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Grey-Eyed Justice

Part of Book Four: Rebuilding Truths

Written by Dio Beckstead

Chapter 9

Take Me Home!

The small slatted windows that ringed Jaden's formal offices offered a tantalizing glimpse of the first rays of dusty sunlight that put the flickering candles--small stubs of bumpy wax--to quivering shame. While the room brightened with the advent of the sun, the room grew oppressive, weighed by many of Jaden's dark thoughts and his melancholic anticipation.

The tall, straight-backed chair put physicality to his mood. Reports to be perused, and requisition forms were scattered in mismatching piles, strewn before him across much of the dark, gleaming mahogany desk. Treasurer Lellil would be epileptic if he didn't start wading through them soon, and if it was one thing Jaden wanted to avoid, it was the man's acrid breath. There was always a lot of paperwork when an expedition was planned. The Empire was burying itself in mounds of it. But if the Emperor many leagues to the south decided that all his troops had to fill out somewhere around one hundred and ten reports, ranging from some of questionable import such as supplies of uniform buttons to critical matters central to any army large or small; food and weapon supplies, then that's just what Jaden would do.

The time for his departure loomed ever closer on the horizon, and while Jaden said nothing, even his father was of the same mindset; the sooner he was gone, the sooner the problem might be resolved--or bungled further for that matter, no thanks in part to the Council of the Northern Provinces. Imagine! Invaders in the Empire proper? What in the Emperor's name was the East up to? Gross negligence, that's what this was, Jaden was certain. And the madness didn't stop at the invaders in the East, but treachery from one of the East's very own elementalists! Jaden vowed there would be a price exacted in blood, and heads of the upper tiers would roll, regardless of their station if he had his way of things. Justice often had a heavy hand for those who failed him. Jaden was one of those hands. The thought had once scared him. Now he wouldn't have it any other way. There was no one in the Empire who could fault his honor in the matter of loyalty--not one.

Jaden brought his mind back to the present. He had enough perturbations of his own to solve before he could bring order to the East's prerogative--not that Jaden was disillusioned in the least that the spartan group of soldiers the council had decided he should command would accomplish much if anything if all the rumors that had been pouring in from the East were true! The invaders were well-equipped troops backed by fearsome vessels of metal and armed with cannons the like the Thiian Empire had never seen! Jaden was supposed to stop that with little over 900 men? Well, there were always conscripts he could gather on his way east, but they would be little more than more mouths to feed at best and cannon fodder at worst.

Then there was the nagging weight on his shoulders, which no matter how he tried to spin it, all seemed to spread from one, stubborn source: A certain Redhead with a flare for dramatic ignorance, and a will that was driving Jaden towards the edge of madness. It just wasn't right that he had to keep reminding himself that Rory was his slave, after all, Rory was supposed to obey. He had promised his Lord and father as much, but up to the present Rory skirted the line between retainer and slave without even thinking. He lectured instead of listened most days, and if that was ill-fitting to his station, he managed to spurn orders without actually rebelling. He always had some perfectly good explanation why he shouldn't get food from the kitchen, or fetch Jaden some clothing; always with a story from the North to expunge any rebuke Jaden might attempt. He was clever, Rory was; Jaden was willing to admit as much to himself if not anyone else. It was high time he took the matter in hand: a firm hand, no more coddling.

The prison incident had been an absolute mess: perhaps worse than even that! He had allowed Rory to gain control of the situation. He should have insisted Rory explain right that instant what was going on. For all Rory's talk of ignorance of politics, he danced a different jig down in the Deep--filled his own men's thoughts with ill-suiting rhetoric Jaden couldn't possibly argue with at the time. It infuriated him! Rev would have made a good example. It was a given that the boy's crime of beating his slave wasn't worthy of execution, even he had seen that much. It would however, have made an excellent example of what happened to a man when he ignored the laws of civilized society without harming Rory in person. But Rev had managed to not only save Rory, but killed a traitor who deserved no mercy from the letter of the law, and an Elementalist on top of it. Ephram. The man's very name caused Jaden's lips to curl in a sneer!

The matter of how an apprentice like Rev had managed to kill a high ranking elementalist of Ephram standing wasn't something Jaden even wanted to think about.

"Justice balances order." He muttered, shifting his weight to cross his ankles under the desk. "Chaos ordains punishment, a delicate scale that tips without consult or care, but is easily manipulated by the most innocent or evil of intentions." Those words were ancient, written in the original Treatises of Justice jealously horded deep beneath the ancient archives in the Capital itself, written by the first Thiian Emperor regnant. Every officer in the Emperor's service had to learn, and understand those words.

"Ah...Ah! But a rotten 'tater is sweet'r still for the beggar than the fat priest." Kaleb cackled quietly, not truly addressing Jaden with his reply. He was hugging his spindly legs, drawn to his chest. He peaked over the tops of his knees, a living skeleton with bones protruding in all sorts of unhealthy looking ways from his body, his knees and hands first and foremost, then his face, which was unhealthily thin with deep, dark eye sockets. Most men would have considered Kaleb mad, but Jaden hadn't made up his mind either way. Kaleb's eyes were much too sharp for Jaden to brush the man's ramblings off as nonsense. There was a drive there that no madman had, and he had manipulated Jaden well enough for his ends--to meet Rory. It was the why of the matter that was adding to the heavy atmosphere of the room.

Jaden kept his face carefully neutral, and tried his best not to think about what sort of blood had dried itself on Kaleb's chin and was flaking off onto the expensive Inierei rugs covering the office floor. "What do you mean Kaleb?" He snapped louder than he meant to. Kaleb lifted his head an inch, his lifeless eyes darting about the sparse office, taking in the thick carpet he had settled on, the high arches of the domed ceiling, the artisan's touch on the muddy brown, red, and gold battle murals that plastered the outer-facing northern wall. Those eyes, white except for the black flecks that were his pupils, were surreal no matter how many times he had seen them. When they finally settled restlessly on him, Jaden had to restrain a shiver. A draft, that was all. The room had always been drafty.

"You think mes mad, doubtless?" Kaleb said, "Well that be alright. But don't ye cry when you take youseself a bite of that 'tater and find its been an onion alls along! Have to peels an onion carefully, or as like to find yerself weepin'. There be dangers with each and everys new layer."

"Barking." Jaden said and shook his head, trying to ignore the spittle that was hanging from Kaleb's lips, slowly dribbling onto his knees while the spindly man shook with barely restrained laughter. He had positioned himself under the shadow of the tall sills, taking refuge from the ever-brightening sun, curled against the wall. This was all a game to the shell that had once been a man. Jaden threw him a threatening glare for his trouble, which only made him slink deeper into the shadows. "This had better be worth my time Kaleb, or by my honor I will have you flogged until the only sounds that will come from your lips will be pleas for the gift of mercy, to forever end your suffering. I tire of all this padding around. I feel as if I walk about in darkness while my torch sputters to nothing!"

"Ho ho! Now there be a frightn'in thought!" He snorted quietly to himself, "but think for a minute, boy! A rat's better 'n an onion or a 'tater fer that matter." his lips smacked loudly, and he was back leaning against the wall, hugging his legs, rocking back and forth giggling to himself softly. "But the cat that wants ter kill the rat won't know about the wolf in the reeds, 'less he tells him a'course. Stalkin' from the bank, upwind 'n unseen. No...tha' cat's not got a chance." His uneven yellow teeth popped out from behind his thin blood red lips, mocking him "Not unless he listens to tha rat! But what sort of a cat listens to a warning from a rat?"

Jaden frowned and turned back to his desk. A cat taking orders from a rat? Madness! Shuffling the papers gave him something to take his mind from the inhuman vermin that was Kaleb. He asked himself again why he had ever supposed Kaleb knew something important. Gut feeling. Kaleb had known about Sivig's betrayal. Sivig, a once little known commander in the Emperor's armies, a fair swordsman in his own right, but nothing special in the North. But what did Sivig have to do with Rory? For that matter, Kaleb had also let slip that Rev was also somehow a part of this. Little Swordsman, Rev? Rev was one of the worst swordsmen Jaden had ever seen! He had had to keep the boy's identity secret at his father's behest. Rev was the youngest of the Earl of Kettling's sons, but his only trueborn son--and a bitter disappointment at that. The Earl had only been too happy to send off his youngest to the North, where he would be less of a threat to the Kettling inheritance should he produce more heirs.

Was it Rory who had gotten Rev involved in this, or was it the other way around? Trouble seemed to follow them both!

A crumpled piece of parchment caught his attention, hidden between two large ledgers. It was in the thin shaky scrawl of the Librarian of the local archives. He smoothed it before reading it over again. It was terse and to the point, and it raised almost as many questions as it answered.

To the honorable Captain of the Seventh, Jaden Worchester,

Your query concerning the topic: 'gheara' has ended in failure. I must regretfully beg ignorance. No-where in our history texts do they make mention of such a term.

There were more flowery words of careful evasion. Jaden skimmed down the page to the important passage near the very end.

I am hesitant to point it out, but the only other mention of the word was in a cryptic passage that was bought from a Trader from the North many years before the wars began. I fret to mention it because it is considered a very unreliable source.

`The war'; that would be the great Northern Wars, when Northmen marauders had massed and invaded the Northern Provinces, even managing to reach the fringes of the great Grey Ghost itself. They had carved a bloody swath into the land, only to be driven back by his Father's combined forces. That was before Jaden had been born. He had studied the war in great depth in the archives when he had been sent to the Capital to train.

The letter continued:

I have included a rough translation below, however my ancient Faellish is rusty, so it may not carry the exact meaning of the original:

'...and it was a time of peace, until Emmilin of the clan Hoellax offended the shadow in his ignorance, and in his foolishness brought death snapping at his heels. From across the Eastern Ocean they rode boats of grey stone on wings of crows. They had come, they had come! The Gheara had come! The North would weep tears of blood for seven long years. Naught but man child and woman child survived their wrath, none but a few were spared...

Untranslatable material here...

...But the Children of the North who survived were the strongest, brightest of them all, and they would make the shadows flee the snowy peaks of the homeland, and drive them back into the ocean, for even shadows fear the flighty wraiths of fire. And then it was done. With victory a new headsman was wrought, Horton, from the clan Blazeaxe, strongest and wisest of all Faellins, and first of the Bern'alad. He vowed to forever protect the shores of the North from the evil squirreled in lands far away: and so the watch must be kept, and the North must always be strong. The blood must remain strong.'

A strange entry I admit, and highly unreliable, but it was the only reference I could find. There is more of course, but it is beyond my abilities to translate. The best I can figure out, is that it is an old census paper with strange markings I've never come across before. My best interpretation is that it is a list of boys and girls under the age of ten. For what reason this has to do with the war, or the sinister sounding Gheara, I must beg ignorance. I have sent messages for my friend the honorable scholar Daemeon, but alas I regret he has traveled to the capital, and won't return for another month.

Still, my search continues.

Jaden realized he must have muttered some of the communiqué aloud, because Kaleb felt the need to add something of his own.

"But do the words of men belong to the paper, or the paper to the man, me do wonders! Ink to steal a soul, blood sweat 'n tears of old. Burn them alls I said, but nos. Nobodies listens to tha voice of good reason," Kaleb was muttering again, a bitter edge to his voice. He leaned forwards as he spoke, "Kaleb the ugly, theys had said, laughing. But I'll have the last laughs I wills, fire 'n ash to burn yeh, a teat to quench me thirstin'. I'lls hunt thems all downs I will, every lastin' ones." He looked up suddenly, his disarming eyes glinted as they caught the dusty beams of the sun, "Yous promised yous did, fickle fiddle and torn truncheon, you promised you treacle tick, yous did--promised to help Kaleb so eyes could help yous..." He jerked his head towards the door suddenly, his eyes probing the solid wood. "He be coming shortly. Gods, but he bes strong!" Kaleb's voice held equal amount of jealousy and awe.

Jaden drew himself up, straightening no matter how much his shoulder burned. "You are a blithering madman, after all!" Jaden yelled, making Kaleb shirk back again. "I promised I would protect you in return for information. But all I have to date is a stupid piece of worthless parchment more as like to send me on a wild goose chase halfway across the empire than anything! We'll know soon as Rory comes, and if he tells me you truly are a bushel short of a basket, then I shall make you regret the day your foul lungs first took breath."

"Yes! The Boy! I no bes lying, Princeling. No, me wouldn't lie. Never, not to yous. I's be a good man at heart, you be seeing. When your boy gets here, I'll tell all, and then you'll go and kill thems you will, then he'll have to tell you everything. He'll know...oh he'll know! Yous just wait, you'll be wantin' to kiss me yous will, kiss and slithering tongue, wet 'n snaking." Kaleb's eyes misted as he gazed off at the ceiling, "Not been kissed like that afore-"

As if the Gods themselves had heard his silent plea, Jaden was saved from emptying whatever was left of the bitter tea and biscuits all over the parchment in front of him. He caught a glimpse of moving shadows cast under the small space between the outside door and the floor, before a soft knock announced the arrivals of his gigantic Sergeant, who preceded two smaller figures.

And there he was, the source of all his problems--not just the source, Rory himself was a problem. Jaden had a sneaking suspicion that the wiry red-head's sole purpose in this life was to cause him to sprout grey hairs before his time. They had bathed from the looks of his face, his hair was still damp, and was trying to maintain a semblance of order atop his brilliant green eyes. When he stopped in front of the middle window, it was as if the dusty sunbeam caused his entire head to break out into flames, brilliant red-orange streaks. Not to be outdone his eyes rippled like twin pools of liquid emerald, glittering jewels that made Jaden feel distinctly uncomfortable. If there was a similar breathtaking sight to be seen in the whole of the Thiian Empire, Jaden didn't know of it.

There was silence before Jaden realized they were all just looking at him sideways. "Well, nice of the human torch and his munchkin sidekick to finally join me." Jaden said, to cover his lapse. He did note out of the corner of his eye, Kaleb. The man's pale face and moony eyes turned and followed Rory's brisk march into the room. His eyes were so wide they might fall to the rug at any moment. He seemed to be ignoring Rev for the moment.

Jaden tried to ignore the shooting pain in his arm as he nodded to Bernweld briskly. "That will be all Sergeant, I seem to recall that I require those status reports on the state of the cavalry's supplies after all. It might be wise if you went and did that, now."

Ready for an argument, Jaden couldn't help but have his eyebrows rise when the towering Sergeant rounded on the two shorter teens in front of him. "Right! If I hear that anything went down here I'll gut you in half starting from your crotch. Especially you." He fairly growled at the red head, who rolled his eyes with disdain. Bernweld might as well have been threatening bodily harm to a campfire for all the attention Rory paid him. If there was something that Rory feared, Jaden vowed to find it. He was becoming insufferable.

"Shut up you big git." Rev muttered, as if that wouldn't set the big man off! Would the surprises never end? Jaden took a hard look at the short raven-haired boy, and he realized he had seriously misjudged him. Rev didn't hold himself the same way, he was angry, yet instead of looking away or at the floor, eyed the Sergeant with hostility. It appeared that Rev had taken that big leap from brat, to young man--and Jaden decided he didn't like it one bit. That was when Jaden also noticed that the boy didn't show any of the mal-nutrition that went along with being incarcerated in the Third-Deep. In fact, he looked as fit as the day Jaden had had him thrown in there in the first place! One of the guards must have had pity on them. Lucky for them they were dead and didn't have to answer the charge...

