The cold cubicle was as dark as the midnight outside. The boy lay curled in a ball on his low, thin cot. Periodically he shivered in his sleep as the night breeze wafted through the small bar covered window and chilled his nearly naked form. It had been a hard day full of duties and labor. In but a very few hours he would have to be up and working again. Unfortunately for his task masters, he would not be around for their use. On the wall between the low, rough, wooden door and the window a sudden shimmer began to glow. Soon the green light took form and a blazing emerald doorway woke the boy from his deep slumber. Eyes wide in wonder and fear, and blazing with emerald light, the boy faced the doorway.
"I have chosen you as my heir, Falith of Tyhinna," said a voice in the boy's native tongue. "Come!"
"How know you my name?" asked Falith.
An intimidating form emerged from the doorway and stood back lighted by the emerald aurora.
"You will have many questions and many answers Falith, but for now time is of great importance!" With that the form offered a hand toward the boy.
Falith hesitated. He looked about the cell which had been his home for most of his short life. He considered the cot he still sat upon and the work that awaited him the next day. Fear almost caused him to remain where he sat until he remembered the words of the cooks helper he saw everyday.
"'T'isn't much more than you I am, but it's like Cooky say's `any step up is a good step indeed'".
"Falith", said the form.
A moment later the emerald doorway closed on a very dark, very empty slave's cell.
The sound of dripping water echoed throughout the entire cavern. A yellow phosphorus mineral ran in long tenuous veins along the sides and ceiling of the cavern, giving it similar lighting to that of early dawn. The smell of dung and rotting flesh clung to the air like the moss clung to the moist parts of the cavern floor. A girl of no more that twelve sat huddled on the floor with her wrists and ankles bound.
The stalagmite that she leaned against was cold and clammy and gave her a serious chilling effect. She was fighting the delirium brought on by the sleeping drug the priestesses of Mock had given her before she had been delivered into the monsters lair. Slowly she regained consciousness and looked at her dismal surroundings. Hope left her small frame and fear over took her. She wept the tears of one who is doomed to die. A low guttural growl sounded nearby as the beast stirred from the inner most parts of the cave. Closing her eyes she clutched her knees to her chest and waited for the horrible teeth of the beast, to whom she was being sacrificed, to end her simple life. The growls grew to snarls and the grating steps of the beast closing in on her filled her ears. Suddenly, blinding red light filled the cavern and the snarls of
the beast turned to howls of fear and pain. The girl opened her eyes to see a red doorway of light opened in the cavern wall. Its brightness illuminated both the beast, and the reason for its change in tone.
Struggling with it was a large, ornately armored woman. As the girl watched the woman's sword severed a huge fore-limb from the creature. Then, with the grace of a dancer and the strength of a giant, the swordswoman ran the creature through nearly lifting it off the ground.
As the creature drew its dying breath the newly freed victim heard her rescuer say, "Farewell beast, you were not a worthy foe".
With that the woman dropped the beast and removed her blade from its bowels.
The girl sat with mouth open in sheer shock. The woman, even clad in plates and rings of steel, was the perfect essence of femininity. Striking red hair ran the full length of her back, knotted in a complicated plait.
"Close your mouth Brena, its is not lady like to sit with ones mouth open" said the woman in the girls native tongue.
The girls mouth snapped shut. As she watched the woman neatly clean her sword with a cloth, the concept of language returned to her and a question formed in her mind
"Who are you?" she asked.
A slightly irritated look came over the woman's face. "My name is mine to know but you may call me Hannah." said the woman, "and I am her to take you with me".
"In there?" asked Brena as she pointed toward the shimmering red passageway.
"Of course in there, otherwise I would have to fight my way through twenty or so of the High Priestesses of Mock to get you out of the cave mouth". Hannah paused as if thinking. Under her breath she muttered, "no, no time, got to be the gateway."
"Where are we going?" asked Brena.
The woman's hands went to her hips and with impatience as she said, "Really now Brena!, so many questions. Come now, time is short."
Brena looked at her bonds and then back at the woman.
Hannah made a motion with her right hand and the bonds trickled away like water. Brena's mouth dropped open again.
"Let's go Brena, and close your mouth" said the warrior woman.
Brena's mouth snapped closed again.
For a moment the girl considered running but then the woman's hand was on her shoulder and then they were engulfed in red.
