Tag Archives: Fantasy

The Devil You Know

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The devil was sitting in Anders’ office.

Seven foot tall, with skin the colour of lava, piercing green eyes and long horns protruding from a thick shuck of black hair, he was well dressed in fine robes. Around him there was a smell of summer flowers, with a faint whisper of something more dank, and spicier underneath.

When Courtney entered, he’d paused to look at her, making her heart skip. He was perhaps the most terrifying thing she’d ever seen, and she’d been frozen in place as his gaze looked upon her, feeling like she was naked before him.

“This is my lieutenant, Courtney.” Anders said from behind his antique desk. “She’ll be helping us with this issue.”

The devil nodded in understanding, and gave her a yellow smile that made her insides turn to jelly and made her want nothing more than to run from this terrifying being that sat before her like a god. “I will appreciate your help.”

Hearing this, it was all Courtney could do to keep from falling to her knees and begging for his mercy. She felt the urge wash over her, fighting with her own efforts to be as professional as possible. The effort made her stiff, and she just stood there, her face frozen as she stared at him. “Y-yes, my lord.”

She didn’t know what was happening to her, she was an officer in the Eidolon Corps, the Imperial special operations branch, and yet now she felt like a schoolgirl standing before an angry father. It was infuriating, maddening, but she couldn’t help it.

Anders, her superior, frowned and reached into a drawer, pulling out something. “Courtney, catch.” He said, and tossed something to her.

As soon at the small green gem touched her hand, Courtney immediately felt the waves of fear and emotion begin to ebb and settle. Within a few moments, her inner calm was back, she was as cool as ever.

“You’re no fun,” said the devil in a slightly displeased tone to Anders. And, when Courtney looked at him now, she found he appeared only a tall but slender young man in his twenties with orange skin and black hair, the god she’d seen moments before having seemingly vanished. The whole thing left her a bit disoriented, but she did her best to hide her confusion.

“We are not here to be your source of amusement,” Anders said in a flat tone. Then he waved Courtney over to stand next to his desk and sat back in his chair. “Now, please get to the point regarding your visit.”

The devil shrugged, “There is not much to tell. One of my sisters is here in your Empire, and we believe she is involved in acts that will cause a rift between our peoples. As the letter I just delivered to you states, my father has sent me to find her, and bring the lost child home if possible.”

Anders tapped the opened letter sitting on the desk before him, watching his guest. “And if it isn’t possible?”

The devil said everything he needed to with the sharp yellow teeth of his smile.

“Very well, you may return to the hotel where you’re staying. We will look into the case and let you know.”

The devil shook his head, “I’m afraid I must ask to be involved. This is a personal matter, a family matter, and I can be of great use in finding him. I know her patterns and what she will need.”

“Very well,” Anders nodded. “Is there anything we should be looking for, then?”

“If she is here in the capitol, as we believe she is,” said the other. “Then she will need live food. Since she is unused to feeding on lesser animals, I would suggest you look for places where your citizens have gone missing.”

Hearing this made Courtney shudder. She’d read about it before, the taste the devils had for human flesh, but to hear one say it…

“I’ll get my people on it,” Anders said, standing. “Please return to where you are staying, and we’ll send someone to get you as soon as we have something worth looking into.”

“Of course,” the devil stood and shook Ander’s hand lightly, then gave Courtney a smile that made that tingly feeling return for the briefest of moments before he left.

“Bloody devils,” Anders said, dropping back down into his padded leather chair and shaking his head.

“Sir,” Courtney said formally. “I need to apologize…”

But Anders waved her attempt at apology away with his hand. “It’s not your fault, Courtney. Devils of the royal line have an aura around them that makes everyone fear them. If anything, it’s my fault, I should have had you warned and given a protective weave before you met Stratios.”

“Is that what this is?” She said, looking at the small gem that was still in her hand.

“Yes. I’ve had them distributed among the staff, to make sure he doesn’t attempt to influence them while he’s here. You just arrived, so you were unprepared. Obviously this is your first time meeting one.”

Courtney indicated that it was.

“Well, I don’t think I need to tell you to keep that gem close on you at all times. You cannot, and must not trust him, as every second word that comes from his mouth is certainly a lie. Stratios might not look like much, but he’s extremely dangerous.”

That thought made Courtney pause. “If he doesn’t look like much, what does a dangerous devil look like?”

“May you never know,” Anders commented, ringing a bell on his desk to summon his assistants. “Now, let’s get to work finding his sibling.”

#

“Here he is.”

Courtney looked up to see the carriage pull to a halt and Stratios step down from it, ignoring the brief fluttering in her heart the moment she saw him. When the prince joined them, he grinned and looked to each of them in turn.

“A fine day for a hunt. Have you found her?”

Anders shook his head, gesturing at the cluster of broken down buildings in front of them. “Not yet. A local gang has been rounding up street dwellers with offers of good pay and easy hours. None of these people has been seen again.”

“Ah yes, good.” Stratios rubbed his hands together gleefully. “It sounds like we should be speaking with these miscreants. Thank you for inviting me.”

With that, Anders led the two of them across the street and into the slums.

The narrow streets of the slums were dark, even in the late morning, the sky blocked out by the lines of hanging clothes above them. The stones they walked on were broken and uneven, and to either side tired, sallow eyes watched them from broken windows and makeshift wooden stoops. There was a deep feeling of despair and hopelessness here, one which couldn’t help but tug at Courtney’s heart.

“Never been down here before,” she said. “It’s awful.”

“Yes,” agreed the devil. “I can’t help but wonder why your government hasn’t helped these people.”

This caught Courtney off guard, and she glanced at Stratios. “You don’t have slums in your country?”

He shook his head. “None. Every citizen is fed and housed. It is only proper, since they work so hard, that we should reward them.”

Courtney started to nod in approval, but then caught herself, remembering Anders’ warning. She didn’t know much of the Devil Kingdoms in the South, but had always imagined they were horrible places to live. Millenia ago, when the devils had comes to this world, they’d tried to conquer it, and there had been a great war. The Empire she served was formed in the aftermath of the alliance of human kingdoms that had been forced to work together to defeat the devils and banish them from this plane of existence. Of course, a few had remained, and they’d set themselves up as the rulers of some of the more southern lands.

After the war, the human alliance was too tired and fractured to drive the last of these devils out, and so the devils had taken root in those southern lands and built up new kingdoms which existed in an uneasy state of peace with the Empire. Most of the time, the devil rulers fought amongst themselves, so they were usually too busy to be much of a concern, but every now and then a single King or Queen would gain dominance over the others, and then trouble would start. It was like that now, Stratios’ father ruled a coalition that had begun to push on the imperial borders and created tensions between the two powers.

Tensions that this situation could escalate.

Anders brought them to a halt at the mouth of an alley, and turning they saw the short, trash strewn lane ended in a brick wall with a single door in it. Around the door was arrayed a group of tough looking young men playing dice.

“Friendly or unfriendly, sir?” Courtney asked.

“Let’s try friendly first,” Anders said, and the three of them stepped into the alleyway.

Seeing their approach, the young men stopped their games and arrayed out across the road. Courtney noted knives and other weapons being brought to the ready, and did a quick check for magical energies to make sure there was nothing of concern. A few among these toughs did have items that glowed a soft yellow or light orange, but none of the stronger colours that could give them trouble.

“Nothing to be concerned about, sir.” She whispered to Anders.

He nodded. “Still, keep up your guard.”

#

The two groups met.

The apparent leader of the toughs didn’t show any intimidation at the sight of the three of them, which was impressive enough in the face of two people wearing Imperial Security uniforms, but when they had the imposing figure of Stratios with them, it bordered on insanity.

“Yeah?” Said the tattooed young man, his face a mask of lines in the form of a wolf, a popular look among the street thugs.

“We’re here to see your leader,” Anders said directly. “We just want to talk.”

The tough eyed them, then barked a command to one of the others that sent him rushing through the door at the alley’s end. Meanwhile the rest of them stood there like a wall, trying to look as imposing as they could.

A few years ago, Courtney might have been intimidated by them, but now they just looked like kids to her. The things she’d seen during her training to join the service and subsequent time in the Eidolon Corps had shown her how hollow this show of bravado really was. It also didn’t hurt that she was only a thought away from summoning up a mystical suit of armour which made her a match for battle trolls and giants.

After a candlemark, the door opened and the messenger rushed out. His whisper into the lead tough’s ear made the tattooed man nod and look at them with a slight sneer on his lips. “We’ve been told to treat you nice. Follow me.”

The crowd parted, and the three let themselves be led into the building by the tattooed man. Courtney stayed vigilant, ever aware that the narrow halls they now walked could easily turn into a site for an ambush. Her job was to protect Anders, and their guest, although she doubted Stratios needed much in the way of protecting.

The dirty corridor emptied out into a larger hall, which was some kind of recreation room from the look of it. It was a cluttered mess, and stank of sweat and human desperation. On the far side, past a few tables and ratty couches, a thin faced man wearing a white turban and colourful robes sat at a desk. One of the desert dwellers from the Sand Sea to the West, he was surprisingly clean and well dressed compared with his surroundings and associates.

The associates in question being the half dozen enforcer types who were standing strategically around the room. Unlike the kids outside, these were big men, and they had the wary eyes of old soldiers of the street. Courtney knew before she checked that they all had artifacts or other items that glowed bright orange and red for the strong magical energies flowing through them. These men were equipped to fight, and knew their business.

Their guide led the trio into the middle of the room- the worst spot to be if trouble happened.

“Greetings,” said the turbaned man, standing as a show of respect and bowing slightly. “I am Navrang Krul, the manager of this business. How may I help you?”

“Good morning, Honored Krul,” said Anders, “I am Colonel Anders, and we have come to talk with you about the hiring you have been doing recently.”

“Oh yes?” Said the man, who seemed impressed by Anders’ respectful use of the form of address that the Sand Sea dwellers used. “How may I help you, Colonel?”

“Yes, we’ve heard that you’ve been busy hiring local people for a special job, is this true?”

Krul nodded. “It is. We have a large contract to help build a dam in Korvar Province, and we need all the help we can get.” Then he smiled. “If there is some concern over taxes, I’m sure we can come to an agreement. I assure you our paperwork is all very much in order.”

“It is,” Anders agreed, looking around casually in a way Courtney had seem him do before when he was playing with his opponents. “I’ve seen it. However, I did a little checking and learned you don’t have contracts with any of the caravan companies. Why is that? You’re hiring quite a few people, how are they getting to their work sites?”

The smile faded from the other man’s face, and Courtney saw concern flash through his eyes. “Well, we don’t use the caravans. We have our own means of transportation for them.”

“Oh, is that so?” Anders said politely. “Then, where are your stables? I don’t imagine you make these workers walk to Korvar Province?”

“Not at all,” said Krul. “We rent horses from a reputable dealer in the Merchant’s Quarter. I can give you his name if you wish to pay him a visit?”

“Someone unregistered?” Anders asked, his voice showing false surprise that such an esteemed businessman would associate with such types.

“No. No.” Krul waved a hand. “I can assure you they are registered, just that they do a little extra side business when they can. Not every caravan needs so many horses, and we use their extras when they are not needed, for a modest fee.”

“Ah. Sounds like a good business arrangement.” Anders said. “We’ll be sure to pay them a visit.”

Krul nodded. “I am sorry if my clerk’s small omission caused you all to come down here. I am sure you are most busy.” He said, finally sitting back down. “If there is anything else?”

“No… I think…” Anders began, and then paused and said. “Oh wait, there was one more thing that troubled me.”

Krul cocked his head. “And what is that, esteemed sir?”

“Korvar Province is in its rainy season right now, you can’t build a dam there during this time, the ground is too soft and wet. So why do you send so many people there each week? It seems like they’d just be sitting around, eating up your profits.”

Krul’s tanned face turned the colour of milk tea- with extra milk. “Well, ah… That is…” He stammered. “We do not…”

“Do not what? Actually send people there? We know.” Anders said flatly. “What we want to know is where you are really sending them. And, why none of them return.”

Seeing Krul’s expression harden, Courtney tensed and made ready to summon her armour. This was the moment- Krul would either crack or he would go on the offencive and they’d have a fight on their hands.

Then Krul did neither.

He stood again, sighed, and made ready to speak, but what came out his mouth a second later was a mournful tortured scream of agony and his eyes rolled back into his head. Then a green glowing hand thrust out of his open mouth, followed by another as each hand grabbed the sides of his mouth and pulled it apart inhumanly far. Then, from the tortured orifice a green glowing head suddenly appeared, it’s wet face a ghastly twisted grin with no eyes or nose. Only huge, sharp teeth that clashed together like a shark’s jaws.

As Courtney watched in horror, the rest of the creature’s body emerged from Krul as well, like a spider shedding its skin to emerge new and whole to let Krul’s body drop at its feet. Scuttling up onto the desk, it hunched there on all four limbs, hissing at them. The sight of it sending the former bodyguards screaming from the room and leaving the three of them alone with it.

“What… Is it?” Courtney gasped.

It was Stratios’ rough voice answered from behind her. “A Keeper Demon. It was this human’s minder.”

Anders grunted in agreement. “He was getting ready to tell us what we wanted to know. His employer put this in him to make sure no secrets got out, and that anyone who did force him would also die.”

“Is it dangerous?” Courtney asked, watching it carefully.

“Very.” Anders replied, not taking his own eyes off the thing and slowly reaching into his coat where he kept his collection of charms and talismans. “Stratios, I don’t suppose you can lend a hand here?”

“No.” Said the devil in a tone which indicated that it was a matter of preference rather than ability.

Anders sighed. “Fine. When it starts to move, armour up and try to avoid its claws. They’re ethereal, and will pass through everything but flesh- don’t count on your armour. Protect Stratios as best you can.”

“What about you?”

She saw a slight grin appear on his face. “Let it try.”

“But my job…” She started to say, and then there was a flash of movement and the keeper was gone.

Instinctively, she armoured up, which was just as well, as it was only her enhanced speed and senses that let her know the thing had appeared out of the air to her left and let her dodge the skeletal claw that would have taken her head off.

Jumping back, she threw a kick at the thing only to have it vanish before her leg was even close. The suddenly lack of a target throwing her slightly off-balance and making her tumble backwards into Stratios.

She felt the robed figure give her a gentle push, and at first she thought he was steadying her, but then a paralysing cold shot through her body as something struck her from behind.

The last thing she could do before she blacked out was scream.

#

Courtney awoke with a startled gasp, clutching her chest. It felt like there was a cold void there, like her guts were pure ice.

Then she looked around- she was on the gravel of a rooftop?

She was no longer in her armour, just her uniform. The hot mid-day sun beating down on her from above.

How had she gotten here? Where was Anders? Where was Stratios?

She started to rise and then regretted it. Her limbs felt like putty, her whole body was shaking and coated with sweat. She stayed where she was.

What had happened? She remembered falling back into Stratios, and then he’d… attacked her? She wasn’t sure.

Then there was a loud bang as a trapdoor set into the roof near her suddenly sprang open and slammed onto the roof. She tried to move, but she was too scrambled and couldn’t focus. She could only sit there and watch as…

Anders came up the ladder into view. His tied-back brown hair and hazel eyes peeking above the lip- eyes that watched her in concern as he rose into view. As usual, he looked none the worse for wear, and in fact might have been coming from a formal dinner for all he appeared.

“You okay?” He asked.

“I… I’m not sure.” She said. “W-what happened? The Keeper?”

“Gone,” Anders said. “I dispelled it after it attacked you.”