"Now, Bernweld" Jaden said quietly, as the big Sergeant's masculine face purpled at the not-so-subtle dismissal. Jaden didn't speak again until he was sure that Bernweld's heavy booted tread was well started down the corridor beyond, thumping his way down the hall in a huff, and the thick banded door shut firmly behind him. Time to take control...

Jaden took his time, looking from the short black-haired swordsman as he played distractedly with the folds in his yellow kilt, to Rory, whose green eyes were sparkling so much Jaden thought the Northman was laughing at him. Rory's sense of humor was quirky. But then, his father had said all Northmen were like that. Finally, deciding he had control of the situation Jaden opened his mouth to speak, "I must say I'm rather disappointed with both of you-" Jaden started to pull himself out of the chair with his good arm.

"How's the arm? That looks awfully painful." Rory interrupted, an impish grin on his lips. Jaden sat back down with a thump. "But that's what you get when you play with swords after all...It's nice to know that for all your posturing, even all your Thiian words and regulations and a piece of paper that calls you a sixth of the swords can't protect you-"

"Seventh!" Jaden snapped and frowned for an instant before he smoothed his features quickly when he realized Rev was also glaring at Rory with his upper lip curled. The urge to throw the small abacus that lay on top of one of the many piles of parchment on his desk overwhelmed him for an instant. Brief memories of himself throwing an armored boot the red head's way one morning, disinclined him to try again. The first time the red head had laughed and simply run away, the second time he had thrown it back, hard.

"-from a crossbow...." Rory finished, his eyes blazing. Then a strange look came onto the Northman's face. He froze, and Jaden watched as his green eyes glazed over for a moment. It was then, much to Jaden's bewilderment that Kaleb made himself known, his jackal-like cackling darkened the room further. Rory whirled, his blue kilt flying and his hand blurred as he raised it with a shout of warning, shoving Rev behind him.

Crackle. Fsssst!

White lightning exploded out of Rory's hand...just like that, no! It leapt from his hand, thin tendrils jagged and arching. Kaleb rolled sideways, dodging the bolt narrowly; his thin, ragged hair frizzed up before he landed, couching warily, rags hanging off his frame loosely; his smile was thin, his eyes trained on the Northman.

"Knew it I's did! Northman!" He spat, "Bern'alad! A thousand times a thousand curses on you and your kind!"

Rory growled as more lightning burst from his hand, thicker this time. Kaleb wasn't fast enough in his leap. The arching white light caught him full-on in the chest, blasting him backwards in a flash past Jaden's desk right into the towering bookcases that lined the far wall. The thump and crack of Kaleb's bones hitting books and the unyielding shelves was sickening.

Jaden had seen channeling beforea...but it had always involved a lengthy chant that left Jaden wondering how practical magic, aside from swordsman magic, truly was for battle. The only sound Rory had uttered was a growl! Jaden came to his senses and his legs threatened to collapse beneath him. He had knocked the hulking chair backwards in his haste to draw his sword, but the jolting pain in his shoulder and the empty air at his side only served to dampen his forehead instead. His mouth opened, but what could he possibly say? His throat was dry and no words emerged, he couldn't think enough to form them. Rory was...Rory was...

Meanwhile Rory raised his hand again, his face seemed drained of color, pale beneath the flames of his hair. "YOU!" he snarled, "You're responsible for the attack!"

Kaleb was pushing piles of heavily bound books that had fallen on him off weakly. "Noes!" Kaleb yelped quickly, nervously shifting his weight as he rose, wincing when his hand came into contact with a smoking hole that had burned through the rags that covered his chest. Jaden was amazed Kaleb was still alive! His skinny frame had distracted Jaden from his true toughness. Kaleb jerked his head, his oily hair falling over his pasty face, doing a poor job to hide the pained grin that had spread across his lips. "But why don't ye ask the little Princeling in me stead? He'll tell you! If he doesn't kill yeh first!"

Jaden watched, the very air in his lungs seemed to freeze as the suddenly quiet and wide-eyed Northman--his slave--turned to gape at him. "You?" he said after he managed to snap his mouth shut. "You're the one in league with this...this...Ghearan!?" While at almost the same instant Jaden found his voice:

"Since when did you become an Elementalist?"

Ghearan? Kaleb's a Ghearan? Jaden's peaceful, orderly world crumbled around him.

Kaleb seemed to shrink under Jaden's glare. The ragged ghearan, shrugged and smiled hesitantly. "Ah, yes. There's do be that small problem."

A motion out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. Rory had raised his hand, it quivered with a rage that twisted Rory's normally placid demeanor. Small sparks were still dancing from his hand, seeming to gather for another assault on Kaleb.

"Rory!" Jaden said quietly, a tremor wavering in his speech, betraying the sudden fear in his gut. "Stop. You don't need to do this!"

In response, the air in the very room seemed to fill with lightning. A great gust of wind heralded a spell Jaden had never seen, much less heard of. Somehow Rory was twisting the air in front of his hand and folding it in on itself, compressing it with a morphing ball of lightning at its center. Kaleb watched with eyes that grew to the size of saucers. He held up his hands, pleading.

"Wait! WAIT NORTHMAN! I HAVE MUCH TO BE TELLING-" Kaleb never got to finish. Rory's ball of air and lightning flashed between them. Kaleb crossed his arms in front of him in an effort to block it and howled.

Jaden watched in absolute horror as the ball slammed into the thin Ghearan. Its passage threw all the carefully laid documents from his desk into the air until they filled the room with flapping parchment. Kaleb was blown backwards into the bookcase once more.

CRASH! The books that hadn't already fallen tumbled to the floor as Kaleb's thin body smashed into the wooden shelves and bounced off. Tendrils of blue-white light flashed to and fro over his body as it slid to a stop several feet from Jaden's desk smoking and unmoving. Kaleb's rags had caught fire somehow. Ignoring the little voice in the back of his mind screaming to run, Jaden marched over to the prostrate Ghearan and stamped on his rags until the small flames ceased. When he looked up, Rory had gone white. Rev was peeking around from behind the Northman, he eyed Kaleb warily, but didn't look shocked at all at Rory's sudden manifestation of power. Rev had known. He must have!

"Gotten it all out now? Feeling better?" Jaden asked, preparing himself to jump out of the way in case Rory wasn't quite finished. Rory's hand fell to his side, he looked at Jaden and the groaning figure of Kaleb in mute horror.

"Jaden, Ia...I can explain."

"If you can't, I wonder who can!" Jaden struggled to find words for what he felt. He felta...betrayed. But for some reason he couldn't quite nail down, it wasn't at Rory whom the feelings were directed. It was his father. Lord Edmund Worchester, Hand of the Emperor. "Why?" was all he could think to say. Why, why, why, why, WHY!? Why did this happen now? Why did Rory end up with him? JUST, WHY?

The question made Rory pause. Rev stepped up beside him, and in a move that was rather un-Rev-like, put a hand on his shoulder in a statement of support. "He's an Elementalist, Jaden."

Jaden realized he had been glaring at where Rev's hand had clasped the fabric of Rory's tunic, he forced himself to look Rev in the eye as his wits slowly returned to him. "Why thank you, apprentice. I hadn't quite made that particular connection yet." He said, sneering. Rory seemed to melt under his tone. "Why didn't you tell me?" He asked Rev accusingly. "You knew, didn't you? Is your honor so frail?"

Rev deftly sidestepped the question. "What does it matter if I did or not Jaden? You need to hear what he has to say."

For a moment Jaden wanted to slam his fist into Rev's face, anything to divest himself of this awful tension. Jaden was angry; he could feel himself shake as his wounded pride desperately wanted to extract any salve to soothe this cut.

He pointed over at the lonely chair, covered now with fluttering parchment that was slowly settling around the rest of the room. "Sit," he ordered. Not waiting for compliance he walked over to Kaleb. His toe found the madman's side, and he groaned as he slowly roused. "And you need to wake up, Ghearan. I know you won't die so easily. We have much to talk about. I want answers. I want them now!"

* * *

To Rory, Jaden looked somewhat disheveled from his recent miscue with a crossbow bolt, dark half-moons spread beneath pale grey eyes that lacked their usual bite. The most recent revelations just seemed to have added another hundred stone to the weight upon his already injured shoulders.

Lacking a second seat, Rev had plopped himself down on the floor beside Rory's chair. From the glares Jaden kept shooting him, he was not best pleased. Rory kept trying to shoot meaningful looks Rev's way, but the swordsman was being purposefully thick-headed, enjoying the fact that it looked like he was taking Rory's side. For that, Rory wasn't sure if he was grateful, or annoyed as it was obviously provoking the Thiian Captain.

"Somebody better start talking," Jaden repeated, lifting his head up from his hand, his hair was tousled slightly from where his fingers had been worrying through it a moment ago. Jaden turned his eyes to the floor where Rev sat. "Let's start with you, boy. It wasn't you who dealt with that Elementalist was it?" It hadn't really been a question. Jaden let out a heart-rending sigh and shook his head wearily. "And you!" He said, turning to Kaleb, who had finally roused, and dragged himself over under the big windowsills across the room. "You're not who I thought you were either!?" Jaden had really mastered the technique of asking rhetorical questions, Rory decided. It was his way of venting. Rev seemed to be thinking the same thing, and ignored Jaden while he got it out of his system. "So now I have a ghearan who can do who knows what, a Northman who can shoot lightning out of his hand and...a traitor." Jaden's voice was heavy with disbelief.

Rory winced. Beside him, Rev was as solemn as stone. It didn't appear to bother him in the least what Jaden thought about him. But even with the new Rev, he had a determined hardness to those icy-blue eyes that met Jaden's flat grey glare as they warred silently. Rev was no traitor, Rory knew.

"Any other lies we'd like to get on the table while we're sitting here so pleasantly? Why don't we make a full course meal of it!" Jaden said, mostly for his benefit, Rory discerned.

His immediate response was a harsh one, but a sharp pain in his chest sobered him somewhat. Jaden knew nowa...knew he was an elementalist. The thought petrified him. "I never meant to lie to you." Rory said quietly, not quite sure why he felt it was important that he make that point clear. "I didn't have a choice."

Jaden laughed, it was sarcastic and echoed harshly in his ears. No-one had any right to laugh like that on a day like this one, with the sun streaming into the room--no matter what had happened last night! "A half-truth is no better than a lie. Any others you'd like to get off your chest while you're at it? How about you?" he said, focusing on Rev again. "You're not some demon in disguise are you? Set on us by the Lord of the Underworld himself? Or perhaps you're a pixie in need of a new set of wings? If you are, you'll excuse me but I sold the last pair not a moment ago to the dog disguised as a dwarf!"

Throughout Jaden's speech, Rory had one eye trained on the bundle of rags, and the pile of bones beneath the window, avoiding the anathema of the early morning sunlight. His hands were itching where the bolt of lightning had manifested from his earlier; it had been pure reflex. Rory wasn't even aware he had woven the elements of wind and inverted them into a charge until the bolt was already leaping from his fingers. He had never learned a spell like that. He just wove what felt right at the time. It had blown through Kaleb's defenses as if they weren't even there. That was the only thing staying his hand at that moment, Kaleb hadn't reached for the otherworld ambience at all!

"Kill him before he kills you." Rory blurted suddenly, his voice packed with vehement conviction. "Ghearans don't see the world as you do, Thiian. They have no honor. They have no friends. They divide the world into two people: those that serve them, and those that don't. He'll use you until he can use no more. Then he'll turn on you, and kill you."

"Oh ho ho! Does the little ant thinks he can fight the rat? I think, not!" Kaleb muttered fiercely. "If I be no crippled, yous'd be beggin' for yer life, Faellish swine!" Two huge burns marked where Rory's casting had hurt him, the ghearan's thin spindly fingers worried over them ceaselessly, scratching them.

Rory would recognize those eyes anywhere. Only the foulest of magics--its power magnified by the disgusting and foul rituals of the Ghearan people--would cause the very eyes of a man to warp in such a manner. It was different for every man in some ways, some lost hair, some lost limbs, others their very lives; it was all written with excruciating detail in the old tomes of the Bern'alad. But one point the books made was crystal clear: All Ghearan's were marked with those abnormal eyes like those this...Kaleb thing...bore so proudly.

Hatred, a flame ingrained deeply within his soul, grabbed for the otherworld in a flash. "Shall we find out?" Rory growled, his voice deep, guttural. Kaleb was there in the otherworld--the ambience--staring back at him. Unlike Ephram's pale, vapor form, Kaleb was as solid as he knew his own image must appear. But there was something looked almost as if he were there, but not. The thought didn't seem to make any sense. It reinforced his earlier suspicions that Kaleb wasn'ta...or couldn't touch the otherworld for some reason.

"Both of you stop posturing!" Jaden interrupted. "You both have oaths to me! I will enforce them. I assume," he his eyes tightening as he glared at Rory, "that even you can't manage to spin your way out of that!"

Rory bit his tongue, and kept his ribald retort inside where it belonged. He was too busy trying to figure out what had happened to the Kaleb creature. Rory gazed into the otherworld, probing gently as the conversation continued.

"Ask him my Lord, ask him how theys fought off the gheara. The answer be what yous looks for." he reverted to hissing at Rory softly for a moment, his black flecked eyes flickering back and forth from Rory to Rev. "Ask him and"

He knew. Rory straightened, and carefully avoided looking at Rev, who he hoped could at least maintain some semblance of control. Of course Kaleb would know...the Ghearan must have had records of every death, every tactic, every spell that was used against them in the great Northern War for the cities of ice and snow. Kaleb knew Rev was Dernan. The thought made Rory's insides freeze with icy dread.

Rory risked a peek at Jaden, and regretted it immediately. He had never been good at hiding when he was trying to lie, he shifted uncomfortably under those searching grey-eyes. He took a deep breath, resisting the urge to let a surge of uncontrollable anger rip his control from the elemental plane. "I have no idea what you are talking about."

Jaden just looked at him. He didn't say anything, just watched, observed. The more he did, the more uncomfortable the chair became, and not just because his scrapes were still stinging from his recent encounter with a bath.

Kaleb was chuckling to himself again; he crawled out from the shadows, creeping hesitantly into the rapidly brightening room. "Tssss...always been bad liars theys have, Northmen," he spat the last, as if the word might plague him somehow. "Useful though...whens you want to catch them at it! Ask about the oath, Princeling, the oath, ask about the oath!"

Jaden's face was pinched, and pale from the shock of the recent revelations. He was still watching Rory with an unreadable expression. "Rory?"

There was something about his gaze that unsettled him. The elemental probe he was using on Kaleb almost slipped through his grasp then, but he hung on to the slippery threads stubbornly. Rory was absolutely certain even Lord Edmund's own grey-glare wouldn't have had the same effect. Damned if he knew why though! Shifting side to side, Rory grimaced. "The oath." he said, tasting the words carefully. "I guess I can tell you about the oath, that...doesn't break the oath exactly." Rory settled back into his chair, looking anywhere but at the clouds that were building in eyes that should be outlawed. How much should he tell? Rory wondered. How much could he get away with without Jaden catching him?

"Does it have something to do with the war with the Gheara, and the first emergence of the Bern'alad?" Jaden prodded, which earned him a sharp look. Jaden knew more than he let on. Rory quickly reevaluated his original plan. Jaden needed to be made to understand.

