Tag Archives: Fantasy

Shozar: A Position of Prestige – A D&D Origin Story ®

The cold, steel hilt of the fighter’s sword stung the Dragonborn’s face as it knocked him to the ground. Pages from the victim’s book scattered as he fell to his back.

“Puny Shozar,” the towering brute taunted. “Pick up a sword like a real Dragonborn, you suorra (the Draconic word for baby).” He looked around at his chuckling accomplices and grinned as his massive ego was stoked like like the billows on a forge.

Rubbing the sore spot on his copper-scaled face, the scholar shot an angry glare at his attacker. “Scoff at knowledge then, Versvesh. Ignorance suits you.”

The crowd’s laughing died away as the red lizardman scowled at Shozar. With a whack from the flat of his sword, Versvesh drew a line of blood from the sitting sage’s face and the laughing erupted once more. Shozar’s scowl returned as he met Versvesh’s gaze, but kept his mouth shut as the sting of the weapon resonated the lesson that came from taunting someone so much larger than himself.

“Go ahead, librarian. Shout at me. Call for your master so he can punish me for beating up his weak little helper. They aren’t going to hear you out here on the road, so far from your precious library.” Versvesh knelt close to Shozar’s face, the heat from his fiery dragon breath threatening the smaller Dragonborn. “Besides, if they do hear of this little talk, our next one won’t be so pretty.”

Shozar’s eyes narrowed as he met Versvesh’s glare. With another laugh, the fighter stood and kicked his prey knocking him prone. He strode away toward the city, the long tendrils on the back of his head falling over the shoulder pad of his armor as he turned about. His friends in tow, the bully called out behind him, “Goodbye, little one. We’ll be seeing you again the next time you venture out of the city.” His final statement was as much a threat as a promise.

The defeated Shozar casually stood and dusted off his navy-colored, silky robes. He was used to this type of behavior. Worse than that, he had even begun to expect it anytime he ventured outside the walls of the city. It was common in his tribe’s culture for those compelled by knowledge to be picked on and disparaged by stronger members. After all, a weak Dragonborn would cast an unwanted image on the Vokrii and fighters like Versvesh weren’t about to let that happen.

“Versvesh again?” A familiar voice caused Shozar to look over his shoulder in start.

“Ah, Quogan. Yes, it was the typical knuckle-dragger this time.”

“When are you going to learn to limit your trips to library outings?”

Shozar shook his head and grinned. “Free time is not granted on those field trips. If I am to gain any knowledge from outside the Vokrii walls, it must be done independent of the library.”

Quogan looked around sarcastically. “What is there to learn? We inhabit the entire island.”

“That thinking is what is going to give me the advantage in our competition for the library Maekrix.”

“I don’t believe there is much of a competition, Shozar. The Master has already expressed a strong interest in you.”

Shozar spread his hands in the air as if he were opening a banner. “Vokrii Shozar the Knowledge Seeker,” Shozar said with a smile.

“Dream all you want, friend, but we’ll be the ones giving you the title. You may just as well end up Vokrii Shozar the Book Stacker.”

The two shared a laugh as they began making their way back toward the city. Their conversation was light but meaningful as they worked through the details of the days to come. The quest for knowledge is not accomplished in a day, and a scholar’s planning and duties are perpetual. There are tomes that need read, books that need written, and mysteries that need to be unraveled.

Shozar stared reverently through the glass ceiling from inside the offices of the Vokrii Library, the bright moonlight casting his shadow on the still marble floor. The architecture of the tribe was something many of its inhabitants marveled at and rightly took pride in. White, squared walls were accented with gray stone, and their roof corners were adorned with ivory shaped like the teeth of the creatures of their lineage: Dragons. The glass ceiling to these offices came from the hexagonal walls to a point at the center where a majestic sculpture of a dragon sat.

Shozar looked on at the model for that sculpture now. Resting atop the mountain on which the library sat was the great dragon, Vokraxx, the stars in the night sky his backdrop. His giant white abdomen rose and descended as the mighty creature carried on its millennial slumber. The white hue of its skin gave those fortunate enough to gaze on it a false impression of the creature. Though its cousins of the same color were notorious for the chaos and destruction they wrought, Vokraxx favored justice and order.

I am charged with a great responsibility, Shozar thought as he watched Vokraxx sleep. The Vokrii bloodline could be traced back to the dragon, who established the tribe to watch over its slumber with a legendary dragonborn of the same color. Its library contained many secrets entrusted by the ancient being to the Order of Vokrii Scholars, to which Shozar belonged. This was a task that weighed heavily on the Dragonborn’s shoulders.

After many moments of wonder, Shozar finally returned to the task at hand. His shadow danced on the wall outside of the domed office, cast by the dim candlelight from the sconces on the walls. The only sound in the silent room, the soft shuffle of his padded footsteps mixed with the intermittent tapping of claws hitting the hard tile.

I’ve perused all of the tomes on Drow, Shozar thought as he scanned a bookshelf with his hands clasped behind his back. Perhaps I should find something that has not been read for some time.  After studying the room for a moment, his eyes fixated on the only corner that received no light. He smiled as he grabbed a candle from the candelabra next to him and made his way into the corner.

The scholar tapped his chin as he looked over the unfamiliar titles. Shozar didn’t excite for much, but the prospect of finding a book that Quogan hadn’t read was making his nerves tingle. “The Behaviors and Gestation of Slaadi?” he said with a raised brow as came across a title of interest. With a grin he pulled the work from its shelf. As he turned to walk away and opened the book, he heard the tinking sound of an object falling next to him. Holding the candle out, he saw an odd crystalline object fastened to a leather necklace.

Odd. Shozar picked up the object and held it toward the sky to get a better look at it. A faint purplish glow shown across his face as he inspected it. At first he thought it an illusion, but after losing the glow when he pulled it into a shadow, he understood that it wasn’t. What an interesting trinket. I must investigate its purpose when the time is available. He slid the necklace on, slid it into his robes, and found a table to study his newfound tome.

The hours ticked by in silence as the Dragonborn sat alone reading on the frog race from another realm. Many facts from the book shocked and amazed him. Magic gems that control their minds… Astounding. After reaching the chapter on their gestation, and particularly how they emerge from their host as infants, Shozar became squeamish and paused from his studies. He shuffled silently to his gazing spot in the moonlight of the domed ceiling to digest the wealth of information he had just attained.

A smile spread across his face once more as he looked on at Vokraxx. He knew the knowledge on the curious race would likely never serve for more than just knowledge that he possessed over Quogan, but he couldn’t help but feel a little accomplished in learning it. As his mind wandered through the information and his gaze absently sat on the sleeping dragon, a movement in the distance snatched his attention.

“Wha.. wha… V… Vokraxx?!” The scholar could hardly find the words as he saw the dragon’s head shifting slightly. He had remained unmoving as long as Shozar had remembered, and now he was present for the dragon’s changing of positions. But there was something more to this event. Something he would never have imagined in his wildest dreams.

The dragon’s giant blue eye slid from behind its lid and fixated on the city. His gaze wasn’t shifting, it wasn’t searching, it had locked on its target; it locked on Shozar! The quiet scholar was thrown into a fit of convulsions as the dragon stared on at him. He tried to scream, but no sound would find his lips. After what felt like an eternity, he was thrown to the ground.

Shozar laid still for quite some time after the shocking event. He wasn’t sure what had happened, all he knew was that he felt as if his blood had turned to ice. No. It was more than that. It was as if an icy spirit had awakened inside of him. When his thoughts finally returned to him, he sat up and looked at his palms as if he could see what had happened splayed across them.

“What was that?” was all the sage could find to say. He finally shifted his gaze back to Vokraxx who had returned to his slumber. After closing his gaping maw for the first time since the encounter, Shozar looked back at his hands and began rolling them over. Then he saw something he didn’t expect: A single white scale stood out against the copper background on his wrist. All he could manage was a look of confusion. No thoughts; no words.

At the sudden sound of footsteps in the stairwell, he turned his frightened gaze on the door. After running the rare tome back to its spot, he slid his hands into the large sleeves of his robe and quickly rushed past the stunned patrons of the library. He feared what others might think if they discovered his oddity. Not knowing how to process the events of the day, he returned to his room, locked the door, and turned in for the day. His duties would have to wait.

Days had passed and Shozar had managed to stay away from those who knew him, keeping his studies to the night while others slept. He knew he couldn’t hide forever, but right now that didn’t matter. The solitude he had, however temporary, was providing him comfort while he sorted this out.

The scholar bent down and studied a rare flower as he jotted notes in his book alongside his sketch of the plant. “Wormflower. Its enticing scent would make a fine perfume, but if collected correctly, could create a potent poison.” He smiled at the completion of the record before clapping the book closed. The joyful expression quickly turned sour as the sight of the back of his hand reminded him of the reason for his self-exile. He knew he needed to look into the cause of the spreading pigmentation of his scales, but if he was honest with himself, he would say he feared the results the investigation may bring.

“Well, look who we have here.” Shozar shoved his hand into his sleeve as he heard the familiar voice behind him. “If it isn’t the suorra out of the city on his own again.”

“Versvesh,” the scholar said through gritted teeth.

“You say that like you didn’t miss me, Shozar. Don’t go hurting my feelings now.”

Shozar’s demeanor remained challenging, but his thoughts went into a panic. Should he run or would that make things worse? The last Vokrii he wanted to discover his problem was Versvesh. If he found out the whole tribe would know before the days end, if the sage lived to care about it. Any excuse the fighter could use to add fuel to his tormenting, he would.

Shozar ran a claw down the healing mark on his cheek from their last encounter to use the reminder to give him courage. He wouldn’t run. Not this time.

This time he would fight.

Seeing his target’s expression shift to anger and his hands double into fists, Versvesh cried out in laughter. “What are you going to do, librarian? Hit me?” His laughter stopped abruptly as he drew his sword from its scabbard. “C’mon then.”

As Shozar fought his fear and drew back to launch a punch, a sharp, fiery object burst through the front of Versvesh’s chest. The two Dragonborn looked at each other in shock before the fighter fell to the ground lifeless. As his body dropped, the attacker came into view. A small, flying fire demon laughed wickedly. Its visage with sharp features, a long nose, orange skin, and jagged teeth played on the scholar’s fear.

Shozar turned and ran with all of his might, and the fire mephit gave chase. The large-leafed plants rustled as the dragonborn flew by, shadows from the overhead leaves rushing over his body. Shozar felt his heart racing, terror gripping his every thought. If this creature could put down the hulking Versvesh, a scholar like him stood little chance.

Shozar looked back over his shoulder to catch a glimpse of his pursuer as he emerged from the tall foliage. He slid to a stop and teetered as he felt the ground beneath him come to a point. The terror gripping him magnified as he looked back ahead and noticed he was standing on the edge of a cliff. Sharp rocks speckled the shore below, waves washing over them with intensity.

The scholar looked back just in time to see the mephit emerge from the forest. It looked about and locked in on Shozar with an evil grin. As it flew toward him, he threw out his palm and covered his face with his other sleeve. A cold sensation shot through him, starting at his heart and extending out past his hand.

Kssh!

 Shozar shivered in fear for a moment before realizing he hadn’t been attacked. He worked up the courage and looked over his arm with one eye closed and his teeth clenched. Scattered about the ground were frozen shards with orange cores. It became immediately obvious that something had frozen his attacker. What happened?

First looking over the corpse then the surrounding area, Shozar was filled with curiosity. He poked at an icy chunk of flesh. Did I do this? That was when he noticed his hand. The spread of his white hue had exacerbated dramatically. His whole hand was now white, front and back, and his claws had turned a sapphire blue. Shozar’s eyes went wide, and he quickly covered it back up.

“I must visit Master Aak,” Shozar said as he scooped up a frozen piece of demon and rushed back toward the city. He wanted desperately to keep his secret, but too much was at stake now. Knowledge from an elder was essential, and that meant he would need to share his dilemma to discern what exactly the dilemma was.

The scholar panted as he pressed on. He pulled his sleeve back and looked down at his arm while keeping his pace and blanched. Snow white pigmentation crept up his arm at a visibly accelerated rate. Shozar’s veins were freezing, and he couldn’t tell the effect was a result of his shock, a figment of his imagination, or a side effect of this disease… or whatever it was. He picked up his pace in desperation.

A startling scream from inside the town walls ahead made Shozar slide to a halt. What could possibly be happening now? He snuck up to one of the giant, wooden gates that led into the city, once an impressive door with an ornate depiction of Vokraxx embossed onto it in silver, it was now hanging on its hinges. He peaked around into the town and his jaw dropped as he felt his heart sink further.

Dozens of demons just like the one he had just slain were flying about attacking villagers and causing havoc. Shozar wondered for a moment how the well-protected Vokrii could be struggling so hard against something he killed so quickly. As one of the soldiers ran past, he could quickly see why. A giant, red-scaled brute with a massive blade was swinging wildly as one of the mephits buzzed around him effortlessly, an occasional flame blast striking out at the dragonborn.

They’re nearly impossible to hit. The scholar looked over in time to see a handful of the creatures gather together, a young and eager warrior gazing at them from behind some toppled barrels ready to strike. The dragonborn leapt from his hiding spot and took in a deep breath. He pursed his lips and exhaled a fountain of flame, consuming the creatures entirely. The warrior stood back with his chest stuck out in victory, but he quickly deflated when the flames dissipated and all of the mephits remained unharmed.

The demons snickered at him and took off in pursuit.  Once eager, and ready to earn his tribe name, the dragonborn flailed his arms wildly and ran away.

Shozar was aghast. How could he have killed one of these creatures so easily when the best fighters in the city couldn’t handle them. He looked down at his hand, a frosty feeling coursing through him, and came to his conclusion.

“Ice.”

But how? Shozar didn’t mean to blast the last one. How was he going to do it intentionally now? He held his hand out before him, hoping to send another ice shard flying… to no avail. “Come on, come on.” Another scream from inside the gates drew his attention away. He looked back into the city and saw three mephits pulling the tendrils of a mother trying to rush away with her child in hand.

Shozar knew he needed to do something, but he froze, his claws digging into the side of the gate and fear clutching at his chest. Then he saw his library in the distance behind the mother. His mind rushed back to when he got accepted into the ranks of the scholarly, and his first day at the world-renowned library. The Vokrii had so many charges: a wealth of ancient and modern knowledge, protection for Vokraxx as he slept, and their community. Visions of his precious library burning to the ground pushed him into action.

The scholar rushed toward the struggling mother. He grabbed a broom from the doorstep of a nearby house and swatted one of the attackers from the sky. As he drew back to strike another, the remaining two turned their gazes on him in anger, and he stopped. In an instant, they had grabbed his arms, holding them back, and the broom bounced helplessly into the dirt below.

The demon that Shozar whacked shook his head to regain its senses, then turned an angry glare on its assailant. It flew up into the air and whistled, drawing more of its kind to it and talked to them in some form of demoniac language. Their high-pitched voices would have been humorous in another setting. Right now, Shozar could only look on in terror.

Shozar had no options. He looked to his hands and struggled to pull them free, but he had no way of utilizing them, even if he could figure out how to blast the creatures. Breathing fire on them before had proven ineffective for warrior… but maybe that would give him the distraction he needed.

The scholar took in a deep breath and paused as he raised a brow. Typically, his nostrils burned as if he was intaking hot ash when he prepared a breath attack. This was a different sensation. With bulging cheeks, the dragonborn smiled.

The demons turned their attention to Shozar, apparently having finished deliberating. As they bore down on him, they were met with an icy blast. Shozar blew his frosty breath in an arc from side to side, covering the mephits in ice and sending them plummeting to their shattering death in the dirt.

The two demons holding Shozar’s arms looked on in shock as pieces of their brethren slid about the ground beneath them. They immediately released their captive, and flew off into the sky.

Shozar smiled, a course of adrenaline and courage reinvigorating him. He puffed out his chest and exclaimed awkwardly to the mother watching helplessly from beside a nearby house, “Never fear, ma’am. Shozar shall defeat these demons.” He noticed her shocked expression, thinking for a moment that his deeds had won her affection. Her face looks as white as… In terror he pulled his sleeve back, then looked down his collar. Me!

 The white pigment had nearly covered the dragonborn’s entire body and was now creeping up his neck. He looked up to the library. I must seek counsel with Master Aak. The visions of a burning library with dragonborn bodies strewn about the grounds returned to his mind, and he set in a look of determination. No. First, I excise the demons and save the Vokrii.

 Shozar rushed toward the remaining few mephits. Perhaps the Vokrii will excuse my appearance if I am able to relinquish the city from the demons’ control. He shook his head. The ever-thinking scholar would have to put his thoughts to rest for the moment.

When Shozar came close to a mephit running its tongue along the hay to a barn and setting it ablaze, he stopped and trained his hands on it. He focused hard on his hands, trying desperately to will the ice to shoot out from them. For what seemed like an eternity nothing happened, and Shozar’s countenance darkened. How was he going to figure this out? What was the source of this power?

The scholar’s mind trailed back to his initial blast. He had felt the power welling from within him; from within his core. Closing his sky blue eyes, he focused, and thought, and felt something… cold stir inside him. Taking hold of the chill, he forced it into his chest, then his shoulder, then his arm, then… he opened his eyes, and a bolt of ice struck the demon as he forced the power out of his hand.

“Woo!” Shozar leapt with joy. The wonders he would discover now. But again, those thoughts would have to wait. He turned his attention back to the city with a grin, frost drifting into the air through his teeth.

For the next few moments, the screams throughout the town shifted from that of dragonborns to the high-pitched, otherworldly squeals of dying demons. When the sound died down, the city’s inhabitants were hesitant to approach Shozar at first, staring in a semi-circle quietly at their hero, the now-fully-white, quiet scholar from the library.

Shozar stood like a statue, unsure of what to think or do. Then a young dragonborn stepped from the crowd, drawing a hushed gasp and the attention of the town. She stared for a moment then leapt and shouted, “Yay! Vokrii Shozar!” Instantly the crowd broke into a roar of cheering and rushed in, hugging the scholar.

Shozar was barraged with pats, rubs, and pokes from the crowd. In truth, he wanted to like the attention, but in reality, he was just ready for it to end so he could return to his studies, and explore this newfound power growing inside him. Amongst the bumps and cheers and smacks, he looked back down at his white palms and smiled.

A dragonborn stood regally before Shozar on a stone dais lit by a high skylight, his hands behind his back and his head held high. His once-bright-green scales had dulled to a minty color, and the tendrils on his chin had grown long in his many years, but he had the composure of one nearly half his age. He swept his arm out toward Shozar, and the wide sleeves to his robes drifted behind in kind.

“You have made the keepers of the Vokrii library proud, Shozar. When our city was in peril, you answered the call that no one else could. It is here before your peer, that I am overjoyed to honor you with your Vokrii name.”

Shozar bowed his head. “Thank you, Master Aak.” The scholar stole a glance behind him at his friend, Quogan, and gave him a grin. Where many other races and tribes hold elaborate ceremonies with several witnesses, the Vokrii have a different focus. While their minds are always on their community as a whole, their ceremonies remain intimate, preferring their work to support the Vokrii clan in its entirety instead of providing emotional support to the individual. Which was okay with Shozar. He had all he needed in his solitary witness.

“It is with great pride and honor that I bestow upon you your title,” Master Aak went on. “Vokrii Shozar the Beastslayer.”

Shozar’s eyes went wide as his head remained bowed. Beastslayer? He was grateful to finally earn a name for himself, but Beastslayer? That is the name that he would be remembered with in his tribe? In many civilizations a name is nothing more than something to speak in reference to a person, but in the Vokrii, the name you were given meant more. Your name was tied to your identity, your credentials, and your legacy.

Shozar, ever the student and scholar, completely expected his name to reflect his academic nature. Vokrii Shozar the Mind, the Scholar, or the Scribe. Heck he would have even settled for Vokrii Shozar the White! Beastslayer? That belonged to a soldier!

“Thank you, Master Aak. Zyak shaik valome. (So it shall be.)”

“You are truly worthy of leading the keepers of Vokrii knowledge.” Master Aak’s words made Shozar’s stomach flutter. Was it really happening? Would he be named Maekrix?

Master Aak went on, “To begin your apprenticeship, I bestow upon you this scroll.” He drew a rolled-up piece of parchment from inside his sleeve and handed it to Shozar. “It is sealed and should remain so until the appropriate time. You will know when that moment has come. In the meantime, you are to begin acquiring your contribution of knowledge to the Vokrii library, so you may attain the prestigious position of Maekrix. You are to travel to the newly-discovered isle of Kaol. A boat leaving for the location is putting out within the hour. May Vokraxx guide your path.”

Shozar bowed once more, somewhat deflated but hopeful, and turned to leave. Quogan stood with his hands behind his back, obviously fighting to hide a grin. Shozar bared his teeth at him and walked out of the room, the only sound his padded feet shuffling across the floor and the large door creaking to a shut.

The scholar said his goodbyes to what few friends he had, gathered his belongings, and got on the boat long before departure time. He spent a few moments cataloging the events in his journal, and the remainder he spent on deck, staring out into the sea. As the boat left harbor, the salty mist on his face and the cool breeze reminded him of his heritage. He looked to the sleeping giant atop the mountain and felt humbly grateful for the journey he had set Shozar on.