“It attacked me? But Stratios?”

Anders shook his head. “It appeared between you two and used its claws on you.” The senior agent tapped his chest- “Right through you.”

“How… am I alive?”

Anders pointed up. “Your armour absorbed most of the attack, and we did what we could. Stratios was unsurprisingly knowledgeable about this kind of attack, and had me rush you up into the sun. He said the heat would help your recovery. I had to leave you while I found the vagrants they’d been rounding up.”

That got Courtney’s attention. “They’re here? Alive?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Anders frowned. “There are a few dozen here, not the whole number who have vanished. They are in a spell-induced trance in the basement.”

Courtney started to get up again, “I’ll summon help.”

But Anders put a hand on her shoulder to keep her from moving. “No, we’re going to leave them. Just wait until you’ve recovered, and then we’ll pull out.”

#

“Are you sure this will work?” Courtney said, sipping hot ginger tea to try to rid herself of the lingering chill she felt.

Anders shrugged. “It should.” Then he reached over and grabbed a bun from the bread basket between them. They were in a small cafe off one of Volksgrad’s main thoroughfares- a place which Anders frequented because he knew the owner. “Be patient.”

“I will try,” Courtney said, glancing at the small scrying mirror which sat between them on the table in its soft leather case. “Can I say I’m not comfortable with this?”

“Using those vagrants as bait?”

“Yes.”

“It’s necessary,” he said as he buttered the bun. “We need to find out where they’re being sent, and the best way to do that is to let the gang make delivery.”

“What makes you think they’ll deliver them? They’d all run away, and we left those men helpless in the basement.”

Anders shook his head, “They don’t know that we know about the men. They think we were there for Krul, and left after we got him. When no city militia show up to surround the place they’ll move back in fast enough. Those men are worth money, and greed triumphs good sense every time.”

“What if they’re hurt? Before we can arrive?”

“Who? The vagrants?” He considered a moment, and then bit into his bun. “It’s a possibility.” He said, chewing. “If so, they’ll prevent others from suffering the same fate.”

“But, they’re people.”

“People who were going to die preventing a lot of others from doing so.”

Courtney crossed her arms and looked away, pulling the blanket over her shoulders closer. “There should be another way.”

“There are,” Anders admitted. “But none are as efficient. If it makes you feel any better, the devils only eat live food. If they’re being brought in to satisfy some appetites, then they’ll be kept alive until the last possible minute. We should have time to reach them before that happens. Perhaps saving a few more.”

“Thank you for that reassurance,” she said, sarcasm in her voice.

There was a long pause, and then he said. “Courtney, look at me.”

When she didn’t, he repeated it again, and finally she did, finding his hazel eyes fixed on her.

“This is our job,” he said in a voice that made it clear she was to listen quietly. “We make trades and we make compromises to serve the greater good. We belong to a system, and that system needs to be maintained. If the cost is to sacrifice some so that more may live, we do it. That’s the nature of government, the sacrifice of the few for the good of the many. The Empire is what keeps people from killing each other, it’s brought a peace that our people haven’t known in centuries. We’re the guardians of that peace, and while what we do might not be pretty, it is necessary. If its not something you’re comfortable with, then you’re always welcome to transfer out.”

She wanted to turn away, but knew he would only interpret that as weakness, so she met his gaze and nodded. “I understand.”

“I felt the same way as you when I first started this job,” he continued. “It took a long time to get used to the idea that I was playing with people’s lives every time I made a decision. At first, I hated it, but I told myself it was what I signed up for, and over time I got used to it. You will too.”

She nodded slowly. “I just wonder.”

“About what?”

“What makes us any different from devils if we treat human lives so casually?”

The scrying mirror on the table let out a chirping noise, and they both looked at it.

Then Anders looked up at her.

“Let’s go find out,” he said.

#

The guard crumpled to the ground, felled by the force of Courtney’s blow.

Double checking to see that the other guards were also still unconscious, and that there weren’t any other surprises waiting, Courtney went into the guardhouse and pulled the lever to open the front gates. As she walked out, she saw Anders and Stratios come through.

“Are they?” Anders asked glancing at the guards.

“They’ll just be out for an hour or so,” Courtney said.

Anders nodded, “Good, in case this is a mistake, the last thing we need is some noble complaining about how we manhandled their staff.”

“This is a waste of time,” Stratios said. “You should have allowed me to enter by myself. I could’ve taking care of all of this easily.”

Anders shook his head, “I already told you, we are coming with you. We’re already going in before our backup arrives, that’s bad enough. This may also be a trap, and we can’t allow anything to happen to you.”

The devil made no reply, but merely began moving along the path toward the large distant manor house. Courtney looked at Anders, who shrugged, and then the two of them began to follow the devil.

Anders’ tracking spirits had led them to this place, the very private estate of a very rich noble family. Not that this was much of a surprise, as whoever was behind this operation would require money and resources. Also, a devil princess would only choose to work with someone they perceived as having equal status, or equal ambition, which was a common characteristic among the noble families of the Empire.

“Why do you think they did it?” Courtney asked. “They must’ve known that they be caught.”

Anders shook his head. “Likely the Princess promise them something. Wealth, power, immortality, or some other thing that she knew they’d find irresistible.”

“But they…” Courtney started, and then stop speaking when she saw Anders raise his hand.

Her commander then looked at her, and pointed to a nearby ancient tree. “Armour up. Scale that tree, and use your mage sight to scan the area.”

“How far out?”

“As far as it takes.”

Not needing any further prompting, Courtney did as he told her to. In a flash, she’d scaled the ancient tree, using her suit’s enhanced strength and agility to get her to the top in moments. Once there, she began to peer around, using her suit’s magical senses. In this way, she saw the world as flows of magical energy, with the essence of every living thing in the world itself flowing around her.

With this method, it didn’t take her long to see why Anders had sent her up.

She leaped from the top of the tree and landed on the road with a soft thump. Then, she returned to Anders. “Someone is performing a large-scale ritual to the west of us,” she said. “It’s drawing in all the mana from the area.”

Anders nodded. “I could feel the flows going in that direction. And, it appears our guest did to.” And he gestured ahead of them at Stratios, who had stopped and was now turned to face in the direction that Courtney had seen the ritual.

Cutting across a path through the forest, the three of them soon came to a large open field normally used for sports and equestrian events. The moment they cleared the tree line, Courtney came to an abrupt halt.

She stared out at the scene before her, unable to quite comprehend what she was seeing.

The open field was carpeted in bodies. Thousands of them. They were laid out in neat rows that seemed to stretch on in all directions as far as she could see. It was like a huge crowd had suddenly all collectively laid down to take a nap.

The exception was the centre of the field, where a huge magical circle glowed white and amber in a brilliant rotating display of light that danced around in a series of images of various magical runic symbols. And, at the centre of that casting circle, a single tall horned and armoured figure was waving her hands and chanting loudly, manipulating unseen magical forces.

“What is he doing?” Courtney asked, finally finding her voice. “Is she, eating them?”

But, by the time she’d finish the words, Anders and Stratios were already both rushing across the field toward the casting circle, and she was forced to start running after them.

“We have to stop her!” Anders yelled.

“Why? What is she trying to cast?”

“This isn’t a casting circle! This is a summoning circle! These people are being used as part of a powerful summoning ritual. We need to stop her from finishing it!”

Then, as Anders finished saying the words, there was a mighty cry in an alien language from the centre of the field, and the circle within it. The summoning circle pulsed, sending a pulse of orange energy out across the field.

“Armour up and get behind me!” Anders shouted as they came to a halt and he pulled out a paper talisman from inside his coat. As he brought it up, the paper stiffened and glowing magical symbols flared to life all across the long yellow strip, then he held it up in front of him as though he were trying to show it to an invisible person before him.

When the energy wave hit them, it bent around Anders and Courtney. They, and the bodies next to them, were in a small safe zone that he had created.

Courtney looked ahead, at Stratios, who was outside and or safety zone. He too had stopped, and was holding one of his hands in front of himself to bend the flow of energy away from him.

Then, as quickly as it had started, the energy wave passed. It left all the field was once again in darkness, except for the now dimmed light show of the summoning circle at its centre.

“What just happened?”

Anders lowered the talisman, and then said grimly, “She finished the spell.”

Courtney was about to ask what kind of spell, when she heard the first of the screams as all at once, the legion of bodies around them cried out in tortured agony. Whatever the spell was, they were about to find out.

#

All around them, the legion of bodies screamed and writhed in tortured agony. It was the most terrifying and soul wrenching noise Courtney had ever heard in her entire life and it left her reeling in confusion. It wasn’t until she felt Anders grabbed her arm, and looked at him that she found her focus.

“We have to go!” He said, pointing toward the summoning circle in the middle. “The possession process has just started, it will take time to finish.”

“What’s it doing to them?” She said as they started to move again.

“They are being possessed by war demons.” He answered, “It’s even worse than I thought. She’s using them as vessels to raise an army. When they are fully possessed, she will have over a thousand demon-possessed warriors under her control.”

Courtney, who had already faced berserker demons in combat several times in her short career, shuddered. Fuelled by the power of magic, such creatures had inhuman strength and stamina, and were filled with a rage to kill and destroy that few could imagine. It was almost impossible to take them out without killing them, and because they felt no pain that took quite a bit of effort. Even subduing a small group of these things was difficult, and there were untold numbers of them around her on the field being born.

With this in mind, she used her armour’s speed to pull ahead of Anders and Stratios, making a direct line for the summoning circle.

She intended to go right through it and hit the summoner as hard as she could. With her strength and power, she was capable of going through buildings and even some castle walls with relative ease if she had enough momentum. And now, with this open field. She had lots of room to build up the speed it required. As a result, when she hit the summoning circle she was going easily fast enough to tear through a thick stone wall.

Which is what made it even more shocking, when instead of going through the summoning circle she merely bounced off the edge of it as though she’d hit a giant piece of rubber. Spinning out of control, she was sent tumbling back into the field to land among the screaming bodies.

By the time she regained her senses, Stratios and Anders had caught up and were standing next to the summoning circle.

“Stop it now sister!” Stratios called out, “our father has forbidden this.”

But inside, a demonic figure who looked very much like Stratios himself only laughed.

“Our father is weak,” Laeeq cried out. “He would accept peace with the humans. But there can be no peace between us, for we were born to rule.”

“I agree sister,” Stratios said, surprising his to human companions. “But now is not the time, and this is not the way. Come with me, and we will return. Your vigour will be rewarded, and you will not be punished.”

But at this, the rogue princess only laughed. “Do you take me to be a fool? You will return with my head to present to our father, and he will reward you as crown prince for it. I would rather return with an army to show him my true power.”

While this exchange continued, Courtney joined Anders. She was still a bit stunned from the impact, but had regained most of her senses.

As she approached, he leaned in and whispered, “I want you to try again. Can you do it?”

Courtney, whose insides were still rattling from the last attempt, stared at him blankly. “But, that shield is too strong.”

“No,” Anders whispered. “There will be a chance. Get in position on the far side of the field, and wait for my signal.”

“What signal?”

“You’ll know it when you see it. Go.”

Without further question, Courtney turned and took off. Moving at high speed away from the magic circle as though she were fleeing, and then when she got to the edge of the field turning and beginning to circle around so that she was on the opposite side from where Anders and Stratios faced off with the rogue demoness.

Once there, she put her hands on her knees and gasped in mouthfuls of the cool night air. In the middle of the field, she could still see the three of them arguing on the other side. Then, she saw Stratios raise his hands and powerful energies fly from them to attack the summoning circle’s shield. At the same time, she saw a blue flash as Anders launched another type of attack spell, but neither of their efforts could penetrate the powerful summoning circle’s defences.

Despite this, she knew that what she was looking at was her signal. So, sucking in a deep breath, she began her dash back across the field towards the summoning circle.

As she did this, she saw that the bodies were beginning to rise up. Their human features were now changing into something twisted and demonic, and their bodies were becoming bigger and hunched over- their hands becoming claws with long sharp talons for fingers. A few of them noticed her, and suddenly there was a wall of these creatures before her, talons reaching for her.

But Courtney had a job to do, and so with her shoulder ahead of her, she relied on her Armour’s strengths and defences to ward off the attacks of the creatures as she plunged into them. The creatures were sent flying and scattering before her as she moved through the field at an ever-increasing rate.

Finally, the seemingly endless army of creatures before her parted, and she was looking once more at the lights of the summoning circle. It’s amber energies were flaring on the side across from her as it weathered the onslaught of her superior and the power of a demon prince.

Making a silent prayer, she raised a fist and charge into the summoning shield, hitting it with everything she had.

Much as Anders had obviously expected, the shield, which was occupied by the attack on the other side, was weaker now on this side. And, as an end result, Courtney found herself passing through the barrier with only some small resistance. Then, she was inside, having lost only a little bit of her momentum, and before her was the rogue princess, who was still facing the other direction.

She must’ve heard the sound Courtney’s attack made, or perhaps she sensed her, and the demoness began to turn, but it was already far too late. Courtney slammed into her, and the power of armoured body and momentum carried them both into the defencive wall of the summoning circle before them. Crushed between her, and the barrier, the demon princess let out a pitiful cry and there was a loud cracking sound as several of her bones were rendered down into powder.

Of course, Courtney also felt some of the impact, despite her Armour’s attempts to protect her. So, both she and the princess fell back into the circle, stunned. It took the young agent several moments before she regained her wits, and could hear the distant sounding voices of Anders and Stratios calling to her. Then she was awake, struggling to her feet, looking around.

The rogue princess’ body lay nearby, broken and unmoving, but the barrier was still up and very much active. It was like she was now trapped inside a giant glowing glass jar, one with no exit and which she had no idea how to get out of. Meanwhile, outside she could see that Anders and Stratios were fighting desperately against a tide of demon possessed war spirits that were surging up against the circle.

Courtney shook her head, trying to clear it, and trying to think of something she could do to help them.

Despite Stratios’ power, there was no way they could survive this attack. And, while she had stopped the rogue demoness, she was trapped inside the circle, and knew nothing about weaving spells or controlling magical circles.

Looking around desperately, she stared at all the magical symbols carved into the ground around her. Should she try to destroy them? But, if she did, what would that do? Would that just get her killed as well, and destroy any chance they had of taking control or stopping this mob?

But, if she didn’t, Anders would die, and she would have failed in her duty…

That wasn’t going to happen.

Deciding she had little choice. She picked a symbol at random and slammed her mailed fist right into it as hard as she could.

The moment her fist impacted, there was a bright light that blinded her, and a loud popping sound.

Then, the tinkling sound that the magical barrier made became a angry buzz as the weave began to lose its stability and break down.

As this happened, Stratios suddenly lurched through the barrier to join her inside the circle, followed by Anders.

“Out of the way!” Screamed to the demon prince, and he rushed into the middle of the circle, his hands waving in a complex series.

Courtney moved quickly to Anders, who was none the worse for wear in his torn coat and uniform with his face and one arm covered in blood. “Sir, are you?”

“I’m… Okay.” Anders said and looked from her to where Stratios was frantically creating a new weave. “He’s trying to stabilize the circle, and get it back under control.”

“But sir,” Courtney whispered, “Won’t that put it under his control?”

“Yes,” he said, giving a concerned glance in the direction of the devil prince. “We’ll just have to wait and see what he does.”

All around them, the demon warriors were pounding on the shield, their fists reverberating off the barrier in a rhythmic beat. And then, suddenly, the noise was gone, and there was only the tinkling sound of the barrier itself.

