Hiya! If you've made it this far in the G.E.J. series of stories, I'd like to sincerly thank you.

This is the first chapter that I received help editing from aj. I'm glad he approached me about editing, I've never had an easier time going through a chapter as this time around. So if you want to thank him (or go yell at him ^_^ kidding!) you can find him slumming over at the awesomedude forums in the Editor's Corner.

Here we go...

By reading this story you are agreeing that you are of legal age to read erotic material in your country/city/state and that you will NOT reproduce/copy/change/post this story anywhere else UNLESS you e-mail me AND I give you permission! You are also agreeing that you read this story of your own volition, willingly, and will not hold me legally responsible for any material you may find offensive or emotionally damaging within. All characters in this story and their creative rights are owned by me, so don't be stealing! Thanks for your support!


Book Three Continues...

Dusk meets Dawn

Written and Directed by Dio Beckstead

Edited by Dio and aj

Interlude II – The Town of Grenhold (pop. ~1300)

There was something chilling and exciting about listening to the thrum as his men in their heavy boots marched in orderly and seemingly endless columns through the small hamlet. Their fearsome helms, black with jagged edges, bobbed in time with the thunderous drums that led them. Banners of white and blue flapped lazily in the wind, proudly leading his armies. It was a terrifying sight.

A tall, imposing Captain had already set a stool down on the ground for him to disembark. Renee Deschateaux dismounted from his carriage, fastidiously avoiding the many puddles of mud--or blood--that littered the uneven, unpaved street. It was hard to distinguish between the two in the smoky haze that choked the streets of the village. The six horses shied in their traces while they pulled on bit and bridal, nervously testing the stench with flared nostrils and rolling their eyes wildly.

The smell of sulphur was rank in the air, competing with the smell of rotting flesh. Many of the straw-roofed houses that lined the wide street burned like torches, and the heat was visibly rolling off the slanted thatch and pouring down into the street to smother the carcasses of the dead that overflowed the shallow ditches along the edges of the wooden walkways. Out of the corner of one watering eye, Renee glimpsed one of the groups of soldiers assigned the gruesome task of clearing the narrow streets, piling bodies so the great funeral pyre in their honor would not pass them by.

"This way, M'Lord." The Captain's head under his helm inclined politely and waited for the Overlord to follow. The man's face was cast in shadows, his voice business-like and mothering all at the same time. Renee felt a brief flash of annoyance that he was forced to look up into this man's face. Renee, as a rule, was always the tallest man present. The Captain better not get any ideas about his status just because he was tall. The helm he wore was one of Renee's own designs; in the likeness of an eagle he had ordered them crafted; black, like the heavy armor he bore on his broad shoulders to match. The dark glinting mail had been designed to incite terror and fear in enemy ranks. The evil looking crossbow he had slung over his back and the curved black sword that hung from his waist didn't detract from his image either.

"Report Captain," he ordered softly as he brought his hand up to examine his nails. They were impeccably trimmed, as usual. He would have to commend his aide. Renee didn't miss the thinning of his Captain's lips.

"Six, sah!"

"Six?" Renee felt his eyebrows rise. "That many?"

The Captain half-bowed; he stood awkwardly, unused to the action, and looked a little put-out that the warlord refused to follow. "It was a town of fifteen hundred, sah. That few."

The Overlord grinned at the young Captain's temerity. Not many would have had the stomach to reply in that manner. He liked this one. As a young man who had risen through the ranks quicker than any other, never was he afraid to speak his mind. Renee decided he liked the fresh outlook...at least for now. What was his name again? Tirillilix? Tirililililix? A mouthful, no matter who you were, and absolutely unpronounceable: it was, Renee reflected, one of his few faults.

"Show me."

Around the corner on another street, pairs of men bearing torches were lighting off houses yet untouched by the flames. The heat was slightly less here, but it wouldn't remain that peaceful for long. Wisps of flame were already eating at the edges of many of the untouched buildings; it was only a matter of time before this street joined many others in the chaotic sea of fire.

A short line of six soldiers from the local garrison were on their knees in the mud, hands behind their heads in the middle of the street; a ring of pike-bearing soldiers kept wary watch on their every move. The ragged and bloody men had been beaten with a flail by the looks of their swollen faces, so much that in one case, the man's eyes had swollen completely shut. It looked almost as if someone had stuck a straw beneath his flesh and blown into it, bloating the skin like a balloon. Renee took a moment to savor the sight.

The Overlord motioned his Captain to stop beside him, just inside the ring of guards. The prisoners were a sore sight: broken, every one of them. Renee could see the Reaper's reflection in each of their eyes. They were mostly the older, grizzled men that he expected to find in a backwater hamlet like this one; fighting men who had seen too many soft winters; the sheer bulk of their stomachs strained worn leather chest pieces that longed to expose the beer bellies beneath. The tattered and torn multihued kilts they wore made them a ludicrous spectacle better suited for a carnival. There was only one man who caught his eye; shorter than the rest; his face equally bloody, but several decades younger. He would have been attractive if not for the bloody welts that had marked his chiseled face. Renee detested waste. He pointed and spoke.

"Captain, stand that one up, I wish to speak with him."

The young man was on his feet as soon as the Captain impatiently tapped his head. A look of haunted fear filled the young soldier's battered and bloody face as he stared down at the Overlord's boots—too terrified to raise his head. Renee withdrew a small silver dagger with a smooth ebony hilt from beneath his cloak.

He raised the boy's chin with the tip of his dagger, careful not to dirty his fingers with the boy's blood. "Name and rank, boy?"

"Dale...m'Lord." Came the hesitant reply. "A...apprentice of the second m'Lord!" He tensed as if expecting more blows to fall. Renee found a grin tugging on his impassive lips, which only served to cloud his good mood further.

"Dale...I'm going to ask you a question in a moment. I pray you have the intellect to realize that it's in your best interests not to lie or anger me." The boy was so terrified his knees shook and looked about ready to buckle. If that happened, Renee reflected, the tip of the dagger at his throat was in a most dangerous position. "As you may already know, my Captain possesses a certain amount of...'zeal' that I find useful." Renee was pleased to note that without orders, his Captain had removed his helm, revealing his plaster-white hair and sightless black eyes. The smell of ammonia momentarily overwhelmed Renee's nose. He drew back from the boy as if burned by the flames now licking at a good portion of the smoke filled street. From a pocket he pressed his kerchief over his nose and scowled. Too much, too quickly?

Trembling and shaking, tears leaked from the corners of the Apprentice's swollen eyes. He nodded quickly, restraining sobs with difficulty. Renee forced himself to open his mouth again, willing his lips not to curl in a sneer of disgust. "Good! I'm glad we understand each other. Quick now, how many men are stationed in the capital of the East: Glendale?"

"I...maybe...thousands..." his voice shook as he spoke, tears leaked from his swollen eyes. "I don't know! I was only there for a few days."

Renee shrugged and raised his dagger to point at one of the still kneeling soldiers, whose sickly rasps were getting on his nerves. Without so much as a flicker of emotion across on his broad face, the captain stepped over, unsheathed his sword in one swift movement and drove the tip through the man's lungs. Blood ran down the sword, and the kneeling soldier flopped about for a moment, spitting blood. Finally, he slumped over as his lungs collapsed with a noisy rattle.

Renee looked back expectantly at the pale young man. He had fallen to his knees again, lacking the strength or will to stand. He was moaning, and he rocked back and forth. So this was all the Thiian Empire had to stand against him?

"Still nothing? Perhaps the next will make you think harder?" He started moving his dagger to the next man, but another lesson wasn't necessary.

"No...wait...I...I guess twelve thousand regulars, and maybe a thousand of the Emperor's personal troops...I...I swear...that's...that's all I know. It changes all the time! Oh god, I swear that's all I know!"

The Overlord scowled down at the stricken apprentice, "Thirteen thousand all told? Hardly worth my time." His whip-like gaze turned to flog the Captain beside him. "This is taking too long. Your men are being overly efficient at their job, Captain. The Empire has not risen yet. I want to bleed them. They must come to me!" His fury rose with his voice. "This is your fault."

The Captain looked up from wiping his sword and shoved it back into its sheath. Tempered steel made a delightful whisper that send shivers of pleasure up and down Renee's spine. "Pardon sah, but I hardly think that's something to complain about."

The Overlord glared at his subordinate for a long moment, the dagger in his hand seemed to twitch of its own volition. One scratch and the big man would be on his knees begging for the gift of mercy. He put the thought aside for another time. He would deal with the young man later. He turned back to the kneeling prisonners and addressed them. "I am giving you a second chance to live...because I am merciful. My mercy is greatest among all men," he said, strolling down the short line. "I want you to carry a message for me. You will all head west to Glendale; there, you will alert the Emperor's Hand that we have arrived and are waiting for his armies. Tell them...the Gheara have come to claim what is rightfully theirs. Tell them what we have done, and explain to them what will happen should they sit in their cities of ivory towers and chained slaves. Show them with cunning words the tableau of blood I plan to paint in your precious capital."

The eyes that he could see were a flash flood of hope and anger. Shoulders straightened somewhat and eyes brightened. The moment that they decided they weren't going to die was exquisite, Renee decided, the expression of a man who had skirted death's spindly fingers and ducked the deadly scythe called oblivion.

"Am I not merciful? AM I NOT FULL OF BEAUTIFUL MERCY?" his voice roared, making the soldiers start. Their faces shied from his own. Of course they would: mere men could not stare into the sun. He was the sun. The Thiians would learn this fact, soon enough. His voice returned to a more civil tone when he spoke again. "I will give you ten days to deliver your message. I will give you fifteen days of grace after that before I come. I will come with cannons and fire, brimstone and death. I will rend hope and have your precious Hand kneeling at my feet before the first snows of the winter months come. This is the message you will cry to anyone with ears to listen. Now go!" he barked.

The soldiers stiffly got to their feet, took one last frightened glance at the Overlord then escaped down the street. All but one: an old, grizzled man with what looked like half his face missing met Renee's eyes stubbornly with his single eye, and sneered with contempt. The effect was a disgusting one on the man's pockmarked and inflamed face.

"You're making a big mistake, letting us go. We'll be back, and you'll get yours. Mark my words, you'll get yours." With that last act of defiance, he turned tail and ran.

The Overlord stared at the back of the retreating soldiers, his anger smoldering. He smoothed his suddenly drawn eyebrows as he wiped the blade of his silver dagger carefully one last time before he tapped it thoughtfully against his chin.



Renee squinted after the soldiers, "A question of logistics for that sharp mind of yours. How many soldiers does it take to deliver a single message?"

The Captain was silent as he turned to watch the fleeing men fade gradually into the haze that eclipsed their shadowy forms. After a brief moment he replaced his helm and un-slung the crossbow from his back and raised it to his shoulder.

"Four's as good as five, sah."