Fenril Valentine: A Bounty of Regret ®

The vampire hunter grinned as he wiped the blood from his gold coin. It was the last piece he had counted from the payment he received for his last bounty, and the bounty was plentiful.

“It never ceases to amaze me how much people are willing to part with when they hear the word vampire,” Fenril Valentine said, his smooth, calming voice carrying on the silent night as he slid the gold from his palm into his money pouch. Hunting vampires had a high learning curve, but it was becoming as easy as sliding a hot knife through butter to him now. “As long as the hunting stays lucrative, I’m happy to oblige.”

As he approached the first house in his small hometown of Bran, Fenril grabbed his large-brimmed, black hat that matches his western-influenced black ensemble from the horn of his saddle. He placed his middle finger and thumb on opposing sides of his head and drew his medium-length hair back revealing his handsomely-squared features as he sat his hat on his head. With a deep breath, he looked about the town with its humble hay-roofed houses and smiled. Though he loved the western nation of his birth and raising, Bran held his family, and thus a large portion of his heart.

A blood-chilling scream rang out from the center of town, changing Fenril’s countenance immediately to fierce determination. “Yah!” he shouted as he kicked the sides of his horse without a moment’s hesitation. The clop of his mount’s hooves on the cobblestone street rang out as he leaned into the ride holding his hat to his head. His long coat fluttered behind him as he navigated through the townspeople emerging from their homes to investigate the alarming sound.

The center of town was becoming steeped in havoc. Townspeople scattered and vampires flew about grabbing their victims. As his horse was in stride, Fenril drew his pistol from his hip and effortlessly blasted a fiend through the heart as it tried to carry away a man in ragged clothes. The vampire screeched and crumbled into dust that drifted into the night air.

Pressing the button on the side of his firearm, the barrel of Fenril’s pistol fell forward, ejecting the casing of his bullet. In one smooth motion, he slid the barrel against a bullet on his bandolier and the leather slid open, dropping the ammunition in place. With a flick of his wrist, the barrel clicked back against the stock, and Fenril put another bullet through another vampire.

“Gah,” the vampire hunter cried out as one of the undead creatures slammed into the side of his horse. Fenril hit the ground rolling and drew his crossbow from his back in the action. The vampire that hit his horse was within inches of his bolt when he launched it into the creature from his weapon. Fenril took the moment’s reprieve to rush into a neighboring home and reload.

The vampire hunter’s eyes went wide as he looked in the room to see the terrified faces of the family staring at him expectantly from behind their furniture. Well, this is awkward, he thought, sliding the bolt into his crossbow. They’re probably looking for me to say something reassuring. “Hey, uh, they seem to be eating other people right now. You’ll be fine in here…” he slides his crossbow on his back, starts back out of the door, and leans back in, “…probably.”

Gotta get to my house, Fenril thinks as he slides another bullet into his gun and flips it closed. When he looks toward his home, a voice cries out above the chaos.

“Where’s Valentine?!”

For the first time in his life, Fenril’s face shows a look of sheer terror. A white-skinned vampire stands in the city square, his long, purple cape lightly blowing on the night breeze. His red velvet vest is peaking out from behind a remarkably clean nobleman’s suit. He smiles as he looks at the dumbstruck Fenril.

“Surprised to see me, Fenril? You didn’t think I would let you kill off all of my clan without paying you a visit, did you?”

How’d he find my home? Don’t matter now. I’ll have to make sure his attention is on me so he doesn’t try to find my family. Fenril’s mind reeled as he tried to come up with something, anything, to say. He slid his gun into its holster and put his hands up. “Okay, Razvan. Let’s talk. We’ll work something out, just leave these people alone. They had nothing to do with this.”

“It is unfortunate, isn’t it, Valentine? A day ago, the simple people of Bran milled about zeir insignificant lives, and now zey have become a target of the Vlad Clan through no fault of zeir own. Ve vould never have bothered to travel zis far for such a little town, but zen you made var vith us. Zeir blood is on your hands.”

Fenril couldn’t bear to look around at the glares he knew were boring into him, so he kept his gaze locked into Razvan’s cold, dead eyes with his hands raised high. “Alright. Well you found me, so take me with you, and leave them out of it. You got me.”

“Not yet, I don’t.” He snapped his fingers and two vampires drug a kicking and screaming woman and child in front of their master.

“Daniela! Anne Marie!”

“Oh, you know zeese girls?” Razvan’s evil smile deepened.

“I already told you, I surrender. Let them go. You got me!

“Yes. I do ‘got you’, Cowboy. I have you and everyvone you love.”

Fenril could see he wasn’t going to make any ground verbally, which made his stomach tense into a knot. He lowered his arms and his head dejectedly, but kept his eye trained on the vampire’s heart from beneath the brim of his hat. “You win, demon. Please don’t take my family.”

As Razvan laughed, Fenril made his move. Time seemed to slow as he retrieved his pistol and brought it to bear in fluid motion. His heart thumped in his ears, and his palms sweat making him doubt he had a strong grip on the weapon. It didn’t matter. This was his one shot to save his family. He took aim.

He shot.

The bullet zipped toward its target. It was a perfect shot. The projectile barreled directly toward the monster’s heart. In the second it should have connected, the vampire disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Fenril looked on in horror. The vampire’s eerie command sounded distant and muffled as it echoed from beyond.

“Kill them!”

“Noooo!” Fenril shouted, breaking into a sprint toward the vampires holding his family. He was too late.

In his desperation, the fiend approaching him from the side escaped Fenril’s notice, and it grabbed him by the arm. Its wicked bite tore through his arm at the elbow, removing it from its place. In fury, the vampire hunter drew his short sword from his side and sliced through the monster. He stabbed it again and again and again, tears floating from his face. Adrenaline coursing through his veins, he didn’t feel the pain of his arm nor care to tend to the wound. He locked his eyes on what mattered to him the most: His precious wife and daughter.

When Fenril turned his attention to his family, he noticed that the vampires had all left. He rushed to his daughter and scooped her up in his arm. “Anne Marie. No.” He wept into her chest as he pulled her close.

A tear rolled from Fenril’s cheek and fell onto the cupcake pendant he had bought Anne Marie for her sixth birthday. “My little cupcake,” he said with a quivering voice. As he ran his dirty finger over the gold necklace, he remembered the look of sincere joy on her face as she had opened the gift. With great difficulty, he worked the necklace off of her body with his remaining arm and stuffed it into his pocket before embracing her again.

As the seconds ticked by, reality crept further and further from Fenril. The loss of blood from his wound caused his consciousness to wane. Battered, bruised, and broked, he soon succumbed to his condition, and fainted.

Fenril awoke to the sound of bubbling liquid and the smell of sulfur. He tried to sit and put his hand on his throbbing head, but he couldn’t pull his arm from the leather strap holding it down.

“Hey, what is this?” The vampire hunter surveyed the room. He saw his hat and pistol on the table before him, and took note. Potions lined the shelves, scribblings and sketches of demons lined the walls, and a circle with runes and designs surrounding it sat in the middle of the room with two bodies atop it. Fenril woke right up.

“Daniela! Anne Marie! Let me offa here! Where am I?”

“Relax, Fenril. I’m here to help,” a sinister-sounding voice hissed.

“Stop it, Creed. I don’t want your ‘help’.”

The warlock stepped from behind the table Fenril was strapped to and looked him up and down. Creed was once a handsome man with long locks of auburn hair. Now he stood before the vampire hunter, a shadow of his former self. He carried himself with a dignity that spoke of his former days, his red hair slicked back, his attire pomp, and his arms resting behind his back as nobility would stand. But his time spent consorting with evil had warped his behaviors. He had told himself it was for the good of the town, but his gain was marred by new interests. The warlock had the simple townspeople fooled into believing him the only semblance they had at a doctor. Hence Fenril being brought to him for ‘help’ when he had passed out.

“Come now, Bounty Hunter. That’s no way to speak to the one who’s going to restore your arm…” Creed waved his arm toward his circle, “and your family.”

Fenril kicked and struggled with all his might against his restraints, his skin tingling with anger. “If you so much as touch them, Creed…”

“You don’t want to see them again? To hold your little girl, and caress your wife once more?”

“Not the way you’re going to do it,” Fenril screamed, his veins bulging from his neck.

“Well, be that as it may, I’m afraid you have no choice in the matter. As you can see, the ritual for your absent appendage has already begun.”

Fenril’s eyes went wide as he looked down at the stub where his arm was. For the first time he noticed the runes etched into the flesh around his wound. The vampire hunter looked back at the warlock in angered disgust as Creed smiled back at him.

“Koryo shum ainee shopuyo…” Creed’s chant reverberated with the sound of many deep voices calling out at once. Fenril kicked frantically trying to break free of his bonds, but they gave no concessions. A sudden and intense burning sensation washed over his stubbed arm.

“Gaaaahhh!” Fenril cried out and looked down to see glowing orange flesh growing from his wound. Infuriated at his helplessness, he watched with hot tears of anger streaking from his eyes as a demonic hand extended from the flesh.

“It worked! Never before in all of our circles has someone summoned a demon’s appendage on someone, but the great Creed Cordova has succeeded!”

Fenril didn’t hear the ecstatic warlock. He stared blankly at his new hand as he flexed his clawed fingers. He did hear Creed’s next exclamation loud and clear.

“Now to focus on the girls.”

Fenril knew this was his last chance. He was going to prevent his family from becoming… whatever Creed was going to turn them into, or he was going to die trying. As he began to struggle against the restraints again, he had a strange moment of clarity. The ranger remembered the spell he had prepared.

Fenril closed his eyes, spoke the incantation, and worked his hands in the proper motions. As he finished, the caw of a bird rang out through the window. Creed stopped his spell, the light of the circle beneath the bodies fading, and turned to the window. The shudders thumped once, twice, thrice, and burst open, black feathers showering into the room. Two ravens flew into the warlock’s face clawing and screeching, sending him to the floor with his hands flying wildly in front of his face.

A third raven flew in and landed on Fenril’s shoulder. It cocked its head back and forth before flying down and biting at the vampire hunter’s bindings, its wings fluttering wildly. Soon the leather gave way, freeing Fenril’s demonic arm. He began working on freeing his other arm and paused to spread his fingers and look at the orange hand in disgust. Forcing himself to push the thoughts aside, he freed his other arm as the raven bit through the bindings holding his feet.

Creed had worked his way back to his feet and noticed his prisoner had been freed. “No!” He threw his hand out and sent a crackling purple bolt at Fenril. The vampire hunter saw a golden moment of opportunity and took it. He dove and grabbed his pistol from the table in front of him, rolled, and came up aiming. In the blink of an eye, his barrel was aimed and his shot rang out.

Creed clasped his chest in shock, looked at Fenril with his jaw agape, and fell without a word. Fenril breathed heavily. He did what he couldn’t do in the town square. He saved his family. The vampire hunter was finally able to lay his wife and daughter to rest. Now he would have to invent a life alone, without the joys and laughter of his girls.

“Please, please, Fenril! He has my child,” the woman exclaimed frantically, pulling on the bounty hunter’s sleeve.

Fenril stood placidly, working a toothpick in his mouth and rolling a bullet between his fingers. His thick goatee and long hair reflected the apathy the tragic events had planted in his heart the year prior. “I’m going to help you, Miss. Just tell me everything you remember about him.”

The woman went over everything she remembered, her tears streaking down her face and falling onto her kitchen apron, mixing with the soot into tiny charcoal balls. Such a pretty lady to be working the kitchen, Fenril thought. Her eyes kinda remind me of Daniela… He subtly shook his head. Can’t let that affect my work. This is business. I gotta eat. Won’t help no one to cut her a deal on account of her appearance.

“Pleeease. The longer you stay here, the less time Timothy has,” the woman finished.

Fenril tipped his hat to her. “If what you say is true, your boy has a few hours yet. This type o’ vampire likes to keep a reserve of victims in their dungeons. I’ll get your boy back, Ma’am. You just have that gold ready for when we return.”

It pained him to say it. He knew this lady would need the money as much as he did, but if word got out that he did a job for free, everyone would expect a handout. And a bounty hunter can’t eat on handouts.

“Yes, yes. I promise. Please just get my son.”

Fenril turned and began making his way in the direction the vampire left, his boots clopping on the cobblestone street. He looked about his bandoliers and pouches taking another quick inventory of his affects. It was all there, he knew, but Fenril Valentine risked little when it came to his work. One misplaced potion could mean the difference between life and death.

In a little under an hour, the bounty hunter came to a fork in the road. To the left was wilderness, to the right was a city that was destroyed years ago in war, and down the center was a road that led to a mansion. He knew this monster and the clan to which he belonged, the Vlad Clan, though proud would not be so arrogant as to set up their hideout in a mansion.

Too cliché, he thought, looking at the wrought iron fence to the Victorian castle on the hill. That really only left one option, but he would make sure before following a cold trail and wasting precious time. A child’s life depended on it. Dust flew about as he kicked around looking for a footprint. Carried him in vapor form. Pulling a match from his pouch, he struck it against a nearby tree and watched the flame flicker. It danced for a moment before settling in a shaky pattern toward the right, a trail of cinder floating from the fire toward the city.

“Sulfur trails don’t lie.” He dropped the match, spit out his toothpick, drew his pistol, and approached the city.

The cool wind blew dead leaves through the holes broken in the sides of the homes. Fenril’s eyes narrowed against the biting breeze as he looked for the first building he would investigate. It had to be large. Large enough to contain a few cells for forthcoming ‘meals’, yet intact and elaborate enough to sate the proud clan’s need for lavishness. His hazel eyes locked on a prime target.

“The church.”

Fenril kicked his pistol open to make sure it was loaded and walked up to the large, decorated front entryway. The door squeaked in protest as he slid it open. He stepped onto the filthy red carpet that ran down the aisle and ran his finger in a circle around the trigger guard of his gun as he looked about.

“I could smell ze gunpowder from a mile avay, Gunslinger,” a hollow voice echoed throughout the cathedral.

“Why do you think I ain’t hidin’?”

“Because you are a fool, Valentine. Just like you are a fool for tracking me here. Vat, did some poor helpless citizen ask you to come rescue zeir family?” came the shadowy reply.

“Gotta eat somehow… Mikele.”

“Oh, so you know my name?” A black cloud of mist floated from the rafters and coalesced into a humanoid form in front of Fenril. “Zen you are even more of a fool than I thought. You tracked a lieutenant of ze Vlad Clan to his home. Zis church shall be your tomb.” Mikele’s bloodshot eyes glared menacingly into Fenril’s indifferent stare. His tomb or his bounty, it mattered not. But if the bounty hunter managed to walk out of here, it wouldn’t be without the boy and some information on his ultimate target: Razvan.

“Then what are you waiting for?” The bounty hunter threw a punch with his demonic fist at the vampire knowing it wouldn’t hit. He was right. In a puff of smoke, the monster vanished and reappeared behind Fenril. He leapt into a roll dodging the bite he knew was coming, his long coat fluttering behind him and his hat floating off to the side. In fluid motion he drew a glass globe of water and threw it into Mikele’s face as he turned in his roll.

“Eeeeeeeee!” The vampire let out a screech as he grabbed his marred head. He looked through his fingers into the rafters and about the pews for support, showing a lack of judgment in his moment of panic.

“Oh, I’m afraid your boys won’t be back for some time. Daylight hasn’t broke, and you’ve always been one of the fastest hunters, haven’t you, Mikele?”

With blinding speed Mikele flew into Fenril, sending the two tumbling end over end. The vampire opened his mouth to bite his enemy, but Fenril shoved a full clove of garlic into the opening. Mikele vanished and reappeared behind the altar, gasping for air and clutching his throat.

BANG!

Fenril’s shot blew a giant hole in Mikele’s knee. The bounty hunter leapt over the pulpit with a stake held high above his head. With amazing precision, he drove the wooden weapon into the creature’s heart pinning him to the floor. He grinned viciously as he twisted it in place, causing Mikele to cry out once more.

“Where is your master, Demon?”

Mikele rasped and coughed obviously trying to speak. The look of defiance in his eyes told Fenril he wouldn’t have been pleased with what the vampire would say could the words come.

“Tell me, or I’ll destroy every last one of your clan. I’ll give them a more torturous death than I’m giving you.”

The vampire’s eyes went wide, he opened his mouth to speak again, and his body fell into a pile of ash.

Fenril stood and cursed. “I’ll find that fangboy if it’s the last thing I do,” he said retrieving his hat and placing it back on his head. He paused and thought for a moment. The bounty hunter remembered his wife and his beautiful daughter. He remembered the way Anne Marie’s long, flowing brown locks used to bounce as she ran into his arms to embrace the father she loved so dearly. He remembered why he had to find that vampire and make him pay. The sinister voice for the clan leader echoed in his mind as his memory drifted to that moment.

Fenril closed his eyes and turned his head as he winced at the thought. A crowing rooster caught his attention. The sun would be rising soon.

“The boy.” Fenril reached into the ash and retrieved a key. He brushed the filth off of it and ran to a side room where he heard moaning in the new silence. The lock clicked as he turned the key in it. He burst through the door in a hurry. Strung about the cramped room was about a dozen starved and scared victims.

“C’mon. Day’s about to break, and they’ll be back soon.” Fenril waved them out of the door and his gaze locked onto a boy with a face very similar to the woman he met in town. Tears welled in the boy’s eyes as he froze in fear. Fenril stooped down and picked the boy up, rushing in line behind the crowd exiting the church. “I gotcha, Kid.” With one hand, he cracked his pistol open sending the spent cartridge clanking onto wooden floor. He slid the barrel into his bandolier and reloaded it.

The group made a hasty retreat down the dusty road back to town. Fenril kept a close eye on the area around them for any signs of vampires with the boy on his waste. They were lucky. Soon, he heard the screeching of the clan that returned to an empty home in the distance behind them. The sunlight of dawn caught his eye, and he sighed in relief. “We made it, Buddy. You’re safe.”

As the boy wept on his shoulder he looked at him with drawn lips, the impending task of exacting payment for this venture weighed heavily on his heart. He would fight his way through the feelings, as he had so many times before, but that wouldn’t make it easy. With the clan’s base so close, though, he knew he’d make a fortune on selling defense training to the town’s residents. Maybe he could take a smaller payment from the child’s mother. Maybe that would help quell the unease. Maybe…

Gunari: The Tundra Beatdown ®

Elqanah – 2nd Era
Age of the Gemkith

Gunari didn’t hear the predator stalking behind him any more, but he knew it was back there sizing up its strike. The wind blew his light gypsy clothing about and whistled in his ears making it difficult to keep track of the beast. But he wasn’t afraid. The fighter had trained himself to use all his senses. To take in every minor variance in the world around him to assess his situation and challenges with the utmost care.

He stood deathly still, his black, Middle-Eastern eyes staring out into the frozen tundra, the mountain he had just climbed at his back. She’s still back there, he thought. Gunari closed his eyes to focus on his other senses. This made the bitter cold all the more difficult to endure, particularly for his bare feet.

The fighter had travelled from the lands his empire, the Romi, wandered where their light clothes helped them survive the unbearable heat. They were poor protection from the bitter cold of the Skræling Tundra. But he knew it would come to an end soon.

A soft crunch in the snow drew his attention, and he grinned. There she is, he thought, clinching his fists. A brief moment of silence, then with a quick twist at his waist Gunari evaded the leaping snow leopard. In a moment, the cat had landed, turned on her paws, and leapt back after the Romi Fighter. Gunari’s fighter’s reflexes kicked in and he ducked under the second pounce as fast as it was issued, snow dusted over him from the leopard’s paws as she glided over him. He slammed his fist into the cat’s rib cage, causing her to cry out in a vicious roar.

The snow leopard’s body spun end over end onto the rocky mountainside with a thud, but the cat’s agility aided her in landing on her feet. With a snarling growl, the cat swiped her paw at Gunari, and her sharp claws tore a gash in the caramel-colored flesh of his abs.

“Gah!” he cried out as he doubled over in pain. Throwing out his palm on instinct, he connected with his enemy’s chin and sent her back into the rocks, giving him time to glance at his wound.

The cold is slowing my reflexes. I’ll have to fix that. His eyes took a luminous orange glow as he began using the mystical power of his Quartz. The gemstones on his anklet radiated an orange, misty light, and the fighter stood straight, the pain from his wound and the bite of the cold melting away.

As the leopard shook its head to regain its senses and stood for another attack, Gunari spread his legs and stomped into his power stance. He knew he didn’t have long to finish this fight; he would need to save the physically-restoring powers of his Quartz for the rest of his trip.

The cat leapt… and so did Gunari. The two opponents glided toward each other, the leopard’s claws and fangs reaching to sink into the human’s flesh, Gunari’s foot preparing to lash out into the animal’s face, the mist of his Quartz trailing behind. With blinding speed the fighter’s kick came to bear, knocking his opponent senseless to the rocks below once more.

Gunari’s flight carried him into a rock wall behind the cat where he kicked off back into the air on a course toward his opponent. Just as the leopard began to raise her head, the Romi’s fist came down on it, smashing into the stone with a sickening crunch.

