Bitterness Overcome: (Now A Completed Story!)


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    Bitterness Overcome: (Now A Completed Story!)

    Nonlethal Force proudly presents ...


    Bitterness Overcome


    A Story of Rhema, Ischarus, Charis, and Semeion


    Fictional World Information and Character Background

    FICTIONAL WORLD INFORMATION:
    This tale takes place in my Homebrew World called Enigmatica. Rough outlines of the maps and other information can be found by following the link. Any additional information can be found by following the links in my sig.

    A SMIDGEN OF BACKGROUND:
    The significant characters involved in this story are as follows. Each character has been given a unique coloration for speech. I know this may be annoying to a few, so let me apologize beforehand. I also know there are many out there who appreciate it because reading off of a screen is not the same as reading off of a typed page. That is the reason I have opted to color the speeches. I am not including a biography of the characters here because I hope that the readers will get to know the characters through the reading. So, without further delay, here are the main characters in order of appearance:
    Semeion - Plum
    Ischarus - Light Blue
    Rhema - Pale Green
    Charis - Orange

    Additionally, speech from minor characters will be in Lime. Speech of the antagonist to the party will be in Red. I hope the use of color makes your reading pleasurable!

    A greater detail of the background of the character can now befound at Bitterness Overcome Personna


    Table of Contents

    Chapter 01: A Grim Tale of Friendship ........................... post 1
    Chapter 02: Into The Depths Between Here And There .... post 7
    Chapter 03: Finding Grace .......................................... post 10
    Chapter 04: Finding The Way ...................................... post 17
    Chapter 05: A Little Revenge ...................................... post 21
    Chapter 06: Heritage Reincarnated ............................... post 31
    Chapter 07: Exigency ................................................ post 38
    Chapter 08: The Path of the Unseeing .......................... post 45
    Chapter 09: A Novel Route ......................................... post 51
    Chapter 10: Metanoia ................................................ post 61
    Chapter 11: Party Dubiety .......................................... post 67
    Chapter 12: The Long Shot ........................................ post 74
    Chapter 13: Under the Dragon's Claw............................ post 81
    Chapter 14: Metallic Closure ....................................... post 90
    Chapter 15: Epilogue ................................................. post 96


    And now, on to the story:
    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Chapter One: A GRIM TALE OF FRIENDSHIP

    The view was absolutely perfect from atop the hillside. This was one of the few treeless mounds that rose up above the forest canopy to the southeast of Reignsburg. The two figures that stood and looked out over the forest knew that they were looking upon Earl Sniblett’s land. The sunlight glinted off of the treetops and as the wind blew across the canopy of the forest it made the whole forest seem as if it was in a motion like the waves blowing across a great lake.

    The elder of the two figures called out loudly to the one coming behind him. “Isn’t it beautiful, Semeion?” It was fairly clear from the sound of his voice that the one who spoke was hoping to catch an echo on the cloudless day.

    Semeion, whose name quite literally means miracle, turned to face the one who spoke to him. “It is indeed beautiful, master. I am glad we decided to come up here to view it together. Do you come here often?”

    Semeion’s short black hair moved little in the prevailing gusts of winds. His sky blue eyes squinted as he looked into the brightness of the rays of light that the sun sent down from above. He smiled as he beheld the beauty of the land at his feet from atop the treeless hill.

    The elder of the two figures replied, “I used to come here often when I desired time to myself, Semeion. The gentle swaying of the treetops below has always had a calming effect on me. The gentle motion of the green leaves has always made it easier for me to focus on my talents. Talents that you must learn to focus on without having me to hound you, good sir.”

    Semeion raised his hand to shade his eyes from the light as he turned to look at his master. A small smirk touched the corners of his lips as he was called sir by his master. Semeion’s master excelled at humbling himself in everyone’s company. He did not fear to take the lower position if it meant an opportunity to lift someone else up in their own eyes. “Master Sathwright,” Semeion began before he was cut off by his master.

    “As I told you at the beginning of this journey, Semeion, you are to call me Richard now. If you are truly going to graduate from my tutelage then you shall have no need to call me Master Sathwright any more. You have earned enough respect by this point for you to call me Richard. If it is to be the last command that I give you as your master, then it will be a fitting one to ensure the closing out that relational dynamic.”

    The smirk on Semeion’s lips disappeared as quickly as his master’s earlier comment had put it there. “Master Sathwright, I protest greatly at your belief that I am ready to leave your service! I have no desire to leave your side, ever. I am far from eclipsing the things that you can teach me about the powers that you wield.”

    Master Sathwright chuckled and turned away from Semeion. He planned to ascend the hill even further, distancing himself from his pupil. The distance would be a symbolic act that would be a demonstration to Semeion that they would need to separate. Of course it was to be expected that Semeion would close the gap once he noticed that his master moved away.

    The master wizard waited until Semeion was enraptured by the moving of the leaves and he began his climb to the top of the hill. Just as a particularly strong gust of wind rolled across the forest canopy Master Sathwright began his journey to higher ground. The wind blew for nearly a minute and Semeion’s face grew in exaltation as he watched the magnificent power of the wind push the topmost branches from one side to another in a wave of movement. It was the greatest display of an invisible force he had ever seen.

    The wind simply amazed Semeion. In truth, it was the wind that was to blame for his interest in all matters arcane. He longed to understand how something that was simply not there could move and push objects that clearly had a discernable weight. If the weightless and the invisible wind could inflict its will upon the physical realm then he reasoned that there had to be something greater in the universe that could bring force out of nothing. As he trained, Semeion longed to be able to accomplish even the simplest task that the wind could accomplish without effort.

    As the wind began to die, Semeion turned to speak to his master only to find that Master Sathwright had already moved off a fair distance. Semeion grabbed his gray cloak in one hand and pulled it several inches off of the ground so that he could run towards his master. As the first footstep toward his master hit the ground the earth below him shook violently. Semeion ignored this physical warning. “Master, wait for me!” Semeion cried out.

    Semeion assumed it was his voice that caused Master Sathwright to turn and look at his pupil. In truth, Master Sathwright knew better than to turn to the voice of Semeion, especially today. If Master Sathwright turned every time Semeion called for him Semeion would never develop the necessary skills to be out on his own.

    Yet, Master Sathwright did indeed turn this time to face his pupil. He did not turn at the beckon of his pupil, however. He turned because he feared the vibration that he felt in the land. As his master turned, Semeion saw the smile upon his master’s face turn into a look of pure horror and panic.

    “Run hard, Semeion!” cried Master Sathwright. “Run like the wind!”

    Semeion looked over his should as he ran, only to see a glimpse of what his master had already seen in full view. An enormous green dragon had lurched out of the forest below once it realized that its prey was no longer looking in the direction from which it planned its assault. The frill atop the dragon’s head rose up on end as its own adrenaline prepared the massive body for its first deadly strike. As the tips of the frill elevated off of the dragon’s head the rest of the frill along the dragon’s neck and back also leapt up into motion. Even the beast’s emerald scales glistened in the sunlight as the undulating of the dragon’s muscles shifted the angle of reflection from the sun almost constantly.

    Master Sathwright instinctively charged the position of Semeion knowing that Semeion had neither the magical ability nor the force of will to withstand a single attack from the beast. As he ran, he saw Semeion turn to look over his shoulder. He also saw his pupil’s left toes catch on a simple rock. He helpless looked on as Semeion’s body hurtled itself down onto the rocky hillside as the green dragon strode towards him.

    The green dragon couldn’t help but to observe this simple tactical error on behalf of the young Semeion. The dragon reared back on its massive back haunches and prepared for a simple pounce. What had seemed like a decent adventure for the dragon had turned into one of the easiest catches of the year.

    Master Sathwright searched his mind for the words that he knew were buried deep within. A split second later his mind retrieved them and he instinctively yelled, “Semeion, get up and run!” He paused for just enough time to watch Semeion scramble to his feet and take a single step.

    Master Sathwright could see in the dragon’s eyes that the beast was already calculating where it would have to pounce to trap the young boy under one of its massive claws. Before it was too late, Master Sathwright yelled out a command that harnessed the magical essence around him, “Para Doithican Fael-tru!” He knew the spell was a long shot but it was the best he could do unprepared. Dragons were excellent hunters regardless of their ability to see their prey. Inside he cursed himself for not calculating this possibility and preparing an appropriate spell for this situation. He knew that any large forest could potentially hold a green dragon.

    At his master’s words, Semeion’s eyesight took on a faded blue tint. From past experience he knew that this indicated that he had been relegated to an invisible status. He took one step more in the direction that he was heading and then he veered ninety degrees to his right. This course adjustment would lead him into the forest in as straight a line as possible.

    The dragon leapt skyward and with a single thrust of its wings it surged up into the air. In mid-flight the beast saw its prey vanish into thin air but it had already begun its attack. The dragon altered its tactics. Rather than attempt to land in a manner that would trap the boy under a claw, the beast landed on the ground solidly in a posture obviously designed to crush anything caught underneath its entire massive body. The dragon knew that this attack posture would kill his prey outright and deprive it of the pleasure of killing it in a much more personal means; but the dragon also knew that invisible prey were much more of a challenge to catch. With the prospect of two humans to dine upon the dragon wanted to end the fight with as much possibility of catching both for dinner.

    Master Sathwright could only pray that his spell had given Semeion enough time to evade the dragon. He stopped his charge immediately, realizing that with the dragon’s pounce he was now within range of a serious strike from the dragon’s powerful jaws. He had hoped to avoid getting this close to the razor sharp teeth of the dragon unless Semeion was in dire danger. It was a tactical error he made in his own panic to save the life of his apprentice.

    Through the blue haze of the invisibility spell Semeion saw the dragon lurch into the air and soar over his own head. The beast had crashed quite solidly into the ground, but with the alteration in his retreat Semeion was able to easily duck under the creature’s tail and make a bee-line for the trees without the dragon knowing which direction to look.

    The green dragon knew at once that his jump had been wrong. It didn’t feel the squish of human flesh underneath that it expected. The beast jerked its body upward and turned to face the approaching mage that had caused the young appetizer to vanish into thin air. “It matters not, spell caster. I shall simply start my meal with your aged flesh instead.” With a simple blink of its eyes, the air around the dragon thickened like a dense fog making visibility downright impossible. In fact, the fog was so thick and black that light could not penetrate into the area at all. Master Sathwright was caught in the area of darkness without knowing precisely which way to run to escape the draconic foe.

    As the dragon turned its attention to Master Sathwright, Semeion reached the forest and dove behind a fallen and rotting tree. After resting for only a few seconds on his back he turned around and peered over the fallen tree back out into the treeless hilltop. Semeion realized that where he had known his master to be now there was only a cloud of inky blackness. His sky blue eyes darted right and left in an attempt to find any sign of his master. His soul urged him to cry out, but he also knew that any noise would defeat the advantage that his master had given to him. Dragons could hunt by sound as well as by sight. Yelling in anger would only guarantee his own destruction.

    Only seconds passed before an electric ray shot out of the cloud and nearly singed Semeion as it sailed over his head. Instinctively he ducked his head back behind the tree, convinced that spell was a part of his master’s repertoire. As Semeion picked his head up once more to view the inky cloud his fears were confirmed. The green dragon sailed straight into the air, rising out of the black cloud. The beast crushed his master’s body in its mouth, the sharp protruding teeth penetrating through Master Sathwright’s body from both above and below. The mage’s limp body hung from the beast’s mouth. Master Sathwright’s arms and legs flapped in the wind in response to the heavy beat of the dragon’s wings. The sudden surges which resulted in several quick changes in altitude only caused the body to jerk even more.

    Every fiber in Semeion’s body called upon him to cry out in pain and horror. Every fiber desired to lash out in anger against the beast. His hand trembled as he tried to recall any one of his arcane powers, but the agony inside was too much for his mind to wade through. Unable to call upon even a single power, he slumped back against the ground. He knew this self preservation mechanism was for his own good. If he were to use any magic the casting of the spell would reveal his location to the dragon just as much as a shout would.

    The green dragon circled overhead long enough for the inky cloud to dissipate. Semeion was unsure if the effect deteriorated on its own as the magical energies dispersed or if the wind helped end its power prematurely. Either way, Semeion watched as the large dragon made wide sweeping circles overhead.

    The dragon banked sharply out of anger one last time, frustrated in its inability to find the younger morsel. In anger the beast bit down firmly into the dead body of Master Sathwright. The dragon’s teeth tore into the flesh and with a quick shake of its head the dragon severed the body in half. The two severed pieces fell limply to the ground in roughly the same location as the dragon must have snatched Master Sathwright off of the earth to begin with.

    Semeion could only bury his head in his arms and shield his eyes from the gruesome sight. His teeth bit into his lower lip until it bled; the taste of iron sickened his already weak stomach. He could no longer watch the proceedings of the dragon though he knew his master was beyond any help now. He heard the dragon land onto the hillside and pick up half of the dead body. The dragon chewed loudly and slurped the body down into its throat. Several hard swallows later and the dragon felt the urge to speak its arrogant proclamation.

    “I will find you, child. Your tender meat will taste better to me than this grizzled old man. You cannot hide from Gharixilox. This is my forest and I will find you. Your master’s protective spell cannot prevent me from finding you eventually.”

    As Semeion listened, he heard the dragon bend its neck down and the creature’s jaws grasped onto the remaining half of his master’s body. Semeion burned the dragon’s name into his mind. One day he would return and slay this foul beast. With luck he would even eat the meat off of the bones of this creature. He would take the hide and present it as an offering to his master’s widow and children. He would even grind up one of the beast’s teeth and add it to wine in a pact of vengeance come full circle. He vowed that before he died he would exact revenge upon Gharixilox. He also vowed to be prepared. He would not let his master die in vain and would not return until he was ready. Semeion would take his time, plotting the day in which this forest would be free from this draconic presence.

    As he struggled with the mental anguish coursing through his mind, Semeion quickly learned that the stress had frozen his muscles into a single position. The shock of the encounter had left him temporarily paralyzed. For hours Semeion lay behind the fallen tree. Even after his master’s protective spell faded he could not bring himself to move. Gharixilox had called out a few more taunts and then promptly left the area in search of another easy meal to fill its belly. Even then he could not bring himself to move from the spot in which he lay. His mind forced him into an uneasy, unmoving, and silent sleep.

    He awoke many hours later as the sun’s rays once more wrested the land free of the darkness that held it fast during the night. As he woke then next morning he stretched, glad to finally be free of the mental paralysis. He was stiff from being in the same position for so long, but he would manage. Once the sun drew higher into the sky Semeion brought himself to the point where he could stand. His muscles complained bitterly with every movement, with every step that Semeion took.

    With each fall of his foot he removed himself from the pain that for him would permanently rest on the face of that hillside. Several hours later he returned to his home city. He had made it back to Reignsburg alive in spite of the draconic promises that Gharixilox had made about finding him. As he passed through the city gates he remembered just how prophetic his master’s words had been.

    Semeion lightly repeated some of the last words that his master had spoken. “If you are truly going to graduate from my tutelage then you shall have no need to call me Master Sathwright any more. You have earned enough respect by this point for you to call me Richard. If it is to be the last command that I give you as your master, then it will be a fitting one to ensure the closing out that relational dynamic.”

    Semeion was now alone. His master had gotten his wish. Semeion had no choice but to step boldly into his own life and step out of the shadow of his beloved master.