The stars were unusually bright on this particular night. The wind was warm and from the south. The sound of the tall grass being stroked by the breeze reminded the boy of the wheat fields near his birthplace in Tiran. There was a brook nearby and he headed toward it knowing that in it, his scent would be better hidden from the trackers that would soon be following him. A jingling bag tied to his belt held his take from the last village. The boy picked his way down the ankle deep brook being careful not to step on rocks that were not sub-merged. Thoughts of warm food and a soft bed entered his mind but he pushed
them out because they would only entice him to stop too soon. He already knew the price of stopping too soon after running a scam in a village, his missing pinkie and ring finger on his left hand were reminder enough of his need to keep moving. A large boulder lay on the left bank of the brook. The boy's thoughts were on the dagger he had seen in the armory in Salmon Falls so he did not see the figure sitting in the shadow of the boulder.
"Beautiful evening, isn't it?" said the figure.
The voice used the dialect the boy had just learned in the town he was fleeing. The boy nearly jumped out of his trousers. Managing not to fall all the way down he turned and looked for the source of the voice.
"Quite" said the boy without a waver in his voice, after he had spotted the form. He was very good at hiding fear when the situation, or his life depended on it.
The stranger chuckled and then stood and leaned with one arm against the boulder.
The two stood and regarded each other in silence until the figure broke it.
"Sano-Thracia is a long way to walk . . . Eain" said the stranger.
Now the boy was really scared, no one knew his real name, and no one knew he was headed for Sano-Thracia. Who in the world could this man in shadow be?
"Quite a walk indeed sir, but I myself, am only headed as far as Nanya" he lied with only a slight shake in his voice.
"Come now Eain you needn't lie to me. I am not one of the Sheriff's trackers, nor am I a bounty hunter" said the figure.
"Lizon save me not a bounty hunter", thought Eain as his fear rose.
"Sir, you have me confused with another, for my name is Aaron and I am going to Nanya" he lied again, quite well he thought.
"You need to tighten your face more when you lie, it keeps your voice from shaking and . . .", the figure threw a small object at the boy, " you need to use lighter ink on your Seven Stack cards, even a child could see those marked ones." said the figure.
As he caught the cards, Eon cursed the luck that had caused him to lose this deck of seven stack cards, he knew it had been a bad omen. Right now the boy felt the tight feeling in his stomach that always told him it was time to leave. How could this guy know he was lying?
"If you'll excuse me sir, I need to go, my father is expecting me before morning" he lied a third time, and was irritated to find that he tightened his face when he did it.
"See, better already" said the figure, "If you'll let me, I could teach you much more than that"
Eain had the urge to turn and flee, but his curiosity about the man's offer won the battle.
"Like what?" asked Eon.
"First never stop lying in a situation until your safe or . . . caught" said the figure with emphasis on the "caught". The obviously male figure moved forward.
Eain grimaced, he knew he was caught. The boy inconspicuously put his hand on his dagger; he was ready for anything, he thought.
"Is it a deal?" asked the figure who was revealed by the star light to be a man of medium stature.
"I have many questions" said Eain.
"Later." said the man "Right now we must go, for time is short."
Thinking about the trackers and their dogs Eain realized how much time he had spent standing in one place.
"Your right, lets go" Eain said and turned to continue down the stream.
"No Eain, not that way" said the man in a mysterious tone.
Eain turned, shrugged, and walked toward the man, expecting him to lead out across the prairie.
Instead the man gestured with his left hand and the night exploded with blue light. Eain jumped back from the azure light that came from the face of the boulder. Tripping on unsure footing he landed on his backside in the stream bed. There he sat there dripping, and stared in unveiled amazement. Then looking toward his new companion he vocalized his thoughts.
"Who and what are you?" asked the young charlatan, this time not even attempting to stop the shaking of his voice.
"My name is Clynne." said the man, "As for what I am, you'll soon see".
With that the man pulled the boy to his feet by his tunic and walked him through the awaiting blue portal.
The doorway closed and night returned. The stars continued to shine, the brook to babble along, and the wind to rustle through the tall grass.