The gypsy stood confidently and wiped the blood from his knuckles onto his open shirt, the light of his eyes giving his indifferent stare a menacing glow. Now to get what I came for. The hue of his eyes shifted from orange to purple as the gems from his anklets lost their glow and the Amethyst in his bracers illuminated. He winced once more as the pain mitigation from his Quartz dissipated from his wound.

The fighter shook off the pain and with a flick of his wrist, a purple, translucent blade formed at the back of his wrist, extending past his hand.  He gritted his teeth and plunged the blade deep into the leopard’s torso.

The sounds of the crowed roared through the slums in the city of Skara. Hundreds of Valdr filled the streets and circled around two men in the center of the northeastern side of the city. Mugs clanked, beer frothed over their brims, and the fur-laden townsfolk chatted, cheered, and jeered in anticipation. Though there were too many people to gather in the immediate circle, every man, woman, and child could see the combatants plainly. Fighting was a highlight for the Skarians, and they had built their arena at a decline so all the town could watch from the streets… and squander their money on betting.

The giant man in the center laughed heartily, sharing in drink with his fellow Valdr. “Njördr! Njördr! Njördr!” his fans chanted, ready to see him pulverize his opponent, as he had in every fight before. The gargantuan fighter turned his attention to Gunari, his opponent in the ring, and his eyes narrowed as his demeanor shifted.

“This is the best jou could find for Njördr? A little Romi?” his taunt bellowed drawing cheers from the crowd. He wiped the froth from his long, golden beard and laughed. “Jou are a lung vay from home, little Romi. Did jour mother make jou that leopard coat?” The crowd joined him once again in laughter.

Gunari stood silent, his jaw steeled as he analyzed his opponent. The champion underestimated him. Good. Unless it was a farce. If the champion was underestimating him though, Gunari wouldn’t replicate his mistake. A drop of blood fell onto his cheek from the tooth of the hood of his newly-crafted leopard fur coat. The droplet ran along the streak that its predecessors had formed before falling onto the snow-dusted dirt.

The lack of response from Gunari was wearing on the proud Njördr’s patience. He gritted his teeth and scowled before telling the referee, “No. Njördr von’t fight the Romi. He must make hees vay to the top to fight the champion.”

“Njördr, the people vant jou to crush the Romi quickly. He doesn’t deserve to fight in the Skara tournament. Hees presence is a disgrace to the legacy. They vant him gone,” the referee said.

Njördr’s anger works against him, Gunari thought. Now was the perfect time to work his way into the upper hand. “Or does Njördr fear the leetle Romi?”

The champion’s head whirled toward his insolent foe, his long beard and hair whipping past following the momentum. He shoved the referee to the side, his face red with anger. “Njördr vill keel the Romi!”

The crowd went into an uproar knowing how much the intensity of the battle had just increased. Gazes locked, the combatants seemed not to notice. The referee stepped forward and addressed the fighters, though he spent more time looking at the foreigner as he relayed the rules.

“There vill be no veapons, and no using stone magic. Jou break the rules, ve break jour skull.”

Njördr’s visage remained unchanged, his stare locked onto Gunari as he pulled the massive double-bladed axe from his back and tossed it aside. Snow flew as it skidded across the arena. Gunari continued to meet his gaze as he kicked his anklets off, untied his gauntlets, and tossed them onto the floor next to him.

“Thees ees not a fight to the death. Jou may knock jour opponent out, or maek him beg for mercy.”

Right. Gunari knew this would end in victory or his demise, though he didn’t know which was preferable. With no home or family to return to, he often wondered what kept him pressing on. It certainly wasn’t the money, as it left a lot to be desired. Fame certainly didn’t appeal to him either. Whatever it was, he had it to thank for getting him into this mess.

The referee looked at Njördr, then back to Gunari before raising his arm and bringing it down. “Begin!”

Njördr broke into a rush with a roar and the ground around him shook beneath his monstrous footsteps. Gunari waited, unmoving. Terror that usually glared from his opponents’ eyes was missing in the Romi’s. That should have been a red flag for Njördr, but his rage was blinding him, just as Gunari had hoped. Reaching to bear hug the Gunari, the giant caught nothing but air. When he paused to look into his arms, Gunari shoved his heel into Njördr’s cheek.

Gunari spun and went into a series of punches in Njördr’s ribs. He finished the combo with a leap and another kick to the face. The Romi stepped back into his power stance and fought back a blanch when he looked upon the unfazed Valdr. Njördr ‘s shadow crept over Gunari as he stood, towering over him.
Gunari quickly leapt back as Njördr brought his two fists into the ground with amazing speed, sending dirt and snow into the air around him. The Romi ducked under a two-handed haymaker and leapt back again to dodge the Njördr grasping at him. “Come here, puny Romi!” The Valdr was becoming visibly irater.

He may be tougher than anyone I’ve ever faced, and he’s unbelievably fast. Gunari kept the dance going, moving fluidly between the erratic strikes. He continued to land occasional blows to test for Njördr’s weak spots. Unfortunately, there were none.

When Njördr’s massive hands finally wrapped around Gunari’s torso, his confidence began to waver. The giant lifted Gunari into the air, his grip tightening with every passing second. The Romi gritted his teeth holding back a scream as he felt Njördr’s thumb slide into his wound from the leopard and press against his exposed rib.

The crowd’s cheering grew intensely as they saw victory drawing near for their champion. Njördr laughed as he squeezed, and Gunari felt his vision waning from the intense pain. Through the slits of his eyelids Gunari saw what could be his ticket to victory. The glimmer of hope returned to his demeanor as he glanced down at Njördr’s knees.

Now I just have to get free. Gunari used every last ounce of his strength as he released Njördr’s hands removing the last bit of resistance from the squeeze and shoved his thumbs into the Valdr’s eyes. With a bellowing roar, Njördr threw his opponent to the ground, sending him tumbling through the dirt and snow.

The world spun in a haze as Gunari forced himself to his knees. He looked over to his Quartz wishing he could let its empowering qualities wash away this pain. Shaking away the worthless thoughts, he stood, wobbled as he regained his strength, lifted his hands into a fighting stance, and looked back to his recovering enemy.

Njördr was rubbing his eyes rabidly in a vain attempt to wipe away the pain. When he noticed Gunari standing once more, he locked his bloodshot gaze on him. Gunari ignored the impending danger and made sure he had seen correctly in his desperate state.

Yeah. The right knee doesn’t have any snow on it. He took that brace off so I didn’t see his weakness. He grimaced as he fought through the pain and broke into a sprint. Njördr stood ready to intercept the Romi. They both knew this would be the end, whatever the outcome may be. The crowd’s silent anticipation showed they understood the importance of this moment too.

Feigning left, Gunari drew the Valdr’s strike away from his target. He threw his palm into Njördr’s face sending him off balance momentarily. It was enough. With one wide step, he put himself into the perfect position as he lifted his leg.

Nyaaaaaaaahhhh!” Njördr’s cry rang out as Gunari’s heel struck through the side of his knee. His state weakened, the Valdr fell prone, giving his opponent the much-needed opportunity to strike. Gunari leapt into a kick to the back of Njördr’s neck, and the giant went still.

Gunari breathed heavily, the hot air drifting in mist from his lips. He wiped blood from his mouth and looked about at the silent crowd. With a smile, he accepted his winnings from the gawking bookie. He limped to his gear, sat down, and slid it on tenderly as the group of Valdr began dispersing. If anyone was excited at winning bets for the underdog in this fight, they weren’t letting it on. It would almost certainly spell a fight for them amongst their proud tribe. Or worse.

“Hey, mister” a young, fur-clad Valdr boy called out as he ran up to Gunari. The Romi turned back a little too quickly and winced in pain. “Good fight, mister! No vun has been able to beat Njördr before.”

As Gunari smiled and opened his mouth to respond, a woman ran up and grabbed the boy by the arm, dragging him away. “Jou don’t talk to Romi, Eluf. Come geet home and vash up for dinner.”

Gunari just shook his head. The innocence of children never failed to amuse him. What exactly happens as people grow to drive them apart at racial lines? He stood slowly and focused on his Quartz. As his eyes began to glow, he picked up his bag and made his way back toward the city gates and onward to whatever city held his next challenge.

I thought the Valdr had the toughest fighters. Maybe the next one will be it for me. Or maybe I’ll find what I’m looking for. Whatever that is…

Cade: The Dragon’s Thief – A D&D Origin Story ®

We’ll never find one in this insufferable forest, the illithid thought, its gurgling voice resounding in its mind as it pervaded even the disgusting creature’s inner-voice. I’ve walked these trails numerous times. The only things here for one to find are trees and simple creatures.

The monster raised its slimy arm up to its octopus-shaped head as it attempted to block the Sun’s harsh rays from damaging its sight. Having lived in a cave for the past century, Gorkil had grown accustomed to darkness. Only on rare occasions did he venture out of the seclusion of his home. Often it was at night and at the bidding of its master, as was the case in this instance. But now morning was breaking, and it was forced to decide on calling it another failed mission, and risk the wrath of its master, or force itself to continue the search for another hour or two.

Bah. Gorkil trudged on as the sun began to pour through the trees around him in rays of warm light. This morning did bring it one comfort: The dew of the forest was moistening the monster’s skin whereas it would normally have to journey into a dampened part of its home cave to take a dip in a pool of cold, still water. This was preferable it decided.

Birds chirped as they scattered away when Gorkil crossed into a secluded meadow in the wood. Its frustration was peaking as it stopped to sit on a log; its final rest before exiting the forest. It’s apparent that this day will be unfruitful as well. I can’t face another failure. My calming spells will only work for so long before Zuulnok’s rage is beyond my capabilities to quell, or before he begins to become wise to my enchantments.

Suddenly it sat up straight as it picked up an impression in its mind. The illithid was able to call on its psychological powers to read other’s thoughts. This was what gave Gorkil its value with its master, and quite possibly the only reason it was still alive. The creature followed the waves in its concentration to a small hole at the bottom of a tree in the grassy area and pulled an animal out of the opening.

Gorkil let out a gurgly chuckle as it lifted a squealing raccoon up to meet its gaze, the animal clawing defiantly at the monster. This one. Yes, this one is no simple beast. The nasty tentacles from its mouth-area wriggled with joy as it realized its task had been complete.

I can read your thoughts, little one. Gorkil spoke telepathically to the raccoon causing it to pause its efforts to break free. You are only a few years away from realizing your true nature.

The illithid turned and looked back toward the mountain it called home, the forest it had roamed sitting snuggly at the mound’s base. It sent a telepathic message back to its commander, the ruler of the mountain. The simple message: I have found it. In just a few seconds the rocks shook and the ground quaked. A mighty rush of wind bent the tree tops as the massive creature took flight.

Gorkil laughed as he gave a final message to the poor creature before telekinetically raising him above the treetops: It’s time for you to meet your new master. The raccoon was only visible to the illithid for a moment longer before a giant shadow raced over him. When the shade passed, the animal was gone.

The raccoon’s eyes went wide as he looked upon his new owner. A mighty dragon held the animal up to his eyes as he inspected the creature with skepticism, its scaly fist tight around him. The sun reflected brightly off of its red scales as its massive wings beat back and forth, keeping it aloft.

“You are certain this thing is what we are looking for?” Zuulnok asked, his mighty voice booming loudly over the forest.

Gorkil sent its master the impressions it had received from the animal telepathically, reassuring him of its certainty. Satisfied with what he had received, Zuulnok gave a toothy grin and with a few beats of his massive wings returned home.

As if to further assure its master, and thus secure its life, Gorkil answered Zuulnok’s question in his mind. Yes, Mighty One. That one is what we are looking for. That one is… Hengeyokai!
raccoon-footprint-divider

“Oi. Ye forgot ta take a bath again, didn’t ye?” a disgruntled dwarf asked his partner as they stood guard at the royal vault. “Ye filthy goblin’s kin. I can smell ye from all the way o’er ‘ere!”

“Leave me alone, Ovund. Me wife’s been hoggin’ the tub.”

“No excuse, Farmin. Get yer smellin’ caboose in there, or ye’ll be pullin’ this shift alone.”

As the two continued to bicker back and forth, a shadowy figure watched, crouched on a ledge above. A flicker of light caught the grin of the furry humanoid as he drank in the chaos. I sense a bit of hostility between these two. If I can just drop a match in this powder keg…

The creature lifted his hand with his first two fingers extended and as he waved them to the side, Farmin swung the blunt side of his axe into Ovund’s head, sending his helmet flying to the ground. Ovund’s face turned as red as his beard as he glared at the other dwarf.

“Ovund… I… I dinna know what happened.”

“Ye smacked me with yer axe, that’s what happened! C’mere ye stinkin’…” He threw his axe and shield to the ground as he threw a punch into Farmin’s face. After falling prone, the dwarf came to his feet in full assault. He couldn’t have convinced Ovund that he hadn’t been the one to make that swing, but that thought wasn’t in his infuriated mind at this time anyway. Both dwarves came in with matched fury as they pummeled each other with heavy blows.

Had the sound of their quarrel not drowned it out, they would have heard the snickering of the mischievous creature that watched on at the events he had set… or coerced in motion. He sat back in a relaxed position as the fight raged on, one leg kicking lazily over the ledge. As Farmin finally fell to the ground unconscious, he thought, And now we have our lucky victor.

The humanoid leapt into a flip and landed a few feet away from Ovund. The dwarf, panting from the exhausting battle, wiped the blood from his lip and with a confused look on his face, asked, “What are ye about? A raccoon man? State yer business!”

Cade bowed dramatically before the dwarf, his black and gray striped tail going into the air behind him. “I am here to collect something in that vault, kind dwarf. Now your commander has told me to ask you to unlock this door for me and you are report to him immediately.” A grin spread across his face as the dwarf looked back at him stupidly.

“Yes. Yes, of course.” Ovund pulled his keys from his belt, unlocked the vault door, and marched past Cade, unable to disbelieve what he had heard. With a smile and a salute to the perplexed guard, the thief adjusted the strap of his bag and marched into the room.

“I bet you’re wondering how I did all of that,” Cade says looking at you. “You see, that raccoon in the beginning of the story, that was me. I was whisked away by an evil dragon before I could turn into this form and be trained to be his numero uno thief. Hengeyokai live their first hundred years in their animal form. Now I’m 135, and don’t look a day past 120, so I can stand here and talk with you.

“That nasty creature with the calamari lips at the beginning of the story, that was Gorkil. He gave me these powers so I could do his master’s evil bidding. Whatever. I get to control people’s minds and take all of their valuables. I can’t complain.

“Oh. How am I talking to you right now? You see, Mystics (that’s what I am) can see more of the world than most everyone else. I happen to know that you are reading this right now and imagining what this mission must have been like in your mind’s eye. Shame on you! Don’t you have your own life to live?”

Perhaps you should get back to your quest, Cade? Your spell, Occluded Mind, only lasts for 5 minutes after all.

“Alright. Keep your skirt on, Princess.”

Cade stepped into a glittering room filled with mounds of gold, gems, and magical items. Any normal thief would have been taken back by the sheer amount of wealth and begun immediately lining their pockets. Cade just shrugged as this wasn’t his first burglary, and that wasn’t his primary objective. He was here for the pseudodragon statue. (Though a few baubles would likely end up in his Bag of Holding)

The thief looked around the room for a moment before his eyes fixated on his target. It sat on a pedestal at the back of the room inside of a glass dome. “Convenient how they always put these things in plain view, huh?” He walked up and looked over the glass suspiciously. Dwarves have a tendency to put protective runes on their most treasured belongings, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. “I guess they thought it was well enough protected. Wrong again!” Cade lifted the casing gingerly and sat it on the floor to the side.

“Easy enough.” After inspecting the statuette and placing it in his bag, the Hengeyokai replaced the glass and turned about to leave, dusting his hands in apparent victory. He stopped quickly as he saw his way blocked by a handful of dwarves, one an angry-looking king. The effect of his charm having worn off of Ovund before he reached his destination, he quickly alerted the king to what had happened to him; a variable Cade hadn’t planned on.

“Hey, so I made a mistake. Shozar makes mistakes too. The common denominator is our creator. Namely you, Shawn.”

Watch it, raccoon, or I’ll give the dwarves magical swords and shields.

“Easy. I’m just making a statement.”

“Ye think ye’ll be taking all me gold, eh?” The king shouted approaching the would-be thief.

“Relax, Puffy, your gold is safe. I’m just here for this.” Cade pulls the statuette from his bag and dangles it in front of the dwarf’s face. As the king reaches to grab it from him, the thief quickly pulls it away. “Ah, ah, ah.”

The troublesome Hengeyokai’s characteristic grin spreads across his face as a thought comes to mind. Any rational person would hand the item over and beg for their life. Even in Cade’s situation where his punishment might be worse from the dragon having returned empty-handed from the mission, a person would be inclined to hide the object and try to escape. But Cade couldn’t resist the temptation to swindle those in power. It was a bane that had almost cost him his life more than once. But he chose to entertain the urge once again.

“Tell you what, Kingy,” he says as he pulls some dice from his bag. “You beat me in a game of dice, and I’ll give you everything in this bag. I win, I keep the statuette and walk free… with a couple handfuls of treasure.”

Now King Dorgrim had the obvious advantage with more men and the exit blocked, but Cade had his focus on his Conquering Mind discipline. This made him more persuasive than the average person. Still, the king was no fool. Cade could see the dwarf had his doubts. With a quick shift of his gaze to one of his lackeys he forced him to coerce the king.

“Do it, Yer Majesty. Ye can whip this idjit. It’s just dice.”

“Quiet. Of course I can.” The king raised his brow as he looked back to Cade inquisitively. With a smile, the thief waved the statue in one hand and the dice in the other. “Bah. Let’s get on with it.”

They sat on the ground with their legs crossed as Cade sat the statuette on one side of their playing area. “We’ll put your statue over here.” He acted like he was setting something invisible on the other side. “And my freedom over here.” With an outstretched hand, he offered the dice to the king first. “House starts?”

Dorgrim snatched the dice from his hand and scowled as he shook them about next to his ear to test their authenticity. Cade smiled knowingly causing the king humph as he tossed them tumbling about to the floor. The bone dice bounced about as the dwarves watched on with wide eyes until they finally came to a stop.

“Ha. Eleven,” Dorgrim said, crossing his arms confidently. His guards behind him hooted and high-fived at their king’s apparent victory.

“Wow. I don’t know how I’ll beat that,” Cade said with feigned resignation as he grabbed the dice from the ground. What Dorgrim didn’t see, though, was his switching the dice out for a pair that was rolled up in his pant legs. A special pair.

Cade rolled the dice around in his hand for a moment before throwing them to the ground. The dwarves watched the dice with excitement while he watched the short, bearded folk with a mischievous grin. After bouncing and rolling, the dice fell and the dwarves’ mouths fell open.

“Twelve?!” Dorgrim asked angrily.

“Well, would you look at that. I did roll a twelve. Lucky me.”

The king reached for the statue, but Cade was quicker, snatching it first and tossing it into his bag. “Give it back, ye filthy…” Dorgrim growled.

“Yer Majesty,” one dwarf stopped the king with a hand on his shoulder. “Ye gave yer word.”

The king scowled at the Hengeyokai for a moment, before waving his men to the side. The one thing a dwarf values more than treasure is his honor. Cade stood and bowed low before scooping a couple of handfuls of treasure into his bag and trotting happily out of the room. The dwarves watched with animosity as their prized possession waltzed away before their eyes, unable to do a thing about it.

Now to get back to ol’ Fire Lips, Cade thought as he walked on with a smile.

raccoon-footprint-divider

Cade’s knee was beginning to become sore from sitting knelt over for so long. A large, golden, reptilian eye peered down on him, its gaze felt like an anvil sitting on his back. Zuulnok had already been debriefed on Cade’s mission and had been given all of the stolen merchandise. But he was a fickle dragon, and the Hengeyokai had lied to him more than once. A foolish feat that the mischievous creature couldn’t resist from time to time.

Cade had to hide the disdain from his eyes as he looked over at Gorkil standing fat with complacency next to his master. The illithid could read his thoughts and would be more than happy to convey them to Zuulnok to ensure Cade’s punishment as he had displayed before. Even now he could feel the mental probing from the disgusting creature. The thief’s powers were growing stronger, though. He was able to resist more and more of the intrusions, but the dragon had grown wise to that too. Hence the need for this silent interrogation.

With a deep sigh, Zuulnok laid his head back on a mound of gold, confident Cade hadn’t hidden anything from him. “You may go, my Hengeyokai. Return when you have pilfered more treasure for my hoard.”

Cade held back a sneer as he stood at attention, turned in place, and walked toward the exit of the giant, glittering treasure room. His shadow flickered amongst the baubles as the purple light from the brazier by Zuulnok, the one that was used to summon Gorkil, danced about giving little light to the area. The world seemed to brighten around him as he felt the tingling sensation of the illithid’s probing powers leave his mind.

Finally. I’m starting to think that squid gets a little too much enjoyment from hanging out in my thoughts. Guess it’s to make up for a lack of having his own.