Looking out, Courtney could see the demon-possessed warriors were standing stock-still, waiting for orders.

“Dispel the spirits within them,” Anders said, coughing up dark fluid.

Stratios, who now stood royally over the fallen body of his sister, turned and gave the two humans an amused smile. “I now have an army to do as I will, why would I release such power?”

Courtney felt her insides go cold again, they’d only barely stopped one devil, and now another had taken its place. She tensed, getting ready to attack when Anders gave the order. She wasn’t sure if she could beat him, but she had no choice but to try.

“I have your brand.” Anders said, locking eyes with Stratios.

Courtney saw the devil’s eyes go wide. “You lie.”

Anders met his gaze levelly. “Your father sent it in the letter you brought. I have it, and I will use it, unless you shut this whole thing down. Now.”

Stratios and Anders faced each other for a time, and then finally the devil looked away and began a series of gestures to weave orders into the circle.

“I was just musing, of course.” Said Stratios as he worked. “You humans are far too serious.”

“Of course,” said Anders, flatly.

A few moments later, Courtney saw the demon-possessed people around them begin to collapse and could see their features slowly start to revert to normal. Then the circle also began to shut down, and as the last of the glowing symbols faded from view, they were standing alone in a darkened field.

“Thank you,” Anders said, and then pointed at the fallen body of Laeeq. “Now take her, and get out of my city.”

#

Their backup arrived shortly afterwards, every member of the Eidolon Corps in the area, and a whole unit of city militia. Anders set them to work sorting the details out, and then let Courtney drag him off toward a healer’s tent.

As she took him there, she asked, “What did you mean when you said you had his brand?”

This brought a weak smile to Anders’ tired face. “Devil kings all brand their children with a magical tattoo that lets them control their magic. They do it to prevent rebellion.”

Courtney nodded, with children like this, she could see why. “And you have his brand?”

“Well, I said I did.” He smiled. “It was something his father might do, especially if he thought Stratios might get out of control.”

“They don’t trust each other at all, do they? The Devils.” Courtney mused.

“No. That’s what separates them from us. Even when I sent you in, I knew there was a chance you’d end up trapped inside the barrier.”

“But you trusted me to find a way to get you in.” Courtney looked at him, feeling touched.

He shrugged. “I trusted you not to let me die easy.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome,” he said as they reached the waiting healers. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to rest. A lot.”

After he’d gone inside, Courtney turned and looked across the field at the chaotic scene. They’d saved a lot of lives, and risked their own, it was a good day’s work.

Suddenly she was proud to have this job again, and glad she could be part of something so important. And glad most of all that she had the trust of the people she worked with.

After all, without trust, what was there?

FIN


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The Goblin Princess

goblinprincessbookcover

“Me!”

Ranger Hastur paused, taken a little aback by the young learner’s reply. “Thorin, I didn’t even say what the mission was.”

Thorin glanced at his two teammates, Feena and Azure giving him curious looks, then looked back at their teacher. “It’s about the Goblins, right sir?”

Hastur sighed, rubbing the red bandanna he wore to cover his balding scalp. This was the problem with being the teacher to the son of the village leader, just from his dinner table chatter alone the boy knew far more than anyone else about the goings-on of the ranger village.

“That’s right, kid.” Hastur continued. “That Goblin trader caravan that just went through left a member of their clan with us for training, but that member forgot something and needs to catch up with the caravan to retrieve it. We need someone to escort them there and back again before the caravan gets too far out. So, I was to going to ask which one of you wanted to do it.”

“Sir, I already said I’d do it.” The young teenaged boy stated. “Besides, Feena has special training with the Carving Master, and Azure hates Goblins, so we can’t send her. I’m the only choice.”

Hastur raised a salt-and-pepper eyebrow, looking at Feena, who gave a shrug of agreement, and Azure, who looked unhappy but nodded as well. Elves and Goblins had a long and furious history between them, and there was little doubt that sending her into the Goblin camp might not be the best choice.

In truth, he’d been a little reluctant to send the leader’s son on the mission, and hoping Feena could take it on, but accepting that he’d already been outmanoeuvred by his student, Hastur finally nodded. “Alright then, Thorin. See the Master of Horses for two mounts, and then take them to the Blue House to pick up the Goblin. Prepare to be out for the night, since we’ve only got half a day and it’ll be a good day’s ride to get there.”

“Yes, teacher!” The redheaded teen said enthusiastically, and then with he was sprinting away from the table.

Watching him go, Hastur was a little bewildered. He’d rarely seen anyone want to spend more time than they had to with a Goblin, much less be happy about it. Then he paused… did the boy know? He shook the thought away. Even if he did, this was just Thorin being Thorin- eager to learn and explore everything he could.

Still, he wished the boy luck as he turned to the day’s training for his remaining two charges.

#

Thorin tapped twice on the Blue House’s front door, then peered around to see if Master Rugle or his wife were somewhere about the farmstead. The Blue House was the guest house for people staying with the Rangers of the Black Woods, so called for the blue tinted stones that had been used to build it. Legend had it that when Master Rugle was asked why the house was blue, the retired ranger said that the house was a fetching green. This being the first time anyone had noticed that the elder warrior was in fact colorblind.

Still, the name stuck, and the Rugles were known far and wide for their hospitality, and Mrs. Rugle’s raspberry puddings and other treats. Treats which Thorin hoped he might get a few of to accompany the day’s ride.

Not seeing either the seniors or their tenant farmers about, Thorin knocked again. This time there was noise from inside and the face of the elderly former ranger appeared at the door, smiling down at him.

“Well, if it isn’t young Redleaf? How’s your father, boy?”

“Good, sir.” Thorin said politely. “My mother has him clearing out the back gardens today.”

This made the older man smile more broadly. “I bet he wishes there were an official emergency to tear him away from that mess! So, how may I help you?”

“Master Hastur sent me to escort the… err… guest back to their caravan to fetch something.” Thorin said, realizing halfway through that he actually didn’t know what to refer to the Goblin as without being rude. He wasn’t sure if Goblin was a polite term or not, especially given how most people seemed to use the word.

This made the elder’s smile fade quickly. “Ah, yes. We’ve been expecting you. Come with me, then.” He pushed open the door and then lead Thorin into the house, through a front hall lined with paintings of oddly coloured cows and scenery, and left into the front sitting room.

There, on an old wooden rocking chair, sat the Goblin.

Or, at least, Thorin took it to be a Goblin. It was the right height, being barely above four foot, and had two large emerald green ears that protruded from either side of it’s head, each festooned with earrings, but that was almost all Thorin could actually see of it. The rest of the small person before him was covered head to toe in black cloth and lace, covering everything from the figure’s covered and veiled head to its shoes. It even wore gloves, leaving the only skin visible the two broad cowlike ears and a very thin strip where the veil stopped just below the eyes and under the headcovering.

From that narrow strip, two large yellow eyes tinted with flecks of orange watched Thorin warily.

Thorin didn’t know what he was expecting but it certainly wasn’t this. He’d seen and encountered Goblins before on missions and during visits from occasional caravans, but none of them had looked remotely like this. Well, the ears and skin tint were the same, but the mode of dress was so different, especially since it seemed like most goblins barely wore any clothes at all beyond animal pelts.

Then a thought occurred to him. All the Goblins he’d seen were warriors, and they’d also been male. Did that mean that perhaps this was…?

“Here she is,” the elder ranger gestured at the Goblin. Then he spoke directly to the guest. “This lad is here to take you to your caravan so you can get your medicine or whatever it is you need.”

“It is ritual herbss,” said the Goblin girl, there being a slight hiss to her speech that extended the “s” sound at the end of “herbs”. “I need them for my prayerss.”

“Of course,” Rugle looked at Thorin and shrugged a “what can you do?” motion. “In any case, this boy’ll be taking you to get them. Just go with him.”

At this, the girl rose smoothly from her chair, lifting the hem of her dress with her gloved fingers, and walked across the room toward them. Thorin, seeing his chance to make a good impression, stuck out his hand and said “Hello, I’m…”

Only to be ignored, as she walked right past him and out down the hallway, leaving him momentarily standing there, surprised.

“Best get after her, son.” Said the elder Rugle. “She won’t be stopping for you, I can promise you that. Goblin women aren’t exactly the friendly types.”

“R-right!” Thorin said, and with a brief nod of respect to Rugle he took off after the girl, finding her standing just outside the door, looking around.

“Where iss the carriage?”

“The horses are over there,” Thorin said, gesturing to where he’d tied the animals up.

“Horsess?” Her tone rose, suggesting fear. “I cannot ride a horse!”

“Sure you can,” Thorin said, leading her over toward them. “I even brought you Little Charlie, and the Horse Master says he’s the gentlest we’ve got. He’s barely bigger than a pony, so even you can… Ahh… Ride him.” Were Goblins sensitive about their height, Thorin wondered?

“But, I need a carriage!” She protested, looking worriedly at the grazing animal.

Thorin shook his head. “I’m sorry, if we take a carriage there’s no way we can catch up with them in time. We have to ride horses. But… If you want to tell me what you need, or send a letter with me, I can ride to meet them and you don’t have to come?”

“No!” She exclaimed, then seemed to find her courage. “I will… ride it.” She walked over and stood next to the horse, which despite being on the small side was still huge compared to the Goblin girl. Then, as the animal and Thorin watched, she walked around to the other side of it and back again.

It took Thorin a moment to realize what was happening. “Can I… Help you up?” He said, suppressing a smile.

She froze, and then nodded. “You can.”

He approached, making sure the stirrup was in the right place and grabbing the pommel with his left hand while offering her his right. “Put your left foot in there and use it to help lift yourself up.” He said, then eyed her long skirt and asked “Can you put both legs over the side?”

“No.” She said flatly as she got up onto the seat.

“Okay, I’ll adjust the stirrups so you can ride side-saddle then.” It would be a little slower, but faster than a carriage, he decided.

After a few adjustments and instructions, they were finally ready to go, and Thorin mounted Thunderfoot, the horse he’d been lent for the mission. He wasn’t senior enough to rate his own personal horse yet.

“By the way,” he said, riding up alongside her. “Can I ask your name?”

“No.” Said the girl. “Can we go?”

“Yeah,” said Thorin, starting to think maybe he’d taken this job a little too quickly. “Let’s go.”

#

It didn’t take long before Thorin and his charge were leaving the ranger village. When they finally did, he was glad to be in the forest and away from the stares and curious eyes that the small girl attracted. He felt like her odd appearance rubbed off on him, and he wasn’t happy with the attention at all.

Once they hit the well worn forest roads, they picked up the pace a little. The sun was now high in the West, which meant they had only a couple hours of riding time before it sank, and he didn’t fancy being out in the woods at night if he could help it. It wasn’t that he was scared of the forest, or that he hadn’t spent countless hours camping, he was a ranger learner after all, but he still didn’t enjoy sleeping on the hard ground.

Since the girl was inexperienced and riding side-saddle, they were limited in how fast they could go, and he kept them to a modest trot rather than a gallop in an effort to keep her safe. As a result, they rode mostly side by side, and after a time Thorin decided to try and strike up a conversation.

“We didn’t get a chance to introduce ourselves,” he said. “I’m Thorin.”

“Greetingss.” Said the girl.

“What’s your name?” Thorin continued, seeing she wasn’t going to say anything else.

“You do not need to know. We will not be together long.”

“Uuh. Yeah.” Thorin wasn’t sure how to answer that and rode silently for a while before trying again. “So, what are these herbs for, the ones we’re going to get? You said they’re for a ritual?”

The girl nodded her head and gave a small grunt, still not looking at him.

“What kind of ritual is it? Like prayers to the ancestors?”

She closed her eyes, and he saw her shake her head slightly. At first, he thought she was thinking about how stupid his question was, but then she opened her eyes again.

“They are for prayerss to the God Ganasshi,” she said, still not looking at him, but her tone a little less cold. “We musst burn them every night so that he will give uss good dreamss. I need them, or I won’t be able to ssleep.”

“Oh,” that made sense to Thorin, but then he asked, “Can’t you get them here?”

He saw the girl stiffen a bit, but she shook her head. “No. your valley doess not have the herbss I need.”

“And they didn’t leave enough for you?”

“Yess.”

Thorin shrugged. “Okay then. Well, we should be able to get to your caravan by nightfall.”

“Thank you.”

Surprised by her show of politeness, Thorin smiled and reached for his canteen. As he drank, it occurred to him how hot she must be clothed in black like that under the late afternoon summer sun.

“You know, you should drink your water.” He told her. “You’re gonna get heat sick if you let yourself get too hot. There’s water there in your saddle bag. I got it from the spring earlier, so it should still be cool.”

After a moment’s hesitation, she reached down a gloved hand and took her own canteen from the saddle bag, then turned to face away from him so she could raise her veil and drink. He felt a little disappointed. He’d been hoping to see what she’d looked like under that veil. Once she was done, she replaced the canteen in the bag.

“It iss good,” she said, glancing at him.

“You’re welcome, but isn’t it hard to wear all black like that all the time in the summer? Must be pretty hot.”

“Ssometimess.” She admitted.

“So why do you do wear it, then?”

“It iss our cusstom. It would ssoil me to have lesser maless look upon me.”

Lesser males? Thought Thorin, a little confused. “So nobody can see your skin?”

“No,” she said. “Those close to me may look upon me, and other femaless, of course.”

“But nobody else?”

“It would sshame me if they did.”

“Do all girls of your… kind… Have to wear this?”

She shook her head. “No. Only those from good familiess. Lesser born may show their sskins to anyone.”

“Don’t you ever want to show your face to others?”

At this, Thorin thought he saw the skin around her eyes turn a darker shade. At first, he thought she was angry, but then she said in a soft voice, “Ssometimess.”

“So why not do it?”

“None would want to ssee me. If I sshowed them my face, they would run away.”

“I don’t mean your people. I mean, humans too.”

“I am not worth looking upon.”

“Not if they’re your friends.”

“I do not have… friendss.”

This shocked Thorin. “Goblins don’t have friends?” He said, finally blurting out the word he’d been trying to avoid.

If it bothered her, she didn’t seem to notice, and hung her head a little. “No. They have friendss. I do not. I am too worthless and ugly.”

“Friends don’t care how you look,” Thorin answered, repeating his teacher’s wisdom. “If they do, they’re not friends.”

“That is why,” she said with a sad note in her voice. “I do not have friendss.”

Thorin didn’t know how to reply to that. In his heart, he felt a pain of sadness from the tone of the girl’s voice, and wanted to comfort her, but didn’t know how he could. It surprised him, actually, how human this creature seemed.

#

By the time the light began to dim, Thorin gave up all hope of reaching an outpost or town before dark. The caravan had more than two day’s head start on them, and despite seeing its tracks, it was clear from the signs he picked up that the caravan was still far ahead of them. In the end, with the sun starting to dip beneath the Western Hills, Thorin made the decision to camp for the night.

His charge wasn’t happy about it, but after a short argument, they found a clearing on the side of a hill and Thorin took care of the horses while the girl began to prepare the camp. At first, he was surprised she knew how to gather the wood and arrange the fire-pit, but then he remembered she’d been raised in a trading caravan, and naturally would have picked up basic camping skills living forever on the move. With her help, it didn’t take long before they had a fire going and all chores done and were sitting around the fire.

Thorin had brought rations enough for both of them, so he didn’t need to hunt, and they both settled into a quiet dinner of dried goat jerky and roasted yams he’d snuck from his family garden before leaving. No point in letting a good excuse to roast yams go to waste, after all! She ate it all hungrily, although facing away from him the whole time, a black shadow next to the firelight chomping and smacking its way through the meal.