The click of the trigger was followed by a chilling twang, a short whistling, and a hollow scream which only seemed to punctuate the ceaseless beating of the war drums that pounded time for the seemingly endless armies.

"Never make fun of a God," Renee said coldly to no one in particular, and turned to make his way back to his carriage.

Chapter 7 – Just Stones on a Board

Jaden had never liked formal occasions. Formal occasions meant that he had to take off his kilt and put on pants and a stiff uniform that made it hard to move freely. He felt naked under the black and red fabric of the Empire's dress uniform, especially since they had taken his sword away at the door. How did most people stand walking around without the comforting weight of iron at their waists or on their backs? It was akin to walking into town in smallclothes. Ridiculous, that's how Jaden was sure he looked. Ridiculous. He had also forgotten how restrictive pants were; he kept having to pull them down when they rode up into his crotch.

Twenty-four of Portios' most distinguished citizens sat in a circle around the giant black table that was a marvel in itself: jet black obsidian and black oak, inlaid with streaks of red ore imported from the deep southern deserts of the Empire. The table alone must have cost an army's ransom, and the price of the opulent chairs set at even intervals about the circular table would have fed the entire city for a year by melting the silver gilding alone.

The table rested on a raised dais in the center of the elite Forum. It was in closed session today, away from the public's prying eyes; decisions had to be made, and they were going to make all the wrong ones, Jaden was fairly certain. His dread was only expedited by his feelings of being dwarfed in the cavernous room of white stone and pillars of marble that stretched off quite a ways. There were no windows in the building, for good reason: in order to prevent intruders from interrupting closed sessions like this one, or lip-readers from spying, they had never been installed. For light, an army of torches were set around the dais on brackets mounted high on the ribbed pillars that ringed the room.

The stone benches in the commons below, normally filled with lesser politicians, were mostly empty now. Only the red and black uniforms and silver armor of higher-ranking military officers littered the marbled floor and gleamed dully with the flickering of the torches. Jaden tried not to squirm in the seat next to his father's massive chair that was purposefully set higher than any other. It gave the Emperor's Hand a commanding view of the table. In this emergency session, he was using the height advantage to its fullest.

"That still does not answer the Guillam!" Lord Edmund waved a torn piece of parchment around the table, half of it was ruined with dark red stains of flaking blood—probably from the one who originally carried it before Kaleb, Jaden decided. "Why should we end up with such a document? Surely you don't mean to tell me that a fleet of massive airships can penetrate our borders so easily and wipe out six towns without so much as a peep reaching the ever wary ears of the capital?"

"Here! Here!" a voice rang from the benches below, and several of the robed figures at the table slapped their palms down on the table in agreement.

"Edmund raises an excellent point." A square jawed man spoke directly from Jaden's left. He was dressed in the uniform of a general; six white swords adorned his uniform, one less than those decorating Jaden's. Technically, the older man held the post of guard commander in Portios, but since Jaden was a Lord's progeny and a seventh, the lines were somewhat blurred on who held the higher rank. The man had nearly had apoplexy when Jaden was given the seat of the Commander by his Lord father, the place of honour by his left hand. It was the Hand's interpretation of Thiian law though, so the general could huff all he wanted. Nothing would come of it. The house guard commander held the other position of honour on Edmund's right. Zexs would not stand out in any crowd--of average height and fair of face, the only distinguishing feature about him was his beard, which was thick on each side of his face, but abruptly stopped before it reached his chin. It gave him an air of sophistication and, paradoxically, an air of bestial desires at the same time. Zexs was the only man in the room, aside from his father, to whom Jaden was the junior to in sword mastery.

"This message, or hundreds like it, should have reached any one of the major cities in the eastern provinces: Eastfort, Blue River, Bonnet...any one of those places have sufficient troops to repel a serious assault. We are tens of hundreds of bolts in the wrong direction, are you trying to tell us you believe this to be the only message to reach the central Empire?"

A short, stocky man stood on the far side of the table where seats had been reserved for civilian ministers. He planted his stunted fists on the table angrily with a loud bang. His uneven lips were always half-curled into a sneer--the result of a childhood sickness--and spewed saliva across the table as he spoke harshly, berating his colleagues and coating those nearest to him with a sickly spray. "I am not thuggesting anything! This is a logical conclusion that should be drawn from the informathion available." His stubby arm shot to point across the table at Edmund's hand. His lisp seemed to come and go as he spoke, especially when he spoke in haste. "If that note bearth truth, and we have small cause to doubt its validity after that seal was verified by our elementalists, then our choices are thimple. We sit and do nothing, and wait for the Emperor--may his name be blessed--to tell us to mobilize our armies, or we accept our obligation to face this head on and mobilize them now...and have them marching immediately, or at least have them ready to leave at a momenth's decision. This is our responsibility...no, this is our duty as a loyal city of the mount."

The table slapping was so loud this time that Jaden jerked from his stupor. He had to grudgingly give the little man credit. Jaden had always underestimated the mayor of Portios Pass because of his deformed stature. He was a giant among men where politics were concerned. Jaden tuned out at that point. His participation here had so far been limited to questions concerning how the parchment had been found and questions concerning the sketchy individual who carried it. He found his mind wandering already. Mincing words with his elders had never been his specialty.

Rory would probably be in the library again. He had become incensed when Jaden had called him ignorant of Thiian culture. Jaden got the impression his slave abhorred most of the Empire's culture, thinking it uncivil and overly complicated. Sitting in the midst of a bunch of arguing old men, Jaden could almost agree, not that he'd ever let Rory know he had been thinking that—Rory was insufferable when he knew he was right. Jaden did a quick count in his head; he realized he had already been on the verge of punching the stubborn red-head at least twenty three times over the past few days.

When Red had revealed he couldn't even read, Jaden had nearly fallen off his chair. It wasn't funny or anything, just utterly unexpected. However hard Rory tried to hide it, he always let slip little anecdotes or words of wisdom far beyond his years that even Jaden was forced to admit were worth consideration. Underneath those freckles and tanned skin was a very wise soul with a mind that thought things out logically and critically analyzed everything. He had always thought the Northman had just read a lot of books, but that wasn't it at all. He just had an excellent head on his shoulders. No slave of his was going to be illiterate, Jaden had decided. So off to the library Rory had been sent...much to the Librarian's horror. It was a clever way to assure Rory was watched at all times. There was a mystery about Rory that kept Jaden feeling uneasy whenever the boy was around. He felt...threatened, almost. Plainly, that was ridiculous and an unworthy thought: Rev had managed to beat the Northman up, and Jaden could handle Rev blindfolded. That thought aside, Jaden was always half-expecting to come back one day and find Rory's strangled body slumped lifeless in the Librarian's study. He drove the poor man crazy with his never ceasing barrage of piercing questions. Rory was like the child whose only question, no matter what the answer given, was `why?'.

"Jaden...?" His father had reached down and was gently prodding him.

Jaden's tried to focus back on the conversation at hand. He breathed a sigh of relief when he realized no question had been asked. The lively discussion was still ongoing around the table, and it had degenerated into somewhat of a shouting match between a handful of the more vocal senators. The rest just lazed in their chairs with blank expressions. Coping with this sudden news of a massive invasion was nothing to take lightly.

"What?" Jaden snapped back.

"You haven't spoken yet. If you didn't notice, you are the ranking swordsman in the Empire's legions here. If it comes to a vote, your opinion will most likely sway opinions."

Jaden bit his lower lip to stop himself from retorting, but he found it hard not to get angry at his Father's condescending tone. And Rory had the gall to chastise him for being condescending!? Jaden cursed himself silently. Why did he keep thinking about that damn, annoying Northman? Now was not the time.

Another Senator at the far end of the table had finally shouted down several others, and currently held the floor. "...and finally, why should we—the guardians of the North—even think to send our troops to the East? The Empire is clearly divided in sections, and if this invasion is coming from the East, then let them deal with it. Our responsibility is to the North, and nothing else. Our men are needed here, first and foremost. Sending out armies into the East could be misinterpreted as an act of war. Think, gentlemen. Don't act rashly, I beg you."

His Father kept glancing at him, and it was driving Jaden to distraction; he didn't even try to hide that he wished Jaden to speak but the more the man did it, the less inclined he was to speak. Reluctantly, once the Senator was finally winding down, Jaden stood. Only a few Senators noticed him at first, as several were still arguing. Jaden waited until he had the grudging attention of the table. Being held and examined by a group of disdainful eyes was never an easy task. "I think Senator Greyham has a point." Jaden began slowly as he gathered his thoughts. "The armies of the northern provinces should not be moved without direct orders from the Capital. Leaving the province is a blatant act of treason, and shows a disregard for protocols set out by his majesty."

The reaction to his words were mixed. Several Senators stood to shout him down, but they were quickly drowned out by hands slapping the table. Jaden did a quick count...good, I have the majority.

"Then what, if I may ask, should we do, Captain?" Guillam was on his feet, leaning over the table as silence descended again.

Jaden was ready for that question. Janna had handed him the census papers that morning. "We currently have five divisions of cavalry from the Empire's Legions stationed around Portios. They should be sent off immediately to perform reconnaissance and determine the extent of the threat posed by these mysterious ships, or at the very least to reinforce our eastern borders. Most of the towns there are without even the simplest of defences or soldiers. They should be our priority after the scouting mission." Jaden paused and took a deep breath and resisted the urge to fiddle with his uniform. "We don't even know for certain that these ships can travel over land. The elementalists are evenly split on the issue, some insisting that those floating behemoths described in the scroll must rely on the ocean somehow to float in the air."

"And the others?" Edmund gently prompted.

"They believe it might be possible to have them float over land as well." Jaden conceded with a shrug. "But the elementalists all agree if that proved true, they would have to re-enchant the hulls. A massive undertaking, if my understanding is correct."

Another Senator, a wily grey-haired man whose name slipped from Jaden's mind smiled kindly as he stood to face the assembly. "Re-enchanting? Just how many elementalists are we talking about here? Judging by the fact that no news has reached us yet about behemoth battleships raping our lands, we should assume that if they can indeed be made to float on land, it must require a great effort on their part."

Jaden shrugged; he had no idea. He turned and motioned coolly for an elementalist who had been hovering near the edge of the dais. The man's black robe had a single, silver circle emblazoned down its front. It rippled as he stepped forwards. He had a thick, oiled black beard that curled under his chin.

"I can answer that." The man said bowing to the assembly, "I am Ephram, an envoy from the eastern Elementalist Coalition. While I can't tell you exact numbers, I can help. Let me illustrate a picture for you, if I may. The smallest ship in the Emperor's fleet required three days of enchanting, and thirty elementalists working in shifts. The sheer volume of elemental magic ripped from the ambience made even the simplest of spells around the capital weak and feeble for months afterwards. If that scroll is true," he continued, nodding at the bloodied scroll sitting in front of Edmund, "then we can expect these ships to be much larger than any ship in the Emperor's fleet."