After a moment of battling with his conscience, Rory nodded grudgingly. "It's the oath that we all take. Its a long winded thing," Rory said, thinking back to all the trouble he had gone through to memorize the bloody oath. Epheziel had been unrelenting when it came to knowing and understanding what the oath meant--it was the heart of what it meant to carry the name of Bern'alad. "We...I mean, I'm not allowed to use any of my powers except for in self defense. Just imagine it' of your swordsmen tenants you're so fond of, it's the same idea with the oath. Never harm another human unless in the protection of yourself--that means even if a loved family member were attacked, I would be powerless to stop them."

"It could be worse..." Jaden said carefully, his color was returning, and the way his eyebrows were drawn gave the impression of his mind whirling in maelstrom.

"It is worse. I'm not finished," Rory said impatiently. "I don't see how you could have found out about the emergence, as you call it, of the Bern'alad, but if you do, then I won't be breaking my oath by telling you this:" Rory sighed then, as he willed himself to spill knowledge none but a handful knew, even in the North. "In the beginning, it was the Bern'alad, a group of what you call 'elementalists' here in Empire, that drove the Gheara from the shores of our land. But as time passed, the rules were changed. It was decided after lengthy discussions of honor that the Bern'alad weren't blessed with skills, but were simply blessed at cheating. We don't have to spend hours training our bodies to fight, that comes whether we want it or not. It is the height of dishonor to use such powers in the presence of others, even worse, to use them to further ease the harshness that life brings. It was decided that it would be easier...that we live a life of...solitude. Away from temptation." He hadn't meant to sound bitter. Rory frowned, he wasn't bitter, that was just how it was.

"Exile them they do! Funnys people theys are! Their most powerfuls of citizenery, kicked to the rim of existence to twiddle theirs thumbs and wipe their horses' arses!" Kaleb edged forwards a bit, taunting with those disgusting yellow teeth of his, his red lips strained to keep the waspish smile on his face. "Ashamed of thems, Northmen are! But still, theys remember what happened with the Gheara! Oh, but they can't but forget! But theys wish theys did, no doubtin' it! Is the blood still strong Northman? It certainly is in yous methinks!"

Rory twitched in his seat, but not from Kaleb's words--there was some sort of weave on the Kaleb creature. It wasa...blocking him somehow, from touching the otherworld. It was no WONDER Kaleb was allying himself with the Thiians! He hoped Jaden hadn't noticed, but that was too much to ask under his intense scrutiny. He seemed to misunderstand the reaction though, "All of that doesn't answer the why you lied to me. You told me the Gheara tired of your people for sport and left peaceably enough. That," Jaden said bitterly, "was an out and out lie! I even have proof!" Jaden was waving a piece of parchment in his hand. "It's all right here, the Bern'alad defeated the mighty Ghearan forces. Hoellin of clan Blazeaxe, installed as your new leader, strongest of you all! From the sounds of it, it would make quite a tale."

"It is a worthy tale." Rory agreed, cursing that stupid piece of parchment. Rory wanted to run up and snatch it out of Jaden's hands if only to find out what it actually said. "But it is a story sealed by my oath, and unless you have learned how to fireproof that thick skin of yours, I'd not delve further." Rory warned, and held up a hand when Jaden's eyes flashed. "I took an oath never to reveal how-"

"I think I know." Rev spoke up quietly. "It has to do with forbidden magic doesn't it? I'm right aren't I?"

Rev was partly right. The Dernan were only a small part of the solution. But if Rory told him the truth, he would never be believed. After all, even Rory had trouble believing in the wraiths of fire.

It was a loophole in the oath, Rory had decided as he and Rev were escorted by the colossus that was Jaden's Sergeant. Rev's timing with his interjection couldn't have been better. The Gheara had returned, and while Rory had yet to meet the Ghearans in battle--aside from Kaleb of course--it was nitpicking a fine line. Forever sealed to the flame are the magics of the Gheara, and the spells to counter them, only upon their return shall that ban be lifted. Another part of the Oath stated, Secret shall the magics of Gheara remain, but disclosure always to the subjects of the ancient magics. Rev certainly qualified for the latter. But Rory felt the former part of the oath as yet unfulfilled, since the Ghearans hadn't returned to the Northern lands.

Rory risked locking eyes with the very Thiian Captain, but Jaden had already turned the gathering clouds on Rev, the corners of his mouth twitching with his annoyance.

"And what would you know, apprentice?"

"Right now, more than you." Rev said, sneering at Jaden's tone. He moderated his face slightly when he looked to Rory with questions written all over his face. Rory did not meet his eyes, which caused Rev to sigh. "While we're on the matter of oath's, I do still remember swearing my own oaths, to the empire. There's...something you should be aware of Jaden. I...I'm not who I used to be."

Rory twitched in his seat. THAT had not been part of the plan! The welling of disgust at what he had done to Rev quickly quenched his anger. It was Rev's right after all.

"Well I certainly hope not!" Jaden said, "I'd just about lost hope that we could ever send you back to see your Lord Father, which now that I think about, would probably be the best solution to this disaster, I'll let him deal with you and wash my hands of the matter."

"No!" Rev said too quickly, "I mean...I can't. Not now. No, even if you did send me, I'd come back." Rev was squirming uncomfortably on the floor, adjusting his kilt over his knees in what Rory thought was a rather cute manner, and boyish to a fault. Rory felt a strange sort of protectiveness towards Rev all of a sudden. He blinked, wondering if the feeling was from the spell, or a result of him actually liking a Thiian.

"What do you mean you won't? If I ordered you, you'd do it! There is no discussion or consult with a council." Jaden was posturing again. Rory thought Jaden needed a good shaking.

"Then don't send me and we won't have that problem, will we?" Rev muttered, and that made Kaleb snort. Rory felt his entire body tense, it readied itself for action as the bony man's foul stench wafted closer. All Ghearan's had a particular stench to them, and not just from their body's dour odor, it was the same with almost all Elementalists, Kalab included. It was like smelling fruit left out in the sun for too long a time, the fermented juices so sweet and pungent that it bit at his nose whenever he took a sniff. It had taken him a minute when he had first entered to realize what the smell was. It was one thing to read about the smell in an old book, and completely another to have it in the same room as you.

Kaleb skittered across the floor crunching over dry parchment as he did, skirting as far from Rory as was possible near the murals, but he may just have been trying to avoid the sunlight as much as possible; he was squinting to protect his eyes as it was. He crawled over to Rev while all three of them watched him cautiously. He took a one sniff while still several paces off, and his nose crinkled in disgust.

"Vile and foulness, goat heart and pig's foreskin, a shadow be walkin' amongst us." the Ghearan chanted sarcastically. "He reeks he does, Lordling. I could smell it in the cages, and I smells it here as wells. He's tied a knot around the black-haired one, he has! The very smell of him makes me insides churn."

"What is he talking about Rory? Rev?" Jaden said quietly, turning back and forth, subjecting them both to his torturous eyes.

"And it's strong, by the vile reeking vapors methinks!" Kaleb muttered to himself, curling up against the side of Jaden's desk this time, a shudder rent his hunched shoulders. Then quietly, almost pleading: "Yous shoulds kill the boy, afore he kill yous. Dangerous, that's what hes be. Foulness! But we needs, no, he should be killed! Much to dangerous ter us."

"More than just a knot, Ghearan, I'd watch your mouth around a Derk." Rory watched with interest at what those words provoked in the foul Ghearan. Kaleb twisted around and hissed at them both, his small black pupils widening into large diamonds. It might have been worthy of laughter in different circumstances.

"Liar! The Dernan no exist! Your oaths forbids such foulness! Egregious creations! Reaping Ravens, death fer carrion waits for the boths of yehs!!" he said, a steady stream of spittle coating the floor before them, and much of Kaleb's tattered rags. "No single man can create a Derk. It is a spell of MANY! Filthy, horrible lies!"

"WILL YOU THREE STOP TALKING OVER MY HEAD AND EXPLAIN WHAT YOU'RE BLATHERING ABOUT!?" Jaden yelled, his face reddening. When he slammed his fist on the table, the few papers that were still left on the desk tumbled to the floor.

"They're talking about me Jaden, me. Apparently," Rev said, his voice loud in the comparative silence. "The Northmen were able to stave off the Ghearan armies by using soldiers bound to Elementalists. Rory used a similar spell on me, or at least, one of them." Rev's voice had a slightly sour note to it when he shrugged, "not like I had a choice in the matter." Rory felt yet another sharp pang of guilt. Rev seemed to feel it as well, for he glanced Rory's way quickly and shrugged.

Kaleb rose to his feet muttering all the while, but Rory had the feeling the madman meant for them to hear him. "The Flame-haired child performs a binding by his lonesome. He will bes a good ally," He sounded almost as if he didn't believe those words himself. "But more is needed, yes! More is needed fors vengeance proper." He folded his arms and looked to be weighing Rory carefully. It was different from when Jaden did that. Kaleb made his very skin crawl.

Rory grinned despite his sudden urge to plunge back into a hot bathtub, a triumphant counterpoint to Kaleb's mad mutterings and his chilly glare, he focused on Jaden. "Now do you see why I wanted to contact my Father? If it's the Ghearans involved I'm sure the North would rise! Even if you are...well...Thiian."

For a Thiian, Jaden was remarkably well adaptable. The color of his face slowly returned to its normal paleness. He bit his lower lip and lowered his eyebrows as he thought, not looking anywhere in particular. If it had been anyone else, save perhaps Lord Edmund, any Thiian would have probably tried to cut off his head at this point, either that or convinced himself he had been caught in a fever dream--thoughts of the healer who tended him surfaced uncalled, they made Rory blink. Maybe he would tell Jaden wasn't the time. Any more surprises and Rory wasn't sure how Jaden would react.

"This is...all so sudden." Jaden said at last. " many Bern'alad are there in the North?"

"It's not like we ever bothered to count ourselves..."

"Rory!" Jaden snapped, exasperation straining his nerves.

"Don't tie your skirts in a knot, Thiian." Rory couldn't seem to get rid of the huge grin, "Certainly more than the empire could ever hope to gather. The North does not fear you, but they do fear the Ghearans. If I had a copy of our history here, you'd know that all Ghearans are like Kaleb here, twisted into a husk of what once was human." That earned him a cackle from Kaleb, and a disapproving frown from Jaden. "The Gheara are like weevils, they are parasites who bind themselves with clever treaties and promises of glory to Empires over the sea. They give their prodigies the tools to build nothing but arms for war, and tactics that have been groomed for generations. Their lust for conquest is insatiable; they kill for sport, and rarely take prisoners. The only ones to survive their culling are either men and women who are better more than slaves under the illusion of freedom serving under arms, or slaves under the age of turning that have their cup filled with elements." At Jaden's lowering of his brow, Rory quickly explained about the otherworld and the cups, as he had for Rev. "Those that have the spark, like Kaleb here must have," he sneered over at the white-eyed creature, who met his eyes with a yellow toothy grin of his own. "Are taken and their very souls twisted by dark rituals meant to increase the capacity of an elementalist to grasp otherworld power. Tell him Kaleb, how many were killed at your own turning I wonder?"

Kaleb's sudden laughter was bone-chilling. "He has fire this one; born under the eyes of fire wraiths, or borne from a fire wraith me wonders? Tell me Northman, are you the last of the crossbred?"

Rory jerked back as if slapped. "Watch your tongue, slime!" KILL HIM! His mind screamed. He knows about the wraiths!!!!

Rev was on his feet, his arms clenched at his sides. And Rory's thoughts darkened when he realized what had happened. The connection between them was somehow picking up his fury and giving Rev a taste. After, a moment of deep concentration, he still couldn't figure out how to cut Rev out of his emotions, they had become...entangled somehow. It was disorienting, and Rory had to wonder how much of the anger and annoyance was actually his any more, or whether this was all Rev's emotions that were swirling through him.

Meanwhile, Jaden calmly rose again and strolled around his desk. If he had understood the last exchange he didn't let on. He frowned up at Kaleb before his uninjured arm lashed out, doubling the heap of bones over to cough and sputter and fall backwards onto the parchment scattered rug. Rory had never believed someone could move so fast, even injured. Jaden was livid.

"This Empire that you so haughtily disdain has stood the test of time itself! We have proven over and over again that we are the strongest, we are the bravest, and we are the most lawful and virtuous of all the savages of these lands. We are flawless!" Jaden said firmly, daring Rory to disagree with his eyes.

Rory was only too happy to oblige. "Yet you deal with slaves without compunction, without the slightest tinge of regret, without a cry from your conscience buried deep beneath papers and words that somehow justify everything you and your bloody Thiian Empire has ever accomplished. In some ways the Ghearan Empire is better than your own, in some ways, worse. At least they have the decency to kill off those they have no interest in, you and your empire just chain them and make them sit at your heel, and make them beg for scraps!" Rory countered.

Jaden barked a brief laugh. "You couldn't be more wrong, slave." The word, as it always did, struck at the monster deep within him. Every time he heard that word, it made him want to lash out, with fists, with elements, anything he could reach. A deep welling of anger, frustration, and depression, all swirled into one ball of bitter pain. Yet, Jaden wasn't finished; "Do I make you beg for scraps? I see no chains around your ankles, no ropes binding your flesh."

"My chains cannot be seen, Thiian. Yet they are no less real then the ones born by others!"

Jaden jerked his hand, cutting Rory off. "Don't pretend you Northmen have it all figured out. Elementalist. Don't you DARE talk to me about equality, you know nothing you little hypocrite! Your own people exiled you!"

Rory wanted to scream! Jaden didn't get it at ALL! He was banished for GOOD REASON! Kaleb was pushing himself to his feet slowly, but Rory couldn't control himself any longer, he needed a release for his anger so he followed Jaden's initial example. A short blast of focused wind sent the ghearan flying, his limbs flailing wildly. He smacked head over heels into the wall full of battle murals with a thump, and slid to the ground, groaning as he cradled his head and curled up in a ball on the floor. Kaleb's whimpering fell on three sets of deaf ears.

Rory had forgotten about Rev, who stepped casually between them before Rory could turn his anger on the bigger swordsman, so only the back of his head was visible. Whatever Jaden saw emanating from the shorter swordsman's blue sapphire eyes--it made him close his mouth for a moment. Through Rev, Rory got the feeling the swordsman's very hair should be bristling. Rory grabbed both of Rev's shoulders, half for support, half to make sure Rev didn't follow his example on Jaden.

"None of that changes the fact that the only large coalition of Elementalists in the Empire was in the East, and if they can't stop the Gheara, then who will?" Rev snarled. He wasn't sure how much of the anger transferred over the strange spell that bound them together. Rev looked about to snap. Rory made an effort to calm himself.

Jaden had set his jaw stubbornly, he looked on the verge of considering, but then his eyes flashed angrily. "We will defend the Empire as we always have! Nothing has changed."