As he rounded a massive pillar, a glinting light passing over his face caught his eye. He stopped and looked down at the curious, white light peaking through a pile of gold. With a quick glance in both directions, he knelt down and dug away the treasure covering the object and lifted it up for inspection. It seemed to be a simple orb made of brass, but it was covered with strange runes that had oddly stopped glowing when the object was dug out. The mischievous Hengeyokai grinned as he looked around once more to ensure no one was watching before stuffing it in his bag and walking out of the treasure hall. The thief had little use for the piece, but he was intrigued and it took little to convince him to take something for himself.

Within moments of the piece of treasure leaving his trove, Zuulnok’s eye shot open, his ears flipped up, and he raised his massive head. Fire leapt from his nostrils as he realized something from his collection had been removed.

You dare to steal from the mighty Zuulnok, thief?!?!

Cade stopped with a leg raised at the thundering sound of his master’s voice. He had thought taking a simple little object from such a massive trove would go unnoticed by the beast, but a dragon’s sense of what is in its hoard is uncanny. They know everything down to the value of what is there… or in this case what is missing.

“Well that would have been nice to know before now.”

You didn’t ask.

“You’re writing this thing; you should have told me!”

Aren’t you the psychic here?

“Whatever. Just get me out of this mess.”

Realizing that giving the object back now would do nothing to sate the monster’s rage, Cade broke out in a dash toward the exit. Now was as good of a time as any to make a break for his freedom. He didn’t know where he would go once he got out, where he could hide from a red dragon, but he knew he had to get out of this cave and away from this mountain. He ran down long corridors and avoided as many large rooms as he could to stay out of the dragon’s sight. The ominous sounds of the beating of huge leather wings, the rush of the wind from beneath them, and the angry roars of the betrayed dragon drove him harder into his escape.

When Cade could finally see the daylight in a door across the final room of the complex, he saw a flicker of orange light on a beam ahead of him. The thief quickly plastered himself against the wall inside his tunnel just before the flames entered that would have burnt him to a crisp. When the fiery attack stopped and he looked back into the room, he saw Gorkil standing in a tunnel above with a smug grin on his putrid face. Or as much of a grin as an octopus-mouthed creature could have.

The calamari tracked me! He’s gonna regret that.

The ground shook as Zuulnok landed with his face in the opening of the tunnel, rage burning in his eyes. Smoke barreled from his nostrils indicating another fiery breath attack and Cade reacted before he could think. With a leap he mounted the dragon’s snout and rushed up along his back, his speed augmented by his powers. “This is stupid, this is stupid, this is stupid.” Zuulnok reached back and snapped at the thief, but Cade had jumped from his back and was descending toward the tunnel Gorkil was in.

The illithid wore an expression of terror as it rushed to fire off a mental attack. Cade could feel the pain onset of the ability, but it was too late; he was already airborne. He drew back his fist and threw a strong punch into Gorkil’s squishy head, sending the unconscious creature to the floor.

You can’t escape, Cade! There is nowhere in the realms you can go that I won’t find you!

The speed-enhanced thief rushed out of the door and down the side of the mountain as he looked frantically for some avenue of escape. A few cities dotted the green landscape. He considered them as a hideout for a moment, but he knew they would soon be incinerated by the outraged monster. A guilty thought that he had to bury for now. Then he saw a fishing boat passing on the river below.

If anything is going to give me a chance at putting some distance between us, it’s that. It will take him an hour to get out of that mountain. But I doubt the humans onboard the ship will be comfortable around a raccoon-man. Cade paused for just a few moments and grunted as his body contorted. He got down on all fours as he shifted back into a regular raccoon. With a chittering noise, he ran on down to where a portion of the mountain overhung the river. As the boat passed underneath, he leapt onto the back and crawled into a barrel unnoticed.

Inside his hiding place, the fat, little raccoon was delighted to see that he was sitting on a shipment of nuts. They won’t miss a few of these. He grinned and rubbed his belly as he tossed a handful in his mouth. Though the thief was happy to be alive, he couldn’t help but shutter as he heard the angry roar of Zuulnok one last time before the dragon came out of his cave.  He would have to find a location to hide, and fast.

raccoon-footprint-divider

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Cade said as he slammed his fists on the table before him. “I got everything you asked for: The gold, the weapons, even the Cloak of Disguise. You said you’d let me join if I brought you this stuff.”

A half-orc dressed in fine clothes sat smiling smugly across his fine, wooden desk at the Hengeyokai. Light from a nearby candle gleamed from his gold tooth against the soft light of the room. “Did I?” Torg asked, putting his boots up on the desk. “Well the terms have changed. We need another hunnerd gold and another of them magicky items if you want to join the guild.”

“That wasn’t the deal, Torg,” Cade said through gritted teeth, his rage beginning to boil over.

“Like I said, deal’s changed.”

The psion raised a brow as he began focusing his powers of the mind on the half-orc. His determination to ‘persuade’ Torg was only fueled when the creature’s grin deepened at the recognition of what Cade was attempting. Torg let out a bellowing laugh that startled his two kobald henchmen guarding the door behind Cade. The half-orc held up a stubby finger with a ring sitting just past his first knuckle.

“I heared o’ you before ya came, Psion. This thing’ll keep ya outta my head.” Torg slammed his fist down on the table, his demeanor quickly shifting to anger. “So don’t go gettin’ any ideas!” As rapidly as he became mad, he relaxed back into his smug attitude as he leaned back in his chair once more. “Now if ya don’t mind, I got things to do. So take the offer or leave it, but it’s time for ya ta go.”

With a snap of his fingers the half-orc commanded the two kobalds to ‘help’ Cade out. As they began to move toward him, though, the psion’s scowl deepened, his gaze remaining on Torg, and one of the small reptiles rammed its crude spear into its partner’s neck. It looked helplessly at the blood on the end of its weapon as if it didn’t know what had happened but a glowing dagger quickly embedded itself in the unfortunate creature’s forehead, replacing the look with one of pain.

As Cade gave an angered glare to Torg, the half-orc’s expression went from shock to amusement. He laughed with his belly jiggling before setting a dangerous gaze on the Hengeyokai. “You wanna try that with me?”

Cade drew his other dagger and brought it across in an attack on Torg. The half-orc was able to get his hand up between them just in time for the blade to slice off his finger. With a grin, the thief lifted the severed appendage and removed the Ring of Mind Shielding from it. “Thanks, Greeny. If I’m not going to be able to join your crew, I’ll at least get something out of all of this.”

Torg’s chair flew into the wall as he stood and swung his axe at Cade. With a simple leap, the nimble thief soared over the attack. Upon landing, he grabbed the bag with the items stolen for the half-orc, and with amplified speed, burst through the door.

Torg roared in the distance behind Cade as he threw his desk out of his way and charged after him. With a glance over his shoulder, the thief couldn’t help but chuckle at the sudden turn of events. That smile quickly vanished when he looked back forward and came to a screeching halt before a monstrous being ahead. He scratched his nose when the hair from the minotaur’s chest tickled it as he looked up to see its hideous snarl.

“A little on the stinky side, friend. You might try bathing once in awhile.”

Dropping to the floor, Cade dodged the minotaur’s crushing hug, and his dive to the side saved him from Torg’s overhead chop. He burst down the hall into a sprint in search of another path only to be met by a group of kobalds wielding spears. “Does this place have an endless supply of baddies or something?” Without losing stride the psion ran high along the wall, the stone and bone spear points bouncing about as they tried to pierce his furry flesh.

“Furry in a manly way; not some cute bunny-type way…”

As Cade rounded the last corner, he was relieved to discover that the front room was empty. His escapades in the back apparently drew some attention; all of the attention. Without hesitation he burst out of the door and into a dark alleyway. A quick scan of his surroundings found him a wood plank, hanging loosely from a hole in the neighboring abandoned warehouse. With a quick swipe of his short sword, Cade jerked it free from its perch and shoved it through the brass door handles to Torg’s building.

The thief dusted his hands with a smile, thinking himself quite clever as he walked away. Just as he was about to pass into the streets, he stopped and glanced down at his furry hands. Whew. That was a close one. Don’t want the good folks of Trachtenberg getting spooked by a raccoon-man. His body contorted momentarily and his fur sunk into his body as he took on his human form. With silky, blonde hair, muscles toned from years of daring thieving campaigns, and shining, blue eyes, he was the picture of charm.

“Sound hot, don’t I?” Cade said with a wink.

As a pound on Torg’s door drew the Hengeyokai’s attention, he began to quickly devise a plan to get the thug’s off of his scent. “Gotta do something about this get up. They’ll recognize it immediately.” Then he had an idea. He pulled the Cloak of Disguise from his pack and threw it on. “Guess it’s time to give this thing a try.” He watched as the hue of his clothes shifted from leathery brown to green then royal blue before shimmering and turning into nobleman’s clothes. “Much better.” Then he looked at the severed finger in his hand, the ring that once adorned it mysteriously missing. As an unknowing goblin merchant passed by, he sat the appendage on top of his pack and began walking away with his ears focused on the scene behind him.

Torg and his band of miscreants burst through the door and began pouring into the streets. “Find ‘im!” the half-orc shouted, his veins protruding from his neck and forehead. The thugs began looking frantically until a kobald stopped the goblin that had happened by Cade.

“Boss. This uns got yer finga, but he ain’t a coon.”

Torg tore the finger from the kobald’s hand and grabbed the goblin by the collar before he could scurry away. “Course he don’t look like a coon. He’s usin’ that cloak ta disguise ‘imself, ya buffoon.” He tossed the poor creature into his pack of followers and began storming back into his hideout. “Bring ‘im downstairs, boys. We got some talkin’ to do.”

Cade shuddered when he heard Torg reference downstairs, thoughts of the horrors the poor creature would soon be subjected to coming to mind.

“Wait,” the goblin squealed out in vain. “My name’s Tuktok. I’m a goblin, not a raccoon. Please you got…” his voice trailed down the alleyway as he was carried away.

The Hengeyokai sighed in relief as he turned away before stopping quickly. “Hey don’t look at me like that. It was me or him. You would’ve done the same thing.”

The ones hunting him alleviated from his concerns, for now, the thief looked at his surroundings. “I’ve gotta find somewhere to lay low until I can come up with another plan, since that last one went so swimmingly. Now where do the thieves go to hide in this city?” Just as he finished his sentence, he noticed a shifty character in old clothes making his way through the merchant stands that were scattered about the area, obviously looking for an opportunity to make away with something valuable. With a grin, Cade pulled a gold piece from his pouch and began focusing on it. After a few minutes, he relocated the thief and walked by him, dropping the piece on the ground.

The man stopped as he walked past and smiled as he picked up the coin, the gaps in his teeth highlighting the dishonesty in his grin. “Gotcha,” Cade said happily.

Cade stepped behind some crates and closed his eyes. His conscious shifted from his mind into the coin in the man’s hand. The psion could hear everything said and see glimpses of the scene around the man through the cracks in his fingers. The coin’s new owner stepped up to a shop door and knocked.

“Whaddya want?” a voice called from the other side as two beady eyes peered through a slot in the door.

The world around Cade’s view-hole swirled as the man looked about, a look of concern on his face. “Speakeasy, Scully,” he finally said. The eyes in the slot looked him up and down before disappearing into silence for a moment. Suddenly a sliding sound came from inside the building and the thug manning the door jerked the coin’s owner into the building.

“Fine. Get in, an’ ‘urry up. Don’ wan’ anyone ‘earing ya!” As the man walked down some stairs and into an apparent hideout, Cade let his mind return from the coin. He opened his eyes with a grin. A gambling ‘man’ himself, the prospect of running a few tables and gaining some winnings excited him; the winning more than the reward was most stimulating.

Cade stepped away from the crates and cast his cloak wide as he turned around them for dramatic effect. Because you know, he’s a diva. “Hey! Watch it with the name calling. I’m only a product of your imagination any way.”

Just calling it as I see it.

In his stride, Cade accidentally bumped into a man and knocked him to the floor. The shout from the victim stopped the thief in his tracks.

“The mark. It’s gone!” the mysterious man shouted. Cade’s face contorted when he caught a glimpse of a white, reptilian face beneath the hood of the fallen creature before he ran off. A strange pulsing sensation drew Cade’s attention away as it began tingling the thief’s leg from the pouch where he bumped the man. Lifting the lid to the pouch beneath his cloak, Cade saw that the orb he pilfered from Zuulnok had begun to glow as it had when he saw it initially beneath a pile of gold. Oddly he felt a strange magic had been absorbed by the object when he made contact with the man, though he couldn’t explain why. And he wouldn’t have the time to investigate now. When he noticed that others had begun looking at him, he quickly closed the pouch and made his way through some back alleys and around the back of the building that the man he was originally pursuing went into. His wide path gave him confidence that he didn’t have anyone tailing him.

I still have to get into hiding. I’ll have to revisit this later, he thought with his hand on his pouch.

After shaking his head, he strolled up to the door, knocked, and leaned confidently against the frame. When the window slid open, the eyes on the other side were even less inviting than they were with the man from before, if that is even possible.

“Yeah?” the voice called.

Cade cleared his throat, “Speakeasy?” The eyes narrowed as they looked the disguised Hengeyokai over. Cade felt a chill run through him as the thought that the thug was seeing through the spell from his Cloak of Disguise came to him, though he wouldn’t let his demeanor belie it. He had spent too many years deceiving others and working on his Poker Face to let that happen now.

“I ain’t seen ya ‘round here before…”

“Oh come now, Scully! You know me. It’s me Salvatore.” Cade hid a smile when he saw the shock in the eyes as he spoke the man’s name. It always gave him pleasure to see his craftiness have some success. After one more look-over, the window slid shut and the door came open. Remembering what had happened to the man before him, Cade slipped into the room quickly; he preferred not to be handled by other miscreants, particularly since he wasn’t entirely sure how the spell from his cloak worked.

Once inside, Cade made his way about the numerous gambling venues. The weaknesses of each host were glaringly obvious to him, so he chose his table carefully. Once he found the most proficient dealer, he worked his way smoothly into his seat.

“I bet you’re wondering why I didn’t go with the newbie. Hey, he told you I like the challenge. It’s your fault for not following the story closely.”

The Hengeyokai played a few rounds and watched some fights that the club hosted between giant chickens for some time, though the fights pained him more than he would admit. Being an animal himself, it grieved him to see others suffer at the hand of pitiful humans. But he would deal with that soon enough.

He let a plan for where he could go next brew subtly between hands. Just when the perpetuity of all of his running began weighing on his mind, he felt the orb begin to pulsate in his pouch as it had before with the strange man in the market. He looked up to see what the orb could be reacting to when he noticed a couple walking into the building together. He couldn’t explain it, but he knew that they were his ticket to freedom. This mark that the man lost, had to be present with them as well.

When the man approached the barkeep, Cade smiled and made his way over to ‘introduce himself’.

Ephraim: The Afflicted Tome ®

The chirps of the indigenous birds of the rainforest hang on the air as Ephraim and Roald make their way down the beaten path. The humid air causes their silken robes to cling to their moistened bodies. With each step that draws them closer to their destination, they feel the threats of the jungle’s wildlife and harsh environments diminishing. The trek has been long and hard, but they will soon be rewarded by reaching their the city they set out for.

Ephraim’s agitation begins to show through as exhaustion from the trip takes its toll on his emotions. “I find it hard to believe that this is the only scribe that could put a tome together for us.”

“The only one? Certainly not.” Roald answers as he casts a smirk over his shoulder. “If you want a tome that will subsist during the journeys you and I will be taking, you must be willing to traverse wherever necessary to find the best at their craft. We are drawing near now anyway, so keep up and stop your grumbling.”

“I’ll stop my grumbling when I can get a bite to eat and stop walking.” Ephraim replies under his breath. When Roald glances back over his shoulder with a look of indignation, the student quickly looks into the forest to avert his gaze. I’ve gotta learn when to keep my mouth shut, he thinks.

As the splendorous city of Queloria peaks over the hill, Ephraim’s contention is all but washed away, setting a look of awe on his tired face. The beautiful city with white walls and towers sits back in an alcove in the light gray mountain behind it. A beautiful blue waterfall cascades behind the castle at the back of the province. Dark blue accents dot the serene whites of the city’s buildings, giving the city a beautiful contrast in design.

Ephraim takes a deep breath. Aromas of a floral spring fill the air making the city’s aura all the more pleasant. The combination of being nestled into a mountain and the grand waterfall backdrop combats the calefaction of the jungle air around the magnificent city, bringing it to a temperate climate. Everything about the environment calms their nerves and refreshes their spirits.

Roald turns around to face his apprentice as they approach the city’s ivory gate with beautiful designs that reveals the excellent craftsmanship of its makers. “You appear to be in a better mood already. Stay here for a moment, and I’ll talk to the guards. Perhaps they will grant us entry without taxation I can help them understand the urgency of our quest.” As the teacher makes his way to a guard standing by the doors, Ephraim continues to take in the splendor of the scenery. A movement in his peripheral vision catches his attention. He’s able to make out that it is a dirty child holding an empty drinking pouch and it seems to be approaching him. With a quick turn of his body he is able to ignore the oncoming inconvenience and put some distance between them.

I should help her. Ephraim feels a pull to turn around and comfort the child, and pulls his Topaz from his pouch. He runs his finger across its cool, smooth surface as he examines a small crack on it while keeping his walking pace. I can’t use up my Topaz though. I am definitely going to need it to make myself some drinking water soon. She’s right outside one of the grandest cities in Elqanah. Surely someone will see her and help her. He peers into the reflection on the gem to see that she has diverted her attention to someone else that is giving her the same consideration as he is. An approaching figure startles him, causing his abrupt stop that narrowly keeps him from plowing into it. His teacher, who is returning from talking to the guards, stands before him. The student’s heart sinks as he sees Roald’s angered expression.

“Wow. You scared me.” Ephraim chuckles. The teacher’s unrelenting gaze gives him further discomfort. “So are they going to let us in?” He attempts to make casual conversation to deter the inevitable scolding he feels is approaching. He winces as Roald tears the Topaz from his grasp and walks over to the little girl. The teacher bends over and uses the last of the gem’s essence to fill the little girl’s drinking pouch. The jumping and laughing she exhibits in elation that should be a heart-warming sight is like daggers in Ephraim’s heart as he watches her thank his teacher for an act he knows he should have committed. After exchanging a hug with the girl, Roald hands her a nice-sized pouch with gold coins and rubs his hand on her shoulder. He begins walking back to Ephraim as she runs back out to a little hut outside the city walls.

“How are we going to make water for ourselves without Topaz or gold to buy more?” Ephraim asks sheepishly in a poor attempt to mask his embarrassment.

Roald’s scowl slowly fades away as he pauses for a moment. He takes a deep breath and habitually rubs his hand over his beard to smooth out the area around his mouth. Ephraim reads this telltale sign of his teacher’s attempt to calm himself and gathers a little relief. “You don’t understand this now, but you will soon, Ephraim. Just have faith and when you read the tome we are here to get, it will all begin to make sense.” Ephraim looks away in discomfort as Roald begins walking toward the now-opening gate.

“I wanted to help her, you know. I just don’t see how much help one pouch of water is.” The pupil’s words cause Roald to pause and look back at him. The instructor turns back puts his hand on Ephraim’s shoulder.

“Everyone wants to help, Ephraim. Intentions are good, but you have to be driven to action. It’s only through compassionate action that poverty is slain; one small act at a time.” As Roald turns back and begins walking into the city, Ephraim oddly begins to feel challenged and empowered. Where he recently felt shame, he now feels compelled and eager. He feels his shocked expression shift to a determined grin as he follows his leader into Queloria’s gates.

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The pair make their way through the hustle and bustle of the crowds in Queloria to The Redeemed Scribe. The tranquil sound of the rushing waterfall at the back of the city lends itself to the serenity of the city as merchants and townsfolk converse in a scene that would be a little chaotic in any other township. Mist that sparsely hangs high casts a glorious rainbow over the pristine walls, but doesn’t prevent the sun from giving light to the kingdom. Ephraim glances over as he notices a blue gleam in his peripheral vision, but quickly looks away as he notices it is on the ring of a stern-faced guard. He is quickly reminded of his lessons about the aristocratic Mayim Nation. The wearing of the gems by their Gemkith in their rings is symbolic of the role the nation plays in the grand scheme of the world. Rings signify a ruling position, and the Mayim consider themselves nothing less than worthy of that classification. Ephraim focuses his attention back to his path as the pair walk under an azure canopy set against the white walls of the scribe’s shop and walk through the door.

An aromatic wave of ink and wood floods their noses. Ephraim takes a moment to pause and admire the craftsmanship of the room. The white walls, floor, and ceiling are fashioned so seamlessly that it appears as if the room was naturally formed from the building itself. The walls are lined with ornate walnut bookshelves filled with books of all shapes and sizes. Large, arched windows at the back of the shop give light to the laborer who is milling away at meticulously binding books. The beauty of the room soon tarnishes as Ephraim meets the shopkeeper’s grim gaze from across the counter. He is a tall, dark-headed man wearing a fine silken robe. His work in the press has earned him a few black ink stains on the red and gold material as well as on his cheeks.