"Just how much time are we talking about Ephram, elementalist?" Edmund interrupted, his eyes boring into the elementalist's without mercy. Edmund had never liked elementalists. Jaden always thought it was because they were some of the few people he couldn't manipulate three ways from second-day.

Ephram considered the question gravely, his slick eyebrows lowering as he thought it through, "I would say a month at the very least to get one of the ships floating again with twenty or so credible elementalists, less if they brought more. They would have to move quite a distance down-shore before they tried it on a second hull. That's assuming they do try and get them inland. If most of the ships were in actuality just troop carriers, the point is a small one."

Jaden's brow creased. That wasn't strictly true. He tried to visualize just one massive warship firing deck upon deck of cannon into a city from the air. The broad colonnades of Portios would crumble without much of a fight. Cities like Portios had extensive outer walls to protect against marauding armies: landbound armies. An airship would instigate a slaughter. The problem had never arisen before. Just one wasn't any less of a problem of titanic proportions than two, or a hundred.

The square-jawed general Vineaus to Jaden's left slammed his hand down on the obsidian top. Silence again descended. "I agree with the Captain's suggestion. But I think we should walk with caution's blessing. Let us not send five hundred men into unknown dangers against a foe we know nothing about. Such a force does not quite have the strength of a Legion, but is still large enough to draw unwanted eyes and attention, which a much smaller force might avoid. Let us also remember that this is a simple scouting mission. This is no battle they go to fight. They go to find what the enemy is up too. Fewer men also means faster travel. The rest of the troops should serve as reinforcement on our side of the border."

"Nonethenthe!" The mayor added loudly, saliva spewing onto the two nearest Senators beside him who had edged their chairs as far away from him as politeness could dictate since the time he had last spoken. "Those extra troopths mean little to Portioth. If what this scroll says ith true, we need all the men we can thcrounge. We thould start thinking of our own thurvival first and foremost...if we let the Eatht deal with its mandate until they requetht our help we will never hear from them again! We owe them nothing, but we do owe everthing to the empire. Heed my wordth."

The debate went on, but the Mayor's side seemed to be the minority in the argument. Edmund looked like he wanted to say something, but the pounding on the table silenced him momentarily. He waited, his fingers tangled in a steeple in front of him. He turned to Jaden, "You know what they'll ask for next, don't you?" he mouthed quietly.

Jaden shrugged and sat back in his chair. The pounding on the obsidian table rang hollow and empty in the great room. Did politicians find it easier to send men off to die because in the back of their mind, they knew all they have to do is sit home and sip wine? What was one more signed paper to them? Was it greed, or cowardice that made them send young men off to do the dying in their stead? Or did they truly believe that their cause was a righteous one? This excursion would cost Portios nothing but ink and parchment. Jaden had to grudgingly approve his opinion of the disfigured Mayor yet again.

Jaden didn't need to wait for the general vote. He leaned over to his father and tried to keep his tongue civil. Stating his thoughts here would gain him nothing but ire. "Give me at least one division of horse with a complimenting one of pikes and archers, and I'll start packing my bags. Any less, and you can bloody well lead them yourself."


One of Rory's few pleasures in the morning came after Jaden left him to his own devices. Rory had taken to coming down to the mess hall in the hopes of finding Rev...but he always found himself relishing his oatmeal alone. He enjoyed the sound of other men and boys talking. Today was exceptionally noisy, for right in the middle of a spoonful of the steaming gruel, the outer doors burst open with two familiar faces, their yells overturning every conversation.


'War?' Rory couldn't help thinking. That was odd. Thiians as a rule never really declared war. Rory had heard from Hector, the old Librarian, that the Emperor thought wars too expensive, while raiding put many a penny into his coffers. Jaden hadn't mentioned anything about this. From the look on Jinx's face beside him, he hadn't gleaned anything from his end either. The hall broke out into shouts all at once, as every single swordsman present shot to his feet and started shouting, demanding an explanation. War. Jinx stood and bellowed for silence.

"Let them speak, yeh bloody meatheads," he thundered, gaining some semblance of control. He gestured for the apprentice swordsman Rory only knew as Porky to continue. His wide face was bright red with excitement, and he spoke quickly.

"Lord Edmund's ordered a call to arms, and a recall to all free swordsmen! The Emperor's troops are marching as soon as supplies are organized. We're to follow, once they find the enemy!"

"Hold on there, son!" A gray-haired, gold-kilted sergeant stood and crossed his arms. "Who are we supposed to be fighting? There's been no army as could stand against us since the Aldamean revolution. And that was thirty years ago. Lest you forget, we trounced them so soundly their descendants still crawl around on their bellies while conducting day to day business."

Porky opened his mouth, but his tall and stringy companion, Worm, beat him to it. "We don't know," he said just as breathlessly as his shorter companion. He pushed his glasses nervously back up his nose from where they had slipped down. "Six towns in East's prerogative have been burned. We've only just heard about it. The closed council meeting just ended. We...ran all the way here."

Porky was motioning awkwardly with his hands. He waved them over his head, describing some gigantic object, "They have...AIRSHIPS!" That set off voices filled with skepticism.

Airshi...Rory was on his feet. Forgotten oatmeal spilled onto the battered table, surprising Jinx who knocked over the bench and swore loudly as he fell over backwards. Rory had trapped Porky's eyes as soon as he looked over. His entire body cringed when he caught sight of Rory.

"Wait...you did say airships, right?" Rory asked, the ice in his voice seemed to be the cause of Porky's shivers. "What do they look like? Who owns these airships?" he snapped. Porky just paled as the wave of questions broke over his head. "Answer me!" Men were turning around to get a look at who was yelling. When their eyes brushed his, Rory reddened. They must think him mental. Just add it to the list of things wrong with me, Rory thought with a bitter taste on his tongue.

A hand was on his shoulder turning him around. Jinx shook him roughly. "Calm down, boy. They wouldn't have told him something like tha'..."

"Black steel. Bigger `n anything we have. Six decks of cannons, they say." Worm lowered his eyes when Jinx's head snapped to his paling face. "I heard several Senators saying something as they left the meeting," he mumbled as an explanation.

"Well, stick me with a knife and twist my guts...darkfire!" Jinx muttered darkly.

Rory twisted out of the huge hand. A twinge of pain shot down from his shoulder in memory of the bruises that had vanished a few days ago without a trace. Airships...The horror of the morning with Rev returned then, doubled with collected interest. Rory stumbled as he ran from the mess, scattering a group of wide-eyed novices in the process.

Airships. Airships meant...gheara. Rory was running, past startled guards on duty at the doors and out into the courtyard. Black steel airships. It couldn't be. They wouldn't dare come back. Oh, not now. Of all times, NOT NOW. He had to see Edmund. Right away. He needed to...he needed to tell his father. NOW. A message. Edmund would know how. Edmund would understand. He had been to the north. Edmund would understand.

The unfamiliar grip of panic's sharp nails wrapped around his throat, making his breathing harsh as he ran, his legs pumping as fast as they could, carrying him down gilded halls, past statues and fountains. Liveried servants jumped from his path, spilling sheets and buckets of water around what seemed like every corner.

"Out of my way!" Rory yelled as he rounded the final bend into the main hall. A group of farmers in ragged smocks jumped backwards to avoid colliding with the ball of yellow, black, and red that shot through their midst.

The green and gold clad house guards at the doors to Edmund's offices just shrugged at each other when Rory flew between them, nimbly avoiding the long line that blocked most of the doorway into Edmund's outer offices, overflowing into the hallway beyond. He was a common enough sight that they didn't have to worry. The noise should have tipped him off that something was amiss. Rory was into the outer offices of the accountants when he collided hard with a page. Rory only glimpsed a look of horror on the young liveried boy's face before both of them fell to the floor scattering scrolls everywhere; they rolled under desks, and under the tread of thin sandals and thick boots alike.

Nobody stopped, nobody looked. In fact, a robed scholar nearly ran over them both. Men and women hurried in and out of the doors, trampling the boy's documents with callous disregard--they were much too busy with their own problems to deal with someone else's. Rory swore loudly and helped the terrified looking page to his feet, offering a muttered apology before he was off again, trying to find Lellil. He found the old man at his desk, surrounded by stacks of parchment and a gaggle of pages, who were mechanically placing new documents in front of him as his pen flew from scroll to scroll. Around them stood a press of flashily dressed nobles in puffy garments of silk and velvet, who were one and all shouting in a jumble of voices at the bitter old man. It was hard to figure out what anyone was saying.

"Where is Lord Edmund?"

"...he'll want to see me. I'm a land owner...a land owner."

"I have important business...no urgent business! The utmost priority."

But Lellil had no eyes for anyone but the young man beside him. Rory started when he caught sight of the strained, clay smile on Jaden's face as the older man waved scroll after scroll in front of his eyes and yelled incoherently at him, presumably to be heard over the ruckus. Rather than feeling daunted, Rory's urgency made him feel nauseated. He slipped past the crush to sidle up beside Jaden--well, he tried to sidle, but the crowd surged suddenly and he was knocked into the young Lord for his trouble. Before he had quite opened his mouth to yell for the old man's attention, Jaden had turned. His eyes widened, and he yelped loudly, interrupting Lellil's tirade.

"Rory! Have those reports come in? Good!" he said with a raised voice. One of his hands clamped firmly over Rory's mouth when it opened mechanically to deny his statement. "I'm glad you came to get me with such...urgent business. Sorry Lellil, I'll sign them another time. Just send then over to Sergeant Bernweld's offices, I'll see to them there! If you'll excuse me--urgent business, you understand." Jaden said, not quite in one breath, but close enough so that Lellil could only keep making small syllables of sound in protest, never quite voicing his outrage before Jaden managed to grab the underside of Rory's bicep and march him away. The crowd surged into the void as soon as they left, drowning Lellil's roar of frustration as their voices rose, insisting to see Lord Worchester.

As soon as they were out in the corridor, Jaden breathed a sigh of relief and shot Rory one of his real smiles; it touched his eyes and made them shine. Damn it Rory, he told himself fiercely, this was no time to be goggling at his eyes. Rory had never seen grey eyes before his trip into Portios.

"I don't have any documents. I needed to see Edmund!" Rory blurted as soon as they were safe within the buzz of the crowd overflowing into the hallway.

"I know, I know! You and every other person within half a bolt. He wouldn't have time to talk with you, Rory.  I'm sorry. But you have my thanks for saving me from Lellil. His breath smells like he eats rotting produce every morning and brushes his teeth with pig slop and vinegar every night."

Rory struggled to free himself from Jaden's grip, but all his twisting was fast proving fruitless. Rory dug in his heels and tried to pull Jaden forcibly back to Edmund's offices. Jaden just stopped and smiled patiently, and Rory gave up the futile gesture. Jaden was a lot stronger than he looked.