"Jaden," Rory tried to reason with him, "Do you honestly believe your empire can survive a surprise assault from not only an army of trained soldiers, but backed with the power of the Ghearan's ships--which might be able fly over mountains for all we know--and the threat of hostile Elementalists, possibly a greater number than even the East can put together...that's if the East hasn't already fallen! The Ghearan's use a type of storm warfare, they hit hard and fast, they don't let you think. An arrow that drives into the heart of your formation so quickly that by the time you've recovered, you find yourself looking at them from the wrong side of your capital's walls, going hungry while they execute your citizens one after another until their masters have been satisfied. Are you telling me that you'd risk complete annihilation-"

"The East will not fall. It should not fall!" Jaden said, his eyes flashing. But Rory sensed the doubt there. He was saying that out of duty. "Besides, you seem very well versed for a simple horseman. With your knowledge combined with Kaleb's I'm sure we'll push them back." Rory was ready to scream! He might as well have talked down a charging bull into changing hobbies to dicing instead of mauling! "What would you have me do Rory!?" Jaden shouted when he caught Rory grinding his teeth, his exasperation finally showing, "The Northern Council has already approved us going with what forces we can scrounge, what else can I do but go and do the best I can with what I am given? I am a blade, I have been forged by the flames of my country. I must prove my mettle!"

"And if you're not good enough, if those troops are too few? What then? What if the East does fall?" Rory practically yelled back.

"Then they shall find the only pass into the North blocked to them. I can get reinforcements that close to the border from the outlying towns, even from this city."

"What about the pass into South's prerogative? What if they avoid us completely, and take to the southern reaches? I doubt they've had the same warning, or are privilege to the same information as we are!" Rev said harshly, "My Father has his hands full watching the Free Nations in the deep south, he won't be expecting a raid from his eastern borders through the mountain passes, it will be a slaughter!"

Jaden threw up his hands, "Messengers have already been dispatched for the Capital! They'll deal with the South, they are none of my business! In the meantime, I shall do the best I can to make sure the Northern provinces are secure, not because it is my home, but because of my duty to the Thiian Empire, and the Emperor himself. Without any external interference from the Northmen." he said pointedly at Rory.

"No, no, no!" Kaleb had finally risen to his knees his breathing rasping harshly in the room. Kaleb refused to even acknowledge Rory's sharp glare, and instead he watched Jaden with his baleful eyes, "You must let the Bern'alad come! Theys are too strong! Too strong without the Bern'alad! You must Lordling, or you will doom us all!!"

"ENOUGH!" Jaden roared, "This is NOT a discussion. I have been ordered by my Lord and Father, one of the four Hands of the Emperor, to reinforce the eastern border and block the passes."

"If you won't ask Lord Edmund, I will!" Rory threatened, a steady stream of profanity running around in circles within his mind, each and every word applying itself in some way to the stubborn Thiian Captain.

"I am not arguing with you about this." Jaden threw him a warning look that told him he was being 'hard-headed' before he spoke to Rev, "Take Kaleb to see Jinx, throw him in the stockade." He sneered at the man's rags, "and get someone to clean him, and find him a decent set of robes at least. He very scent makes my stomach churn."

Rev looked quickly to Rory before he nodded, grinning when Jaden scowled disapproval at the short swordman's rebellious attitude. "A bath indeed...peeeeeeyew!" Rev whistled softly, his nose crinkling upwards in protest, "Is that how I smelled?" Rev didn't seem to have a problem with the simple dismissal now that he made it clear he left with Rory's approval. He made to grab Kaleb's skinny arm, but the man pulled it out of reach with a snarl.

"Yous still smell, filth! Don't touch me, Derk!" he said, skirting around Rev to get at the door, his composure morphed as he did, he drew himself up to his full height, and for a brief moment, the rags he wore might as well have been the finest silks, and Rev a simple retainer.

"Wait, one more thing Kaleb." Jaden said before they were completely out the door. Kaleb turned and blinked. "You said you knew something about the traitor named Sivig, tell me what you know."

"Ah, ah, ah!" Kaleb waggled his finger. "Yous wants names? The cost be higher than a stay in a stockade!"

Jaden thrust out his jaw as he sometimes did when he was going to lash a man with his tongue, but he eventually relaxed somewhat and nodded briskly.

Kaleb grinned. "There be rewards for thems, spies who be wedged in the Empire. Great rewards be promised to thems. Sivigs, he be one of them. One of the highest ranked of the traitors." Kaleb giggled slightly, before he mastered his expression again. "Ephram, was to become gheara had he succeeded in killing the filth theres." Kaleb said, his head jerking towards Rory. "If yous think I hates thems kind, their hatred be a wildfire beside a candle."

Rory started. The ghearans had known about him? The thought rung off-key inside his head. Jaden shook his head ever so slightly when Rory looked his way. His face was dark and for a moment looked almost human as his brow wrinkled and his eyebrows drew together. "How many others? How many turncloaks?"

Kaleb grinned his toothy grin and shrugged, "None in these provinces, many others in the East, and one be in the South. But what good are names without faces, I be askin'?"

Before Rory could comment, they were out the door, but not before Rev looked back and shot him a worried glance and mouthed, 'be careful'. The thought was matched with a very strange emotion that Rev broacast freelya...a sense ofa...Rory wasn't sure what it was. He got the same warm feeling when he thought about his herd of horses back north. It was a wonderful feeling that felt distinctly out of place in Jaden's cold office.

Careful...maybe he would be...but Jaden had to see reason on this matter. If the Thiian Empire fell without resolving the Ghearan threat, the North proper itself would be next in line, especially with the well-deserved grudge Rory knew them to bear. The Gheara would come North, he was certain. But it wouldn't be for strategic meaning. It would be because they wanted their bloody revenge, and fully planned on taking it with OR without stupid bloody Jaden Worchester and his fool of an army!

"Jadena..." Rory started towards him.

"Stop, don't talk." Jaden sighed, and his shoulders slumped with a grimace of pain. "I know how I sounded back there. I sounded like a fool, and maybe this is foolish Rory. But my life is not my own. I am ordered to go somewhere, so I must go."

"But my people-"

Jaden held up his hand. "I feel betrayed." Rory lowered his eyes as Jaden walked over to stand in front of him. Rory was surprised to feel his hand lift his chin so Jaden could look him in the eyes. "I will talk to my father Rory, if only because you asked. I can guess what his answer will be though."

Rory frowned, this wasn't right. Jaden was being too considerate. There was a catch somewhere. "Let me talk to him then, I'll make him understand."

Jaden dropped his hand and smiled, it faltered though before he spoke gruffly, "You're bloody stubborn enough for ten men, let alone one! My Father will never send a message to the North."

"Then let me write a message, and you send it." Rory repeated what he had asked earlier. "Jaden, the Bern'alad would help, I'm sure of it. They hate the Ghearans as much as they hate us. They are the reason we exist. We are the counter-balance. Without us, this empire of yours will tip and sink into chaos. Even if you are Thiian, no-one deserves such a fate."

Rory watched Jaden think it over. The Thiian Captain shrugged finally, almost sheepishly, Rory thought. "Let me think it over. I will talk to me Father, you can be sure of that." Jaden grabbed him and propelled him towards the door. "Now get out of here! You look like a dead-man walking. Go to my quarters and sleep." When Rory hesitated he put on a frown that Rory knew to be only mock serious, "That's an order, Rory."

He was tired. Rory felt his very bones aching. The warm waters of the bath had helped him get this far, but his body needed rest. His Elemental reserves were nearly drained, and his body desperately needed at least a couple of days to recover. But before he left he had a sudden idea.

"If you want I coulda...fix your shouldera..." Rory said haltingly. But Jaden had already turned back towards his desk, lost in thought as he began sifting through parchment, and shaking his head at his ruined bookcases--ignoring him.

Rory's shoulders slumped. He left without another word.

* * *

After sifting out the most important documents from his offices, Jaden searched out Treasurer Lellil in his personal offices. The gaggle of clerks were running about the room in a panic, even in the early morning hours a crowd thronged the hallways outside the door, but as the frantic clerks running about suggested, Lellil was no-where to be found. Jaden ended up saddling a small bespectacled clerk with the responsibility of cleaning up his office, and making sure all the documents were in order for his departure.

Just as the small man was leaving Jaden grabbed his arm, "Rory was in here a lot before wasn't he? You must have talked to him at least once?"

"M'Lord?" the clerk asked nervously, glancing at Jaden's shoulder and bared chest which made him shiver. "The flame-haired slave? Ia...I'm not sure what you mean, my lord."

Jaden struggled to put words into what he was trying to understand himself. He wasn't even sure what he was trying to ask. "I mean, before I returned, what was Rory like?" That was it. Rory must have been sneaking around spying before he had taken him into hand.

"Oh, no m'Lord. I never talked to hima...but-ah! It is not my placea..." the little man trailed off, wiping his brow that was suddenly dripping with sweat.

"Tell me." Jaden said, dreading the answer almost as much as he wanted one.

"Well--rightly so m'Lord. He's the only man I've ever seen who's handled the Treasurer Lellil like he did." The man smiled weakly, a note of awe in his voice. "Wouldn't take any insults, m'Lord, took the Treasurer to task for insulting him. Never seen anyone do that before m'Lord. Changed him a bit m'Lord, less bite after their big fight. Only man the treasurer has ever referred to by his first name, ea...excepting yourself of course m'Lord, you and your Father both."

Jaden released his arm, shaking his head. Lellil calls Rory by his first name? He must have made quite an impression. Jaden had been the `the royal brat' until his tenth nameday.

Jaden went in search of Bernweld next. After inquiring around at the barracks, he found his Sergeant in the stables, arguing with Jinx and the gristly hostler, Winthrop about who the greatest swordsman in the Empire was. They quieted when Jaden neared, all three eyed him warily, catching sight of the storm that seemed to be gathering in his eyes. Soon Bernweld had his orders, and was marching hurriedly off to the barracks where Jaden's men were housed.

As it had in the offices, a sudden thought occurred to Jaden before he left. He watched the old hostler groom a mare who was just starting to show the first signs of pregnancy. "Winthrop? Rory was down here at one time wasn't he? What did you think of him?"

The scar down Winthrop's face tightened when he smiled, "Knows more about horses than me. Never seen a man turn horses into love-sick puppies like him, that's fer sure." Wintrop patted the mare when she whuffed and nuzzled him fondly. "This girl included, was right beside herself when he stopped visiting after thata...bad business." Winthrop caught the look on Jaden's face and hurried on. "Honest lad, I'd say. Got a good heart, I'd be willing to stake some silver on it. Horses dun like men with darkness in their hearts. My horses adored `im."

Jinx was nodding along with the hostler. "Quite the lad. First time I laid eyes on `im I thought he wouldn't last a fortnight `afore he became scared of his own shadow."

Jaden laughed, trying to picture Rory like Jinx suggested. Better he picture his Lord Father in a dress.

Jinx and Winthrop exchanged thoughtful glances, "Good with a staff as well. Never seen anyone with faster hands. I couldn't tempt him into taking up a sword for the life of me though. Looked right sick every time I tried--as if he were on the deck of a riverboat, green to the gills."

Jaden's ears perked up, "You've seen him fight?"

Jinx nodded, "Aye. Helped me with the young'ins, he did. Gave the novices and apprentices their first taste of fighting against a man who knows how to wield a long staff."

Jaden frowned, "I never saw any bruises on him." Jaden blinked, wondering why he had said that. Would they think him strange if he let on how he always watched Rory when he changed? Jaden hardened his voice. "I meant to say, I didn't hear him complain none."

Winthrop laughed along with the burly blacksmith turned teacher. "An' rightly so, only time he got knocked was when he fought four seconds and he slipped in some mud. You let him know he's always welcome to drop by the circles eh? Got a good sense for combat, no matter how skinny he is. Like fightin' a wildcat."

"Why be yeh askin', Captain?" Winthrop interjected. "Surely he's told yeh all this."

No, he hadn't. Jaden swallowed his irritation and shrugged, "No reason, I guess." He was left with more questions than he had answers. Including question about how Rev had beaten a man who could battle evenly against four second-tier swordsmen. He was half-hoping for a reason to dislike the fiery spirited red-head. He didn't really have one single real reason to dislike the Northman. It was apparent after only two short conversations that Jaden had never bothered to ask about the wiry red head except in the context of the attack.

Jaden was worried. He had been worrying about Rory ever since their talk this morning. He needed to set things straight between them. Rory had lied to him, which could be forgiven because of his earlier oath--but it wasn't the oath that had him angry. It wasn't even Rory that had him clenching his fingers so tightly that his palms were bleeding. Jaden realized with a start it was his father, Lord Edmund.

His Father had spent many months in the North trying to persuade the Northmen to hold off their attacks. To think that he had not heard tell of the exiled Bern'alad was a ridiculous notion. Surely he must have attended one of these `choosings' as Rory called them. Lord Edmund somehow knew about Rory, Jaden was almost certain. It was eating him not knowing, and that meant confronting the wily Hand of the Emperor, not his father, but the Hand. A Father would never have kept this sort of information private. Edmund hadn't really been a father ever since Jaden had joined the Emperor's troops. It had been their first disagreement. It was the day Jaden had left never intending to return.

Jaden stormed into his family's private dining hall. His mother and sister were already seated at the long formal table, a couple of liveried servants tending them as they broke the night's fast. Disel was the first to spot him.

"Jaden!" she yelped, slipping from her chair, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Are you okay!?" She slammed into him full-tilt, throwing her small arms around him and nearly knocking him over in the process. She buried her head into his chest and clung to him, sobbing quietly.

Jaden winced as his shoulder was jostled by the impact, but his anger evaporated as he patted her head awkwardly with his good arm. "I'm fine little gnome. Did you think something like this is going to slow me down?"

His Mother had also stood. She glided over to him and touched his bandages tentatively. "Gods, Jaden, your father was frantic with worry until your Sergeant came and calmed him down. Do you need me to summon the healer, Gotfried? He was here a moment ago."

"I've already seen him, mother."

Disel had pried himself away from his chest to look up sympathetically at his bandaged shoulder. "Does it hurt?"

"Nope!" Jaden lied, gently wiping her cheeks with his thumb "I'm fine, so dry your tears gnome. This is nothing."

Jaden watched his mother roll her eyes, suggesting he wasn't fooling her at least. "Come along Disel, you have your lessons now." She said softly, herding her away deftly as soon as she released Jaden. "Your Father will be out shortly Jaden, sit down and eat something. You look ghastly as it is."

"I don't want to leave! I want to stay with Jaden!" Disel said stubbornly.

"If the world was built on `I don't want to's, nothing would ever get done, young lady." Jaden watched as she expertly herded Disel out the door.

He sat at the table after his Mother and Disel had left. He was soon spooning steaming oatmeal with a light coating of sugar down his throat as fast as it could be put in front of him--as if his body had somehow finally awoken somewhat, his stomach growled loudly for more.

"You eat exactly like Rory, not a thought for chewing." Lord Edmund's voice startled him. Jaden looked up from his plate. He hadn't even noticed when the man had come out from his private chambers and sat down across from him. He received a platter of eggs and greasy bacon strips, but didn't move to touch it.

Jaden bristled at the comparison; "You have some nerve mentioning him, now. You've put me in a right mess."

"Nonsense!" Edmund waved off Jaden's hostile tone. "I was hoping that bloody elementalist would try something for days now, ever since he met Rory."

Jaden dropped his spoon back into the half-empty bowl before him. "You knew about Ephram? And you did nothing!?"

"I suspected. I've never liked elementalists. His partner was one of my own men, Jaden, he was being watched."

"Fat lot of good that did my arm!"

