long minutes of careful talking Caron thought he could see Gwen easing up some, although he wasn't quite sure. The four of them were all used to travelling, and they all knew what they did and didn’t need.

    "So Ilona, I'm curious," Cinder said as they met up again. There was no visible change to him, except for perhaps a little more alertness to his posture. "What route do you intend us to take?"

    The elf reached into one of her many packs and pulled out a large map that showed the entire continent. "Well, as I said we have to go around the Collapsing Chasm," she said as she smoothed the map against a wall. "Now, that would mean we have to go around through the elven lands. And the only way to safely enter Ellessearimensati is through the city Lauriatis."

    "But that's in the south," Caron protested.

    "I know," Ilona sighed, "but it's the only way. Now, if we're lucky we can pass right through Ellessearimensati without any trouble and go straight through Brighthill Crossing. If not, then we'll have to go even further around and come through Mount Talon to get to it."

    "That's quite a long way," Gwen commented. "We'll be traveling half the country, then turning right around and gong back up again."

    "If you want to go directly north and hack a path through the army, be my guest." Ilona retorted and rolled the map back up. She shoved it into one of her seemingly endless packs and cracked her knuckles nervously. "Come on, time is of the essence."

    "It seems as if we're taking one big gamble here," Gwen said, jogging to catch up with her friend.

    Beside her, Cinder tilted his head to one side. "Life's a gamble," he said, "and we can play to win or sit around until we lose. Which one do you want?"

    Gwen glared at him, but she knew his words were true. That's probably why she hated him for it. "Let's go," she said, turning away from him. "They're letting less and less people leave the city every day."

    The ocean air whipped through the streets, bringing with it the smell of salt and fish from the docks. It was a cold wind, and nearly everyone they came across was dressed warmly. Most of the streets were uphill, since Iceberry was built on a hill of sorts, so this side of the city had a terrible wind constantly blowing while the other side almost never got any. The wind did not seem to affect Cinder though, in fact it was almost like it curved away from him. They finally came to the western gate, where traders and merchants were leaving Iceberry to deliver their goods and a few families were fleeing south.

    "Hey!" One of the guards shouted as they approached. "Where're you going?"

    It was a fairly reasonable question. Being a city guard you had to look out for suspicious activity and three well-armed strangers could definitely count as dangerous. It still irritated Gwen though. "North," she replied, lifting her chin. Her words weren't technically a lie, since they would end up north anyway.

    "Really?" The guard replied in a voice loaded with sarcasm. "Don't you mean south? That's where all of you people are going, lying and saying you're running north and the minute my back's turned you turn right around and head south."

    Gwen narrowed her eyes, hostility just pouring off of her. "Are you calling me a liar?" She asked quietly.

    The guard wasn't perturbed in the slightest. "Yes, I am," he said.

    Gwen was about to reply when someone suddenly brushed against her side. Cinder stepped forward and held out one hand peacefully. "Good sir, I assure you that we are not lying."

    The effect was total and immediate. The guard's face drained of color and his eyes went wide. "M-Master Magus!" He gasped, trembling.

    "Oh, there's no need for that," Cinder replied, waving the comment away. "You see, I need to go to Taersis, and these three are my guards. Convenient, isn’t it?" After he finished speaking Dreyken raised his head a little and hissed, almost lazily.

    The guard gulped and nodded, too busy staring at the drake to notice Gwen's furious expression. "Y-yes, of course Master Magus. Oh please don't let me hold you up, you can go," he stammered.

    "Thank you," Cinder said, slipping past him and waiting for the others to follow. As they passed, Dreyken snapped at the guard, causing him to jump. There was definitely a mischievous glint to Dreyken's eyes as he watched the human panic.

    They were soon traveling on a stone paved road known as Old Road, named aptly because it had been around for so long that literally no one could remember when it was first built. It spanned from Taersis to Ition and therefore went across the entire country. Traders and minstrels walked with them, either backing away from the Magus or ogling the elf.

    When the thick crowd had dispersed enough to where they wouldn't be overheard, Gwen whirled upon Cinder. "Your guards?!" She demanded angrily.

    "Yes, it was the only way he would have let you pass," Cinder replied carelessly. "While your attempt at intimidation was admirable, it was quite useless against a hardened city guard. Fear would be the quickest way to change his mind."

    Ilona had taken an apple out of one of her bags and was rolling it from arm to arm for the sake of amusement, only half-listening to the conversation. She paused in astonishment. "People scared of you?" She snorted, holding back amused laughter.

    Cinder knew she was baiting him into an argument (one of her favorite pastimes) and ignored it. "Not of me, but what I am. Surely you've heard of 'The Ballad of Banagher', where a Magi calls down fire from the sky as an act of vengeance against the hero?"

    "Rumors," Ilona growled, adding a second apple to her act.

    "Doesn't matter, people still believe in it." Cinder said, raising an eyebrow at her.

    Ilona just made an irritated sound and tossed one of the apples at him. Cinder blinked, twice, and suddenly the apple's progress slowed and then came to a complete halt. It hovered in the air, rotating slightly. After a few seconds it moved backwards entirely on its own accord and stopped in front of Caron, who nervously picked it out of the air.

    "Show off," Ilona muttered, biting into the remaining apple with a loud snap. The superior grin Cinder flashed her made her want to throw her other apple at him, but that would only result in her losing her other apple. She deliberated as she chewed, looking back and forth among the other three. "Alright, story time," she said after she swallowed.

    "What?" Gwen deadpanned, looking back at her blankly.

    Ilona knew it took a while for some things to sink into Gwen's head, so she took another bite and elaborated. "I think this is a great opportunity for us to get to know each other. And since none of you people will willingly talk to each other, I'll do it." She smiled widely at the looks of horror she got from Cinder and Gwen. "Oh come on, a group of people who know each other work much better than a group who don't. Isn't that right Caron?"

    "Absolutely," Caron said with a smile. Ilona's enthusiasm amused him, and it was almost contagious.

    "So there, just like he says." Ilona said smugly and tossed her apple core away. It sailed above the treetops. "Now, I'll start with Gwen. Well, we met one day in Iceberry, about a year or two ago. You see, Gwen runs this school where she teaches young people how to properly wield a sword. Me being me, I was going to steal a few weapons and sell them for money. Gwen caught me, but she didn't turn me in. She understood that I needed money and food, and she told me that if I would help train her students and teach them some elven sword techniques then she would give me a place to stay."

    "Yes, but it wasn't like you were around too much anyway," Gwen added. She didn't look too happy about Ilona spilling her secrets, but she figured that it would be better to just ride it out. "She was a mercenary-thief, and people kept calling upon her for things they needed for her to steal. More often than not I found myself being dragged along as well."

    "True," Ilona agreed, "it was fun and sharpened our skills. Not that Gwen's skills needed much sharpening, eh Gwen?"

    Gwen nodded proudly. She seemed to think for a minute, clearly torn between something, then she said, "Yes, I was trained in sword battling since I was a young lady. My father was a blacksmith and a former soldier." She paused again and it seemed as if she were forcing the words out. "He could tell I was a wild spirit, or so he said. I wanted to fight with the other boys of my age, and the proper way to act as a lady really bored me. Seeing that my mother's attempts at shaping me up were getting nowhere, he trained me like a soldier. Then he made my sword, and it cost him almost all of his money. I went into the army for a while to pay off his debt." She unsheathed her giant sword as she spoke and turned it this way and that. The black blade reflected sunlight while the silvery sharp edge glittered. There were no cross guards, and the large hilt was wrapped in cloth so Gwen could grip it better. "This is made of lua metal, it's my father's masterpiece."

    Caron let out a low whistle. "Lua metal, no wonder it cost so much." Lua was an uncommon metal, naturally black, but while it was rare among humans the dwarves had plenty of it and often refused to part with it. It was prized because it was very durable while also being very light at the same time. Caron now understood how Gwen was able to hold a sword nearly as long as her body and two palm lengths wide with only one hand.

    "Yeah, Gwen's the only person I know who has one," Ilona commented. "Usually you just see knives made out of this stuff." She ran a finger along the blade, which had been polished lovingly. "Alright, Cinder, Caron, it's your turn."

    Cinder muttered something nasty under his breath and Ilona turned to him angrily. "I heard that," she said, pointing to her ears. "Anyways, the twins and I met in Valbrook about a month ago," she told Gwen. "I was in the middle of doing a job, and they said they would help me."

    "Why don't you tell her how we met?" Cinder asked slyly, clearing trying to make Ilona suffer.

    Ilona blushed, causing Gwen to raise her eyebrows in surprise. "Now, I don't really think that's necessary. After all—"

    "Why not?" Caron asked, smiling as well. "You told us how you met Gwen."

    "Yes, but this isn't important," Ilona growled. "Anyway—"

    "Actually, I'd like to hear it." Gwen interrupted, wanting to know what had her friend so tense.

    Ilona sputtered and Cinder talked over her. "She tried to steal something from me, but I caught her with magic and forced her to take us along." His eyes were bright gold and teasing; he grinned wider and he watched Ilona's embarrassment. On his shoulder, Dreyken snorted with what seemed to be laughter.

    "Really?" Gwen turned to Ilona. "Maybe you should get caught more often, it seems you make new friends every time you do."

    "Shutup," Ilona growled again.

    "She's just mad because my magic bested hers," Cinder remarked.

    "Shutup!" Ilona yelled, really looking angry this time. She glared at Cinder, who looked completely shameless, then calmed herself. "Anyways, the three of us had to steal this mask. It took half the night, but it was fun and we worked well together." (Cinder's expression said otherwise.) "I told them that we would meet again, and we have."

    "And we're so glad," Cinder responded sarcastically. Once again Dreyken laughed, or made a sound a lot like one, and puffs of smoke curled from his nose.

    Gwen laughed, cracking the first genuine smile the twins had seen so far. She shook her head, her deep red hair tickling her hips. "And what about you two?" She looked at the brothers. "Where did you come from?" She saw Cinder's expression and added, "I told you some of my life, it's only fair."

    Cinder was obviously not going to talk, so it was up to Caron to explain. “Well, we were born not too far from here, in a small town you’ve probably never heard of. Our lives weren’t very eventful until we were twelve, when a traveling mage came along and sensed that Cinder had a great magical potential in him. We were both taken to Taersis then, Cinder went to the Arcanum and I trained to be a warrior. When Cinder was made a mage we signed up to be mercenaries, and we’ve been to most of Casta because of it. We were really good, but Cinder was really powerful with magic and eventually the Magi called him to take something called the Test. Afterwards we had to quit mercenary work, since Magi can’t go to war and stuff like that.”

    “A Magi at age twenty-two,” Ilona remarked, doing the calculations in her head. “You don’t even hear of stuff like that in faerie tales.”

    “Truth is stranger than fiction they say,” Cinder responded. Old Road had dwindled down slightly, and its other inhabitants had long since gone ahead. The Magus looked behind him with narrowed eyes. “We’re still being followed, don’t look.” He added after a moment.

    Caron had almost turned around but managed to stop himself. “How do you know?” He asked quietly.

    “Dreyken and I have been keeping an eye out,” Cinder explained. “Dreyken told me that someone has been behind us since we left Iceberry and had neither sped up or slowed down.”

    “Well that doesn’t exactly mean that he’s following us,” Ilona objected.

    “It does if it’s the same person who was following us the night before,” Cinder replied, the usual snappishness gone from the retort.

    Gwen’s hand slowly went for her sword. “Should I take care of him?” She asked in a voice heavy with menace.

    Ilona shook her head, “No, no, let’s not be too hasty here. What’s important is why he’s following us.”

    “Perhaps it’s because of Demar,” Caron remarked tonelessly. His pulled his brown cloak closer to his body to hide his own sword.

    Ilona sighed long and deep. She flipped her hair in front of her ears to hide them. “If it is then we’re in a lot of trouble.” She muttered, vowing that Demar would have to explain a lot of things the next time she saw him.

    Her words brought a hushed silence among the group. They continued walking, but the mood was suddenly somber and deflated. After a while Dreyken flew off of Cinder’s shoulder to hunt some birds in the sky. Gwen was now tense as if she expected to be ambushed and Ilona seemed just as resigned as she was last night.

    It was a pity they couldn’t enjoy the day, which was beautiful. Around them were fields of grass and far in front of them was the large Eastmaple Forest, which got closer every minute. The sun was often obscured by the clouds that the ocean made, although whenever it did show the dew of the grass sparkled as if some giant had thrown crystal dust everywhere. As the sun made its journey across the sky, the group was still being followed by their distant shadow.

    When the soft intertwining branches of Eastmaple Forest closed over their heads it was late morning, but the soft darkness of the forest made it feel like evening. The stone path disappeared and turned into a road of well-packed dirt. Birdcall sounded from distant places, the trees causing the sound to echo, and the shadows of animals darted to and fro, but none appeared. When they stopped the sun was directly overhead, which sent dapples of golden light filtering through the gaps in the leaves overhead.

    Cinder sat beneath a large maple tree and picked the petals off of a handful of flowers. Dreyken eventually flew in and sat next to him regally. The mage refused all food, which made Gwen raise a surprised eyebrow, since he hadn’t had anything to eat all day.

    “He hardly eats anything,” Caron told her, although he couldn’t quite keep the concern out of his tone. “Sometimes I think he’s part plant and can live off the air and sunshine.”

    Cinder curled his lip at the comment. He hated sunshine. He tossed one deflowered stalk away and picked up another one, then added the petals to the growing pile in his hand.

    “What about our shadow?” Caron asked, pretending he didn’t see Cinder’s reaction. He picked into a piece of meat and watched a brightly colored Lera bird flutter from branch to branch and fuss at them. Lera were the only birds who were bold enough to go right up to humans, and they were often caught as pets. The males were a bright, iridescent blue and gold while the females were a more subdued brown-flecked green.

    "He's still around," Cinder murmured in reply. "Just hiding." He watched one of the Lera flutter right into the palm of Ilona's hand; she was crooning to it in some sort of elven dialect, telling it that she was not a predator and would give it a treat if it came to her. Like she promised, she took out a large red berry and gave it to the Lera, then watched it fly away with his gold wings flashing brightly in the treetops.

    When it was time to go again, just before they set up Cinder tossed the flower petals he had been holding into the air. "Dölja våra spår, barn på jorden," he whispered in the language of magic. The words were smooth and flowing, prickling the skin like the touch of feathers. Suddenly the petals swirled in the air as if caught by a wind and hovered above the path right behind them. "They will hide out tracks for about half a mile, give or take," the Magus explained. "It won't throw him off, but it'll certainly confuse him."

    Ilona shrugged and set off, and some of the petals followed her. The others noticed that her boots did in fact leave small footprints in the road, but then the petals would whirl on the ground and sweep the prints away in a matter of seconds. It was a bit odd, but the others quickly learned to ignore them. They barely even noticed when the petals began to stop floating and began to fall onto the road.

    Ilona was too busy looking at her map again. "We're heading to Arcus at the moment, and we'll end up there in a few days," she reported.

    "And why exactly are we heading to Arcus?" Gwen asked a little distastefully.

    "It's quicker," Ilona replied simply. She paused suddenly and blinked, cocking her head as if to listen for something.

    Dreyken snarled viciously just as five figures appeared from the brush in front of them. They calmly stepped out, dressed in forest garb and covered with dirt. They looked as if they had been running and nearly all of them had swords.

    "I thought Old Road was supposed to be free of robbers," Gwen muttered, calmly unsheathing her sword.

    "Now, no need to be hasty," one of the men said. "You just set your packs on the ground and we'll let you go along your way."

    Dreyken growled again, sounding like a cat. :Cinder,: he said with his mind, :have these men completely lost it? Don't they see what we are?:
    :Yes,: Cinder answered, seemingly unconcerned about the whole thing. :It's the impending war. It robs us of our things and drives us to the breaking point. These men are desperate, not insane.:

    Something had been happening while he was talking, and now one of the men laughed. "And how are we supposed to do that, pretty thing?" He asked Gwen, who looked angry at being called that. "We lost all we have, and we will do anything to survive. There are no laws out here except the law of survival." The men around him nodded and muttered.

    Gwen and Ilona paused; they knew he had a point, they had been in similar positions. Caron calmly stepped to the side so he could have more room in case of a fight. Cinder's eyes narrowed. Something about that statement didn't seem right to him. "And the same law binds us," Gwen said after a moment. "We can't give you anything, or it will threaten our survival."

    The man she was talking to shrugged. "Your choice," he said. His eyes were roving around, and they locked on Cinder: the one who looked to be the weakest. He lunged for so fast that it would have made an elf shocked (and it did, ironically), and he managed to slip past Gwen and Caron and grab Cinder. He held a knife to the mage's throat and smiled. "Now, let's try—" His sentence turned into a scream as Dreyken leaped for him and began clawing at his face furiously. He stumbled back, trying to beat the angry drake away. When he was a few steps away, Dreyken hissed and let loose a torrent of golden flames at him. The man screamed again and rolled, trying to get away and put out the fire on his clothes. Unfortunately his roll carried him straight towards Cinder's vengeful twin brother.

    The other four had run forward when their leader had screamed, and Gwen met two of them with her blade. Ilona moved unnaturally fast as she plucked a knife from one of the sheaths on her chest and threw it. The blade sunk up to its hilt in one of her attacker's throat, just above the collarbone. A jet of blood spurted out, and with a muffled gurgling he fell backwards. The final robber watched his leader fleeing for his life from the huge warrior and the flying miniature dragon, watched the crazy red-haired woman take out one of her opponents and move towards the other one, watched the elf reaching for her other knife, and dropped his sword and ran. Ilona threw her other dagger, but the man happened to stumble at just the right time, and instead of burying itself in the base of his skull it just missed his head and took off a chunk of his ear. He yelled and ran into the forest, clutching his head.

    Cinder brushed off his robes and felt his neck for any sign of a cut. Finding none, he went over to one of the dead men and prodded him with his foot. Ilona knelt down and yanked her blood-soaked dagger out if his throat, curling her lip in disgust as more blood bubbled up and hit her fingers. She wiped her blade on the grass and sheathed it in its proper place, then sighed and went to get the other one. Cinder pulled back the man's cloak and peered at the body.

    Gwen stepped around the pool of blood that her enemies created and looked up. A few flies were already appearing, drawn by the scent of blood. She knew soon that the blood crows would follow, using the flies to find the fresh carrion that they ate. She stepped away and looked back in the road to see Caron and Dreyken returning. Immediately Caron went to Cinder to see if he was injured. Cinder waved him away impatiently. "Is something wrong?" Gwen asked when she noticed his troubled expression.

    "Yes, very wrong," Cinder answered. He paused for a moment, then pulled the man's shirt up to reveal a breastplate. "Robber's aren't this well-armored."

    "They could be former soldiers," Ilona called from down the road. She jogged back to meet them.

    "They would have horses if they did," Cinder objects and saw that the man wore greaves as well.

    :And more weapons,: came Dreyken's comment.

    Gwen reached into the man's pocket, much to her companion's shock. "You seriously can't be looting him," Ilona remarked. "I mean, I'm a thief and all but even I know when the time is for stealing and whatnot."

    "I'm not," Gwen snapped and came up with a bag. She pulled open the drawstring and looked inside. "I thought so, these guys had to have been paid. No robbers in their right mind would steal when they have all this money." The others craned their heads to see that the bag was filled with gold coins. Suddenly, a few of the gold pieces lit up with an orange light.