"Its urgent! It's about...the airships. I heard from uh..." Rory realized Jaden would be unimpressed if he called the apprentice porky. "...from someone," he said quickly, when Jaden raised an inquiring eyebrow. "Listen, I need to send a message to...uh...to my father-"

Jaden moved quickly and put a single finger over Rory's mouth. Jaden smiled over Rory's shoulder at the two black-cloaked figures that had somehow materialized out of the crush waiting to get into Edmund's offices. Had they been eavesdropping?

Rory recognized the two prying elementalists he had met earlier in the month immediately. His stomach twisted into guilty knots at the sight of their oiled beards. Elementalists.

"Ah, Commander Worchester. Just the man I was looking for. Oh, and Rory," he said turning and inclining his head, while his short companion just glared. "Such a pleasure to see you well again. Terrible affair, I heard. I'm glad to see you're looking well."

Jaden was watching them carefully, but he didn't seem outwardly hostile like his father did whenever he spoke of elementalists. Maybe Jaden was better at masking his true feelings. Or maybe he doesn't mind elementalists? Rory started when he realized the thought had sent warm tendrils of hope pulsing in time with his heartbeat.

"Did you need something, Ephram?" Jaden inquired, his smile never leaving his face.

"We all need something, Commander. My needs, however, are few today. You can quench a good part of them, in truth."

"Time is short, Ephram..." Jaden prodded gently, his fingers tightening nearly imperceptibly on Rory's arm.

Ephram paused then, and his eyes flashed to Rory and then back to meet Jaden's so quickly that Rory wondered if he had even seen the flicker of motion. "We wish to be considered a part of the scouting mission. We both, after all, have a vested interest in the survival of the East."

Rory took a moment to digest what the Elementalist was saying, "Hold on a minute. What scouting mission? Jaden, what's he talking about? Ouch! That hurts, damn it!" Jaden was squeezing his arm warningly.

Jaden sized up the elementalist for only a moment before he made his snap decision. "You and your companion would be a welcome addition to the troop. You should report to my Sergeant, or I fear you might be left out of planning. I think you can find him at the apprentice barracks." Jaden's voice didn't leak any emotion, but the meaning was clear. The two Elementalists both had muscles twitching in their cheeks as Jaden turned and pulled Rory after him.

The urge to blurt out everything to Jaden nearly overwhelmed him. He needed to tell someone...desperately. It was like a hot iron had been shoved into his lungs; they burned with each shallow breath he took. Jaden seemed to know exactly what Rory was thinking. "Not here," he said, turning and eyeing Rory curiously. "Come on. Let's go for a ride. I need a break from all this anyway."


The trees seemed to blur one into the other. The spunky roan was trying to outrun the wind itself, which tore mindlessly at Rory's cloak. His hood flapped behind his neck as the wind roared in his ears, even as it tried to pull Rory from the saddle and toss him onto the rock-strewn dirt path they followed. It was a sign of how long since his last ride; his thighs already ached from squeezing tightly to stay atop the muscled racer.

Not ten arm lengths ahead, another roan, slightly larger and with bulky legs, sent rocks flying backwards as its hooves churned soft earth and small stones into the air. Clinging to the top of Faraday, Jaden never glanced back to see if Rory was keeping up. Onwards his fearless charge carried him, into the sparse hillside forests surrounding Portios. The earthen road they followed twisted in and around tall, thin pines and between stocky, leathery-leaved trees that autumn's chill was beginning to turn bright oranges and yellows. The horses splashed through several streams that wound down from the great Grey Ghost Mountain, complaining loudly all the while. Rory's pants were already dripping from an earlier splash through a small crossing that was much deeper than it looked. Bright, his horse, plunged up to his shoulders before he found footing on the muddy bottom. The water was ice-cold, as Rory's shivering legs could attest.

He lost track of how long they traveled. Time lost its meaning as soon as he proved to Jaden he was fit enough to ride, and had mounted Bright. Rory resisted the urge to scowl at the thought. Jaden was treating him like...not like glass exactly, but...he didn't seem to have a use for Rory, aside from doing small, meaningless tasks, like fetching papers or people, whenever it was required. All boring. Jaden just didn't know what to do with him. Without Rev, Rory was again feeling...useless, and he hated himself for feeling that way.

The first time Jaden had asked him to do something had turned into a minor disaster. It had been morning, and Jaden was back in his own bed at long last. A small bed had been stuck in with Jaden's, but on the other side of the room. Rory had been up with the sunrise, which was magnificent to watch through the gallery windows.

Jaden had woken, and promptly asked Rory go get him some food while he changed.

The question was a strange one to Rory. Only cripples and the sick had others bring them food. So it was only natural when Rory said, "Why don't you go get it yourself?"

The resulting silence would have crushed a normal man into a flat-cake.

When Jaden recovered, he was livid. Rory had to scramble out of the room when a huge armored boot had come flying his way. Just when he thought he had met a fairly normal person, Jaden managed to remind him how Thiian he was. And Rev was still nowhere to be seen. Jaden always changed the subject when Rory mentioned him. "He's off on duty" was the most Jaden ever revealed. A small part of Rory was glad...he dreaded facing the boy.

Rory urged Bright to speed up with a sharp kick from his heels, which he planted solidly into the roan's ribs. The distance was closing at every turn. Faraday was the faster in the long straightaways, where his bulk gave him a momentum advantage, but in the sharper and ever more severe curves on the winding road where they had to decelerate, Bright managed it quicker; his smaller body made him slide and skid less than his larger brother. Rory could've made his horse run faster, of course...but this was a matter of honor, and he wouldn't cheat like that. He wanted to beat Jaden fair and square, and prove that he was good at some things—if not Thiian things.

The road ahead seemed to disappear; it angled sharply down just as Rory drew even. Bright nearly lost his footing and stumbled before regaining his balance. Jaden reigned up hard beside Rory at the bottom of the hill, both horses skidding to a dusty stop.

There were moments when the `Captain' disappeared, and it was Jaden who graced Rory's presence. It was the grin that gave him away, the one that showed all his orderly white teeth and made Rory's heart jump. It always came out at the most awkward moments.

Rory lowered his mouth to his horse's ear, trying to still his energetic roan as it pranced sideways into Jaden and Faraday. Faraday just eyed the smaller roan askance and snorted his annoyance at the youngster. "Are we here? Why are you smiling like that? It's unnerving."

Jaden caught himself and the smile disappeared. "We're here," he confirmed, "and don't be angry just because I won." With a quick, impish grin, Jaden let Faraday prance off the path on the left, and down another steep embankment that had no visible path. The trees weren't thick, and the horse easily navigated through them. The only sign of previous passage was a distinct lack of the thick, low bushes that spider-webbed all over the forest floor.

Rory's mouth compressed into a line as he reluctantly followed Jaden's path through the low brush. It was hard to ignore the short sword slung from his side. The silver gildings on the hilt caught beams of sunlight, making it flash as they passed in and out of tree shadows.

"We weren't racing..." Rory mumbled under his breath, but when Jaden laughed, his cheeks grew hot. "...and I didn't lose," he finished loudly. "Where are we going, anyway? Do you even know where we're going? You told Disel she couldn't come because it would be too dangerous. I thought this might be exciting, but apart from nearly breaking my neck and Bright's, this has been a poor sort of adventure." Rory had a sudden pang of worry, and he quickly pulled the lurid red wool hat tighter atop his head and down over his head to keep the wind's bite at bay.

Jaden caught him at it; he'd turned when Rory started speaking, and his eyes lingered on the hat atop his head. "You know, you don't have to keep that thing around. It looks ridiculous on you. She's not around to care if you take it off. Just say you lost it to the wind."

"No! I like it." Rory said as sternly as he dared with the unpredictably touchy Thiian captain. Rory tried to ignore Jaden's glare, but that was akin to avoiding a crossbow bolt at point blank range, and almost equally as dangerous. He wasn't about to tell Jaden how much the stupid hat meant to him. Jaden was especially touchy with any subject that broached his sister. "Its much better than anything I could wear instead." And it made him feel more like he belonged in this foolish circus of a culture.

"It's a wonder Bright didn't bolt when he first saw you. You look like a monster."

You have no idea, Rory thought with no small amount of resentment. If only Jaden knew the half of it.

The trail was unmarked, but Jaden seemed to know exactly where to go. He only stopped once, briefly, to get his bearings. They continued down another steep slope, and like closing a door, the wind howls were suddenly silenced, but that didn't halt the tips of the tall spindly pines as they gently swayed back and forth in the intangible breeze. The valley was low enough that the wind no longer could nip at unexposed skin.

They broke into a clearing, void of anything but thick, long grass. A small river, or a large stream, bisected the meadow, which was the source of the trickling water. It didn't look fast, but Rory shivered looking at it, clear as glass. It did look cold!

"This is your big adventure?" Rory asked in disbelief as he watched Jaden slip from Faraday's back. "A meadow and a stream?"

Jaden unhooked the bridle and saddle with smooth, practiced motions and tossed them into the grass. Faraday bunted him once and wandered off to munch some grass. It looked like a familiar routine. Bright whickered in envy and tossed his head urgently after his bigger brother. Rory looked down and sighed. "Stop whining boy, there's plenty for both of you." Jaden was already busy rummaging in his saddlebags, so Rory mirrored his actions, and unsaddled and unhitched Bright's bit. With a delighted snort, Bright pranced over to Faraday and proceeded to try and steal his eating spot, ignoring Faraday's warning whuffs that he should find his own damn spot in the meadow to snack.

"Ah! Here it is." Jaden said, pulling a black velvet bag out from the leather sacs and a thin slab of marble that bore a series of black circles and small indentations. He tucked his prize under his arm and made his way over to the stream and sat on one end of a table-like flat grey rock. "C'mon, have a seat. I want to teach you something."

"Jaden!" Rory said, his voice rising in anger. "You said you'd listen to me once we got away from the palace. This is urgent."

"And so is this, now sit down." Jaden's tone held a warning, and Rory shut his mouth reluctantly, furious with him. Rory trudged over and sat heavily on the other end of the rock. He scooted up so he could sit comfortably cross-legged. "Is this another one of those stupid Thiian games? Like tossing a horse's shoe at a small metal stake? I hope you remember how well that went over."

Jaden cracked a grin and laid the stone tablet flat between them. "The healer said Winthrop's toes are already healing. His pride, on the other hand...well...you just better stay away from the stables for a while. Unless, of course, you want a pitchfork as a tail."

Rory was staring down at the board dubiously. Jaden opened the drawstring of the velvet bag and poured its contents out on the rock. It had been filled with a multitude of small round and polished stones, some red while the others were white, they skittered about in a messy pile. He started taking the white ones and piling them up by his legs. "C'mon, help me. Those red stones are yours, so put them somewhere you can reach easily."