When they were done, Thorin decided that he wanted to try practising his flute, hoping it might improve the mood, and went to his saddle bag to get it. But, just as he was unbuckling the bag, a sound cut through the air that made a cold stream run down his back.

A wolf howl.

No. Two wolves.

No. Three.

Four?

In just a moment, he lost track of how many howls he was hearing, but they were many, loud, and close.

He gulped, looking toward the hill and the direction the howls had come from. Wolf packs occasionally ranged into the Black Wood, and as a rule they usually avoided humans, but they were small packs. One this large wouldn’t be afraid of anything.

His heart raced. Should they gather their things and go? It wasn’t safe to ride at night, a horse could trip or they could get lost on these poor side-roads. But was it any safer to spend the night next to a wolfish horde?

Then, just as Thorin was about to tell the girl to grab her roll and get ready to ride, a strange thing happened.

A harsh voice, clear and angry, barked out a command in the cool night, and the howling came to an abrupt halt.

Everything was quiet again, and only the crickets and frogs chirped around them.

Thorin strode across the camp to where the girl stood, looking in the direction of the wolves.

“Was that Goblin?” He asked, referring to the command he’d heard.

She nodded. “Low tongue.”

He considered this. “So, is it your caravan?” He asked, hoping she wouldn’t say what he knew she was going to.

“No. We have no war-riders with us.”

Hearing this, Thorin rushed over and kicked pre-prepared dirt on their campfire, dousing it. What were goblin war-riders doing here in the Black Woods? Was this an invasion? Whatever was happening, it was seriously bad, and he needed to warn someone right away. But first… He grabbed his bow and started to march toward the source of the sounds.

“Stay here,” he told the girl. “I’m going to see how many there are.” He was pretty sure he knew, but he needed to be certain if he was to give a report.

But the Goblin girl shook her head. “I will come.”

He wanted to argue, but decided he didn’t have time so he turned and marched into the forest, hearing her behind him. He was trained in stealth walking, but she wasn’t, and every snapping twig or crackling leaf sounded like a clap of thunder in his ears, but he steeled himself and prayed nobody would be close enough to notice.

When they crested the hill, he grabbed her and pulled her behind a tree. The other side of the hill had a steep drop-off, and the bottom of the culvert on the other side was ablaze with firelight. From his vantage point, Thorin could see easily a dozen camp fires, and around it the thin, twisted figures of Goblin warriors danced and drank- their green skin and pointed faces painted demonically in the firelight as they laughed and cried out. Nearby, he saw their mounts- huge Dire Wolves, easily twice the size of a normal wolf and trained since birth for war by their Goblin masters. The wolves slept, curled into giant balls of fur, ignoring their master’s revelries.

Looking at them, Thorin wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or worried. It wasn’t enough for an invasion force, but definitely a large raiding party. The question was, why were they there?

“Do you know them?” He whispered to the girl.

She nodded. “They’re the Blackthorn Clan, that mark on their tentss iss their clan ssigil.”

“Why are they here?”

Watching her, he saw fear and worry written in her large eyes.

“For uss,” she said.

#

“For us?” Thorin fought to keep his fear under control.

“My clan caravan,” she said. “They must know of my father’ss negotiations with your chief, and want to ssteal the giftss that were exchanged. Your mapss are most valuable, and they sseek to attack their rivalss.”

Thorin nodded, feeling relieved that he wasn’t looking at an attack on a village. But then he felt guilty, because these raiders were going to kill or hurt others, even if they were Goblins. They had to do something to stop them.

He took a short time to try and count the number of raiders as accurately as he could, and then motioned to the girl that they should retreat. As they made their way silently back down the hill, he tried to formulate a plan. This section of the forest was well travelled and faced the kingdom, not the Northern Frontier, so there weren’t many guard stations here. He’d need to check the map, but he suspected the nearest was some distance away, and even if they reached it, the ride would take time. Time the caravan, which was likely camped only a few dozen miles away, didn’t have.

They could warn the caravan, but that wouldn’t solve the problem either, as the slow caravan would always be outpaced by the war-riders. So what could they do?

As they reached the camp, he came up with the answer.

“We need to find a warning post.” He said, heading for his horse and opening his saddlebag.

“What iss a warning post?” She answered, following along.

He unrolled his map, and then took a moment to light a candle so they could read it.

“See these dots?” He said, pointing to little crosses on the vellum. “These are warning posts. They’re caches for Rangers to use to summon help. Each of them has wood you can use to send up smoke signals.”

Her brow furrowed. “But, we are ssurrounded by wood?”

He shook his head. “This wood is specially made to burn in different colours, so you can use it to send a message the lookouts will recognize. Every smoke colour means something different.”

“Oh,” she said, sounding impressed. “That iss very ssmart.”

“So, we’re around here,” he stuck his finger on the map. “And the nearest station is here.” He ran his finger around a small lake until it reached the mark on the map. “So we need to go… That way.” He gestured to their left.

The girl nodded, and the two of them quickly packed up their camp and mounted their horses.

“We’ll have to go slow. Keep close behind me. Your horse will know the way.”

#

Under the light of the moon, the two made their way through the forest, following barely used trails in what Thorin took to be the right direction. He was following the North Star, but it wasn’t always visible through the trees, so they had to rely on his own sense of direction and the makers of the trail to get them to where they were going.

As they walked, he also kept pausing to listen, something that didn’t go unnoticed by his charge.

“They are not following uss,” she told him after a time.

“How do you know?”

He heard what sounded like a snort. “War-riderss are not that quiet, especially not the Blackthorn Clan. You ssaw- they are lighting firess and letting their animalss howl, even though they want to attack by ssurprise. If they followed uss, we could hear them coming from far away.”

“Good point,” Thorin agreed. In fact, he hoped that the Rangers had noticed them and that all this effort wouldn’t be needed, but he couldn’t be sure. Even if the rangers did noticed the raiders, they might not know their intended target until it was far too late. “Thanks for letting me know.”

“You are welcome.”

“I guess we really do have something to learn from you.” He mused.

This seemed to surprise the girl. “What do you mean?”

“Well, we don’t know a lot about Goblin culture, and you can teach us.”

This produced a long silence, and then the girl said. “Do you really believe sso?”

“Sure! Why not?”

“I wass left at your village because I am a cosst to my father. He hoped to burden another with me.”

“What?” Thorin was dumbfounded. “Really? I thought you were there to help us?”

This produced what seemed like a laugh, but Thorin could feel a sadness to it. “Then that is a ssad joke that has been played on you. I am an unmarriageable female, and a useless one which brought nothing by sshame to my family. I am good at nothing, and good for nothing according to my parents. That is why they abandoned me.”

“Oh.” Was all Thorin could manage. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The culture of the Rangers was a harsh one at times, but they valued every member of their village, and the idea of a completely useless person was foreign to him. Everyone was useful, just in different ways. But, when he searched his thoughts for something to say to refute her claims, he had difficulty because she was a stranger and he knew so little about her. In the end, he could only go with what his teacher had told him.

“You’re only as useless as you make yourself, that’s what my teacher says.” He said at last. “If you make yourself useful, then you’re useful. That’s all there is to it.”

“You are wrong. Even now, I am preventing you from riding with sspeed to warn your people and help my caravan. If you did not have to care for me, then my family would be ssafe.”

“That’s stupid! If I didn’t have to take you to get those herbs, we never would have come. You’re the one who’s saving your family, not hurting them!”

Shocked by the sharp rebuke, the Goblin girl fell silent again, and for a moment Thorin thought he’d said too much, but in his heart he was too annoyed to care. Then he heard a tearing sound from behind him. A sound of cloth ripping that made him turn and look back at his charge in the moonlight.

She was a black smudge on Old Charlie, but now he could see that she was no longer facing to the side, but forward, both her legs straddling the animal beneath her.

Thorin immediately brought them to a halt and slipped off his horse.

“I am sorry,” she said in a worried voice as he approached. “I did not mean to trouble you, but I want to help my family.”

“I know,” said Thorin as he reached to grab her horse’s saddle. “I stopped to change the stirrups so you can ride this way. If we’re going to go faster, you need to ride safely, right?”

#

Despite the increase in speed, it took them most of the night to find their way through the forest and around the small lake to where the warning post was. The roads and paths here were rocky and treacherous, and the trails they were on had several false ends that made them double back a few times. But, just as the sky in the East was starting to lighten and go from darkest blue to a lighter shade, they managed to find the warning post.

Naturally, no one without a map was supposed to be able to find it. This was a secret messaging system that only the rangers knew of and it was meant to stay a secret. So, even once they’d arrived at the location marked on the map they still had to spend some time searching for it in the dim morning light. They found their goal buried beneath some bushes, not so much a post or even a shed but a large chest and with special markings on top buried under some bushes.

“I hope everything in here is okay,” Thorin said. “They’re supposed to check these from time to time to make sure, but old Hallahan is the one of who was put in charge of this last year.”

The girl looked at him questioningly, “Iss that a problem?”

“I hope not,” Thorin said, sounding a little worried. “He got the job because he’s a bit of a… Well, my dad says he’s a bit too fond of the ale. So, they didn’t want to trust him with guard duty anymore.”

“I ssee…”

“But I’m sure,” Thorin said as he used the key that was secretly hidden nearby to open the lock on the box. “That they must’ve made him come out and do it sometime.”

However, when the lid swung open and their noses were filled with a damp musky scent, Thorin’s heart fell. Inside, cut pieces of wood had been organized neatly into five compartments, and next to each compartment was a swatch of paint showing what colour each piece of treated wood in that compartment would burn. But, it was very clear from the damp and insect ridden condition of these pieces of wood, that they had not been checked for a very very long time.

“Oh no!” Thorin said as he lifted out one of the pieces feeling the soft wood almost turn to powder under his fingers.

“Will they still burn?” She asked.

“I don’t think so,” he said, continuing to examine them. However, the answer soon became very clear – they weren’t going to get much more than a small smoldering fire from any of this wood, much less a full burning smoke producing flame.

All their efforts had been in vain, there was no way they were going to be able to warn the Rangers or the caravan in time to prevent the raid.

They had failed.

#

For time, Thorin just sat there going through the wood again and again, hoping that there might be something useful. But, in the end he kept coming up with the same conclusion- there was no way they were going to be able to warn the caravan in time.

Seeing this, the girl finally asked, “Could we find another warning post?”

Thorin shook his head. “It would take us too long to get there.”

“Sso, what can we do?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t know.” He said, feeling helpless. He ran over the possibilities in his head again and again, but he always kept coming up with the same answer – there was too much distance and too little time to do anything else. All they could do was maybe ride ahead to the caravan and try warning them, hoping that they would arrive before the war-riders did and maybe allow a few members of the caravan to escape.

It was a small thing, but maybe it might be something.

He stood up, getting ready to go. But, as he started to head for the horse, he realized that the girl wasn’t following him. So, he turned back and saw her still at the chest smelling some of the pieces of wood.

“Come on! We’ve got to go!”

She held up a gloved hand, “Wait a moment. You ssaid this would wass coated with chemicalss so that he would send up ssmoke of different colourss. Was this one mostly billerberry? And this based on roughbark?”

“I… I think so,” Thorin said, suddenly a little unsure. The truth was, he hadn’t actually studied the making of these yet, and so only had a rough idea from the lectures of his master during a camping trip several years before. But, the names of the girl said sounded familiar. “Why?”

“Sso, if we mix those ssubstances into a fire it will burn coloured ssmoke? The smokess that we need to use to ssend a message to your people?”

“Yes,” he answered. “That’s how it works. We cover this wood in those powders so that they can be used quickly in case of an emergency.”

She stood up, brushing the dust off her now torn and dirty skirt. “Then we can sstill do it. We will only need to find those substancess and add them to firess we make.”

“Yeah but…” Thorin said. “We don’t know everything they used to make those colours. I mean, they didn’t just use one thing. And, we need to find them.”

“I know what they used,” she stated. “I can ssmell them. My family tradess in many powderss, and I know most of their ssources as well. If the godss are with us, we sshould be able to find them close by.”

“Really?” Thorin said, shocked.

She nodded. “Yes, but we will need to do it quickly. I do not know how long it will take to find the different partss of this recipe. Also, you need to tell me which oness we’re going to need. Do we need all of these different mixturess?”

Thorin shook his head, “No. No, we don’t. Just the ones for red and blue. But, we will need enough for two blue fires. The number of fires is also part of the code.”

“I understand,” she nodded. “Then let uss move quickly. Do you know where we can find a billerberry…?”

#

It took them the better part of an hour, but Thorin was amazed at the speed at which she was able to gather the components they needed from the trees, the plants, and the soil around them. She seemed to have an innate sense for finding the things they needed, and when they finished and were dividing it all into several small piles, he told her so.

“I would often help the femaless of my caravan go out and gather the thingss we needed while the maless traded with others. I learned a lot from them.”

“Well, I’m learning a lot from you.” Doran said. “I mean, I knew how to find a lot of these things, but some of the things you thought of are ones that I never would’ve considered.”

“It iss nice of you to say that,” she said, her humility returning. “It iss only because my nose is more ssensitive than yours.”

“Boy is it ever! I wish I had you around when they sent me out to gather cooking herbs.” He marvelled.

“I believe we have everything together,” she said, looking at the three piles. “These will produce a red ssmoke when added to a fire, at least from what you told me about the recipe your Rangers use. These two will produce your blue ssmoke. Do you have the firess ready?”

Thorin nodded. “I got them ready while you were gathering those berries.”

With that, Thorin quickly got the fires burning, and when the flames were hard enough, the girl added each of the piles of components to one of the fires. Soon, there was a pillar of red smoke, and two pillars of blue smoke rising up high into the air.

“Okay, now let’s see if we can find your caravan.” Thorin said, giving a silent prayer to the gods of the forest that his message would reach the people it needed to reach in time.

#

It was early afternoon when the war riders found the caravan.

The Goblin war chief of the Blackthorne clan let out a mighty cry into the air, raised his axe, and lead the charge down a grassy slope toward the slow-moving line of horses and carts. His heart was filled with fire, and he salivated at the thought of the meal that he would be consuming when this battle was done. He could practically taste the cooking meat now, and he urged his riders on with a furious hunger.

Before them, the goblins of the Sulk trading family panicked and fled. The members of the caravan abandoning their carts and horses and racing toward a nearby wooded thicket in hopes of escaping the Raiders. They knew that to be caught meant to be killed or perhaps worse.

However, just as the first of the war riders was almost to the caravan, mighty horns began to blow, surprising the goblin attackers. Then, the curtains were drawn back on many of the carriages to reveal human bowman clad in the brown and green of Rangers. And, from other nearby thickets of trees, mounted horsemen appeared and began to encircle the goblin raiders.

The war chief of the Blackthorne clan had just enough time to cry in alarm before a mighty shaft struck him, knocking him off his mount and leaving him laying on the ground among the first of many of his kinsman to fall that day.

#

“You have done us a great service young ranger,” the leader of the Sulk trading family said that night at the feast he held in honour of the Rangers and a successful battle against the Blackthorne clan. “We owe you a great debt.” He said, raising his carved wooden mug of goblin ale toward the boy.

“I’m sorry sir, but it was your daughter that did everything. I was just there to help.” Thorin answered earnestly.

The girl’s father cackled at that and the other goblins are on the table and joined him. “I know you are just ssaying that, boy. She’ss just a female, you don’t need to give her so much honour.”