    "Tracer gold!" Ilona cried out, startling the others so bad that they immediately jumped up, even if they had no idea what tracer gold was. "People do this all the time to thieves, come on!" She started running without waiting for an answer. Gwen threw the bag onto the ground as if it were a poisonous snake, scattering its glittering contents all over the blood-soaked road, and ran after the others.

    * * *​

    "What do you mean you lost them?!" Sian yelled, glaring at the two men furiously. One of them had half of an ear and the other was covered in blood, scratches, and the edges of his cloak were smoldering. They kept blabbering nonsense—particularly the man with the injured ear—but from what he managed to piece together they had failed their mission miserably. These men weren't supposed to fail!

    The man with the injured ear was wasn't in any condition to put two words together in a sensible fashion, so the other stood up. "It was unexpected," he panted. "They had some sort of dragon-thing with them, and you didn't tell us one of them was an elf." He glared at Sian accusingly. "She killed Gretchen in one blow. The only reason Eli managed to escape the same fate was because he got lucky, the knife that got his ear had been aimed for his head." He spat out a bit of blood that kept bubbling from his split lip.

    Sian fumed, twisting his oak walking stick into the earth. This would be a lot harder than he thought. They might just have to end up killing those four. The only reason he had called his bodyguards In the first place was because he had lost the trail and had sent them ahead to masquerade as robbers and hopefully hold the group up long enough for him to catch up. Instead they were beaten back and the people they were chasing was now farther ahead than they were before. He looked at his compass, which was perched next to his eye patch. The needle was pointing unwaveringly in one direction, the path the duo had just come from. Hopefully someone in the group had taken a bit of the gold; that would make them a lot easier to track. "We'll have to report this to the Commander," he said, although he sounded none too happy about it. He stood up and fastened his eye patch over his eyes, arranging it so it looked more realistic. He began walking deeper into the woods, all traces of a limp gone. The others followed him, looking fearful. As he headed for their forest base, one thought continually played through Sian's mind.

    Commander Gillian was not going to be happy.
     
    #3 Chibi, Nov 5, 2010
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 19, 2013
  4. Interesting story. I'm a big fan of fantasy, and this is just what I've been searching for. Good luck with PoChaNoWriMo!

    Oh and it seems like I can totally speak the language of magic ^^ Jag önskar dig lycka till med din uppgift, må de högre makterna vara vid din sida. :p
     
  5. Yay, someone gets it! I made it that way for a reason, even though it was little one. Tack och jag hoppas du njuter av kapitlet. :D

    Chapter 3: A Warrior's Duel

    Ilona did not stop running for a long while, and when she finally decided to take a break she leaned against a tree and looked behind her. She wasn't even breathing hard and her heart rate had increased just a little bit. No one was behind her, she noticed, and with a twinge of guilt she realized that she had left the others behind. How far back were they? One mile? Two? Humans were hopeless in trying to keep up with an elf that was running at full speed, they might be in danger! She straightened up and began jogging back, trying to calm herself and focusing on her footprints in the dirt. A few minutes later she saw Gwen sprinting up the path toward her.

    Seeing Ilona, the swordsmaid immediately stopped and collapsed under the nearest tree. From where she was standing Ilona's sensitive ears could easily hear her harsh, labored breathing. As she approached she thought she could even hear her heart pumping furiously, but she did not dwell on that. Gwen raised her head when Ilona had gotten close enough and glared at her with angry violet eyes. "You said. . .you'd stop doing that," she panted. Her face was almost as red as her hair.

    "I'm sorry," Ilona murmured, knowing that she was referring to the elves' incredible speed. "It's a bad habit." She looked around again. "Where's Cinder and Caron?" She wondering, noticing their absence very clearly.

    Gwen's face was starting to regain some of its normal color. When her breathing evened out, she answered, "They stopped a while back. Cinder started coughing and Caron stayed with him."

    The guilt rushed on Ilona full force. "Oh," was all she said. Gwen's whole face was a question, so she went on. "Cinder's really sick or something. He has this terrible cough and I've seen him spit up blood a few times. He doesn’t like to talk about it, but Caron once told me it's been with him ever since he was born." She thought of the Magus coughing up blood into one of his white handkerchiefs and winced. Cinder wasn't necessarily her favorite person in the world, but he was stood a good person to have around if you were in trouble.

    Gwen said nothing, merely taking the information in. Her breath came out in one long sigh and she tried to stand up. She swayed suddenly and her legs would have collapsed underneath her if Ilona hadn't caught her. To the elf she weighed little more than a child, and Ilona didn't have to look to know that Gwen was dizzy and her legs were sore from pushing herself so hard to catch up with her. She quickly pressed a finger to Gwen's forehead and sent a quick, wordless burst of healing magic into her body. She might not have been a mage, but all elves still knew a bit of basic magic.

    As soon as she felt better, Gwen pulled away and tried to look as if nothing had happened. She was too full of pride to go to any for help, but she still felt thankful for what Ilona had done. Luckily Ilona understood, and she just looked back down the oath wordlessly. She saw no one coming and they reluctantly started down the road. It was slow going in comparison to the mad dash from earlier. Ilona's cheeks burned with shame at the memory of it. She had overreacted, plain and simple. She shouldn't have left her comrades behind all because something had scared her; she acted as if she were an apprentice thief who had never seen tracer gold before.

    After a few minutes, Ilona started to realize she had come a lot farther than she had originally thought. There was still no sign of either of the twins, or Dreyken, which was really worrying her. She might have continued walking all the way to Iceberry if her trained elf eyes hadn't noticed a broken patch of undergrowth. Ilona knew Gwen did not see it, and she put a hand on her arm to stop her. When she pointed the break out, the swordsmaid frowned and looked at her curiously. "That wasn't there when I came down here," she said.

    That was enough for Ilona. She began following the small path through the underbrush, barely making a sound. Behind her, Gwen attempted to be silent and from the snaps of branches accompanied by colorful swears told her that she was failing. Soon after the grass and growth lessened they were replaced by an abundance of trees, mainly maple. Ilona smelled smoke coming from somewhere and followed her nose to a clearing. There she saw the brothers sitting around a tiny fire. Cinder was leaning against a tree, looking more washed out and pale than usual, and Dreyken was curled at his feet.

    Caron looked up from feeding the fire and smiled at them. "Took you long enough," he said lightly. "I was starting to wonder if a troll got to you."

    "Ha ha," Ilona replied sarcastically, trying not to let her relief show. "You know there isn't a bridge around for miles." She sat in front of the fire with Gwen and noticed a bitter, acrid smell filling the air. She looked over at Cinder, who was holding a cup filled with something that resembled tea. "What is that?" She asked, wrinkling her nose at the smell.

    Cinder coughed once. It was one of those deep coughs that came straight from the chest and made the rest of the body ache. "Medicine for my cough," he croaked, sipping the drink. The stuff had to taste awful, if the smell was anything to go by, but the Magus didn't even flinch.

    Caron shifted a little and looked at Ilona. "So what was that all about?" He asked, "You really freaked out back there."

    Ilona felt her face flushing again and hated it. "I was. . . overreacting. Really it surprised me. You only use tracer gold to find people you want to capture or kill later on. People use it all the time to help capture thieves." She stared at them warily. "You didn't take any, did you?"

    She saw all three of them shake their heads, and she sighed in replied. The scene might have been rather peaceful if it hadn't been for Gwen. "So, why did you stop?" she asked; something about her told Ilona that she was in a bad mood. Ilona wasn't sure why, but she would bet that it had something to do with the whole getting attacked thing.

    Caron looked a bit uncomfortable and Cinder was making sure not to stare at any of them. "Cinder's not used to running, it weakens him," Caron explained hesitantly. "He said you would come back eventually, so we decided to stay here."

    "Great," Gwen mumbled, "we have a member who's too sick to even run."

    Dreyken growled dangerously, as if he heard, and Cinder gave her such a glare that it was a wonder that she didn't burst into flames on the spot. "Watch it, woman." He growled, sounding almost exactly like Dreyken.

    "It doesn't matter if he's sick," Caron said defensively. His eyes looked darker somehow. "He's still a Magus."

    "Yes, he is that," Gwen said lightly. Ilona could see something in her friend's eyes, some sort of plan unfolding in the back of her head. "But what about you? Why did you stay behind? Surely you could have caught up."

    Ilona suddenly knew what she was trying to do. She saw the look on Caron's face and hurried to make peace. "Hey, Gwen, the concept may seem foreign to you, but it's a little thing called family ties. You know, love thy brother and all that?"

    Gwen scowled at her, not appreciating the interruption. She went back to Caron. "Just how strong are you then? You look intimidating, yet you act nothing like a warrior."

    Caron's eyes were hard as flint as he hefted his broadsword. "You want to bet?" He asked quietly.

    In a moment Gwen was up and unsheathing her own sword. "Duel," she said, "one-on-one, for one round." She edged away from the fire, into the woods. Caron started to follow her.

    A groan was Ilona's response to the declaration. Of course Gwen would call a duel, she did it to nearly every warrior she came across. It was her way of letting off some steam, but Ilona didn't expect her to call one this soon! She watched as the two met in a clash of blades, and the ring of steel filled the woods. Ilona hoped they weren't being followed still; no one would have any trouble finding them at this rate.

    Even though Gwen wielded a huge sword, it lightness made it so she attack nearly as fast as Caron could. It was a deadly dance of blades, where one misstep was rewarded harshly. Ilona looked at Cinder, who was watching impassively. "Can't you do anything?!" She demanded, knowing that Cinder's magic could triumph over both of them.

    Slowly, the mage turned to her. "Why should I?" He replied in that soft voice of his. "The challenge has been called, and we can do little to stop it. Let them sort it out between each other."

    Ilona gritted her teeth in frustration. "Why?! Look, I know she insulted you, but you can't just sit back and watch!" She seemed ready to start throwing things in frustration.

    "Sure we can," Cinder replied, sipping his tea. "They're not going to kill each other."

    Ilona groaned again and smacked her hand against her forehead. She should have known better than to ask Cinder for help. The two warriors clashed and swung and parried, looking for all the world like two archenemies facing off. But it was all a friendly battle, or so Ilona hoped. She watched as Gwen tried to stab Caron, but because it was so long Caron managed to slip under it and knock her off balance. She fell to the earth, but quickly rolled over and kicked out, sending Caron crashing to the ground as well. The process caused both of them to lose their swords, so they switched to daggers. It was a lot closer now, switching between hand to hand combat and weapons. Ilona could not really assess either of them, but in her opinion they both seemed evenly matched. At one point they both came at each other, and in the whirlwind of blades and fists Caron somehow managed to grab Gwen in a headlock and press his dagger to her throat. "Check," he said.

    Gwen was panting, her face covered in a film of sweat. "Check," she breathed, smiling despite her exhaustion. Her knifepoint was pointing at his ribs.

    Neither of them dared to move. It was obvious they were both planning some means of escape while trying not to get injured in the process. Ilona saw her chance and stood up. "I say it's a draw," she declared. Both of them started to protest, but she silenced them with a glare. "You've had your stupid duel, so quit it. We should be fighting whoever the hell's after us, not each other."

    The two warriors looked guilty, but only by a little. They released each other and stepped back. "I must say, I'm very impressed," Gwen said, looking like she meant it. "Hardly anyone has ever beaten me before."

    "I can see why," Caron answered with a smile. Just then he noticed that Ilona was leaning against a tree, looking drained. "Is something wrong Ilona?" He asked in concern.

    The elf sighed in reply, looking at the canopy of leaves above her head. "Nah, everything's fine," she replied, the sarcasm thick enough to cut with a knife. "Half of our group is trying to kill each other, we're being chased by Irvyn-knows-what for whatever reason, we're after a rod and we have no idea what it does or how we're supposed to get it. Nope, just peachy."

    The two fighters exchanged looks. Gwen was more used to Ilona's mood swings, so she was the one who sat next to her. "Want to talk about it?" She asked, smiling kindly. Now that she had a proper battle, she seemed to be in a lot better mood.

    Ilona looked down at her. "About what?" She said, sliding down the tree until she was sitting as well.

    "Well, this quest is obviously more than it seems," Gwen said. "I say that if we sit down and think, we can come down to a few plausible explanations."

    "That's probably the smartest thing you've said all day," Cinder remarked as he scooted closer.

    Gwen scowled; she was really starting to not like him. "Alright, we have armored robbers trying to stop us. They had tracer gold on them, what would that mean?"

    "That they were ordered to stop us while their superiors arrived." Cinder answered instantly in a confident tone.

    Ilona looked over at him. "That's a pretty quick assumption to make," she told him.

    Cinder shrugged and seemed almost nonchalant. "Do you have another explanation?" He asked coolly.

    Ilona thought for a moment, then hung her head. "No," she muttered.

    "Alright," Gwen said, "let's say for now that Cinder's right. Why would someone want to hold us up? I mean, it's obvious they don't want us to get the rod-thing, but why?"

    "Remember what happened last night," Caron said. "Demar said that it was for the resistance army to beat off the northern invaders."

    "But that would mean that the northern army has spies down here," Cinder interjected. He had to calm Dreyken as he growled at the thought. "Dreyken says that the man who was following us had to be a spy."

    Ilona paled. "If that's true then Casta's in a lot more trouble than we thought." She rested her head against her knees. "What about the Ice Palace?" She asked suddenly. "There has to be a reason it's shut. Cinder, you're the brains here, do you know anything?"

    Cinder smiled at the compliment. "Unfortunately, I haven't the slightest idea why the palace is sealed shut. Either to keep something out or to keep something in. However, I do know a bit of its general history." He paused for a second to remember, and then went on. "It was built about eight-hundred years ago, during the Age of Exploration. No one is quite certain why it was built, but it is certain that the dwarves didn't build it. Its style of construction points to the Arunabs, although what they were doing so far up north is a mystery. An interesting fact is that before the palace was built, the area inside the ring of mountains was a lush forest. After the palace was sealed, the entire forest turned to ice."

    Ilona's eyebrows rose. "Huh," was the only thing she had to say. "Well, that's very interesting and all, but does it say anything else? Like what's inside the castle?"

    Cinder shook his head. "Information regarding the castle is very scarce, and almost all of it is a bit useless. You can probably fit everything we know about the Ice Palace on a single page."

    Another sigh escaped Ilona's throat and she thunked the back of her head against the tree. "Great," she muttered. This whole not-knowing-anything was starting to really upset her. And being an elf—a race who craved knowledge of all kinds—that was a bigger blow than others would understand.

    Gwen seemed to fumble for some sort of reassurance, but she came up blank. She wasn't that good at that sort of stuff. She looked to Caron for help, and he shrugged cluelessly. He didn't know Ilona well enough to know what to say. In a desperate attempt, Gwen turned to Cinder, who wasn't even looking at them. He didn't care. With a sigh Gwen stood up and kicked some dirt over the dead fire. "Look," she said, "We're not accomplishing anything by sitting here. I say the sooner we get this whole thing over with, the better. Agreed?"

    "Agreed," Cinder replied, using his staff to help him to his feet. Dreyken, on his shoulder, nodded enthusiastically.

    "Agreed," Caron said, going over to Ilona and offering her his hand.

    Ilona stared at it, then looked at the other. She took it and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. "Oh fine," she grumbled, somehow switching moods in that instant way that only Ilona could do. "But let me tell you, we're all going to regret this sooner or later. I can promise you that."

    "Sure, sure," Caron said with an easy smile. "Come on, let's get going already. I'm getting hungry."

    * * *​

    Sian made his way through the forest camp, away from the campfires all around and the lads fighting on the training ground. The trees provided a welcome shelter from the late summer sun, and a creek ran off somewhere nearby, filled with water that was fresh and cold. Sian had his two followers report to the Healers to take care of their injuries, but as he watched them go he felt a familiar dread in his gut. Making these two go off meant that the punishment from Commander Gillian would rest solely on his shoulders. Despite that fact, he tried to put on a brave face and walked proudly through the camp, his fake limp gone.

    People greeted him warmly as he passed. With his eye patch and walking stick, Sian was easy to recognize. People gave him respect, for he was known as the best spy among them. The way he could limp, the tremble to his voice, and the expression in his uncovered eye that just begged for pity was one of the many ways Sian hid his true identity, and he did it very well. It seemed as if he could convince anyone in the world that he was a former soldier from the Valbrook area and had been fighting valiantly in battle when a shrapnel ball had landed next o him, breaking his leg and taking his eye. Of course everyone knew the truth, but the way he could change identities at the flip of a coin never ceased to amaze others.

    Sian stopped in front of a tent that stood in the northern end of the camp. It was really the only tent in the whole camp, and it was strung with blue and gold banners that were decorated with eyes. The guards in front of the tent stopped him as he approached, and one of them announced his arrival. Sian gulped, feeling like a mouse that was about to jump happily into the hole of a snake. If there was one thing that truly frightened him, it was Commander Gillian.

    The guards snapped back into their former positions. "You may pass," one of the guards said, like one of those ancient sentinels that guarded forbidden doors.

    "Thanks," Sian muttered tonelessly, opening the tent flap and ducking in.

    The inside of the tent was lit with a lantern, which made the place almost unbearably hot. It was furnished with a cot, two tables, a handful of chairs, and a seat that looked very much like a throne. Leaning over a table, examining a large map, was Commander Gillian.

    While the Commander was shorter than nearly every one of the men, she was still a force to be reckoned with. She emitted the same kind of vibe that Gwen did, that is, the don't-piss-me-off-or-I'll-shove-a-knife-through-your-skull vibe. If it had not been for her style of dressing, which included strapping a variety of weapons to her ankles of forearms, she might have been quite pretty. She looked up as Sian entered, her deep green eyes glaring out of her pale face. "Well, Sian?" She asked, always direct and to the point.

    Sian licked his lips and thought for a moment. Perhaps the only reason why Gillian scared him was because she had a nasty temper. If she wasn't so pale and had a southern accent to her voice, Sian would have bet she had come from Tyronor. He steeled himself and said, "The group we were tracking escaped, Commander."

    Gillian's eye narrowed. "What?" She demanded, her voice rising the slightest bit. "You lost them? You following them the oldest and most mapped road in Casta, and you lost them?"

    Sian felt his pride wincing, and it almost made him speak out of turn. Luckily, he knew how to keep his manners. He took a deep breath and replied, "They tried to escape us, Commander, so I sent the soldiers after them. I don't know the exact details, except that three of my men are now dead."

    At his words Gillian stood up to her full height, which meant that she was only a little taller than his chin. "Sian, you're the best spy under my command," she said in a low voice. "The five bodyguards under your command are some of the best soldiers we have. They were chasing four people, and they were beaten?"

    Sian was treading on thin ice, and he knew it. The only problem was, he had no idea where the thicker ice was. "From what I've been told, they were taken by surprise." His excuse sounded pathetic even to his own ears.

    "Explain," the Commander said, crossing her arms. With her vengeful expression, she looked for all the world like a wingless, non-hideous harpy.

    Sian took a deep breath and tried to do so. "I believe we underestimated this group, Commander," he said cautiously. "From what I can gather, two of them are trained warriors and another is an elf. The robed man has a small dragon with him or something, and it attacked. Nearly clawed out Omar's eyes, or so he says. It breathes fire too, just like a real dragon." Now it just sounded like he was making excuses.