Rory remained singularly unimpressed. Why won't Jaden listen to me? Am I so hard and trying? Rory was chary with his enthusiasm, mostly because he was fairly certain this was a stupid lesson of some sort. Soon the stones were piled up by their respective owners, and Jaden was lacing his fingers and stretching them in anticipation. He pointed down at the board. "Now pay attention, because I'm only going to explain this once. This here game is known as Knights and Castles. It only has a few rules, but it's difficult to master. I started playing this when I was seven. I didn't win a game until I was twelve, so don't get discouraged if you don't win your first time out."

There was a hint of a challenge in Jaden's voice, and that piqued Rory's interest. "That sounds like a contest. What are we betting?"

Jaden grinned and rolled his eyes, "How about listening to the rules first? You're so transparent sometimes. First off, the pieces," Jaden said, holding up one of his own white stones. "Each of these stones is a knight. See those black circles on the board? Yeah, those. Those are the castles. Are you with me so far?"

Rory nodded and stared at the board intently. There were twelve black circles filled with small indentations that were divided into two sides of what looked like a playing field. They were set in a double triangle. Three castles faced each other on the front line, then two behind each front line, and then finally the last castle. Jaden took his stone and placed it on his side of the board, inside the nearest castle. "We take turns placing our stones, one by one. The object of the game is to have the most pieces left on the board after no more stones can be placed, or by wiping out all your opponent's pieces."

Rory scrunched his forehead, "And how do I kill your pieces?"

Jaden reached over and placed a single white stone inside one of the black circles on Rory's side of the board. "Ok, let's say it's the end of my turn, and now it's your turn. Put a red piece beside mine." Rory complied. Jaden then put another white piece behind his red stone so it now lay between the two white stones. "There, that piece is now mine." Jaden reached over and removed the solitary red stone, and replaced it with a white stone. Three white stones now occupied Rory's side of the board.

Jaden wasn't quite finished explaining, "And see here?" he had taken two of Rory's red pieces and placed them on either end of his white line. "You can also take multiple stones this way. These white stones would all be turned to red."

Rory glanced at the rest of the board. There were a lot of places to put stones. "This...sounds sort of boring. I mean if we can only place one stone at a time it'll take all afternoon to finish."

Jaden was grinning. "You sound like Bernweld. Don't let his grumbling fool you, though. He's really good at this game. There's another rule I haven't gotten too. Once your pieces occupy an entire castle on your side of the field, you can place one extra piece each turn. If you somehow manage to occupy a castle on my side of the field, you get an extra two stones a turn. And remember, you can only place on the castles touching the border on my side, you can't place deeper into my territory until you have at least one piece inside one of the frontline castles, and then only onto castles directly behind it. Here, lets set up the board now." Jaden proceeded to put two white pieces in the center of one of Rory's castle, and two red's joined them when he reached over, they formed a multicolored `x'.

"This is known as the neutral castle in your field. You can choose one on my side of the field and we do the same thing." Rory blinked. This game had suddenly gone from a simple, boring game and turned into one filled with thousands and thousands of different strategies. Rory decided on taking a castle on the fringe of the playing field, near the border of their territories in the middle so it gave him the maximum number of possibilities of playing into castles deeper into Jaden's territory. It was soon filled with two of Rory's stones and two of Jaden's white knights.

"Good choice. There, all set. Now, you can place sixteen stones anywhere on your side of the board except for the disputed castle. I'll do the same on my side." Rory thought for a moment and put all of his extra red pieces at the castle furthest in the rear of his last stronghold. A castle had space for twenty-four stones in a rough circle formation. It seemed advantageous to build from the edges outward. Rory glanced up. Jaden had split his extra forces into the two castles flanking his disputed castle so that they were both filled with eight stones scattered about the castle in what looked like a random pattern to Rory.

Rory tried to see the advantage in placing his stones like that, but got confused. It would have been much savvier to secure one whole castle first, because then you had two stones to play instead of one. Maybe Jaden wasn't as confident as he looked. That didn't follow if he had been playing since he was seven. Rory took a careful second look...but Jaden's strategy eluded him. He did, however, get an unstoppable urge to pound his fist into Jaden's all-knowing smirk. He wasn't charming like his sister...not at all.

Play began. Jaden worked hard to secure his frontline castle, but Rory kept recklessly attacking. The sooner this was over, the better. It wasn't long before the neutral castle turned into an even split. Rory kept attacking without second thought. He decided it was much more advantageous than defending. He was limited in where he could attack though, since the castles flanking the even split were soon filled with white pieces such that wherever Rory placed a piece it would get taken. But when Rory made his first move into the new castle, Jaden started splitting his pieces between defending the next castle and building up one of his all-white castles. Rory thought he would be able to take control of the castle before Jaden finished, but he was wrong. It ended up being completely red save for two white knights who stoically bore the brunt of Rory's assault, they had somehow gotten jammed into the midst of his red pieces where he couldn't convert them. Too late Rory realised Jaden was going to be able to place three pieces to his one before he could fill up the castle at the back of his field. By the time he managed to get two pieces, his disputed castle would have long ago been filled with an army of angry white knights bent on a bloody sort of revenge.

A couple of curious sparrows had gathered around the rock. They chirped at the strange intruders who remained still, aside from the odd time when a stone was played. Rory sighed and fell backwards to sprawl across the rock, startling the small birds into taking flight with upset and reprimanding chirps. Miffed at his own stupidity, Rory glared up at his opponent. Jaden's smile said it all. Trapped. "Can I give up? I think the outcome of this is clear."

"You're giving up already? What about trying a tragic, final last stand at the gates of your last fortress? Give something for the minstrels to sing about."

Rory propped his head up. Jaden's grin was infectious; it was his only redeeming feature. Well, except for maybe his eyes. Rory hadn't decided if he liked gray eyes yet. He wondered how Jaden could manage to act like two different people so often. The only other time this Jaden emerged was when he was with Disel.

"Right," Rory grumbled, he was glad he hadn't bet anything after all. That didn't make the loss smart any less. "I'm not one for tragic last stands. I'll admit the game was more amusing than I first figured. I'll give you that much." When Jaden's grin broadened, Rory felt like scowling, "...but don't let that go to your head. I still don't think much of Thiians."

"Ignorance is one of the highest sins." Jaden retorted, as he started putting away the stones. "You'd give Bernweld a run for his money, but my Father would run over you and leave you crying on the roadside."

"Hey!" Rory interrupted, "That was my first time! I'll think up a better strategy and give you a beating next time. Its not such a big accomplishment to beat up on someone who just learned the game." Rory wrenched his mind back in gear. Now Jaden would have to listen!

"I need to get a message to my Father."

Jaden pulled the drawstring closed on the bag and set it carefully down on the board. He kept glancing up as if trying to decide if he could just deny the request outright. Rory set his eyes, that only made Jaden let out a small breath of defeat.

"Alright, tell me why a slave should need to send a message to his homeland. Make me believe you don't just want to tell them exactly where we're weak. Do you think me so gullible?"

Rory was dumbfounded. That had never occurred to him. "Why, you pompous ass! Just who do you think you're talking to? I'm a Northman, and I promised your Lord father I wouldn't escape or do anything to harm him or his family."

"Words can be broken. Written ones are the only bonds I trust; a written contract is backed by the law. Words spoken mean little to me. You would probably do anything as long it meant escape-"

Rory sprang off his spot on the rock then, knocking the stone board onto the lush grass as he dove across the stone and tackled Jaden to the ground. With a snarl, Jaden grabbed his arms and flipped their positions so Jaden straddled him, his arms like metal brackets, holding him firmly to the ground. Luckily neither of them had hit rocks; the feel of the damp grass on the back of his head calmed Rory somewhat, so that he could see clearly again. Jaden, instead of looking angry, had replaced his original snarl with a grin that infuriated Rory all the more.

"Why shouldn't a contract bonded by spoken word be the same as one written? It's the same thing. Why should it be any less meaningful? I pity you, Thiian."

Jaden broke out laughing and let Rory's arms go. He sat back, still straddling Rory and crossed his arms. "It's ironic to be pitied by a slave." At the look of indignation on Rory's face Jaden held up his hands, appealing for peace. "I'm not trying to start anything with you, Northman. Tell me what you know, and I'll see that my father hears it, if it's important. He can decide whether it's worth the effort to send a letter to the North."

"Fine, but let me up first." When Jaden didn't move Rory tried to sit up, but the bigger youth just pushed him down again. Monster! Just how strong was he, anyway? He didn't look that strong. Rory felt like a rag-doll under his deceptively sleek arms. "OK, fine, don't." Rory took a deep breath, everything just started flowing out as fast as he could speak.

"How much to you know of Northern history?"

Jaden shrugged. Well, that was expected. It wasn't like Rory knew all that much about Thiian culture before he had arrived.

"Well, years and years before the Thiian Empire came about, the North was besieged by a huge force of great, black iron battleships not unlike the ones described in the east. They attacked just for the sake of killing. They blew up our navy, and pillaged several towns. They took thousands of men, women, and children as slaves before they decided the North wasn't worth the effort. Our winters were too cold for them, and they hadn't brought enough food. They would have killed us off if not for the winter."

Jaden's weight settled uncomfortably on his lower stomach. Much to his horror, as he looked up into Jaden's thoughtful eyes, something that was definitely not supposed to stir...stirred.

"And you're saying that these...battleships the letter described might be like these ships from the past? The same people?" Jaden asked, blissfully unaware of Rory's embarrassing problem just behind where he was seated.

"Letter?" Rory asked, and Jaden explained to him quickly about the letter Kaleb had brought them. Rory found himself nodding, "Burning villages...huge battleships...what am I supposed to think? Fate can only draw so many dots before we have to draw some lines. I'm certain the gheara have returned."

Jaden's eyes widened. What? Rory only had time to think that one word before Jaden had grasped in by the collar, and lifted his head off the ground. "What did you say?"

"You're hurting me...stop it!" Rory tried to break his grasp, but it was useless.

"Answer me Rory, dammit!"

Rory gasped for breath, Jaden's iron-like grip was making it hard to breathe. "S...stop it! I can't...breath!" The ambience shimmered in front of his eyes; it was calling. It was always calling him these days. Ever since those soldiers had topped the rise back in his homeland, it had been calling him. It would be so easy to throw Jaden off...if it wasn't for that damned vow he had taken.

Jaden seemed to notice Rory's reddening face and slackened his grip somewhat, enough so that Rory inhaled loudly and started coughing. "Gheara! You know of them. Tell me what you know of them," Jaden said, his voice holding a ferocity and intensity Rory had never heard before.

Rory took a moment to collect his thoughts and breath, "OK, OK! Calm down! Gheara, that's what they called themselves. The men in the boats." Jaden let Rory slump back into the ground. His eyes were full of suspicion as they tried to bore into his own green eyes.