    “I will make you proud, Richard.” A single tear dropped from his cheek onto the beaten ground beneath him as he entered the city of Reignsburg alone.

    Color Free Speech Section

    Chapter One: A GRIM TALE OF FRIENDSHIP

    The view was absolutely perfect from atop the hillside. This was one of the few treeless mounds that rose up above the forest canopy to the southeast of Reignsburg. The two figures that stood and looked out over the forest knew that they were looking upon Earl Sniblett’s land. The sunlight glinted off of the treetops and as the wind blew across the canopy of the forest it made the whole forest seem as if it was in a motion like the waves blowing across a great lake.

    The elder of the two figures called out loudly to the one coming behind him. “Isn’t it beautiful, Semeion?” It was fairly clear from the sound of his voice that the one who spoke was hoping to catch an echo on the cloudless day.

    Semeion, whose name quite literally means miracle, turned to face the one who spoke to him. “It is indeed beautiful, master. I am glad we decided to come up here to view it together. Do you come here often?”

    Semeion’s short black hair moved little in the prevailing gusts of winds. His sky blue eyes squinted as he looked into the brightness of the rays of light that the sun sent down from above. He smiled as he beheld the beauty of the land at his feet from atop the treeless hill.

    The elder of the two figures replied, “I used to come here often when I desired time to myself, Semeion. The gentle swaying of the treetops below has always had a calming effect on me. The gentle motion of the green leaves has always made it easier for me to focus on my talents. Talents that you must learn to focus on without having me to hound you, good sir.”

    Semeion raised his hand to shade his eyes from the light as he turned to look at his master. A small smirk touched the corners of his lips as he was called sir by his master. Semeion’s master excelled at humbling himself in everyone’s company. He did not fear to take the lower position if it meant an opportunity to lift someone else up in their own eyes. “Master Sathwright,” Semeion began before he was cut off by his master.

    “As I told you at the beginning of this journey, Semeion, you are to call me Richard now. If you are truly going to graduate from my tutelage then you shall have no need to call me Master Sathwright any more. You have earned enough respect by this point for you to call me Richard. If it is to be the last command that I give you as your master, then it will be a fitting one to ensure the closing out that relational dynamic.”

    The smirk on Semeion’s lips disappeared as quickly and his master’s earlier comment had put it there. “Master Sathwright, I protest greatly at your belief that I am ready to leave your service! I have no desire to leave your side, ever. I am far from eclipsing the things that you can teach me about the powers that you wield.”

    Master Sathwright chuckled and turned away from Semeion. He planned to ascend the hill even further, distancing himself from his pupil. The distance would be a symbolic act that would be a demonstration to Semeion that they would need to separate. Of course it was to be expected that Semeion would close the gap once he noticed that his master moved away.

    The master wizard waited until Semeion was enraptured by the moving of the leaves and he began his climb to the top of the hill. Just as a particularly strong gust of wind rolled across the forest canopy Master Sathwright began his journey to higher ground. The wind blew for nearly a minute and Semeion’s face grew in exaltation as he watched the magnificent power of the wind push the topmost branches from one side to another in a wave of movement. It was the greatest display of an invisible force he had ever seen.

    The wind simply amazed Semeion. In truth, it was the wind that was to blame for his interest in all matters arcane. He longed to understand how something that was simply not there could move and push objects that clearly had a discernable weight. If the weightless and the invisible wind could inflict its will upon the physical realm then he reasoned that there had to be something greater in the universe that could bring force out of nothing. As he trained, Semeion longed to be able to accomplish even the simplest task that the wind could accomplish without effort.

    As the wind began to die, Semeion turned to speak to his master only to find that Master Sathwright had already moved off a fair distance. Semeion grabbed his gray cloak in one hand and pulled it several inches off of the ground so that he could run towards his master. As the first footstep toward his master hit the ground the earth below him shook violently. Semeion ignored this physical warning. “Master, wait for me!” Semeion cried out.

    Semeion assumed it was his voice that caused Master Sathwright to turn and look at his pupil. In truth, Master Sathwright knew better than to turn to the voice of Semeion, especially today. If Master Sathwright turned every time Semeion called for him Semeion would never develop the necessary skills to be out on his own.

    Yet, Master Sathwright did indeed turn this time to face his pupil. He did not turn at the beckon of his pupil, however. He turned because he feared the vibration that he felt in the land. As his master turned, Semeion saw the smile upon his master’s face turn into a look of pure horror and panic.

    “Run hard, Semeion!” cried Master Sathwright. “Run like the wind!”

    Semeion looked over his should as he ran, only to see a glimpse of what his master had already seen in full view. An enormous green dragon had lurched out of the forest below once it realized that its prey was no longer looking in the direction from which it planned its assault. The frill atop the dragon’s head rose up on end as its own adrenaline prepared the massive body for its first deadly strike. As the tips of the frill elevated off of the dragon’s head the rest of the frill along the dragon’s neck and back also leapt up into motion. Even the beast’s emerald scales glistened in the sunlight as the undulating of the dragon’s muscles shifted the angle of reflection from the sun almost constantly.

    Master Sathwright instinctively charged the position of Semeion knowing that Semeion had neither the magical ability nor the force of will to withstand a single attack from the beast. As he ran, he saw Semeion turn to look over his shoulder. He also saw his pupil’s left toes catch on a simple rock. He helpless looked on as Semeion’s body hurtled itself down onto the rocky hillside as the green dragon strode towards him.

    The green dragon couldn’t help but to observe this simple tactical error on behalf of the young Semeion. The dragon reared back on its massive back haunches and prepared for a simple pounce. What had seemed like a decent adventure for the dragon had turned into one of the easiest catches of the year.

    Master Sathwright searched his mind for the words that he knew were buried deep within. A split second later his mind retrieved them and he instinctively yelled, “Semeion, get up and run!” He paused for just enough time to watch Semeion scramble to his feet and take a single step.

    Master Sathwright could see in the dragon’s eyes that the beast was already calculating where it would have to pounce to trap the young boy under one of its massive claws. Before it was too late, Master Sathwright yelled out a command that harnessed the magical essence around him, “Para Doithican Fael-tru!” He knew the spell was a long shot but it was the best he could do unprepared. Dragons were excellent hunters regardless of their ability to see their prey. Inside he cursed himself for not calculating this possibility and preparing an appropriate spell for this situation. He knew that any large forest could potentially hold a green dragon.

    At his master’s words, Semeion’s eyesight took on a faded blue tint. From past experience he knew that this indicated that he had been relegated to an invisible status. He took one step more in the direction that he was heading and then he veered ninety degrees to his right. This course adjustment would lead him into the forest in as straight a line as possible.

    The dragon leapt skyward and with a single thrust of its wings it surged up into the air. In mid-flight the beast saw its prey vanish into thin air but it had already begun its attack. The dragon altered its tactics. Rather than attempt to land in a manner that would trap the boy under a claw, the beast landed on the ground solidly in a posture obviously designed to crush anything caught underneath its entire massive body. The dragon knew that this attack posture would kill his prey outright and deprive it of the pleasure of killing it in a much more personal means; but the dragon also knew that invisible prey were much more of a challenge to catch. With the prospect of two humans to dine upon the dragon wanted to end the fight with as much possibility of catching both for dinner.

    Master Sathwright could only pray that his spell had given Semeion enough time to evade the dragon. He stopped his charge immediately, realizing that with the dragon’s pounce he was now within range of a serious strike from the dragon’s powerful jaws. He had hoped to avoid getting this close to the razor sharp teeth of the dragon unless Semeion was in dire danger. It was a tactical error he made in his own panic to save the life of his apprentice.

    Through the blue haze of the invisibility spell Semeion saw the dragon lurch into the air and soar over his own head. The beast had crashed quite solidly into the ground, but with the alteration in his retreat Semeion was able to easily duck under the creature’s tail and make a bee-line for the trees without the dragon knowing which direction to look.

    The green dragon knew at once that his jump had been wrong. It didn’t feel the squish of human flesh underneath that it expected. The beast jerked its body upward and turned to face the approaching mage that had caused the young appetizer to vanish into thin air. “It matters not, spell caster. I shall simply start my meal with your aged flesh instead.” With a simple blink of its eyes, the air around the dragon thickened like a dense fog making visibility downright impossible. In fact, the fog was so thick and black that light could not penetrate into the area at all. Master Sathwright was caught in the area of darkness without knowing precisely which way to run to escape the draconic foe.

    As the dragon turned its attention to Master Sathwright, Semeion reached the forest and dove behind a fallen and rotting tree. After resting for only a few seconds on his back he turned around and peered over the fallen tree back out into the treeless hilltop. Semeion realized that where he had known his master to be now there was only a cloud of inky blackness. His sky blue eyes darted right and left in an attempt to find any sign of his master. His soul urged him to cry out, but he also knew that any noise would defeat the advantage that his master had given to him. Dragons could hunt by sound as well as by sight. Yelling in anger would only guarantee his own destruction.

    Only seconds passed before an electric ray shot out of the cloud and nearly singed Semeion as it sailed over his head. Instinctively he ducked his head back behind the tree, convinced that spell was a part of his master’s repertoire. As Semeion picked his head up once more to view the inky cloud his fears were confirmed. The green dragon sailed straight into the air, rising out of the black cloud. The beast crushed his master’s body in its mouth, the sharp protruding teeth penetrating through Master Sathwright’s body from both above and below. The mage’s limp body hung from the beast’s mouth. Master Sathwright’s arms and legs flapped in the wind in response to the heavy beat of the dragon’s wings. The sudden surges which resulted in several quick changes in altitude only caused the body to jerk even more.

    Every fiber in Semeion’s body called upon him to cry out in pain and horror. Every fiber desired to lash out in anger against the beast. His hand trembled as he tried to recall any one of his arcane powers, but the agony inside was too much for his mind to wade through. Unable to call upon even a single power, he slumped back against the ground. He knew this self preservation mechanism was for his own good. If he were to use any magic the casting of the spell would reveal his location to the dragon just as much as a shout would.

    The green dragon circled overhead long enough for the inky cloud to dissipate. Semeion was unsure if the effect deteriorated on its own as the magical energies dispersed or if the wind helped end its power prematurely. Either way, Semeion watched as the large dragon made wide sweeping circles overhead.

    The dragon banked sharply out of anger one last time, frustrated in its inability to find the younger morsel. In anger the beast bit down firmly into the dead body of Master Sathwright. The dragon’s teeth tore into the flesh and with a quick shake of its head the dragon severed the body in half. The two severed pieces fell limply to the ground in roughly the same location as the dragon must have snatched Master Sathwright off of the earth to begin with.

    Semeion could only bury his head in his arms and shield his eyes from the gruesome sight. His teeth bit into his lower lip until it bled; the taste of iron sickened his already weak stomach. He could no longer watch the proceedings of the dragon though he knew his master was beyond any help now. He heard the dragon land onto the hillside and pick up half of the dead body. The dragon chewed loudly and slurped the body down into its throat. Several hard swallows later and the dragon felt the urge to speak its arrogant proclamation.

    “I will find you, child. Your tender meat will taste better to me than this grizzled old man. You cannot hide from Gharixilox. This is my forest and I will find you. Your master’s protective spell cannot prevent me from finding you eventually.”

    As Semeion listened, he heard the dragon bend its neck down and the creature’s jaws grasped onto the remaining half of his master’s body. Semeion burned the dragon’s name into his mind. One day he would return and slay this foul beast. With luck he would even eat the meat off of the bones of this creature. He would take the hide and present it as an offering to his master’s widow and children. He would even grind up one of the beast’s teeth and add it to wine in a pact of vengeance come full circle. He vowed that before he died he would exact revenge upon Gharixilox. He also vowed to be prepared. He would not let his master die in vain and would not return until he was ready. Semeion would take his time, plotting the day in which this forest would be free from this draconic presence.

    As he struggled with the mental anguish coursing through his mind, Semeion quickly learned that the stress had frozen his muscles into a single position. The shock of the encounter had left him temporarily paralyzed. For hours Semeion lay behind the fallen tree. Even after his master’s protective spell faded he could not bring himself to move. Gharixilox had called out a few more taunts and then promptly left the area in search of another easy meal to fill its belly. Even then he could not bring himself to move from the spot in which he lay. His mind forced him into an uneasy, unmoving, and silent sleep.

    He awoke many hours later as the sun’s rays once more wrested the land free of the darkness that held it fast during the night. As he woke then next morning he stretched, glad to finally be free of the mental paralysis. He was stiff from being in the same position for so long, but he would manage. Once the sun drew higher into the sky Semeion brought himself to the point where he could stand. His muscles complained bitterly with every movement, with every step that Semeion took.

    With each fall of his foot he removed himself from the pain that for him would permanently rest on the face of that hillside. Several hours later he returned to his home city. He had made it back to Reignsburg alive in spite of the draconic promises that Gharixilox had made about finding him. As he passed through the city gates he remembered just how prophetic his master’s words had been.

    Semeion lightly repeated some of the last words that his master had spoken. “If you are truly going to graduate from my tutelage then you shall have no need to call me Master Sathwright any more. You have earned enough respect by this point for you to call me Richard. If it is to be the last command that I give you as your master, then it will be a fitting one to ensure the closing out that relational dynamic.”

    Semeion was now alone. His master had gotten his wish. Semeion had no choice but to step boldly into his own life and step out of the shadow of his beloved master.

    “I will make you proud, Richard.” A single tear dropped from his cheek onto the beaten ground beneath him as he entered the city of Reignsburg alone.
    Last edited by Nonlethal Force; Friday, 12th January, 2007 at 11:07 PM.
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    Semeion was unsure where to turn once he arrived back in Reignsburg. He knew his way back through the city well enough, but internally his emotions pulled him in vastly different directions. He consciously knew that it would be required of his honor to speak to the family of his master. They would need to know fairly quickly that Richard would not be returning to their home.

    He found the street through the city that would eventually lead him back to the home and his master’s workshop. Yet, as the turned to follow the avenue a great sense of fear welled up inside of him. His mind coursed with the various ways in which to tell the now widow of her husband’s death. He visualized the pain and sorrow that he would bring upon the family. Semeion shook his head from side to side to clear the thoughts, not realizing he stood in the middle of the street while doing so.

    A cry came forth drawing Semeion back to reality. “Watch out, lad!” As the warning burrowed deep into Semeion’s mind in order to overcome the distant world to which his thoughts had taken him a carriage driver swerved to avoid trampling Semeion while he stood in the middle of the street. Semeion turned to apologize to the carriage driver only to realize that another oncoming carriage had to swerve to miss the first carriage. As this carriage swerved a passing rider on horseback jerked hard on his reigns to turn the horse away from the near carriage accident. Semeion saw the horse turn so that he was directly into the path of the horse. From the body language of the rider Semeion knew the rider did not see him standing in the street.

    One driver cursed at the other driver. “Watch where you are going, you tottery old fool!”

    The second driver spun around to reply to the insult of the first driver once he was sure the carriage would not topple over on account of the sudden swerve. “Don’t curse me, you diaper-wearing child! I’ve driven carriage for more years than you’ve been alive!”

    People walking along the side of the street began to yell and gasp as Semeion was nearly crushed by the first carriage and was on the verge of being trampled by the unsuspecting horse. The rider of the threatening horse lifted his hand in the form of a fist and began to shake it at the second driver. It appeared as though the rider had no clue Semeion was standing in his hose's path.