Hearing this, and knowing how untrue it was, made Thorin’s blood start to rise. And, he was going to say something when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see his teacher, Ranger Hastur, give him a shake of the head. As usual, his master knew him better than he did.

“Sstill,” the master of the trade caravan mused. “She hass been of ssome ssmall sservice. Daughter!”

“Yes father,” the girl said stepping out from the line of covered goblin women who stood nearby.

“You have been of ssome use, finally. Name a reward, a ssmall reward, and it sshall be yours.”

Thorin watched the girl, pleased to see that she was finally getting her due. Mentally, he urged her on, telling her to say to her father what was on her heart – that she wanted to stay with the clan and her brothers and sisters. After all, that was the real reason why she’d pretended to need the herbs, he’d guessed that a long time ago. This was all so she could return to her family, and escape being left behind.

But, to Thorin’s surprise the girl merely said, “I am a member of this family, it wass my duty to sserve, and all I assk as a reward iss that you remember me fondly.”

The girl’s father eyed her suspiciously, then shook his head. “And here I thought you had finally sshown ssome brainss. If you ask for no reward, then you sshall get no reward. Be off with you then!”

Later, after the feast was done, Thorin sought the girl out in the shadows of one of the carts, calling her aside.

“I thought you wanted to stay?” He whispered.

At this, she shook her head. “I did, more than anything.”

“Then why?”

“Because, I learned today that I can be useful. And, I can be more useful to my family if I sstay and learn from your clan.”

“Are you sure? Won’t you miss them?”

She nodded. “I will. But, I think it will be easier if I have friends.” Then she looked at him, her yellow and orange eyes staring at him in the firelight, filled with both hope and worry at the same time.

Taking her meaning, Thorin nodded and smiled broadly at her. “You have one. And, when we get back and everyone hears about what happened, I think you’ll have a whole lot more.”

Then, to Thorin’s surprise, the girl reached up and pulled aside her veil.

“But you…” He stammered, staring down at the face of a surprisingly cute girl. Unlike normal goblins, with their large noses and sharp faces, hers was rounded and and her nose small and pointed. With her big eyes, she looked very childlike and innocent, at least, until she smiled up at him, revealing a set of sharp pointed teeth that would make a shark jealous. She was a goblin, after all.

“Ishrat,” she said. “My name iss Ishrat.”

“Uhh. It’s nice to meet you, Ishrat. But, isn’t it shameful for others to see your face?”

“Not if we’re of the ssame clan. Can I be a member of your family?”

“Sure!” Thorin brightened.

She smiled brighter, which made Thorin feel a little flushed at how cute she looked.

“You know, Thorin. You are sso nice. It’ss really too bad.”

Thorin blinked, confused. “Too bad about what?”

“That you’re sso big and ugly.”

FIN

Something to think about:

Everyone has reasons for what they do. They may be strong, clear reasons or they may be poorly thought out feelings, but people don’t say or do things without a purpose for doing them. If someone is acting in ways you don’t understand, rather than just ignore them or call them names, ask yourself why they might be doing what they do. Trying to understand others and their points of view will only make you a better person, and you might just end up making a friend.

If you want to know more about me you can check out my blog at Robynpaterson.com where I post about my stories, writing, art, podcasting, culture, history, and whatever I think is interesting. You can also subscribe to my blog, which will let you hear about the latest posts.

You can also find my author page on Facebook here.

Thanks for reading!

Rob


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The Scribe (Part 4)

#

“I’ve brought presents.”

Anders gestured for Vulfang to take the man from Courtney, and accepted the bag with a raised eyebrow.

“Messenger bird,” she explained, looking about the room in the abandoned building they’d found the magic circle in. Jorah was still sitting next to the circle, deep in meditation.

“You didn’t dispel it?” Her superior asked.

“I didn’t want to risk damaging the message in case there was a special code word.” Courtney answered, not sure from his manner if he was pleased or annoyed.

She got her answer when his lips curled a bit on the edge, and he nodded in approval. “You show promise.” He said, thrusting his hand into the bag and pulling out the flapping and struggling black messenger spell. It looked like a shadow that had gained a third dimension.

“Thank you, sir.”

Holding it by the back of the neck, Anders examined it for a moment, and Courtney saw his eyes glow yellow. Then he reached into his coat and produced another long yellow paper talisman, sticking one end in his teeth while he began to twist it with his free hand.

“Any luck with the circle?” Courtney asked Vulfang.

“Jorah says they’ve used it more than once,” said the agent, tapping a sleep talisman onto the unconscious man’s forehead to keep him that way. “He’s still trying to determine how many times, and what orders the victims were given.”

“I see…” Courtney looked at the circle thoughtfully, wondering how the victims felt. Did they know their own minds had been stripped away from them?

“You okay?” Vulfang asked her as he walked over. “You look like hell.”

“Yeah, I’ll be okay.” She lied. “It’s hot out there.”

In point of fact, Courtney had almost passed out on the return trip, and been forced to rest in the shade of a rooftop awning before continuing back. The heat exhaustion had left her pale and a little shaky, but again, she didn’t want to show weakness in front of her new superiors.

Vulfang reached behind his back and produced a thick green plant stem from one of his belt pouches, offering it to her. It looked slightly rotten and smelled it as well.

“Chew on this a while. It’s high desert cactus.”

“I really don’t…” She started to refuse, but saw the serious look in his eye and finally took it from him. “Do I have to?”

“If you want to stay standing.”

“Right,” she stared at the root a moment, and then popped it into her mouth and started to chew. Surprisingly, it didn’t taste so bad at all. In fact, it tasted somewhat like a very juicy licorice.

She looked at Vulfang in surprise, and the large man winked at her. “Not too bad, right? You’ll be right as rain in a few.”

“Good, because she needs to go back out again.”

They both looked at Anders, who was looping the now ropelike talisman around the bird’s neck. He tied it off at the end, and said a few whispered words- the talisman melted into the bird’s shadowy form.

“I’ve put a tracker in it,” he explained. “It’ll leave a trail that can only be seen with mage-sight, and you’ll follow it to its destination.”

“Okay,” Courtney agreed. “Let’s go…” Then a wave of dizziness washed over her, and she had to steady herself. “…In a minute.”

“Take ten,” Anders said, holding up the bird. “I need you both to get there intact.”

#

Arthos Manning was watering his plants when the bird arrived- fluttering in through his window to land on a nearby chair-back.

Frowning, Manning waddled over to where the bird sat and held out an open hand. Obligingly, the bird leapt onto it, and with a whispered word from Manning the bird was replaced by a rolled-up paper scroll. He wasn’t expecting a message today, he considered as he unrolled the paper- who could this be from?

His first indication was the size and poor penmanship of the words, and then when he read it his eyes went wide with panic. How had they been discovered? This was terrible!

Rushing over to a nearby desk, the plump middle-aged man ripped the desk drawer right out in his haste- its contents cascading down onto the tile floor. Uncaring, he thrust a hand into the hole left by the drawer and produced a leather circle which had been hidden inside.

Ripping free the cover, he gave a code-word and the mirror instantly began to glow.

A moment later, a face appeared on the mirror.

“What is it?” Growled Colonel Haman of the Slate.

But however hard Arthos Manning tried to reply, the words would not come out. It was as if his whole body was frozen- for that was exactly what the paralysis talisman that had been stuck to the back of his head had done.

“Manning?!? Manning!!” The Colonel yelled, but to no avail.

Slipping the cover back on the scrying mirror, Courtney smiled.

“Don’t worry Colonel, you’ll see your friend here soon enough.”

#

“This isn’t right.”

From the top of the temple steps, Courtney and Anders watched as a line of delegates filed past security and into the Temple of the Golden Host for the peace conference between the Empire and the Rebel Army. Earla Brightblade at the lead, minus her chief of security, walked up the steps to meet the Minister of the Left, who bowed and led her inside.

“You’d best get accustomed to it, this is politics.” Anders told her from where he leaned with his back against one of the towering marble pillars. “This conference is more important than your notions of justice.”

“Is that why you brought me here to see this?” She fixed him with her slate-blue eyes, and he met hers evenly with his brown.

“It is.”

She was the one who turned away, disgusted.

They had captured Colonel Haman quickly enough before he’d escaped, and under interrogation he’d confirmed what they’d learned from the spell circle they’d found next to the bookstore. Two scribes, a cook, a servant and two guards had been put under their control, all of them targeting different people. It was a timed operation, with some acting as a distraction while the others would strike. All very carefully planned to bring an abrupt end to the conference, and all apparently done under his single authority.

“There’s no way she isn’t behind this,” Courtney spat. “With those eyes of hers, she could see them coming as clear as day.”

“You’re saying despite the assassin targeted at her, she was in no danger?”

“Yes.”

“And you’d be right.” He agreed. “The target was most likely her co-leader, Sturm Gallan, as she’d have to share anything she gains from the negotiations with him. Perhaps he has something she wants hidden, or knows something… Well, regardless, we have no proof, and without proof, only the Colonel will take responsibility. At least, until she negotiates his freedom as part of the treaty.”

“What?!?” Courtney looked at him, aghast. “We’ll let him go? After what he did?”

“Someone once said that politics is the art of compromise. One life to save thousands, isn’t it worth the cost?”

Courtney looked down, considering.

“I still don’t like it.”

“And you’re not required to,” he shrugged. “Just to follow orders, even when they don’t agree with your ideals. Can you do that?”

With only the briefest moment of hesitation, she nodded.

“I can.”

He studied her for a time, then seemed to come to a conclusion.

“I believe you. Welcome to the team.”

“Thank you,” she said. Suddenly not feeling all that happy about getting what she’d wanted.

“Oh, cheer up.” He clapped her on the shoulder. “It’s not as if he’ll get away completely free.”

She looked up at him, puzzled. “What do you mean?”

Anders gave an evil grin. “As part of our investigation I believe we should test that spell circle before we erase it, with a few modifications, of course. I think the Colonel will make a nice volunteer.” He winked. “She can decide if she wants to keep the Colonel around after that, never knowing what orders we gave him.”

Courtney laughed. It wasn’t justice, but it was close enough for today.

FIN


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The Scribe (Part 3)

Shocked, Courtney tried to run around the counter, but by the time she’d gotten around it Anders had already thrown the old bookseller to the ground.

Whipping out a small strip of paper from his pockets, Anders slapped it on the struggling man’s forehead, at which point the struggling seller suddenly went limp like a broken puppet. “Here,” Anders said, thrusting the book the man had been carrying into Courtney’s hands, then he whipped out a scrying mirror.

Courtney looked at the book, “A Study of the Grey Fawn-Mouse” it was called, but a quick check with mage-sight revealed nothing unusual about it, it was a normal book, with the only exceptional thing about it being a rather nice rendering of a fawn-mouse on its grass green cover.

Moments later, Vulfang and Jorah slipped inside the front curtain.

“Check upstairs, watch for traps.” Anders ordered, and the two men rushed past and up the spiral staircase at the back.

“Sir, this book..?” Said Courtney, now somewhat confused.

Anders, who was now rooting around through the seller’s pockets, didn’t bother to look up, but began to explain. “Courtney, what color are the books in the front window?”

This caught the young woman by surprise, she hadn’t really thought about it. “I don’t know”, she admitted. “Should I go look?”

She caught Anders rolling his eyes and decided to stay where she was.

“Brown,” Anders told her. “Most decidedly brown. All of them.”

“Sir?”

Finishing with the seller and not finding anything, Anders shifted his attention to the rear of the counter. “Why place a bright green book among a collection of brown ones in a front window?”

That’s when it hit her.

“A signal, he was sending a signal.”

Anders nodded. “Somewhat late, but at least you finally arrived at the proper conclusion. Didn’t you notice how his manner changed when I mentioned the scribe? He clearly wanted us gone, and there had to be a reason for it.”

Finishing his search without finding anything, Anders stood up. “No scrying mirrors, or other means of signaling. So you’re holding the one we want.”

Courtney looked down at the book again, impressed. She never would have thought of that.

“Anders, upstairs!” Jorah called down.

“Cover the door, but don’t let them see you do it.” Anders ordered, gesturing at the wooden boards that lay next to the entrance.

When she’d done as he ordered, Courtney checked the bookseller to be sure he was still out. A large black and purple blotch was starting to form on his temple where he’d hit his head when Anders had thrown him down, but the sleep talisman Anders had used was firmly stuck to his forehead. He wouldn’t awaken until someone removed it.

Then Courtney slipped up the narrow stairs and into the upper level. The place was a messier version of the store below, with cushions for sitting and clothes strewn about. She followed the sounds of her comrade’s voices into another room, and through a hole which had been knocked in a side-wall. Next to the hole, a hanging carpet lay crumpled on the floor- the hole’s former covering.

Inside what Courtney took to be the abandoned building next door, she found her comrades standing around the edges of a large, empty room. The only illumination was from a half-covered rear window, but it revealed nothing but an empty room, the middle of which Anders and the others were peering at carefully.

She was almost going to ask why, but suddenly she stopped herself and did the obvious thing- she switched to mage-sight.

The moment she did, it literally all became clear.

The room which looked so darkened and dusty under normal sight was actually ablaze with lines of yellow and orange magic everywhere. The majority of it was concentrated around a circle in the middle of the room about the diameter of a wagon wheel, which was what Anders and the others were examining. Moving closer, Courtney could see the very tight weaves of the circle’s structure, and recognized the sharp angles of Hathiri style weaves.

“A casting circle for a mind control spell.” Jorah said, before she could ask for confirmation. “This is where they did Biddleton.”

Anders nodded. “Vulfang, take Courtney up on the roof and do a survey of the marketplace. Find out who was supposed to catch that signal. Jorah, I need to know how many times this thing has been used. Can you do that?”

“I can try,” said the gentleman, slipping down into a crosslegged position next to the casting circle.

Vulfang clapped Courtney on the shoulder. “Let’s go, kid.”

Following the large man up a ladder at the back of the building, the two agents crept low across the roof, before they reached the edge, Vulfang stopped her. He pulled a hood up to hide his broad, shaved head that we gleaming in the midday sun, and motioned for her to do the same.

Instead, Courtney shook her head. A moment’s concentration later, she vanished from sight, her Armor of Saltea throwing a stealth weave over her whole body. If she moved there was a visible distortion, but as long as she was still she was effectively invisible.

Now Vulfang was the one to be impressed. “Must be nice.” He said, shaking his head, then the two of them dropped to their elbows and crept forward to the front edge of the building.

“Look for anyone showing a lot of interest in the building,” he told her. “After seeing all of us go in, they should be getting pretty antsy about now.”

Courtney started to indicate she would, then remembered that he couldn’t see her, and just settled down to work. There were a lot of people on the market street, but all seemed to be busy going about their business and showing little interest in anything to do with the bookstore. She started checking the other buildings as well, and while there were many open windows, almost none were occupied.

After a few minutes, Vulfang whispered “Check the bun seller.”

It took her a moment to find him, but sure enough, partway down the street was a bun seller’s stall, and she saw the turbaned head of a skinny man pop out from behind the edge of the stall and look at the store beneath them. As they watched, he casually walked out and past the store, pausing to try to get a look inside the window of the bookshop, and then continued in a look back to his own stall.

“Not very professional, is he?”

Vulfang smiled at her comment. “He’s just a little extra hired help. You keep watch, I’ll report this in.”

A few minutes later, he was creeping back up beside her again.

“You can leap around, right?”

“Yes,” Courtney said. “Like a rabbit.”