Edmund frowned at his son's tone, "Ephram was always the voice behind the East Coalition's demands for entry into the Northern Provinces." He clasped his hands over his food, his elbows on either side of the plate and scrutinized his son coldly across the table. "Imagine what would have happened if Rory hadn't been there; more lives would have been lost. He was a treasure trove find, I admit. But the Gods are with us so far, to have granted us such luck."

Jaden nearly chocked on his rage, "You knew! Gods! Why didn't you tell me he was an elementalist? I thought you despised them!"

Lord Edmund raised one eyebrow quizzically, "It has always been the façade needed to explain why I have never let the elementalist coalitions a foothold in the North. I thought you had figured it out." His father said with a withering glare, "And if you recall, you weren't exactly in a listening mood when you caught wind that I had `saddled' you with a Northman. He was worth every golden eagle I paid for him Jaden, no matter what you say. You never listen. You have no one to blame but yourself."

Jaden glared daggers across the table at his Father. "And what's your excuse for withholding information on Ephram then? I was about to bloody take him with me to the Eastern border. He might've killed me!"

"He had no interest in you!" Edmund snapped testily, "The Empire does not revolve around you. He was interested in Rory. That was the first question out of his mouth when he first arrived, he was overtly interested in where I had procured such a strange Northman prisoner."

"You should have told me." Jaden persisted.

"And gain what, exactly? You would have tried to arrest him or question him on the spot, and all our planning would have gone down the drain spout! Your obsession with the law would have ruined everything!"

"So instead you allowed him to walk free around our estates and spy? Your logic makes Rory appear more like a scholarly philosopher than the savage he truly is! And he has his bloody head screwed on backwards!"

"ENOUGH!" Edmund roared, pounding his fists on the table. Jaden's spoon clattered to the floor loudly. The slaves had vacated the room, no-one rushed to pick it up. Jaden's fights with his father were legendary in proportion. "You're looking at this event through a small looking glass. Let me explain the big picture before you pass judgment on me, Captain."

Jaden frowned, sat back and raised his eyebrows expectantly. Dig yourself out of this one old mana...

"Fine," Edmund breathed out along with a weary sigh. "I'm sorry you got injured Jaden, but this was all a part of my plan to expose Ephram's connections inside my estates. Thanks to our delay, my man identified near ten agents inside my estates alone who were feeding him information."

"And I suppose they're still running free?" Jaden said smartly.

"They are being watched." Edmund said curtly, and that made Jaden snort. "Let me finish. It was an oversight to let him gather as many men as he did. I can only guess whom he managed to gather for that assault. It wasn't any of my men. Zexs has reported all my soldiers are accounted for. Ephram must have snuck them inside the city somehow. Lieutenant Thennel has so far not managed to capture any of the escaped assassins."

"Not one? Is the man incompetent?"

"How sassy of you. Zexs promoted Thennel himself. No, the problem isn't one of competence," Edmund said gravely, "They all have some sort of poison caplet between their teeth. None hesitate in using it." Edmund clasped his hands again as he lapsed into thought. "Bumble aside, Ephram is dead, and we only have a score or so of dead on our side. As my agents track this network Ephram had set up I'm certain hundreds if not thousands more will be saved."

"But the law-"

"The law doesn't always apply to every particular situation, Jaden!" Edmund growled, his patience stringing to an end. "I made a decision that has provided us with concrete proof to present to the council, so I can squeeze more troops out of them."

"I leave in less than a week," Jaden reminded him grimly.

"And you'll have reinforcements within a month, it will take you at least that long to reach the Eastern Border. Longer if you stop and rest along the way."

Jaden let the silence drag on as he thought over Edmund's actions. He had not only jeopardized the safety of his soldiers, but the had challenged the very foundation upon which the Thiian empire had been built upon. All spies were to be immediately executed. He had seen to many such executions himself in the capital. This should have been no different. But, his father being who he was, Jaden had no right to call the Hand of the Emperor to account for his poor judgment. But the Emperor would hear about this, Jaden vowed. He shifted to a new plane of attack.

"Rory wishes to send a message to his people, informing them of the Ghearan invasion." Jaden said slowly, watching for his Father's reaction.

Edmund was nodding, which surprised Jaden. "I can see how he would, and I will be sending a messenger North."

"You will?" Jaden couldn't keep the incredulity from his voice. "Rory seems to believe they will come to our aid when they hear the Ghearans have returned."

Edmund's barking laughter was dark and grave. "No, the Bern'alad will not come. The Hold Masters will see to that. The North would like nothing more than to see our Empire crumble so they can pick up the pieces--all the golden ones."

"Rory doesn't seem to think so." Jaden winced when he realized he was naturally taking the opposite side of any argument with his Father, which in this case meant agreeing with Rory.

"Any Northman would also tell you he could wrestle a bear with his bare hands and win. This is no different. If you had visited the North, you would understand."

Jaden shrugged, not really willing to pursue the argument. "How about Elementalists here, in the city? From Rory's description I may need as many souls as I can gather to put a dent in their war machines."

Edmund smiled, looking off in the distance briefly before focusing again on Jaden. "The way Gotfried tells it, Rory is worth any ten elementalists I could give you. You should see his face when he talks about the boy. `Solid', is the term he useda...whatever that means."

Gotfried? "How did the, not him as well!" Jaden looked at his father in horror. "Gotfried is one of your elementalists? By the Emperor's bones, what a twisted net you weave! Who else?"

Edmund shrugged, conceding nothing. "I will give you the healer for your trip. I would have also sent Desther with you," his face soured, "but Ephram did a good job on him. He was the Emperor's man down to his bones. Even Gotfried's weaves could do nothing to undo the damage Ephram wrought."

Jaden closed his eyes and leaned back against his chair. He rubbed his forehead as all his senses were calling for sleep. This day was turning into one of those days that was never going to end. "So, two against the horde. The odds are stacked against my success."

"I have sent word to the West. I expect to hear from them within the month. Lord Elgins is an old friend of mine. He will not fail to send reinforcements. The North will stand for a long time yet, if I have my way. You will also have access to the cannons at Norfolk. If you position them in the mountains properly to protect the passes, you will bleed a thousand for every man you lose."

Jaden opened one eyelid, Rory's words of caution came to him then. "Assuming the airships even attempt to come through those passes."

Edmund inclined his head, "There is no such thing as a perfect plan, or certainties in battle Jaden, as you know. Perhaps the best way would be to lure the ships into the pass."

"And how do you propose I do that?" Jaden asked bitterly.

"I'm sure you'll find a way. There will be men at the border who will help you. The free folk, rangers and hermits of the like. As long as you use that brain of yours Jaden, you'll do well."

Jaden rose as the conversation ended. Edmund wasn't quite finished. "One more thing Jaden. Don't tell Rory about sending a letter to the North." Edmund demanded carefully.

"What?" Jaden blinked, "Why in the Emperor's name shouldn't I? Do you know how insufferable he will be if he thinks you've sent nothing!?"

"I ask only because it will shatter him further when the Bern'alad hang him out to dry. You stand a better chance of surviving letting him think he's the only thing that stands between the Gheara and North."

Jaden couldn't believe his ears. "And just what do you propose I tell him!?"

Edmund picked up his knife and fork and started sawing his bacon into pieces. "I'm sure you'll think of something."

Jaden stalked from the room. Easy for you to say, you don't have to live with him!!

* * *

Rory had collapsed on the narrow pallet in Jaden's room, sleep had found him whether he desired it or not. His dreams had returned. The moment he closed his eyes he no longer felt the rough woolen blankets on his bare skin or the soft downy pillow beneath his head, rather the chill howling of the wind and icy spray of the waterfall caused him to grab his arms and hug himself, shaking from the dismal cold.

It was the cave. The cave in the North, his secret hideaway deep in the mountains. A place of peacea...of refuge. But this cave felt different. The air was electric with the sense of hostility.

Rory whirled where he stood, his eyes probing the darkness to little avail. The light that penetrated the wall of rushing water at the front of the cave became meager by the time it reached Rory's bare feet and the smooth boulder he knew very well on which he stood. Shadows cast by the multitude of stalactites and stalagmites cast a variety of crystalline shadows across his arms and legs.

He was alone. He was always alone in this cave. His memory of the last time he was here made him shudder. He sat stubbornly where he was, facing the darkness.

"I know you're in there! Demons! You have no hold on me!" Rory shouted. His voice reverberated against the unseen walls and shouted back, a mocking lilt in their reply.

"I am a Northman, I'm not scared of anything!" Rory yelled, this time there was no echo. Rory's eyes widened as the darkness seemed to swallow his words. click clicka...

A deep alien laughter resounded back into Rory's ears. "A man who fears nothing is but a brash fool."

A second voice, softer and obviously female rejoined the first. "He is no man. He is obviously still a child, we should not judge his brash words. See how he trembles before us."

Rory felt the temperature in his face begin to rise rapidly. "If I tremble it's because this flaming place is cold, not out of fear of you!"

Three voices joined in laughing this time. Rory resolutely stayed seated, though he doubted he could rise even if he so wanted. His legs had gone numb.

"Gale? I thought you were still long from waking. Our watch is not done." The first deep voice resonated in the cavern. He soundeda...displeaseda...grumpy almost.

The third voicea...of Galea...was much younger in pitch. "Nonsense! It is my right to be here. He is mine, I claim him. In his blood flows mine, it is my right by covenant."

"But the preceptsa..." The first voice was softer.

"Have been observed" the female of the trio stated firmly. "Gale, you always were a little trouble maker. Thisa...small child woke you? Perhaps it was simply by fluke chancea...?"

"No, I am certain. This is not his first time in this cave; nor will it be his last."

Certain. Rory felt an impending sense of doom descending on him. Who were these demons?

"I belong to no-one! My name is Rory, and I am my own man!" His voice sounded so very small even to his own ears.

The voices ignored him. The female voice spoke again. "If you are certain Gale, we will depart." A grunt from the deep voice could have meant anything. "We will watch the other children until this one returns home. Take good care of him Gale."


"I don't need any demons watching out for me!" Rory said, messaging his feet gently in case he needed to make a run for it. He had enough demons of his own without worrying about other demons.

Gale laughed, it seemed to brighten the cavern momentarily. "For a child, you are remarkably stubborn."

"I'm not a child."

Gale was silent again for so long a time Rory thought he had disappeared. Just as Rory opened his mouth again to speak, Gale spoke. "You are indeed of my blood, Rory. Your strength is indeed beyond human. Would you like more power? I find myself in a generous mood after a long sleep."

"I want nothing to do with a demon who is too cowardly to show his face even in my own dream."

Gale was chuckling to himself. "And what, my small child, makes you think I am a demon?"

"Well, this is obviously my nightmare. What else would appear in my dreams but a demon? I warn you, demons never win in my dreams, I always slay them."

"A very human explanation. I enjoy your blunt honesty." Click click. The sounds of claws scrabbling across rock reached Rory's ears, but he could discern no movement in the darkness. "You have done well to bond a loyal companion. Rory, you please me. By the covenant of the Bern'alad, I grant you the first key. Use it wisely child. It is not easy to find us here, on this plain, but you have done it not once, but twice. The ghearans will do everything in their power to kill you, once they have learned of your power. You must be strong, you must be a pillar against the storm. Weather it, let it drench you, then when the time is right, quench it with your own storm. Wind is your specialty is it not?"

Rory slowly got to his feet. His thoughts were whirling. "This is a dream, it must be. I am mixing up the real world with my dreams. Why should a demon take my side? I would think you'd much rather be on the ghearan's side, being a demon!"

"Feisty, aren't we? No matter, I will grant you the first of my five keys Rory, the keys of gales. Use them wisely, or I will judge you harshly."

Keys? Bloody keys? This had to be a dream. "I don't want any of your keys! I don't want your help, demon!" Rory shouted angrily at the darkness.

"Stubborn!" Gale muttered, "You don't really have a choice in the matter Rory. You are mine. The decision was made long before you were born to this world."

Rory's otherworld sight caught the massive tendrils of wind being woven far too late to react. Before he could even utter a scream, his arms pressed to his side, and a gag of wind pried his mouth open, and blocked any screams he might utter. Rory watched with a terrible fascination as he was lifted off the ground, his stomach lurched as the ground fell away from beneath him, the chilly spray of the waterfall soaking him as he was taken into the mist, close to the mouth of the cave.

"I am the youngest, Rory. But I am strong. Strong of mind and strong of heart. If you must take action, do so with your heart, and only when it feels right. You are no longer Rory, but a storm. Let the darkness feel the spitting needles of your wrath Rory. The blood is still strong."

His back was on fire. Rory tried to scream, what came out of his mouth and throat was just a low moan of pain, as his back was seared with what felt like a thousand biting firebeetles. The smell of smoldering flesh was sickly sweet in his nose. Tears rose and welled from his eyes, dribbling down his cheeks as every muscle in his body strained against his impossibly tight restraints. He felt as if he might snap in half.

Moments later the pain ebbed, and the mist sizzled against the skin of his back as it cooled. Rory wept as he was lowered to the ground. As soon as his feet touched the ground, the webs of elements vanished. Rory collapsed against the nearest boulder and clung to it, biting his lips to stop from crying out.

"A new gale is born. Wear my name with pride, child."

As quickly as it had begun, it was over. Rory found himself weeping into a pair of arms that were cradling his head.

"Gods Rorya...I suddenly woke anda...Gods, I felt so terrified. It took me a while to realize it was bloody coming from you." Rev said as he cradled Rory's head against his chest protectively.

It took him a moment to realize he was still in his bed. He was not in the cavea...but the pain was real. How his back burned! A very blurry Rev pulled him tighter. Rory just wept, the pain in his back, the loneliness; everything crashing down on him all at once. It was a had to have been a dream! Rory could taste the metallic tang of blood in his tongue where he had bitten his lower lip. He sobbed as a fresh wave of pain lanced through his back, but the ache dug deeper than mere skin, it seemed to seep into the cracks of his soul, burning walls and bridges he had thought untouchable. Rory buried his head into Rev's shoulder as he fought to control his breathing. Gods! What Rev must think of him, reduced to a sniveling wreck from a nightmare.

Rory again had to restrain a scream as Rev adjusted his arms, touching the sensitive skin on his back. Rev gasped as he pulled away, staring at a hand that had come away bloody.

"By the gods of health, what happened? Rory you're bleeding" Rev pushed a trembling Rory up off of him and tried to peer at Rory's bared back.

"No! Don't look!" Rory bit out between sobs. "I'm finea...reallya..." He had grabbed onto the fringe of Rev's kilt to keep him seated.

"I should go get the healer." Rev said firmly, grabbing Rory's hand and tried to detach it from the fringe. Rory held on for his life. "Let go you stubborn donkey! You should have told someone you were injured in the fight! Godsa...if something happened to you I-"

"No, Reva...don'ta...please? Ia...this isn't an injury from the deep. This isa...this isa...different." A key. Rory tried to calm himself. It'll be okay, I'm an elementalist, I can heal this.

"Rorya..." when Rory finally managed to look up, Rev's face was clouded with concern. His hand was covered with clotted blood, still wet from his back. "What happened?"

"It's nothinga...I swear, Rev. Please believe me. I justa..." Rory paused and grabbed another handful of his kilt. "Just, stay. Please? Ia...I don't want to be alone."