    Semeion shouted in self-defense with his left arm outstretched toward the horse. “Garidzomanai!” The fingers on his hand spread open wide as if he intended to catch the horse’s flared nostrils in the palm of his hand. Instinctually, his right hand flashed inside the small pouch he carried on his belt and the fingers of his right hand found the piece of wool they searched for. With a quick stroke his fingers rubbed the wool a single time as he spoke and a brilliant spark leapt of each of Semeion’s fingers. The sparks merged together in the air and jumped the few feet of distance between his fingers and the horse’s head. The sparks shot straight for the horse’s nose and landed with a bright, pressure free explosion.

    The brilliant light flashed before the horse’s eyes, startling the horse and causing it to rear back onto its hind legs. Semeion crouched low to the ground out of a simple instinct to avoid being kicked in the face by the rearing horse. The rider, who at this point was only controlling the horse with his knees and a single hand, was caught off guard as his eyes and shaking fist were on the swerving carriages.

    A startled cry from the rider rang out as the rearing of the horse caused him to lose his balance in the saddle. The crash of metal armor hitting the cobblestone street rang up and down the street as the crashing sound bounced off of the various brick faced storefronts that lined the street. As the swerving carriages passed by Semeion and the rider of the horse fell to the ground, the rest of the traffic on the street came to a halt until the commotion was resolved. A few of the passer-bys on the sides of the street all stopped and looked on in curiosity.

    Quickly these passer-bys began to mumble and pointed fingers of blame. A passing dwarf pointed an accusatory finger in Semeion’s direction and exclaimed, “The lad should not be in the street!” Another onlooker corrected the dwarf by saying, “The boy was protecting himself from the horse!” A third person yelled, “That first carriage was driving far too fast for such a busy street of commerce. These carriage drivers now days have no respect for the pedestrians anyway!” Before too long, groups of dissent and discussion broke out along the fringe of the accident scene. Soon everyone was arguing with one another and the majority of them were yelling in Semeion’s direction.

    The once pupil now turned mage rose from his crouched position and saw the dazed horse standing a mere foot away from his location. Semeion saw the rider completely for the first time and realized that he was dressed in chain armor. The weight of the chain made it hard to rise up off of the ground without help. The rider struggled to roll himself off of his back and up onto his knees from which position he would be able to stand easier. Semeion stepped toward the rider in order to help but was too late.

    A separate group of onlookers had also focused on the armored rider fall to the ground. Once the commotion settled and the traffic was stopped they rush over to help lift the rider up from his back. “We’ll help you up, sir, just stay still and give us a hand. We’ll get you to your feet and up on your horse before you can do it yourself in that armor! Do you have a name, sir?”

    Unable to help and knowing that his inner turmoil was the cause of the scene, Semeion suddenly added embarrassment to the list of emotions coursing through his body. Rather than stick around, he pulled his gray cloak tightly around him and turned to pass down the street in the opposite direction of his master’s home. His feet shuffled quickly, especially when it was necessary to try and push his way through the crowd that had gathered. Most of the crowd resisted his pushing and tried to grab hold of him to retain him so that the horseback rider could deal with him. Fortunately, Semeion was not a large man and evaded most of their attempts to grab hold of him.

    Semeion shouted at anyone who did manage to hold onto him for more than a second. “Let me go, I must leave! You’ve no idea what is wrong, just leave me alone!”

    Eventually Semeion broke free of the crowd and charged down the street in a full panicked run. He knew he hadn’t committed any illegal acts, but the embarrassment at the hands of the people was more than he could bear so close to the loss of his master. This was now twice he was unable to avoid the circumstances that life brought his way and the world seemed to be conspiring against him.

    The crowd pointed and heckled him as he began to leave, shouting to the rider on the horse that he was fleeing the scene. As the ones around Semeion heckled him, the people rushing to help the rider had managed to get him onto his feet. His well trained horse had not left the rider’s side throughout the entire incident.

    The rider stepped up into the stirrups and lifted himself into the saddle of his horse. “Good girl, Elistra. It’s alright.” The rider spoke softly into the horse’s ears as he turned his body back and forth in order to use his height in the saddle to scan over the crowd. He lifted the visor of his helm to reveal a smiling human face. His face was covered in a well-trimmed moustache and beard. He laughed as he saw Semeion’s gray cloak running down the street. As the cloak flapped in the wind, the rider added, “No worries, friends. Many thanks for the assistance. I think our friend has experienced enough punishment through his own embarrassment. Let him go. You have my word that no damage was done. If anyone should ask, tell them to seek out Ischarus and I'll reassure then that no damage was done.”

    The mood of the crowd instantly turned from arguing to cheering at the humor and honor displayed by the fallen rider. He was obviously naturally gifted at leading people and used his charismatic personality well to his advantage. “Now, if you don’t mind. Shall we go back to the sides of the streets where we all belong so that we can let the carriages and wagons pass along the streets as they are supposed to be able to do? They have been quite patient so far, and seeing as how nobody is hurt I see no reason to keep traffic from moving along any further.”

    The crowd slowly dispersed and traffic began to move along the street as normal. From the saddle, the rider encouraged his horse Elistra to walk for a bit to ensure that she had managed to calm herself down from the excitement and the near trampling of Semeion. After walking a bit, the rider settled the horse into a nice trot and the horse clopped its way down the rest of the street.

    Semeion, on the other hand, continued to run. He ran hard for three blocks straight down the street and then turned to the left. As he ran, he could feel his emotions coming to a head. Anger built up inside of him and he began to feel his body handling the internal struggle better. The more he ran the more focused his anger became. After turning left he ran for a couple of more block before settling into a solid pace. Not knowing where to go he began running around a few of the city blocks. He sputtered nearly unintelligible words while he ran in a zigzag pattern; his thoughts racing far faster than his lips could keep up. After circling a route of several blocks nearly a dozen times Semeion stopped and bent over to rest his hands on his knees. He sucked heavily upon the air around him; his heart pounded hard in his chest. “I must go home, first,” Semeion stated out loud. It was the first expression that he had spoken which made sense since he broke free of the crowd. “I must find out what good it is to study the power of the wind if I am unable to change the fate of the events around me!”

    He walked with a brisk pace over the several city blocks that led him back to his apartment. He ascended the single flight of steps and entered into his small home. The young mage quickly found the pack that he used to carry significant items to his training sessions at his master’s house. Rummaging around in the inside he removed two yellow candles.

    He lit one of the candles and placed it on a low table. Semeion lowered himself so that he sat with his legs crossed before the candle and said, “These candles were your gift of peace to me, Master. You know that the wind and the air fascinate me and both the wind and the air are necessary for the flickering of the flame. Now that you have shown me an even greater expression of the power of the air and the wind around us, I can release these gifts into other service. I shall always treasure candles as a remembrance of your life.”

    Semeion paused in mediation for the entire length of time that the candle took to burn to the table. Many hours passed by as Semeion forced his mind to meditate on his growing power, the life he and his master had together, and the path that stretched out before him. Once the candle had burned all but the smallest remnant of the wax and thus extinguished itself from lack of fuel, Semeion rose and bowed to the table. “I will take my revenge on that dragon. But in order for me to do so I will need to move beyond this pain. That process alone will teach me a great deal of life, and it would seem that you, my master, continue to guide me even in your death. I shall not forget you.”

    Semeion placed the remaining candle back into the pack, gathered up several sticks of incense, and slung the pack over his right shoulder. He checked one final time to make sure the other candle was extinguished and left his apartment, descending the steps three at a time as if to say he was in a hurry.

    Once Semeion arrived in the fresh open air he realized just how long his meditation must have lasted. The sun was already well into its rest and the moon had taken its place as the guardian of the sky. He looked up and greeted the moon. “Now is your time, the time for astronomy and secret knowledge. Guide my footsteps as I tread by your light.”

    His journey was quick as he walked by a rote path. He had eagerly walked these steps day in and day out for the past several years. Semeion traversed this path so often that he practically knew each lose stone in the road and stepped lightly so as to avoid turning an ankle under the soft light of the moon. Before too long he arrived at his destination.

    The house was quiet with only a single light on in the entire dwelling. His master’s workshop was even more dark and still. He paused for a moment as he collected his emotions before proceeding further. He bowed his head in reverence at his master’s workshop and shed another single tear over the loss of Richard Sathwright, wielder of the arcane forces. Semeion lightly bit into his lower lip and turned back to face the house. Slowly he approached and lightly knocked on the door. He heard movement inside.

    His master’s wife quickly cracked the door open, wondering who would be disturbing her at this time of the night. She smiled when she saw Semeion’s face.

    “Semeion! I had feared the worst when you did not return last night. Where is Richard?”

    Semeion could not find the words in his heart to speak plainly. Several moments of silence passed between Semeion and the woman on the other side of the doorway.

    “Semeion, what has happened?” The woman’s voice grew cold as the silence continued.

    “He … Master Sathwright … is dead.” Semeion replied. The words mentally forced out of a mouth that resisted every syllable. Semeion swallowed hard and closed his eyes in a long blink in order to hold back the tears.

    The woman on the other side of the doorway did not hold back her tears at all. Instantly her eyes watered and it seemed like streams had sprouted down her cheeks. Her shirt developed wet circles where her tears would collect on her chin and fall down to the cloth below. “Semeion, come in and tell me that you have told me a lie.”

    Semeion shook his head slowly from side to side. “I cannot do that, ma’am. I will come in and offer a story and give you a gift of my mourning, but I cannot tell you that it is a lie.”

    The woman cried out once in pain. The tears continued to pour down from her face as she turned her back on the door and buried her face in her palms. Semeion opened the door the rest of the way and let himself in. He quietly closed the door behind him and touched the woman’s elbow. “Channah, please sit. It will be easier to bear if you sit.”

    The woman responded to Semeion and sobbed as Semeion guided her to a nearby chair. He sat beside her for nearly 20 minutes while Channah sobbed in anger and mourning. Eventually her tears began to subside and her breathing slowed and became much shallower.

    “Tell me how it happened, Semeion. I do not want to know, but you must tell me.”

    Semeion nodded in agreement. “He died trying to bring me to an understanding of my own freedom, Channah. He led me to his place of meditation to show me wind blowing along the trees.”

    Channah smiled as the tears continued to run down her face. “I know the place well. He went there often. Sometimes he used to take me with him before the children were born. It is a beautiful place.”

    Semeion smiled and nodded. “A considerable dragon of the forest stalked us and came upon me suddenly. Your husband, my master, rushed forward to turn me invisible so that I could flee from the dragon’s presence. Unfortunately as he drew too close to the dragon he was enveloped in the evil darkness. He struggled with what magic he had to offer, but the dragon bested him. I am sorry for not coming to you earlier, but I myself was frozen in pain and horror until this morning. It has been a long journey for me to even return back to Reignsburg and especially to bring myself to your door.”

    Channah smiled. “You were his star, Semeion. He would have easily died for any of his family and for you. You had become like a son for him. It pained him to think about having you leave.”

    “I would have gladly stayed, ma’am. But I now know he was right. It was time for me to go onto my own. If only I could have admitted that earlier.”

    “No, Semeion.” Channah replied. “Richard would have taken you there anyway. It was how he planed his farewell to you – so you could see the demonstration of the wind across the tops of the trees.”

    Semeion looked to the floor and remembered the pack he had brought. He opened up the pack and lifted several sticks of incense along with the yellow candle. “Your husband gave me these sticks of incense and asked me to give them to you to burn should he ever die during one of our journeys. I promised him that I would fulfill that request should it come to pass. The candle was a gift from him to me to remind me that the air and the wind are always around even though we cannot see them. I have already burned one in his honor as I mourned for him. I give the other so that you might do the same and make his honor and my mourning complete.”

    Channah accepted the incense and the candles and laid them solemnly on her lap. She lifted her eyes to Semeion. “I thank you, and now I must really ask a hard favor of you.”

    “Anything, Channah. You have treated me like your own son,” Semeion replied, looking earnestly into the eyes of his master's wife.

    “I ask you to leave me alone for the night. I must mourn in my own way and bring myself to tell the children in the morning. But I ask that you return as often as you can so that together we may keep his memory alive.”

    Semeion opened his mouth to speak but Channah stopped him with a simple gesture with her hand. “We will burn the incense of mourning together when you return.”

    Semeion paused this time, making sure that Channah was done speaking. “I will honor you with that, Channah. I will return tomorrow once the sun has given way to the moon once more. Then we will mourn together.”

    Channah rose and extended a hand outward to embrace Semeion. She breathed in deeply, choking back the tears for just a little more. The two embraced in a long hug and then Channah stepped to her toes and kissed Semeion on the forehead. “Go with Richard’s peace, Semeion. Honor him with your life.”

    Semeion wanted to reply, but he simply nodded and let the honor of having the last word of blessing fall to Channah. He smiled, though his lips betrayed that they were filled with painful emotion. Channah embraced him once more in a hug as Semeion headed for the door. The woman waited in silence for Semeion to step outside and off the porch. As Semeion turned toward the house once more from the road, Channah smiled and closed the door. Just before the door closed, Semeion could see that she had begun to cry again. She would mourn for her husband for a long time.

    Semeion breathed deeply. He needed a drink.

    Color Free Speech Section

    Semeion was unsure where to turn once he arrived back in Reignsburg. He knew his way back through the city well enough, but internally his emotions pulled him in vastly different directions. He consciously knew that it would be required of his honor to speak to the family of his master. They would need to know fairly quickly that Richard would not be returning to their home.

    He found the street through the city that would eventually lead him back to the home and his master’s workshop. Yet, as the turned to follow the avenue a great sense of fear welled up inside of him. His mind coursed with the various ways in which to tell the now widow of her husband’s death. He visualized the pain and sorrow that he would bring upon the family. Semeion shook his head from side to side to clear the thoughts, not realizing he stood in the middle of the street while doing so.

    A cry came forth drawing Semeion back to reality. “Watch out, lad!” As the warning burrowed deep into Semeion’s mind in order to overcome the distant world to which his thoughts had taken him a carriage driver swerved to avoid trampling Semeion while he stood in the middle of the street. Semeion turned to apologize to the carriage driver only to realize that another oncoming carriage had to swerve to miss the first carriage. As this carriage swerved a passing rider on horseback jerked hard on his reigns to turn the horse away from the near carriage accident. Semeion saw the horse turn so that he was directly into the path of the horse. From the body language of the rider Semeion knew the rider did not see him standing in the street.

    One driver cursed at the other driver. “Watch where you are going, you tottery old fool!”

    The second driver spun around to reply to the insult of the first driver once he was sure the carriage would not topple over on account of the sudden swerve. “Don’t curse me, you diaper-wearing child! I’ve driven carriage for more years than you’ve been alive!”

    People walking along the side of the street began to yell and gasp as Semeion was nearly crushed by the first carriage and was on the verge of being trampled by the unsuspecting horse. The rider of the threatening horse lifted his hand in the form of a fist and began to shake it at the second driver. It appeared as though the rider had no clue Semeion was standing in his hose's path.