    Amazingly, Gillian's eyes widened. For a moment she lost her fierce glare. "A small dragon?" She repeated, "And a robed man? It sounds almost like. . . oh no, it can't be." She shook her head, looking worried. "Sian, I'm disappointed with you. However, if I'm right then you might have not much to be blamed for. Get one of the messenger pigeons for me, I must send a letter to Arcus at once. Let's just hope that the Lady doesn't have to come down here."

    Sian shuddered all over. If Commander Gillian was bad, then the Lady, one of the generals in the Queen's army and the commanding officer of all the spies, was nearly ten times as bad. Sian had never had the bad fortune of meeting her face-to-face, but her reputation alone was enough. He breathed out, feeling as if he had just avoided being scalped. "Yes, Commander," he said with a bow. He went to leave.

    "And Sian?" Gillian's voice called from behind, once more dangerous and menacing.

    The spy froze. "Yes?" He asked, not daring to turn around.

    "Do not fail me again," Gillian growled. "You got off easy this time. Do not make the same mistake twice."

    Sian felt a chill creep up his spine. "I will not, Commander," he replied.

    "Good. You may go now."

    Sian ducked out of the tent and let out a breath of relief, really feeling how narrowly he had escaped. He paused for a moment to compose himself, then went off to the bird cages to get one of the messenger birds, just as Gillian ordered.

    * * *​

    "Good gods, this road never ends," Ilona muttered as the hours passed. She kept throwing glances behind her to make sure they weren't being followed, and she began to notice that everything looked the same.

    "It spans the entire country, Ilona." Cinder replied, not looking up from the book he was reading. "That means it's a pretty long walk."

    Ilona shot him a glare and realized he wasn't even looking. Usually she wasn't this petulant, and she knew that's how she was acting, but the idea of being followed by soldiers or assassins or what have you was chipping away at her. It was even affecting the others, she could see. Well, everyone except Cinder, who continued reading what had to be a spellbook. Gwen was carrying her sword openly and Caron always had a hand on the hilt of his. Dreyken was flying somewhere above their heads, keeping a watchful eye out.

    The landscape didn't change very much, except that more trees appeared. Once or twice a the monotony was broken by a bridge spanning over a large creek, and they always checked underneath for trolls. The late afternoon sun shone in their faces, much to their annoyance. It would dip below the trees soon, but until then they just had to endure it.

    More Lera birds flew overhead as the sun got lower. They were primarily evening birds, and the sunlight flashed brightly off the males' golden feathers and the females were only seen whenever they traveled into the red leaves of the maple trees. A few rodents were gathering seeds on the edge of the path, but fled as the humans and elf approached. The group at least hoped that they were still far enough north to avoid mosquitoes, which were almost like a plague further south.

    "So, where are we?" Gwen asked later on, when the sun started to set and turned the sky a fiery red.

    They had made a camp, and Ilona was reading the map she had spread over a tree stump. "I'd say around here," she tapped a place on the road between Iceberry and Arcus. "At the rate we're going, I'd say that we'll reach Arcus in about a day or two."

    Cinder sat on the other side of Ilona, staring at the map. He had to look of someone who was doing intense calculations inside of his head. When asked what he was doing he just shook his head absently. Far above their heads, a pigeon flew. It was a little odd for it to be flying so late in the day, and Cinder might have commented on it if any on then were looking up.
     
    #5 Chibi, Nov 7, 2010
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 19, 2013
  6. ((Fun fact everyone, this document is now 22,773 words! Almost halfway there! ^(^_^)^ ))

    Chapter 4: Iron and Magic

    "Jeez, I never thought a city could look menacing, but this one does." Gwen remarked as they gazed upon Arcus in the distance.

    It had taken them a day and a half of constant walking to get to Arcus, and surprisingly no other misfortune befell them the entire way there. Not even the Saruren, the wild hunting cats inhabiting Ercovea's forests, bothered them. No one had seen or heard another human ever since the attack on them. As they headed further south, the weather very gradually warmed and brought more wildlife.

    Standing a few hundred yards away from Arcus, it was easy to see why Gwen called it menacing. The city gate was not as well fortified as Iceberry's, but it was guarded by two dark mages who watched the approaching travelers as blankly as stone statues. Behind the gate, dark towers rose up from the center of the city, made from black iron. Most of the other buildings they could see were made of either iron or stone that was nearly as dark as the iron. Something about the city seemed macabre and daunting, like a thunderstorm on the horizon.

    As they drew nearer, the heads of the mages slowly turned towards them. They were silent and blank, which for some reason frightened more than if they had challenged them. Cinder stopped, then dug under his robes for something. He came up with a flat octagonal disc, about the size of his palm and it seemed to be made completely of bronze. There seemed to be something on it, but they couldn't see what it was. The mages bowed, and resumed their original position. Cinder waved the others inside and entered Arcus.

    "What was that?" Ilona asked when they were a good distance away. Cinder showed it to her. Inscribed on one side was a hawk with its wings spread as if in mid-flight; Ilona knew it as the symbol of the red Magi.

    "It's a good way to tell a real Magi from a fake one," Cinder said and smiled as Ilona touched it. In an instant she gasped and jerked her hand away as it went completely numb. "Doesn't feel too good, does it?" He asked slyly.

    Ilona rubbed her hand. "How can you stand it?" She asked, avoiding the question.

    "Simple. It doesn't do that to me." Cinder said, slipping it back under his robes.

    Around them were a few merchants who sold their wares to apothecaries, but more than half of the people they saw were dark mages wearing coal black robes. They were almost like ghosts, moving silently and ignoring all around them. The streets were wide and cobblestoned, with all of the stones a dark gray. There was an inn on one of the roads they came across, made of iron and dark stone and was squatting between the houses like a toad.

    “What is with all of this iron?” Gwen wondered out loud as they passed decorations lining the streets. They twisted and spiraled as if they had once been living things but were now frozen in time. Having iron in a city wasn’t terribly unusual, but the people in Arcus seemed to have iron just to show it everywhere.

    Cinder tugged open the door to the inn before replying, “For decoration and protection. Demons and Fae are all creatures of magic, but they cannot stand the presence of iron. It’s so mages can cast spells without fear of drawing the attention of either of the races.”

    Unlike Iceberry, this inn seemed to be calmer and merrier. There were more robed people, but all of them were silent. Ilona, the most experienced in dealing with innkeepers, was the one who haggled for their rooms. In the end they lodged upstairs in two different rooms. They were very furnished, with only two beds and a single table.

    Ilona knocked on the twins’ rooms a few minutes after they settled in and poked her head through the door. “Gwen and I are going out for supplies, wanna come?”

    Caron looked a bit uneasy. “Are you sure we should leave all of our stuff here?” He asked, looking back at all of their equipment.

    Cinder brushed by him. “It’s a mage city, brother,” he said quietly. “Crimes such as thievery are very frowned upon.” As he said this he cast a meaningful look at Ilona, who pretended she hadn’t noticed. “But, I suppose you have a point,” he added as almost an afterthought. From one of his pockets he took out a piece of chalk, and then he stared drawing something on the door. It whorled and curved, with an empty space in the middle shaped like a lock. When he was done he touched the drawing, and it lit up with a red flash. “A rune against entry. Only I can take it down.”

    Show off, Ilona thought to herself. Amazingly she saw Cinder grin as if he heard the thought.

    He quickly drew the same rune on the other door and they headed downstairs, where Gwen was waiting. She was also drawing some stares, mainly because she was just standing around dressed in armor with a huge sword slung over her back, but she pointedly ignored all of them. When the others appeared she left, holding the door open for them.

    Outside the city was overcast, lending an even gloomier feel to the place. From the roof of a nearby house, a figure watched the group closely. Then with only a flicker of movement ran off into the heart of the city.

    “Where’s Dreyken?” Ilona asked, noticing the drake’s absence.

    Cinder did not reply, but held out his arm. As if the question had summoned him, the drake suddenly appeared in a flash of fire. He landed on Cinder’s arm and scuttled to his usual perch on the mage’s bony shoulder. With their final member with them, the motley-looking group headed for the center of the city. It was not very far, ad a large statue depicting the three birds deities marked the very center of the city. Built around it were shops and apothecaries.

    “This entire town is like a funeral,” Ilona remarked, watching a dark mage pass.

    “The dark mages are often quiet,” Cinder remarked, examining an open apothecary. “They take their craft very seriously.”

    “Which is?” Gwen prompted.

    “Usually offensive or attack spells. Dark mages are also some of the strongest mind-speakers among the mage classes.” Cinder replied, ignoring how all of the other mages were bowing to him whenever they passed. He held up to his face a jar of purplish-gray powder that sparkled brightly in the light. “Ah, flashpowder,” he said with a crooked smile.

    Gwen frowned, wondering what he needed flashpowder for. As far as she knew, it was used only by street performers who wanted to make bright flashes of light during their shows. She looked around and noticed that Ilona was by an herbal shop and buying bundles of herbs and flowers. Curious, she went over to her and watched her examine the plants. “What are those for?” She asked, hoping Ilona wouldn’t spend all of their money on herbs.

    The thief did not reply at first and was busy examining a bundle of dried purple flower heads. “In case we need them,” she said finally.

    “Well no freaking duh,” Gwen muttered with a roll of her eyes. “What would we need them for?”

    “Oh you know,” Ilona replied with an absent wave of her hand that suddenly reminded Gwen very much of Cinder. “Sickness, injuries, poison, minor things like that. Also for a spell or two, and I’ve heard that malen leaves can brew up an extraordinary pot of tea.”

    Gwen saw that her friend had that odd look in her eyes that she got whenever the topic changed to plants. She suddenly realized she had to drag Ilona away quickly before she bought the entire shop. “C’mon, let’s go,” she hissed, trying to pull Ilona by the arm.

    Ilona jerked away. “I’m not done yet,” she protested.

    Gwen knew she had to think of something, and blurted out the first thing that came to her mind. “Cinder’s getting mauled by a rabid cat,” she said.

    Ilona snapped out of her fascinated stupor as if she had just been hit over the head with a brick. “What, where?” she demanded, running off to where she last saw the twins.

    The merchant glared at Gwen as she robbed him of a customer. Gwen tried to look apologetic and laid a bunch of silver coins on the table just in case Ilona forgot to pay for something and ran off to join her. She got there a few seconds Ilona did and saw the twins’ expressions quite well as Ilona started babbling.

    “But, but Cinder,” the elf said as if she couldn’t believe it. “You’re alright.”

    “Of course I am,” Cinder snapped, his eyes flashing bright in anger. “I can’t say the same for your head though.”

    A few seconds passed and Ilona finally seemed to realize that she had just been made a fool of. She whirled angrily upon the warrior. “You told me he was being mauled by a rabid cat,” she growled angrily, glaring at her.

    Ilona’s glare was nothing compared to Cinder’s though. Being trained as a hardened warrior, Gwen prided herself on her nerve. But the utterly furious glare that Cinder gave her made it feel as if her stomach had just shriveled up. She gulped and looked into those black eyes. Wait, black? Weren’t they gold just a moment before?

    Caron, however, just seemed to find the whole situation hilarious. He laughed and said, “Nice try Gwen. Cats are animals of the moon mages though. Try a crow next time if you’re going for dark mages.”

    Cinder shot him a you-are-not-helping look. His brother cringed but didn’t really lose his smile. “While I’m certain that any bodily harm I come across will be hilarious to you,” Cinder said with a venom that could have poisoned them all, “we have much more important things to do.” He stormed off with Dreyken following him.

    “He does have a point,” Ilona muttered, her anger gone. She watched Caron run to catch up with his brother and turned to Gwen. “Nice trick though. But next time you tell me something like that, make sure he’s actually getting mauled, ‘kay?”

    With the glare that Cinder had given her, Gwen wasn’t too keen on getting on the Magus’ bad side. She nodded anyway and jogged to catch up with the duo. Caron looked slightly apologetic, but the traces of humor still lingered around his eyes. As they got further and further away from the center of the town, fewer people began appearing. The streets were still very wide, which meant that people could spread out more. It was probably because of the wide streets that made the next few minutes happen the way that they did.

    They were alerted by shouts, a lot of them. "Look out!" Someone's voice shouted above the others. The group looked back in alarm and saw a group of armored men standing in the streets, their faces concealed by hoods. One of them was throwing a knife, and the whirling blade headed for them like an arrow shot from a bow. Cinder reacted purely from instinct. He raised his hand and willed power, any kind of power, to come. In an instant he was outlined in a crackling blood red light and the scent of pomegranates filled the air. He let loose a blast of pure energy at the knife, and other bolts of energy came from different directions as dark mages across the street threw their own magic.

    The many blasts of magic hit the weapon almost at the same time and there was a bright flash of light and color as the magics combined with each other. In the center the eighth color, octoluce, flickered for a moment and vanished as a melted hunk of steel clattered across the street. With a cry the group of men drew their swords and fell upon some of the mages while most of them charged forward. Ilona reacted the quickest, drawing her bow and hitting an arrow within the length of a second. She let it fly, but the arrow just bounced off the target and sent him falling back.

    "Crap, they have armor!" Ilona cried, stating the obvious and reaching for her daggers. Caron and Gwen drew their swords.

    Suddenly they were all shoved aside by Cinder, who stepped out and stood in front of the charging men. He stood his ground and was a still as a rock. "Cinder, stop!" Caron cried out in a strangled voice, trying to get his brother to come back.

    Cinder ignored him. He held out his staff—his plain, indiscernible staff—and shouted, "Aederalvesaldi!" He spoke the word as if it were a command to be obeyed. As soon as the word ended there was an odd feeling in the air, almost as if the world had shifted a little.

    The crystal on his staff lit up with a bright blue light that shone like a flame, and there came a wailing from somewhere. A massive gale of wind roared down the street, scattering stands and animals and anything else around like dead leaves. When it came to Cinder and the group, the wind actually turned away from them and left them uninjured. The other men were not so fortunate. As if the hand of some god had come down from the heavens, they were picked off their feet, lifted into the air, and were sent flying. They crashed into buildings, the streets, and other people like scattered pins.

    "What in the name of the gods?!" Gwen shouted, hardly believing what she had just seen. There were always rumors of magic doing incredible things, yes, but no one could call up a wind like that with a single word!

    "Don't worry about it! Run before more come!" Ilona replied, nearly dragging them behind her. This time she stayed with them as they ran. People behind them shouted, terrified.

    People in front of them leaped to get out of their way. They ran until the attack was far behind them and Cinder started to cough. He leaned against a wall, his breathing uneven. Caron hovered over him worriedly and caught him when it seemed as if he would fall. Gwen was still nervous and watching the alleys with quick, darting movements like a bird's. "Come on Cinder," she said, too worried to get angry. "We can't stay here forever."

    Cinder coughed harshly, unable to speak. They watched as he took out a white handkerchief and coughed into it. When he took it away it was stained red. "This is stupid!" He rasped, coughing again. When he spoke again, his voice was rough and gasping. "Where are we even going?"

    "We have to get out of this city," Ilona said with conviction. "We haven't even been here for two hours and people are already trying to kill us! It's wrong and it doesn't make sense!"

    "Then we should go back to the inn," Cinder replied. "All of our things are there, and we won't get far without them."

    "I'll do it," Gwen volunteered immediately. She turned to go.

    "No!" Ilona yelled, grabbing her by the arm. "That's too predictable! That's exactly what they want us to do."

    Caron stepped forward. "Alright, hang on," he said with a strong and serious voice. "First off: who is 'they'?"

    There was a bit of silence. Ilona sighed, "It has to be those guys that attacked us by Iceberry. Some of them escaped." She gestured for silence as Gwen and Caron started to speak. "Shush! I don't know why they're doing it, but they are. Now, I'll go back to the inn. I'm a thief and I can get in easily."

    "No," Cinder spoke up quietly. His voice was still raspy but rang with conviction. "I'll go." Both Caron and Ilona raised a protest, and the mage snapped at them. "You need me! I locked our doors with runes, and I made it so only I can remove them!"

    Hi s words made Ilona snap her jaw shut. She knew he was right, but she still didn't want him to come along. And neither did Caron, it appeared. "But you can't—" he started.

    And those three words were the exact wrong words to ever direct at Cinder. "Oh, can't I?" He interrupted, flashing his brother an angry glare. Caron flinched as if he had just been hit and opened his mouth again. "No, you'll have to stay here with Gwen. More than two—" Dreyken hissed on his shoulder "—pardon, three people will slow us down."

    Caron couldn't seem to think of anything to say, and Gwen grabbed him by the arm. "We'll wait by the city's exit," she said. "We'll make sure that no one tries to block the gate." Her violet eyes were hard and steadfast, meaning every word she said. Ilona nodded, and she watched Gwen lead Caron away. Caron looked back once, anguish in his eyes.

    When they were gone, Cinder pulled his hood over his face. "Let's go," he said and gripped his staff.

    "Wait," Ilona interrupted, her voice soft like water flowing over stones. "Cinder, that staff," she started, looking as if she were trying to find the right words. "I saw you carrying it when we first met in Valbrook. I remember asking what it did, and you said you didn't know." She looked into his dark gold eyes. "You found out, didn't you?" She got no spoken reply, but a simple nod. "And that word," she pressed on, feeling an odd sense of foreboding in her words. "That was nothing in the language of magic." She paused, and then went on, "That was a name, wasn't it? A true name, the true name of the wind."

    Cinder didn't look surprised, but rather had the ghost of a smile around his colorless lips. "I knew you were smarter than you looked," he said softly. "Yes, on all accounts."

    Ilona sighed deeply, wondering what this foreboded. She decided not to dwell on it. "Come on, I've been here before. I know the way."

    * * *​

    Ilona led the entire time. She stuck mainly to alleys and crowds so they would be harder to spot, and even then she jumped back into alleys on numerous occasions and suspicious figures came into her view. She moved at a fast pace, although she did stop for Cinder when the exertion was too much for him. One of her hands was always on her dagger, ready to stab or throw if anything happened. The minutes flew by, and crept closer and closer to the inn. One look though said that just walking in through the front door was out of the question. There were five people waiting outside, and those were the ones in plain sight. Ilona's trained eyes could pick out many more in hiding.

    "There's no way we can do this discreetly," she said as she ducked back in. "We'll have to flatten this entire street if we just want to get halfway there." She tried to think and took deep, even breaths to calm herself.

    "Perhaps not," Cinder objected, then gently drew her further into the alley. "I have my spells, and I might be able to do something."

    "I doubt it, "Ilona replied, remembering the amount of men she saw. "Not unless you can make us invisible and get rid of our shadows at the same time."

    "I can do that." Cinder said, setting his staff against the wall. He gestured for Ilona to stand next to him and put his hands to his temples.

    One of them most important keys to casting advanced magic (or any type of magic, really) was concentration. All mages could concentrate to such an extent that they could block out everything else in the world; it was something they learned how to do very early in their training. Cinder did this, centering himself and making himself a rock amid an ocean of chaos. When he opened his eyes the world had changed. The sky was a dull ash gray and the ground was black. Threaded everywhere among the ground were silver lines of energy, the natural flow of mana in the world. The thicker lines meant more power, which is what Cinder needed for this spell.