“It’s about time you got here, Roald.” He scorns. “You know I’m not supposed to be making these books for you, and I received your request six months ago. If King Zolia were to find out…”

“I know, Saul, and I thank you.” Roald interrupts, “This is the soonest we could journey here, I swear it. What can I pay you for your labor?”

“Just… consider us even for that time you saved me in the jungle.” The shopkeep says as he sets the two tomes up on the counter.

Roald grasps Saul’s shoulder with a grin and says, “Thank you, brother. Our friendship is valuable to me beyond words.” He turns and hands one of the books to Ephraim. The apprentice leans into catching the book as he expects the weight of the deceptively large object to drag his arms to the floor. Roald fights back a grin as his student regains his composure. He runs his fingers over it as he studies the amazing workmanship of the leather cover and the facets embedded into it. The art depicts an armored angel spreading its wings over the city of Queloria.

With a look of puzzlement, Ephraim turns his attention to the book’s maker and asks, “So what is so dangerous about this book?”

Saul looks at Roald with mild disbelief. “You didn’t tell him what’s in the book?”

“I thought it best to keep a little ambiguity until we made it out of Queloria. The less he knows of it in these walls, the better.” Roald exchanges nods with the scribe and turns to Ephraim. “Come. We risk our ally’s lives by staying here any longer than need be. We will make our way to the lapidary to get these gems fitted for the facets in these tomes.” He turns back to Saul to issue one more statement as they step out of the door. “Farewell, and may the next time we meet be under better circumstances.”

“Take care, Roald. I pray your path is made safe for you by the One who watches over us.”

As the pair walk out of the room, the shop’s workman in the back wipes beads of sweat from his brow and watches with a look of desperation and malice in his eyes.

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The next morning, Ephraim steps out of the Rosehall Inn at the town’s center. Rushing waters from the backdrop of the city enhance the repose of the dewy morning in Queloria as the lingering mist shifts about through the streets. He assumes that the bustle of the townspeople reserves itself to the afternoon, leaving the morning even more tranquil and pleasant. The sounds of the waterfall and the revisited floral fragrance add to the peacefulness of the scene. He can’t help but find himself wondering how a king of such a peaceful and beautiful kingdom could entertain the idea of punishing someone over a book.

After a few moments, Roald steps out of the inn and hands his pupil’s tome to him. He thought it better to keep it himself for the night in case someone were to catch wind of the book’s creation in the city and the guards were to search the inn that night. The teacher certainly didn’t want to risk his apprentice’s life, but he also didn’t want him reading it without first being told the importance of what its pages contained.

Ephraim is compelled by the book’s exquisite craftsmanship to run his hand over the cover once again as he collects his thoughts for the morning. His mind drifts as the art on the book draws his loose focus. The grooves in the design naturally draw his fingers from one side to the other. As his appendages reach the edge, he has to remember his promise to his teacher and fight the urge to crack it open and read its contents. Roald finishes lacing his boots and notices his student’s fanciful state. He draws Ephraim’s attention back into reality by saying, “Right then. Are you ready to go?”

Ephraim lingers in his trance momentarily and lightly shakes his head with a smirk as he tries to imagine a reason for such a fuss over a collection of words. “Yeah. Let’s get going.” As the two begin making their way down the city’s stone walkway, the pupil’s fleeting resolve loses out to his curiousness. “You are going to tell me why it’s so dangerous to have this book, right?”

“I promise to tell you the moment this city’s walls disappear behind the hill, but right now we need to focus on making it that far.” Roald pauses for a moment as he hears a crowd jeering and chanting. The pair follow the sound, and as they round a corner and emerge from an alley way, they see why the streets are empty this morning. A crowd of people have gathered in a corner of the city that has obviously not been kept as well as the merchant’s square where they have been. The dusty streets lead to a platform where a man in an executioner’s hood bearing a giant axe is standing. The crowd standing around the platform is restless and calling for blood. A town guard leads a man with a hood over his face onto the platform and next to the executioner’s block. The mage feels his heart sink as the soldier jerks the black veil off to reveal the face of doomed man.

“Saul the Scribe, you have been charged with printing religious propaganda that has been outlawed by the state of Queloria.” The guard declares. “The penalty for said crime is death by beheading and is sentenced to be carried out immediately by order of King Zolia. How do you wish to plea?”

Saul looks over his shoulder at the soldier with an icy glare. “Does it matter?”

“The criminal wishes to not give a plea, what do the good people of Queloria say?”

“Kill him! Kill him!” The crowd begins to chant. Roald’s rage builds flushing his face as the watchman allows the humiliation to ensue momentarily.

Ephraim turns to him to ask, “What should we do?” But his query doesn’t penetrate Roald’s fixation on the scene unfolding before them. The guard raises his hand to calm the crowd so they can hear him speak.

“The people have spoken! Do you have any last words, criminal?”

Saul’s skims the crowd. He ponders on how the city that he had so loved, and had so loved him, could so quickly be calling for his life. A rogue tear streaks through the dirt on his cheek as he tries to find the words to express what his heart feels though his resolve does not break. His eyes meet Roald’s. He reads the anger in them as Roald reads the call for hesitation in Saul’s eyes.

“If there is one among you that has sympathy for me, I tell you not to grieve. Do not make it known if you do have sympathy for me, for you would do so at the exchange of your life.” Ephraim glances at Roald as he begins to understand that Saul is speaking to them. His teacher’s expression is gradually softening from hard anger to disconcerted sorrow for the inevitable loss of his friend. “You have many important things ahead of you in your life. Do not risk them for one that is doomed. Go be the change the world needs. I go now to meet my Creator; the merciful Savior of manki…” The guard punches him, ending his proclamation.

“You won’t spew your religious nonsense from my stage, filth.” He shoves Saul to his knees. Roald spins Ephraim around and they begin making their way toward the city gate in an attempt to prevent himself from acting out. His fingers begin to clutch his tome tightly as his anger continues to rise. The feeling of helplessness and sorrow sends a cold shudder down his spine as their pace hastens. He can’t escape the vicinity soon enough to prevent hearing the cheers calling from behind him that affirm his fears. His friend is dead. A torrent of emotions flows through him as they round the last corner, placing the town gate just ahead of them.

“Come on, Ephraim. We have to get out of the gates before the people of the town lose interest in what’s going on back there. They will undoubtedly begin searching everyone to find the books he made.” Roald says. Ephraim looks at his teacher sympathetically as he follows his command. “I have a good rapport with the guard here, so let me talk to them, and maybe they will let us through without checking us.”

Ephraim waits as Roald makes his way over and begins speaking with one of the guards at the left side of the gate. As he notices a guard from the right side of the gate giving him an unnerving glare, he begins to slightly shift uncomfortably in place. A cold bead of sweat accumulates on his brow as he feels the guards eyes make their way to his tome. He quickly slides the book into the arm opposite of the guard which only further raises the sentry’s suspicion. Ephraim knows he is about to be found out. To his fortune, the gate begins to slide open as Roald approaches him. The keen teacher notices the alert guard and casually turns from moving toward Ephraim to leading him through the aperture to hasten their exit.

“Hey! You!” The guard shouts from behind them. “Let me see that book!” As the pair pick up their pace, the guard becomes certain he has found who they are looking for. “It’s them! Quick, shut the gates!”

“Run!” Roald shouts as the pair barely clear the opening to the closing gates. Ephraim breathes a sigh of relief as they emerge on the other side of the city walls and the doors slam shut behind them. The moment is short-lived as he sees the impending handful of guards that keep watch from outside the city. Roald turns back to his pupil to say, “Ok. The Mayim Empire is known for using water-elemental gems, so you know what to counter with, right?”

Ephraim issues an eager nod with a determined grin as his eyes begin to shine green. A glowing mist of the same color begins to trail from the Peridot on the face of his tome as he throws his empty hand overhead. The ground beneath them quakes as a nearby boulder separates from it and barely blocks an incoming razor-sharp, liquid wave. Like controlling a marionette, the mage swings his arm around and sends the boulder smashing some of the guards and pins them against the city wall. The white barrier cracks behind them from the pressure of the attack. As he focuses on controlling the boulder, he begins to feel the air condensate around him. He turns to see two remaining guards with sapphire-colored glowing eyes; one creating a liquid bubble around his head and the other preparing to unleash another slicing attack. The back of his throat collects moisture as he takes one more deep breath before his head is completely encased in a fluid sphere. Unable to keep his concentration, he drops the boulder and covers his mouth and nose. Desperation sets in as he realizes he can’t gather the focus needed to block the attack from the second remaining guard. His vision begins to darken and he feels his consciousness beginning to fade as he tries to keep his footing.

Roald turns back from taking down a few guards to see his struggling pupil. His rage that is still burning at the loss of Saul is fueled beyond control at the sight. His eyes begin to shine with all of the colors represented on his tome simultaneously, causing them to take on a malicious purple hue. A trail of mist of the same shade follows his book as he begins his assault. In fluid motion he causes the two guards to turn their attacks on each other. He turns and ignites two men that are recuperating from being slammed into the wall by a boulder. With a spin of his body he sends the boulder that Ephraim used crashing into the four poor charred and bleeding people he has just overcome. As his relentless onslaught presses on, the guards inside the city have gotten the gate back open and are beginning to advance on them. Roald’s darkened gaze petrifies them with fear as he sends a mountain of earth rising in front of the gate to trap them behind it.

Ephraim coughs and gasps for air as he begins to regain his focus. The realization that Roald is getting dangerously close to becoming drunk with power exhorts him to call to his mentor, “Roald! We’ve won! Let’s get out of here!”

Roald’s eyes quickly lose their shine as he regains his composure. A glimmer of shame skims his eyes as he pauses momentarily. He doesn’t let the moment linger, knowing that the people of Queloria wouldn’t remain behind his wall for long. As Ephraim runs past him, he quickly falls in line behind his student as they vanish back into the jungle overgrowth.

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As Ephraim emerges from the jungle with his teacher, and he finally feels that they are safe from the Quelorian guard, he looks down the road ahead. The seeming unend and mystery of what lies beyond the mist connecting the forest on both sides of them a metaphor for his destiny. After travelling a short distance, his anticipation overcomes the flurry of other emotions their time in the city gave him, causing him to finally swallow the lump in his throat and ask the question that had been circling his thoughts since he first touched his tome: “Why are they killing people for this book?”

The discerningly somber look in Roald’s eyes makes Ephraim’s soul cry. The student offers a wry smile in solace to his teacher’s misery. Roald responds, “Do you remember the lesson you were taught about the turning of the eras, and the Hero of Elqanah?” Roald finally asks.

Ephraim is hesitant to offer his answer. “I do. Of course I do. But why don’t you tell me what you know so I can make sure you’re right,” he says jokingly. The wisecrack does little to lighten the mood. Roald stops and throws his head back with his eyes closed in disappointment. He takes a deep breath as he runs his hand over his mouth again, smoothing out the short hair of his beard. He looks over his shoulder for a moment to assure they are alone and glances around for a spot for them to sit. He gives a slight head gesture towards a small alcove off of the path with a few logs laying about. As Ephraim passes by the tree line, he notices a green mist trailing from Roald’s tome. The creaking of tree trunks causes him to look back and see that the trees have bent in and are blocking the clearing from the sight of the road. Roald takes a seat on a log and pats the spot next to him as he looks at Ephraim.

“Have a seat, Ephraim.” A hurricane of thoughts blows through the pupil’s head as he follows Roald’s command. “How much do you really know?”

“Uh,”

“Honestly.”

Ephraim lowers his head. “Not much.”

“Okay. I’ll start from the beginning: when Elohim created Elqanah, He made two humans to live on it. They lived peaceably for many years amongst the wildlife and vegetation. One day, a dragon that was jealous of the relationship the humans had with Elohim convinced the humans that they should use their magic to create a being of their own so they could be like their Creator. So the couple worked their magic together to create a creature unlike anything that had been created before. They made the creature and named it Maveth.”

Ephraim’s jaw dropped open. He remembered the beast Maveth from several stories. It roamed the world killing mercilessly and leaving many dead in its wake. It was said that no person every died of natural causes in those days. That Maveth eventually found you and ended your time when he was ready. He was an indestructible, unwavering force of destruction.

“I see you remember that name,” Roald lightheartedly jested. “I would hope you didn’t forget him. The humans went into hiding and the races of the world grew out of their children. During Maveth’s time on Elqanah, many prophets gave hope to its inhabitants by foretelling of a Hero that would come and destroy the creature. After centuries of the races of Elqanah surviving the beast’s grasp, the Hero came. He lived His life teaching people of the ways of Elohim until His time to meet Maveth came.”

Ephraim’s happiness bubbled out as he said, “And He killed Maveth?”

“No. Maveth killed Him.”

Roald’s abrupt delivery of the unexpected turn of events shocked his pupil, causing him to suddenly lean back. Ephraim turned the thoughts over in his mind momentarily before asking what anyone likely would in that situation: “what happened to Maveth?”

“That’s where it gets beautiful, Ephraim. Everyone expected an epic battle between the Savior of Elqanah and death incarnate, but He didn’t fight him. In fact He accepted His death willingly in spite of being the Chosen Savior. Many people battled the beast before Him, but he could never be bested. It was the necessary sacrifice for the Savior to be raised from death by Elohim to conquer Maveth once and for all. His death saved us all from Maveth’s tyranny over the races of Elqanah.”

Ephraim’s face lit up as he began to feel a little overwhelmed with joy. Then he began to wonder, though, as his thoughts drifted back to the events in Queloria and the book in his hands. “But what does that have to do with them killing the scribe back there?”

“The book in your hand has been attacked since it was written. Men have tried for years to wipe it from the face of Elqanah. It is a combination of the scrolls written by the prophets that tell how people of the time should live, the history of Elqanah, the prophecies of the coming Savior, and eye witnesses that walked with the Savior during His time here. It helps us understand the nature of Elohim, the Creator, and how we can grow closer to Him.”

“But why would someone want to destroy that?”

“You’ll understand more when you get the time to read and study it, but generally men don’t want to be told how to behave and act. The dragon that was present with the first humans still imposes his malicious intent amongst men, and tries to destroy the book as well. It is only under Elohim’s guidance that this tome has survived through centuries of attempted destruction to be in our hands today.”

Ephraim has a hard time processing it all. He rubs his fingers and thumb back and forth across his forehead to alleviate the swirling sensation inside of it as he tries to take it all in. “Why would that matter though? Don’t people still want to know what happened?”

“Well, with the passing of time, and the spreading of lies by the dragon, some people have come to believe that the history of the Savior is a myth. Nothing more than a legend told to the youth and weak of the world to give them a false hope.”

“But what do they think happened to Maveth? He isn’t around killing people anymore.”

“They tie him with the records of the Savior and question his existence too.” Ephraim leans back with his hands on the log behind him for a moment and contemplates what he is being told. Roald reads the look on his face and stands up before the student can question further. “As I said, you’ll understand better when you have ample time to read and study it. For now, we need to separate ourselves from Queloria and make our way to our next destination.”

“Which is where?”

Roald looks back as the trees begin to unfold ahead of him and smiles with a shake of his head. “That, my student, will be revealed to you in time.”

Tanna: A Date with Opportunity ®

The leaves of the forest foliage rustle as the couple runs down the worn path. The hot summer sun has made this trek a particularly difficult one. Beinion smiles as he looks back to make sure he hadn’t lost his young, female elf partner in that last rough patch. Tanna slides down a small decline into view of her male guide. As the cloud of dirt settles around her feet, she pats the dust from the bottom of her sun dress.

“Are we going to get there soon?” She asks with a slight pant on her breath. “It feels like we’ve been walking all day? And what’s that noise? It sounds like rushing water.”

“That’s because it is.” Beinion says as he pulls back some over-sized jungle leaves to reveal a dazzling waterfall that pours into a pool just ahead of them. “Welcome to our destination, Tanna.” The green forest that surrounds the rock wall of the fall radiates behind the sparkling blue water. A few birds of contrasting colors fly across the face of the pond as the sun’s reflection shimmers across their bellies.

Tanna can hardly contain her elation at the beautiful site. Her widened smile revealing both shock and amazement. Under her breath, she utters the only words that can come to her mind, “how did you find this place?”

“I stumbled upon it one day when I was cataloging the effects of a spell I had cast on a rabbit. I followed its trail through the woods and came out into this gorgeous spring. I named it Melar Ehtelë. I only thought it fitting that this be the location of our next date.” He says with a cheery smile.

Tanna blushes as she translates the name. “Lover’s Spring.” She turns to hide her face from Beinion as she feels her cheeks warm.

“Come,” Beinion says as he grabs her hand and begins running toward the waterfall. “I want to show you my favorite spot.” As they make their way through the grassy area between the woods and the waterfall, a group of butterflies scatter before them. The lady elf can’t tell if her racing heart is from the physicality of the trip here, or her excitement of being in such a beautiful place. Although her company is a probable cause as well. The chirping of frogs and singing of birds adds to the serene ambiance.

As they approach the rushing falls, Beinion lifts an arm overhead and places the other in the small of Tanna’s back to keep her close. A transparent bubble forces the water around the two as the splendor of their location comes into view from the other side. Tanna gasps for breath with her hand over her mouth at the site. They walk into a small cavern with the waterfall flowing over the opening. The dark room is dimly lit by a few sporadic, glowing emeralds, that stand as tall as she, protruding out from the cool, stone floor. Beinion guides her to the edge of the cavern where they sit on a ledge just inside the reach of the falls. With a wave of his hand, an invisible orb parts the waters before them, and they are able to take in the full view of the magnificent spring from behind the tranquil falls.

After spending a few moments to take it all in, Tanna finally looks at Beinion. “Thank you for sharing this place with me. This is truly a wonderful place.” She looks back to her bare feet and places one under the rushing water to her side, letting it splash over the bottom of her dress. “I couldn’t think of a better person to come her with.” She says, with a playful smile.

Beinion returns the smile as he reaches over and takes her hand before looking back out over the water. The warm gesture sends joyful shivers throughout her body. “You know, I have spent a long time focusing on my studies. There has not been much else worth striving for in my life. Not that I wanted anything else. KemenGûl is more than enough to keep me interested with how I spend my time.” He pauses before turning to look at her. She resists, for a moment, to return the gaze. She can tell that he is giving her that look. The one that will make her heart jump in her chest. The temptation proves too strong, and she finds that she never truly wanted to resist anyway. Their eyes meet and all of her emotion dances with excitement. “But I think I’m beginning to reconsider my priorities,” he finishes.

Tanna’s sheepish smile is the only cover she can muster to hide her exhilaration. To think that a high elven scientist would settle down for an unknown girl like her. She wants to stand and scream at the top of her lungs, but holds back to preserve her lady-like posture. Suddenly she feels Beinion’s hand slip behind her head, and pull her gently toward him. Though their lips meet tenderly, their emotions explode with passion. The flutter of a thousand butterfly wings in her heart makes her feel as if she will lift off of the ground.

As their lips separate, Beinion turns over his partner’s hand, scoops up some dirt, and places it on her wrist. Her eyes widen as she begins to understand the importance of this moment. In the Elven Nations, when a male intends to wed a female, he will inscribe his family’s insignia on her. She had thought that she would be ready for this moment, but now, as it happens, she feels weak. He traces a glowing rune on her skin and blows away the dirt. The world around them seems to disappear as their eyes meet once more.

“I would be honored if you accepted my courtship, fair Tanna,” her lover says. Her eyes well up with tears as she tries to find the words to tell him. She wants to say so many things, but the glory of this moment overwhelms her thoughts and emotions. Unable to fight back the tears any longer, she lets out a gasp and all she can manage to force out is a hushed reply.

“Yes.” The couple’s bodies collide in a dramatic embrace. Tanna’s body feels so light that she begins to sincerely believe that their hug is the only thing anchoring her. So many thoughts flash into her mind in that instant. What will her family think? Where will they live? What will she wear to the wedding? The moment is over in a moment as Beinion pulls back for a second kiss.

As they once again separate, Beinion brushes away a streaming tear from his lover’s cheek. Tanna, thankful for the thoughtful action, almost wants to leave it there as a tangible reminder of her elated emotions. The couple’s focuses transfer to her wrist where the rune is glowing. As he slowly moves his hand over the rune, the reflection of the soft light from under his hand glances off of her soft skin. When the symbol is revealed from under his hand, it has become a permanent stamp. Her heart skips a beat as she hears his voice once more and looks up to meet his gaze. “I vow to always be by your side, my sweet fiancé.”

Fiancé?  She thinks. Never before had she been graced with a title. She likes the ring this one has to it. Brief toying thoughts with her future name and title are interrupted as Beinion begins to stand.

“We must go.” He says, brushing off his robe and startling his future bride. “As much as I wish this day to go on forever, we are in human territory, and they wouldn’t take kindly to our being here.” A wave of alarm washes away her sense of splendor. Human territory?! She thinks as she rushes to her feet.

“It’s too late for that.” A voice comes from behind them. Startled, they both turn to see a handful of human soldiers in Roman armor standing behind their captain. Beinion notices how proudly he wears the slightly more ornate armor that distinguishes him as their leader. “What a funny site to see through bubble in the falls as we march on our patrol.” He says mockingly over-shoulder to his troops. As he turns back, his stern gaze meets Beinion’s with animosity. “Two lost faerie-folk enjoying our waterfall.”