The sun was warm on the marble colonnades and the sound of bubbling water in the fountains would have cheered even the heaviest of hearts, if not for the horrifiying statue that adorned the center of this well groomed garden. Bushes and shrubs were neatly cut and there was not a sign of wear or
deterioration, except upon the faces of the servants that had to witness the abominations that this garden was built for. Sitting on a fountain lip and stroking a grumbling creature that was almost a wolverine, was a tiny man in glossy black clothing. He sat pondering the detestable statue from behind a grotesque mask fashioned to represent a face ravaged by fire. Behind him at the entrance to this paradoxical garden another man entered. He wore the same colors and clothing as the seated man but was almost double the size in stature. The entering man halted behind the second row of columns and waited.
Without turning the seated man said, "You may enter Mafad".
Mafad entered the garden and as he approached the abominable statue he knelt, and while facing it bowed his face to the ground three times. Each time he bowed he said "Orcana be praised". This ritual completed he stood and turned toward his superior. The two men regarded each other through their masks.
"How goes it?", asked the seated man.
"As you well know sir it is the time of the Changing for our enemies. Now when their numbers are the greatest, their strength is hampered by their new additions. Hajid is in the north with the King of Plina and he reports that by mid-winter he should have that army mustered and ready to march. Ninmar is in Sinnereth selling the poisoned grain seed. By mid-summer that nation should be significantly weakened" said Mafad in typical soldier reporting style. Now however he leaned closer and continued in a more secretive tone. "Uthre and myself however have spent the day once again searching the Riftways for the location of To-lemac. Things were going sour and we were about to stop
when we stumbled upon the tracks of one of the Knights using the Riftways. Very fresh tracks"
The seated man took great interest in this, he dropped his pet and motioned for Mafad to go on.
"We followed the trail and caught him as he was escorting one of the children. We attacked as best we could using demon-dogs and serpents but the Knight destroyed our minions and fled the Riftways. Had you been there or two of the others, we might have slain him. As it is we know that he was
wounded and is hiding somewhere in the city of Sano-Thracia."
"Excellent Mafad, excellent. Do you know which of the Knights it was?" asked the seated man showing enthusiasm.
"Nay, my lord, we do not. But a group of local assassins in Sano-Thracia is being hired to find and eliminate which ever one it was. With your permission I would like to go to Sano Thracia myself and make sure the task is truly accomplished".
The seated man seemed to ponder this a moment and finally nodded his head in approval. "Orcana has provided, my dear Mafad, good hunting to you."
"I thank my lord for the honor of the hunt", said Mafad with a bow. With that said he knelt once again, repeated the ritual to the statue and began backing out of the garden.
Before he was quite out however, the seated man raised his voice in a final statement. "If you fail Mafad, Orcana will expect a payment to retain her favor. I do not wish to see any part of you burning on the alter my son."
"Nor will you my Lord", replied Mafad. With that he turned and started down the Hall of Columns.
As Mafad left, a silvery bell rang above the opposite gate.
"Ahh", said the seated man. "The hour of sacrifice has arrived."
With that he rose and exited the garden through the gate with the bell. Minutes later the piercing scream of a woman echoed through the garden.
A tearing sound split the night and blue light spilled all around the interior of a small room from an opening in the ceiling. Two individuals, a boy and a man, fell into the chamber and onto the floor. The azure doorway wavered in size and consistency and then disappeared all together. The darkness
returned to find the two unconscious and laboring for breath.
Uneven clomping came from outside the simple wooden door as some one with a limp climbed the stairs leading to the room. The clomping stopped at the door and it creaked open allowing warm fire-light into the room.
"Here now", said a husky voice, "what's going on?". Seeing the two forms lying still on the floor the uneven legs carried a man of incredible girth into the room. He rolled the boy over and muttered unintelligibly under his breath. He moved to the form of the man and upon inspection gasped and then retreated to the doorway.
"Amma", he shouted with urgency in his tone, "Amma, come quick. It's Clynne, and believe it or not, he's hurt". With that he moved to light the simple oil lamp that was the only occupant of the top of a small dresser and began to light it.
"Oh hurry Amma", he muttered, "it's Clynne, and he's hurt, hurt bad"
The room was very dark, like midnight on a moonless December night. The large windows that looked into the surrounding forest were useless because of the late hour. In a high backed chair sat a man quietly staring into the all encompassing blackness. Silently the door into this room where night reigned opened and spilled torch light into the room that cut the darkness like a sharp blade. The figure of a woman stood in the doorway.
"Shut the door please", said the man.
"Malkiel, why are you sitting in the dark", asked the woman.
"I like the dark, now please close the door", replied the man.
"Men", said the woman.
"Did you bring the girl?", asked Malkiel.