    Semeion shouted in self-defense with his left arm outstretched toward the horse. “Garidzomanai!” The fingers on his hand spread open wide as if he intended to catch the horse’s flared nostrils in the palm of his hand. Instinctually, his right hand flashed inside the small pouch he carried on his belt and the fingers of his right hand found the piece of wool they searched for. With a quick stroke his fingers rubbed the wool a single time as he spoke and a brilliant spark leapt of each of Semeion’s fingers. The sparks merged together in the air and jumped the few feet of distance between his fingers and the horse’s head. The sparks shot straight for the horse’s nose and landed with a bright, pressure free explosion.

    The brilliant light flashed before the horse’s eyes, startling the horse and causing it to rear back onto its hind legs. Semeion crouched low to the ground out of a simple instinct to avoid being kicked in the face by the rearing horse. The rider, who at this point was only controlling the horse with his knees and a single hand, was caught off guard as his eyes and shaking fist were on the swerving carriages.

    A startled cry from the rider rang out as the rearing of the horse caused him to lose his balance in the saddle. The crash of metal armor hitting the cobblestone street rang up and down the street as the crashing sound bounced off of the various brick faced storefronts that lined the street. As the swerving carriages passed by Semeion and the rider of the horse fell to the ground, the rest of the traffic on the street came to a halt until the commotion was resolved. A few of the passer-bys on the sides of the street all stopped and looked on in curiosity.

    Quickly these passer-bys began to mumble and pointed fingers of blame. A passing dwarf pointed an accusatory finger in Semeion’s direction and exclaimed, “The lad should not be in the street!” Another onlooker corrected the dwarf by saying, “The boy was protecting himself from the horse!” A third person yelled, “That first carriage was driving far too fast for such a busy street of commerce. These carriage drivers now days have no respect for the pedestrians anyway!” Before too long, groups of dissent and discussion broke out along the fringe of the accident scene. Soon everyone was arguing with one another and the majority of them were yelling in Semeion’s direction.

    The once pupil now turned mage rose from his crouched position and saw the dazed horse standing a mere foot away from his location. Semeion saw the rider completely for the first time and realized that he was dressed in chain armor. The weight of the chain made it hard to rise up off of the ground without help. The rider struggled to roll himself off of his back and up onto his knees from which position he would be able to stand easier. Semeion stepped toward the rider in order to help but was too late.

    A separate group of onlookers had also focused on the armored rider fall to the ground. Once the commotion settled and the traffic was stopped they rush over to help lift the rider up from his back. “We’ll help you up, sir, just stay still and give us a hand. We’ll get you to your feet and up on your horse before you can do it yourself in that armor! Do you have a name, sir?”

    Unable to help and knowing that his inner turmoil was the cause of the scene, Semeion suddenly added embarrassment to the list of emotions coursing through his body. Rather than stick around, he pulled his gray cloak tightly around him and turned to pass down the street in the opposite direction of his master’s home. His feet shuffled quickly, especially when it was necessary to try and push his way through the crowd that had gathered. Most of the crowd resisted his pushing and tried to grab hold of him to retain him so that the horseback rider could deal with him. Fortunately, Semeion was not a large man and evaded most of their attempts to grab hold of him.

    Semeion shouted at anyone who did manage to hold onto him for more than a second. “Let me go, I must leave! You’ve no idea what is wrong, just leave me alone!”

    Eventually Semeion broke free of the crowd and charged down the street in a full panicked run. He knew he hadn’t committed any illegal acts, but the embarrassment at the hands of the people was more than he could bear so close to the loss of his master. This was now twice he was unable to avoid the circumstances that life brought his way and the world seemed to be conspiring against him.

    The crowd pointed and heckled him as he began to leave, shouting to the rider on the horse that he was fleeing the scene. As the ones around Semeion heckled him, the people rushing to help the rider had managed to get him onto his feet. His well trained horse had not left the rider’s side throughout the entire incident.

    The rider stepped up into the stirrups and lifted himself into the saddle of his horse. “Good girl, Elistra. It’s alright.” The rider spoke softly into the horse’s ears as he turned his body back and forth in order to use his height in the saddle to scan over the crowd. He lifted the visor of his helm to reveal a smiling human face. His face was covered in a well-trimmed moustache and beard. He laughed as he saw Semeion’s gray cloak running down the street. As the cloak flapped in the wind, the rider added, “No worries, friends. Many thanks for the assistance. I think our friend has experienced enough punishment through his own embarrassment. Let him go. You have my word that no damage was done. If anyone should ask, tell them to seek out Ischarus and I'll reassure then that no damage was done.”

    The mood of the crowd instantly turned from arguing to cheering at the humor and honor displayed by the fallen rider. He was obviously naturally gifted at leading people and used his charismatic personality well to his advantage. “Now, if you don’t mind. Shall we go back to the sides of the streets where we all belong so that we can let the carriages and wagons pass along the streets as they are supposed to be able to do? They have been quite patient so far, and seeing as how nobody is hurt I see no reason to keep traffic from moving along any further.”

    The crowd slowly dispersed and traffic began to move along the street as normal. From the saddle, the rider encouraged his horse Elistra to walk for a bit to ensure that she had managed to calm herself down from the excitement and the near trampling of Semeion. After walking a bit, the rider settled the horse into a nice trot and the horse clopped its way down the rest of the street.

    Semeion, on the other hand, continued to run. He ran hard for three blocks straight down the street and then turned to the left. As he ran, he could feel his emotions coming to a head. Anger built up inside of him and he began to feel his body handling the internal struggle better. The more he ran the more focused his anger became. After turning left he ran for a couple of more block before settling into a solid pace. Not knowing where to go he began running around a few of the city blocks. He sputtered nearly unintelligible words while he ran in a zigzag pattern; his thoughts racing far faster than his lips could keep up. After circling a route of several blocks nearly a dozen times Semeion stopped and bent over to rest his hands on his knees. He sucked heavily upon the air around him; his heart pounded hard in his chest. “I must go home, first,” Semeion stated out loud. It was the first expression that he had spoken which made sense since he broke free of the crowd. “I must find out what good it is to study the power of the wind if I am unable to change the fate of the events around me!”

    He walked with a brisk pace over the several city blocks that led him back to his apartment. He ascended the single flight of steps and entered into his small home. The young mage quickly found the pack that he used to carry significant items to his training sessions at his master’s house. Rummaging around in the inside he removed two yellow candles.

    He lit one of the candles and placed it on a low table. Semeion lowered himself so that he sat with his legs crossed before the candle and said, “These candles were your gift of peace to me, Master. You know that the wind and the air fascinate me and both the wind and the air are necessary for the flickering of the flame. Now that you have shown me an even greater expression of the power of the air and the wind around us, I can release these gifts into other service. I shall always treasure candles as a remembrance of your life.”

    Semeion paused in mediation for the entire length of time that the candle took to burn to the table. Many hours passed by as Semeion forced his mind to meditate on his growing power, the life he and his master had together, and the path that stretched out before him. Once the candle had burned all but the smallest remnant of the wax and thus extinguished itself from lack of fuel, Semeion rose and bowed to the table. “I will take my revenge on that dragon. But in order for me to do so I will need to move beyond this pain. That process alone will teach me a great deal of life, and it would seem that you, my master, continue to guide me even in your death. I shall not forget you.”

    Semeion placed the remaining candle back into the pack, gathered up several sticks of incense, and slung the pack over his right shoulder. He checked one final time to make sure the other candle was extinguished and left his apartment, descending the steps three at a time as if to say he was in a hurry.

    Once Semeion arrived in the fresh open air he realized just how long his meditation must have lasted. The sun was already well into its rest and the moon had taken its place as the guardian of the sky. He looked up and greeted the moon. “Now is your time, the time for astronomy and secret knowledge. Guide my footsteps as I tread by your light.”

    His journey was quick as he walked by a rote path. He had eagerly walked these steps day in and day out for the past several years. Semeion traversed this path so often that he practically knew each lose stone in the road and stepped lightly so as to avoid turning an ankle under the soft light of the moon. Before too long he arrived at his destination.

    The house was quiet with only a single light on in the entire dwelling. His master’s workshop was even more dark and still. He paused for a moment as he collected his emotions before proceeding further. He bowed his head in reverence at his master’s workshop and shed another single tear over the loss of Richard Sathwright, wielder of the arcane forces. Semeion lightly bit into his lower lip and turned back to face the house. Slowly he approached and lightly knocked on the door. He heard movement inside.

    His master’s wife quickly cracked the door open, wondering who would be disturbing her at this time of the night. She smiled when she saw Semeion’s face.

    “Semeion! I had feared the worst when you did not return last night. Where is Richard?”

    Semeion could not find the words in his heart to speak plainly. Several moments of silence passed between Semeion and the woman on the other side of the doorway.

    “Semeion, what has happened?” The woman’s voice grew cold as the silence continued.

    “He … Master Sathwright … is dead.” Semeion replied. The words mentally forced out of a mouth that resisted every syllable. Semeion swallowed hard and closed his eyes in a long blink in order to hold back the tears.

    The woman on the other side of the doorway did not hold back her tears at all. Instantly her eyes watered and it seemed like streams had sprouted down her cheeks. Her shirt developed wet circles where her tears would collect on her chin and fall down to the cloth below. “Semeion, come in and tell me that you have told me a lie.”

    Semeion shook his head slowly from side to side. “I cannot do that, ma’am. I will come in and offer a story and give you a gift of my mourning, but I cannot tell you that it is a lie.”

    The woman cried out once in pain. The tears continued to pour down from her face as she turned her back on the door and buried her face in her palms. Semeion opened the door the rest of the way and let himself in. He quietly closed the door behind him and touched the woman’s elbow. “Channah, please sit. It will be easier to bear if you sit.”

    The woman responded to Semeion and sobbed as Semeion guided her to a nearby chair. He sat beside her for nearly 20 minutes while Channah sobbed in anger and mourning. Eventually her tears began to subside and her breathing slowed and became much shallower.

    “Tell me how it happened, Semeion. I do not want to know, but you must tell me.”

    Semeion nodded in agreement. “He died trying to bring me to an understanding of my own freedom, Channah. He led me to his place of meditation to show me wind blowing along the trees.”

    Channah smiled as the tears continued to run down her face. “I know the place well. He went there often. Sometimes he used to take me with him before the children were born. It is a beautiful place.”

    Semeion smiled and nodded. “A considerable dragon of the forest stalked us and came upon me suddenly. Your husband, my master, rushed forward to turn me invisible so that I could flee from the dragon’s presence. Unfortunately as he drew too close to the dragon he was enveloped in the evil darkness. He struggled with what magic he had to offer, but the dragon bested him. I am sorry for not coming to you earlier, but I myself was frozen in pain and horror until this morning. It has been a long journey for me to even return back to Reignsburg and especially to bring myself to your door.”

    Channah smiled. “You were his star, Semeion. He would have easily died for any of his family and for you. You had become like a son for him. It pained him to think about having you leave.”

    “I would have gladly stayed, ma’am. But I now know he was right. It was time for me to go onto my own. If only I could have admitted that earlier.”

    “No, Semeion.” Channah replied. “Richard would have taken you there anyway. It was how he planed his farewell to you – so you could see the demonstration of the wind across the tops of the trees.”

    Semeion looked to the floor and remembered the pack he had brought. He opened up the pack and lifted several sticks of incense along with the yellow candle. “Your husband gave me these sticks of incense and asked me to give them to you to burn should he ever die during one of our journeys. I promised him that I would fulfill that request should it come to pass. The candle was a gift from him to me to remind me that the air and the wind are always around even though we cannot see them. I have already burned one in his honor as I mourned for him. I give the other so that you might do the same and make his honor and my mourning complete.”

    Channah accepted the incense and the candles and laid them solemnly on her lap. She lifted her eyes to Semeion. “I thank you, and now I must really ask a hard favor of you.”

    “Anything, Channah. You have treated me like your own son,” Semeion replied, looking earnestly into the eyes of his master's wife.

    “I ask you to leave me alone for the night. I must mourn in my own way and bring myself to tell the children in the morning. But I ask that you return as often as you can so that together we may keep his memory alive.”

    Semeion opened his mouth to speak but Channah stopped him with a simple gesture with her hand. “We will burn the incense of mourning together when you return.”

    Semeion paused this time, making sure that Channah was done speaking. “I will honor you with that, Channah. I will return tomorrow once the sun has given way to the moon once more. Then we will mourn together.”

    Channah rose and extended a hand outward to embrace Semeion. She breathed in deeply, choking back the tears for just a little more. The two embraced in a long hug and then Channah stepped to her toes and kissed Semeion on the forehead. “Go with Richard’s peace, Semeion. Honor him with your life.”

    Semeion wanted to reply, but he simply nodded and let the honor of having the last word of blessing fall to Channah. He smiled, though his lips betrayed that they were filled with painful emotion. Channah embraced him once more in a hug as Semeion headed for the door. The woman waited in silence for Semeion to step outside and off the porch. As Semeion turned toward the house once more from the road, Channah smiled and closed the door. Just before the door closed, Semeion could see that she had begun to cry again. She would mourn for her husband for a long time.

    Semeion breathed deeply. He needed a drink.
    Last edited by Nonlethal Force; Tuesday, 28th November, 2006 at 06:34 AM.
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    A few blocks away from the home of the newly widowed Channah Sathwright, two riders on horseback slowly pulled their horses to a halt outside a local popular tavern. Although the riders were only passing through town, they had traveled their route often enough to know the hitching posts in front of the Cachinnating Roadhouse well. It was a stop they frequented every time that they passed through Reignsburg.

    The riders were each dressed in cloaks with the hoods pulled up and over their faces. The effect was to completely shadow their faces from anyone who might casually look in their general direction while still giving them the ability to see straight forward. The lead rider turned his hooded head in the direction of the one who followed and with the index finger of his left hand he pulled the edge of his hood back just enough to be able to see the other rider. “Rhema, I think we should stop for the night. I could use a drink of ale – or at least a glass of water with a twist of lime if you won’t let me drink tonight.” He chuckled a bit, demonstrating to his partner that he was in good spirits.

    “Ischarus, you know that I am not the one who keeps you from drinking your precious ale. As for stopping, I do believe I smell Archis’ famous potatoes. I love his potatoes, Ischarus. I love the way he cooks them long enough over the grill that they assume the flavor of not only the onions but just about everything else that he has cooked on the grill this evening. I’d appreciate it if you’ll do me the favor of stopping.”

    The female voice of the second rider soothingly flowed out of her mouth. The sweet words hinted at flirtation with Ischarus, but stopped just short of demonstrating direct interest. At the beckon of her words, Ischarus pulled back on the reigns for his own horse and with a simple lean of the reigns on the right side of the large horse’s neck he managed to swing the horse into a standing counterclockwise turn so that his horse was facing the Cachinnating Roadhouse. He slipped out of the saddle with a single fluid motion and then took the reigns from Rhema for her own horse. Once he had both horses under control he joined both sets of reigns in his right hand.

    As he moved, Rhema commented from atop her horse, “Oh Ischarus, you simply spoil me so.”

    Ischarus’ smile was well hidden from Rhema by the edge of the hood of his cloak. His words betrayed his pleasure derived from Rhema’s earlier comment. “Nonsense, m’lady. You honor me with your presence. I’ll not have you descend a moving horse and risk twisting one of those fair ankles of yours.” Although their hoods were still both concealing their faces, from her superior position atop her horse Rhema could still look down upon the gray hood of Ischarus and imagine the man beneath the protective cloak. She smiled as the thought satisfied her and she graciously allowed her riding partner to do his job.