    Ilona stifled a gasp as Cinder opened his eyes to reveal them to be one solid color: the same dark red as his aura. Slowly, he was outlined in a deep red glow and the smell of his aura—pomegranates— filled the alley. Even Dreyken started to glow, but it was a fiery red-gold color that slowly melded with Cinder's aura. Ilona narrowed her eyes and concentrated, the feel of magic coming to her much more naturally and easily. Suddenly, she saw a dome around the three of them, almost like a cocoon. She watched in amazement as threads of red light reached out from Cinder's aura and began crisscrossing around them, making layers and layers of magical energy. It was as if the mage were weaving a pattern of fabric around them, which seemed to be getting smaller and more complex as time went on.

    Five minutes later, the trio was surrounded by a tight cocoon of magic. When Cinder finally completed the spell he nearly fell to his knees in exhaustion. Ilona would have caught him, but she knew it would do more harm than good. Besides, she had a suspicion that it was just his illness acting up around the magic instead of Cinder actually being tired. The Magus leaned on his staff and stood straighter. "That should do it," he said. He was breathing unevenly and his eyes were glazed. "Let's go, we'll be able to walk right past them." He started for the mouth of the alley.

    "Wait!" Ilona shouted, running after him and reaching out to grab his arm. It was too late though, they were already in the middle of the street. She tensed to run, then noticed that not a single person was looking at them. "What?" She asked, turning to Cinder for an explanation.

    "I made it so we're unnoticeable," Cinder said. He reached out and drew Ilona closer, since she was almost outside of the barrier. "Come on, thief. We can stand here until the next Cataclysm and they won't see us."

    "How?" Ilona questioned, looking around for their shadows. "Are we invisible?" It didn't seem like they were, their shadows were still on the ground, clear as day.

    Cinder had already started across the street and was dragging her along. "No," he said, the impatience clear in his tone. "We're unnoticeable, there's a difference." He went on before she could ask her next question, which he knew she was getting ready to do. "Invisibility, as we all know, is just bending light so it hides you from sight. We all know it doesn't get rid of your shadow, but it's different when you're unnoticeable. You're still there, but no one can see or hear you, and your shadow is gone as well. There's no sign of your existence to anyone outside of your web, not even footprints. You're basically just fooling everyone around you into believing your not really there."

    "Neat," Ilona commented. She knew she would never be able to cast such a complicated spell like the one Cinder was describing. Probably no one but the Magi could.

    They went around to the back of the inn, where they found the door to the kitchen. "We have to wait until the door opens," Cinder instructed. He stood right next to the door warily.

    "Why?" Ilona asked, standing with him. "If we're unnoticeable then no one will see us slip in, right?"

    "Yes," Cinder replied in that impatient tone again. "But people are going to notice a door opening and closing by itself. Just wait a minute."

    "It's going to be dark by the time we—" Ilona began to argue when suddenly the door swung open. A maid came out, a load of garbage with her, and as she stepped out the duo slipped in.

    The kitchen was steaming and hot, bustling with people. Cinder casually slipped past them all and no one seemed to realize he was there. Ilona noticed that he carefully avoided touching them, though. They had to wait again before slipping out into the main room and heading for the stairs. Nearly ten soldiers were sitting at the tables, obviously waiting. Ilona was very glad for Cinder's unnoticeable spell right then; they would have been massacred if they had walked in through the front door.

    Upstairs was considerably quieter. Only two guards stood in front of their doors, eyeing the glowing red runes distastefully. From the warped wood around the doorframe, someone had apparently tried to force their way in and had not succeeded. "So, what?" Ilona asked, "Sleep spell? Knockout magic?"

    "None," Cinder replied wearily. "You can't cast spells when you're unnoticeable, they would never get through the barrier."

    "No big loss," Ilona remarked and stepped forward. It was really odd that the soldiers never once looked at her, not even when she standing right front of them. She waved her hand in front of one of their faces experimentally. He didn't even blink.

    "Having fun?" Cinder asked in clipped tones. It was obvious that he was regretting taking Ilona along.

    "Lots," Ilona chirped happily, knowing that it would irritate him. "Alright boys, night night." The guards could not hear her, but they certainly felt her fingers as she carefully reached out and pinched a nerve on each of their necks. They stiffened, and then fell. The sound of bodies hitting the floor would have made a lot of noise, and Ilona tried to lower them to the ground as slowly and quietly as possible.

    "That's a nice trick," Cinder said, surprised at how fast they went down.

    Ilona smiled with pleasure. "Elf techniques," she said and stepped aside so Cinder could reach the door.

    The Magus reached for the rune, then paused and sighed. "I'll have to take down the web," he warned. "Be very quiet." He closed his eyes and began to unravel the spell around them. Naturally, it went down faster than it came up, fraying at the edges then unraveling into threads that peeled away from them in a matter of seconds. If anyone had been in the hall, they would have seen a red Magus and a blond elf woman simply pop into existence within the blink of an eye.

    Now that they were visible (although Ilona couldn't see a difference) the sense of danger suddenly rose up, setting Ilona's nerves on the edge. She kept watched as Cinder placed his fingers on each rune. He muttered something under his breath, and abruptly they stopped glowing to show the chalk drawing from earlier. Cinder rubbed one of the lines, smearing it and breaking the drawing. "Runes are only active as long as they remain perfect," he explained, sensing more than seeing Ilona's curious look. His voice could barely be considered a whisper, but he knew Ilona could hear him. "Any flaw or break in the drawing will make the rune useless." He opened one of the doors and slipped in.

    All of his and Caron's things were right where they had left them. There was no window to the room, so no one could have bypassed the door. Cinder went to his pack that carried all of his precious spellbooks and shouldered them, but the packs with all of their other supplies—he ones that Caron usually carried—were very heavy and proved to be a problem for the skinny man.

    :I could carry those for you.: Dreyken offered, sitting on one of the packs and feeling it with his golden claws.

    Cinder looked at the small draconian and deliberated. :No, you better not,: he replied. :If you grew to your full size then you wouldn't fit in this room.: He still looked at the packs, then reached into a pouch on his belt. He pulled out some glittering powder that looked like sand and threw it over the supplies. Dreyken hissed and shook himself as it landed on him. Cinder spoke two words in magic and pointed at the packs, and suddenly they rose into the air. Dreyken hissed again in displeasure and flew to Cinder's shoulder.

    It wasn't even three seconds later when there came a shout from the hall. "Hey!" It was loud and boomed down the entire hall and probably downstairs as well. "Arlyss! Come quick! They were here!"

    Cinder swore and looked around for an exit, and realized there were none except for the door. He ran outside, the packs floating after him like faithful dogs. He reached the hall the same moment Ilona did, even though she had been in the other room. There was something flashing in her hand, and Cinder watched her throw it. It turned out to be a trio of thin knives, almost like stakes. The man that she was aiming at screamed as the knives hit him and he tumbled backwards into the soldiers racing up the stairs. There was no escape that way.

    Ilona whipped her head around, looking at something over Cinder's shoulder. "Window!" She gasped, pointing.

    Indeed there was a window leading outside, at the end of the hall. The two ran for it. Cinder heard a voice shouting, and recognized the words of magic. He quickly yanked Ilona to the side in alarm. A sickly green blast of magic flew past them and blew out the window. "They have a mage!" He hissed, looking back. He quickly spotted the magic-user, who had disguised himself as a dark mage and was at the front of the group, chanting.

    "Let's go before he casts another spell," Ilona said. "She broke away and started to run, then realized Cinder was not with her. "What are you doing?!" She demanded, pausing.

    Cinder unhooked a pouch from his belt and opened it, revealing the flashpowder he had bought earlier. "Close your eyes," he answered and threw it. He pointed his finger at the glittering powder and a white-hot fireball suddenly flew at it.

    Ilona gasped and jumped away, closing her eyes for good measure. Flashpowder was valued because it could burn with different-colored flames depending on the amount of heat applied to it, but when it got hot enough the powder would explode, and the highly reflective glitter would reflect the light in all directions and would nearly blind anyone who looked at it. Even though Ilona was looking away with her eyes shut, spots of light still appeared behind her eyelids. For a moment the entire hall lit up like a miniature sun.

    Ilona stayed crouched in the hall for as long as she dared and only stood up when Cinder grabbed her. "Come on!" He yelled, dragging her down the hall. Behind them, en stumbled around holding onto their eyes and wailing in pain. Even though he could not see, the mage was still determined to cast his magic.

    The duo paused at the window and looked down. It was a very long way to the ground. Ilona could survive the drop, but Cinder knew for certain he'd break something. They only hesitated for a second though, for the words of the mages behind them spurred them into action. They leaped through the broken window as another blast, yellow this time, came out them from down the hall. Cinder quickly cast another spell as he fell, and a bubble-like shield appeared around him. He bounced against the ground safely, and he watched Ilona hit the ground next to him harshly, not on her feet like an elf usually would. He quickly dissipated the shield around him and went to help her up. "What's wrong?" He asked, helping her up and looking to see if any of the broken glass had cut her.

    Ilona coughed and shuddered. She spat out a few blond strands of hair and said, "That spell hit me. It didn't hurt, but it screwed up my landing." She managed to stand and brush the glass off her clothes.

    Cinder would have run a check to make sure the magic really didn't have any malicious intent, but more soldiers began appearing at the window. "I'll look at it later," he said and ran into the street. Soldier were shouting and appearing, and soon they were surrounded.

    "What now?" Ilona asked, wondering for the thousandth time what they had done to warrant so many people to come after them.

    Before Cinder could reply, Dreyken snarled and leaped into the air. Suddenly, he started to grow. In seconds the cat-sized drake was the size of a hog, then a deer, then a human, and finally the height of a horse. The now-bigger Dreyken roared, a sound much more terrifying now, and unleashed a wave of golden flames at them. People screamed and ran, and some of the men tried to fire their arrows at them. Most of them were incinerated in the fire, and any that were spared were deflected by Dreyken's tough scales. However, some of the shooters were closer and their arrows managed to scratch him, enraging the draconian further.

    "God's body!" Ilona yelled as Dreyken whipped his tail around and sent a wagon flying. "I didn't know drakes could do this!"

    "Yes, that is what makes them so valuable as companions, Cinder agreed, backing away."They can change their size, so the small one you usually see are in reality a lot bigger." He ducked as another mage threw a spell at them. "Dreyken!"

    The drake roared in anger and started glowing a bright red. Crimson light gathered around his body, and then he sent it racing down the streets as a destructive wave. Everyone within range was knocked off their feet. Then he turned and began running, covering the other two as they fled before they could get attacked again.

    "Hide behind the structures," Cinder said, ducking around the iron decorations as much as possible.

    Ilona nodded in understanding. Iron was the only metal that could negate the effects of magic, so any magical attacks that came towards them would be absorbed. "Why don't we just fly?" She asked as they ran.

    "Too conspicuous," Cinder answered, starting to cough.

    And running down the street with an angry fire-breathing drake while being chased by a small army isn't? Ilona thought to herself privately. Besides, from the way Cinder was breathing she was sure they wouldn't have to put up with running for very long.

    Sure enough, a few minutes later Dreyken planted himself right in front of them and refused to move. He had grown to his full size now, which was nearly eight feet at the shoulder and his long, sinuous neck was nearly twice that length. He glared at them with blazing gold eyes and crouched down, flattening himself in the road.

    Cinder was trying to get him to move, but Dreyken was ignoring him stubbornly. Their pursuers were getting closer, so there was really little choice. "Oh confound it," Cinder growled and climbed onto Dreyken's back, using his front leg as a step. Even though Dreyken's spine was covered with spikes, there was a curiously free spot around the front of his shoulders. There was no saddle of course, so Cinder jus grabbed a spike and waved for Ilona to come up.

    The elf cleared the distance in one leap and settled herself on the drake. "Are we flying?" She asked as Dreyken stood up. The movement nearly threw her off.

    "No, we're just going to stand here and hope they go away," Cinder growled sarcastically.

    Ilona swallowed, almost too nervous to retort. "I've never been flying before," she admitted.

    Cinder had no time to reflect on the oddity of this statement, since arrows were just missing his head by inches. He merely swore at the inconvenience this provided. "You had better hold onto something then," he said as Dreyken crouched a little to leap. He nearly jumped off as two small arms closed around his waist. "Not on me!" He yelled, almost turning around and pushing her off.

    Any further conversation or argument was interrupted by Dreyken leaping into the air and flapping his wings. The jar of the wings snapping open vibrated through Ilona's teeth and nearly made her bite her tongue off. When they started rising each wingbeat nearly threw her off the drake's back as they were jostled around. Somehow Cinder managed to stay on as Dreyken rose higher and higher until the city was sprawled below them. Only then did Ilona look around. What she saw made her smile widely. It was just like being home! Elves were used to heights since they lived in trees that were literally hundreds of feet off the ground and built their houses inside the said trees.

    Dreyken tilted to one side, making a slow turn towards the west. The gliding sensation was amazing, and Ilona wondered why she had never tried this before. She whooped, causing Cinder to look at her as if she were crazy. "What?" She asked breathlessly. The wind whipped her hair and grabbed her voice and carried it away, she could barely hear herself speak.

    "Get your hands off of me," Cinder replied angrily.

    Ilona frowned. Sometimes Cinder chose the oddest times to ask for things. Nevertheless she let go. She wasn't afraid of falling anymore, the gliding sensations were a lot smoother than when Dreyken flapped his wings. She hung on by gripping his back with her legs, and she could feel every muscle quiver and bunch as Dreyken propelled himself through the sky. She threw out her arms and whooped again, causing Cinder to wince and wish he had left her back on the ground. Dreyken turned his head to them and rumbled in his throat, and Cinder nodded in reply.

    "What did he say?" Ilona asked curiously.

    "He was asking if I wanted him to land by the western gate." Cinder replied while scanning the ground. "Look for Caron or Gwen."

    Ilona nodded and peered down, her eyes seeing much farther than a human's. It was not hawk-like by any stretch, but it was still better than normal. She was almost tempted to ask if she could talk to Dreyken herself, but she knew it wouldn't work. Drakes communicated only with their Chosen and each other. After a few minutes of watching, she glimpsed a flash of red hair. "There!" She pointed, focusing on the speck. "It's Gwen, I can see her!"

    Almost immediately she had to hold on as Dreyken dipped down in a dive. It wasn't a steep dive, but it was still unexpected. The roofs of the buildings suddenly came rushing up to meet them, and Ilona's stomach flipped in fear. The only solace she had was that she was on the back of a flying animal, and flying animals knew exactly what they were doing. A few moments before they hit the ground Dreyken rotated his wings and in a matter of seconds turned their dive into a hover.

    People yelled and got out of the way as the drake landed among them, fleeing what they assumed was a small, angry dragon. A little ways away stood Gwen and Caron. Gwen had a shocked expression as if she had just seen Luxovious himself descending from the heavens and Caron just looked mildly surprised. They would have gone over to the trio, but apparently news traveled fast and now the whole city was out to get them. Cinder saw the figures appearing on the roofs first. "Get over here!" He shouted at the two, raising his hand and sending out a wave of fire rushing from his palm.

    The warriors didn't need to be told twice. They bolted, ducking under the fire so the arrows wouldn't be able to hit them. Unfortunately, most of the arrows were aimed at Dreyken anyway, and he roared as some of them pierced his wings. He didn't wait for Gwen and Caron to get on his back, and instead leaped forward and grabbed them in his claws. With the two securely in his grip, he started to fly again.

    Gwen nearly screamed as the gold talons closed over her, but she was really too terrified to make a sound. As the ground began to fall away, she felt almost exactly like a mouse in the grip of a hawk. She swallowed and looked over at Caron, who was so pale that he looked almost like a copy of Cinder. Something about his expression worried her. Before she could dwell on it the city wall rushed at them, and she finally screamed and gripped the claws holding her out of sheer terror. The wall passed under them by a few feet, and Old Road and the rest of Eastmaple Forest lay sprawled out before them. The seconds passed by as the forest got smaller and smaller until it became a green carpet with a dusty vein of a road winding through it.

    Arcus began to shrink in the distance, and with it the danger. There was still a danger of falling, so Gwen didn't relax one bit. She looked over at Caron, who taking special care not to look at the ground. "What's wrong?" She called over the wind.

    Caron shook his head, his eyes a bright yellow. He didn't reply.

    "Afraid of heights?" Gwen guessed.

    This time Caron managed a small smile. "Not exactly," he replied. "I'm afraid of falling." Dreyken wobbled suddenly and Caron gripped him tighter. It looked like he might break his own fingers on accident.

    Gwen swallowed again and tried not to look down. The ground was moving very fast now, blurring underneath them. If they lost their grip and fell. . . She shuddered again and instead of thought when they would be landing.

    They stayed in the air for quite a few minutes longer, Dreyken apparently flying as fast as he dared. Even though Gwen was no expert on drakes, she could tell that Dreyken's strength was flagging. They kept dipping lower and lower to the ground, despite his best attempts to keep them in the air. Finally he couldn’t take it anymore and he started to dive again, this time much slower than he had before.

    Gwen still clutched the claws in terror. How was Dreyken going to land? She was asking herself. If he landed on the ground while they were still in his grip they would be crushed. When they were a few feet from the ground he paused, and Gwen could see his wings flapping endlessly to keep them above the ground. Gwen felt the claws loosen an in an instantly she understood. She quickly wriggled out of Dreyken's grip and carefully allowed herself to drop to the ground. She bent her knees to absorb the impact and saw Caron do the same as he landed. She headed for the edge of the road to avoid Dreyken as he finally landed in the dust.

    Cinder slid off of Dreyken's back and waved his hand. The floating packs—which had still been following him the entire time—finally settled down on the ground. He reached out to run his hand along Dreyken's neck, obviously communicating with him. Ilona jumped to the ground a second later, her eyes bright with the excitement of flying. "That was sooo awesome," she breathed. "It was like amazing." She tried to smooth her hair out, which had blown everywhere.

    She was clearly not right in the head, Gwen figured, so she gave her a wide berth until she recovered. "Did you see that?" The warrior asked Caron. "There were scores of men, all after us."

    Caron, who still looked a little green, managed a small nod. Cinder had managed to convince Dreyken to revert himself to his original size, and he was holding the panting draconian in his arms. "Assassins in Arcus," the Magus murmured, shaking his head. "What is the world coming to?"

    Ilona came over, the seriousness coming back to her face. "We haven't gone very far," she said. "We might have made ten miles at best. There could still be people after us, and a fast horse could catch up in not time." Her urging words made them move, quickly grabbing their things and setting off. They fled into the forest as if they were criminals escaping Justice.

    * * *​

    They didn't get the news until nightfall, and Sian happened to be with the Commander when the news came. She was discussing with him the location of their network of spies, since she had confined him to camp for the day. They still had to get someone to enter a useful position in Taersis and Foxgate needed infiltration still, but the Windview Plains were giving them trouble.

    While they were in the middle of discussing Taersis, the guards announced a messenger. He was covered in dirt and grime from head to toe and it was apparent he had been running for quite a long time. He made a hasty salute and continued to gasp for air noisily.

    "Well?" Gillian demanded, "How did it go?"

    The lad winced and said, "I-It was a failure Commander. The targets escaped."

    "What?!" Gillian roared, gripping him by the shirt. Sian smirked; and she had been so confident that her assassin would not fail! "How did this happen?!"