"The invaders are...gheara. So that's what he meant. I thought..." Jaden scrunched his forehead, "That makes no sense. Kaleb said he smelled the scent of gheara on Rev. Called him a gheara's pet, or something similar. I thought he was talking about y-" Jaden's hard eyed glare was back, "Do you know what he means? You do, don't you?" he said, watching Rory's face turn ashen.

"Who's...who's Kaleb?"

Jaden, looking displeased with Rory's question, gave him a vague description of Kaleb and his airy warning about the fall of the Empire, and his reference to Gheara. That's when Jaden let it slip: Kaleb was in a cell, but he had been in contact with...Rev?

Rev. Why did it still hurt so much to think about him? If Jaden was trying to unsettle him, it worked. The only thing worse that he could have done was shove a red-hot poker into his stomach. Rev, Rory realised then, was in prison. Silence, aside from the odd whuff from one of the two horses fell onto the small clearing. Anger boiled inside Rory, and again he tried to shove Jaden off him, but his efforts were similar to a mouse trying to move a mountain. Rory grabbed Jaden's shirt and tried to bore his eyes into Jaden's grey glare. This...bastard had...Rory took a deep breath. "Where is he...Rev I mean?" Rory's voice was cold as he spoke, a chilling glimpse of his anger.

Jaden eyed him, possibly thinking of pressing him further for information, but he looked like he rejected the idea out of pity; his eyes didn't soften as he spoke, though. "He's in the stockade with Kaleb."

"He's in prison? Is THAT what you've been hiding from me? I don't believe this. I told you he was innocent--what's he still doing there?"

"Not that it's any of a slave's business..." Rory rolled his eyes at Jaden's tone, "He's being punished."

"You mean to tell me you've kept him in prison for more than two weeks because he's innocent? Is this what you'd call Thiian justice?" Rory scoffed. "I think I've had enough Thiian everything to last me several lifetimes. It's a constant wonder to me how this bloody Empire has survived for so long."

"Oh, shut up." Jaden shoved his arms off and lowered his head until his forehead was almost touching Rory's own. He prodded Rory's chest angrily with a finger. "Rev is learning a valuable life lesson. His temper got the better of him, and now he's paying the price."

Rory was suddenly finding it hard to breathe. Looking into Jaden's icy grey-glare made his heart stutter and miss a few beats. What the hell is wrong with me? He thought, and it was only his righteous anger that cleared his thoughts. "God, man! Are you even listening to what you're saying? Do you realise how petty and unreasonable you sound right now? He gave you a little lip and you lock him up for it. Isn't it your temper that's getting the better of you?"

"Shut up." Jaden said coolly, and straightened. "What would a slave know about my business?"

Rory was incensed, and ignored Jaden's attempt to change the topic. "Oh, so I'm a slave now, am I? You take me riding and chat with me like a friend when it suits you, but the instant I disagree with you, it's back to that whole slave idea. `Rory you're a slave, what do you know?' You're twice as ignorant as most Thiians, and ten times more thick-skulled. I feel like Bremen on the mount, when the Gods punished him and wouldn't let him off the mountain until he taught a pile of boulders everything he knew. And I bet those rocks listened better than you!" Rory tried to illustrate his point with a shove, but Jaden caught his wrists. White-hot jets of pain shot back up his arms, and forced Rory to wince.

Jaden opened his mouth, fury roiling off him in the ambience, but he closed it just as quickly and was suddenly laughing. The fury was gone...it just...vanished. Jaden let Rory's wrists go to wipe his eyes, tears from his laughter were wiped away briskly. When he could finally talk, he grinned down at Rory's sudden discomfiture.

"You sound like a miniature version of my Father, with half a dose of Bernweld and a drop of Janna. A bitter medicine."

Rory hated the feeling of his cheeks burning, especially under that grey stare. Those eyes didn't miss anything. Averting his eyes, Rory muttered, "Then maybe you should listen to the people around you who have good sense. Don't take my word for it."

"I think I'm learning to like that look of yours--the one you make when you get sullen and angry." Jaden seemed to catch himself suddenly, and he rose swiftly. "I want you to speak with Kaleb this evening. We can both go, and while I'm there I'll...do something about Rev."

Startled by his abrupt disappearance, Rory was alarmed to discover a bulge in his pants. He rose to sit cross-legged in the grass, hoping Jaden would miss the obvious, these stupid kilts did nothing to hide that sort of thing. Jaden was a man, he tried to tell himself; it didn't seem to have much of an affect. The swordsman was by chance already in another world. He had schooled his features and was quickly gathering up the spilled rocks and board, stuffing them back into his saddlebag. Rory couldn't resist; he grazed the ambience quickly, curious as to what emotion was running through Jaden, but all he got was a vague feeling of restlessness and worry. But what Jaden was worrying about eluded Rory.

"And what about my letter?"

"I'll think about it..." was the vague reply.

It was no surprise when Rory decided Jaden was hiding something from him. The what, was another matter altogether. Thiians did love their little secrets after all...


"...and what has that got to do with me?" Rory heard himself say in a very high-pitched and unmanly way. Rory didn't care what he sounded like, this was awful! A disaster!

The sun was just beginning to set as Jaden set out with Rory in tow to the stockade. Janna led the way, and flanking them were three swordsmen Rev had never seen before. Janna was the only swordsman who was wearing house colours. The other men were dressed in the Emperor's black and red, their long black capes flung over their shoulders exposing lethal looking, silver short-swords in leather sheaths.

"I said, you're coming with me, and that's final. You don't have a choice in the matter. I don't want to leave you here. When I take the army into the East, you're coming along."

"But I don't want to come along." Rory said firmly, ignoring the icy glares Janna was shooting at him every time she turned her head. Rory had carefully put himself as far out of her reach as was possible without leaving the group. "Why can't I stay here? This war has nothing to do with me. This is your problem, not mine. This is a Thiian problem."

The bulky Sergeant who rode just behind Jaden was scowling over at him. Rory made himself meet the big oaf's glare, he was shaking his head and exchanging weary glances with Jaden, who had the gall to find the whole episode funny, and he was laughing. This was not funny at all!

"It's got everything to do with you, you little sac of sh-"

"Bernweld..." Jaden cautioned quietly, and that silenced the big man quick enough. He sent one last lingering look of hatred Rory's way before the big man spurred his horse and trotted to Janna's side ahead.

"Just because you've decided to go fight with the ghear-" Rory started to say, then shut his mouth as well when Jaden interrupted loudly.

"You're my slave, Rory. I want you to come. You may be useful. You know something of these gheara creatures so it makes sense for you to come along. Besides, it would be boring sitting here and knitting stupid, ugly hats with my sister."

How dare he! Rory snarled and turned to glare at the swordsman riding on his other side, who had the beginnings of a grin on his scarred lips forming as he tried to glance surreptitiously at the outrageous, red knit hat atop Rory's head. Alright, after looking in the mirror back in the mansion, even Rory had to admit that he looked like some freakish monster wearing the wool cap, with his tangled red hair exploding out from under the sides.

"Shut up! I like this hat. You're just jealous she made one for me and not for you." Rory stuck out his tongue then, and regretted it immediately. Jaden looked shocked for a moment, and then chuckled to himself when Rory turned away, his ears burning. God, why did he have to make such an ass of himself in front of Jaden all the time?

It might be because of how anxious Rory was. They were going to finally get Rev out of prison. Finally. And not a moment too soon, either. Jaden was an absolute prat when it came to his pride, Rory had discovered quickly. He was as sensitive as some of the girls he'd known back home, and about as vengeful as a grizzly when it came time for retribution. Jaden was so...Thiian. It was depressing Rory to no end.

They had passed an empty cart coming from the stockade, but the driver had simply nodded to them from beneath a dark cowl, and continued on his way. The group of swordsmen didn't even take notice. Rory had, but he didn't say anything. The man had felt...wrong, somehow. Even the spectacular sunset seemed to be giving an ominous message: it was red as blood as it stretched across the line of trees and hills in the distance. It would soon be hidden behind the misty and cloudy peaks of the Grey Ghost, the mountain Rory could still easily make out in the distance.

Rory squirmed in the saddle. The road they travelled was lined with trees, and the dirt road with worn double tracks where carts had left their mark seemed anything but abnormal. Yet Rory had the strangest sensation of...well, for some strange reason he felt like he was being watched. But it wasn't just someone curious, there was malice. It was just a slight prickling at the back of his neck. But it was there. Rory had opened himself up to the ambience twice now, and both times the feeling had vanished as soon as he so much as grazed the other plane. Maybe he was just going mad.

"I said--Rory! Are you alright?"

Rory jerked in his saddle and nearly fell from Bright, who whickered a stern reprimand at the flailing Northman. "What? Oh, yes. I'm fine. Why?"

"You look pale." Jaden said, his eyes lingering on the boy's face. Rory shook his head, and tried to return his focus to the task at hand.

"No...its nothing. Just...a—no, it really is nothing." Rory pulled his hat down tighter on his head in order to mask his nerves. That had been convincing. He asked himself again why he was such a bad liar. Thiians seemed to manage it all the time without batting an eye. It always made him sick to his stomach. Rory tried not to look in Jaden's direction; if he did, he was certain the Lord would be watching him intently, ready to call his bluff. When Jaden stayed silent, it was a blessed relief.

By the time the hooves of the party's horses finally touched the short cobbled road that led up to the imposing stone stockade, shadows had already laid claim to the inner compound. Rory wondered idly why the compound was so dark. As they passed the outer walls, he thought he made out shadowed outlines of wooden torches mounted in simple iron brackets, but they had not been lit. Bright seemed to pick up his mood, and was snorting restlessly as Jaden brought the party to a halt.

Jaden was talking in brisk, harsh tones with Janna and Bernweld just a bit ahead, but it was spoken softly, and Rory didn't quite make out their whole conversation, only bits and pieces.

"I swear Janna...should be a guard...is my Father employing halfwits?"

"...up. I don't...feeling." Janna replied, her whisper harsh in the gathering darkness.

Rory kicked Bright forwards a bit and strained his ears. Jaden noticed him then, and cut off whatever discussion had been ongoing. Janna was glaring coldly back, but that was nothing new. "C'mon, this way. Deneal is going to get an earful when I find out who skipped on their-"

Bright reared then, and Rory was so startled he nearly toppled backwards. When Bright came down his hooves made an unnatural splat.

Splat? Rory thought to himself. No, that couldn't be right. It hasn't rained for days.

"Red? What's the hold up?" Bernweld growled angrily, his horse trotting back over with the torch, his intake of breath only slightly behind the sound of Jaden's boots hitting the ground as he rushed over to grab Bright's reigns as the roan tried to rear again, its nostrils flaring wildly.

Just in front of Bright's hooves lay a body. The sick sight of a crossbow bolt sticking out of his neck explained the soaked ground. Rory's stomach heaved as the smell finally reached him.