Rory tried to hold in his sobs as Rev just stared at him. Rory couldn't look him in the eye, he might start crying all over again if he met those icy blue eyes. "Alright. This is obviously something elementalist related, isn't it? Ia...don't know what happened, but I'll staya...if you you're sure you'll be okay."

Rory held back his tears out of sheer will. "Thank you."

"On your stomach then, you stupid mule, I'll find something to wipe off your back." Rev ordered, as he got up to retrieve one of Jaden's white embroidered towels from the armoire beside his bed. He was worried; it was in his face, his very words, it was an alien feeling, having someone worry over him. No-one was supposed to worry over Rory excepta...wella...Rory.

Rory slumped back into his pillow and just concentrated on breathing as Rev settled beside him, his hands delicately wiping the blood from his back. Rory didn't need to see Rev's face to know it must look bad, he could literally hear the swordsman wincing every time he lifted the towel.

"Thanks Rev." Rory didn't feel like telling Rev that it was easier to concentrate on his magic when he was near the bonded swordsman. The one thing he did know about shadow-bound soldiers, was that they did sometimes act as a sort of amplifier. "How does it look?"

"It looks like someone pressed a torch to your skin, mule. It's blistered, and you have these strange cuts."

Rory frowned into his pillow and focused inwards, drawing on power from the otherworld and pulled it into himself, and just held it. The pain intensified for a moment, before the healing started to take effect.

Rory felt Rev's hand brush the back of his head as he set his towel aside before settling for playing absently with a strand of his hair. "Did you see Janna? Is she awake?" Rory asked quietly, his voice partially muffled by the pillow.

"Ia...yesa...I did." Rev's voice was strained, "She doesn't remember a thing."

"You must think me a complete fool."

"A fool is only as foolish as the fools who follow them." Rev said, "That's what my Father used to always say to me when Mother would call him a fool. He always made it sound as if she were insulting all of his men by calling him a fool."

"So I am a fool, since there are no men foolish enough to follow me then, is that it?"

"I didn't mean it like that! You handled Jaden very well."

"Who would follow a slave? I have no one but myself." Rory gritted his teeth. He hadn't meant to snap. He was never very good with dealing with physical pain. "Sorrya...I know what you were trying to say, thank you."

Rev was silent for a while, Rory enjoyed the feeling he got as Rev's hand worried through his hair. Rory could already feel the flesh on his back knitting--slowly and painfully, but healing nonetheless.

"Do you miss your home?" Rory asked, quietly, almost afraid Rev wouldn't answer. He shouldn't have bothered to worry.

"My home? Gods no! I don't miss my father, and the way I see it, he is home and he is not someone I'd like to ever see again. Not in this life." Rory felt the sadness of Rev's sigh as his head rose and fell with the youth's chest. "I told you, didn't I? How I was kicked out of my home when I couldn't become the swordsman my father wanted me to be?" Rev paused, and the soft touch of the towel dabbed at his back for a moment.

Rory took advantage of the silence. "That's not what I meanta...I you miss the feeling of homea...I meana...the familiarity, security of ita...the feeling ofa...belonging?" Rory bit his lip, realizing it was hard to put into words what home meant to him at least. "Sorry, I sound like an idiot. I'm not quite even sure what I mean."

"No, I think I understand." Rev said so softly it was barely above a whisper. "I do miss my mother, and my brothers. Adelweiss is no doubt on his way to becoming a great swordsman and a general by this time; while Yolan has read through the entire collection of the crystal library by now, if I have the right of it. I miss them."

The pain in Rory's back was nearly gone. It was strangea...a wound like that burn should not have healed so quickly. Rory's priority was first to heal his back, then he would try and figure out what was going on. He didn't want to worry Rev further, he had already burdened the burgeoning swordsman with more than his share of pain and responsibility than any one man should ever have. "Janna is your sister, isn't she? Why is your identity secret, and hers isn't? They know who she is and they don't call her a lady."

"Janna is my half-sister, Rory. She was born from a whore before my father took a second wife. She is just another swordsman here, away from the scorn of her birth rank in the south."

"I'm sorry, Ia...I didn't know your mother had died."

Rev laughed at him, his fingers tightening on the back of his head. "You misunderstand. She yet lives. I am the only heir she could birth, my lord father took a second wife--a widower lady with three children--to produce more heirs. His stupid plan backfired, she is as barren as my mother became, and I am still his heir. Though I have no doubt he will soon take a third wife and attempt to produce a more worthy heir."

Rory felt like he had been punched in the stomach. More than one wife? "Anda...Janna?"

"My father does not even recognize her. She is one of his many offspring--from the slave-houses."

Thea...the what?

Rev didn't catch his bewildered expression. "I think that's why she gave me such a hard time. I had everything she would never have--and I blew it, I could never be the man my father wanted." His voice soured, "So, look what kind of fool you've managed to ensnare, Rory! A failure. At least now you won't have any high expectations."

A trace of his old bitterness was back. Rory pushed himself up, he didn't quite have the strength to rise, but he pushed himself up to look Rev in the eye as he spoke. "You didn't mean that, I know you didn't. Because if you did then we can walk out to the pitch, and I'll whump you upside the head like I did last time. I'll make you cry like you never cried before--ouch ouch OUCH!" Rory arched his back as Rev poked his finger into the raw flesh on his spine and pushed him back onto his stomach. Tears welled to his eyes again. When Rory had recovered, Rev was standing.

"Why did you help me? You could have just minded your own business. I don't understand."

Rory, feeling waspish after being poked in the back, punched him in the soft flesh of his side, beneath his ribs. "Don't forget I'm not a Thiian. If you really must know, I was bored. Ia...I guess you reminded me a little of myself."

Rev glanced at him and shrugged. "Did it mean anything?"

Rory could see a determined light in those eyes of his. A strange question. Rory pushed himself up to sit as well. "Did what mean anything?"

The bridge of Rev's nose turned red all of a sudden. "You knowa...wella...I don't remember mucha...but I remember you did something to mea...and it know!"

The kiss! Rory sniggered at Rev's embarrassment, his own face heating to match. "What? Did I steal your first kiss or something?"

Rev's face darkened. "I'ma...I'm being serious here!" He was up on his feet, his arms crossed almost petulantly.

"Could it be, you've never kissed a girl before? No pretty lass to dangle on your knee and steal kisses in dark corners when no-one is looking? Are you upset because an ugly barbarian stole your first kiss?"

"If you're going to make fun of me, I'll fetch the healer and watch you squeal as he pours all sorts of goo all over that back of yours to help it heal."

Rory winced. He shut his mouth, having no desire at all to deal with the weak elementalist healer. Even Gotfried would figure out his injuries were not of the mundane kind.

"Yes master." Rory muttered, he glanced at the soiled towel beside him for a moment. "Could the young master fetch me a towel for my back, if it pleases him? Or shall I dirty my sheets further?"

Rev couldn't hold back a half snort half chuckle as he went to the large cabinet beside Jaden's four poster bed, and retrieved another towel, what looked like the whitest one he could find. "Alright turn around, let's see how bad it is."

Rory crossed his legs and turned so Rev could have access to his back without actually getting up on the bed. He was gentle as he started patting Rory's back. There was no pain until the towel reached the spot just beneath his neck, on his spine. He inhaled sharply, but was otherwise silent.

"Did you purposefully take Jaden's personal embroidered towel to spite him, or are you simply that ignorant? You know if he sees it bloody he'll get angry with you."

"Rorya..." Rev said weakly. Rory realized the gentle pressure was gone. It was replaced by an icy cold finger, it traced across his back in a pattern that stung horribly. "Rory, you've got to see this."

Rory slid off the bed with Rev's help. All his muscles were stiff. Rev took him to the great mirror placed on the wall. Awkwardly, Rev forced him to look at his back in the mirror. Even twisting his neck made his entire head throb.

"Whata...what is that?" Rev asked quietly.

Rory stared at the small black symbol engraved into his skin between his shoulders without recognition. It was a strange looking symbol, it was black on his flesh, and no matter how much Rory concentrated, no matter how much power Rory poured into his own flesh, the symbol remained.

Rory's voice was hoarse when he spoke. "A key, I think. But to whata...I have no clue."

* * *

The halls of the Worchester Manor seemed to have shrunk somewhat since Rory last walked them. Last time, when he had been bored what seemed like a lifetime ago, he had thought them endless in the length, much too large for any one man--no matter who he claimed to be--to own. This time, the corridors felt cramped, and the ends kept forcing Rory to switch directions, which inevitably led to Jaden being able to catch up as Rory couldn't remember which way to get back to his--well, Jaden's--quarters.

Rory would have given all his worldly possession to run into Rev at that moment--but he had been forced to spar with other seconds today, under Jinx's watchful eye, so that was an impossible wish. The brand on his back itched almost incessantly, but it had not quite reached Jaden's level of pestering yet, although it put forth a valiant effort.

"Rory...Rory, in the Emperor's name, will you bloody slow down!" Jaden said between breaths. He was hobbling slightly as he chased after Rory's back, down corridor after corridor; empty corridors at that, the servants must have heard the angry voices and cleared out long before they rounded any corner. "Will you stop!" Jaden said, grabbing Rory's arm this time and hauling him over into an alcove. Rory found himself backed up against a ridiculous looking set of armor that had been shaped after a rather angry looking wolf. Rory was sorely tempted to grab the haft of the long pole arm he bore silently, and use it to fend off Jaden.

"Oh, yea...'Stop in the Emperor's name', he says," Rory said sarcastically, "Like that'll work on me!"

"You're acting like a child." Jaden pressed, his body forcing Rory up against the cold metal. Rory shivered, but not from the cold metal, his eyes rested the corner of skin exposed on Jaden's now sewn-up shoulder that was a fiery red as his body tried to heal itself.

"Me!? ME!? Jaden, you're the one who threatened to send me to Jinx so he could spank me, if I didn't agree to help you on this fool venture of yours!" He had done it at breakfast, in front of Disel and his mother no less. Disel had thought it a grand joke, and had even joined in the merriment. Lady Edmund just found the whole scene amusing, as Jaden pestered him without end while Rory ate stonily beside him.

"You don't understand..." Jaden said for what was probably the eighth time that morning.

Rory stabbed his middle finger into the bandaged portion of Jaden's arm mercilessly. "I understand perfectly. You're the most mule-headed-"

"Rory..." Jaden flinched.

"Stiff-backed-" Rory prodded again, harder this time.

"Rory!" Jaden said louder, trying to interrupt, but Rory was to have none of that this time!

"Most insensitive, stubborn fool I have ever met in my ENTIRE LIFE!"

"RORY! SHUT UP AND LISTEN!" Jaden yelled, his good hand grabbing the front of the redhead's shirt and shoving him hard back into the suit of armor, which rattled in retort.

"Just tell me why, Jaden. Why can't you forget your foolish pride in your bloody empire and think of the bigger picture?"

"You don't understand...there are rules-"

"I know there are bloody rules!" Rory shouted, "You explained them to me over lunch the day before yesterday, at dinner, three times again yesterday, and this morning again! I'm asking you to accept the fact that sometimes, sometimes there are situations that the rules don't take into account. Rules don't need to be absolute! Think for a minute Jaden? The North and the Thiian Empire stand a better chance of surviving if we meet the Ghearans together-"

Jaden sighed, he let Rory's shirt go, and grabbed him by the shoulder this time, "And why don't you understand? We're bound by those rules. I go where I'm ordered, when I'm ordered and if one of those rules tells me that the Thiian Empire allies with no-one, who am I to disagree? My Father didn't agree with you, that's all Rory, I'm sorry, there's nothing more I can do."

"I'm NOT bloody asking you to disobey orders, I'm asking you to let the North know that the Ghearans have returned. Please Jaden, they're people too. My people. If they don't have warning-"

For a brief instant, so fleeting Rory doubted his eyes, Jaden's face softened, the harsh steel of his gaze melted, then firmed so fast he almost didn't believe what he had seen. Rory tried to ignore it, but his voice softened all the same.

"I'm not asking you to break any order Jaden, I just want to either send a letter to my Father in the North, or talk to Lord Edmund-"

At the mention of his father, Jaden's eyes might as well have been set into stone. "I'm sorry Rory, I can't and I won't let you send that letter. And you stay away from my Father" he said, "he has already made his decision on the matter. He is the Hand of the Emperor in the North, and you will obey him."

"What is it with you and Lord Edmund?" But asking that was pointless--and a dead end besides. Jaden always clammed up whenever Rory asked about his Father. There was bad blood therea...nothing a good brawl wouldn't fix, but Thiians had a strange aversion to violence. Screw civility! Rory lost his will to argue. Jaden was dead set on doing this without any outside help, even two days of steady arguing had not altered his mind a whit. Like water from a washbasin, Rory's tenseness drained from his shoulders.

It was then that Rory realized how close Jaden was pressing to him, he could almost feel the heat of his taller frame roll off his body. His face, his eyes, so intent Rory wanted to look away, look anywhere but into those eyes. He settled for looking down, hoping his hair would hide his face.

"Fine, do what you want I guess. It's not like you'd ever listen to a slave, right? That's what this is all about isn't it?"

"It's procedure," Jaden said, equally soft, "You're not supposed to have any contact with a foreign power. I'm sorry."

"Tell that to the people who are going to die because of you, tell it to the widows and the orphans as they cry over corpses of people they once knew. Try imagining explaining your reasons then."

Jaden started laughing, then tried to disguise it with a cough when Rory whipped his head back up, heat in his cheeks. "You're exaggerating."

"Am I?" Rory felt his eyebrow's rise along with his disbelief.

"If they come north, and that's a big 'if', they will have to fight through my army, as well as my Father's bannermen Rory. If the war gets so far, can't you see the Northmen will surely hear about it as refugees try and escape to peaceful lands?" He prodded Rory's chest, which felt like small electric shocks, "Will you start thinking with your head instead of this bloody thing for an instant? I'll have you and Kaleb with me, as well as that Elementalist you mentioned the other day, Gotfried." Jaden's eyes narrowed when he said the elderly healer's name. A spy belonging to his Father, Jaden seemed to dislike spies almost as much as Rory did, and there was something very off about the old healer who was now a reluctant part of Jaden's troops. Rory couldn't put worries to his words though, and it seemed like Jaden felt the same, so Rory remained silent. "With your knowledge and the cannons of Norfolk I'm sure we'll figure out a way to stop them, or at the very least slow them until backup from the Capital arrives. That's if the East has even fallen yet, something you seem so convinced of."

For some reason, Rory's eyes were back on Jaden's shoulder. As of late, now that Rory was certain the Gheara had returned, the otherworld ambience called to him almost daily, the temptation mounting with every moment of every day. The strangest part was that the ache of the mark on his back seemed to mirror the ambience's call. A keya...if thata...demon was to be believed. But a key to what?

"I that you know...I think." Rory corrected, his voice a low whisper, and not quite sure why he couldn't bring himself to say it louder.

Rory winced as Jaden suddenly withdrew his finger as if burned. "What?"

"Your arm-" Rory started then his cheeks caught fire when he caught the wary look Jaden was giving him. "Oh, never mind" and he tried to push back the taller swordsman.

"Will you stop that!" Jaden said sternly, pushing Rory back against the armor, with another protesting clank. "Ever since you told me that you were an elementalist, even though you claim it doesn't bother you, you've barely talked about your powers." Jaden grabbed his chin, so Rory was forced into locking eyes, haunting emerald against the overcast clouds that were Jaden's. "I've heard more about what you can do from Rev, who gets so excited when he talks about what he saw and felt down in the third deep that he looks half his age."