“Good. Here’s the plan- Anders is going to put the book in the window, and we’re going to see what he does. If he runs, you follow. If he sneaks off to use a mirror, we grab him.”

It made sense, and Courtney said as much.

So they lay there on the hot roof and waited. This is where her armor had a decidedly large disadvantage, Courtney decided. While the stealth weave was active, her armor was manifest around her in the physical world, but it had no system for cooling, and literally became a wrapper she was stuffed inside. It didn’t physically get hot, but it did keep her from cooling and so she suffered from a real chance of overheating if she exerted herself in the armor or was in a hot environment with it on for too long.

She wanted to pull back and release the armor, giving herself a chance to breath, but it could be needed at any moment, and she didn’t want to look weak in front of Vulfang. So instead she lay there, getting ever more uncomfortable in the midday sun.

Then, just as she was about to retreat and escape from her personal prison because she couldn’t stand it anymore- something happened.

Using mage-sight, she could look through physical barriers and see the pale green and yellow silhouettes of people. Behind the bun-seller stand she watched as he summoned a boy, gave the child something, and then sent the boy running down the street.

“You’re up. Keep in touch.” Vulfang told her, and Courtney pulled back from the edge, stood up, and began running across the rooftops in pursuit of the boy. The buildings that didn’t share a wall had only small alleys between them because of the dense need for space, so it didn’t take much for her to keep up with the boy.

She used mage-sight to track him as he sprinted among the awnings and between the sellers and their stalls until he ducked into a restaurant two blocks away. It also let her follow his progress as he made his way through the crowded tables to finally stop next to a man, give him something, and then leave.

Ignoring the boy now, she crouched on a rooftop across the street and waited.

After a few minutes, the man casually got up and walked to the back of the restaurant and out a rear doorway.

Sighing, Courtney took a look down at the market street below, did a quick estimate, and decided her odds. Then she took a couple steps back, and with a running start threw herself into the air over the street. Thanks to the magical enhancements of her armor, she soared over the sellers and bystanders to land with a hard crunch on the restaurant roof with room to spare.

Not having time to be be impressed with herself, she dashed forward to the back edge of the roof and looked down.

The man was alone in the back alley, and was unrolling a piece of paper on top of a wooden barrel. As she watched, he pulled out something and started to write quickly on the paper, scrawling down a message. The paper shone with a light orange tint, so Courtney wasn’t surprised at all with what happened when the man was done.

He pulled out a knife, cut the tip of his finger and dropped a little blood on the corner of the page. Instantly the paper came to brilliant orange life as the blood activated the spell and the paper was transformed into the shape of a messenger bird about the size and shape of a pigeon.

This was her time to act, and Courtney took it.

Vaulting over the edge, she dropped down from above and grabbed the bird, then, before the man could react to the invisible demon he faced, she backhanded him into the wall, rendering him unconscious in a cloud of yellow alley dirt.

“In you go,” she said to the bird as she grabbed the sack the man had been carrying and stuffed the magical messenger inside.

CONT…


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The Scribe (Part 2)

“Oh?”

“Yes, we’re here assessing possible assassination threats to yourself or others at the conference.”

Earla smiled again. “If you want a list of people who may wish me dead, it will not be a short one. It’s been a long war, and peace isn’t quite as popular as you might think.”

“I would think peace is always welcome,” Anders offered. “Just so long as one benefits from it.”

“Are you looking for those who don’t?”

“I’m a practical man,” Anders agreed. “I find simple motives the most compelling.”

The General frowned, her affected mirth draining away. “That too is a fair list, but I believe I may shorten it quickly enough. I will have my secretary give you a few names before you go.”

“Thank you, it would be appreciated.” Anders replied as Colonel Haman returned with a pair of servants carrying food and drink. “Is there a name I should pay special attention to?”

Earla thought a moment. “Tyla Bonheur is where I would begin.” She offered.

“Then I will start there,” said Anders with a curt nod, and he stood up so fast Courtney had to jump to her feet to keep up with him. “Thank you for your time, General Brightblade.” He placed a hand across his chest and bowed slightly. “I wish you success in your negotiations tomorrow.”

The rebel general mimicked the gesture, wished them well, and then pair made their exit.

Courtney didn’t speak until after they’d retrieved the list from the general’s secretary and left the building. Anders hadn’t said a word, so she thought she too should remain silent. Despite this, she felt as if she was going to burst if she wasn’t able to ask questions, and did so as soon as they were in the private safety of their carriage.

“Do you think she’s involved?” She asked her superior.

“I think everyone’s involved, trainee.” Anders told her with a slight hint of amusement. “Don’t you?”

The younger woman wasn’t sure how to answer this, and hesitated before finally replying- “I think she’s the one we’re after.”

“Why? Let me hear your reasoning.”

“It’s those Orbs of Truth- there’s no way anyone could get close to her without her seeing their intent. She’d also see any delayed spells, so it’d be useless to put ensorcelled people around her unless she already knew about them.”

Anders nodded. “A reasonable assumption. Nothing provable, but reasonable.”

“So what can we do, sir? Put her under surveillance?”

“Even if she is responsible,” Anders said, pulling a small circle of leather from the folds of his longcoat. “She won’t leave any direct connections with whoever is conducting this operation.” Then he undid a small hook and flipped open the leather circle to reveal a tiny scrying mirror the size of an egg.

“Hebris,” he said, using the mirror’s activation codeword. Almost immediately, the bespeckled face of a young male clerk appeared in the mirror.

“Hawkins,” said the clerk.

“Give me a connection to the chief, Hawkins.”

“One moment, please, sir.” Said the man, and in Anders’ mirror Courtney could see the receiving mirror being lined up with another mirror of the same size which had the image of Lord Brigham on it.

“What have you got, Anders?” The Lord asked, when the two mirrors were aligned with each other.

Anders told him what they’d learned so far, including Courtney’s thoughts.

“Spell analysis on the scribe is still ongoing, we’re trying to avoid bringing him in unless we need to, as we don’t want to tip the opposition off.” The lord told them. “I have an appointment with the Minister of the Left in an hour. Black and Ding are currently en-route to Sturm Gallen’s residence. I’m going to have them do the interview with him.”

Anders frowned. “I was going to do that myself, sir. Is there a reason?”

“Jorah and Vulfang have turned up a missing piece of time in the scribe’s itinerary, and I want you to focus on that. It seems a more likely line of investigation.”

#

The city of Kul-Margat was an ancient trade city which sat on the Western border of the Empire, where the last of the mountains of the South met the vast expanse of the Kahli Desert. Carved, as much as built, from the deep brown stone of a mountain, it was home to thousands, and at any time had thousands more passing through its gates. Trade was the city’s reason for being, and most of its narrow, twisting streets were dedicated to the shops that seemed attached to the first level of every house.

Courtney and Anders met Vulfang and Jorah in an outdoor cafe on one of the lower levels frequented by travelers. Courtney spotted the two men almost immediately, the hulking Vulfang with his scarred face and the more fashionable Jorah with his slicked-back black hair being easy to spot in a tent filled with desert tribesmen. Both were dressed in civilian clothes, as were Courtney and Anders now, their uniforms traded in for pale cloth robes and colorful scarves.

“Yo! Friends!” Vulfang raised a glass of the local brew to them as she and Anders threaded their way through the tables of tea-drinkers. Courtney tried not to look at the other things arrayed on the tables, not wanting to lose her lunch.

“Vulfang. Jorah.” Anders said as they took their seats.

“How’s he treating you, new girl?” Vulfang asked Courtney.

She shrugged. “Well enough.”

Vulfang laughed. “Then you’re getting off luckier than that last recruit…What was his name?”

“Tomkins,” Anders said, clearly not eager to discuss the subject.

But Vulfang ignored him. “Yeah, Tomkins. Anders here had him begging for a transfer after the first week. He must like you.”

“I believe,” Jorah put in. “That it’s because you share a commonality. Like you, Courtney, Anders is an alumni of the Ferring School in the Capitol. Did he tell you that?”

In point of fact, Anders had talked little to Courtney since she’d joined the unit two weeks before, and even today had said almost nothing outside of the topic at hand. She was surprised to find out that he was a Ferring graduate, though. It was a school for the children of high ranking officials, and she’d pegged Anders as a scholar’s son.

“I wasn’t aware.” Courtney said, trying to avoid looking at Anders. “He doesn’t talk much.”

The others laughed. “Enjoy it while you can,” Vulfang finally said. “Once he gets used to you, he won’t shut up!”

“What have you learned?” Anders said, trying to steer the conversation back to the mission at hand. “Anything more about the missing hours?”

Vulfang turned to Jorah, who nodded. “Indeed. We were able to determine from a servant at the governor’s house that he asked directions to a bookstore here on the gate level. It seems someone had told him where he could find a book on medicinal desert flowers, and he went in search of it.”

“Do we know who that someone was?” Anders asked.

Jorah shook his head. “No one knew, but he reappeared several hours later, and it was the next day that he was spotted. He had just come in the day before with the Minister of the Left’s party, so this seems the most likely time.”

“Agreed. We’ll check it out. Let’s go.”

As the four of them left the tent, following Jorah, Courtney leaned in and asked Anders “Sir, what year did you graduate? I don’t remember seeing you there.”

Anders’ jaw tightened. “I didn’t graduate.” He half-growled, keeping his eyes straight ahead.

Courtney decided she’d best do the same, and let the subject lie.

#

They found the book store wedged in between a flower shop and boarded-up home on a bustling market street- the blue icon of a book barely visible on the sandblasted sign that hung above the front doorway. Courtney and Anders went inside first, with Vulfang and Jorah loitering nearby and pretending interest in a local carpet seller’s wares.

The old bookseller, standing behind a short counter to their right as they entered, smiled at them warmly. “Friends! Welcome to my humble shop.” He said through bad teeth as he looked at them expectantly. “How may I help you?”

The shop was a long and thin room filled to the brim with leather bound books, scrolls and various piles of vellum that filled it with a musty scent that Courtney associated with teacher’s offices and her own father’s study. At the back, a single small staircase twisted up into the dwelling above.

“I was recommended a book by a friend, and told you had a copy.” Anders said casually, giving a brief description of Biddleton the scribe. “He told me I could find a book on medicinal wildflowers here.”

Hearing this, the bookseller frowned. “No. No book on that here.” He said, his face becoming serious. “The man you seek didn’t come here.” He added, and then began to fiddle around behind the counter, agitated.

“Are you sure?” Said Anders, watching him intently.

“Quite sure,” said the seller without looking at them, then he picked up a book from behind the desk and began walking toward the front window to place it with the others on display. “You may look for it here, but you will not find the book you’re looking for.”

Inwardly, Courtney shook her head. This clearly wasn’t going to be much of a lead, and she was about to ask Anders what to do next when suddenly Anders yelled “stop him!” and leapt over the counter.

CONT…


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The Scribe (Part 1)

EC1ScribeCover

by Robyn Paterson

(Fantasy, Espionage, PG)

“He was tagged by one of the guards on his way into the castle.”

Anders nodded, looking down at the image of the man on the scrying mirror. The man in question was just entering his twenties, mouse brown hair, slight stoop, clothes just a bit sloppy and ill-fitting- typical scribe. He didn’t look like much of a fighter, either, and hardly like an assassin- which was reasonable since he was supposed to be neither of those things.

“Do we know what he’s been infected with?” Anders asked, not taking his eyes off the man, who was simply sitting at a desk arranging papers.

“We got Kulhaven to do an analysis,” Lord Brigham answered. “He’s been hit with a Class 4 delayed action Mind Control spell- Hathiri in origin. We’ve got intelligence running it down, but I expect it’ll come up as one of the standard types.” Then Anders’s boss, the director of Imperial Intelligence , stroked his long red beard. “Good bit of luck, that. If they’d used one of the more recent spells with a cloaking weave, the guard’s mage sight might not even have caught it.”

“Yes. Good bit of luck.” Anders repeated, sounding more thoughtful than certain. “So, who at the peace conference are we to assume is the target?”

“Kiri?” Lord Brigham looked over at one of the other people who stood around the table in which the scrying mirror was embedded. A striking ebon-haired woman with pale skin and eyes such a bright blue that they glowed with a soft luminescence in the darkened room.

“Tomorrow’s peace conference between the Cutwater Rebels and the Empire will be attended by sixteen delegates- eight from each side, plus their scribes and personal attendants. The most likely targets are the heads of the rebel army, Earla Brightblade and Sturm Gallan, or the Minister of the Left, Lord Rathcombe. The deaths of any of these people would result in the dissolution of the conference, and the continuation of the war.

“It is possible others might be the targets, but since we assume that the goal of the assassination attempt is the continuation of hostilities, they will be the most likely choices. In addition to this, Lucas Biddleton, the scribe in question, is slated to sit to Lord Rathcombe’s left. Killing the Lord from that position will be relatively easy, assuming he’s also got some form of weapon smuggled in with him.”

“The pen will be enough,” Anders commented, tapping the side of his throat. “If he hits the right spot. There will likely be poison in the ink as well, or some sort of enchantment to make sure the job is done properly. Assuming the Lord is the target, and assuming that Biddleton is carrying the weapon and not having it delivered.” Then he looked at his boss. “How are we going to handle this, sir?”

The aging warrior glanced around the table at the eight assembled members of the Imperial Eidolon Corps, “For the time being, we’ve just had Biddleton put under surveillance. Our goal isn’t to stop the assassination, that’s the job of the security detail on the conference. Our goal is to learn who’s behind this and gather enough evidence to make sure they’re dealt with.”

“Understood.” Anders replied, turning to look at his team. “Alright people, listen up. Since time is critical, we’re going to split into four. Vulfang and Jorah, you’re going to do a background check on the scribe. Interview family, friends, neighbors and anyone else you can. Kiri, you and Kulhaven need to continue your covert analysis of that spell someone’s put on him. We need to know what the trigger is, and anything else you can get from it.  Black, you and Ding need to check the rest of the attendees to the best of your ability, also check the rooms where the conference will be taking place. You’re looking for any method by which something could be passed to Biddleton during the conference.”

Then the thirty-something man with the shaggy brown hair looked at the remaining member of his team, a tall, blonde woman with broad shoulders and a steely gaze. “Courtney, you’re with me. Everyone else, keep in touch.”

This got a round of affirmations, and the team went into action as Anders and his partner walked from the table, heading for the nearest door. Anders pulling on a gray longcoat and tanned fingerless gloves as they went.

“Captain, where are we going?” Courtney asked, striding along beside him.

“To interview the attendees.”

“But, you just assigned Black and Ding to deal with them?”

“No, I assigned Black and Ding to check them, not talk with them. That will be our job.”

“Oh. I see.” Courtney nodded. “Who will we begin with, then?”

Anders smiled. “When faced with a choice between two evils, trainee, always pick the one you haven’t tried yet.”

#

“When we go in,” Anders told his partner while they were waiting. “Note everything.”

Courtney nodded, and at a mental command let the faceplate of the armor she wore slipped over her eyes. As it did, the world suddenly shifted to the view through mage-sight. Now the world was patterns of energy weaving in and around everything, blue and green for inert natural energies, and brighter yellows and oranges and reds for energy which had been twisted and woven into constructs.

Instead of seeing Anders in the black-piped crimson of the Imperial Security service, with his long face and shaggy brown hair, she instead saw a vaguely man-shaped fuzzy yellow blob. His protective magics and anti-scrying spells preventing her senses from penetrating more deeply into his true nature. Similarly, when she looked down at herself she saw the magical Armor of Saltea that she always wore, but which was normally invisible and intangible around her body. A second skin of full armor that existed in astral space and only manifested to aid her or protect her. To anyone else, she too would appear to be wearing the normal security service uniform.