Seeing the desperation of their situation, Beinion puts his hands up to show surrender. “We were just passing through,” he explains. “Grant us passage, and you won’t see us here again.” The hearty chuckle of the captain deepens their fear.

“Let you go? Why would I do that? So you can go off and practice more of your pagan rituals? Or perhaps you’ll go back to your city and tell of this magnificent place so more of your elf-kin will plague our land.”

“I have known of this place for many years now,” Beinion says in an attempt to calm the irate officer, “and I have yet to reveal it to anyone. If you let us leave, that is the way it will remain.”

The captain’s smile melts into a scowl. He spits in Beinion’s face. “The only good elf is an elf in chains.” As her lover wipes the expectoration from his face, Tanna feels her face flush; her anger temporarily masking her fear. The usually timid young female is overcome by her emotions.

“He is a practitioner of KemenGûl for the High Elven Order!” She exclaims. “You would do well to treat such an important elf with more respect!”

“Oh he is, is he?” The captain turns a sly eye to Beinion. Tanna’s heart sinks as she realizes the dire consequences of the mistake she just made. She gasps faintly and clutches her hand over her mouth as she casts an apologetic gaze to Beinion. He keeps his graceful posture as his unrelenting glare remains on their tormentor. A slight crack in his resolve might give the captain just the opening he needs to place his blade in. “I think this one will fetch a high price on the slave market, men. Put him in chains.”

The soldiers part around their leader as they move to their target. An evil smirk lingers on his face as he watches the helpless elf clasped without event. Beinion’s hope is that by not resisting, the human’s focus will remain on him and Tanna will go free. His hopes get shattered by a questioning soldier.

“What should we do with this one?” A soldier motions toward Tanna. The human leader looks her up and down. She wears only a simple elven sundress and no ornate jewelry of significance.

“She doesn’t seem to be too important,” he says before smiling wryly, “but she is pretty. I see no reason to keep her. Do with her what you will.” His passing wave sets the soldiers into motion. The elves look at each other with wide eyes of horror at the atrocity of his statement. The soldiers turn in on her, all with glee in their eyes, as one steps to the front and turns to face them.

“She is my personal prisoner.” He demands. “Unless one of you dogs would like to challenge me.” His broad hand wrings the leather grip of his sheathed sword in anticipation. He is larger than the rest with better muscle definition. The look of angered defeat in the soldier’s eyes confirm that he is a better soldier too.

The captain pushes through the soldiers to the front to meet the man face-to-face. “Ananias, why are you always so combative with your kinsmen? You show far too much sympathy for these godless creatures.” Ananias does not back down as his commander’s face closes in, separating them by inches. The captain’s eyes shift back and forth between the soldier’s eyes as he studies his unrelenting gaze. “Fine. We take the girl without harm, but she doesn’t go alone with you.” He turns back to issue a command to the soldiers. “Bind her without harm and put her in a cage separate from the male.”

A soldier holds his shield under the falls to allow his superior to pass through. The captain stops just before leaving and looks back to give the insubordinate soldier one final insult. “Your father would be ashamed.” Ananias releases the hilt of his sword as the soldiers move around him to bind the girls arms and the leader disappears behind the waterfall. As he considers the captain’s last remark, a smirk shines briefly on his face. He knows the commander was wrong. It was under his father’s guidance that his morality was instilled. The teaching that having resolute morality alongside his fighting was what made him the best warrior among his peers, and quite possibly the best in the Human Kingdom.

As the Tanna passes by, she gives a sorrowful smile of gratitude to the soldier. He returns it with an almost apologetic one. The young girl knows, though, that if not for this kind warrior, she may not have lived to see tomorrow. She looks over to Beinion as she takes the first step into her cart. He is already seated in his mobile cage with his head hung low in shame. Feeling a watchful gaze on him, he looks up at her. His finger traces something onto his hand, and he blows across his palm as he finishes. As the gust of wind passes by her ear she hears his whisper.

“My dearest Tanna, I am so sorry. Please forgive my boldness in bringing you to such a dangerous place. I will see to it that you are released. I can only hope that you will be waiting when (or if) I am free once more.” She feels a tear streak down her face. Not possessing the magic prowess that her lover does, she offers a blown kiss as a condolence. A shadow of grief hangs over their shared smiles as the wagons begin to pull away. Beinion’s cage to the east, Tanna’s to the west.

Ephraim: The Temple’s Dark Secret ®

The unforgiving heat makes the windless day all the more unbearable for a pair of travelling mages. The haze of the heat coming from the hot sand makes their target on the horizon hard to recognize. Identifying the distance proves to be even more of a challenge. The men’s lavish robes sit beneath coarse tan cowls that provide little comfort for their heads from the sun’s unforgiving rays. Ephraim lifts his water pouch to his parched lips to get some relief. To no avail.

“Empty.” He sighs. As he begins digging in his gem pouch in search of a Topaz, he looks over to his teacher with exhaustion in his eyes. “Are we even gaining any ground? Every mile we travel towards the temple, it seems to travel two away from us.”

His teacher keeps a calm resolve in the unrelenting weather. “All the better. You need quizzing prior to entering the temple anyway. It is sure to be lined with challenging traps. Elsewise someone before us would have obtained the Owl Agate from the statue’s eyes long ago.” Ephraim drops his shoulders with a sigh.

“Quizzing… How do you expect one wizard and his apprentice to get the stones if so many people have tried before us and failed?” He holds his topaz over his water pouch and his eyes begin to glow a light blue. As a light of the same color shines from inside of his hand, water pours out of it into the empty pouch.

“We’ll worry about that if we get there.”  Roald adjusts the strap of his gem pouch. “Now, if you were to be attacked, by say bandits, what gem would you use for defense in this unforgiving desert? Concurrently, what would you use for offense? You favored Peridot when you were retrieving the Moonstone at the cave, but numerous granules of sand will prove too great of a challenge for an amateur Gemkith such as yourself to control. (From Ephraim: A Test of Aptitude) So I’m afraid the gold you spent on that Peridot when we stopped in Limone will have turn into a long term investment.” As the student finishes drinking the water in his pouch, he ties it back to his belt, reaches into his gem pouch, and pulls out the rest of his jewels with his Topaz.

“Well, I haven’t used my Aquamarine yet.”

“Ah.” The teacher raises his finger. “The arid desert air won’t provide enough humidity to use the water in the atmosphere, and you don’t want to use any of your Topaz’s essence to create water or we won’t have enough drinking water to make it home.” Ephraim sighs and drops his Topaz, Aquamarine, and Peridot back into his pouch, then opens his hand to investigate the remaining gems.

“Okay, well.” He takes a moment to study the minerals. “You want me to stick to elemental gems before moving on to the harder ones, so maybe my Citrine?”

“While there is a surplus of wind for you to control with your Citrine, the winds out here can already be fierce. Most bandits are geared with armor to withstand high winds, particularly if they spend any amount of time in this region, and most beasts that survive out here were created to endure them as well.” The apprentice begins to show a little aggravation as he drops the yellow stone into his pouch.

“All that leaves is my Garnet, but I don’t have any Ruby to create fire.”

“You’ll have to be creative. Fire is in any spark, and it will be easy to ignite in this dry air.” Roald pauses and runs his index finger and thumb down both sides of his jawline as he thinks. The black, and occasionally grey, hairs in his finely-trimmed beard bristle against his fingers. “I’m going to break one of my rules though in favor of a lesson. While fire is among the best offenses, it makes for poor defense. You may use your Amethyst for defense for this test. Normally I would have you use a different gem in this test than you used in the last one, but Amethyst has a plethora of ways it can be used.” Ephraim’s eyes light up as he looks back at the magnificent purple gem. He quickly drops the rest of the stones into his pouch and holds his Garnet in one hand and his Amethyst in the other. His memory drifts back to how he was able to project an image of himself to deceive the imps and dodge some attacks. “Last time you projected images of yourself, so you may not do that this time.” Roald’s statement deflates excitement, as his statements have a tendency to do. “Since Amethyst has so many capabilities though, you’ll need to make your focus shielding at this time.”

“What all can it do?”

“Another time.”

“How do I choose what I do with the power? All I have done until now is control the element that the stone’s…” Ephraim’s words trail off as he begins to feel the ground shake. “Wha.. what’s that?” He looks over to see a look of knowing determination on his trainer’s face as he surveys his surroundings. The sand beneath their feet begins to sink into a forming hole nearby, causing the men to fall back. With just a short distance left to reach the temple, he contemplates making a run for the entrance, but after the realization that he won’t reach the building in time, Ephraim fixes his gaze on the hole forming in the sand. Suddenly a tower of putrid pink flesh emerges from the void in the silt and leans in their direction. As the grains sift from the top of the creature, the tip opens into three flaps that are lined with teeth.

“Braaaaaww!” It screams.

“Sand worm!” Ephraim yells. He looks over for a glimpse of hope from his trainer only to find the vacant seat in the sand he once occupied. “Are you kidding me? We get attacked by a monster and you leave me?”

“The teacher is always quiet during the test.” The invisible mage states. “This is an excellent learning opportunity for you. Just focus on our conversation and show this thing what you are made of.”

Excellent learning opportunity. Ephraim thinks. The young student looks back as the colossal beast begins to lunge at him. Sand flies from his arm as he quickly raises it across the top of his head as if to block the blow. A purple light begins to glow from his eyes as a translucent bubble forms in front of him just before the worm collides with it. The monster lets out another boisterous scream and begins snapping feverishly at the translucent dome. Panic begins to set into Ephraim’s face as he begins looking around for a comburent. The creature biting down on his shield is only worsening the feeling. He uses his free arm to quickly wipe the sweat from his brow that has been stinging his eyes as it pours into them. As the beast’s teeth clash against the purple guard, something catches the mage’s eye.

He is able to calm for a moment to think to himself. The clanging of the worm’s teeth and its irritated growls quieten as Ephraim is granted a moment of artificial peace while he concentrates on his thoughts. When his plan is set, his expression transitions from grimace to excited-determination. The glow of his eyes gains a red tint in the preexisting purple rays. His shield begins buckling under the invertebrate’s blows as Ephraim times his attack. Going to have to do this. The worm regroups for a massive strike.

“Your shield won’t take another hit, Ephraim. Find your fuel and attack now!” A voice shouts from beyond vision. The pupil throws his blocking arm from in front of his face, launching the bubble into the behemoth’s mouth. It bites down causing the shield to shatter into pieces. The glow from Ephraim’s eyes turns crimson red as he jumps to his feet and raises his other arm over his head, a red misty light in tow. A flame ignites in the sand worm’s mouth, and as its creator throws his fist to the ground, causing the blaze to travel down into its stomach. He remains silent and focused as the creature writhes and screams in pain, sweat glistening his body and his face contorted in determined rage. After a moment the fire explodes from within the monster. Flames spurt from its mouth as it falls to the ground and lays lifeless. After a short moment the body begins to slink slowly into the hole from whence it came, and the instructor fades into visibility between the beast and its conqueror.

“Great job, Ephraim.” Roald says, fighting back a proud smile. The teacher has long held the belief that keeping a solemn demeanor instills faith in his actions to his students and teaches them that cool, logically thinking in the heat of battle leads to more favorable outcomes. The belief stemming from a lesson that remains firmly in his memory. His teacher from Gemkith college let his emotions dictate his actions in battle, and in a fit of rage gave his advantage away to the enemy. It was a mortal mistake for the teacher. For Roald it is a lesson forever etched in a small scar above his brow, keeping it at the forefront of his thoughts. It is a mistake he does not plan to make with his teachings.

As he approaches his pupil a mighty wind picks up. All of their exposed skin begins to sting as the sand pelts them. They throw the loose material of their cowls in front of their faces to soften the burn of the bombarding granules. “Quickly! The temple is just ahead!” The teacher’s voice is muffled by the sound of the sandstorm, but Ephraim follows the instructor’s movements to the nearby safe haven. The sand has piled up from the frequent sandstorms of the desert to make the once profound staircase into a handful of steps. They quickly ascend the stairs and teacher and student push on the giant, stone doors but the wind and loose sand on the floor make it impossible to gather their footing. “Stand back!” Roald yells as he grabs a Peridot from his pouch. A green light emanates through the thin material of the cowl and another matching light trails his hand as he throws his arms out, commanding the doors to swing open. The teacher’s years of practice in gem magic make the tons of earthen rock slide as if they were pebbles. Ephraim’s amazement at his teacher’s prowess is quickly suppressed as the two run inside. Roald immediately turns inside the temple with a swing of his arm and slams the doors back shut. They pant for a moment, their short breaths stinging their lungs with grains of sand and hot, dry desert air. They look at each other as the sand in their lungs constricts their breathing. Almost simultaneously they realize that they have stepped out of the frying pan and into the fire by entering the temple. Slowly, they turn around expecting to find rooms and hallways filled with traps, but to their surprise they stand in one giant room. The room is a large rectangle that is lined with pillars. The architecture is as simplistic as the floor that is composed of large, square blocks of sandstone. In a corner of the room a mirror reflects a light from a hole high in the wall that gleams off of two gems that sit as an owl statue’s eyes across the room.

“Huh,” Ephraim huffs as he stands, stilling catching his breath, “it’s that easy? How could no one else, have made it here? All we have to do, is walk across the room, and grab the gems.”

Roald takes a deep breath through his nostrils trying to quickly regain his composure. “It pays to always be on your guard, Ephraim.” The instructor stands and brushes off his robe. “Things are not always as they seem.” As the teacher and student make their way across the room they notice piles of bones sitting atop the stone floor. Ephraim begins to become uneasy as he thinks of the sight. He looks to Roald to see if the view is as unsettling to him, but as always the teacher keeps a steel resolve.

“What do you think happened to them?” The apprentice’s question is hollow. He knows they were the ones who had tried before them and failed, but he asks the question with a false hope that his teacher will comfort his fear. Roald reads this in his tone.

“Ephraim, it is better to look at the situation accurately than in a false light with false hope. Painting an ugly picture with beautiful colors still creates an ugly product. If I didn’t think we could overcome this challenge I wouldn’t have brought you here. Sometimes you just have to call on your Faith for comfort.” While not the ease in spirit he was looking for, the words do queerly calm his nerves. He is able to, tentatively, square his shoulders and walk with more confidence.

As the two approach the statue the teacher’s firm beliefs slip, and he begins to show slight signs of discomfort. Ephraim notices his change in body language, closes his eyes, and hones in on his Gemkith senses to see what is causing Roald’s change in composure. A strange pulsing sensation washes over his body dizzying his balance slightly. Back and forth, back and forth almost drawing him in with each pulse toward the statue. He concentrates deeper. The pulse is coming from one of the gems in the statue. Immediately after he opens his eyes, the gems in the statue’s eyes begin to glow. Almost as if the statue was sentient and knew what the Gemkith was doing. Strangely both eyes aren’t glowing with a gray tone as he thought they would. One is a deep black that is emitting unnaturally dark rays of light. Roald turns to his pupil with a look of grimace. His typically strong and certain voice carries a tone of distress. “Ephraim, that is Black Topaz. Its essence carries the repulsive power of necromancy. I’m sorry that I brought you here.” As the instructor finishes his sentence, Ephraim’s stomach turns in knots. All of the bones in the room lift from the floor as if a puppeteer pulled their strings. The bones all lock together with unnerving knocking and crunching, furthering the unsettled feeling in the student’s stomach. There is a brief silence. After a brief moment it is abruptly ended when the shifting sound of the skeleton’s sliding feet fills the room as they all turn toward them. The holes of their skulls are suddenly and simultaneously ignited with light blue flames. They all bend down to pick up weaponry before standing. Deafening screams come from the animated bones and fill the room as they all begin to advance toward the two Gemkith. Ephraim covers his ears and his face gives a distressed look as the steeled composure returns to his teacher. Roald has resigned himself to his fate.

“Get behind me!” Roald yells. Ephraim scrambles to pull jewels from his pouch as he follows the command. The teacher’s eyes glow green lighting the look of solemn determination on his face as he lifts his hands to bring two stone slabs from the floor into the air by a skeleton. The large rocks slam together as the gem-master claps his hands. He separates them and places the flooring back in place as the heap of bone shards fall into a pile on the floor. In moments the shards reform to make two whole skeletons again. “That’s what I feared. We can’t physically kill something that is already dead. All we can do is fight to hold them back as we formulate a strategy.” Before he can finish his statement, a skeleton has reached them and swings an axe at Ephraim, but the attack freezes mid-swing. He looks over to see Roald’s eyes emanating a light blue light. As the grand mage raises his hand, the skeleton is lifted off of the ground. With a sweep of his arm, Roald slams the monster into its neighbor causing them both to explode into pieces.

The noise snaps Ephraim out of his trance. He quickly looks at the stones in his hand. Amethyst and Garnet. Manifestation and fire control. A sudden scream from behind him breaks his concentration. He turns around to see another skeleton about to strike him, but its skull gets crushed between two rocks. “Ephraim, focus!” Roald shouts. “Use this to get started.” The two rocks rub against each other and cause a spark. Ephraim seizes the opportunity by igniting a fire from the flash using his Garnet. As the flame floats by his face, it lights his look of hesitant confidence. In one motion he turns and swings his arm causing a giant flame to crash into a wave of skeletons. The clacking of bones knocking together accompanied by the whoosh of the flame fills the room as skeletons are pushed back into each other. He continues to move his arms to keep control of the blazing flame. One by one the skeletons are blasted by the flare.

“Do we have a plan yet?” The student yells.

“Hardly, but I am open to ideas.”

“It’s hard to focus while we are doing all of this fighting.” Suddenly Ephraim remembers the gem in his other hand. He lets the fireball dissipate as he uses the Amethyst to form a bubble around them that quickly becomes surrounded by skeletons pounding on it with weapons.

“Great thinking, Ephraim, but I’m afraid we are delaying a sure fate. There hasn’t been an instructor that has lived to tell how to defeat such a wealth of undead.” The student shakes his head in despair as he feels the knot returning to his stomach. In a last hope he pulls some gems from his pouch to look at every last option. He glances over every precious stone.

Citrine, wind control, nope; Garnet, fire control, nope; Pink Tourmaline, powers of the mind, nope. Just as he begins to lose all hope, he fixates on one particular jewel. “Diamond!” He shouts. “What if we tried to use the pure healing qualities of the diamond to counter the impure dark qualities of the necromancy?” Roald’s issues a well-earned look of pride in his pupil.

“Now you are thinking, Ephraim.” Several skeletons pound on the waning shield as the apprentice opens his hand toward his teacher, offering the diamond to him. Roald closes his student’s hand back around the gems. “You can do this. This is your lesson, even if it fails to our doom. Now, you have to focus much harder on a quality gem like this than you do with elemental ones, but I have faith in you.” The instructor takes the Amethyst from Ephraim’s other hand, and the shield glows a little brighter as his stronger power over the gem’s essence takes over. Ephraim’s body tingles with a mixture of excitement, pride… and fear. He drops the rest of the gems back into his pouch as his eyes turn white and glow. He looks up at a skeleton that is about to swing a hammer at the bubble with ferocity and throws a punch at it. It shatters to pieces and the shards emit a white light as they disintegrate. Roald looks over his shoulder at his student, his shoulder hiding his smile.

Suddenly a roar bellows from the stone owl. The ground around it crumbles as a body stands from beneath the floor. The owl head sits atop a well-toned, male, human body that towers almost as tall as the 100′ room. It raises its arm to pound its enemies. “Ephraim, you only get one chance at this! Make it count!” A hole forms above Ephraim and Roald’s eyes get a blue tint as he uses his Apatite’s telekinetic powers to launch Ephraim into the air. The statue’s giant fist smashes the shield which causes it to stumble back momentarily. As the teacher holds Ephraim in the air, completely exposed to attacks, the apprentice closes his eyes and clenches the diamond at his chest. The world feels like it slows down around him and the noise of the room turns to a whisper. He focuses, deeply. His veins begin to feel as if a hurricane is flowing through them. A light begins shining through where his eyelids meet. Finally he opens them and an immensely-bright, white light radiates from his eyes. When he speaks it sounds as if he and the feminine essence of the crystal speak as one.

Be at rest!” He throws a punch and a massive beam projects from his fist as he is suspended in air. The temple begins to quake at the unleashed force of the beams projection and sand filters through the cracks in the ceiling all around him. As he slowly turns waves of skeletons evaporate in the beam.

During this time the giant effigy has prepared its second attack and swings its colossal arm at Roald. “Finish it, Ephraim!” He shouts as the stone fist bats him into the wall. As Ephraim begins his descent, he finishes the last undead enemy and pulls all of his gems from his pouch. He lifts his hand and a rainbow of colors shine from inside. In seconds the giant sculpture becomes contorted. Its body shifts into unnatural shapes for several moments before turning iridescent and blowing into tiny pieces. As Ephraim hits the ground, he falls to his knees and the shimmering shards of statue float as they fall around him reflecting light like a mass of glitter. He is physically and mentally exhausted. Every ounce of his being aches and screams in agony as he closes his eyes in utter weariness. He knows that he isn’t finished though. Looking into his hand, he notices that the Diamond is beginning to crack as what is left of its essence starts to leak out.