    Ischarus spoke softly into the horses’ ears. “Elistra, Shauvry come.” The horses followed Ischarus up to the hitching posts without needing to rely on a strong use of the reigns. Ischarus quickly tied the horses to the hitching post and ducked under the neck of Shauvry. The slight clink of metal armor could be heard as he dipped under the horse. Once he had arrived onto the other side he moved back to Rhema and held out a guiding arm that was covered by the sleeve of his cloak. “M’lady, as it suits your schedule I’m here to assist you.”

    Rhema swung her leg over the side of the horse with nearly the same grace as Ischarus had done upon Elistra. Her movements illustrated that she didn’t need the help of Ischarus. Instead, she seemed to allow him to serve her because it gave him satisfaction. As she slipped out of the saddle, Ischarus slid his hands up the side of her body until the caught her under the arms. He lightly lowered her thin body to the ground, enjoying the curvature of her thin frame.

    Rhema reached up with a hand and caressed the neck of Shauvry. “It’ll only be a short time until the stable boy comes to collect you, dear. Be a good girl and keep Elistra safe.” She slipped her hand back inside the sleeve of her cloak and turned towards the door of the tavern.

    Ischarus stepped ahead and opened the door before Rhema. Light poured out of the entrance of the inn and spilled into the dark night outside the inn. Rhema’s navy blue robe glistened as the light struck it. She stepped inside, leading the way ahead of Ischarus. As Ischarus crossed the threshold of the door and shut the night air out, Rhema pulled back the hood of her cloak and allowed it to naturally fold down her back. She lifted both hands up behind her neck and with a single motion pulled her long dark brown hair out from underneath the collar of her cloak. Her hair settled down along her back with a few strands curling around her ears and falling to the front of her shoulders. She smiled broadly with a near perfectly symmetrical smile as she scanned the room and spotted Archis. He was not only the cook, but also the barkeeper and owner of the Cachinnating Roadhouse . Naturally, Archis returned the smile and nearly didn’t resist giving her body a passing glance while he went about his work.

    As the shorter Rhema pushed the hood of her cloak back, Ischarus followed with the same gesture. He lifted his own hood up and like Rhema he too pulled his black hair out from under his cloak. Rather than looking for Archis, Ischarus played the role of guardian and spotted an empty table surrounded by at least one empty table on each side. He leaned forward into Rhema and pointed with his gauntleted right index finger. “There, m’lady. Your seat awaits and I do believe I can smell the ale and the potatoes being prepared for us as we speak. The sooner we take our seats the quicker Archis can direct the waitress to bring us your heart’s desire.”

    The two sat down at the table and Archis indeed called one of his serving staff to his side. He spent only a moment preparing a few drinks while he sent the staff into the kitchen to fetch some food. When the servant that Archis had beckoned returned from the kitchen, Archis nodded to the table where Ischarus and Rhema sat and pointed to the drinks he had prepared. Ischarus smiled as he saw Archis pointing towards his table.

    Ischarus’ smile turned into a chuckle as the food and drinks approached the table. Rhema looked up and noticed his grin. “Ischarus, what do you find so funny? You’ve not yet had even a single ale to drink!”

    Ischarus only smiled more broadly at Rhema’s accusation. As luck would have it for Rhema, it turned out to be a waiter and not a waitress who brought the potatoes to the table. Approaching the table and noting that there were only two patrons waiting to be served, the waiter placed a single lime water before each of the patrons and placed the steaming plate of potatoes in front of Ischarus. The man chuckled at the simple mistake caused by the waiter’s assumption.

    Ischarus made a bit of small talk as the waiter sat down the drinks and food. “I don’t believe I’ve seen you here before, sir, are you new?”

    The waiter replied in a friendly tone, “Aye, sir. I started the job a mere two weeks ago. Is it that obvious?”

    Ischarus chuckled again at the waiter. “No, not really. Only you’ve put the potatoes in front of the wrong patron. A simple mistake, though. Don’t fret about it at all.”

    The waiter smiled at the fact that his premature assumption had been caught in addition to being incorrect. He turned to Rhema and bowed slightly. “Forgive me, m’lady. Archis merely told me to deliver your usual orders without instructing me on who receives the potatoes. I hope you can understand it was a simple mistake.”

    Rhema smiled as the waiter turned to her, bowed, and spoke. As the waiter stood up to his full height Rhema got the first glance of this waiter’s complete appearance. His dark curly hair lay tight to his head above a face that contained a strong chin and dimples as the waiter smiled and lightly blushed. The strings that were intended to tie his tunic tight to his chest lay slightly unraveled, exposing a well defined collarbone as he bowed. His strong, muscular arms showed through the light fabric of his waiter uniform and Rhema couldn’t help but looking down to his muscular calf muscles as well. It was clear that this waiter cared for his physical appearance.

    She smiled brightly as she replied to the waiter. “It is nothing to concern yourself over, sir. It is a simple mistake indeed, and one gratefully corrected might I add.” As the waiter smiled and turned to leave the table Rhema couldn’t help but lower her eyes and make sure the waiter was as trim and fit from the back as he appeared from the front. Her eyes did not disappoint.

    Ischarus noticed the object of her attention and chuckled once more. “Rhema, your potatoes are getting cold.”

    Rhema turned her head away from the waiter and looked back to her traveling companion, blushing slightly. “What are you looking at?” Her question rang out in a defensive tone to accuse Ischarus as he looked to her inquisitively.

    “Me?” Ischarus replied in a tone that relayed a faux shocked and humored condition. “I believe I am the one who should be asking the question about your eyes wandering and not mine!”

    Rhema blushed even more. “You’re just jealous!” she accused.

    Ischarus lowered his head a bit so that he could mock looking down his nose at her. “You’re avoiding the question at hand.” He smiled and chuckled once more, sipping his water in the process.

    Rhema grabbed for her fork, but Ischarus’ much more powerful hand trapped her hand on the table before it could move too far. “You’ll eat when I get my answer,” Ischarus teased.

    Rhema smiled, enjoying the exchange. “Fine. I was looking. Can’t a girl appreciate a trim physical body when one presents itself?” Rhema fluttered her eyes in a flirtatious manner towards Ischarus.

    Her companion smiled knowingly as she batted her eyelashes in his direction. “Your charms will not work on me, Rhema. But as long as you are honest with yourself and you admit that I caught you judging a book by its cover, I suppose I can let you eat.” Ischarus removed his hand and folded his arms before him. He leaned back in his chair with a satisfied look on his face.

    Rhema finally broke down and laughed. “You’re as protective of me as my brother, Ischarus. She inhaled and allowed a slow sigh to follow her statement. Thanks for keeping me honest.”

    Ischarus looked deeply into her eyes. “M’lady, I swore to protect you. Since I took that oath we’ve become friends at a deeper level than I ever thought would be possible given each of our talents. I enjoy your company. Forgive me if I come off as too protective. I’d never forgive myself if I did anything to hurt our friendship.”

    Rhema nibbled on a bite of potato and added, “I don’t know where I’d be without you, Ischarus. I’m glad you were chosen to journey with me.” She paused for a moment and changed the conversation topic. “I think I’ve finally warmed up from the evening chill outside.”

    Rhema rose from her seat and undid the several clasps that held her navy blue robe in place around her body. She opened the front of the robe and removed it from her shoulders and drew her arms out of the sleeves. After neatly folding it and placing it across the empty chair at the table to her right, she sat down once more.

    Once her robe was removed she exposed her simple beauty underneath. She wore a simple brown shirt whose neckline dipped only a modest 2 inches down below her neck. It exposed her dark skin underneath. The sleeves of the shirt extended down her arms to halfway between her elbow and her wrist. Her arms were clearly those of one who had seen little strenuously exercise to build the muscle tone. She also wore a full length dark brown skirt that covered her legs in entirety. At the bottom of her skirt were two simple bands of color. The topmost band was a simple beige strip of cloth that encircled the skirt. Below it was a much more flashy and decorative swath of material: a thick swatch of lace that had been dyed pale sky blue. This band of lace made up the bottom of the full length skirt. Her feet wore boots whose tops lay temptingly higher up her leg than the bottom of her skirt would allow an onlooker to view.

    As Rhema took off her robe and folded it, Ischarus was careful to watch the other patrons in the Cachinnating Roadhouse rather than watching Rhema as she removed her outer layer of clothing. It was tempting to allow her to capture his focus, but he knew that this was a perfect opportunity to judge the company they kept in the inn this evening. Ischarus made note of one man sitting at the bar who seemed to take significant interest in her plainly beautiful figure.

    As if in a show of power, Ischarus himself stood and removed his own gray robe. Underneath his robe Ischarus demonstrated his own muscular body. He wore a layer of leather above his chain armor. The black leather extended from shoulder to shoulder and down slightly below his waist. His strong arms rippled the chain links as his muscles flexed through the process of removing his cloak. Once he was done folding his own robe he placed it beside Rhema’s own navy blue cloak.

    Ischarus’ hair lay slightly below his shoulders and his chin was framed with a well trimmed beard and moustache. From the waist down, Ischarus wore a simple pair of cloth pants to hide the armor that lay underneath. His leather boots laced up nearly to his knees and covered the cloth pants and the end of the chain armor. His sword rested in its scabbard attached to his belt at his right side.

    Continuing to watch the single individual at the bar, Ischarus sat down in his chair and spoke to Rhema. “Feel better?” Ischarus said, obviously distracted by the man.

    “I’d feel better if you let that man alone, Ischarus. You are my guardian, of course. You are the sword that protects me and the shield that keeps offenders from striking me down. But remember that until they draw a weapon, people are my specialty. Let me deal with him if he comes our way. If he is a lonely man drinking his fill and enjoying the beauty that has been placed on this earth and that’s as far as he takes it, let him enjoy his fantasy.” She smiled as she drew Ischarus’ eyes back to her face with her own gaze.

    Archis himself approached the table and bowed his head slightly until he was addressed. Archis was tall for a gnome, but still considerably shorter than either Ischarus or Rhema. “I took the liberty of sending the stable hand to collect your horses. I peeked and saw the normal two out there. I hope this pleases you.”

    Ischarus smiled broadly at the welcome change of conversation. “Indeed it does, good friend. That is one reason why we stop here each time through your fair city. Your loyalty knows no end.”

    Replied also smiled warmly towards Archis and spoke in addition to Ischarus’ compliment. “Neither does his memory, Ischarus.”

    Archis bowed once more and prepared to leave. “You both honor me with your warm words. If you desire I can arrange for your usual suite?”

    Ischarus smiled and nodded. “It has been a long trip on a dusty road, Archis. I believe the lady will desire a warm bath when we retire. Could you see that arranged as well?”

    The gnome nodded. “Easily done, sir.” The shorter man held up a hand to keep either Rhema or Ischarus from interrupting him. “But I’ve distracted you from you meal long enough now. Please, continue to enjoy your food.” Archis smiled and bowed slightly once more. He left the pair at their table to eat in peace. That was their custom, after all. This pair was more than friendly to all who approached them with sincere and honorable motives; yet they most often ate alone at an isolated table and retired to their suite together. Archis figured that tonight would be no different.

    Color Free Speech Section

    A few blocks away from the home of the newly widowed Channah Sathwright, two riders on horseback slowly pulled their horses to a halt outside a local popular tavern. Although the riders were only passing through town, they had traveled their route often enough to know the hitching posts in front of the Cachinnating Roadhouse well. It was a stop they frequented every time that they passed through Reignsburg.

    The riders were each dressed in cloaks with the hoods pulled up and over their faces. The effect was to completely shadow their faces from anyone who might casually look in their general direction while still giving them the ability to see straight forward. The lead rider turned his hooded head in the direction of the one who followed and with the index finger of his left hand he pulled the edge of his hood back just enough to be able to see the other rider. “Rhema, I think we should stop for the night. I could use a drink of ale – or at least a glass of water with a twist of lime if you won’t let me drink tonight.” He chuckled a bit, demonstrating to his partner that he was in good spirits.

    “Ischarus, you know that I am not the one who keeps you from drinking your precious ale. As for stopping, I do believe I smell Archis’ famous potatoes. I love his potatoes, Ischarus. I love the way he cooks them long enough over the grill that they assume the flavor of not only the onions but just about everything else that he has cooked on the grill this evening. I’d appreciate it if you’ll do me the favor of stopping.”

    The female voice of the second rider soothingly flowed out of her mouth. The sweet words hinted at flirtation with Ischarus, but stopped just short of demonstrating direct interest. At the beckon of her words, Ischarus pulled back on the reigns for his own horse and with a simple lean of the reigns on the right side of the large horse’s neck he managed to swing the horse into a standing counterclockwise turn so that his horse was facing the Cachinnating Roadhouse. He slipped out of the saddle with a single fluid motion and then took the reigns from Rhema for her own horse. Once he had both horses under control he joined both sets of reigns in his right hand.

    As he moved, Rhema commented from atop her horse, “Oh Ischarus, you simply spoil me so.”

    Ischarus’ smile was well hidden from Rhema by the edge of the hood of his cloak. His words betrayed his pleasure derived from Rhema’s earlier comment. “Nonsense, m’lady. You honor me with your presence. I’ll not have you descend a moving horse and risk twisting one of those fair ankles of yours.” Although their hoods were still both concealing their faces, from her superior position atop her horse Rhema could still look down upon the gray hood of Ischarus and imagine the man beneath the protective cloak. She smiled as the thought satisfied her and she graciously allowed her riding partner to do his job.

    Ischarus spoke softly into the horses’ ears. “Elistra, Shauvry come.” The horses followed Ischarus up to the hitching posts without needing to rely on a strong use of the reigns. Ischarus quickly tied the horses to the hitching post and ducked under the neck of Shauvry. The slight clink of metal armor could be heard as he dipped under the horse. Once he had arrived onto the other side he moved back to Rhema and held out a guiding arm that was covered by the sleeve of his cloak. “M’lady, as it suits your schedule I’m here to assist you.”

    Rhema swung her leg over the side of the horse with nearly the same grace as Ischarus had done upon Elistra. Her movements illustrated that she didn’t need the help of Ischarus. Instead, she seemed to allow him to serve her because it gave him satisfaction. As she slipped out of the saddle, Ischarus slid his hands up the side of her body until the caught her under the arms. He lightly lowered her thin body to the ground, enjoying the curvature of her thin frame.

    Rhema reached up with a hand and caressed the neck of Shauvry. “It’ll only be a short time until the stable boy comes to collect you, dear. Be a good girl and keep Elistra safe.” She slipped her hand back inside the sleeve of her cloak and turned towards the door of the tavern.

    Ischarus stepped ahead and opened the door before Rhema. Light poured out of the entrance of the inn and spilled into the dark night outside the inn. Rhema’s navy blue robe glistened as the light struck it. She stepped inside, leading the way ahead of Ischarus. As Ischarus crossed the threshold of the door and shut the night air out, Rhema pulled back the hood of her cloak and allowed it to naturally fold down her back. She lifted both hands up behind her neck and with a single motion pulled her long dark brown hair out from underneath the collar of her cloak. Her hair settled down along her back with a few strands curling around her ears and falling to the front of her shoulders. She smiled broadly with a near perfectly symmetrical smile as she scanned the room and spotted Archis. He was not only the cook, but also the barkeeper and owner of the Cachinnating Roadhouse . Naturally, Archis returned the smile and nearly didn’t resist giving her body a passing glance while he went about his work.