    The messenger began to babble out his story, the words tripping over each other in their haste to get out. Sian listened with interest as he talked about spells that threw people down the streets and a red dragon that could grow to the size of a house. The spy suddenly understood. They were up against a Magus! No wonder why everything was turning out to be so difficult.

    Commander Gillian didn’t seem to think the same thing. "There are hundred of the Queen's men in that city," she growled. "Hundreds! And not one of them could manage to hit a group of four people?"

    "Well. . . " The man trailed off.

    "Yes?" Gillian demanded, giving the man a shake.

    Even though the messenger was a good head taller than her, his feet were still not touching the ground. "Well," he gulped nervously, wishing this crazy woman would let him go. "I heard a mage saying that he managed to hit an elf with a spell. A tracing one, he said."

    Commander Gillian gasped, her green eyes bright and devilish. "Perfect!" She hissed, dropping the man in her surprise. "It doesn't matter where they are now, we can always find them!"

    "Unless they remove the spell," Sian added. "They have a Magus with them, after all."

    The Commander turned and gave him a look. It was one of those angry looks that said that his comment was neither appreciated nor welcome. "Then we'll just have to get to them before that happens," she replied coldly.

    "Um, Commander?" The messenger spoke up. "There's one more thing."

    "Yes?" Gillian asked, turning again.

    "The Lady has heard of the past two failures. She knows why we're hunting these people, and she says she's coming down here."

    Sian saw Gillian stiffen and he felt his own spine freeze. The Lady, the general, the head commander of them all. She was coming! The second most-feared person in the Queen's entire army was coming!
     
    #6 Chibi, Nov 13, 2010
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 19, 2013
  7. Chapter 5: The Archer and his Son


    Everything had been prepared for the Lady’s arrival. The camp was immaculate, everyone dressed in their cleanest and best clothes. Commander Gillian was an impressive sight, dressed in gleaming armor with all of her daggers strapped to her forearms and ankles. She looked like a polished weapon of war, ready for use. Sian stood by her side, slightly behind her bodyguards. The whole place was quiet.

    Earlier, a handful of imperial soldiers had come into the camp. They were dressed in full armor, with blue bands around their arms to show which general commanded them. Their shields were covered with eyes to show their allegiance to the Queen of a Thousand Eyes. “General Mona’s imperial guard!” They announced, standing at attention.

    They were ugly, Sian decided. Of course, some people had the unfortunate luck of being born with ugly features or something that just didn’t make them look right, but all of these guards seemed to have this sort of luck. They had oddly misshapen jaws and mouths that were too wide, noses that were too thin and eyes that were too small. It looked like a child had been in charge of making all of their faces. The guards usually wore their helmets over their faces, but not before some of the others saw. Commander Gillian didn’t seem to care, but Sian could tell she was disgusted.

    “When will Lady Mona arrive?” Gillian asked the guards in her most polite voice.

    “She will arrive when she wishes to,” one of the guards snapped, still standing at attention. “Lady Mona comes from the air, so she is allowed to take her time.”

    His words surprised Sian. From the air? Was the general arriving on a travel griffon? He wondered what was taking her so long then, since griffons were known for flying incredibly fast.

    Then, he felt it. Some oppressiveness in the air; it made him want to hide under something. His stomach suddenly jolted and his ears picked up a noise.

    Thud.

    It was a concussion of the air. The leaves on the trees shifted as if a breeze had blown by. The rest of the assembled spies seemed to feel it and looked around curiously.

    Thud.

    It was closer now, so much that Sian’s ears pounded. A wind blew through the trees, whipping up his cloak. Only the guards ignored the wind and noise.

    Thud.

    The ground shuddered now. The vibrations went through Sian’s feet, traveled up his spine and rattled his teeth together. Something was coming, he knew. Those were wingbeats. But it was something huge, much bigger than a griffon.

    THUD.

    A shadow fell over the clearing and a giant wing created by the wingbeats nearly flattened him. Grass and dirt stung his eyes and he could hear things being blown over. He looked up and saw that there was a huge beast blocking out the sun, some that had such a huge wingspan that the trees seemed small in comparison. There was a grumbling sound, and the beast landed in the middle of the camp. The force of it touching the ground knocked Sian onto his back, but he was up a few moments later. His mouth opened in amazement.

    A dragon was standing in front of them, or rather, one of the draconian race. It was actually a wyvern, something that came from the northwest and was the largest of the non-dragon species. It was nearly thirty feet tall, and that did not count the additional twenty feet the long, thick neck added. The rough sandpaper-like scales were a pale grass green, with the underside almost a greenish white shade. There were no front legs, and the forearms were actually the huge wings, but a massive pair or tickly muscled hind legs made up for it. It was the largest animal Sian had ever seen, he was sure it could rip any of the trees out of the ground with ease, and some part of his head that wasn’t frozen with fear told him that it was logical. A wyvern’s main diet were elephants that lived in the far northern reaches of Arunab, and you had to be very big if you wanted to catch an elephant.

    Oddly, the wyvern was armored; plates of armor covered its legs, underside, and it was all topped off with a helmet decorated with three protruding blades so the wyvern could stab enemies whenever it thrust its head out. Sitting in a saddle that was strapped to the base of the wyvern’s neck was the general. She wore her own ornate dark blue and gold armor, which seemed to embody both beauty and deadliness. On her head sat a helm which was carved in the likeliness of a dragon’s head, which marked her as a general of the Queen’s army. A beautiful broadsword was belted to her waist, the hilt and crossguards in the shape of a flying dragon. Silver flames were designed on the blade.

    The general patted her beast on the neck, and then slid off the saddle. She used the giant leg was a ladder, springing down like a deer. The cobalt blue cloak she wore flared out behind her as if she had a pair of wings herself; it was a majestic sight. The imperial guard saluted her, and Commander Gillian did the same and ordered her men to do so as well. As he did, Sian wondered what it was with women in charge. There was Gillian, then the general, and then the Queen. When he lowered his head, he watched as the general looked back and forth, very deliberately, and then she slowly grasped her helmet and removed it.

    Sian heard a few men gasp, and hoped the general had not heard. As soon as the restraining helmet was gone, shoulder-length blond hair filtered down to frame here delicate face. She was pretty, very much so, but n the same way a cobra was beautiful. Graceful, delicate, with a natural beauty, but all of them were to lure you into a false sense of security and it was only too late when you realized that those were fangs biting into your neck. When she turned to Gillian, Sian could see her eyes were a light color, but she was too far away for him to tell exactly what color.

    Commander Gillian bowed. “General Mona,” she said formally.

    The general smiled in amusement. “Gillian,” she replied, her voice smooth and dark, like poisoned honey. She was the only person Sian had ever heard whom had called the Commander by just her name. “I see you’ve got yourself quite a group here.” She swept her eyes over the assembled crowd, and for a moment she locked gazes with Sian. He felt his stomach flip the instant she did, either from fear or her beauty, maybe a bit of both. She smirked again and snapped her finger at her guards. They were at her side in seconds. “These are a few of the imperial guards. The Queen gave them to me to help find this group you seem to have so much trouble killing.” Now she was definitely mocking them.

    Gillian bowed again, wisely holding her tongue. “We have places to accommodate you and your troops, Lady,” she said.

    General Mona nodded. “See to it that my wyvern is properly fed,” she ordered, patting the beast’s leg. “He’ll need about fifteen deer.” She smiled at the shocked faces and stepped forward, obviously enjoying herself.

    Gillian bowed once more and set off, leading the general to her quarters. Sian was left with the guards and the wyvern. He gulped and looked the beast up and down, focusing particularly on the feet the size of wagons and the huge maw that could swallow him whole and wouldn’t even choke. The others seemed to have the same sentiments as he, they all gave the draconian a wide berth while it glared at them with yellow eyes. He quickly decided to show the guards around instead, anything to be away from that monster.

    * * *​

    So far they had avoided more mishaps. It had been a day since the attack in Arcus, and Dreyken was still recovering. Cinder bound his wounds in bandages and used some magic to heal the tears in his wings heal. He was in no condition to fly and spent the day in Cinder’s arms. They would not be able to fly again, not for a long while. Instead they ran, so much that Cinder was coughing constantly and was on the verge of fever most of the time. Despite his weakness, he kept constantly casting magic to hide their tracks and further weakened himself.

    Caron always covered their rear and Ilona scouted ahead for enemies. Their panic was growing into full-fledged paranoia, and despite all of their precautions no one remembered Ilona, who had been struck by a magic blast. That magic wrapped around her and flared like a beacon, although it was invisible to anyone unless they looked for it. Any mage worth their salt could find them no matter where they went. They also spent their second day running like this, and at one point Old Road split, one road going north to Taersis and one going south to the Windview Plains. They took the south road. By the time the sun set again they were all exhausted and couldn’t bear to stand up. Cinder was asleep almost instantly and lay curled up beneath a tree with Dreyken beside him. The other three all sat around the fire moodily.

    “It doesn’t make sense,” Ilona muttered as she chewed on a stalk. “First, they sent five people, then half a city’s coming down on us.”

    Gwen was scuffing her foot against the ground. “First time’s a failure, second time is a narrow escape, third time’s the charm,” she sighed, reciting an old phrase.

    Her words made everyone fall silent. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when they would be attacked again. They all knew they were being hunted now, and the prospect of constantly running was not a pleasing one. Caron frowned as if contemplating a puzzle.

    Ilona noticed the look and got his attention. “What are you thinking?” She asked, watching his eyes darken.

    “About the town Cinder and I grew up in,” he replied. “We should be near it.”

    “Is it safe?” Gwen asked.

    Caron shrugged in reply. “It’s fairly deep in the woods, so it’s not well-known. But, you never know.” He noticed that Gwen was staring at him intently. “What?”

    “I was right,” Gwen murmured, almost to herself. She noticed his expression and smiled. “Your eyes change color. Both yours and your brother’s.”

    Ilona glanced at them in surprise. “What?” She asked, “I’ve never noticed that.”

    Gwen smirked, “You weren’t looking.”

    “Not the most subtle change of subject.” Caron replied, trying to sound light.

    “It was never my intention to change the subject. You wanted to know what I was thinking, so you got it.”

    Caron sighed, “I suppose. But I’m surprised, hardly anyone ever notices it.”

    Gwen nodded. “It’s subtle. I first saw in Arcus, when Cinder was angry with me. His eyes looked black then. Just now your eyes were dark, and now, when you were surprised, they turned a bright yellow.”

    Caron smiled, and before their very eyes his irises turned into a warm gold. “Yes, my eyes do that. Anyone who has had gold eyes in the family has had that happen to them, it goes back a long way.”

    Gwen nodded and sat back, content with her discovery. Ilona threw up her hands at the pointlessness of the conversation and went to go sleep. The two warriors stayed awake, taking turns on watch.

    * * *​

    Sian watched the guards nervously. It had been a day since they had arrived, and now they had their own group of horrors with them. They were called Krushken, another member of the draconian family. They were about the size of horses, and their color varied from a muddy red-brown to a muddy dark yellow. Their bodies were thin and narrow, but with stout legs that reminded Sian of a crocodile. They had thin necks with long, narrow heads that were filled with sharp teeth that tried to snap off fingers on more than a few occasions. Their wings seemed out of place, too large compared to their too small bodies. While they might have been fierce and misshapen, they were known to be the fastest fliers in the entire draconian family. The guards kept boasting that the animals while flying at full speed could catch up to the group in a day. A pretty bold announcement, since from t heir position it would take a horse nearly three times that much to even get to Arcus.

    “We will get to them just before they reach the fork in the road.” General Mona once said. “According to the spell they’re heading south. No doubt to lose us in the Windview Plains.” Her crooked smile, which Sian had never seen her without, got even wider. Something about the general scared him, and it wasn’t just because she was the general. Gillian had this ugly, angry energy about her that made her scary, but the general was sweet, polite, and at the same time at a poisonous glint to her eyes and words.

    The thing that cemented fear of her among the other men happened the morning after she and her guards arrived. Sian—like many others—had first been drawn to the training ground by the sound of steel against steel, crashing against each other with a racket like a madmen let loose in a smithy. When Sian had finally gotten into view, it was unlike anything Sian had even seen. The general and one of her guards were dueling, battling with such ferocity and skill that it made Sian shudder at the sight. The spy had once visited Tyronor and its infamous gladiatorial pit, where the best and fiercest warriors dared to battle, and he saw that General Mona could flatten any of the fighters he had seen. The worst part was that Mona had won, easily. Even now as she stood with her back to Sian and looking at her map, he was hoping that she would not notice his presence.

    The general had wanted to head out with her soldiers to hunt, but she decided not to just in case the mission failed. She was still staring at the map when Commander Gillian came up to her. “General,” she said formally. “With all due respect, how are you going to capture them? They have a Magus with them.”

    Mona turned a little, her plates of armor whispering to each other as she did. Her smile was definitely cruel now. “Capture them?” She repeated, that sweet voice sending chills down Sian’s spine. “Gillian, we’re not here to capture them. All enemies of the Queen must be killed.” She bent down and grasped something piled next to her feet. It was a huge net. “This will take care of the mage, no problem.” She must have noticed Gillian’s dubious look, but she ignored it. She handed the net to the guards’ leader, who attached it to his saddle.

    “Will that be all, general?” The guard asked.

    Mona seemed to think for a moment, then she handed him a compass. It was actually Sian’s compass, the one that could point to tracer spells. Commander Gillian had demanded him for it the other day and even though Sian was afraid to make his presence known the sight of his compass in their hands made him burn with anger. “If in the event that you fail,” Mona said as she handed it over. “Just know that you wouldn’t have died in vain.”

    The guard nodded. He turned to his troops and shouted and soon they were all climbing on top of their Krushken. The beasts were snorting like horses and were impatient to be off, but first the riders had to strap themselves in. The saddles they were sitting in were unlike any saddle Sian had seen; there were straps all along the sides so you could strap your legs securely to the saddle. Apparently this was so that no rider would accidently fall off if their draconian made a complicated aerial maneuver. It took a few minutes to finish with the saddles, the Krushken hissing impatiently all the while. Finally the guards pulled the reins up, and with cried of delight the Krushken leaped into the air and took off. They flew like insects, zooming in one straight line before having to flap and fly off. They were gone in seconds, flying faster than anything Sian had seen, even faster than the wyvern that General Mona often flew over the camp.

    The general herself stood watching for a few more seconds, then turned around and smiled. “Gillian, where are your messengers? I need to send something to the Queen.”

    * * *​

    It was easy to tell that they were heading further south. Aside from the warmth, the west began to become more sparsely wooded in comparison to earlier, while the left still remained strong. Ilona was certain that to the left still lay Ellessearimensati, but the tower-like trees were too far away for even her to see. More Saruren began to appear as well, although none of the sandy lion-like cats attacked. Dreyken felt a little better, enough to sit on Cinder’s shoulder and look around, but Cinder refused to let him fly. Ilona was almost always in the woods, bringing back berries whenever she appeared and warning them of dangers further ahead.

    It was up to Caron to lead them, for they all had decided to head for the town called Autumnleaf, where the twins had grown up. Cinder, for all of his memory, said he could not quite remember where the road turned and left the navigating up to his brother. Gwen did not believe him for a second though, since the mage seemed to have some strange aversion to the place, as if the mere idea of the town repulsed him. Either way, finding the town was easier said than done, since there were only one or two landmarks to go by.

    “Are you sure you know where you’re going?” The swordsmaid asked on more than one occasion.

    “Yes,” Caron would always reply. “The road is on the left. It’s very small.” That was the greatest thing about Old Road. Being the longest road on the continent, virtually every road to every city, town, or village was attached to it. You could get to anywhere in Casta as long as you knew which road to turn onto.

    Ilona chose that moment to step out of the woods. She moved like a ghost and just seemed to appear out of thin air. “There’s a road about half a mile ahead,” she reported, munching on some beechnuts she had found somewhere. “It’s barely big enough to fit two horses on it, and it looks only half-used.”

    “Does it have a big birch near the front?” Caron asked excitedly. Cinder’s expression told that it had better not have a birch anywhere near it.

    “Yes,” Ilona replied, watching Cinder’s lip curl in disgust.

    “That’s it,” Caron said with a huge smile. “That road takes you straight to Autumnleaf."

    Gwen had a smile of her own, a tired one. “How quick can we make it there?” She asked, starting to get tired of all the walking.

    Caron frowned for a moment, then looked over at Cinder. The mage was busy watching a handful of birds fly across the sky, although they flew much faster than any birds he had ever seen. He answered without looking down. “That depends on how fast we’re walking. I’m no woodsperson, although I would guess that if we kept walking at our current rate then we might arrive sometime before midnight.”

    Even though he already said that he might be wrong, his words were still taken into consideration. They went on, Ilona leading them to the road she had pointed out. The trees grew so close together that their branches began to intertwine, giving the feeling that one was walking down a tunnel. When they were in they were almost immediately besieged by animal noises and undergrowth. It was like being in a story and they were traveling down the wild path that led to the witch’s hut. The close trees overhead made the place much darker and flashing animal eyes watched them warily. Witch’s hut indeed.

    When the sun starting to set the place became even darker. Because the road was so small, they camped off a little into the woods. They barely had time to settle down though. A noise came from the woods, like a screech. Everyone, especially Ilona, jumped. Gwen unsheathed her sword in a flash and began whipping her head around in search for trouble while Dreyken let out a fierce snarl. “What in the name of the goddess was that?!” Gwen demanded, gripping her sword tightly to hide her shudder.

    “It might have been an owl,” Caron said, looking to cinder for an answer. The Magus was frowning and was busy listening to Dreyken, who seemed to be greatly upset over something.

    “I’ve never heard an owl like that,” Ilona replied. She edged forward, her knives in hand. “It sounded like someone was screaming.” After a moment of hesitation, she ran off into the forest.

    Immediately Dreyken yowled and shot off into the air to follow her. Cinder ran after them with a yell of his own. Not wanting to be left behind, Caron and Gwen quickly followed him. The group ran through the woods, ducking around trees and roots, all trying to keep up with Ilona. The light of the two moons barely penetrated the thick leaves, and whenever they did they left a ghostly glow in the air. Ilona could see where she was going, and she could see a clearing up ahead. She made her way towards it, and paused at the edge for a moment.

    It seemed quiet and serene, with gentle silver-blue moonlight flowing down and lighting up the place with an almost otherworldly beauty. Not even the animals were around. Ilona slowly stepped out, listening intently. Not even an insect chirped. She realized too late what that meant, and as she turned to run something rushed at her. It was a man, dressed in armor and was swinging a sword at her head. She managed to avoid it by jumping back, but this carried her right into the arms of the other soldier that had been coming up from behind her.

    Cinder rushed out the moment Ilona was in trouble, but he didn’t get very far. The ground under his feet leaped up and wrapped around him. It was a net that had been hidden in the grass, and the moment it touched him it began glowing a sickly green. Cinder felt his power faded and gasped in realization; the net was draining away him magic! He tried to cast a spell to free himself, but as soon as he reached for the magic the drain on him increased so sharply that in involuntary moan escaped his lips and he went still.

    “Cinder!” Caron yelled and rushed forward. There were two soldiers holding the net, and he collided with one of them and thrust his sword deep in their gut. Dreyken had already started to tear at the net, but a heavy boot kicked him away.