A quick check of the front sitting room of the mansion they were visiting revealed a number of spells for monitoring and listening in, as well as several dormant security traps for the unwary thief. These were all relatively minor weaves, not meant to deal with someone whose magics were stronger than you could find in the marketplace. This was merely a wealthy merchant’s home in a frontier city, after all, not a place of espionage and covert operations. Although with the leader of one of the rebel armies here, she did think it poor that the host hadn’t beefed up security a little.

At last, a servant appeared and gestured them into the audience room, where behind a large antique desk with gold inlays sat the rebel leader, Earla Brightblade. She was older than Courtney expected, with salt and pepper hair and deep lines in her leathery face, but the young woman could also see how Earla may have once been a striking figure. Not that she wasn’t impressive now, with her bright purple silks and blue sash, but what immediately drew Courtney’s eyes were Earla’s own- she didn’t have any.

In place of eyes, Earla Brightblade had two clear glass spheres, and in the middle of each hung a red gem shining like a miniature star. Orbs of Truth, Courtney thought as the General rose to greet them and offered a hand. They were rare, even rarer than the armor Courtney herself wore, and she had only heard of them, never seen a pair. Even though this woman was the enemy, it raised her quite a bit in Courtney’s estimation. To have your eyes ripped out and replaced with these artifacts took a lot of courage, even if they allowed her to see “the truth of the world”- whatever that meant.

“Welcome, friends.” Earla smiled, motioning them to the seats arrayed before the desk. “May I offer you tea? Or fruit? The merchant whose home I stay in specializes in fruits from the Southern jungles, so do feel welcome to ask for whatever you may wish.”

Anders sat, declining the offer. “No. No. Thank you, General Brightblade. We don’t wish to impose on your host’s profits, nor do we plan to take up much of your time.”

“Of course,” the older woman slipped back behind the desk. “But you will not be offended if I partake? I have been working so hard I seem to have missed a meal or two. Haman, could you see to it?”

The tall, gruff looking man in the white clothes of a desert warrior who stood beside the general’s desk nodded. “Of course, General.” Then he marched back out the way the pair had come.

“Colonel Haman of the Slate,” Earla said once they were alone. “My chief of security, and the head of my house guard. I saved his life during the Red Gorge incident, and he has been with me ever since. If you are here to discuss changes in security arrangements for the conference tomorrow, he would know them better than I would.”

“We are, but I think General, that you are the one who can better answer our questions.”

CONT…


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The Troll – (Part 4, end)

Thorin ran.
He ran fast and hard, letting his instincts guide him through the forest. The long hours, the training day and night- it had all been for this, and now that training was all that stood between the young ranger and certain death.
Behind him, the troll thundered along, its long legs making up for the slower strides as it chased after Thorin- chased after the bone necklace the ranger boy wore draped across the back of his neck.
But Thorin couldn’t worry about that now, he could only worry about the route he had planned so carefully in his head. Turning right at the tree with the cut, turning left at the rock with the mark on it, and leaping over the log he’d marked with an errant branch. Every point brought him closer to his goal, and every step seemed to bring the troll closer to him!
Finally, with the troll’s grasp only inches from his throat, he hit the edge of the dry riverbank and leapt into the air. Green and brown were traded for sun-bleached white and grey stones as the ground fell away underneath him, and the dropoff at the river’s edge left him hurtling through the air. Despite the dropoff of several feet, he didn’t have time to stop and climb down, and could only hurl himself into the air and hope that he could make the landing.
When he came down, his foot slipped, but he managed to keep himself from falling by dropping into a shoulder roll on that side and come up running without losing any momentum.
It was a close thing too, for as he came up the troll exploded from the bushes in a mighty crash and landed where he’d been only moments before. The mighty beast was too single-minded to be concerned about the change in surroundings, and continued its mad rush at Thorin, but this time there was no series of obstacles to slow it down- it was a straight flat run to the other side of the river, and the troll had the advantage.
Still, seemingly heedless of his poor situation, Thorin ran. When he hit the thin wide trickle of a stream, he began jumping from rock to rock. Using each of the small boulders as a bridge to avoid the slowing grasp of the water, hopping his way across the water.
Of course, the troll didn’t care about getting wet, so it continued its rush after him as it hit water that just barely came up to its knees. It slowed the beast down, however, and that gave Thorin the moments he needed to get a head start as he rushed toward the forest cover of the far side.
But, instead of running, Thorin stopped on a rock halfway across the green water and turned to face his pursuer. In a single motion, his bow was in his hand, and an arrow, one of his last, was being drawn back.
He loosed it.
The arrow shot harmlessly over the troll’s head.
This caused the wading troll to pause for a moment, surprised by his prey’s sudden change of heart, but only a moment, and then the troll let out a roar and was rushing at him again like a charging bull.
There was little Thorin could do but dodge, and he did, jumping to another rock, and using the boulders as cover to slow his pursuer down. As long as he stayed ahead of the now-slowed troll, and kept the large rocks between them, he was out of the troll’s reach.
And then, the unexpected happened- as he was leaping between rocks, the troll scooped up a chunk of floating wood and threw it at him. The driftwood caught him just as he was landing, knocking him off the rock and sending him tumbling into the river.
Surprised, Thorin splashed around for a moment, and struggled to get his feet under him. When he finally did, a shadow loomed over him, and he was forced to dive aside as the trolls club-axe cleaved the water where he had been. Frantic, all Thorin could do was try to put one of the boulders between him and the troll, but now the troll was the one with the advantage, and it easily maneuvered around the smaller human to keep him from escaping.
Then the troll’s huge hand was gripping Thorin’s chest and hauling him from the water, pulling him out to slam him against one of the boulders. Thorin let out a cry of pain as he was pinned against the rock and for a moment the world went black, then it returned to blazing color as he found himself face to face with the troll.
Dripping, hurt. The two faced each other.
Thorin was surprised to find he wasn’t afraid. His heart was beating hard, but he didn’t feel fear- only determination. For once, he had done his job. For once, he had acted like a real leader. He thought of his father, and hoped that this final sacrifice would be enough.
The troll raised his club-axe, and Thorin turned his head and closed his eyes. As he did, he wondered whether the sound of thunder that rushed in his ears was the sound of his heart or…
Then he and the troll were both swallowed by a wall of water.

#

Thorin’s first sensation was the feeling of lips pressed against his.
Then his eyes shot open as he coughed and gasped for air, clutching at his throat. He remembered the thunder and the drowning blackness, and now… He was alive?
He looked over at Feena, who was kneeling next to him.
“You owe me,” she said, wiping her mouth with her arm and spitting.
Thorin rasped. “You owe me for being so damn slow. I told you to open the floodgates on the dam when you saw my arrow.”
Feena tapped her bandaged arm in the sling. “One hand, remember? It was stuck.”
After a moment, Thorin nodded. “Yeah. It’s okay. Good work.”
“You’re welcome.”
He looked around the riverbank, seeing only rocks and wood.
“Did you see it? Where is it?”
Feena shook her head. “I only found you. The water probably washed it downstream.”
Thorin pulled himself to his feet. “We’d better check.”
They found the troll a short time later, its green scaled chest heaving as the creature lay face-up in the shallow water at the river’s edge. Its club-axe was nowhere to be seen, and one of its arms was bent at an odd angle.
“It’s hurt,” Thorin said, watching the bruised and battered creature.
He heard a knife being drawn. “But it ain’t dead…yet.”
Thorin watched his teammate step forward, preparing to cut the creature’s throat. He couldn’t help feel sorry for it, and reached out to grab her arm.
“Maybe it will leave now,” he said. “It’s hurt. We should just let it go back.”
“Go back?!? Are you crazy?” Feena shook of his hand. “Who knows how many people this thing has killed? Look, if you can’t handle it, just go over there. I’ll do it.”
“No,” Thorin stood his ground, stepping between her and the troll. “It’s a living thing.” He doubted he was in any condition to stop Feena, but he felt he had to try. He was done letting her push him around. “We need to respect that.”
“It’s a killer,” Feena stared him down. “A killer, a monster, and a…”
“…a father.” Came another voice, and both of them turned around.
From the forest, Myra emerged, and behind the elfin girl a small troll dressed in rags followed.
“Or mother,” she continued. “This is Apple. It’s child.”
As Thorin and Feena watched, the young troll rushed past them to the larger one, kneeling down next to it and began to wail. The larger troll, awakened by the sound of the little one, opened its eyes and lifted a hand to stroke the arm of the wailing child.
“I found her in the human settlement,” Myra continued. “I believe they were using her as a slave.”
Thorin considered. “Maybe that’s why it came here. To get this child back. The other trolls are just trying to help this one get back its child. This was a rescue mission.”
“Trolls ain’t smart enough for that,” Feena commented, but Thorin shook his head.
“Yeah, well, looks like they are.”
Then there was the sound of wood cracking as the larger troll pulled itself to its feet, towering over the rangers. Holding the little one to its side, it looked down at the three, its lips pulling back to reveal snarling teeth.
“Put your knife away.” Thorin ordered Feena.
“But…”
“Do it.”
With a snarl of her own, Feena thrust the hunting knife back into its sheath at her hip.
Summoning his courage, Thorin stepped forward and pointed downstream, toward the Southlands.
“Go,” he said.
He doubted the troll understood his words, but it seemed to get his gesture, and then it took the little one’s hand and gave the humans a final snarl before it turned and left.
Watching it go, Thorin felt conflict in his heart.
Had he done the right thing? Trolls were trolls, and this one was clearly dangerous.
And yet, as he watched the display of parental love before him he couldn’t help thinking that maybe they weren’t so different from humans after all. So, maybe there might be hope yet.
Fatigue began to take him again, and he almost fell over, only staying up when Myra helped to steady him.
“Are you okay?” She asked, her large brown eyes filled with concern.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “I’ll be fine.”
And, for the first time today, he meant it.

FIN


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The Troll (Part 3)

Thorin was already regretting this.
He was standing alone in a clearing with the troll before him- so close he could hear the chuffs of air and see its nostrils flaring as its small black eyes peered at him, and then glanced warily around the clearing.
This troll was no fool, Thorin decided, then considered that foolish trolls were often dead long before they could reach the size this one had. He’d managed to stop the troll by just standing there alone with his bow ready- if he’d known it was this easy, he’d have done it before.
But his rest wasn’t long, and the troll began to stride toward him across the grassy space- necklace of bones tinkling as each step brought it several feet closer to Thorin until it was looming overtop of the young ranger. Then it stopped, and looked down at him, a slightly puzzled look in its eyes.
It’s wondering why I haven’t run, thought Thorin. I am too.
Then the Troll leaned in, and bared it’s teeth at him- a wave of hot, stinking breath blowing against his face. It hissed. A challenge? Or maybe a warning?
Either way, Thorin didn’t react, he just stood there, his bow ready to fire at the beast, and the two of them stared at each other.
Then the troll’s eyes went wide and it suddenly reared back, twisting around.
Thorin took this as his cue and began to back away, and the troll’s spinning revealed a smaller form was now attached to its back- Feena! Riding the bucking and twisting troll like a tiny child riding on her father’s back.
Thorin heard a torrent of swearing, and then saw the reckless girl drop to the ground and roll away. She waved the troll’s necklace in her hand, and shouted “I’ve got it! Shoot him! Shoot him!”
It had been Feena’s plan to distract the troll like this, and he hoped it worked. In a quick motion honed by long hours of practice, Thorin raised his bow, took aim at the troll, and fired. The troll was following the retreating Feena, so Thorin had a clear shot at the back of it’s huge knees, and despite their movement, he was sure he could score a hit.
But, as he watched, the arrow was again knocked aside by an invisible force.
The plan was a failure, the necklace wasn’t the talisman they’d hoped it was!
Even worse, as he watched, the Troll’s club-axe sliced the air where Feena’s head had been a moment before. In this kind of open area, the Troll was faster than they were!
Panicking, Thorin realized he had to do something and began to run after them. Slamming his bow onto the clip on his back, Thorin pulled out his knife, the only thing that seemed to work on this creature, and ran in. He thought maybe he could distract it- jab it in the back of the leg. But he feared this would be more like a mosquito bite than a critical blow.
Then the unthinkable happened- Feena was just a bit too slow and the club caught her shoulder. Her body was suddenly sent tumbling across the grass to where it lay- unmoving.
Every curse he knew went through Thorin’s head, but he knew that if he focused on her, he would only be assigning both of them to the funeral pyre. Instead, he let the adrenaline surge push him to run faster, and jumped over a rock to bring his hunting knife down into the troll’s calf as hard and deep as he could.
The troll screamed, this time in pain, and while the knife didn’t do much damage, it definitely got the creature’s attention. It swung around, Feena forgotten and those dark eyes now on Thorin.
Eyes filled with murderous rage.

#

Myra watched the farmers pack to leave.
It had been difficult to convince them at first, but her official ranger sigil and sincerity had broken through their prejudice. It also helped that someone had earlier reported hearing the sounds of warfare to the east where the main force of Rangers was engaging the trolls.
Then a noise caught her attention, and Myra turned to see a couple leading their crying child from a nearby house. They looked like tenant farmers, and their child was yelling up a storm.
Myra went over to them, and all three of them suddenly froze, the parents watching the elf with caution while the child stared at her in wonder. Myra leaned in to the open-mouthed child and said “Do not worry, little sister, it’s just for a little while. Until the storm passes, you need to be brave for your parents. Can you do that?”
It took a moment, but the little girl nodded her head.
“We’re sorry to trouble you, ranger.” Said the mother. “She’s just a stubborn child sometimes.”
Then the little girl looked up at her mother, “But Apple’s in the barn! What about Apple?”
“Apple will be fine,” her father told her. “You’ll see her when we come back.”
The child looked at Myra again, “Will you protect Apple?”
Myra nodded. “Of course I will. We rangers are sworn to protect everyone.”
At that, the girl’s mother began to shuffle her away, and the child waved at Myra as she left.
“You don’t need to worry,” said the father. “Apple will be fine. Don’t bother yourself with it. Really.”
Myra caught an odd tone in his voice, and couldn’t shake the feeling he was nervous about something the child had said.
“Of course,” Myra nodded. “The people of this settlement are my responsibility. The livestock are too difficult to move.”
Looking slightly relieved, the man said his thanks and left to join the parade of people heading north into the hills. But, there was something about the way he acted that bothered Myra, so once he was gone, she went to the barns behind the headman’s house.
Slipping inside the dusty building, she could hear the livestock moving around and grunting, and walked among the stalls. It was a normal barn, and the animals here were what one would expect to find in any farming settlement. As she walked past the pigs, she wondered which of them might be Apple- perhaps a piglet? That would be the thing a farmer’s child would worry about. Well, she’d do what she could to steer the troll clear of this place, if it came to it.
Then, as she was about to leave, her eyes fell on the final stall going wide with shock at what they saw.