"Of course, when have I ever failed?", asked the woman.
"Never, but after all you are a woman Hannah", said the man.
Hannah crossed the floor to the desk in front of the high backed chair in two quick steps. "You take that back or I'll rip out your tongue", said the warrior woman in mock anger.
"Well you could try, of course", said the Malkiel, the darkness masking his playful grin.
Hannah let the matter drop. "Did you bring the boy?", she asked.
"Of course, when have I ever failed?", said Malkiel, the same grin again settling on his face.
"You are quite impossible", said Hannah, her face wore nearly the same expression.
The man stood and cupped her head in his right palm, "And you my love are quite possibly the most infuriating woman on the face of Tolos". With that he kissed her.
"What about Clynne?", asked Hannah when their kiss had ended.
"What about him?", asked Malkiel
"Has he returned yet?"
Malkiel pulled away from the woman and re-seated himself. "No, he hasn't but he did have farther to go."
"Of course", replied Hannah, "probably silly of me to worry, Clynne can take care of himself"
"Yes", replied Malkiel, "He can." For a few moments he regarded the woman in front of him through the darkness. He had long been jealous of the close relationship his wife shared with Clynne, a relationship he knew to be completely platonic. He dismissed his familiar suspicions as unfounded. "If you like, later we can try contacting him", he finally said.
"That would ease my mind", replied Hannah. She knew of her husbands inner doubts about her relationship with their mutual friend. She was always proud of him for over coming those childish jealousies and making the right decision. Deeming him worthy of a reward she leaned over the dark stained wood desk, and stroked his cheek. "I love you Malkiel"
"And I you, Hannah of Tar-Yebin", replied Malkiel.
"However we do not have time for this now, I must tend to the girl", said Hannah.
"Later perhaps?", asked Malkiel.
Eon wakened to find himself snugly wrapped in the blankets of a small but comfortable feather bed. His wounds were clean and dressed, and although his muscles ached of stiffness, his stomach grumbled for lack of proper attention. A window on the wall near the foot of the bed spread light upon the rough hewn floor boards in a manner that reminded him of butter spread thinly on fresh baked bread. His stomach was definitely influencing his thoughts. There was a chair and small table in the room as well, however as he investigated himself further he realized that he was quite without any clothing, and there did not seem to be any clothes in the room.
"Naked as a fresh plucked hen", he muttered. His stomach made those hungry noises again and he decided that if he didn't get something to eat soon his stomach might start getting strange ideas about the room's furnishings.
His mind wandered over the last few days. He remembered running a gambling operation in a small town named Corn Hollow. He smiled at the thought of all those field workers having to go home to there wives and tell them that they had lost a weeks wages to a boy and a pack of seven stack cards. He never allowed them to lose too much though because that was a dead give away of a scam. He let them win a few and lose a few until the towns young dandies took an interest in him. Eain never had, had much of a stomach for taking money from poor people. But from the wealthy land Barons of the Great Compartian Plain he never had a qualm about worming money. It was the same in every town, the populace were hired by the local Baron and then overworked and under paid. So in every town that Eain operated in he tried to attract the wealthy Barons or their sons in to the scam. In Corn Hollow it had worked perfectly. The Card game had become the nightly event, and soon the stakes had gone so high that the common men were no longer able to play. Every hour or so Eain would get up from the game and go to the out house. He was drinking a great deal of watered down ale but much more water while away from the table. Whenever he did he would take half of his winnings with him and leave half of them in a bag on the table with a hired man to watch it. While he was at the well drinking he would hide the half of the winnings that he had on him in a bag that he had on a string, hanging just below the surface of the water. Before he would return to the table he would fill his purse with stones and then return as if nothing were amiss. After three nights of gambling he had stashed away enough money that he could buy a small mansion, but all of the players thought that they were losing by chance an were waiting for Eain to lose big not knowing that his purse was nearly empty every night. Three evenings ago, after one particularly good game, Eain had repeated the trip to the well trick and then stolen the Baron's horse. After about two or three miles he had turned the steed loose and started out on foot.
That's when he had met Clynne. The whole ordeal within the rifts was still quite a mystery to him. Who exactly was Clynne and who were the men who attacked him? Why do those men want Clynne dead? And why exactly did Clynne, obviously a powerful mage, feel it necessary to enlist him, a young, second-rate cut-purse?