    As the shorter Rhema pushed the hood of her cloak back, Ischarus followed with the same gesture. He lifted his own hood up and like Rhema he too pulled his black hair out from under his cloak. Rather than looking for Archis, Ischarus played the role of guardian and spotted an empty table surrounded by at least one empty table on each side. He leaned forward into Rhema and pointed with his gauntleted right index finger. “There, m’lady. Your seat awaits and I do believe I can smell the ale and the potatoes being prepared for us as we speak. The sooner we take our seats the quicker Archis can direct the waitress to bring us your heart’s desire.”

    The two sat down at the table and Archis indeed called one of his serving staff to his side. He spent only a moment preparing a few drinks while he sent the staff into the kitchen to fetch some food. When the servant that Archis had beckoned returned from the kitchen, Archis nodded to the table where Ischarus and Rhema sat and pointed to the drinks he had prepared. Ischarus smiled as he saw Archis pointing towards his table.

    Ischarus’ smile turned into a chuckle as the food and drinks approached the table. Rhema looked up and noticed his grin. “Ischarus, what do you find so funny? You’ve not yet had even a single ale to drink!”

    Ischarus only smiled more broadly at Rhema’s accusation. As luck would have it for Rhema, it turned out to be a waiter and not a waitress who brought the potatoes to the table. Approaching the table and noting that there were only two patrons waiting to be served, the waiter placed a single lime water before each of the patrons and placed the steaming plate of potatoes in front of Ischarus. The man chuckled at the simple mistake caused by the waiter’s assumption.

    Ischarus made a bit of small talk as the waiter sat down the drinks and food. “I don’t believe I’ve seen you here before, sir, are you new?”

    The waiter replied in a friendly tone, “Aye, sir. I started the job a mere two weeks ago. Is it that obvious?”

    Ischarus chuckled again at the waiter. “No, not really. Only you’ve put the potatoes in front of the wrong patron. A simple mistake, though. Don’t fret about it at all.”

    The waiter smiled at the fact that his premature assumption had been caught in addition to being incorrect. He turned to Rhema and bowed slightly. “Forgive me, m’lady. Archis merely told me to deliver your usual orders without instructing me on who receives the potatoes. I hope you can understand it was a simple mistake.”

    Rhema smiled as the waiter turned to her, bowed, and spoke. As the waiter stood up to his full height Rhema got the first glance of this waiter’s complete appearance. His dark curly hair lay tight to his head above a face that contained a strong chin and dimples as the waiter smiled and lightly blushed. The strings that were intended to tie his tunic tight to his chest lay slightly unraveled, exposing a well defined collarbone as he bowed. His strong, muscular arms showed through the light fabric of his waiter uniform and Rhema couldn’t help but looking down to his muscular calf muscles as well. It was clear that this waiter cared for his physical appearance.

    She smiled brightly as she replied to the waiter. “It is nothing to concern yourself over, sir. It is a simple mistake indeed, and one gratefully corrected might I add.” As the waiter smiled and turned to leave the table Rhema couldn’t help but lower her eyes and make sure the waiter was as trim and fit from the back as he appeared from the front. Her eyes did not disappoint.

    Ischarus noticed the object of her attention and chuckled once more. “Rhema, your potatoes are getting cold.”

    Rhema turned her head away from the waiter and looked back to her traveling companion, blushing slightly. “What are you looking at?” Her question rang out in a defensive tone to accuse Ischarus as he looked to her inquisitively.

    “Me?” Ischarus replied in a tone that relayed a faux shocked and humored condition. “I believe I am the one who should be asking the question about your eyes wandering and not mine!”

    Rhema blushed even more. “You’re just jealous!” she accused.

    Ischarus lowered his head a bit so that he could mock looking down his nose at her. “You’re avoiding the question at hand.” He smiled and chuckled once more, sipping his water in the process.

    Rhema grabbed for her fork, but Ischarus’ much more powerful hand trapped her hand on the table before it could move too far. “You’ll eat when I get my answer,” Ischarus teased.

    Rhema smiled, enjoying the exchange. “Fine. I was looking. Can’t a girl appreciate a trim physical body when one presents itself?” Rhema fluttered her eyes in a flirtatious manner towards Ischarus.

    Her companion smiled knowingly as she batted her eyelashes in his direction. “Your charms will not work on me, Rhema. But as long as you are honest with yourself and you admit that I caught you judging a book by its cover, I suppose I can let you eat.” Ischarus removed his hand and folded his arms before him. He leaned back in his chair with a satisfied look on his face.

    Rhema finally broke down and laughed. “You’re as protective of me as my brother, Ischarus. She inhaled and allowed a slow sigh to follow her statement. Thanks for keeping me honest.”

    Ischarus looked deeply into her eyes. “M’lady, I swore to protect you. Since I took that oath we’ve become friends at a deeper level than I ever thought would be possible given each of our talents. I enjoy your company. Forgive me if I come off as too protective. I’d never forgive myself if I did anything to hurt our friendship.”

    Rhema nibbled on a bite of potato and added, “I don’t know where I’d be without you, Ischarus. I’m glad you were chosen to journey with me.” She paused for a moment and changed the conversation topic. “I think I’ve finally warmed up from the evening chill outside.”

    Rhema rose from her seat and undid the several clasps that held her navy blue robe in place around her body. She opened the front of the robe and removed it from her shoulders and drew her arms out of the sleeves. After neatly folding it and placing it across the empty chair at the table to her right, she sat down once more.

    Once her robe was removed she exposed her simple beauty underneath. She wore a simple brown shirt whose neckline dipped only a modest 2 inches down below her neck. It exposed her dark skin underneath. The sleeves of the shirt extended down her arms to halfway between her elbow and her wrist. Her arms were clearly those of one who had seen little strenuously exercise to build the muscle tone. She also wore a full length dark brown skirt that covered her legs in entirety. At the bottom of her skirt were two simple bands of color. The topmost band was a simple beige strip of cloth that encircled the skirt. Below it was a much more flashy and decorative swath of material: a thick swatch of lace that had been dyed pale sky blue. This band of lace made up the bottom of the full length skirt. Her feet wore boots whose tops lay temptingly higher up her leg than the bottom of her skirt would allow an onlooker to view.

    As Rhema took off her robe and folded it, Ischarus was careful to watch the other patrons in the Cachinnating Roadhouse rather than watching Rhema as she removed her outer layer of clothing. It was tempting to allow her to capture his focus, but he knew that this was a perfect opportunity to judge the company they kept in the inn this evening. Ischarus made note of one man sitting at the bar who seemed to take significant interest in her plainly beautiful figure.

    As if in a show of power, Ischarus himself stood and removed his own gray robe. Underneath his robe Ischarus demonstrated his own muscular body. He wore a layer of leather above his chain armor. The black leather extended from shoulder to shoulder and down slightly below his waist. His strong arms rippled the chain links as his muscles flexed through the process of removing his cloak. Once he was done folding his own robe he placed it beside Rhema’s own navy blue cloak.

    Ischarus’ hair lay slightly below his shoulders and his chin was framed with a well trimmed beard and moustache. From the waist down, Ischarus wore a simple pair of cloth pants to hide the armor that lay underneath. His leather boots laced up nearly to his knees and covered the cloth pants and the end of the chain armor. His sword rested in its scabbard attached to his belt at his right side.

    Continuing to watch the single individual at the bar, Ischarus sat down in his chair and spoke to Rhema. “Feel better?” Ischarus said, obviously distracted by the man.

    “I’d feel better if you let that man alone, Ischarus. You are my guardian, of course. You are the sword that protects me and the shield that keeps offenders from striking me down. But remember that until they draw a weapon, people are my specialty. Let me deal with him if he comes our way. If he is a lonely man drinking his fill and enjoying the beauty that has been placed on this earth and that’s as far as he takes it, let him enjoy his fantasy.” She smiled as she drew Ischarus’ eyes back to her face with her own gaze.

    Archis himself approached the table and bowed his head slightly until he was addressed. Archis was tall for a gnome, but still considerably shorter than either Ischarus or Rhema. “I took the liberty of sending the stable hand to collect your horses. I peeked and saw the normal two out there. I hope this pleases you.”

    Ischarus smiled broadly at the welcome change of conversation. “Indeed it does, good friend. That is one reason why we stop here each time through your fair city. Your loyalty knows no end.”

    Replied also smiled warmly towards Archis and spoke in addition to Ischarus’ compliment. “Neither does his memory, Ischarus.”

    Archis bowed once more and prepared to leave. “You both honor me with your warm words. If you desire I can arrange for your usual suite?”

    Ischarus smiled and nodded. “It has been a long trip on a dusty road, Archis. I believe the lady will desire a warm bath when we retire. Could you see that arranged as well?”

    The gnome nodded. “Easily done, sir.” The shorter man held up a hand to keep either Rhema or Ischarus from interrupting him. “But I’ve distracted you from you meal long enough now. Please, continue to enjoy your food.” Archis smiled and bowed slightly once more. He left the pair at their table to eat in peace. That was their custom, after all. This pair was more than friendly to all who approached them with sincere and honorable motives; yet they most often ate alone at an isolated table and retired to their suite together. Archis figured that tonight would be no different.
    Last edited by Nonlethal Force; Tuesday, 5th December, 2006 at 10:46 PM. Reason: Simple fixes, Standard Editing
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    Just outside the Cachinnating Roadhouse, Semeion approached the door. The chill in the air caused him to pull his cloak tightly around his form so that only his nose peeked out and left a small hole through which his eyes could watch the ground. His protruding nose caught a whiff of Archis’ famed potatoes and he breathed in deeply to inhale the scent. His pace quickened a bit as he hurried to the door.

    Semeion easily opened the door just enough to slip inside and then he allowed the door to close as quickly as possible. It was his first time in this place; his master forbade his attendance by using the explanation that ale was a bad drink to mix with arcane talents. With the acceptance of the unlimited power of the arcane came the responsibility of always keeping oneself in control. It was bad enough when a sword wielding fighter got drunk. People were at risk of being injured in such a case. But when an arcanist should lose control of his responsibility the world was potentially at risk.

    Semeion hesitated by the door just long enough to take in the room. Archis noticed him hanging out by the door and invited him in further. “Pull back your hood and pull up a chair at the bar, friend. Come in away from the door and you’ll warm up soon enough. Put some of my potatoes in your belly and top it with a little ale and you’ll find yourself refreshed in a hurry.” The tall gnome smiled as he flashed his hand toward Semeion with a gesture that indicated an invitation.

    Ischarus smiled as Semeion pulled back his hood. The semi-lost expression on Semeion’s face revealed to Ischarus that he wasn’t altogether familiar with taverns and roadhouses. Rhema wrinkled her eyebrows as if to ask Ischarus what had caught his attention behind her. Ischarus smiled and nodded in Semeion’s direction. Rhema turned slightly and gazed at Semeion out of the corner of her eye as the newcomer pulled the hood of his cloak back.

    She turned her head back to Ischarus and scooped up another fork full of potatoes. Before she ate them she added, “Aw, he’s a cute one. I bet he’s never been in here before, though.”

    Ischarus chuckled again. “Is there any guy you don’t find attractive, Rhema?”

    Rhema smirked as she chewed and after she swallowed she added, “Besides you, Ischarus? I can’t think of anyone. Even Archis is cute in a gnome sort of way. I just like people, you know that.” Ischarus only smiled in response.

    Semeion took the gnome’s advice and stepped towards the bar. Only once he had committed himself to sitting at the bar did he notice that all those at the bar were already staring at him. Desiring to not draw any more attention to himself than he already had Semeion hurried to the bar and took the first open seat. The burly man who was already seated beside him said, “Gronk won’t like you when he returns, kid.”

    Semeion turned to the man and stopped for a moment to observe the speaker who had greeted him in such a gruff manner. Semeion took in the throwing axe strapped to each leg, the battle axe hung from the man’s belt, and the great sword strapped to his back. It didn’t take much for Semeion to realize this man was far out of his league. As Semeion looked to the man’s face he realized the gruff man must have had some orcish blood in his family. His forehead was large and blunt and he had an enormous yet flat nose that flared with each breath. His bottom canine teeth extended up from his lower jaw and stuck out enough to trap his upper lip when his mouth was closed. Semeion seriously considered leaving without even offering a simply reply.

    Naturally, before Semeion could make up his mind about leaving a large hand grabbed him from behind and lifted him from the bar seat. “You in my chair, boy. You best not have drunk my ale.”

    The man who had originally spoken to Semeion continued to look straight ahead over the top of the bar as he addressed the young mage. “I see you’ve now met my brother Gronk. I warned you to move.”

    Archis quickly stepped up and spoke to the orc-blooded brothers, “Listen here Gronk and Frak. I’ll not have trouble in the Roadhouse tonight. Especially against someone who’s not been here before. This ain’t no way to treat a new customer and for my sake I expect you to put him down.”

    Before Gronk or Frak could reply, a sweet voice originated from directly behind Gronk. “You’ll let the boy down onto the stool and release him. You’re going to let him come and sit at our table so he can leave you and your brother alone for the rest of the night. That way, you can enjoy your potatoes and ale and forget this ever happened.” The voice was soothing in its slow and convincing speech.

    Gronk did as the voice said. He released Semeion back to the seat on the stool. Semeion quickly scrambled off of the seat as Gronk turned to face his challenger. Semeion and Gronk both saw Rhema for the first time as she boldly stood less than 3 feet from the much taller Gronk. The massive orc-blooded man dwarfed the delicately framed Rhema.

    Gronk rejected Rhema out of hand immediately upon seeing her. “Bah. What do you think you were going to be able to do to me, woman? I should throw you outside just for interrupting my fun.”

    Semeion attempted to prepare himself to recall his arcane powers should this situation turn ugly. Ischarus, however, remained seated at the table and snuck a few of Rhema’s potatoes while she was otherwise distracted. He smirked at the orc-blooded man’s challenge.

    Rhema smiled once more and her delicate lips parted slightly as she prepared to speak. “Listen, Gronk. We’re all here to just enjoy ourselves and enjoy a good meal. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be eating some of Archis’ potatoes right now than being involved in this little altercation.” Her voice remained calm in spite of the obvious physical treat.

    Gronk sneered at the smaller woman and his left hand reached for the axe on his side. Rhema lifted her index finger to her temple and Gronk immediately dropped to his knees well before he could securely reach his weapon. As Rhema focused in on Gronk, the half-orc man cried out after being brought to his knees. “Stop, lady! Gronk just want have fun with lady. Gronk not really hurt lady.”

    Rhema smiled. “I thought you would see it my way,” she said as she removed her finger from her temple. “Now stand up like the good fighter than you are. Turn around and sit down onto the stool. Enjoy those potatoes and that ale of yours. Most importantly, forget that this ever happened.”

    Gronk wordlessly obeyed Rhema’s commands, appearing as if he feared another one of the woman’s silent attacks. Rhema reached out a welcoming hand to Semeion and said, “Hey, why don’t you come over here and join my friend and myself. You can sit with us and tell us a little bit about yourself.”

    Semeion returned Rhema’s smile and replied, “You know, I think I’d like that. This is my first time being in here, if you couldn’t tell.”