    Gwen found herself up against two soldiers, and to her shock they disarmed her easily. They moved so fast and were so strong that they reminded her of elves, but that just didn’t make sense. Even so she fought and kicked, but as she knocked one back another grabbed her ankle and flipped her over so she hit the earth. She barely had time to get up when someone was sitting on her and pressing her arms into the grass. From the corner of her eye she finally saw Ilona’s adversaries subdue her, all while she was kicking and screaming as if she had been possessed. When Gwen looked back into the face of her captor she frowned. His face was misshapen, his eyes too far apart and his mouth too wide. It was as if someone had sculpted a face with only a vague idea of how a face was supposed to look like. Then, before her very eyes, the face disappeared and showed what was really underneath.

    Gwen bit back a scream. The man’s skin was black. Not the blue-black of the far west but a smooth, deep black as if he had rubbed charcoal all over his skin. Its head was bare and it had holes were its ears would be, like a reptile’s. The eyes were slanted and a deep, luminous red; to Gwen’s shock she saw that the pupils were shaped like horizontal hourglasses. The creature smiled, and the smile stretched all the way to its ears and revealed needle-like teeth that were stark white against its skin. Gwen suppressed a shudder of horror.

    Caron was still fighting, even though his opponents outmatched him, until a voice cried: “Enough!”

    Everyone froze, and another one of the black-skinned creatures stepped into view. He had to be the leader, he had that air about him. He had been one of the people holding the net, and very slowly he placed a foot on Cinder’s chest Caron growled deep in his throat but didn’t move. He gripped his sword and Gwen noticed with a shock that the blood on it was bright blue. "Enough," the man repeated, his voice like claws sliding over rocks, "or I will spear this man where he lays." To make his point he drew a wicked-looking barbed spear and placed the tip against Cinder's throat. "Not a single move. That means you, drake."

    Dreyken hissed long and low, but he did not dare move. Gwen had to wonder what the point was. They were going to be killed anyway, she could tell from the look in their captors' eyes. She and Ilona were hauled to their feet, the creatures keeping an unforgiving grip on them. From the edge of the woods, a snorting started up, like horses but bigger. Draconian eyes stared at them from the trees. "Krushken," Gwen heard Ilona whisper.

    The leader clicked his tongue and one of the large creatures skittered over. The creature rubbed the Krushken's neck and then looked at Cinder again, a bloodthirsty gleam in his eyes. "Just a quick stab," he whispered, lifting the spear a little. "Right through the vein in the neck." He began to press the spearhead down.

    There was a loud hiss, and suddenly an arrow came streaking out of the woods. It was going so fast that it pierced the creature's skin between a junction in its armor and ended going straight through its body. It stared at the shaft of the arrow with a look of dumb surprise on its face, then fell over backward. The Krushken shrieked, the sound they had heard earlier, and took off. The other men looked around in an attempt to figure out where the arrow had come from when anther flew out from the opposite direction and suck into another's neck.

    The one holding Gwen grabbed her in a headlock and unsheathed his sword. "Show yourself!" He shouted, looking around wildly and keeping her in front of him.

    His answer was another arrow. Gwen didn't even see it coming, and it thudded into the creature a few inches away from her head. There was a wet thunk, with the undercurrent of cracking bones, and the creature let go of Gwen with a hiss of pain. She quickly elbowed him in the stomach and jumped away. It was chaos now, the Krushken were trying to take off and their wingbeats were tossing up dirt and grass that was blinding everyone and the creatures were hissing and running around trying to find their invisible shooter. Caron had gotten free and was tugging the net off of his brother, who was barely conscious. All the while the deadly arrows rained out of the forest.

    Ilona had found Gwen's sword, and she handed it to the warrior absently. There was only one creature left, and he ran for the woods. An arrow sunk into his leg and made him trip, and almost an instant later another sailed out of the woods and found its mark between his shoulders. He finally fell to the ground and did not get up.

    All was quiet after the arrows stopped. The Krushken were gone and none of the soldiers moved. Caron was still trying to get Cinder to wake up, even though the mage was limp and unresponsive. Ilona wasn't too sure about her observational skills, but somehow it looked as if Cinder had gotten worse than he usually looked. His skin looked bone white in the moonlight and the shadows in his eyes and cheeks were more pronounced that before. He somehow managed to look like he had lost a week of sleep within the length of three minutes.

    Ilona could hear soft footsteps approaching, two of them, both of them coming from a different direction. She knew the others couldn't hear it, the owners of those steps were trying not to be heard. She went over to one of the soldiers and yanked free a short sword and held it in front of her. Her eyes peered into the darkness to look for the shooter or shooters.

    He stepped out of the woods silently, like shadows made solid. He held a bow that still had an arrow knocked in it. Almost every inch of him was hidden by a large green cloak that blended in with the forest and made him nearly impossible to see, and his face was hidden by a hood. From the other side of the clearing another figure stepped out, although this one was younger and thinner. He had on a similar cloak, but his bow was empty.

    The larger one paused, and his head swept back and forth as he looked at the dead soldiers. When it was apparent that they were, in fact, quite dead, he slid his arrow back into the quiver and slung his bow across his back. "Are you alright?" He asked, looking at the group. His voice was soft and gentle, warm like a ray of sunshine.

    Gwen seemed to be a bit distrustful, and Caron and Cinder weren't going to say anything anytime soon, so it left Ilona to do the talking. Yet again, apparently. She lowered her sword in what she hoped was a friendly gesture. "Yes, we are. Thank you," she said, hoping she didn't sound ungrateful.

    "Father, this one doesn't look too good," the smaller one said, the voice of a boy. He was staring at Cinder, who seemed to be even worse.

    The man looked over at the twins and started to move forward. Gwen narrowed her eyes, but Ilona placed a hand on her shoulder. These people had just saved their lives, so the least they could do was place some trust in them. "One of the Magi," the man said, his voice amazed. "What happened to him?" He reached out to touch Cinder, but Caron pulled away and glared at him.

    "Look at this net," the boy said. He tried to grab it and it started to glow green, causing him to drop the net. "It drains energy away."

    Caron knew that keeping Cinder out in the open like this wasn't the smartest of ideas. "Do you know where the town of Autumnleaf is?" He asked with a pleading look at their savior.

    "Of course I do," the man replied. He paused, and then drew back his hood. "I'm Alan Owensson, a forest ranger and a guide." The face underneath was well sculpted and incredibly handsome, with very tanned skin and slightly messy brown hair. He had a casual, easy smile that seemed to belie the current situation. "It's a few miles from here, if you're willing to walk."

    "We are," Caron replied instantly, standing up. He held his brother in his arms as if he weighed nothing more than a child.

    Gwen and Ilona knew that Caron would go on whether they wanted to or not, so they simply nodded at the ranger. Alan swiftly went over to the net and picked it up. He stuffed it into his pack and looked around. "Ugly looking things," he muttered, nudging a corpse with his boot. "What are they?"

    "We have no idea," Gwen replied. "Doesn't matter now, though."

    Alan laughed, looking back up at her. "No, I suppose not." He agreed, then lifted his hood back up. "Well, I suppose we better get going."

    "Do you need help with anything?" The younger one asked. His hood had fallen back to reveal a boy that had to be at least fifteen years old. He had pale skin and the most beautiful blue eyes Ilona had ever seen. His hair was an odd reddish-brown and lay flat along his head.

    Ilona frowned in puzzlement. "No, we're fine." She peered at the teenager, and couldn't help herself. "Did you call him Father? You two don't look anything alike."

    Oh, I know," the teen replied cheerfully. "He's my adoptive father, took me in when I was younger. My name's Faolan Pryder, and you can tell Alan's not my father 'cause he always says he would never have named me Faolan Owensson in a thousand years."

    A sigh came from up ahead. "Don't talk them to death, Faolan," Alan said. "Please excuse him, he talks so much that he'd have a conversation with a tree if he could."

    Ilona smiled to herself. She had a feeling that if Faolan was an elf then he would spend days talking to the trees. And yet there was something strangely odd about the boy, but she couldn't tell exactly what. It wouldn't matter that much anyway, since they were now under the trees again and their chances of seeing were gone. Ilona still had slightly better night vision, although it wasn't a whole lot better. To her surprise Alan navigated through the forest as if he had night vision himself, although he had to have been doing it from memory. She watched him, making only the slightest noise as he moved in comparison to the rest of the group.

    They were making slow progress, everyone knew that. It was mainly because they weren't using the road, but Gwen insisted that they stick to the forest. She was certain that there were others around besides the men that had captured them, and Ilona had to agree with her. Nothing bothered then, except for the night animals. Once they saw the eyes of a Saruren staring at them, but Alan made a growling noise and it went away.

    To them it seemed as if time had slowed to a painful crawl. If they thought everything looked the same in the daylight then when night fell it was even worse. Ilona couldn't use the stars to check the time, so they were all blind with no sense of place or time. However irritating that was, Ilona knew there wasn't much they could do about it.

    "Let's see, I think that's the town up ahead," Alan said what seemed to be hours later. He pointed, and Ilona noticed the dots of light in the distance.

    "Oh, it sure is," Faolan agreed with a smile. "It's the back of Loren's inn, you can tell from the lights."

    They stepped out of the woods, trailing leaves behind them. The place seemed like a stereotypical sleepy town; the only place with lights inside was the inn. Alan led them to the front door and gently knocked. A few seconds later it was answered by a young woman.

    "Oh!" She gasped in delight. "Alan, it's so good to see you!" At first it looked as if she and Alan were related, but a closer examination disproved the idea. Even though they both shared green eyes and brown hair, Alan's eyes and hair were much darker than the woman's. She was smiling widely and her gaze turned to the people behind him. "Who are your friends?"

    Ilona saw Alan smile, an incredibly charming transformation of his face. "Some people Faolan and I rescued from the woods. They were being attacked by monsters."

    "How kind of you," the woman said, and then her smile suddenly vanished. Her eyes grew wide. "Caron!" She exclaimed, and her shock disappeared and was replaced with joy. "I can’t believe it! Is that really you?"

    Caron's eyes widened in turn, and his irises turned brighter until they were almost a lemon yellow. "Lisa?" He asked. "Oh my gods, I barely recognized you!"

    Everyone looked between Caron and the woman, especially Alan. "You two know each other?" The archer asked.

    "Idelisa and I grew up together," Caron explained, a smile of his own forming. His eyes were darkening a little and his moth was definitely a teasing grin.

    The woman sighed. "It's just Lisa," she corrected, suddenly reminding Ilona of Gwen. She peered at Caron, and then she saw the body in his arms. She gasped, "Gods! Is that Cinder? What happened to him?" She rushed forward to get a better look at the mage and gently placed her hand on his forehead. "He's really cold," she murmured.

    Caron, who had briefly forgotten his brother, once again took on that worried tone. "I don't think he's injured, but he's been unconscious for a long time now. Do you have a place where he can rest?"

    Lisa nodded and slipped outside and closed the door behind her. She wore an apron over her clothes and carried a tray under one arm. "I'll take around to the side door," she said and led them to the side of the inn. "It's a door for the barmaids and servants, and Alan always insists coming through this way." The door had a staircase just inside, and Lisa led them up the tightly-packed stairs. The staircase led them right to the hallway where the guest room were laid, and many of them seemed empty. Lisa went to one of the rooms at the end of the hall and opened the door to reveal a huge room with two beds, a fireplace, and enough left over room for copious amounts of furniture. "I hope you plan to pay for this," she said teasingly as Caron brushed by her.

    "We will," Caron promised and set Cinder on one of the beds. When he did, Dreyken immediately curled up near Cinder's head and stayed there.

    "Thank you, Lisa," Alan said, sounding sincere. He was the last one in and turned to Lisa to talk to her.

    Lisa smiled warmly, and the smile seemed to light up her entire face. "It's for some friends, there's nothing to thank me for," she replied. She looked around at the others. "Will you be alright?" She asked, mainly towards Gwen and Ilona, whom she did not know.

    Ilona looked up and smiled tiredly. "Thanks, but we're fine." She said. She then noticed that Lisa was staring at her ears. "Yep, I'm an elf," she said, pulling back her hair to reveal the delicate ears that curved into points.

    Her words made Lisa jump and blush. "Oh, I'm sorry," she stammered, "I didn't mean to stare. You just don't see elves around here."

    "I know what you mean," Ilona replied with a laugh. "I'm Ilona and this is my friend, Gwen. She would say thanks as well, but she's too rude to."

    "Am not," Gwen muttered, who was busy peering out the window.

    Lisa smiled again, although the embarrassed blush didn't fade. She hooked some hair behind her ear and said, "I'll go tell Loren that you guys are up here." She said and left, leaving the door slightly open.

    Alan brushed his hands off and turned to the others. "Well, I got you guys to Autumnleaf, like you asked. Is there anything else you lovely ladies need from me?" Caron noticed that he was talking only to Ilona and Gwen.

    Gwen rolled her eyes and Ilona sat down on the other bed. "How well do you know these woods?" She asked politely, an idea forming in her head.

    Alan turned to her, as if asking if she was serious. "Shoot, I've been in these woods all my life. Best ranger around, people say." He had a slight southern accent, which Ilona found a little endearing. The ranger folded himself into a chair, resting his chin on its back.

    This would be perfect, Ilona realized. She smiled at him sweetly, knowing that a simple smile could convince more men than words. "Well, sticking to the road has gotten us nowhere. Could you guide us south through the woods?"

    Her reply was a small smile and a nod. "Sure I can, although you need to do something for me first."

    Ilona's stomach sank, although her face did not change. "What do you want?" She asked.

    "Tell me why you want to keep off the roads." Alan answered, and even though he still smiled his voice was firm. Faolan looked over in curiosity.

    The group exchanged glances. It wasn't a bad request, but with all of the attacks happening lately they were reluctant to tell anyone anything. Gwen set her jaw stubbornly and refused to talk, and Caron was obviously more worried about Cinder. Ilona sighed and wondered why she was the one who always had to talk. The four of them had some sort of secret that perhaps they didn't know the importance of, but they needed someone to guide them, and Alan already saved them from soldiers so he had to be a good guy. She took a deep breath and decided to take the gamble and see what happened. She began telling Alan everything, Demar's request, leaving Iceberry and being attacked, heading to Arcus and being attacked again, and the latest ambush which he had saved them from. Alan listened intently, and Faolan's eyes kept growing wider. When she was done, Alan sat back, deep n thought.

    "Wow," Faolan gasped, "that's amazing! It's like you're playing out one of those heroic stories in faerie tales."

    "That's what I'm starting to think," Gwen muttered.

    "This is no faerie tale," Alan said darkly. "This is the Queen's doing."

    Ilona's head came up. "What Queen?" She asked in puzzlement. "Casta doesn't have a queen."

    "I know that," Alan said with a violent shake of his head. "I mean the Queen of a Thousand Eyes. The leader of the northern armies."

    There came gasps from all around. "A queen commands those armies?" Gwen asked, shocked.

    "Yeah," Faolan told her. "She came from the barbarian race of people from way up north, where the ground turns to frost and ice. People say that there were all these scattered tribes and she united them and raised an army so—" He paused as Alan waved a hand and cut him off.

    The man looked troubled. "There are lots of rumors floating around towns, most of them filled with nonsense and mixed-up facts. In fact, there's even this one rumor that a group of adventurers are on a quest to defeat the Queen." He leveled a gaze at them that was like green fire. "That wouldn't happen to be any of you, would it?"

    Ilona let out a low groan and fell back on the bed. "What in the nine pits of Evermore have we gotten ourselves into?" She asked the ceiling, her voice heavy and leaden.

    "How in the world can there be rumors about what we're doing?!" Gwen demanded Alan. "We haven't breathed a word about anything to anyone, where would they get the facts from?"

    "Hey, I don't make up the rumors. I just repeat what I've heard," Alan replied, holding his hands out in a peaceful gesture.

    "This is nuts," Gwen said, glaring at the archer as if the entire thing was his fault. "We aren't out on some sort of heroic quest. Gods below, we barely have any idea what we're doing!" She kicked a bed in frustration, and the thunk of metal on wood echoed throughout the room.

    "Please don't damage the beds," Lisa said, suddenly poking her head into the room. "Those cost money, and lots of it too."

    Everyone jumped like startled cats. "How long have you been out there?" Alan asked, knowing the only way she could have appeared that fast was if she had been waiting outside the door.

    "Oh about. . .the beginning," Lisa replied with a guiltless smile. She came in, her arms full of a tray laden with food. "I think it's still warm, Basil cooked it only recently." She set the tray on a table and sighed, looking tired all of a sudden. "Really, it doesn’t matter what you're doing this quest for. If whatever you're doing stops the Queen, then I'm sure everyone in Casta, beggar to noble, will be very grateful." She sighed and sat down next to Caron. "There are monsters in Casta, you know. We're not supposed to tell anyone, but everyone knows it."

    "There have always been monsters in Casta," Caron said in an attempt to reassure her.

    "Not these kinds of monsters," Lisa replied moodily. The way she spoke, it was as if she had been carrying around the words for a while and just had to throw them out to relieve herself of her burden. "People say that generals in the Queen's army ride on giant wyverns caught from the northern grasslands. They have creatures that pull the catapults for the humans, animals with ice for teeth and glowing eyes, and some say that the men in the Queen's army aren’t men at all, but men-like creatures with black skin and teeth like needles."

    Her words made the others stir uneasily. Gwen especially remembered that grinning face above her, with milk-white teeth that were all sharpened to points. There had to be some truth to rumors after all. "Ridiculous," she muttered, although her voice held no conviction.

    "Hey Alan, didn’t we see people like that?" Faolan piped up. "They had black skin with these glowing red eyes—" He broke off again as Lisa gasped and went very white.

    "Lisa!" Caron and Alan gasped at the same time. Caron put his hand on her shoulder and Alan berated Faolan for not keeping his tongue.

    "I'm fine," Lisa said, smiling slightly and nodding. "It just shocked me, you hardly ever come across any true rumors." Her eyes still seemed very bright and she was trembling a little. "Don't worry, it's not like I plan to tell anyone. Although I'm at least glad that I know a bit of what Casta is up against. It's horrible when everything is left up to your imagination." For a moment she looked sad, but it was gone as quickly as it came. "You know Caron, I'm not at all surprised you're a part of this. It sounds exactly like the trouble you and Cinder usually get into." She stood up and brushed her hands off on her apron, suddenly seeming a little awkward. She nodded at the others and left, this time closing the door fully.

    Caron watched her go with a small smile. "At least some things never change." He remarked, remembering when he was little and hardly anything could scare Lisa, not even a spider in her hair. He was snapped out of his reverie as Cinder shifted a little in his sleep.

    A sigh preceded Alan’s comment. “Alright, I’ll help you. It’s not like I have anything better to do anyway.” His grin was crooked, giving him a roguishly handsome appearance. “In fact, I’ll do it free of charge, since you ladies asked me so nicely.”

    Ilona nearly jumped with joy. “Thank you,” she said gratefully. “It’ll be a major help to us.”

    “My pleasure,” Alan replied. He stood up, somehow managing to make the movement look graceful, and took up his bow. “Come on, Faolan. We’ll leave them to rest.”

    “Father,” Faolan replied, standing near Cinder’s head. “I’m not sure if he’s okay. His breathing has gotten slower.”