Eain tensed as he heard a noise from outside the door to his room. Small stealthy feet were lurking out in the hallway, Eain could see small shadows showing under the doorway. The shadows seemed to stay were they were for several moments, and Eain had begun to believe that he had been wrong about them being the shadows of feet. That's when he heard the familiar clomping on the stairs. Habid was bringing him some food and news about Clynne's condition as he had done for the last two days. When the first clump had sounded at the bottom of the stairs the shadows had run away. As the limping foot steps came closer the small shadows returned in front of the door for an instant and then disappeared again. A few moments later Eain heard the rattle of keys accompany the limping steps, and soon the door opened to allow the hulking mass that was Habid, innkeeper of the Asses Uncle.
To say that Habid was fat would be like saying that snow is kind of white. Habid was enormous. His vast girth spilling out over his trousers and out from under his tunic like a giant candle that had been rapped in clothe and then set in the hot summer sun. A shock of calico hair stood on his head in a slightly receded position. He was bearing a plate of steaming meat, and soup. His face was twisted in a puzzled expression.
"Have you been out of bed?", he asked.
"No", replied Eain
Habid set the tray of food on the bed near Eain and then returned to the door. Eain wasted no time but began stuffing his face. Habid stood regarding the exterior of the door.
"I wonder where that mark came from?", said Habid.
Eain was too occupied to speculate.
"Did you see anyone outside the door?".
"I sthaaw sthumn sthadows", said Eain through a mouth full of bread, beef, vegetables and soup.
Brena ran the bone handled brush through her straight brown hair. The apartments in which she had been left were simple but clean and very tasteful. She was seated at a small vanity having just exited the hot bath down the hall. She had entered the bath by herself having been given directions there by Hannah. When she entered she had left the robes the Priestesses of Mock had dressed her in on the floor. When she had gotten out, she found that the robes were missing and that under garments and a simple red gown trimmed in silver lace and matching boots had been left in their place. A red and silver hair clasp lay on the vanity and so she used it to pull her hair out of her face. She was just finishing this when a knock sounded at the door.
"Come in" said Brena as she rose from the vanity stool.
It was Hannah, then, suddenly, it wasn't.
Brena screamed and jumped back. Her hand found the brush from the top of the vanity and she stood facing a small furry creature. Brena held the brush as a weapon.
The creature took a step forward and then it wasn't a creature anymore, it was a tall man, handsome and strong, it took another step and it was an old man, wizened and dressed in a robe of blue, red and green.
"Narow, stop it", said a familiar female voice.
The creature turned and Brena was looking at a exact image of her back.
"Narow", said Hannah, "I mean it!"
The creature changed once again and a young girl about Brena's age with long blond hair and turned and faced her.
"That's better. Now say hello to our guest." said Hannah
"Hello" said the blond girl. Her voice had a slight grating sound that made it sound almost like a whisper.
"That was very rude Narow. You were supposed to help her get cleaned up" said Hannah.
"I did help" said Narow, "I got her the clothes you suggested and disposed of those ugly sacrificial robes."
"Did you bother to introduce yourself or tell her not to be afraid by your . . . unique nature" Hannah seemed to stretch for the last two words as if that was not what she normally would have said.
"Oh Hannah I so seldom have any fun", said Narow, "I didn't think that a little bit of a scare would hurt the young one"
"Well apparently you were wrong" said Hannah indicating Brena.
Brena snapped out of her shock and realized she was rigid and that her knuckles were white from grasping the brush so hard. She set the brush down and managed to relax a little.
"Brena this is Narow. She is a Ympling", said Hannah. "The Ymp's have the ability to shift the shape of their bodies."
Narow stepped forward and extended a hand. Brena reached out and lightly grasped the shape shifters hand. As she did it turned from a hand of a human to a furry clawed paw. Brena looked up into the face of a snarling bear. A scream escaped her lips and she retreated to the wall. Hannah smacked the creature solidly on the head with her open hand and immediately the blond girl was back
and rubbing her head.
"You didn't have to hit me!", said Narow almost whining.
"Oh yes I did", said Hannah in an angry voice, "And I will again if you do not behave. Now apologize".
"I'm sorry young one. It will not happen again", said Narow
Brena nodded in acknowledgment of the apology but she was sure by the look in the Ympling's eyes that this creatures mischief concerning her had just begun.
Hannah shared Brena's thought and made a mental note to talk to the prankster later.