    Rhema closed her fingers around Semeion’s hand and led him back to the table. “Really,” she replied as though she hadn’t considered the fact that Semeion appeared out of his normal routine, “I would have never noticed myself.”

    As Semeion approached the table, Ischarus got a better look at the young mage and smiled as he approached. “Welcome, friend.” He added, forgetting that Rhema’s fork was still in his hand.

    “Hey!” interjected Rhema. “You were eating my potatoes while I was helping this poor lad try and find a place to sit. I can’t believe you are that kind of an opportunist.” Rhema’s speech took on a slightly fake wounded tone as she winked at Semeion.

    Ischarus rose up out of his seat and reached across the table to put his hand on her shoulder. “It’s alright; I’ll go get another plate for our guest, here. I’m sure that he might enjoy the food and I bet he’d be willing to share. You know, unlike some people I know. Besides, I think that I owe him a plate of potatoes.” Ischarus played with Rhema's mind as his eyes danced in a slight eye roll.

    Rhema only laughed in return. “You do that, you noble man. Go get food for your guest and when you come back perhaps he will grace us with his tale.” She turned and looked into Semeion’s eyes.

    Ischarus returned quickly with a plate of potatoes and a glass of water with lime in it. Semeion readily accepted the plate of potatoes and chuckled to himself when he received the glass of water with lime. The chuckle inspired Ischarus to inquire about the response from Semeion. “Inside joke you’d care to let us in on?” Ischarus added a friendly smile as he inquired of Semeion’s chuckle.

    Semeion shook his head from side to side as he stuffed a potato into his mouth. “No, no secret, really. Just something someone I knew used to say to me. He would always advise against me getting ale to drink. He said it was a bad combination with being able to think straight and maintain control.”

    Ischarus replied with a wink to Rhema. “Sound advice if you ask me. I know my friend here won’t let me touch the stuff either.” Ischarus left a wink for Rhema; Rhema merely rolled her eyes at the gesture and the remark.

    Rhema replied, “Don’t let Ischarus kid you. He wouldn’t touch the stuff even if you put it right in front of him. He doesn’t care for the taste if you ask me. But if you ask him it is a control issue. He doesn’t like to carry a sword that’s able to separate a person’s head from their shoulders and not be in control of his decision making at all times.”

    Semeion looked to Ischarus and then quickly back to the potatoes. Lifting the glass of water with the lime in it he adds, “Yeah. Sounds a lot like my master’s advice.” Semeion’s tone took on a sorrowful tone with this last expression.

    Rhema picked up on the tone and continued, “I’m Rhema, by the way. Good to meet you. If you don’t mind me asking I noticed a bit of hurt in that tone of yours when you talk about your master. You mind if I ask why?”

    Semeion chocked back the emotion as he tried to relay the story of his master’s tragic demise. As part of the story, Semeion told about how he came back into town, almost caused an accident, and visited his master’s widow just before coming to the Cachinnating Roadhouse. A sheepish grin crossed over Ischarus’ face as Semeion talked. After telling the story Semeion looked at Ischarus and could feel his inner turmoil being eased merely by telling the story. Inquiring of the sheepish grin Semeion asked, “What’s so funny?”

    Semeion couldn’t help but laugh a little bit over Ischarus’ silly grin. His body relished the brief opportunity to laugh after the last two days of pain. Ischarus replied, “Well, I thought when I first saw you that I owed you a plate of potatoes.”

    Semeion looked to Ischarus and laughed a couple more times and replied, “What do you mean?” Rhema seconded Semeion’s inquiry with an inquisitive look of her own.

    “Well,” continued Ischarus while looking to Rhema. “Remember when I returned to the stables and said I was delayed on my trip home because I nearly was run over by a carriage and in the process of steering Elistra away I nearly ran over a cloaked person? Well, I believe our cloaked person has found me in return!”

    Semeion couldn’t believe his ears. He looked down to his plate of potatoes in sheer embarrassment. Ischarus and Rhema both noticed his body language and Rhema replied, “Hey, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”

    Ischarus added, “Indeed. If anyone should be embarrassed it should be me for nearly running Elistra into you!”

    Semeion looked up and shook his head. “You two are amazing. I embarrass myself in front of each of you and you make a point to make me feel better.” A slight smile returned to his face as he spoke.

    Rhema reached out with her delicate fingers and lifted his chin so that she looked straight into his eyes. “Now you listen to me, Semeion. You’ve nothing to apologize for. You’ve lost your master and had a lot on your mind. I’m actually impressed with your behavior and think it has been incredibly mature. In all actuality, I think your master was right in that you were ready to strike out on your own.”

    Her confidence seemed to stream from her eyes as well as through her touch and into his body. “Thanks,” was all that Semeion could muster.

    Ischarus grinned with a bright idea. “In fact, if you’ve got nothing else to fill your time, I think we could use a person of your type on our quests. We could use a person with your talents. You know how to ride well?”

    Semeion replied, “Well, I do know how to ride but it’s been a while. Unfortunately I don’t have a horse of my own. But I might be interested in finding something new to occupy my time. What is it that you guys do with your time?”

    Rhema smiled and turned to Ischarus and replied, “I’ll let you handle this.”

    Ischarus looked into Semeion’s eyes and added with a straight face. “We traffic women across the border out of Quehalost and into Tongra.”

    Semeion responded in complete surprise. “You go into Quehalost? By yourselves?” After a few moments Semeion’s expression turned to utter confusion and he added, “You traffic women?”

    Rhema burst out into laughter and Ischarus began to chuckle as well. “Technically we traffic women, children, and men across the border. We don’t really care about age or gender. You see, there are many people trapped within that evil land that simply do not know anything but pain, torture, abuse, and physical labor through slavery. It’s my job to go in and bring people out into freedom. I’ve been doing it for about two years now. Rhema here has been my assistant for almost all of that time.”

    Rhema interjected, “Yeah, my dad operated one of the safe houses that Ischarus brought his freed passengers to. My dad helps them learn a new culture and find employment so that they can stand on their own feet. When Ischarus brought his first rescue back it was a beautiful red haired Drakontos girl who was to be a sacrifice to the ancient wyrm that they served. It took a long time to break her of her belief that she could be anything but a sacrifice so that the dragon wouldn’t destroy their village. It took several months, but my dad and I did it. I learned that I have a real passion for dealing with people – in more ways than one. I like helping people and building them up. So when Ischarus returned a second time with two men that he had saved I volunteered to join him. He knew about my gifts and admitted that while I was a bit on the frail side that my silver tongue would really make his work easier. Since then we’ve been partners. He swore to my father to protect me, but I end up saving more often than not.”

    Ischarus looked at Rhema with a look that spoke more than simple appreciation while she told her story. After a few seconds he realized Rhema stopped talking and he brought himself back into reality. He picked up the conversation where Rhema had left off. “Ah, yeah. You’ll notice that I didn’t bother getting up to protect her from that half-orc over there. Rhema doesn’t look like much, but if she can get into your mind before you can draw a weapon she’ll win every time. She didn’t need my protection, though I’d have generously offered it.”

    Semeion looked at Ischarus and then back to Rhema. “You guys are serious? You venture into Quehalost regularly and return alive? Wow, that’s amazing. And to think of putting your talents to good use like that. I think I could definitely be interested in helping you all out. If you’ll have me, that is. Well, I’d at least like to go along once and see what happens.”

    Ischarus put his hand on Semeion’s shoulder. “Well, Rhema and I were going to head out of town for Quehalost tomorrow morning. I think we could afford to stay in town for another day to let you think things through and give you a chance to think about it. We’d need to find you a horse, but that wouldn’t be much trouble. You got any money, Semeion?”

    “I have a little. Probably not enough to buy a horse, though. But I can pay my own nights and meals and stuff.” Semeion’s excited tone illustrated that he began to think highly of this possibility. He longed to set his life in a new direction given that his life in Reignsburg had just lost momentum. This would be a new direction and a chance to do something good in his life. This would be a way to make Master Sathwright’s death have meaning. Semeion made up his mind. He would ride with them if he could find a horse.

    “I’ll … uh. I’ll think about it.” Semeion said with a smile on his face. “Can I meet you here for lunch tomorrow and let you know for sure?”

    Rhema let out a little squeal of delight. Ischarus rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Lunch will be fine. Just in case I’ll talk to the stable master where we board Elistra and Shauvry and see if he knows of a few horses we might go look at come tomorrow afternoon. You know, of course, if you’re still interested.”

    Semeion said, “Yeah. I think that should work. I’ll let you know tomorrow then.” A broad smile crossed his face as he finished the last of his potatoes. He looked down as his fork scraped across the metal plate. “Oh. It looks like I didn’t leave any to share,” Semeion confided.

    Rhema laughed. “That’s all right. I’m sure you can pay us back sometime.” Rhema winked at Semeion and leaned back in her chair with a contented look upon her face. The three sat around the table for another hour talking about the past adventures of Rhema and Ischarus before returning to their homes for the night.

    Color Free Speech Section

    Just outside the Cachinnating Roadhouse, Semeion approached the door. The chill in the air caused him to pull his cloak tightly around his form so that only his nose peeked out and left a small hole through which his eyes could watch the ground. His protruding nose caught a whiff of Archis’ famed potatoes and he breathed in deeply to inhale the scent. His pace quickened a bit as he hurried to the door.

    Semeion easily opened the door just enough to slip inside and then he allowed the door to close as quickly as possible. It was his first time in this place; his master forbade his attendance by using the explanation that ale was a bad drink to mix with arcane talents. With the acceptance of the unlimited power of the arcane came the responsibility of always keeping oneself in control. It was bad enough when a sword wielding fighter got drunk. People were at risk of being injured in such a case. But when an arcanist should lose control of his responsibility the world was potentially at risk.

    Semeion hesitated by the door just long enough to take in the room. Archis noticed him hanging out by the door and invited him in further. “Pull back your hood and pull up a chair at the bar, friend. Come in away from the door and you’ll warm up soon enough. Put some of my potatoes in your belly and top it with a little ale and you’ll find yourself refreshed in a hurry.” The tall gnome smiled as he flashed his hand toward Semeion with a gesture that indicated an invitation.

    Ischarus smiled as Semeion pulled back his hood. The semi-lost expression on Semeion’s face revealed to Ischarus that he wasn’t altogether familiar with taverns and roadhouses. Rhema wrinkled her eyebrows as if to ask Ischarus what had caught his attention behind her. Ischarus smiled and nodded in Semeion’s direction. Rhema turned slightly and gazed at Semeion out of the corner of her eye as the newcomer pulled the hood of his cloak back.

    She turned her head back to Ischarus and scooped up another fork full of potatoes. Before she ate them she added, “Aw, he’s a cute one. I bet he’s never been in here before, though.”

    Ischarus chuckled again. “Is there any guy you don’t find attractive, Rhema?”

    Rhema smirked as she chewed and after she swallowed she added, “Besides you, Ischarus? I can’t think of anyone. Even Archis is cute in a gnome sort of way. I just like people, you know that.” Ischarus only smiled in response.

    Semeion took the gnome’s advice and stepped towards the bar. Only once he had committed himself to sitting at the bar did he notice that all those at the bar were already staring at him. Desiring to not draw any more attention to himself than he already had Semeion hurried to the bar and took the first open seat. The burly man who was already seated beside him said, “Gronk won’t like you when he returns, kid.”

    Semeion turned to the man and stopped for a moment to observe the speaker who had greeted him in such a gruff manner. Semeion took in the throwing axe strapped to each leg, the battle axe hung from the man’s belt, and the great sword strapped to his back. It didn’t take much for Semeion to realize this man was far out of his league. As Semeion looked to the man’s face he realized the gruff man must have had some orcish blood in his family. His forehead was large and blunt and he had an enormous yet flat nose that flared with each breath. His bottom canine teeth extended up from his lower jaw and stuck out enough to trap his upper lip when his mouth was closed. Semeion seriously considered leaving without even offering a simply reply.

    Naturally, before Semeion could make up his mind about leaving a large hand grabbed him from behind and lifted him from the bar seat. “You in my chair, boy. You best not have drunk my ale.”

    The man who had originally spoken to Semeion continued to look straight ahead over the top of the bar as he addressed the young mage. “I see you’ve now met my brother Gronk. I warned you to move.”

    Archis quickly stepped up and spoke to the orc-blooded brothers, “Listen here Gronk and Frak. I’ll not have trouble in the Roadhouse tonight. Especially against someone who’s not been here before. This ain’t no way to treat a new customer and for my sake I expect you to put him down.”

    Before Gronk or Frak could reply, a sweet voice originated from directly behind Gronk. “You’ll let the boy down onto the stool and release him. You’re going to let him come and sit at our table so he can leave you and your brother alone for the rest of the night. That way, you can enjoy your potatoes and ale and forget this ever happened.” The voice was soothing in its slow and convincing speech.

    Gronk did as the voice said. He released Semeion back to the seat on the stool. Semeion quickly scrambled off of the seat as Gronk turned to face his challenger. Semeion and Gronk both saw Rhema for the first time as she boldly stood less than 3 feet from the much taller Gronk. The massive orc-blooded man dwarfed the delicately framed Rhema.

    Gronk rejected Rhema out of hand immediately upon seeing her. “Bah. What do you think you were going to be able to do to me, woman? I should throw you outside just for interrupting my fun.”

    Semeion attempted to prepare himself to recall his arcane powers should this situation turn ugly. Ischarus, however, remained seated at the table and snuck a few of Rhema’s potatoes while she was otherwise distracted. He smirked at the orc-blooded man’s challenge.

    Rhema smiled once more and her delicate lips parted slightly as she prepared to speak. “Listen, Gronk. We’re all here to just enjoy ourselves and enjoy a good meal. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be eating some of Archis’ potatoes right now than being involved in this little altercation.” Her voice remained calm in spite of the obvious physical treat.

    Gronk sneered at the smaller woman and his left hand reached for the axe on his side. Rhema lifted her index finger to her temple and Gronk immediately dropped to his knees well before he could securely reach his weapon. As Rhema focused in on Gronk, the half-orc man cried out after being brought to his knees. “Stop, lady! Gronk just want have fun with lady. Gronk not really hurt lady.”

    Rhema smiled. “I thought you would see it my way,” she said as she removed her finger from her temple. “Now stand up like the good fighter than you are. Turn around and sit down onto the stool. Enjoy those potatoes and that ale of yours. Most importantly, forget that this ever happened.”

    Gronk wordlessly obeyed Rhema’s commands, appearing as if he feared another one of the woman’s silent attacks. Rhema reached out a welcoming hand to Semeion and said, “Hey, why don’t you come over here and join my friend and myself. You can sit with us and tell us a little bit about yourself.”

    Semeion returned Rhema’s smile and replied, “You know, I think I’d like that. This is my first time being in here, if you couldn’t tell.”

    Rhema closed her fingers around Semeion’s hand and led him back to the table. “Really,” she replied as though she hadn’t considered the fact that Semeion appeared out of his normal routine, “I would have never noticed myself.”

    As Semeion approached the table, Ischarus got a better look at the young mage and smiled as he approached. “Welcome, friend.” He added, forgetting that Rhema’s fork was still in his hand.

    “Hey!” interjected Rhema. “You were eating my potatoes while I was helping this poor lad try and find a place to sit. I can’t believe you are that kind of an opportunist.” Rhema’s speech took on a slightly fake wounded tone as she winked at Semeion.