“I know you’re tired too, but I have one more job for you.” The Gemkith gathers what is left of his strength to stand. His body groans defiantly as he hobbles over to his fallen trainer. The echo of his feet dragging carries through the room for what feels like an eternity as he pushes himself across the battle-ridden floor. He falls to his knees again as he reaches Roald. With his last ounce of strength he puts the Diamond against the grand-mage’s chest. A faint light glows from underneath for a second before it fades and the diamond crumbles to pieces on the trainer’s fallen body. Ephraim collapses. Minutes of uncertainty pass in silence. Slowly Roald’s eyes open. He lets out an unobtrusive moan as he turns his head to look around the room. The muscles in his neck tense painfully. His subtle laugh is intruded by a small cough.

“You did it.” He whispers more to himself than anything as he looks on his unconscious student. Every muscle in his body screams in pain as he reaches into his gem pouch. He pulls his hand out slowly and picks out a quartz before dropping the rest of the stones back into the pouch. His fist smacks as it falls against the cold, stone floor as his strength fails and a faint orange luminance begins to shine from inside it. The two men begin to feel as if lightning is coursing through their broken bodies as the crystal gives them renewed strength and energy. The weariness of battle still sits heavily on them from the outside, but the vigor of strength from the Quartz dances with life inside of them. Roald stands up and dusts off his robe. Ephraim rolls onto his back with a look of confusion on his face. The teacher looks at him with his regained composure. “This is the first time you have been under the effects of Quartz I take it.” Ephraim sits up and rubs his forehead, the unmistakable ache remaining.

“Am I supposed to feel like I could lift off of the floor any second?”

“The feeling will pass.” As Roald bends down next to him, the orange light from his eyes glean off of Ephraim’s cheek, even at the foot and a half distance between them. “I’m not entirely sure what I saw before losing consciousness is correct, but I think you might have reached Cumulative Mass when you were using that Diamond.”

“Really? That’s.. wow.”

“Do you understand fully what that is, Ephraim?”

“Well, I remember a brief conversation in class.” Seeing the look of disbelief in his professor’s eyes, the illusion that he is fooling him fades and he changes his tone. “Uh. What is Cumulative Mass exactly?”

“I thought you might want to know.” Roald says with a mockingly raised brow. “Cumulative Mass is when you get so attuned with the jewel’s essence that it emanates within you. Almost to the point of combining with your essence. Your soul that is. It’s a dangerous process though, because your soul uniquely designed for you. Allowing the process to take full effect would be a great offense to your being.” He pulls Ephraim to his feet. “Ultimately when the two essences resonate so closely together your physical being expounds upon itself to the point of exhaustion. That’s why we are depending on this Quartz to get us to a safe place to rest.” Roald begins walking with his apprentice toward the jewels that fell from the statue that rest across the room. “Let’s go collect your prize before this Quartz gives way.”

As Ephraim bends down and picks up the Agate, he looks over at the Black Topaz. It captivates him, placing him a trance. The allure of the gem pulls at him as if a magnetic force was pulling him toward it. The room darkens in his sight and the only glimmer of light he sees is fixated solely on the mesmerizing jewel. The draw is broken as a stone hammer smashes the Topaz to bits. Ephraim jumps up in a fit of rage. His blood boils unnaturally as he stands with his face inches from Roald’s.

“Why did you smash that? We could clearly have used it! Can you imagine the hordes of armies we could obliterate with an undead army?”

Roald fights back his anger as he knows Ephraim is speaking from the remnants of the control of the gem. He speaks firmly. “Black Topaz uses a dark magic that tempts the user. Just as every time a man accustomed to doing good sins he can feel his soul blacken, every time you use that stone’s magic you feel a part of your being ripped away.”

“So don’t use it. I can use it. You shouldn’t have a say in what I use.”

“It would tear you apart, Ephraim. Take a look at how you are behaving now. You are clearly not yourself, and that’s after only looking at it.” The words ring clearly for Ephraim’s. He looks down to realize that he has grabbed his professor’s robe unknowingly. As he releases Roald and steps back he feels like a dark veil has been lifted from his mind, and it is replaced with embarassment.

“You’re, uh,  right. I’m sorry.”

“Worry not. You weren’t yourself.” The instructor assures as he pats his pupil’s shoulder. The gesture does little to calm Ephraim’s shame. “We need to get moving to the nearest inn or this Quartz will give out and we may find ourselves resting unwillingly in a dangerous place.” Roald’s arm moves to the middle of Ephraim’s back for both physical and emotional support and the two continue to talk amongst themselves as they work their way back to the temple entrance.

Ephraim: A Test of Aptitude ®

The air is cold and wet in a pitch black cave where a lack of sight heightens the sense of hearing. The cave is all but silent, save the intermittent splashes from drops of water falling from the ceiling into puddles on the floor. The shuffle of footsteps echoes through the quiet cavern as a light begins to glimmer at the entrance. A man with short black hair, peppered with gray and a short beard is holding a small, glowing object that lights his way above his head as he leads a young man. The older man is wearing long purple robes and black sandals, both with extravagant white trimmings. The younger man has shiny, brown hair that reaches the bend in his back. It is tied low, just a few inches from the bottom. He wears simple brown sandals and his long blue robes are outlined in golden yellow. The leader suddenly stops and puts his arm out to bring his apprentice to a halt as well. As he shines the light to survey the room, the walls shimmer and dance with reflections. He nods his head.

“This is it, Ephraim. Where I let you take the lead.” The light he is holding extinguishes and the leader grabs Ephraim’s arm. He places an object in the apprentice’s hand and closes it around the smooth, hard surface. The darkness lending to Ephraim’s heightened sense of feeling makes it easy to distinguish the item as a well-cut gemstone. His heart begins to beat against the inside of his chest as the reality of the impending task begins to set in.

I’ve known this time was coming, but now that it is here, I don’t know if I’m ready. He thinks. The thoughts have to be pushed aside as his teacher continues.

“Extracting the essence of Opal will make it a source of light. Remember your lessons, focus on its essence, and draw it out.” Ephraim clutches the gem tightly and silences his nerves as he closes his eyes to concentrate. He pauses, allowing his conscience to go deep into the center of the gem as he searches for the source of its energy. Seconds seem like minutes as he feels his thoughts digging deep within the stone. Suddenly he feels the corners of his mouth raise in a smile in the dark cavern.

“Found it.” He whispers.

“Good, now draw it out. Remember not to force it out, rather tempt it into leaving the stone.”

As Ephraim persuades the stone’s essence to leave its locality, slowly a light begins to glimmer through the cracks in his fingers. “There it is. Now give it a little push.” The mentor says. Ephraim concentrates a little harder and the light begins to shine bright. Ephraim opens his hand and the bright light illuminates his delighted expression. The euphoric feeling of accomplishment beginning to overwhelm him, extinguishes quickly as his mentor brings his focus back to reality. “Now give it some direction and push it a little more.” The teacher explains. Ephraim holds the gem above his head, he magically causes the light to split behind them, and draws the sides of the light in front of them into a cone-shaped directional beam. “Your progress is exceptional, Ephraim. Let us continue.” The student hides a grin at the compliment from his mentor.

As the two continue toward their destination, Ephraim grows more concerned about the task ahead. “Teacher, tell me again about these imps I will be fighting.”

“You are a graduate, Ephraim. You don’t have to address me as your teacher any longer. Call me by my name please.” The younger mage acknowledges his request with a nod. “As to your query, the imps are cave-dwelling creatures that command different forces of nature. The creatures that inhabit this cave will likely be lightning imps. They are nimble creatures, and their ability to fly makes them a hard target. Wide-arc range spells will work best against them.” Ephraim’s brow furls while he makes mental notes of his teacher’s answer as the two duck into a narrow passage in the cave. “While battling these creatures, you must remember to keep focused on your task. If you feel you are losing the fight, look for an escape first, and look for a route that allows you to grab your objective on your way out second. Don’t take long though, because you will most certainly have the surviving creatures in tow.”

A drop of water falls onto Ephraim’s cheek as they are walking through the tunnel. He wipes the cool water from his face and notices another light ahead through an opening at the end of the tunnel. “Put your Opal away. We want to have the element of surprise on our side.” His teacher explains. “We should ample sight from here forward.” They squat near the end of the tunnel and Ephraim pulls up his nice robes to keep them from sitting on the dirty cavern floor before placing his gem back into his pouch.

“Tea…” Ephraim stops himself from using his mentor’s title, “Roald, I don’t understand why we wear our best garments on a quest into a filthy cavern. It’ll take me forever to wash the dirt out of them.”

Roald hides a chuckle as he shift his gaze from ahead to Ephraim. He answers matter-of-factly, “your attire speaks directly of you. If you were to dress in rags and ran across enemies, they would think you were an easy target. We wear our best apparel to give the impression that we can afford the best gems, which detours most lowly bandits. It creates a facade that we are able to afford the best gems to defend ourselves.”

Ephraim nods and looks around the corner of the tunnel wall. The room is a large, open space with a healthy amount of sunlight shining in through an opening in the elevated ceiling. With the absence of the offsetting light from his Opal, the light pouring in from the ceiling becomes much more imposing. The sting of the brightness causes him to shield his eyes as he searches the room for signs of life. Nothing catches his attention for a moment, but then he notices something glimmering in the light. Across the room, a slanted wall has formed a natural shelf for a shiny, white gem that sits in the perfect spot to reflect an array of dazzling colors that couldn’t have been better placed if it were intentional.

“It looks like I found the Moonstone, but I don’t see any imps.”

“Do you have a Spinel?” The teacher asks. Ephraim turns away to hide a look of confusion as he digs through his satchel and finds the small, peach-colored stone.

“I do. What does it do again?”

“Use it and find out.”

Ephraim closes his eyes and begins searching for the gem’s essence. He almost feels as if he is beginning to get lost in the stone as he wanders. After a few moments he opens his eyes to a whole new sight. The walls seem to blur and his sight is the only one of his senses that doesn’t fade. Ephraim is startled when he looks at Roald and notices a glowing aura around his teacher.

“The life-detecting gem.” Roald says with a voice that sounds distant and muffled as he instructs Ephraim. “It is a true treasure for Gemkith that like to hunt in dense forests for wildlife. Take a second to look around the room and see if you notice the imps now.”

The dreamy haze is almost dizzying as it causes the walls to wave slightly while he looks around the room. Suddenly he notices two similar auras floating on the other side of a cavern wall off to the side that lies between him and the Moonstone. The loud thump in his ears is almost deafening as his heart begins to race. “Roald, I have only studied battle magic. I don’t know if I…”

“The highest importance of spell casting is confidence.” Roald interrupts. “In the heat of battle you don’t have time to doubt or think about your next action. You have to react to the situation as it arises.” The guide pulls a light purple stone from his pouch as he steps into the room. “I’ll be keeping an eye on you.” He says as he begins to fade away. “I won’t let you die. Now get out there and retrieve that stone.” He vanishes leaving only the sound of his footsteps.

“I wish I could just use Alexandrite.” Ephraim grunts with a whiny tone. “It would make this a lot easier.”

“In time, my young apprentice. You need to be able to use the Magestones before moving into Wizardstones. They are much harder to understand and communicate with. Now which spell are you going to attack with?” Ephraim puts his Spinel away and crosses his arms thoughtfully as he thinks before issuing an answer.

“Wind has a high arc attack spell.”

“But we are in a cavern where wind is relatively scarce. What is the most abundant resource in here?” Roald asks. Ephraim thinks, and thinks… and thinks, the task ahead of him harming his focus. His already-lacking train of thought is disturbed as he hears the sound of his guide’s foot tapping. The hint goes unnoticed by the apprentice. “Look under your feet, dear boy.” Roald says in as much of a shout as he dares. Ephraim’s eyes widen as he looks down, finally coming to the correct answer.

“Earth…” He smiles gleefully as he quickly reaches into his pouch to find a Peridot. He clinches it with his eyes closed for a moment to gather all of his courage, then begins walking into the room as he reopens them.

“Hold one moment.” Roald’s command causes Ephraim to slide to a halt, the shuffle echoing in the quiet room. “You have your offensive stone, but what will you block their attacks with? You need to be able to put up a barrier as well, so grab an Amethyst in your other hand.”

Ephraim grabs the gem from his pouch with a bit of hesitation as he thinks about how he can use the new stone, pauses to take a breath, and starts making his way toward the winged creatures. He sprints behind the wall that the imps are behind to gather himself one last time. He takes a deep breath and looks down at the Peridot in his hand. “Confidence.” He whispers. His body tingles as the excitement and fear, but mostly fear, of battle sets in. The nervous heat of his cheeks begins radiating as a rogue bead of cold sweat runs down his brow. At this proximity, the apprentice can begin to hear the vermins’ movements. One of the imps begins sniffing as if it knows that someone else is there before letting out a low, gurgled growl. Ephraim realizes that he is about to lose the edge of surprise so he looks around the room quickly for a projectile for his first attack. His eyes come to a stop as he notices thinly-connected stalagmite sitting a few feet away from him. He clinches the Peridot and as he begins to use its essence, a green light begins shining through his fist and out of his eyes, the magnitude of the emanation matching that of the determination set in the fleshy orbs that they come from. The large rock snaps as it lifts off of the ground and he spins around the wall toward the imps. The green light trails like a mist with the swing of his arm as the rock follows the movement and smashes one of the imps into the wall. The other foul creature whips its wings downward, launching it into the air.

“Screeeeee!” It shouts as it throws a ball of lightning at Ephraim. The sphere of electricity gets within inches of his face, and he lifts his other arm to block the attack with a force field. While the block stops the spark from hitting him, the force from the blast launches him across the room into another wall in the cavern.

“Ugh!” His grunt echoes loudly in the chamber as a bolt of pain shoots up his spine. He shakes his head letting the spare strands of hair that escaped his low ponytail whip around his face and slide over his angered expression as he looks up to see the monster approaching quickly. With a quick jump he is out of the line of the Kamikaze dive of the imp. The Mage uses the manifestation essence of the Amethyst to project a ghostly image of himself where he once stood. The trick is successful and the imp runs straight through the ghost and into the wall behind it. While still aloft, Ephraim swings the arm holding the Peridot to break off a stalactite above the imp and brings it crashing down as he lands simultaneously. Dust from the smashing rocks billows out and soon after the imp comes flying through the cloud at him. The mage doesn’t have time to react, allowing the imp to sink its sharp teeth into the top of his shoulder. A deafening wail pierces his ears, to be recognized seconds later as his own voice as the piercing pain shoots through him. He throws his hand with the Peridot up and brings a large chunk of rock from the floor smashing into the creature and forcing it to release its hold on him. Just as the rock is about to smash into the ceiling, the imp flies out from behind it and its path is quickly redirected back into an attack.

“You are blindly swinging, Ephraim.” Roald’s voice surprises his apprentice, causing him to glance around. “Remember to stay on defense and wait for the right moment to attack.” Ephraim steps out of the way as the beast swoops past him. Quickly the imp circles around for another attack.

Defense. Wait for the opportunity. Ephraim looks through the strands of his messy hair with angered determination as he lights up his Amethyst to create a dozen ghostly copies of himself. He and his images scatter in different directions causing the imp to pause. It takes a moment to look around, lets out a furious scream, and curls up into a ball. Bolts of electricity swirl around the creature like fingers reaching into the cavern before concentrating into a ball around the beast. Suddenly the imp throws his body open and a large surge of electrical energy bursts into the room. All of the ghostly images evaporate and Ephraim is thrown to the ground. The imp has to land to gather its energy for the next attack which leaves time for Ephraim to stand and gather his wits.

“I’ve had enough of this!” Ephraim shouts. A fierce green light emanates from his eyes and the jewel in his hand again. Suddenly rock from different places in his vicinity gathers around him before forming on him like armor. The imp sees its impending danger and is back in the air again with a flap of its wings. Its energy hasn’t recovered enough for a lightning attack so it begins flying toward the mage for a physical assault, its basic intellect not grasping the physics of the protection the armor affords. Ephraim waits for the creature to get close before throwing all of his strength into a jumping uppercut. The shot lands on the imp, and sends it flying into a stalactite on the cavern ceiling causing its impalement. Ephraim lands and lets the essence of the Peridot fade causing the stone armor to fall off of him. He bats his eyes when the exhaustion of the fight begins to set in as the adrenaline begins to dissipate in his system.

“Well done, Ephraim.” His instructor states plainly as he becomes visible again. The look of solemn pride in his eyes softens the pain Ephraim is masking. “Let’s take this Moonstone to be cut into a usable gem.” Ephraim puts the Amethyst into his pouch and as he opens his hand to look at the Peridot, it turns into green sparkling dust and falls through his fingers. “It appears that you got all of the essence from that gem. You were fortunate that it ran out after the fight.” Roald clasps his pupil’s shoulder causing him to wince in pain. The teacher smiles unapologetically as he holds a Peridot in an open hand toward the Moonstone. The gem breaks out of the rock wall and flies into his hand as they make their way back out of the cave.

divider-line1

The stinging light from the sun blinds them as they emerge. Ephraim holds his hand over his eyes as they walk back out into the open field. When the two get back onto the road, the ache of the student’s weary body begins to heighten causing him to lightly limp as Roald explains their course.

“We will travel to Limone. There is a lapidarist there that will give us the best cut to get the most essence out of this Moonstone.”

Ephraim looks at Roald in confusion. “Wouldn’t we get more out of the stone if we didn’t cut it? Doesn’t cutting the stone make it lose some of its essence?”

Roald lightly shakes his head before responding. “Think of the gem’s essence as its soul, for lack of a better word. If you cut off your finger, do you lose a part of your soul? The essence is the gem’s being. That’s why when you used up the essence from the Peridot, it crumbled into dust.” He explains before turning a leery eye on him. “You must have forgotten this from class.”

“I learn better from experience. I can be taught something from a book, but until I see it in the outside world, it doesn’t become real to me.”

“Well then, we need to keep you in these training quests as much as we can.” Roald looks down the road as he finishes his sentence. There is a horse-drawn carriage making its way down the road in their direction. The apprentice begins to feel worried as he sees his mentor straining his eyes to investigate the oncoming group.. but his heart sinks when Roald’s eyes go wide. “ Just as I feared. Ephraim, step off of the road quickly.” The teacher pushes his student and the two begin following the road alongside it, just a few yards away.

“What’s wrong, Roald?”

“That is a caravan from the Romi Empire.” Roald notices Ephraim’s vacant stare but can’t tell if it is from nerves rendering him incapable of comprehension or lack of attentiveness in class; he suspects the latter. “Another detail you missed in class, I suppose. They are the gypsy tribe from the south. Since they are wanderers, constantly blowing from one location to the next, they favor wind stones, which can be a hard magic to combat. They are crafty charmers, Ephraim, and they like to use stones that control your emotions. If they can gain control of your emotions, they can get you to trust them, or even blindly serve them. Even with only trust on their side, they can rob you blind and be gone before the enchantment wears off.”

Ephraim blinks for a moment, stunned and unable to find the words to accurately convey his inquiry. Whether from exhaustion or fear, he is unsure. “How do you fight control over your emotions?” He finally asks.

“There is no stone magic that can block those abilities; it is all in the power of your will. The best way to keep from falling under their spell is to not look into their eyes. It’s a lot harder for their magic to work on someone who isn’t giving them their full attention. As they get closer, you will need to keep your hand on your pouch so they can’t snatch it away, and your eyes straight ahead of you. Now keep quiet, they are almost upon us.”

As the cart gets closer, Ephraim has to fight the urge to look at them. The squeak of the wagon wheel taunts him and the allure of the legendary beauty of the gypsies makes it hard to continue to look away. As if an undeniable magnetic force is drawing him to the cart, a wave of seductive power washes over him, pressing down on his will to the breaking point. His curiosity gets the better of him and he glances up to see a beautiful young woman riding on the cart. Her fine garments set her apart from her raggedly dressed, albeit colorful, companions. Her loose fitting apparel and thin sashes drift behind her majestically in the wind while the two men with her wear rags on their heads and clothes fitting to a bandit.

Ephraim can’t make himself look away as her magnetism gets more and more strong. She looks over to him and their eyes meet. His peripheral vision begins to blur, his skin goes cold, his heart races, and he soon finds that he can only focus on her gaze. Time seems to slow as the caravan rolls by, but the eye contact is eventually broken as Roald’s lowered head passes through their line of sight. Ephraim shakes his head, which causes Roald to look up at him. The guide considers him curiously for a moments before realizing the head shake’s connotation; that Ephraim just came out of a spell. He quickly looks down to his pupil’s hip and Ephraim’s eyes quickly follow.

“You didn’t keep your hand on your pouch, you fool!” They quickly look back to see a gypsy hopping back into the travelling cart carrying Ephraim’s stone pouch. Ephraim’s face flushes in embarrassment. “She used a concentration spell to keep you in a trance while her lackey grabbed your gems.” Roald breaks off into a sprint with Ephraim close behind. “You have some field experience with Peridot, so use this.” He says as he tosses a stone to his apprentice while in stride.