    Caron immediately leaned forward and placed his fingers on Cinder’s neck. “His lifebeat seems okay,” he said doubtfully. “Sometimes he does this when he’s asleep.” Despite his words he still looked worried.

    The others frowned, and Faolan reached out to check for himself. He did not get very far; his fingers barely touched cinder’s skin when suddenly a pale hand gripped his wrist tighter than a steel trap. Faolan yelped and tried to back away as the mage suddenly sat up, but he couldn’t go anywhere.

    “Cinder!” Caron gasped in shock.

    The others started forward, and then hesitated. Faolan tried to pull away, but for such a skinny frame Cinder had a surprising amount of strength. The boy noticed with a shock that his irises were a brilliant gold, shot through with dark red. Those eyes peered directly into his, and Faolan had the sudden disconcerting feeling that those eyes were reading his soul. “Blue,” the mage suddenly said, frowning. “A deep, rich blue. Like the color of royalty.” There was a horrifying blankness to his face that said that Cinder was probably not seeing any of them in the room.

    He wasn’t making any sense either. Faolan looked to the others, who all seemed to believe that Cinder had suffered some sort of head wound and was speaking gibberish. However, Alan had a different reaction. His eyes grew huge and he went over to Faolan and pried Cinder’s hand away from him. As soon as he let go Cinder lost the intense gaze, and for a moment he looked around as if he had absolutely no idea where he was. “What in the world?” He muttered and suddenly fell back, upsetting Dreyken.

    In an instant Caron was with him again. “I don’t believe it,” he said as he checked Cinder’s pulse again. “He’s still asleep. His lifebeat hasn’t changed the slightest bit.”

    The others looked just as confused as Caron, and Alan and Faolan stood over to the side awkwardly. “Let’s hope he’s better in the morning,” Alan said and left quickly. Faolan trailed behind him and gave the others a wary glance before shutting the door.

    When they were gone, Ilona looked at the other three with a frown plastered across her face. “That was odd,” she said.

    “Thanks for the obvious,” Gwen muttered. She had turned back to the window and was cursing under her breath.

    Ilona sighed; ever since they had come into this room she had seen Gwen turn away from the window only four times. “Oh, come away from there.” She sighed exasperatedly, pulling Gwen by the arm and shutting the curtains. “What are you doing anyway?”

    “Checking for more of those things,” Gwen replied, starting to strip off her armor. She laid them in a neat and organized pile next to her pack.

    Ilona frowned a little and Caron looked shocked. “What are you talking about?” Caron asked, reaching for some food from the tray.

    Gwen was busy arranging her things, but Ilona had the feeling she was just doing that so she could think clearly. “When we were caught,” the violet-eyed woman started, wording her sentence carefully and slowly. “There were about six or seven men. I think seven. But there were nine Krushken. That means that there might be two more of those monsters running around.”

    Her words brought a chill to the room. Caron topped chewing and Ilona stood stock still. She shuddered violently. “Oh please don’t give me thoughts like that,” she said. “The idea of two more monsters out there is just. . .” She trailed off, looking for the right words.

    But no words needed to be said. The others got the idea perfectly well. Caron pondered the issue, and said, “Well, they can’t find us at the moment, right?”

    “They might,” Ilona muttered, rubbing her temples. They had found them on Autumnleaf’s barely-used road, had they not? “Cerdwin, I have a headache.”

    Gwen glanced over at her worriedly. “Get some sleep,” she said softly and reached for a bit of food herself. “I’ll stay awake. Nothing’ll get in here if I have anything to say about it.”

    Ilona murmured something indistinct and then fell on the free bed. She curled up on her side like a cat and tried to sleep. Gwen watched her, and then concentrated on her food, suddenly realizing how hungry she was. “This is pretty good,” she commented.

    Caron grinned, as if sharing some private joke. “Well, you can tell Lisa didn’t cook this food. If she had, she might have poisoned us all.”

    Gwen paused and looked at Caron. His expression begged for a laugh, and she gave him one. The both of them laughed over the joke, and even though it might not have been terribly funny it felt so good to laugh that Gwen had to make sure she wasn’t too loud. She had a feeling that neither of their sleeping companions would be happy if they were awakened.

    ((So as of now this story is 58 pages in Word. Awesomesauce. :D ))
     
    #7 Chibi, Nov 24, 2010
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 19, 2013
  8. Re: The Road to Ice

    ((Arg, fail because I'm slow. Anyways, still doing the story, as promised.))

    Chapter 6: Southward


    When Cinder first awoke, the first he was aware of was that he had a headache. It pounded through his head, not exactly painful but raw and sore. He could feel his heartbeat inside his head, pulsing throughout his mouth like candy. He didn’t feel injured, more like absolutely exhausted to the point where it felt like it hurt.

    By his head, he felt something move. A snout nuzzled his hair. :Are you alright, Chosen?: Dreyken asked, his mindvoice gentle as to not irritate Cinder’s headache further.

    :I have no idea,: Cinder replied, his telepathic link weak and wavering. He opened his eyes and saw a wood paneled ceiling above him. Light filtered into the room through a window, although it hurt to look at it.

    Something moved, and he heard footsteps coming towards him. He sensed the presence above his head before it spoke. "Cinder, are you okay?" Caron asked, and a hand touched his forehead.

    Cinder opened his eyes again and looked up. Thankfully, Caron was blocking the light. "I'm fine," he whispered, although his voice was so dry that he might as well have mouthed the words.

    Caron frowned, his eyes darkening worriedly. "Are you sure?" He asked, gently helping him into a sitting position.

    "Yes," Cinder replied, the irritation in his tone falling flat. His voice was so dry that the single word had to claw its way up his throat and past his lips, and no sooner than he said it he started coughing. His dry throat burned harshly and he felt blood on his tongue. When he paused he found a cup in his hands, filled with his medicinal tea. He didn’t bother thanking Caron and quickly swallowed it down. Immediately the constricted feeling in his chest abated.

    "Can you walk?" Caron asked. "Gwen and Ilona are downstairs."

    "Give me a few minutes," Cinder answered. He felt his head again and winced. "What happened after I passed out?"

    "We were rescued by a ranger and his son," Caron told him. He took the cup and set it back down on a nearby table. "They led up here, and you were out the entire time." He paused, wondering whether or not to tell Cinder about the incident from last night.

    Cinder pondered over that. For some reason, he didn't seem to remember waking up. He twisted a bit of his sleeve between his fingers. "Where are we?" He asked, frowning at the place. It looked familiar somehow.

    "In Autumnleaf," Caron said.

    Cinder sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Oh gods," he groaned under his breath.

    "It's not that bad," Caron said defensively. He stood up and fiddled with his cloak. "Lisa's here."

    A sarcastic snort was his answer. "No one else better be. Except for Sissy, I wouldn't mind seeing her again." He muttered and slowly stood up. In the light he looked washed out and thin, but he didn’t seem to notice. Cinder glanced outside as Dreyken landed on his shoulder. "I'll be down in a bit," he said nodding at Caron. Caron nodded in return and left.

    * * *​

    True to his word, the Magus was coming down the stairs about ten minutes later, staff in hand and Dreyken lounging across his shoulders. The view downstairs was a gentle, quiet inn with amiable people. It brought back memories. The others were sitting at a table, talking to Lisa, and Ilona noticed him and waved him over.

    “Hi Cinder!” Lisa chirped when she saw him. “Caron told me that you were now a Magi. Congratulations.”

    A tiny smile threatened to make its presence know. That was Lisa, never caring about what a person was, but who they were. You could have been a weredragon and she wouldn’t have cared, as long as you were friendly. “Thank you,” he replied and sat down. He noticed that there were two empty chairs at the table. “The ranger and his son?” He asked indicating to the chairs.

    “Alan and Faolan,” Ilona told him, picking out some fruit from a bowl. “The people who rescued us. They went to do some scouting.”

    “A nice man, both of them,” Lisa commented. “Always gentlemen.” She set down a plate of bread and bustled away to another table.

    Gwen was already dressed in her casual armor as if she expected a fight the moment they walked out of the inn, and she kept watching the door to see when Alan and Faolan would return. Cinder ignored the food, like he usually did, but after a bit of pestering from both Caron and Dreyken he began to nibble on some bread angrily. When Alan and Faolan walked in a few minutes later, they were both covered in dust and leaves. Alan sat down instantly and began reporting that he found some tracks outside of the town, although he couldn’t tell what they were. Faolan cast a wary glance at Cinder before sitting down, and the mage frowned in return. Where had he seen that by before?

    “What are you talking about?” Gwen demanded, cutting through his thoughts.

    “They aren’t human tracks,” Alan replied tiredly, as if the process of trying to explain his findings in a sane way was too much. “They might be shaped like a human foot, by the toes have claws and when they run their heels don’t touch the ground.” He seemed genuinely confused about his discovery. “And apparently they run on all fours.”

    Ilona swallowed nervously at his words and changed the subject. “How did they track us? It was the dead of the night; not even elves can track something without light.”

    Alan shrugged and Cinder frowned again, thoughts stampeding across his head. “The point is, we have two of them out there. They haven’t entered the town, but they’ll come after us the moment we leave.” Alan replied and helped himself to the rest of the bread, since a good portion of it had mysteriously disappeared.

    “We’ll get them,” Gwen promised with a smile. Now that she knew what she was up against, the prospect of a fight sounded more appealing. She bit into a roll and paused. “Weird,” she muttered to herself.

    “What?” Ilona asked, the only one who had heard.

    Gwen shrugged. “Oh, nothing. This was steaming hot before, and now it’s almost cold. Probably nothing.” She continued eating.

    Caron was busy watching the door and Cinder slid his barely-eaten food over to him. Even though he had already eaten, the warrior managed to finish off the entire plate as if he hadn’t had food for a week. Cinder almost didn’t seem to care; he had a thoughtful expression on his face, the wheels in his head were obviously turning.

    It was a pity they couldn’t stay for long, since no one wanted the trackers to enter the town. Caron put up the idea of briefly visiting the rest of the Maere family, but Cinder refused so vehemently that everyone stared at him in shock. Lisa seemed a bit sympathetic towards Caron, and she told him sadly that their sister hadn’t been around for a long time.

    “You have a sister?” Ilona commented when Caron asked about her.

    “Well, not by blood,” Caron replied uneasily. “She’s a stepsister, although I guess it doesn’t matter at the moment. I can’t say I’m terribly surprised though, she was a lot more into the mercenary business than us, and she could be on the other side of the country now.”

    When they were about to leave, they were stopped by Lisa. “Go down Old Man Gee’s road,” were her words. “It heads directly south, and it’s a bit secluded. It’s also not a part of any main road, and sort of blends into the forest after a while. And yes, before you ask, Gee is in fact still alive.” She smiled and a suppressed a laugh at her own words. When they had been younger it was the children’s favorite pastime to guess when Old Man Gee would finally croak, since he had been around while their parents had been kids, and even back then he had been considered old.

    They nodded and decided to take Lisa’s advice, since she had been a long time resident of the town and obviously knew what she was talking about. When the others’ backs were turned the serving maid suddenly hugged Caron fiercely, causing him to flush. “Oh, sorry,” she said after a moment, pulling away in embarrassment. “It’s just so good to see you again. You haven’t visited in years.”

    Caron flinched guiltily. “I’m sorry,” he said, “we were always so busy.” It sounded like a weak excuse, but it was the truth.

    “I understand,” Lisa replied with a smile. “Just visit again after you’re done with this quest, alright?”

    Caron bit his lip, knowing Cinder’s aversion to visiting Autumnleaf as if it were a plague town. Even now he knew is brother was itching to get out. “I will,” he said, wondering how he was going to stay true to his word.

    Lisa nodded trustingly, something that only increased Caron’s guilt, and shoved a bag into his hands. “Some food,” she said with a grin. “Because I know you’ll get rid of it for me. Now get going already, your friends are waiting.”

    Caron just laughed and made sure the food was in one of his packs before going outside. Indeed the others were waiting, although they didn’t seem terribly impatient, except for cinder. Alan was trying to see how high he could flip a coin, and Faolan was competing against him. As Caron watched, Faolan flipped it, and the coin shot straight upwards as if it had been fired from a cannon and disappeared within the boughs of a tree. “Oops,” Faolan said sheepishly, wincing at Alan’s glare.

    Gwen’s eyebrows rose and Cinder held out his hand. The coin suddenly flew into his palm as it was yanked out of the tree. This time he flipped it, right towards Alan. The ranger caught it, looked at Cinder for a moment, and carefully pocketed it. “Alright gentlemen, ladies,” he said, putting on that charming smile. “Let’s get going. Time stops for no one.”

    He led them through the quiet town, to the south side and going down a road that was little more than two wagon tracks in the dirt. It was a warm, lazy summer day, but with the promise of autumn everywhere. Many of the trees had turned gold, or a fiery orange and red. A few stubborn trees were still green, but those were rare. Ilona gaped at the trees, understanding why this place was called Autumnleaf. The woods were like fire, with the vibrant red and gold colors that you only saw on tapestries that hung in some noble’s court. Elven trees were almost eternally green, and any trees that changed color were a rarity and were only seen on the outskirts of Ellessearimensati. Being with the humans for so long made Ilona a witness to their color-changing trees, but the ones around her were just magnificent.

    Gwen smiled as she watched her friend flit from tree to tree, gently picking off a leaf and holding it in her hands. Soon she had a collection of colors: red, orange, and gold, as if she was holding paper-thin flames in her fingers. Then she tossed them in the air, letting the wind carrying the bits of fire into the sky. The smile on Ilona’s face was like sunshine, the elf looking right at home in the forest. As she walked, Ilona leaned over to Gwen. “We’re being followed,” she murmured, never losing her smile.

    Gwen almost reached for her sword, but she stopped herself. She casually let her hand rest at her side. “How can you tell?” she whispered.

    “Peripheral vision,” Ilona replied. “At first I wasn’t sure, then I decided to bounce around a bit to make sure. There are two of them, sticking to the tress.”

    “Do the others know?” Gwen asked, letting her eyes roam around.

    “Cinder does, Dreyken can sense them. He’s told Caron, and I’m sure Alan suspects.” Ilona reported, and then skipped ahead. She stopped by Alan and started talking to him.

    Gwen watched the road from the corners of her vision. She watched for signs of being followed, and in a moment she saw them. They were like shadows made solid, and moved just like water. The only way Gwen was able to see them was their armor, which oddly made no sound when they moved. The duo had probably split up from the original group last night, and had avoided them completely.

    Looking forward, she was Cinder motioning to her. He waved her forward, and when she was next to him he whispered: “Go stand in front of me.”

    The move would leave him at the rear of the group. She looked at him dubiously, and he gestured for her to go on. She wasn’t sure if Cinder was well enough to do whatever he wanted to do but she refrained from mentioning it. She just walked forward, like she was told.

    Now behind her Cinder reached into a pouch and pulled out something he had picked up earlier. An acorn, freshly fallen, courtesy of Ilona. He held it between two fingers and started murmuring. He said three words and pinched the acorn; a spark of his aura snapped up and split the acorn right in two, and then he threw it. Two rays of yellow light burst from it and headed right for the woods.

    The group jumped at the sudden burst of light, but jumped even more when a howl pierced the air as the magic found its mark. Two of the creatures suddenly rushed out of the woods, all in a fury. They had lost most of their armor, except for the plates around their torso, and their features were clearly defined in the daylight. In addition to the things Gwen had noticed last night, she saw that their fingers were nearly twice as long as regular fingers.

    “Mage!” One of them screamed and leaped for Cinder.

    In moments Caron was at Cinder’s side, refusing to let his brother get hurt again. Cinder did not seem to mind this time, in fact his place his hands on Caron’s shoulders and flared his aura, causing Caron’s to pop into existence. Dark red and orange-gold mixed together and ran down to Caron’s blade, and when he swung his sword he created an arc of energy that went right through the creature and sliced him in two. Bright blue blood sprayed everywhere like a fountain.

    Ilona’s jaw dropped. She had never seen magic used like that before! People always said that magic and metal could never work together, but from what she just saw they could. While she was busy staring, the other one went after her. “Tracer!” He snarled in delight. He swung a dagger at her.

    She gasped and leaped back. Tracer? What in the world did that mean? The claws passed right in front of her face and she whipped out her own dagger as a reflex. The creature yelled as three of its fingers were sliced off and its weapon went flying into the woods. Ilona grimaced as some of the creature’s blood landed on her cheek. Suddenly Gwen and Alan were there, attacking with their swords. The creature snarled and leaped right over their heads and had the luck of landing right next to Faolan. For a moment they stared at each other, then the creature smiled its unnaturally wide smile and leaped for Faolan.

    The boy yelled and tried to lift his sword, but he was too slow and would never be able to save himself in time. Then, amazingly, a deep blue light surrounded him as if he were a lantern casting light. The light swirled around him, and then blasted outward. A cloud of dust roared up, the leaves were knocked off the trees, and most importantly the creature was blasted into a pile of ashes. Its armor clattered to the ground like empty shells.

    The dust hid Faolan from view, but everyone could see the blue light shining through. Suddenly Faolan stumbled out, trailing blue energy behind him like a banner. A sickly sweet smell followed him, like roses and honey. It was obvious from his expression that he was scared and had no idea what to do. “Stay back!” He shouted, and in his panic the energy blasted out again, tossing leaves in the air and setting them afire with blue-colored flames. The dust was blown away to reveal a crater where he had stood before.

    Ilona glanced at Cinder, who noticed her look and turned to her. They saw in the other’s face the decision they had just made, and nodded to each other. Ilona ran forward and Cinder was quick to follow. “Cinder!” Caron shouted the same moment Gwen called, “Ilona!” and Alan yelled, “Faolan!”

    “Wait! Please!” Faolan cried, afraid that he would accidently blow Ilona and Cinder to dust the same way he did with that soldier. His aura, fueled by his fear, thickened until it looked like there was a wall of blue glass surrounding him. Because he wanted them to go back, his aura flew out as if to push them, but it was entirely on its own accord.

    Ilona stood her ground and flared her own aura in retaliation. It was a pale, light green that shrouded her like mist and shot right towards Faolan. Blue and green collided and fought, and Ilona soon won. The others, who were not used to so much magic with the exception of Caron, started to feel the effects of the magic. The skin prickled and the stomach churned, and everyone wanted to flee from the scene, but they stood where they were through sheer willpower. Ilona soon had Faolan’s aura caught in a net made from her own, which allowed Cinder to rush in and make his move.

    The Magus ran behind Faolan and placed a hand on the boy’s head. For a moment they were both outlined in dark red light, and then everything vanished. The blue and red auras winked out of existence, and Ilona let her pale green aura fade. The scent of the aura was still in the air after they vanished, an odd combination of pomegranates, melon, and roses and honey.

    Faolan was completely shocked at the sudden change of events. He looked up at Cinder for an explanation. “That should take care of your magical outbursts for the minute,” Cinder said. “Now that I know your aura I can easily control it with my own.”

    The others were quickly recovering from the shock. “Cinder, what was that about?” Caron asked, sheathing his sword.

    Cinder ignored him an turned to Alan. “How long has your adopted son been like this?” He asked, his tone quick and demanding an answer.