Shouting. Someone was shouting. A hand grabbed his arm and Rory found himself sprawled on the ground, suddenly struggling to fill his lungs again. Jaden was yelling orders loudly, and horses were screaming.

Then came death on wings of iron.

Thunk-thunk-thunk. A rapid succession of crossbow bolts suddenly filled the air churning earth and spitting up stones as they dug and skittered around the party and in their midst. Chilling wails from the horses filled Rory's head as Jaden pressed him into the bloody ground. It was sticky, and the earth stuck to him everywhere. Bright's pain filled cry filled his mind. He had been hit. He hobbled away and Rory lost him in the darkness.

"The torch! PUT OUT THE TORCH! THEY'RE AIMING FOR THE TORCH!" Rory yelled from beneath Jaden's weight.


Jaden hauled the Northman to his feet and pushed him towards the doors of the stockade. "Inside, Rory. Go!" The Northman didn't need much encouragement, he was already sprinting for the arched entrance.

Thock. Another near miss. Anger, rage took him. His short sword clearing his sheath and he cut then, deflecting another of the bolts that were peppering the close knit group. His hands rang with the impact of the buzzing projectile. They DARED to mess with a seventh? Were they MAD? Bernweld was off to his left somewhere, cursing as he extinguished the torch in the wet earth.

"JANNA! Take Rory to the Stockade. Bernweld, you're with me. Hawks, Taylor, Veltner, scatter! MOVE IT!!"

Janna had been cool with him lately, but she didn't argue. She was off running after Rory, and headed for the shelter of the stone doorway before he had finished talking. The crossbow on her back was already out and loaded, but ultimately useless in an ambush. Where was she supposed to fire?

A short, gurgling cry as one of the three nameless swordsmen was caught in the hail of metal. Jaden didn't wait. He was running. There was only one place they could hide in the courtyard, and that was the stables. Blood pounded in his ears as he charged, only dimly hearing the bear-like battle cry of Bernweld behind him.

Another bolt, his sword deflecting it off the mark again. Were they STUPID? Jaden roared then, a cry of contempt and absolute rage. The first shadowy silhouette that rose in front of him fired blindly, the swish of the passing bolt only registered after Jaden's sword bit into flesh, and then he was running again. The shock of a bolt into his shoulder nearly toppled him, but he planted an arm and never quite fell over; he just kept his legs pumping. Pain...that was for later. AFTER blood had been spilt. A grunt and another wail meant Bernweld had found another of their attackers.

The doors to the small stables were open. As he approached, he had to throw himself sideways in desperation as a hail of bolts emerged like angry wasps from the interior. Another figure with the dim outline of a sword detached itself from the shadows beside the stable. His downward stroke was well timed, but Jaden was faster. He took the blow and let it slide off his weapon, sparks flying at the contact, nearly making Jaden lose his night vision. Jaden gritted his teeth and rolled to his feet, his sword cutting up underneath his opponent's guard, finding the slit in the armour under his armpit. The sword grated and threatened to lodge for a moment before he pulled it free. Then Jaden was past him, racing around the corner of the stable.

A great cry from out front reminded Jaden of Bernweld. It was one of pain and loathing. Damn! He thought to himself, his breath coming in heaves as he skidded around the back of the stables.

Jaden wasn't sure who was more surprised—him, or the five crossbowmen kneeling in a line all struggling to re-wind their bows. Hatred poured out of Jaden into his swordarm, which rose and fell with the swiftness of thought, silencing the cry of the closest before it could leave his lips.

The remaining four shadows dropped their bows and made a break for it, the ringing sounds of swords clearing sheaths the only warning Jaden had. They were shouting, but for all the blood pounding in his ears, it looked like they were just mouthing words. The next closest man bellowed a challenge and bore down on Jaden.

"TOO SLOW!" Jaden roared, kicking the proffered sword out of his way and smashing what he figured what the head with the hilt of his sword as he raced by. There was a crunch, and the body crumpled lifelessly to the floor, losing itself in the long shadows. His fist throbbed and flickers of pain shot up his arm to dig into the wound where the bolt had found his shoulder. They were getting away. No one was supposed to get away. Not after fucking attacking HIM! Jaden turned, switched his sword to his unwounded arm and threw his sword at the figure who was almost out the back. The sword tumbled end over end, whistling loudly through the night air until it pierced armour and chest with an odd sound of scraping metal and a gurgling cry. The impaled figure crashed noisily into the wooden doorframe and slid to the floor.

Jaden stumbled backwards as the hiss of another sword gave good warning. He fell over the body behind him which, ironically, saved his life. As he rolled backwards something bit into his cheek, a burning pain lancing his face. He rolled sideways and kicked out when the man's sword flashed into view again. Crunch. Jaden's hearing returned then, to the clatter of steel falling onto the ground, his whole leg seemed to vibrate with the blow.

Stupid, how utterly stupid! Jaden thought angrily. He didn't have two swords like he normally carried. His sword, Dusk, lay safely in his bed-chambers. Frantically Jaden scrambled around on the ground until his hands met the cold steel. Too late! A heavy body crashed into him then, forcing the air from his struggling lungs, driving him into the hay littered ground. His opponent straddled him and knocked the sword from his grasp. Huge hands found their way onto his neck and began to squeeze mercilessly. Jaden panicked, and tried to pry those iron bars from his neck, but to no avail; the man was bigger, stronger. Darkness swam before his eyes. He could not, he would not die like this! Jaden jerked his body and twisted suddenly, enough to free one leg. With a sharp jerk that made the muscles in his leg cry out in pain, Jaden's knee smashed up between the man's legs. With a groan, the hands suddenly slackened. Jaden, with his left arm, shoved the big man off and slid his dagger from his right boot with his free, undamaged hand and pounced on the man before he had fallen completely. Down he drove the dagger until it bit flesh, and again and again, until the man could no longer scream, his hands were wet with blood and the tip of the dagger was chipped from metal and bone.

"TRY TO KILL ME? KILL ME? ME!?" Jaden stood and kicked the lifeless body. "NOT EVEN IF YOU TRAINED FOR THE NEXT HUNDRED YEARS!"

Jaden retrieved his sword and went looking for Bernweld. For the first time in his life he had a most strange thought bubble to the top of his head:

He wondered and hoped that Rory was OK.


"Get DOWN!" Janna shouted unnecessarily at Rory, pushing him deeper into the stone archway. She swore loudly, "Where are they? I can't see a bloody thing," she hissed in frustration. "I'm as like to hit Jaden or the Sergeant as those dickless bastards. An ambush, and on our front door? How low can they stoop?"

"Who are these people?" Rory asked and peeked out again. His sharp eyes saw several shadows battling outside the small stables. He was rewarded for his effort by Janna slamming him back against the wall, just as a big chunk of stone in front of his eyes was gouged out, a bolt ricocheted off the wall and stuck in the soft earth between his feet.

"Jesus, get inside—they're everywhere!" Janna yelled loudly.

"Wait-" Rory started to protest, but Janna was already pulling the door open and shoving Rory through. Rory stumbled and blinked quickly in the light of the ring of lanterns, his nose suddenly aching to sneeze. His eyes widened as the sounds of two swords clearing sheaths brought his watering eyes into focus on two large and burly men, both with thick beards and black leather armour.

"Duck!" Janna shoved Rory, sending him sprawling onto the cold stone floor as a sword whizzed through the air above his head. The crossbow in her hands snapped up, and with a twang she loosed a snapshot that found the closest swordman's shoulder, spinning him to the ground with a deep grunt. Janna leapt over him, throwing her crossbow at the second. The big man kicked it out of the way, and met her sword as it cleared her scabbard in mid-air a moment later.

Janna twisted as she landed, her foot coming around and sweeping the less nimble giant off his feet. Rory could almost feel the ground shake as he hit the stone floor, his head bouncing off the unyielding stone like a ball. He lay still. Rory scrambled to his feet, carefully avoiding looking at Janna as she strode over to the moaning man and crouched down beside him.

"Who in the name of the holy four mounts are you? Why are you attacking us?" Janna had grabbed his collar, lifting his head partially of the ground. To Rory, she certainly didn't seem that strong, but she had no difficulty bringing his head up. The man in black groaned once, and Rory heard a distinct crack, then he, like his companion, went still.

Janna swore and dropped the man to the ground. "Poison capsule." She swore again. "This is no band of amateurs. Professional assassins, more like."

The solitary door that led deeper into the stockade lay broken on its hinges. Rory gasped at what he saw. "That...door...that can't be natural," he managed to say. The remaining strands of elements still lay about the mangled and twisted metal door, trailing off it and waving like strands of a silken web. A powerful incantation. Rory had never seen its like. Somehow they had managed to twist matter and undo the very bonds that held it together. A tremor of fear ran through Rory.

Janna was peeking through the doorway carefully. She eyed the rubble of the door warily and motioned at her cross bow with her free hand. "Grab it, wind it up with the little lever there. Come on Red! Hurry. This is an Elementalist's work. That crossbow is our only weapon against him!"

Rory did as she asked, he fumbled awkwardly with the unfamiliar lever until it was once again set. Janna ripped it from him and set a new bolt. Before sheathing her sword she eyed Rory suspiciously. "You wouldn't be able to wield a sword, now would you?"

Rory felt the blood drain from his face, he shook his head quickly. "No...um...I...can't." Janna was biting back more curses, and slammed the sword home. She might be angry now, but he really couldn't use a sword...naked metal made for death like that...strange things always happened when it was a Bern'alad who wielded her.

"I suppose not...not if Rev..." She shook her head. "C'mon Red. My brother's down here somewhere. I'm not leaving him at the mercy of some elementalist son of a whore." She took a breath and darted through the door, Rory never far behind. He was half expecting a hail of bolts to greet them in the narrow arched stone corridor, but they never came. It was dark, and it only got darker the further in they went. Janna obviously knew where she was going, for they soon reached the end of the corridor and another stone arch, with a spiralling stone staircase that led down, deep into the dank depths.

"Janna...wait! Shouldn't we wait until Jaden gets here?"

Without so much as a pause, Janna trotted through the doorway, the crossbow held ready at her shoulder. There were no sounds except for the quiet tread of their boots on the worn stone steps. The air grew thick and humid, Rory struggled with his breath as they continued downward. It was as if the very walls pressed in on him. Rory had never been in such a dark, depressing place in his life. Rev was in here?

Janna, at each doorway they passed, stopped and listened for a moment before she continued downward. This was dangerous. Playing tag with an elementalist in the dark when he had the advantage of being able to lay a trap was a stupid, STUPID exercise. Rory battled with his oath while Janna continued to lead him downwards. Surely a peek wouldn't hurt, Rory thought to himself. He opened the barriers between himself and the ambience just for a moment.

Danger! The thought rang clearly as soon as he touched the ambience.

"Stop!" Rory frantically grabbed the back of Janna's armour and pulled as hard as he dared. They both fell back onto the steep slanting stairs. Then silence reigned.