"You hate Elementalists don't you? I saw the way your Father looked at the two Elementalists when they were around." The memory of those steely eyes had given him nightmares, and reminded him of parts of his past better well forgotten.

"I am not my father." Jaden said slowly, his hand slowly tightened on Rory chin until the pressure stung unpleasantly. "This isn't about me is it? What is it with the North and the exiling of Bern'alad," Rory must have winced, because Jaden's eyes gleamed, "there, just like that. You flinch every time I mention the subject."

"I do not..." Rory grumbled, shaking Jaden's hand off before those strong fingers ripped off his chin. "I could heal that if you wanted, just thought I'd ask." Rory said, his voice slightly shaky when he did say it. There, he had said it! When Jaden didn't respond Rory looked up and found himself under the scrutiny of one of Jaden's rare smiles.

"If you are anything like Gotfried..."

"Better," Rory said before he could stop himself. " me." Rory said quietly, wondering if he even trusted himself with the weaving. Jaden was chuckling, but he offered no resistance as Rory tentatively reached for the stitched wound.

"Do you need to use your hands?" Jaden asked, he might have been chatting about a horse he fancied, clinical and detached, he watched Rory with interest.

"Not exactly," Rory said as he started weaving. Power, sweet and seductive in nature poured through him as he did. The threads for healing were some of the first non-verbalized spells that he had been taught. At the time, they seemed much more practical than throwing fireballs from your hand. "I can do this without the hand motion, but it helps me focus." Rory snorted when Ephram's curly beard imposed itself on his mind's eye. "It seems like your Elementalists require the hand motion in order for the spell to work."

"Rev said Ephram's fireballs couldn't touch you, and you never uttered a word. Was that another spell?" Jaden prodded, as he watched suddenly wide eyed as the stitches popped one after the other out of his wound and his flesh knit together slowly. "Wow, that burns."

Rory blushed and shook his head distractedly, "There are spells and there are weavings. They're both different in nature. Wind is my element. I can weave it without thinking for some reason. There, all done! How does that feel Thiian?" Rory nodded to himself as he prodded the pink flesh with a finger, harder than was strictly necessary.

Jaden was already rolling his shoulder as he experimented. His eyes were narrowed suspiciously at Rory. "Gotfried told me he couldn't heal things like that."

Jaden still refused to move, so Rory leaned back on the armor and crossed his arms with a resigned sigh. "'Cause he can't. You have to have to be able to channel a certain amount of power to be able to weave the elements without the verbalized commands that weaker Elementalists use. He could have healed you if he knew words to a spell that powerful. Words have a way of snapping weaves into doing things you want them to. Someone weak with Elements might use a lengthy spell to do something a strong Elementalist can do without speaking, and just weave everything himself, although sometimes it's shorter to just say the words."

"I've killed my share of rogue Elementalists in my time, they all had to speak before throwing gobs of fire, or making the ground heave and shake." Jaden revealed with a shrug, then grinned, satisfied with his shoulder. "You have my thanks, Rory."

Why did he have to mention killing Elementalists? Was he trying to instill fear? Was he trying to make him afraid? Rory couldn't help wondering. "It's dishonorable to use Elements to fight against those without," Rory muttered. The very idea shocked him. According to Jaden's stories, it was a common occurrence in the empire. It made Rory's stomach roll about as if he were back on the deck of a longboat.

"So, is Kaleb as strong as you?"

Rory blinked at the question. He hadn't really thought about it. All he was certain that when the time came, and it would since the man was a beastial ghearan, Rory would have to deal with him. "'d be an even roll of the dice." Rory said cautiously, deciding there was no point in hiding the truth. "Although Kaleb has strength of a different sort. Ghearan's always focus on offensive power, much stronger spells in that area than any of mine...probably...I think I read that somewhere. It's not really a problem right now though--he's shielded from touching the otherworld. It's no wonder he was seeking an alliance with you Thiians."

"So better to stick a knife in his back when he's not looking then?" Jaden asked, and Rory thought he was deadly serious.

"Typical Thiian solution," Rory replied, condescension dripping from his voice. "If you were not referring to a Ghearan those words would bring you much dishonor." Rory tried to hammer the point in with a stern look, but Jaden remained unimpressed.

"Could you kill me?"

Rory blinked again, then shook his head. "I swore an oath not to harm Lord Edmund or his family-"

Jaden waved his hand, "Oaths aside."

"I've never seen you fight. I can hold my own with a longstaff." Rory said grudgingly.

Jaden barked a laugh. "Now you're being modest. I find those words hard to believe after seeing lightning come from your hand without a moment's notice."

Rory's vision swirled. Jaden didn't seem to listen to anything he had told him. "Are you trying to insinuate that I would cheat in a battle between us!?"

"Oh, right, right; that prickly sense of Northman honor. 'Don't attack those who can't touch the otherworld'. You're bloody crazy you know that? If I had that sort of power-"

"But I'm not you, and I'm not Thiian."

"No, I guess not," Jaden said with a sheepish grin, "Still, you're better than nothing I suppose." Was that supposed to be comforting?

There was a silence for a while, and still Jaden wasn't moving. Rory kept glancing at him, but Jaden stubbornly blocked the alcove, a small smile, as if he saw some great joke Rory had missed, on his lips. After a long moment, Rory couldn't take it anymore.

"Dammit! Why aren't you treating me differently!? I'm some sort of freak to you aren't I? Someone to look at and pity? You don't need to pretend anymore, I GET IT, okay?" Jaden recoiled as if lashed. Rory took the opportunity to squeeze out of the alcove.

"I never--Rory, wait..."

But he didn't, and no footsteps followed.

That was how Rory found himself back on that same second floor balcony he had spent so much time on before Jaden had come home. Rory leaned over the thick stone railing, watching Jinx wield his strap of birch, smacking knees and elbows and the occasional head as he strode between white-kilted novices, grilling them as they practiced forms. He was a bear amongst rabbits in the crowded courtyard below.

Rory was so distracted he didn't notice the pair of soft footsteps scoot up beside him. "Hi Rory, are you trying to skip classes too? I don't like school much at all!" Disel said, as she leaned forwards, resting the side of her head on the banister, her piercing eyes staring up at him. "Are you okay?"

Okay? Rory sniffled and rubbed his eyes quickly. "What? Oh, its you. I'm fine Disel."

"Umm...where's your hat?" Disel asked, her shy voice didn't do much to hide her uncertain giggle. "I like the way you looked in it!"

Rory lifted an arm and rested his hand delicately on her curls of the day. "I'm sorry. It got so dirty that Mistress Repness confiscated it when I took it off for my bath." Rory remembered shouting at her about that, which had earned him frigid water every time he revisited the baths, and she still wouldn't tell him where it had gotten off too. Thiians!

"Oh...well that's okay!" She lowered her voice and leaned into Rory's side, one of her small hands grabbing a handful of his kilt, "I'm making you another anyways. And mittens to match this time, no matter what mother says."

Rory smiled sadly, "You know Disel, you should probably listen to your Mother." At least you still have one, Rory wanted to add, but somehow the words got lost before he could speak.

"Are you sad?" she asked, her concern not faked, she was frowning.

Sad? Rory wasn't really sure what he was feeling right now. Jaden was pulling him off to fight a war that he wasn't prepared to fight. He...this wasn't...everything was just so backwards! It hurt to think of what exactly the Ghearans were capable of. If only Jaden knew, if only he had grown up with stories like the ones that had sent Rory to bed wide-eyed and shivering. Jaden wouldn't be fighting the ghearans in his little ground campaign if he would listen; it was the evil behind the giant war machines that was to blame. Jaden was going to be fighting men and women little better than slaves. Innocents.

"All my life I've wanted to escape, to just get away from all the accusing stares, the fearful looks, from all the murmurings. And now!?" Rory giggled and sobbed at the same time, coming out as a chocked-off cough, "Now I would give anything to be back home. I guess I'm pretty stupid that way."

"What do you mean home?" Disel asked, her honest confusion so endearing. "This is your home."

Rory laughed and scrubbed his cheeks with the back of his hand. "Thanks Disel, you're really sweet. I really would like that hat, it's getting colder with every passing day." And Rory wasn't just talking about the weather.

Her grin was going to be considered a lethal weapon when she grew into it; radiating a joy Rory seemed to have forgotten even existed as she smiled up at him. "I'll finish it up before you and Jaden go on your trip. Y'know!" she continued, pulling on the kilt in a dangerous manner, "Y'know, I wouldn't mind if you were my second brother."

Another pair of footsteps announced a third arrival as a pair of arms suddenly encircled him. Rory nearly jumped out of his skin when he felt Rev's encircling arms. Whether he meant to or not, Rev's face pressed into Rory's back right where it ached dully, the flesh still tender from his dream.

"Gods, you stupid Northman." Rev said, "What is wrong with you today? I just nearly took Piggy's head off sparring, then started crying not long after. They think I've gone mad after my stint in the third deep!"

Disel squeaked with pleasure as she added her arms to Rev's. She peered curiously up at the smaller swordsman. "Who are you? Are you one of father's swordsmen? You're too short!"

Rory's cheeks heated when Rev's hand detached itself and patted her curls, "I'm Rory's swordsman for now" and his voice hardened, "and I'm taller than you pipsqueak!"

Disel laughed, it warmed Rory's heart somewhat. Disel had that effect wherever she seemed to go. Embarrassed at the spectacle they must be making, Rory extricated himself from the double hug.

The soft sound of someone clearing his throat made all three of them jump, Disel foremost, her blond locks swung as she ran towards the sound. "Jaden!" Fabric meeting fabric and a grunt, as Disel launched herself at her older brother.

"Heya. Aren't you supposed to be in class gnome? Madam Poufferelles was storming around the first level with a big wooden spoon asking after where you'd gotten off to."

Disel squeaked, a high-pitch sound that Rory never wanted to hear again. "Oh, no! I forgot!" she squealed and the sounds of her two small feet announced her abrupt exit as she ran off down the balcony. Before she had left though, she yelled over her shoulder, "I'm STILL mad at you Jaden! I'm not making you a hat!"

"Hi" was all Jaden said, as he took an identical position Rory had a moment ago, leaning over the edge. Rev was eyeing him warily, Rory could feel the swordsman tense beside him. "Sometimes I think she enjoys talking to you more than me."

Brilliant! Rory thought, maybe it's because you're acting like an ass! Rory drew back, intending to leave, but Jaden's hand wrapped itself around one of his arms that was resting on the ornate balustrade. "Let go." Rory snapped, much louder than he had meant to. "I have nothing to say to you."

Jaden was leaning forwards, peering up beneath Rory bangs. He hadn't turned away quick enough. "Bloody hell, what's wrong? Rory, were you crying? Your eyes are red and puffy."

There was something awful about someone you're angry with asking if you're crying. As if it wasn't obvious enough, he had to say something and make this even more embarrassing. Rory squeezed his eyes shut, but even that couldn't stop the flow, if anything it seemed to increase. "I'm...not...crying."

"Leave him alone Jaden, I'm warning you." Rev growled he stepped up to the bigger swordsman fearlessly.

Rory felt Jaden tense beside him, he glanced arrogantly over his shoulder at Rev, who bristled under his grey gaze. "This is none of your business apprentice."

"Try me."

Rory scrubbed his eyes in a furious manner again, angry that Jaden wasn't leaving him alone, shamed because Rev was acting on his behalf. He ripped his arm from Jaden's grasp. "Don't think so bloody highly of yourself. This...this has nothing to do with you."

"I thought Northmen didn't cry." When Rory turned to leave, Jaden got frantic, "No, wait, that didn't come out right," he danced from foot to foot. He sighed, "What I meant was..."

"I know what you meant. Have a laugh, if it will make you feel good."

"You're an ass Jaden," Rev interjected. "the stables are, thataway. Tell it to your own kind." Rev snarled, jerking his thumb past the courtyard.

Jaden's face hardened, and his eyes raked across Rev. "That's it. I've had enough of your lip. You have forgotten where you stand." His fingers danced, and Rev's replied without a moments hesitation.

Rory wasn't sure what was going on between them, but he didn't want Rev involved. "Rev, stop it!" Rory barked, grabbing the boy's shoulder and hauling him backwards, "This is none of your business."

Rory felt a flash of annoyance ripple from the boy, but he kept his mouth shut as Jaden turned his attention back to Rory.

Jaden's face softened, "Listen I came here to-"

"Take care of your pet?" Rory added with a sneer.


"Make sure your goods aren't permanently damaged?"

Jaden's mouth opened and shut, much like a river salmon Rory thought. "Thats not what I-"

"Or maybe you thought, since I'm sure you know everything, that you could make me see things your way? In the Thiian way? Gods, Jaden. Leave me alone. You've made it clear you won't listen to anything I have to say, so why should I listen to what you have to say? Isn't it already enough that I've said I'll help you. What more do you want from me?"

Jaden was frowning. He stayed silent for a long while, pointedly staring at Rory. He arched one of his eyebrows, "Are you through putting words into my mouth?"

"I'm just saying the things that you can't say out loud. Thiians are like that aren't they? They mince polite words when they really want to stripe you black and blue with a club. They laugh when they want to cry-"

Jaden had a hand over his eyes, shaking his head. "I'm going to kill him." Jaden muttered quietly. Then louder, "You're scared aren't you? Afraid of the Ghearans?" Jaden cut in, the vice closed around Rory heart. A tremor ran through his arms, which he clutched to himself.

"I...I'm not scared!" Rory sputtered. "You don't know what you're talking about."

"Then for the Emperor's sake-" Jaden cut off and took a deep breath, "for my sake, I need you to stop this sulking."

If Rev were a dog, he would have been foaming at the mouth. Rory straightened his back, "I don't know any fancy hand motions Jaden like you, or like Rev does." Rory said harshly, "but no-one calls me a coward and gets away from it. Fight me. I won't drop this until you do."

Rory's stare tried its best, but stone was never very good at withering, and Jaden was no exception. Suddenly, Rory found himself stumbling after Jaden as he was dragged off down the corridor, his shorter legs struggling to keep up. Rev shadowed them, his eyes on Jaden's back smoldering icy blue.

Rory didn't have to wait long to find out where they were going. They were soon standing off to one side of the now deserted outer courtyard, where he had first seen Rev fight. The water trough had long since been righted where Rev had once tried to drown himself what seemed like years ago. Jaden marched them over to a big barrel that was set behind the long troughs of water and the squat benches in order to grab a battered looking longsword from its depths. Jaden balanced it by flipping it up and letting it rest on his wrist before he nodded to himself.

Jaden released his arm finally, stepping back and saluted him with the sword. "Come on then. Grab something that suits your fancy."

Rory's eyes still felt as if they were burning, but now that sadness, the emptiness inside him was rapidly filling with anger. "If I win, you let me write my letter, and you make sure it gets delivered."

"I agree to your terms. Scared?" Jaden said, repeating what he had accused earlier.

"I'll rip you to shreds Thiian."

Jaden spread his arms, mocking him, "Careful, if you get that violent you'll make Disel cry. Prove to me you're right in wanting to send that letter."