    The ranger glared at him, then turned to Faolan, and looked back up at Cinder. Even though the Magus’ gaze was on him, he did not answer due to stubbornness. In the end it was Faolan who spoke up. “About a year, on and off. It’s rarely gotten this bad before.”

    “I should hope not,” Cinder replied, looking back at the boy.

    “Um, hello?” Gwen spoke up loudly. “What. The hell. Happened?!

    “Faolan accidently used his aura,” Ilona quickly explained. “What I don’t understand is how it happened. Unlike elves, humans are not supposed to be able to activate their auras by will.”

    “Just because it’s not supposed to happen doesn’t mean it never does.” Cinder replied, lifting his hands off of Faolan’s head. Neither of their auras appeared.

    “Whoa, whoa, hang on now.” Alan said, stepping forward. “What do you mean by auras activating and whatnot?”

    Cinder watched him for a moment and then looked around. His gazed drifted to the body and the pile of ashes, along with the burned leaves and the crater in the road. “Come on,” he said and wrapped his robes tighter around himself. “We should get going. I shall endeavor to explain as we go along.”

    The others sighed and reluctantly followed him, except for Faolan who stuck to the Magus like a shadow. As Gwen began to walk, she noticed that even though there was blood all over the road, not a single fly or blood crow appeared to dine on the strange blue liquid. Nervously, she kicked the two halves of the creature’s body into the ditch and ran to catch up with the others. Cinder had his head down, in thought it seemed, while Faolan watched him expectantly. Alan looked sullen and Ilona was handing Caron some of the beechnuts she had found yesterday; neither of the two looked very interested in what Cinder had to say.

    Finally after a minute or two, Cinder looked up. “Well, we all know what auras are, right?” He asked. He looked at Faolan as he said it, but the question could have been answered by anyone.

    Ilona and Caron nodded, but the others looked clueless. Faolan shook his head and Cinder sighed. “Well, here’s the common man’s definition. It is the energy field that all living creatures emit. This mage’s explanation is that it is the specific aether and mana that our bodies contain and give us identity. Don’t bother to understand it, because you won’t unless you’re a mage.”

    “So those red, blue, and green lights that you made were your auras?” Alan asked, frowning as he tried to understand.

    Cinder smirked mockingly. “Good, you’re smarter than you look.” He went on as Alan bristled indignantly. “Now, I’m sure everyone knows that mana is the energy of everything in the world, and mages manipulate mana in order to cast their magic. However, the most powerful mana is in our auras, but only the Magi can access such a huge power. It is rare for someone to be born with their aura fully active, and those who are often do not know how to control their auras and cause wild outbursts of powerful magic. These people are called ‘wild auras’, which is what Faolan is. Quite powerful too.”

    Faolan frowned at these words. “So I’m a wild aura?” He asked.

    “I just said that, didn’t I?” Cinder snapped and ignored the glare Alan threw him. “Yes, you are. Tell me, have you ever been angry or scared. Well, of course you have, but when you were angry or frightened have things happened? Things you can’t explain.”

    Faolan did not answer immediately, but his face showed everyone the answer. “Well, one time we were in a bar, and I fell down a flight of stairs. I wasn’t hurt, but every glass in the bar broke.”

    “Shattered, more like it,” Alan muttered. “Every glass exploded, even the windows. Nearly took out my eyes.”

    Cinder nodded in satisfaction. “Things like that. Or even better, you wanted something and you suddenly got it. Actually, now that I think about it, I remember something from the previous night. I remember seeing your aura, although I had not been using my mage-sight. I saw a deep, calming blue, sort of like that stuff you see nobles wearing.”

    Caron stiffened at the words, remembering Cinder sitting up and grabbing Faolan despite the fact that he had been completely unconscious. The others stirred as well, recalling Cinder’s words and realizing just now how they made total sense. Neither of this went unnoticed by the observant mage. “What is it?” He demanded, watching their expressions closely. “What are you not telling me?”

    “It’s nothing bad,” Caron said hastily. “It was just something you did while you were unconscious.” Cinder did not have a response for that except a raised eyebrow, which was often an indication to go on. “When Faolan came near you, you grasped him and started muttering something about blue.”

    “Really?” Cinder replied, his eyes growing brighter in his surprise. “I don’t remember that. How interesting.” He began scratching Dreyken under the chin, which Ilona noticed he did whenever he was thinking.

    He didn’t get long to think though. Faolan soon got his attention. “But you can control your aura, I saw you do it,” he said. “How do you do it?”

    “Because I was taught to control my aura after it was activated,” Cinder replied. “Your aura is quite powerful, so you should at least be taught how to shield yourself. Already your aura manifests itself regularly; it’s like a bucket of water covered with holes, and the water keeps leaking out. Back at the inn, Gwen complained that her food had grown cold even though it had been hot moments before. When you were flipping that coin, it flew straight into the tree. Classic examples of manifesting magic.”

    “And you didn’t notice this before?” Ilona demanded, stepping forward.

    Trust Ilona to make a nuisance of herself. Cinder bit back a retort, too busy thinking to properly argue. “I did notice it, and I knew it was magic. Wild auras are incredibly rare, and I was thinking that Faolan might have been an amateur magician or something like that.”

    Alan was thinking deeply over Cinder’s words. He still led them, although it was more like he was merely tagging along instead of actual leading. Faolan needed some help, he knew that. Living without fear of something exploding or spontaneously combusting would have been wonderful, but what Cinder was saying upset him. Alan had no particular fondness for mages, with their tricky and mysterious ways. The Magus right next to him was the embodiment of that. He had a mysterious air about him, and even thought he was explaining the current issue quite well he was obviously skirting a much bigger one.

    Faolan was thinking too, but not of what Alan was thinking. He was almost scared to ask Cinder what he wanted to ask, but the Magus intimidated him by more than a little. He looked up at Cinder and gathered his courage. “Could you teach me to control my aura?” He asked hopefully.

    The reaction he got was not what he expected. Cinder’s eyes widened and he made an odd choking noise and his eyes grew a bright, almost flowery yellow. “No,” he said the moment he recovered.

    “Why not?” Faolan protested.

    “Cinder, don’t be a jerk,” Ilona added disapprovingly.

    “I’m a Magi, not a teacher.” Cinder growled, obviously not in the mood to argue.

    Caron stepped forward, looking from Faolan to Cinder. “Didn’t you once tell me something about magic and age?” He asked quietly. “About how it can get stronger when you get older.”

    For some reason the news seemed unwelcome to Cinder. He bit his lip and looked back at Faolan. “How old are you?” He asked, although he looked as if he were almost afraid to hear the answer.

    “Sixteen,” Faolan replied.

    “Sixteen,” Cinder repeated, his words coming out in a rush. “Oh hellfire, sixteen.

    Alan heard the tone in his voice, and didn’t like it. “What?” He demanded, “Is that a bad thing?”

    Cinder sighed and rubbed one of his temples. “Yes, that’s bad,” he murmured.

    “How?” Gwen asked, more curious than alarmed.

    Her reply was silence, but only for a moment. “Like my brother said, when a person gets older, their magical potential grows stronger,” he said. “Wild auras, as they get older, grow more powerful, and their auras get more out of control. Many untrained auras don’t live past eighteen. Their auras are too powerful, and they are eventually consumed by their own power.”

    There were gasps, especially from Ilona. “That’s terrible!” The elf exclaimed. “How can that happen?”

    Cinder glared at her as if the answer was obvious. “Because humans aren’t used to being in control of their auras, they aren’t born naturals. You should know what happens when you let power run uncontrolled. Eventually the power snaps back on the user and because they don’t know how to protect themselves, they’re destroyed.”

    A heavy silence met his words. “Is that going to happen to me?” Faolan asked when the silence had stretched for a few minutes. His voice was quiet and subdued.

    Cinder did not answer, but Alan did. “No, of course you won’t. The Magus will help you.” His tone did not make it a question.

    “I never said I would,” Cinder replied darkly. What game was this ranger playing?

    “No, but you will soon enough.” Alan told him firmly. “If my son is going to explode or whatever you’re suggesting, then I’m not going to waste my time guiding you people around when I could be doing more important things. We could just find another mage to teach him, but I’m being nice and saying that if you’ll do it, I’ll still be around as your guide. Not to mention it’s still free of charge.” The gaze he gave them was unwavering and could not be persuaded form his decision.

    Gwen’s jaw had fallen open long ago, and she was just now remembering how to close it. She could not believe what she was hearing. She wanted to go up and hit him, but something told her that wasn’t a very smart idea. Besides, a part of her said, you would do the same thing if you were in the same situation.

    However, Cinder did not look angry. Instead, he locked gazes with Alan, and after a few seconds the Magus started to chuckle. “I think you might have missed your calling, Alan,” he said, a wry grin twisting his mouth. “You would have made a good mage.”

    An odd expression came across Alan’s face. “I’d rather not,” he remarked. His face grew hard again. “Well? Will you do it?”

    “I don’t have much of a choice, do I?” Cinder replied, holding his hands out in a rhetorical gesture. “Very well, I can teach him a few things.”

    Alan nodded, not exactly liking what he had to do but going along with it anyway. Faolan was smiling widely and he looked up at Cinder. “Thank you,” he said gratefully. Cinder said something indiscernible and did not look at the teen.

    “Great,” Gwen muttered. “Now we have two magic users.”

    “Three,” Ilona corrected, “anyways, magic can be pretty useful Gwen. It got rid of that one soldier for us.”

    Gwen opened her mouth to say that the magic could have just as easily blown them to dust, but decided not to in case it upset Faolan. Instead she remarked, “Yeah, and magic also made those monsters look like men.”

    “Not very well though,” Caron remarked. “If you didn’t notice, they didn’t exactly have a master disguise.”

    Ilona fished around one of her many packs and pulled out a bit of bread. Gwen narrowed her eyes; she never remembered buying bread. “Yes, but we killed them all,” Ilona said confidently. “They won’t be able to find us again.”

    “What about tracing?” Faolan asked, frowning a little.

    Nearly everyone stopped, except for Alan who did not have the encounter with the tracer gold before. By now the “road” was noting more that a well-used animal trail, so no one could hear them. They still acted as if someone was eavesdropping though. “Why do you say that, Faolan?” Alan asked quietly.

    The teenager frowned deeper, thinking back to the two creatures. “Well, I remember something about the two that attacked us. One of them ran after Ilona and he shouted ‘Tracer’ or something like that.”

    Cinder froze at his words. His hands gripped Aederalvesaldi so hard that his knuckles turned white. He looked at Ilona, his eyes starting to glow red in mage-sight. “Damnit!” He hissed, along with a few other swears. “I can’t believe this. I should be kicked here to the Crystal River.”

    “Are you okay, brother?” Caron asked worriedly.

    “No, I’m not,” Cinder snapped back. “How in the world could I have forgotten?”

    Ilona snapped her fingers in front of his face, startling him into looking at her. “What are you talking about?” She asked when she knew she had his attention.

    Cinder scowled, his expression suddenly ugly. “I’m talking about this,” he retorted and grabbed Ilona by the shoulder. There was a loud snap that was like the crack of a whip, and suddenly a film of yellow hovered around Ilona. Somehow the stuff seemed latched onto her, and it moved when she moved.

    The elf frowned, and then turned her head in a better attempt to get a look at the thing that was now on her. It trailed behind her like a banner and made it look like she was in a cloud of yellow energy. “Why is there so much of it?” She asked, looking up to see that it filtered through the tops of the trees.

    “Because it’s a tracer spell,” Cinder muttered as if it should have been obvious. “It has to be big if you want to track it easily.”

    “Can you do something about it?” Gwen asked, gripping her sword tightly in agitation.

    “I was getting to that,” Cinder snapped, glaring. “Alright, hold still. I need to see what kind of spell it is first.” He began walking around Ilona.

    “You already said it was a tra—“ Ilona began and stopped as Cinder made an irritated gesture at her. She stood still as Cinder circled her, watching the cloud intently. She swore she could feel his gaze on her back, which made all of the hairs on her neck prickle. It was very disconcerting, especially when Cinder kept coming into her view with an odd concentration etched all over his face. Finally, she heard him pause behind her.

    “Well?” Gwen asked impatiently.

    Cinder narrowed his eyes at the magic cloud before him. “This,” he said, “is a rather tricky spell. It’s set to explode if anyone interferes with it.”

    “Oh great, Ilona groaned, her tone steady despite her stomach dropping to her feet. Points for her.

    “Don’t worry, that’s only if it’s done wrong.” Cinder replied, neither his tone or voice comforting. “I’m a professional.”

    “Why does that not make me feel better?” Ilona muttered.

    She forgot that while humans have poorer hearing than elves, they were still quite sharp. “Fine, I’ll leave it on and the next time those creatures come I’ll toss you to them.” Cinder replied coolly and reached out to touch the cloud. Red sparks flew from his fingertips with a loud snap, causing everyone to jump. “Hitta låset,” he whispered, forming his will into words and using his imagination to give them power.

    Ilona was puzzled. What lock? She could only assume that cinder meant a magical lock, but even that was vague. Then she noticed that something was happening to the cloud. It was reforming around her. Around her neck, shoulders, and wrists it was thinning until it looked like she was chained by golden shackles. Again, she heard Cinder’s soft voice. “Var är den nycklen?” she could only assume he was speaking in metaphors now. And yet the magic responded. Just above the shackles, it began to sparkle like pixie dust.

    “What’s going on?” Faolan asked, watching the cloud light up brightly.

    “Nothing to get worried over,” Cinder replied. Caron narrowed his eyes at Cinder tone; he sounded tired. “Låsa upp,” Cinder said, sending more sparks into the cloud.

    The entire thing rippled like water as the bits of red light flowed down it. The sparks stopped around the areas where the spell was connected to her, and they began to swirl around her like angry bees. The lights, both yellow and red, began to pulse as if it were a heartbeat. Then the shackles suddenly opened like their real-life counterparts and the magical cloud began to drift away from her. "Now, could you step away before it latches onto someone else?" Cinder asked her, the voice coming from her right this time.

    Ilona did not to be told twice. She quickly ran a few steps and turned to look at the spell, which was slowly dissipating like mist. "Thanks," she said, letting out a breath of relief.

    Cinder did not answer her. Instead he pulled his robes around himself as if he was cold. "Try not to get hit next time," he said. "I'm not up to removing another spell."

    Gwen rolled her eyes and kicked a pile of leaves. "Great, we're invisible again. Can we go now? There might be others behind us."

    Her reply was a "tsk" from Alan and a glare from Cinder. "So impatient," Alan said to seemingly no one. "Very well. Come along, and do try to keep up." He began to make his way through the woods, taking the easiest route that he could see. Gwen followed close behind, and the others made their way after them. Caron tried to help Cinder when he stumbled, but the mage shoved him away with an angry snarl and stomped ahead.

    * * *​

    Sian could tell that the general was impatient. He had spent a good portion of his life spying on people, and a spy eventually came to recognize gestures of subtle changes in the body to indicate their mood. Right now he was watching the general and trying to be discreet about it. While he watched the general, she watched the sky, impatient for her soldiers to return. The others around her seemed to sense the tension around her and gave her a wide berth. Mona ignored them.

    ". . .Should have been back. . . an entire day late. . . " Sian could hear the general muttering as she paced. Apparently the general had expected to imperial troops to have returned by now, even though they had only been gone for about a day. Sian propped his chin on his hand and waited. The general did not seem like a very patient person by the looks of it, sooner or later she would snap into action.

    The minutes passed and that prediction was coming true to a T. As the general got more and more restless, she paced faster until her armored boots with gouging out holes in the ground when she turned. Finally she seemed to snap and she whirled around. "Gillian!" She roared in a rock-hard, no-nonsense drill sergeant tone that made everyone in earshot instinctively straighten up.

    Commander Gillian was there in seconds. "Yes, General?" She asked, standing at attention.

    "Who is the best tracker here?" The general demanded.

    Sian felt his stomach sink like a rock. He gulped and shuddered and wished he was out doing something at the moment instead of sitting around and knowing what was to come. "Sian is, General," he heard Gillian reply. Great, just great.

    The general whipped her head around and started right at him. Sian tried not to flinch or show how scared he was. With the general's temper combined with her skill and rank, Sian did not want to give her a reason to explode on him. Blue-green eyes met brown, neither of them flinching away for fear of showing a weakness. And then quite unexpectedly the general smiled, revealing perfectly white teeth. "Thank you, Commander Gillian. He will do perfectly," she said without looking away from Sian.

    Gillian blinked, obviously confused since it was the first time the general had ever addressed her by her title. Before she could recover, Mona began walking forward until she was right in front of Sian. She crouched down so she was eye level with him, and Sian noticed that her eyes were a light blue with flecks of green in them. "Do you want to come with me, Sian?" She asked, just a hint of sweetness in her voice. "We're going to do some tracking."

    She was actually giving him a choice? That was rich. Sian matched her gaze and responded the only way that he could. "I would be honored to, General."

    The general laughed softly. "Good choice," she whispered and stood up. "Gillian, we will be leaving immediately. Prepare my wyvern for flight and bring us some supplies."

    Sian felt himself pale. The wyvern? They were taking that monster with them? The general must have noticed his expression and she gave him an amused smile. "Don't worry, he doesn’t bite, much." She told him with a twisted smile. The little witch was enjoying his fear. "You wouldn't be a very big meal anyway."

    Somehow, Sian didn't find that too comforting.

    * * *​

    "Well, Ilona?" Alan called, craning his neck upwards in an attempt to see the elf.

    "Hang on!" Ilona shouted back, her voice a mere whisper to the listeners on the ground. They were currently clustered around a tall pine tree, which Alan had insisted Ilona to climb in order to get a bearing on their direction and location.

    Currently the thief was at the very top of the tree, the sensation giving her a nostalgic remembrance of her home. She knew she was facing south, but what she saw troubled her. Elf eyes could see better than a human's, and she could see dark clouds gathering far on the horizon. Those had to be the Windview Plains, no other place had such terrible weather. She frowned at the distance and tried to calculate the time it would take for them to reach the plains, but she couldn't and gave up. After another minute of watching, she began to climb down. She swung from branch to branch like a monkey and finally jumped when she was nearly twenty feet from the ground. She fell and landed in the middle of the group like a cat.

    "Well? What did you see?" Alan asked immediately.

    Ilona brushed herself off and replied, "The Windview Plains are on the horizon. I'm no expert at math, but I think it's at least ten or fifteen miles away."

    Alan nodded and glanced at the sun, or what he could see of it, since it was starting to dip into the hours of the evening. "Was there a place you saw for a good campsite?" He asked, hoping Ilona was smart enough to have checked beforehand.

    Ilona nodded proudly. "Yep, it's a little bit that way," she answered, pointing southwest. She set off, leading them through brush into they could hear a creek nearby.

    The place Ilona had led them to was a clearing next to a creek, with a large boulder sitting near the water. Luckily the view to the sky was open, which would allow them to see the stars when night fell. As they settled down, a sound suddenly rumbled through the air. It sounded like a distant avalanche. "What was that?" Faolan asked curiously.

    llona heard it the clearest. "Thunder, "she answered, "thunder from the Windview Plains."

    "Great Luxovious, that has to be loud," Gwen breathed in amazement.

    "It doesn't matter," Alan replied with a grin. "We're finally heading south!"
     
    #8 Chibi, Dec 8, 2010
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 19, 2013

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