#

Thorin leaned Feena against the tree- trying not to make anything worse.
“I’m okay,” the girl kept chanting, but it would have been more convincing if she didn’t keep coughing up blood.
“Let me check you over,” Thorin said, defaulting to his training. He had always been good at the medical side of the Ranger arts, and for once that might actually be useful. With gentle fingers, he poked and pressed the girl’s sides and arms, and then suddenly leaned forward and stuck his ear to her ample chest.
“H-hey!” Feena blushed, “W-what are you doing!”
“Be quiet and breath as deeply as you can,” he ordered and for a moment the only sound in the forest was that of the birds and insects. Then he said, “I think you broke a rib, but it’s not poking into your lung. You also broke your left arm and your shoulder, but I’m not sure how bad. The healers should be able to help, but we’ll need to get you home.”
Feena shook her head, “We can’t go home. The troll is still out there.”
Thorin frowned. She was right, their attack had done little but get Feena injured, and even he was lucky to have escaped the Troll’s wrath by hiding from it in the forest. After it couldn’t find him, it had scanned the skyline and then resumed its northeasterly course.
“There’s nothing we can do,” he declared. “That necklace wasn’t the source of its power, and we don’t know what is.”
“It’s the club,” said Feena with certainty. “It’s gotta be the club.” Then she paused, “Or its loincloth…or boots…” Listing off the only other two objects the troll had, “No, it’s gotta be the club.”
Thorin generally agreed, it did make sense to put protective war-magic on a club, especially for a species like a Troll, but… “It doesn’t matter, there’s nothing we can do. Myra’s at the settlement by now, and we’ve slowed it down. Our job is getting you home.”
Feena looked at him and then shook her head in disgust. “No wonder they call you Thorin Shaking-leaf,” she said. “Hastur was crazy to make you the leader of this team.”
Thorin, who was starting to rummage through his carry-pack, just nodded. “You’re right. I don’t know why he made me the leader. It’s not like I can do anything useful like you or Myra. I’m not a very good ranger.”
Feena nodded. “You got that right, if I was in charge…”
Suddenly Thorin’s head snapped up and he looked at her with sharp eyes. “If YOU were in charge? Feena, you WERE in charge! This was YOUR idea to attack in the first place. I’m not a bad leader because I suck at fighting- I’m a bad leader because I listened to YOU instead of following orders.”
The ranger girl stared at him, open mouthed. “I…” Was all she could manage.
“A good leader takes care of their team, and I screwed up.” Thorin said. “So now, let’s do the right thing and go home.”
Then Thorin went back to his pack, and found the map he was looking for. Unrolling the vellum scroll on the grass in front of them, he took a minute to figure out where they were, letting his finger slide across the map. He found the nearby mountain peaks, and then the place they had started and followed that up toward the settlement along the river, noting where they had likely encountered the troll.
They weren’t far from the settlement now, and he traced his finger along the river that ran just north of them until he came to… Thorin’s finger stopped, and he cocked his head in thought. Then he looked at the ranger girl, who was watching him carefully.
“Feena, do you still have that troll necklace?”
Feena blinked, and then reached into her side-pouch. “Yeah, I’m gonna show it to the kids when we get back. Watch ’em freak out.”
That made Thorin nod again. It was possible then. They could do it.
“Feena, I have a plan, but I’m going to need your help.”
“A plan to get us home?”
“A plan to stop the troll.”


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The Troll (Part 2)

Once they’d left their horses, the trio began to jog through the forest at high speed. Their long days of training giving them the stamina they needed to move quickly and silently through the nearly impassible thick brush and woods.
It was that silence that first let them hear the troll.
A distant cracking sound, like trees being felled, and the cries of birds rising up into the thick air of the late summer afternoon. After they’d heard it, Thorin sent Myra up a nearby tree, which the wood-elf girl leapt up into with fluid grace, jumping from branch to branch.
She was down moments later, letting herself drop to the ground in front of them without making a sound.
“It’s east of us,” she confirmed. “Moving toward the settlement. We can out-pace it with little difficulty.”
Thorin nodded. “Good. Now that we know where it is, we can steer clear of it.”
“Steer clear of it?” Feena looked at him, surprised. “Why would we do that? It’s big. It’s slow. And, we know where it is. I say we ambush it.”
Thorin looked at her, wide-eyed. “But our orders…”
“Our orders are to keep that thing from hurting those farmers, and we can do that a lot better if we take it down.”
“Uhhh,” Thorin rubbed the back of his short red hair. “I don’t know…”
Myra nodded. “Sister, you are being reckless. We cannot defeat a troll. We are not experienced enough.”
Feena snorted. “It’s a troll! Big, stupid and slow. We just need to put a couple arrows in it. If it looks tougher than we thought, we can retreat, but we’ve still slowed it down- maybe made it change it’s mind about the farm. But if we succeed…hey…we’ve got us a troll! Think about the look on their faces when we tell Hastur that! No more kiddie-table for us!”
Myra looked at Thorin. “You are the leader of this cell, and it is your decision. But, I advise caution.”
Thorin made a grunting noise. “Crap…” Feena made it sound so easy, and as he thought about it, it could work…Should he do it?
After a moment’s thought, he made his decision.
“Okay, let’s try it.”
After all, what could go wrong?

#

Thorin dived to the side, avoiding the powerful club-axe as it splintered the trunk of the tree behind him, and continued on out the other side. The mighty tree fell around him, but Thorin managed to scramble out of the troll’s reach- for the moment.
As he watched, Feena ran past, a hunting knife in each hand as the short and solidly built girl leapt up into the air with a feral scream and tried to bury the knives in the troll’s lower back. But, the troll was already moving, and where his back had been was now a mighty fist swinging around at Feena with surprising speed. Thorin saw the ranger girl bring her arms up just in time to absorb the blow as it struck her, and then it sent her arcing back and out into the forest.
Thorin was on his feet in a moment, running as fast as he could away from the deadly giant. As he ran, he scanned the forest for Myra, but saw no sign of the elf until he heard the troll scream again.
Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that Myra had alighted on one of the trees above the troll and was raining arrows down on the angry beast. The arrows still weren’t even getting close to it, but they did act as a distraction, which Thorin knew was exactly what Myra was giving them. She was faster and more able to elude the beast than her human partners, so she made the perfect one to keep it occupied.
With this in mind, Thorin dashed in the direction he’d seen Feena fly. If she was hurt, he needed to get to her while the troll was still chasing Myra.
He found Feena pulling herself out of a thicket, and looking none the worse for wear. She smiled when she saw him coming.
“You seen my knife? I lost it when that rock hit me.”
Thorin shook his head. Sometimes he wondered what this girl was made of.
“We need to get out of here,” he told her. “Myra will try to lead it away, but it might come back.”
Feena sneered. “Ain’t you worried about your precious “sister”?”
“She’s not the one with rocks in her head.”

#

“I say we take another whack at it,” Feena said. “We’ve seen what it can do, we try and take it down.”
Thorin and Myra looked at the girl in disbelief.
“Sister, I believe your course of action is reckless.” Myra said, in as direct a manner as the stoic girl ever got. “We failed in our previous attempt because of the troll’s magic, and any further attempts are also likely to have similar results.”
“It’s that necklace,” Feena answered, and held up her knife. “Let me get it off him, and you can fill him with arrows.”
“We cannot be sure of that,” Myra shook her head. “Magic comes in many forms, he may even have a forest spirit aiding him that we cannot see. We are not trained for this, and we should return to our original mission. Do you not agree, brother?”
Both of them looked at Thorin, who looked away.
“I…” He hesitated. “I don’t know…”
“Some leader your are,” Feena spat. “You forget how to use your brain and your bow?”
Thorin just stared at the ground, turning red.
“It is not an easy decision,” Myra said, moving to stand beside him. “We must consider all the options carefully.”
“Yeah, I…” Thorin said, thinking as quickly as he could. “I think we can…” Then he steeled himself, forcing his words past his inner doubts. “I think we have to do both.”
“What?” The other two looked at him in surprise.
He’d started it, Thorin decided, so now was the time to follow through. “We need to warn the farmers, and slow down the troll so they have time to evacuate. If we don’t, the farmers might not have enough time to get away.”
Then he looked at his Elfen sister. “Myra, you need to go to warn them. You’re faster than either of us, and we’re just slowing you down.”
“But…” It was the Elf girl’s turn to hesitate. “They may not believe me…”
Humans had a love-hate relationship with Elves, and this had caused Myra quite a bit of trouble in the past.
But Thorin shook his head, “Just show them your colors and your badge, they’ll believe you.”
“Yeah points,” Feena put in. “If they don’t, just threaten to shoot them yourself. That’s what I’d do to get them moving.”
Thorin rolled his eyes, but said “Well, you might not want to go that far, but do what you need to do to make them believe you.”
“Will you not need me here, to help?” Myra looked him in the eyes, “I am the best archer among us.”
Again, Thorin shook his head. “We’ll manage. You just need to get going and warn them. Okay?”
At last, the Elfen ranger agreed, and Thorin watched her depart with only a single worried glance back.
Then he looked at Feena.
“How sure are you about the necklace?”
“Does a bear crap in the woods?”
He considered it. They had two options really- attack, or try to lure it into a trap. The problem was there wasn’t enough time to make a trap that would stop something that big, at least not a conventional trap…
“You have a plan?” He said.
Feena grinned.


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The Troll (Part 1)

thetrollbookcover

(Young Adult, Fantasy, General Audience)

The troll came over the rise.
Dark green muscled skin. Eyes like coals. Taller than decades old trees. The thing lumbered along the forest path in huge gaping strides that Thorin could feel through his knees. It was like someone was dropping rocks onto the ground in front of him- huge, heavy rocks.
From his vantage point in the bushes, Thorin watched, and tried to focus his breathing. He wouldn’t be able to make the shot if he didn’t breathe properly. Tremors ran along the bow in his hand, betraying his inner feelings, and he forced himself to ignore it, trying to stay on target.
He had chosen this. It was his choice to be here.
Now the others were counting on him to make the shot.
Arrows would penetrate a troll’s thick hide, but they wouldn’t hurt it. He’d been told that it was like putting arrows into a tree- a little penetration, but no real damage. No, in order to hurt this monster he needed to aim for its weakest points- the eyes, the joints, or the throat. Any of these would at least hurt it, and Thorin and his comrades could work from there.
Myra was the best shot among the young rangers- she would aim for the eyes. Thorin, as the next best shot in the trio would aim for the throat. Feena, the least skilled with the bow of the three ranger cadets would aim for the legs in hopes of slowing it down.
And all of this would only work if they acted as one single, timed unit.
As the troll approached the chosen point, Thorin began to pull back on the bow.
His eyes no longer focused on the flower that marked the place where the troll would fall, but on the beast’s throat, which was encircled by a necklace made of tiny bones and animal skulls. It was almost like a target, and Thorin aimed for the center…Waiting…Waiting….
NOW!
Timing his shot with his breath, Thorin unleashed the arrow.
At the same time, from their chosen hiding places, Thorin heard the twanging sounds of other arrows being loosed.
The troll seemed to sense something was wrong, and actually stopped and gripped it’s necklace in its hand, but it was too late- the arrows were already on their way, and its fate was sealed. Nothing could save the troll from the deadly shafts but a miracle.
And then, one happened.
As Thorin watched, the arrows they’d unleashed were suddenly flung aside by a mighty gust of wind that sent them clattering off into the trees! It was like an invisible hand had reached out and swatted them from the air.
Mouth agape, Thorin stared.
How was this possible? Could this be real?
He froze, he wasn’t sure what to do.
From their hiding places, he saw the other two ranger cadets emerge. On the other side of the path, Myra was standing now, her blonde hair shining in the sun as the slender elf girl began to unleash a torrent of arrows at the beast with amazing speed. Feena was behind the troll, and she too rose from cover, firing as quickly as she could. Her stocky muscled form tiny compared with the troll, but she stood near it undaunted- like a child facing down an adult.
However, no matter how many arrows they threw at it, the same thing happened- each of them was knocked aside while the troll just stood there and watched them, a growing snarl on its lips. Then the snarl turned into a howl of anger and it let out a mighty roar, raising its club-axe into the sky.
Then it charged right at them.

#

When Thorin had been roused early that morning by his adopted sister, Myra, the last thing he expected was to be in the middle of a war by the afternoon.
But that is what had happened.
Even before the oatcakes were finished, a messenger had come to the house and let them know that Thorin and Myra were to report not to their school, but to the archery grounds on the edge of the city as soon as they could- kitted for travel and battle.
Thorin and his sister had looked at each other in wonder, but they’d done as they were told. They were cadet rangers in the Black Woods Clan, and it wasn’t unusual for them to be summoned to surprise training exercises. But this felt different, although Thorin wasn’t quite able to say why.
When the two had arrived at the archery grounds, they’d found over thirty of the village’s best warriors there, along with men and women hurriedly preparing horses and other equipment. In the chaos, they’d found their teacher easily enough- Ranger Hastur’s bright red bandanna was easy to spot in this sea of green and brown. The third member of their cell, Feena, was already there with him.
“Alright kids,” he said to them, taking them aside. “You always complain we won’t let you actually see real action. Well, today’s your lucky day. I’ve convinced Captain Redleaf to let the three of you come on today’s mission.” Then, when he saw their faces he added…”But! Only as runners and observers. You’re not going to see real fighting if I can help it, especially not today!”
“Yes!” Feena grinned wolfishly. “This is going to be great!”
But Thorin wasn’t so sure. “Sir, why do you say “especially not today?” What kind of mission is this?”
Hastur tugged at his beard, “Well now. Today’s a bit of a special one. I can’t say I’ve ever seen the like of it. Scouts have spotted a bunch of trolls marching on Havensford- maybe twenty of them I’ve been told.”
Trolls.
Thorin felt his legs begin to shake at the mere mention of them. Trolls were huge, nasty creatures who lived in the uninhabited Southern Reaches and were part of the reason why few men did. It was said a single troll was equal to a dozen armed men in battle, and just the whisper of their creed was enough to set most people’s hearts racing.
“Really?” Feena gasped. “That’s amazing! Can you believe it, we’re going to see real trolls!”
Hastur shook his head. “Not if I can help it, cadet. You three will be staying with us in the command group.”
“But,” the energetic girl continued. “We’ll see dead ones, right?”
Again, Hastur shook his head. “Our mission is to convince them that this isn’t the right course of action- by force if necessary. Let’s hope we won’t have to be killing any of them at all.”
“Sir,” Myra said, speaking for the first time since they’d arrived. “Are trolls not solitary creatures?”
“Aye,” Hastur agreed. “Which is why I said it’s a strange day. I’ve never heard the likes of of a Troll war-party. Goblins, yeah, and sometimes they get a stupid troll to help them, but Trolls don’t do this kind of thing on their own.”
“So why are they here?” Thorin asked.
Hastur laughed. “If I knew that, boy. I’d send them back to their mothers for a spanking. Now, get some horses from the stable and be ready to ride when the horn sounds. And stay close to me, understand?”

#

“You want us to do what?”
Hastur looked at them with deep sincerity. “I would not ask, cadet, if I didn’t think you and the others were ready.”
Thorin shook his head. “But we…” He started, and not finding the words, he looked at his teammates. Feena just shrugged, but Myra addressed their mentor.
“Sir, you did say we wouldn’t be seeing combat.”
Hastur smiled. “You were the ones who wanted action, now you have it.” Then he paused and addressed them in a more serious tone. “Look, I’m not asking you to fight this troll. We don’t know why, but it’s left the pack and is heading for that farmstead to the Northeast. Your job is to get to that farm ahead of it and warn those people, that’s all. There is no battle involved here. Only warning the farmers and returning.”
The trio looked at each other, then nodded to their leader in unison.
“Yes, Ranger!”
At that, Hastur pointed toward their mounts. “Ride them to the edge of the forest, then leave them. They’ll return on their own.”
“I just hope we return too,” Thorin mumbled to himself.


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