“They’re coming. Yah!” The wagon driver shouts as he whips the reins of the horse after noticing the two magisters advancing toward them. Ephraim stops and throws his arm up with the Peridot, a look of renewed determination replacing that of exhaustion on his face. The sudden rush of adrenaline purges the pain of the last fight from his body as it courses through his veins. Suddenly a large mass of earth rises in front of the nomads causing their horses to stop abruptly.

“We can’t get away. We’ll have to kill them!” The gypsy that charmed Ephraim yells. The nomads jump out of the cart and begin rushing toward the two mages.

“Here they come, Ephraim! They keep their gems in anklets, so watch their feet!” Roald calls back as Ephraim begins to give chase once more. As the young female rushes toward Ephraim, a light trails behind the gems in her anklet. A yellow light twirls behind her looking almost like a mist as she leaps into the air. Her majestic call to entice the weak of will as she performs amazing leaps and twirls in her feats of agility. With a final twist of her body she spins a kick around and a blade of wind blasts into Ephraim. His hair whips in front of him as he is thrown back into some bushes in the nearby wilderness.

The gypsy turns to see Roald preparing an attack, and begins rushing toward him. The mage swings his arm in a semi-circle over his head releasing stones in an arc around him. One of the gems, a White Moonstone, begins radiating and the world seems to come to an abrupt stop around him. The mage’s time-slowing spell causes the gypsies to run so slowly that it seems as if they aren’t moving, and the stones seem to practically float over his head. Roald looks at the approaching nomad and lets a look of grim satisfaction sneak onto his face. A rainbow of colors begins to shine from his eyes as the gems over his head begin to glow. As the Quartz begins to shine brightly, he feels the aches of a tired, old body melt away. He closes his hand and a flame engulfs it as he breaks into a dash. Colorful mists trail behind him as he runs past the first gypsy and toward his other sloth-like targets.

He moves swiftly as the Quartz nullifies the wear age has left on his body and gives him super-human physical qualities. A fiery punch causes the first male nomad to go flying into his wagon. The once crawling speed of his approach is multiplied into a fiery bolt of speed in his departure. The carriage explodes in a ball of flame causing pieces to go flying in all directions. Roald catches one of the wagon’s wheels as it floats by, and with a quick spin, launches it toward the drifter that snatched Ephraim’s gems. He uses the wind power of his Citrine to give the wheel a boost to maximize its speed. As the wheel crashes into the thief, he flies backward and releases Ephraim’s pouch. After a shallow attempt to fight back his laughter, he holds his hand out and uses his Apatite to telekinetically carry the bag back to him.

He turns back to where his stones are floating in place and glances back to the female gypsy as he walks by. Standing beneath the gems he makes a quick swing of his arm and retrieves all of the stones he released earlier. He places all of them but a Peridot back in his pouch as he looks back to the gypsy. With one more look at his accomplishment, he feels his excitement peaking and with a flick of his wrist he raises a pillar of earth inches in front of her face. He slowly raises his arm in the air and snaps causing time to return to normal. The gypsy plows into the pillar and falls onto her back with a grunt. She sits up quickly with a her eyes widened to what appears to be dramatically past their physical capabilities as she stares at the mage. She opens her mouth to speak, but she is silenced as Roald makes the earth beneath her encase her hands and feet with the Peridot that remains in his hand.

Ephraim pops out of the bushes with stones in hand and ready for action. As he begins to look around dazed, the green lights emitting from his eyes begins to dissipate. Roald smiles a bit pretentiously back at his pupil as he drops his stones into his pouch. The student shakes his head in disbelief, his mouth agape.

“How… All I heard was an explosion!”

“That is why we have three semesters of lessons on Moonstone. Time Magic can be a powerful weapon.” The teacher explains with a smile.

“So I can do that with that Moonstone we just got from the imps?”

“First of all, it’s only White Moonstone that has time essence. Secondly, it’s expensive and you would not use it properly so you’ll get a stone when you are more trained with it.” Roald begins walking down the road. “Come, before we are met with more trouble.” Ephraim looks around the battlefield once more, not completely able to comprehend what took place there before rushing to catch up with his mentor. As pair begins traveling back down the road toward the city, smoke from the smoldering cart pours into the colorful dusk sky. The trapped gypsy tugs defiantly with her hands and feet, stubbornly trying to free them before she spits on the ground and waits for the trapping spell to wear off.

“Don’t think this is over, mage.” She hisses through her gritted teeth. “You’ll see me again.”

Tanna: A Chance Meeting ®

A young female elf walks through a flower garden on a beautiful day and a very casual breeze lightly moves her long blonde hair. Her fair complexion and light hair give her an almost glowing appearance. The blue elvish accents flow on her long white dress that floats across the top of the lush green grass as she walks through inspecting the floras. She smiles as she looks back over to her hometown. Nithpantiel is a beautiful elven city on the outskirts of the elven providence. Its tall white towers and walls are highlighted well by gold trimmings.

She goes back to her garden inspection and as she looks at a rose bush, she notices someone standing in her garden. It is young male elf who appears to be looking at the plant life in the garden as well. The sun shines off of his black silky hair as he walks through the garden. His athletic tone is revealed by a slight opening at the top of his long burgundy robes. He slightly bends to smell a rose and hide his occasional glances at the lovely female elf. When she catches him glancing at her, she realizes that she has been staring at him and quickly goes back to inspecting. He notices her reaction, smiles slightly, and goes back to looking at the flowers.

The female elf turns her back to him as she kneels to look at the plants and hide her interest. She has lived in Nithpantiel her whole life and has never seen this elf. Was he a visitor? Was he really there to look at the rosary and she was just misreading his glances? Was he still looking at her? The overwhelming temptation causes her to look back over her shoulder in just a few moments. She is shocked to see that he is no longer there. Confused and a little disappointed, she slowly turns back to the bush she is at.

“It was unwise for them to choose someone more beautiful than the flowers to tend to them.” A smooth, charming voice from the other side of the bush startles her. “These roses don’t stand a chance.” The handsome elf is looking at her over the top of the bush. She feels her cheeks heat up as she lowers her head to hide the blushing. “I am Beinion.” He says as he walks around the bush to greet her. He reaches out his hand to help her up. “May I ask your name?”

Her heart flutters as she tucks her hair behind her pointed ear. She is rarely approached by the men of her race. Though she is not born of royal lineage, her blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair complexion give her a noble appearance. In the elven capital of Lostariel, the only elves that are accepted into high royalty have the traits that she carries. Any of the elves with royal lineage with darker features are only accepted into lower royalty along with other lords in the land. She is bubbling over with excitement but hides it well with her quiet response.

“Tanna.” Her response is quieter than she had hoped.

“I’m sorry.” Beinion says, turning his ear slightly closer to her.

“My name is Tanna.” Her voice resonates much better with her second response as she accepts his hand.

“Ah Tanna. Such an appealing name is fitting for a woman such as you.” Tanna smiles as he helps her to her feet. Beinion shares her smile and crosses his arms behind his back as he looks toward the nearby field. “The day is fair and this field is clear.” He gestures toward the field as he turns back to her. “Would accompany me on a walk?”

“Walk?” She looks back to the flowers in the garden for a moment then looks back to Beinion. “I, well, but,” She thinks for a moment, ‘I’m just inspecting today. If I come back soon I can finish before dark.’ Then her reasonable side kicks in as she thinks, ‘I don’t know this man though. This is crazy. Why would I leave with him? How do I know he won’t harm me?’

“I can help you complete your work when we are finished, and we won’t be gone long.” Tanna looks back at Beinion as he interrupts her thought.

“Well.” She looks back to her rosary and thinks once more. ‘He seems so nice. Just do it. You never do anything adventurous.’ Beinion can read the reserved excitement on her face as she looks back to him. “Ok.”

“Excellent.” As they walk through the field on the clear day, the uncut grass brushes against their lower legs. A slight gust of wind carries some feathers from a nearby nest by them as they stroll. The two are silent for a few moments as they take in the beauty of the day and breathe in the fresh, clean air. After a short silence, Tanna’s curiosity gets the better of her.

“I have lived here since birth and have yet to see you. Are you just travelling through?” Beinion looks at her and smiles, then looks back to the field.

“I will likely settle here for a bit. My studies of the KemenGûl have led me to this area. The location will be impeccable for my studies.” He turns back to her. “The locals seem to be remarkable as well.” As Tanna feels her cheeks flush again, Beinion smiles and looks back to the elvish town. “I will need to take residence here for my studies. You have lived here for quite some time then. Are the other tenants of this city as hospitable as you?”

“Yes!” She is taken aback by how excitedly she answered his question. After taking a short moment to calm herself, she continues, “Yes. Since our bordering plains are so abundant in wildlife, a lot of trading happens in our town. We are used to visitors, and our inns are well kept.” After she finishes her sentence she begins to ponder what made her so excited. ‘Why am I so eager to make him stay? Sure he’s handsome, and nice, flattering, and seems to be interested in me. But I barely know him.’ As she is thinking, Beinion begins to speak.

“I think I will be looking for something a little more, lasting, than an inn.” His words only briefly intersect her thoughts.

‘I never get this attached. I need to be more reserved, maybe not make myself so readable.’ She turns from him and looks back to the city. “Yes, well I’m afraid we rarely have any rental housing in the city. Our neighboring town is usually best for that.” She says quickly. Beinion smiles as he responds.

“Oh?” He looks back to the city and keeps his smile. “Hmm.” Tanna thinks that she isn’t being direct enough to hide her interest.

“Well thank you for the walk sir,” acting as if she had forgotten his name to further hide her interest.

“Beinion.”

“Sir Beinion. I must be returning to my duties.” She quickly begins walking back toward her garden before he can persuade her to stay. Because if he tried she would surely stay and she would have a hard time continuing to hide her emotions. Despite her efforts, as she is walking away Beinion responds,

“Good day Tanna.”

The rest of the day is spent looking over the town garden. Many flowers get overlooked and she inspects a lot of the some places multiple times as she thinks about her encounter. ‘He was so sweet. I hope I didn’t scare him away. I just want him to chase me a little.’ She shakes the thoughts off long enough to finish her work. Her normally short walk home from the garden is prolonged as she daydreams during the trip. She begins to ponder what about this area is so great for KemenGûl. There are plenty of open plains in the area, but KemenGûl is scientific studies. Perhaps the surplus of wildlife in the area provides a good study. She soon dismisses the thought and goes back to daydreaming.

As she walks into her home and closes the door behind her. She leans back against it, looks at the ceiling, and sighs. After a short pause, she rises back off of the door and begins her nightly house duties. She hasn’t been out on her own long, so she has to focus on what she is doing and limit her daydreaming. While she prepares dinner, eats, cleans up, and takes a hot bath, she thinks about him. About the way his black hair shined in the sunlight, how his robes complimented his physique, his kind words, and the way he showed his intelligence.

She finishes her bath, throws on her nightgown and wonders while she lays awake in bed if she did the right thing by trying to get him to chase her. ‘What if he doesn’t talk to me again? I think I was too direct. He probably thinks I’m not interested.’ Then she realizes something, ‘No. I am worth chasing. We women deserve to be chased a little bit.’ The thought comforts her as she rolls over to go to sleep. ‘If he is worth having, then he will come after me.’ Her last thought drifts off as she begins to go to sleep. A small noise outside wafts away her sleepiness though. She sits up in her bed. “Was that whispers?” She looks up to see a piece of rolled up parchment, tied with a piece of string, and carried through her window by cloudy-looking butterfly wings. The paper floats a little to the left, then a little to the right and as it lands in her hand, the butterfly wings blow away like a puff of smoke. She slowly unties the yarn and looks at the letter.

There is truly none

As fair in all Elqanah

Now or

Never has an elf existed

As beautiful or pleasant

I really enjoyed our walk today. You ran off so quickly, I hope I didn’t upset you. If you are up for it, I would enjoy another walk. Please relay your response out of the window.


Tenderly,

Beinion

She jumps to her feet to look out of her window. As the note said, Beinion was standing outside smiling up at her. Unable to hide her excitement anymore, she smiled back at him, from ear to ear.

Ananias: A Man’s Worth ®

The middle class village of Chazaq is bustling with life on a hot summer day. The people sweat under the unforgiving heat as they go about their daily duties. The sound of the blacksmith’s hammer rings in the air, there are clops of horse’s hooves on the stone walkways, and a few conversations are heard throughout the town. As the people go about their day, two knights approach the town. They wear Roman style steel armor with steel lined leather skirts and helms with blue horse hair on stands down the center. Their blue capes tuck under their shoulder guards and the bottoms reach just below the calf muscles on the back of their legs. Silver lions gleam on their tall shields to signify that they serve King Aryeh, and the blue background on the shields signifies that they serve the royal family. One of the soldiers breathes in deep, smelling the air. He is a tall warrior with a toned physique.

“Ah. Smells like home.”

“Smells like an end to our journey to me.” The other soldier jokes. “Your keep will get us out of this torturous sunlight then, Ananias?”

“Aye. My home is toward the center of town. We can rest there, Medad.” The two are making their way through town when a man grabs Ananias by the shoulder and says,

“It’s been a few seasons my friend.” The familiar voice causes Ananias to turn around happily.

“Joseph, my friend.” The two share a hearty handshake. “The war has kept me away too long. I’m glad to see you are doing well.”

“Things are good in Chazaq, Ananias.” Joseph responds, “The hot summer has been a little hard on the crops, but we aren’t hungry.” Joseph has graying hair, a beard, and wears an extravagant blue robe with gold trimming. His status with the nobility has not hurt his humility, so he is a pleasant man to speak with.

“Good.” Ananias keeps in mind that Medad is hot and tired so he tries to hurry the conversation. “Well we,” before he can end the conversation though, Medad says,

“Is this your house, Ananias?” Medad points over his shoulder to a nearby building.

“Yes, yes. Make yourself at home. My servants will take care of you friend.” Medad walks into the house without another word. Ananias and Joseph watch as he enters the building.

“Not one for pleasantries.” Joseph jokes.

“The journey has been hard on us.” Since Ananias no longer has to worry about Medad’s welfare, he doesn’t feel that he has to rush the conversation along. Though he is weary, he is grateful to catch up with his old friend. He pulls off his helmet revealing his thick black hair. The helmet clanks against the armor at his hip as he holds it under his arm. “The days have been long and hot, the food has been scarce, and he is tired. We weren’t able to come on horseback, as the horses would collapse from the heat,” Ananias notices that his tone is beginning to get negative by the look in Joseph’s eyes, so he decides to change the subject. “But enough of that. How is Eliana? Betrothed I assume.” His attempt to liven the conversation seems to have missed its mark as Joseph sighs,

“My daughter does her best to not be chosen for marriage when she is sent to visit princes. It’s as if she never wants to be married. I just don’t understand it. One would think that she would be excited to be a part of joining two nations.” Ananias can barely mask his excitement. Eliana and Ananias always snuck off together and went on adventures when they were younger. Eventually their young childhood friendship grew into affection as they matured and they planned marriage. The parents of the two forbade the relationship though, as they knew Ananias would follow his father’s footsteps to become a warrior, while Eliana’s status in nobility would force her to be married to unite kingdoms. Since Ananias’ father, Mordecai, taught him to always do what he feels is right, and out of respect for Eliana’s father, he left Chazaq to fight for the king. He was sure that she would marry while he was away.

“I’m sure she will change when she meets the right man.” He says, trying to hide his hope that the right man he is speaking of will be him. Joseph appears to be picking up on his excitement though.

“I’m sure.” He says with a raised eyebrow. Ananias quickly turns the topic again to take the depth out of the conversation and the two continue to speak for a little while as workers continue to bustle past them. As their discussion draws to a close, Ananias hears a commotion toward the edge of town. He looks over to see a beaten, elderly elf lying on the ground next to a nobleman’s building. A town guardsman is standing over him with his sword drawn as he yells at him. The feud between the elves and the humans leaves anyone unfortunate enough to be caught by their enemies as slaves to nobility. Unbeknownst to Ananias, while he has been away at war, the condition on the slaves has worsened. Before he left to join to battle against the elves, slaves weren’t much different than unpaid helpers. Time has made them into something that isn’t much better than animals. As Ananias begins to run over to investigate, Joseph grabs him by the arm.

“Don’t get involved with the guards, Ananias. It will only end poorly for you”

“So you would sit by and watch that man be beaten?”

“Not a man, an elf.” Joseph utters the last word with a sound of disgust.

“We were created equal Joseph.” Ananias says as he rips his arm from his friends grip, “I know you were taught that at one time. Your thoughts may change, but that fact doesn’t.” He begins charging toward the confrontation. A loud clang rings in the air as his helmet lands at Joseph’s feet.

“Ananias, wait!” His friend’s plea falls on deaf ears. Ananias is yards away as the guard raises his sword to take a swing at the elf. Ananias launches his shield while in a sprint causing it to stick in the wall in the path of the guard’s swing. The sword clashes as it strikes the shield blocking the scared and bruised elf. The watchman looks at the shield in shock and shortly after he turns to look where the shield came from, his face is met by Ananias’ fist. The guard falls back into some pottery causing it to smash and scatter all over the ground. Ananias pulls his shield from the wall and stands in front of the victim with his legs spread in battle stance. Another sentry rushes over and helps the fallen guard to his feet.

“Out of the way soldier. This creature was caught in the lady of this keep’s room as she dressed.” The man says as he is helped up.

“I didn’t know she was dressing. I was just going in to clean the room.” The frightened elf exclaims.

“Silence your tongue knave before I cut it out!” The second guard shouts.

“You will do no such thing.” Ananias announces. “A beast doesn’t deserve the beating you were giving him, much less a man.”

“Elves are not men! They are godless animals!”

“They are not animals! Capturing them doesn’t make them any less human than you or I!” The ruckus has caused quite a few of the town guards to take notice. By now they have surrounded Ananias and have their swords drawn. The second guard’s tone gets more confident as he looks around to see his reinforcements.

“I tell you one last time. Leave us.” Ananias looks around and realizes that he will not win this fight. He glances over and notices his house is also too far for Medad to hear him. Accepting his fate, he looks back at the sentry.

“I may not live long enough to save this man’s life,” he says drawing his sword, “but you won’t take him freely.” The guard slowly shakes his head. After a moment he pulls his sword and says,

“So be it.” The guard swings his sword and meets his opponent’s shield as he raises it just above his head. Ananias raises his other arm and the handle of his sword connects with the guard’s chin, knocking him to the ground. He turns, puts his shield between him and the soldier that was once behind him, and rams into him, knocking him over as well. Ananias turns and yells to the fallen elf.

“Hide. If I live, find me when this is over.” A sword sticks in the wall just above the elf’s head. Ananias swings his shield over his head and into the hand of the attacker causing him to release the sword and kicks the soldier in the chest. The elf dashes around the corner with a guard close behind him. Without hesitation Ananias hurls his sword into the man chasing the elf and pulls the guard’s sword from the wall in time to block another attack with it. One of the guards kicks Ananias in the chest and knocks him to the ground next to the building. Three swords reverberate as they hit Ananias’ shield. He pushes his shield forward with all of his might as he rises to his feet and knocks the watchmen on their backs. In two quick movements he slashes a guard standing to his right and thrusts into a guard to his left. One of the guards that are lying on the ground slashes into Ananias’ leg causing him to let out a yell. As the last standing sentry is about to deal a mortal blow to Ananias a loud voice yells,

“Enough!” The group looks over to see a large man approaching in armor that has the same appearance as the guard’s, only finer. He wears a long blue cape and adorns the same type of shield as Ananias. “Men, to your feet!” The still-capable soldiers stand to their feet as quickly as the can and stand at attention. Ananias stays knelt down and looks over his shoulder at the impending man. At the sight of the familiar face he looks back to the ground and cringes.

“Avner.” He mutters under his breath.

“Ananias. It’s been a long time.” Avner points to one of the soldiers and says, “You, get some dressings and tend to his wound.” The thought of Avner helping him didn’t sit well with Ananias, but his wound was too deep for him to wait for other help. “What brings you back home, my fellow warrior?”

“Fellow.” Ananias thinks. “I want that slave.” He shouts over his shoulder.

“That slave?”

“The one your men were attacking. If I don’t take him, they will kill him.” The guard has returned with the bandages and begins cleaning Ananias’ wound. The captain chuckles at Ananias’ request.

“Of course, of course. You may have the slave.” Avner turns his attention to the man patching Ananias up. “How does his wound look?” The guard stands up at attention.

“Cleaned up. It will need attention soon though.”

“Well then. Why don’t you come back to my keep so we can finish you up, hmm?” The captain smirks as he finishes his statement. The grim smile reminds Ananias of the past between them. The many times that Avner betrayed his comrades to gain influence in the castle and his cowardly acts that kept him from leaving with the other warriors to fight the war against the elves. He was in no position to refuse though. His abode was too far to make it alone on one leg, and his servants wouldn’t be skilled enough to tend to his cut. Avner reads Ananias’ submissive expression and grins.

“Right. Help this man back to my keep, and grab those injured soldiers.” Avner throws his cape as he spins back toward his home. Ananias winces as he thinks about what is in store for him.