"What are you-"

"Shhh!" Rory said, pointing at the step Janna was about to step on. "There's a trap there, you nearly sprung it! It would have let him know we were coming."

Janna sat up, crossbow lowering and squinted into the haze of shadows. After a moment she stood uncertainly, "I don't see anything. How in the Emperor's name do you..." She hissed back.

Rory stood, careful not to push against Janna lest she take another step down. "Just...trust me...please? It's there. I know it. Jump over that step and you should be OK...I think" he added uncertainly. It had been so long since he last seriously used the ambience...could he be mistaking the weave?

Janna turned and looked into his eyes. It was too dark to tell, but Rory could swear one of her eyebrows was raised in a tiny arc. After a moment she just shook her head and muttered something that sounded like northman before she leaped down onto the next step. Rory followed soon after. A quick check of the ambience revealed exactly what sort of trap it had been.

"Would have fried us senseless..." Rory muttered darkly to himself as they continued downwards in the never-ending spiral. How many times had he broken his oath now? Five? Ten? Did it matter anymore? He had broken it. Once was enough. His Father would call him weak. Weak because he needed to rely on something that was other than his own strength, a borrowed power. Rory hated himself for it.

He was so distracted checking the ambience, he nearly ran headlong into Janna, who had flung out an arm to stop his blind descent. Rory realised with a start the doorway she had stopped at was...glowing. At closer inspection it looked to be some sort of lichen. It gave the doorway an eerie feel that made his skin crawl.

"The third deep, both Rev and Kaleb are here," she whispered, and edged up to the doorway, her crossbow at the ready. Almost too quickly for Rory to follow with his eyes, she whipped her head to glance inside the doorway and back out again. She swore loudly.

A loud, familiar sounding voice rang inside the doorway, its deep bass vibrating the very stones Rory stood on. "Ah! The mice are here. Little mice running to the cheese. We all know how that ends, don't we?" The ambience shuddered then. It ran ice into Rory's stomach.

Rory knew that voice! The Elementalist...Ephram! He had been the nicer of the two elementalists. Always polite. What in hellfire was he doing here? Rory tried to scoot around Janna to take a peek inside but Janna shoved him back against the wall.

"Let my brother go, you filthy, elementalist pig!" Janna yelled, hefting the crossbow unsteadily.

Brother? REV? Rev was in there?

"Ah! Tut, tut. We don't want anything to happen to this fine young lad accidentally, now do we?" The voice taunted; it rang hollowly in Rory ears. The thread hanging in the ambience suddenly came to the forefront of Rory's mind. But...what of his oath? He couldn't, could he? But he had already gone so far with Rev...what was one more...?

"Janna..." Rory grabbed Janna's shoulder, "what's going on?"

Laughter answered his hushed question. "Oh my, oh my! Is that the little Northman I hear? Oh, but this is too perfect. Two mice in one trap? Oh my, oh my!" More laughter. "Are you still pretending to be the helpless, innocent slave, my little Bern'alad? Or have you told everyone what a big liar you really are?"

Rory felt his knees threaten to collapse under him. His vision seemed to tilt. Luckily Janna was too concerned to notice anything amiss. She turned and peeked in the doorway again. "Shut up, filth! Where's your little pet, huh Ephram? Where is Desther hiding?"

A shout of pain greeted Janna's words--Rev's voice. The sound wrenched Rory back to the present, his musings abruptly forgotten.

"Janna...run! Don't come in here! OUCH!"

"Filth, am I?" The laughter soured in Rory's ears. "No, Desther didn't quite see things my way. In fact, I don't think he'll ever see much of anything, ever again. One more insult, you little bitch, and Rev can join Desther in the afterlife. I've always wondered how long it takes a boy to burn. Shall I find out? I'm sure you're just as curious as I!"

"YOU LEAVE HIM ALONE!" Janna roared. This time, Rory was the one grabbing her arm, stopping her from running into the room foolishly. She shook under his grip, her hand twitching next to the trigger. This wasn't the Janna Rory had first met. Not at all! Rory didn't need to touch the ambience to know Janna loved her brother with every fiber of her being. The thought made Rory grimace. What would that be like, he wondered, having someone love you with everything they had to give, unconditionally. Janna at that moment, looked ready to give her own life for her brother. There would be no hesitation. Was that...love?

Rory shook his head to clear it. Ephram was laughing again, it echoed and came at Rory and Janna from what sounded like every direction. At that moment, Rory made a choice. Whether it was right or wrong, he wasn't sure. But he did know one thing: he wanted to save Rev. For maybe one of the first times in his life, Rory wanted to use his power.

Rory pulled Janna as hard as he could, flinging her to the floor out of the way. She had been so absorbed, she didn't even register it until Rory whipped past her and dashed into the room, his hands held outstretched in front of him.

Rory had only the briefest of moments to see the huge streams of fire elements being woven before a blast of heat and flame, so hot it made the lichen on both sides of the tunnel burst into flame as the ball of blazing death shot towards Rory.

Streams of fire hit his hastily woven shield and curled around Rory, the heat making his entire body soaked with sweat. Then the flare died, and his shield collapsed with an unearthly pop. Darkness returned, and the afterimage of the ball of flame burned into his night vision.

Rory could barely make out Ephram in the spotted gloom. But he was there, standing in the middle of the roughly hewn corridor between the empty and ominous iron bars of endless cells, a thin and ragged looking Rev clutched before him with one arm. His cackling laughter assaulted Rory's ears.

"Good! GOOD! It won't be fun unless you struggle! Good, oh yes, I haven't been this excited since the slave rebellion in Achorage ten years ago. Brilliant! I can't even see you in the ambience, yet you can make a shield to stop my flame. I don't even remember the last time I had someone block my flame. Oh, but this is making me excited!" Ephram turned his bloodcurdling smile down to the boy he used as a shield. "Aren't you excited Rev? Rory here just gave away his deepest, darkest secret...all for you."

Rev was staring at him, eyes wide. His mouth opened, but no sound emerged. It was as if he had seen a ghost. Rory had know telling Rev would be hard, but the look on his face at that moment nearly ripped open his chest.

"Let. Him. GO!" Rory ordered angrily, hating his voice when it trembled. "You have NO right to hurt him. It's me you want to fight, so lets fight. But with honor, just you and me."

Ephram took a long look at Rory, before he burst out laughing; laughter devoid of real emotion, only madness remained. "Honor? You would lecture me on honor? I have trouble believing what I'm hearing from Bern'alad scum."

Rory felt Janna peek around the door behind him, the cross bow raised. "Rory, what are you doing? Get down!"

"No." Rory said, positioning himself between Janna and the rogue elementalist. Rory planted his feet, legs spread. "I'll give you one last chance, Ephram. Let Rev go. Now."

Ephram was frowning. "I'm a little disappointed, making threats with so little power? I've got a better idea...how about you DIE!" Ephram screeched the last, and raised his hand, fire weaving, expanding. Another red hot ball came streaming towards Rory. Rev's scream of warning rang sharply down the corridor, but it was unnecessary. The shield this time was not a clumsy, last minute defense. It was solid, much like a stone wall; the flame just vanished, snuffed with just wisps of smoke to commemorate its passage. The hot air blew over Rory that had gotten sucked along with the fireball's path. It ripped the woolen cap from his head.

Rory gritted his teeth. "Rev...I'm sorry...I...I should have told you." Rory said softly, half hoping Rev would understand, but knowing he wouldn't. It was hard after all these years to touch the ambience, to really touch it. Not just dip a finger in and swirl the current, but fling a gigantic bucket in the middle, let it fill and wrench it back out against the flow. His eyes burned and his vision wobbled unsteadily, but Rory touched the ambient plane for real this time. The anger that burned hotter than Ephram's fire eclipsed his mortal oath. At that moment, nothing was going to stop Rory. Nothing.

He was Bern'alad, a cursed one. And it was high time everyone stopped trying to play him like a mistuned harp. It was his turn. It was so easy. Rory grasped the tiny thread that led to Rev, he opened the floodgate and let raw, unadulterated power flow unchecked into Rev's sickly form. Veins of power pulsed like wild snakes, a torrent of white-blue light was all Ephram would see and it momentarily flooded all of Rory's senses in a beautiful dance.

Ephram was there in the otherworld ambience...a pale shadow that blurred unsteadily to Rory's eyes. Ephram's eyes widened until the whites of his eyes were four times the size of his pupils. His protesting wheeze died on his lips under the massive onslaught of Rory's blunt counterstroke.

"What...what are you?" he cried, as terror inscribed itself on his face, twisting and contorting it. The calm, controlled Ephram was long gone. This was only another monster. "No...man...too much...power for one...just a boy!" he babbled.

"You picked...the wrong Northman for your stupid games." Rory's eyes narrowed, he finished the incantation with the ritual words that had probably not been said for hundreds of years. How could he forget them? He must have recited them thousands of times in his dreams. Forbidden words. Words only known to the Bern'alad. They had only been used thrice in the known history of the North. "Alalin dosthis quatra puisis, oregaris nefgre dos quatra dais lostra," it went.

Luck has danced. Come death, from the shadows of mine eyes, lay waste to my enemies.


- End Of Book Three -

Dio's Corner

Ahhhhhhhh! Rory's out of the closet! Oops...not that closet. hehe

Thanks again for reading! I hope with all my heart and soul you enjoyed this one. I just wanted to say that the input of several authors and editors on GayAuthors.com were invaluable in writing this chapter, you know who you are, so thank you! ^_^ I also wanted to thank my new intrepid editor Andrew, aka aj. Your skills are now irreplaceable. I hope you're in for the long haul! *evil grin* If not...welllllllll...I can always let Jaden know where you live, I'm sure he'd be happy to give his opinion on the subject.

I am trying to figure out what to do about my mailing list, as it is rapidly becoming too much effort to keep track of people using only my g-mail account. My oh so web-savvy roommate set up a yahoo group so that people could subscribe and unsubscribe to the list without any direct input from me, I think this sounds like a sexy idea, but I kinda wanted to know what you people think before I go ahead and move the list out of my hands. I'd never heard of the service before now, so I'm naturally wary. Here is the link if people are interested... http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DioBecksteadStories/

Again, please send me your thoughts on the chapter. I love hearing from you guys and gals, and if you've e-mailed me before, you know I'll respond! Even if you only send me one line telling me to keep writing, that is pure gold for me! Gold I tell you!@! Its even better if you send specific comments on where you think I can improve. I'm always on the lookout. But I'll make due with anything I can get my grubby hands on. ^_^

I'm going through some tough family times right now, so I can't tell you when the next release will be. It will happen though. Stick with me!

Hugz to everyone!

Dio Beckstead


Some useful links:

My Blog: http://www.gayauthors.org/forums/blog/dio/
My Website: http://members.gayauthors.org/dio/