"I don't need to prove anything." Rory grumbled as he trudged over to the barrel. There were wooden swords of all sorts in its depths, but Rory grabbed the lonesome longstaff that was sticking proudly upright in the center. He tested his grip as he turned back to face Jaden.

"A stick?" Jaden eyed him and his battered longstaff warily--it was almost as if he knew something he wasn't telling Rory.

"A stick." Rory agreed, a frown darkening his face as he stepped towards Jaden, staff held loosely in front of him. "Aren't you going to ask me if I plan on cheating?"

"A frightened mouse might resort to anything..." Jaden left that hanging between them as he circled to his right, his eyes never once leaving Rory's. Rory reddened at the slight and planted his feet, testing how well his sandals gripped the dirt, as Jaden narrowed the distance in a half-circle that Rory followed with his eyes.

"Knock his teeth in, Rory." Rev shouted from the side. Rory didn't need to be told that. His teeth, his nose, he would knock them all in, especially that smug grin of his!

About six hands from Rory, Jaden stopped and relaxed his shoulders, that insufferable grin on his face. "Hey, you've got a pretty good guard, I don't see any-"

Rory danced forwards, one foot following the other, churning the dry dust into the air as he passed; his staff, a smooth extension of his arm, darted towards Jaden's throat. Rory was sure the bigger Thiian was off guard, but Jaden knocked the attempted thrust aside and scooted sideways trying to close the distance between them. Rory rolled the other way, coming up with his staff above his head to block a stroke that never came. Jaden had feinted with the sword while his boot nearly got under Rory's guard to find his stomach. Rory threw himself sideways, rolling with the blow, and was back onto his feet in a flash--if slightly winded from the exchange.

Jaden was following on his heels, hounding Rory. If Rory's staff was an extension of his arms, Jaden's sword seemed to be his arm. It flashed and flickered in feints and hard counters almost too fast for Rory to follow. His arms were already going numb, and it was only his legs that saved him as he tried to match Jaden's whirling motions, a broad circle that tightened and tightened until Rory felt trapped, silly as it seemed, in the center of the broad courtyard.

Jaden's down stroke caught the center of the staff, and Rory felt it shiver in his grip. Desperate, Rory shoved the sword back upwards and landed two quick blows with either end of his staff in a one-two combination that made Jaden stumble backwards.

Rory used the time catch his breath. Jaden recovered quickly, he grudgingly nodded and straightened. Rory took stock of his own situation. His clothes were already a mess, his blue tunic completely covered in the reddish-brown dirt that clung to his sweat-stained torso and his arms.

Jaden, much as it infuriated Rory to note, looked none the worse for wear. He saluted Rory with his sword, a healthy sheen of sweat on his forehead the only sign of his effort to break Rory's guard.

"I've never seen a man fight so well with a stick," Jaden said, a grin lighting up his grey eyes for a moment. He looked pleased with himself, almost preening under Rory's considering gaze. That was when Rory realized they had drawn something of a crowd. A group of blue-kilted swordsmen were standing off beside Rev under the watchful gaze of Jinx, who was nodding to himself thoughtfully, while all the younger boys around him were all gawking--whispering among themselves.

"And that" Jinx intoned, as if it had been his plan all along to have this fight interrupt the start of his lesson, "Is why you should never underestimate a boy, with a staff." He nodded to Jaden, "If you wouldn't mind Captain, this lot `o boy's here ain't seen a fight with a staff afore, it'd be a good learnin' for them."

Jaden nodded, and a sly grin swept his face. "I don't mind Jinx, although you might have to ask Rory...he looks somewhat tired..."

"I'm fine!" Rory fumed, shifting his grip slightly on the staff. This time he would not try and go solely for defense...he had to...he had to put Jaden off balance somehow. Rory whirled the staff in his hands, testing its weight. The advantage of his staff was he not only had a much better defense than a sword, but it had a longer reach and heavier momentum associated with it. It also had two ends, something Jaden's sword didn't have. He needed to use all those features to his advantage. Jaden was good after all.

For a Thiian.

"The staff is about equal parts defense, offense, and misdirection depending on who is using it." Jinx was lecturing. "It can be used not only at close range but much like a polearm at longer range. It can trick the eyes and when wielded properly, kill you just as easily as a sword. A good hand with a staff can hold off twice if not thrice his number of swordsmen." When the novices laughed nervously, thinking Jinx was joking, the big blacksmith's switch started wailing on those nearest, silencing the group quickly. "DON'T LAUGH, THE NEXT ONE WHO LAUGHS FIGHTS THE NORTHMAN NEXT!"

Rory gritted his teeth and tried to ignore Jinx and the finer details at how to kill a man with a staff. He took a few steps forward, trying to judge the distance between them. When Jaden put his sword at the ready and slid forwards threatening, Rory took a step backwards, trying to keep space between them then launched himself forwards as Jinx yelled something excitedly on the side-lines.

The staff whizzed past Jaden's ear as he swung like an upside-down pendulum out of the way. His sword snaked downwards to try and catch Rory's knee, but this time he was expecting that move, and Rory brought the other end of the staff sharply down as he continued to push forwards, turning the defensive block with one end of the staff into an offensive attack as he used the staff's natural momentum to take a swipe at Jaden's exposed face with the other end.

Somehow, Jaden managed to get his sword up again and behind his back to stop the blow. Gods! Rory couldn't help thinking, he must have arms of iron! Jaden had slid sideways to lessen the blow, but as he did Rory just brought that first end of the staff into play, a never ending stream of whirling wood that pounded away at Jaden's defense methodically. Jaden moved like a cat, striking fast for Rory's weak sides when his staff's backstrokes wobbled his balance a hair, never once letting Rory take ground unchallenged. Rory pressed as hard as he dared, his breath coming in heaves as the staff grew leadened in his arms.

Jaden on the other hand looked like he was having fun. His eyes were set in concentration as he danced to the beat set by Rory's wilder and wilder swings. There was no wasted movement, no chink in the Seventh's defense. Jaden abruptly broke the cycle, a scathing down-blow that Rory felt might break his arms off. Somehow, Rory managed to hold on--though his arms had turned into a sort of jelly. Jaden continued pressing down, forcing Rory to one knee with both his arms straining in tandem with his sword. His breath came in controlled pants, hot and moist on Rory's face.

"You're too damn stubborn for your own good." Jaden said, "You dishonor me by not using all your strength to fight."

"I am...using strength..." Rory panted hard, sweat and dirt seemed to have come together all over his body.

The pressure was gone, Jaden had stepped back and was frowning. "C'mon Rory. It won't be fun unless you use your power."

"Stupid, pea-brained Thiian!" Rory yelled and launched himself forward. Instead of blocking Jaden's scything blow he jerked his body sideway, he felt the air of Jaden's stroke on his cheek, so close it had been. He ignored it and planted one end of his staff into the ground using it as a lever, his feet left the ground as he used the staff to propel him forwards. The movement caught Jaden flat-footed and Rory's kick caught him full-on in the face, knocking him backwards, flailing.

Not for one minute did the thought occur to Rory that the fight was over. The gasps from the sidelines indicated that the hit had looked impressive, but Rory hadn't felt his foot connect cleanly. Jaden must have thrown himself backwards to lessen the blow. Rory whipped his staff over his head to finish it, but Jaden used the momentum of Rory's kick to whirl out of the way, his own sword streaking madly towards Rory's head.

Rory swore to himself as the sword clipped his shoulder, pain tore through the joint as Rory leaped back. Another inch and that swipe might have seriously injured him!

Jaden just seemed to be content for a small rest. He was panting along with Rory, blood streamed from his nose where Rory's sandal had caught him, but he had a stupid, infuriating grin on his face.

Rory stood unsteadily and glanced over at Jinx, who was still lecturing, although most of the students didn't look like they were listening all too well. They all had eyes the size of small plates--looking over at the sweaty and dirt stained pair in awe.

"I misjudged you." Jaden informed him, one hand inspecting his nose tenderly. "You broke my nose" he accused.

"I'll do worse if you don't yield." Rory warned him.

"Smash his balls next Rory!" Rev added smartly to several cheers from the white-clad novices. Jinx's switch was working again to silence them.

Jaden scowled, ignoring the calls, "I don't get you Rory. I've held back because I thought you might use your powers, but if you're not planning on using them, then I'll use mine first."

Rory felt his eyes narrow. "What do you mean?"

Jaden didn't answer. His eyes closed for a moment. A ripple, that's all it was in the ambience, and that was also the only warning Rory had. Jaden was somehow tapping the ambience of the otherworld!! Not in the way he did, in a much more natural form Rory had never felt before.

Jaden's eyes snapped open, heralded by the sword he raised over his head and brought down sharply, "HAW!"

Elements snapped together in a brutal manner, forced instead of guided, it was effective all the same, a great blue-white wave of wind scythed vertically towards Rory. It was all he could do to roll sideways, but he wasn't quite fast enough, one side of his body was caught in the wind and he ended up twisting as he was tossed backwards.

Rory squinted up into the sun that was battering down onto the practice yard. The entire left hand side of his body was on fire. He gazed down at his heaving chest. His Tunic was tattered from his waist to his neck. Rory gulped in air and stood shakily, the remnants of his shirt he ripped from his chest, where fury burned brighter than any cut or scrape.

Jaden had not moved, the picture of him with him sword lowered to the ground was as if time itself had paused for Rory to fight for breath. Dark eyes filled with a quiet determination watched him warily, the sword held ready before him. Was this what Jaden had meant when he claimed that he had killed elementalists before? Rage lent Rory's legs strength to face Jaden.

"It's even sharper when I use a real blade. Want to quit now, slave?" he was panting, the effort he had obviously exerted taking its toll.

Rory was shaking, how DARE he! Jaden had somehow tapped the elements without using his own power! That wasa...that wasa....IMPOSSIBLE! At that moment, no-one else existed for Rory but Jaden, standing smugly in front of him. Rory had only one thought; he was going to teach this stupid hare-brained Thiian a lesson he was NEVER going to forget!

Rory's feet led him forwards. The staff dropped from his hands as they relaxed. He brought his arms together in front of his chest, clasping one fist around his thumb so his fists stacked on top of each other. It lent him concentration while he opened himself to the otherworld. When he did, Rory felt this incredible relief as the ambient power filled him to bursting. His rest had done him well. Rory felt like he could pull down a mountain.

"Oh, so now you're going to get serious are you Northman?" Jaden jeered. Rory felt that same focus exude from Jaden again.

Try it, I DARE you. Rory silently taunted. Jaden didn't disappoint. Before he had quite covered the distance between them, Jaden's forearms tensed as he took a deep breath and released it in another yell as he stabbed forwards faster than Rory's eye could follow--but not faster than his otherworld sense could catch. He watched as Jaden's stroke coalesced fire and air elements, knotted them in a ball, and into which he plunged his sword, sending them at Rory in a spear of red-orange light. ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?

Rory wove a thin strand of water and air, much, much tighter than Jaden knotted his thread, and sent it forwards faster than any eye could catch. It sliced into the ugly mass of flailing elements and split it cleanly. The result was a bright flash of light and a sound much like a cannon.


Jaden staggered backwards as scalding hot air buffeted him.

Rory wasn't finished--he knotted small tight elements of air as quickly as he dared. Ten, small balls of pulsing power scattered and flew, looking like small white-distortions towards Jaden. To his credit, Jaden had recovered somewhat from the backfire of his stroke. The first two balls he somehow caught sight of and tried to deflect with his wooden sword, which splintered and flew from his hands after the second ball's sudden impact. The other eight balls under Rory's guidance came together and impacted his chest. Crunch!

Jaden was sailing through the air and landed hard on his back, arching with pain and howling at the top of his lungs where he landed. His leather armor that he was so proud of had ripped at the shoulder seams, exposing the now-tattered tunic beneath.

The spell had been his teacher: Epheziel's creation. Only a powerful Bern'alad was able to learn it. Grabbing ten separate strands of air was impossible without a great deal of practice and concentration. Rory had been so proud to learn it, now all he felt was disgust.

As Jaden lay there moaning, Rory returned to his senses. He glanced over to watch as Rev went running over to Jaden's side, his frown battling with a smirk that he couldn't quite get rid of.

The novices were stunned and gaping at the show. Jinx's manner had changed. He was scowling over at Rory, his big beard making his face almost bestial in appearance. Rory grimaced and ran over to Jaden as well, trying to shake off Jinx's sudden, unfriendly manner.

Rory knelt beside Jaden as he struggled to a sitting position, ugly purple bruises already forming on what skin Rory could see beneath his ruined armor. He watched Rev help him into a sitting position. "Jadena...Jaden! You alright there?" Rev asked uncertainly, a note of worry clear in his voice.

"m'finea..." he mumbled, his hands reached for his head. Rory thought he looked rattled more than anything. "Where's my sword, I can still fighta..." he slurred somewhat, his eyes kept losing focus, he was still woozy from the blow.

"I'm ready anytime you are, Thiian." Rory said calmly before his voice rose accusingly. "You CHEATED!"

Jaden's eyes finally focused enough to recognize Rory. He scowled back. "You're an elementalist Rory! That's how we swordsmen defeat you--sixths and higher at least. You don't know as much of the world as you think you know."

Rory reached out and rapped Jaden's skull, "Gods I hope it's just your mind that's boggled. If you tried that against any other Bern'alad except me they would have ripped you limb from limb for using weaves in a duel. IDIOT! What gives you the right to use such foul-tricks!?"

Jaden pushed Rev's assistance aside and grabbed Rory by the neck, his powerful hand squeezed and drew Rory closer. "You caught me by surprise that's all, I'll win next time."

Rory was sick of Jaden at that moment, so completely that he wouldn't have minded one bit if he never saw the fool again. He knocked Jaden's hand away, stood and walked away. After a moment where Rory swore he heard Rev whisper something harshly to Jaden, Rev caught up with him. He didn't say anything. He didn't need too. Rev knew the bitter triumph and horror Rory was feeling.

"What have I done?" Rory whispered as they reached the quiet corridors of the manner. "I've done it again. It's all happening all over againa..."

"You kicked his ass. You beat a Seventh in single combat," Rev said hoarsely. "In front of a bunch of gossiping novices no less. It'll be all over the yard in no time!"

"No," Rory said, his voice trembling, his hands shaking as he opened the thick door into the inner corridors. Jinx's horrifying face pushed to the surface of his memories. "I just showed everyone what a freak I truly am."

"What about the letter? You won Rory."

Rory stopped and looked at Rev, "Did I?"

Rev looked confused. "Um, yeah Rory. You won."

Rory snorted. "No!" Why didn't he understand? "Jaden lost. I didn't win; by the rules of combat when elements are used the combat is void."

"In the North maybe. You're not in the north anymore Rory. You made such a big deal about changing my path of thinking, but maybe you need to do a little of the same." Rev accused hotly. "You won! Forget your precious Northman honor for one bloody second and enjoy the moment!"

Rory shied from Rev's simmering blue eyes. "It's all I have left." Rory said softly. "My honora...if I abandon thata...what else is left?"

Rev remained quiet, but in that moment he reached out and grabbed Rory's hand--his eyes had softened, doing all the speaking that needed to be done. Rory turned his eyes to the sky and whispered thoughts to the Gods above. Please, take me home!

Take me home.

The Saga of Grey-Eyed Justice continues in Chapter 10: The Red-Headed Runaway

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