    Ischarus rose up out of his seat and reached across the table to put his hand on her shoulder. “It’s alright; I’ll go get another plate for our guest, here. I’m sure that he might enjoy the food and I bet he’d be willing to share. You know, unlike some people I know. Besides, I think that I owe him a plate of potatoes.” Ischarus played with Rhema's mind as his eyes danced in a slight eye roll.

    Rhema only laughed in return. “You do that, you noble man. Go get food for your guest and when you come back perhaps he will grace us with his tale.” She turned and looked into Semeion’s eyes.

    Ischarus returned quickly with a plate of potatoes and a glass of water with lime in it. Semeion readily accepted the plate of potatoes and chuckled to himself when he received the glass of water with lime. The chuckle inspired Ischarus to inquire about the response from Semeion. “Inside joke you’d care to let us in on?” Ischarus added a friendly smile as he inquired of Semeion’s chuckle.

    Semeion shook his head from side to side as he stuffed a potato into his mouth. “No, no secret, really. Just something someone I knew used to say to me. He would always advise against me getting ale to drink. He said it was a bad combination with being able to think straight and maintain control.”

    Ischarus replied with a wink to Rhema. “Sound advice if you ask me. I know my friend here won’t let me touch the stuff either.” Ischarus left a wink for Rhema; Rhema merely rolled her eyes at the gesture and the remark.

    Rhema replied, “Don’t let Ischarus kid you. He wouldn’t touch the stuff even if you put it right in front of him. He doesn’t care for the taste if you ask me. But if you ask him it is a control issue. He doesn’t like to carry a sword that’s able to separate a person’s head from their shoulders and not be in control of his decision making at all times.”

    Semeion looked to Ischarus and then quickly back to the potatoes. Lifting the glass of water with the lime in it he adds, “Yeah. Sounds a lot like my master’s advice.” Semeion’s tone took on a sorrowful tone with this last expression.

    Rhema picked up on the tone and continued, “I’m Rhema, by the way. Good to meet you. If you don’t mind me asking I noticed a bit of hurt in that tone of yours when you talk about your master. You mind if I ask why?”

    Semeion chocked back the emotion as he tried to relay the story of his master’s tragic demise. As part of the story, Semeion told about how he came back into town, almost caused an accident, and visited his master’s widow just before coming to the Cachinnating Roadhouse. A sheepish grin crossed over Ischarus’ face as Semeion talked. After telling the story Semeion looked at Ischarus and could feel his inner turmoil being eased merely by telling the story. Inquiring of the sheepish grin Semeion asked, “What’s so funny?”

    Semeion couldn’t help but laugh a little bit over Ischarus’ silly grin. His body relished the brief opportunity to laugh after the last two days of pain. Ischarus replied, “Well, I thought when I first saw you that I owed you a plate of potatoes.”

    Semeion looked to Ischarus and laughed a couple more times and replied, “What do you mean?” Rhema seconded Semeion’s inquiry with an inquisitive look of her own.

    “Well,” continued Ischarus while looking to Rhema. “Remember when I returned to the stables and said I was delayed on my trip home because I nearly was run over by a carriage and in the process of steering Elistra away I nearly ran over a cloaked person? Well, I believe our cloaked person has found me in return!”

    Semeion couldn’t believe his ears. He looked down to his plate of potatoes in sheer embarrassment. Ischarus and Rhema both noticed his body language and Rhema replied, “Hey, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”

    Ischarus added, “Indeed. If anyone should be embarrassed it should be me for nearly running Elistra into you!”

    Semeion looked up and shook his head. “You two are amazing. I embarrass myself in front of each of you and you make a point to make me feel better.” A slight smile returned to his face as he spoke.

    Rhema reached out with her delicate fingers and lifted his chin so that she looked straight into his eyes. “Now you listen to me, Semeion. You’ve nothing to apologize for. You’ve lost your master and had a lot on your mind. I’m actually impressed with your behavior and think it has been incredibly mature. In all actuality, I think your master was right in that you were ready to strike out on your own.”

    Her confidence seemed to stream from her eyes as well as through her touch and into his body. “Thanks,” was all that Semeion could muster.

    Ischarus grinned with a bright idea. “In fact, if you’ve got nothing else to fill your time, I think we could use a person of your type on our quests. We could use a person with your talents. You know how to ride well?”

    Semeion replied, “Well, I do know how to ride but it’s been a while. Unfortunately I don’t have a horse of my own. But I might be interested in finding something new to occupy my time. What is it that you guys do with your time?”

    Rhema smiled and turned to Ischarus and replied, “I’ll let you handle this.”

    Ischarus looked into Semeion’s eyes and added with a straight face. “We traffic women across the border out of Quehalost and into Tongra.”

    Semeion responded in complete surprise. “You go into Quehalost? By yourselves?” After a few moments Semeion’s expression turned to utter confusion and he added, “You traffic women?”

    Rhema burst out into laughter and Ischarus began to chuckle as well. “Technically we traffic women, children, and men across the border. We don’t really care about age or gender. You see, there are many people trapped within that evil land that simply do not know anything but pain, torture, abuse, and physical labor through slavery. It’s my job to go in and bring people out into freedom. I’ve been doing it for about two years now. Rhema here has been my assistant for almost all of that time.”

    Rhema interjected, “Yeah, my dad operated one of the safe houses that Ischarus brought his freed passengers to. My dad helps them learn a new culture and find employment so that they can stand on their own feet. When Ischarus brought his first rescue back it was a beautiful red haired Drakontos girl who was to be a sacrifice to the ancient wyrm that they served. It took a long time to break her of her belief that she could be anything but a sacrifice so that the dragon wouldn’t destroy their village. It took several months, but my dad and I did it. I learned that I have a real passion for dealing with people – in more ways than one. I like helping people and building them up. So when Ischarus returned a second time with two men that he had saved I volunteered to join him. He knew about my gifts and admitted that while I was a bit on the frail side that my silver tongue would really make his work easier. Since then we’ve been partners. He swore to my father to protect me, but I end up saving more often than not.”

    Ischarus looked at Rhema with a look that spoke more than simple appreciation while she told her story. After a few seconds he realized Rhema stopped talking and he brought himself back into reality. He picked up the conversation where Rhema had left off. “Ah, yeah. You’ll notice that I didn’t bother getting up to protect her from that half-orc over there. Rhema doesn’t look like much, but if she can get into your mind before you can draw a weapon she’ll win every time. She didn’t need my protection, though I’d have generously offered it.”

    Semeion looked at Ischarus and then back to Rhema. “You guys are serious? You venture into Quehalost regularly and return alive? Wow, that’s amazing. And to think of putting your talents to good use like that. I think I could definitely be interested in helping you all out. If you’ll have me, that is. Well, I’d at least like to go along once and see what happens.”

    Ischarus put his hand on Semeion’s shoulder. “Well, Rhema and I were going to head out of town for Quehalost tomorrow morning. I think we could afford to stay in town for another day to let you think things through and give you a chance to think about it. We’d need to find you a horse, but that wouldn’t be much trouble. You got any money, Semeion?”

    “I have a little. Probably not enough to buy a horse, though. But I can pay my own nights and meals and stuff.” Semeion’s excited tone illustrated that he began to think highly of this possibility. He longed to set his life in a new direction given that his life in Reignsburg had just lost momentum. This would be a new direction and a chance to do something good in his life. This would be a way to make Master Sathwright’s death have meaning. Semeion made up his mind. He would ride with them if he could find a horse.

    “I’ll … uh. I’ll think about it.” Semeion said with a smile on his face. “Can I meet you here for lunch tomorrow and let you know for sure?”

    Rhema let out a little squeal of delight. Ischarus rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Lunch will be fine. Just in case I’ll talk to the stable master where we board Elistra and Shauvry and see if he knows of a few horses we might go look at come tomorrow afternoon. You know, of course, if you’re still interested.”

    Semeion said, “Yeah. I think that should work. I’ll let you know tomorrow then.” A broad smile crossed his face as he finished the last of his potatoes. He looked down as his fork scraped across the metal plate. “Oh. It looks like I didn’t leave any to share,” Semeion confided.

    Rhema laughed. “That’s all right. I’m sure you can pay us back sometime.” Rhema winked at Semeion and leaned back in her chair with a contented look upon her face. The three sat around the table for another hour talking about the past adventures of Rhema and Ischarus before returning to their homes for the night.
    Last edited by Nonlethal Force; Tuesday, 21st November, 2006 at 08:13 PM.
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    Three days later, three cloaked riders left the city of Reignsburg behind them and headed south for the mountains that separated the region of Tongra from the region of Quehalost. It had taken them a bit longer than Ischarus thought to find a horse that was suitable for Semeion to ride into hostile territory. The majority of the difficulty was in Semeion’s ability to pay for a horse that would be a reliable means of escape. Ischarus was very clear that Semeion needed to ride a stable yet reasonably quick horse because of the speed of the pursuit once the freedom of an enslaved person or persons had been achieved.

    Semeion had begun to question his ability to help the team be successful when Ischarus told him the story of how the red haired girl had been saved from the ancient red wyrm. Ischarus had no problems confessing that while he was frozen in fear of the beast’s tremendous pursuit it was actually Elistra’s instincts that saved them. Elistra wasn’t unable to out run the beast, but she was able to run through deep cover that forced the dragon to proceed on foot and lose the trail. Semeion had more than once grow ill at the thought of putting his life in such peril.

    Of course, in order to purchase the horse Semeion had to sell many of his personal belongings. He sold everything but the clothes on his back and what few arcane gifts Master Sathwright had instructed him to be necessary for the pursuit of his magical talents. As Semeion rode away from the only hometown he could remember having he bowed his head in reflection and a silent goodbye.

    Rhema slowly pulled Shauvry over beside Semeion and Thana, his new mount. “Don’t worry, Semeion. Ischarus and I always stop and spend a night in Reignsburg before heading out into Quehalost. In fact, we always spend a night when we return from Quehalost as well. Archis’ potatoes have become our traditional welcome home and going away dinners. You’ll be back.” Her genuine smile helped to embrace Semeion in the warmth of her words.

    Semeion returned the smile in appreciation of the words. He had already grown accustomed to Rhema’s sensitivities and realized that while her compassion could be interpreted as interest in forming a relationship it really was her gift in touching people’s souls. Her compassion was not self-motivated but motivated honestly for the betterment of others.

    All these thoughts passed through his mind as he replied to Rhema. “I’m not so much worried about coming back as I am seeing Channah, my master’s widow. She’s alone with the children now and I fear that she might not be able to support herself. I’ll regret not being around to check in on her.”

    Ischarus replied, “Well, it is not uncommon for us to find equipment and gems as we attempt to stop evil from doing its work. Often some of the best ways to ensure that you aren’t pursued is to remove their weapons so that they can’t effectively come after you. Or, in the case of a slaver the best way to keep a slaver from coming after you is to plunder his accessible wealth. If he doesn’t have the money to pay his hired goons he can’t well send them after you. The great thing about hired goons is that they won’t work if you can’t pay them.” Ischarus chuckled and smiled as he remembered several of his past trips.

    Semeion added, “But doesn’t that make them want to hunt you down even more?”

    Rhema laughed. “Very true, it does. But that is why we take a little time off at my family’s home. First of all, in the journey home the ones that we rescue become quite dependant upon us. It wouldn’t be fair to them if we rescued them and then handed them off to complete strangers while knowing nothing of the world around them. We welcome them into our lives and treat them like family.”

    She paused for a breath and Ischarus took up the story where Rhema left off. “But what Rhema is trying to say through focusing on the empathic side of the story is that the time we spend at Rhema’s father’s house helping the rescued to find a new life gives our trail some time to cool down. Sure, I expect that one day we’ll run across someone who is still looking for us. But for the most part if we can get a day or two head-start over our pursuers then we can be into Tongra before they even get a whiff of our trail. Once we are in Tongra their power diminishes vastly and they are much more unlikely to be able to find us. That’s why we plunder. It weakens their ability to find us in the short term in spite of increasing their long term anger. Besides, it also serves to weaken their ability to quickly find a replacement for the one we rescued. It isn’t perfect, but it’s worked so far.”

    Semeion added, “But doesn’t that feel like stealing? Do the ends justify the means?”

    Rhema began her reply softly and delicately. “Wait to ask that question when you head back into Quehalost for your second journey. Learn with your own eyes the torture and the pain that we are freeing these people from. Once you see what we’ve already seen many times over; then ask if it is wrong to plunder from people who use their resources for the destruction of the lives of others.” By the end of her statement Rhema’s words were strong and filled with vindication and authority.

    Ischarus agreed, “Yes, you are correct Semeion. Technically that does make us thieves. We steal from the rich who enslave and abuse others. But part of what we steal goes to replenish our own supplies and the remainder of it is left with Rhema’s father to help the ones that we rescued to build a new life. It isn’t right to steal. Of course not. But it isn’t right to let the people exist in slavery, bondage, or even to be sacrifices either. Sometimes in life it is not a matter of choosing between right and wrong. Sometimes life is about choosing which wrong will let you sleep at night.”

    Semeion was silenced by Ischarus’ corrective tone. Rhema perceived that Ischarus had come down harshly and chose to respond to Ischarus’ assertion softly enough so that only Semeion could hear. “Forgive him, Semeion. We have had this debate many times he and I. Ischarus has it every time we plunder our victim before stealing their slave, sacrifice, or whatever. He doesn’t like the thought of himself as a not-so-common thief. But he knows that if we do not hinder their abilities they will only replace the ones we take from them. Then what have we gained?”

    Semeion nodded in reply. “I suppose life is a difficult choice sometimes, and one cannot always only do things that are clearly right in the world. I guess that sometimes to live means to tread on doing something another thinks of as evil in order that we may see good.”

    Rhema smiled and nodded. A little more loudly she added, “Now you know what it means to live in dichotomy. One cannot be perfect. But one can strive for good.”

    Ischarus continued in his more somber tone. “And one cannot forget that doing harm to another so good may abound is not justification of the harm. It may be a necessary evil but that does not make it right. It is never right to steal. It may be necessary, but it is never right.”

    Rhema lightly prodded the side of Shauvry to get her to hustle past Elistra and Ischarus. “No,” she called to Ischarus as she rode by. “But not having fun in life will get you nowhere either!” She surged ahead of the other two and yelled, “C’mon, Semeion. See if you can catch me! Ischarus never can!”

    Both Semeion and Ischarus stood slightly in their saddles and encouraged their mounts to chase after Rhema and Shauvry. The horses seemed to enjoy the challenge in the change of pace and their nostrils flared to take in the necessary oxygen to maintain the greatly quickened speed of travel. Thana pulled ahead of Elistra since Thana could carry Semeion much more easily than Elistra could carry the larger Ischarus. Neither of the horses was able to catch Shauvry, however. Before long the three horses were spread out by several lengths and galloping down the dirt road that lead to Scarhaus and eventually the Tongra-Quehalost border.

    As Shauvry carried Rhema further down the road suddenly Ischarus and Semeion saw Rhema fall from the saddle to the left of Shauvry. From its detailed training Shauvry slowed immediately upon feeling Rhema’s weight fall off of her back. Rhema had managed to hold onto the reigns and as she collided with the ground the reigns jerked Shauvry’s head to the left. Shauvry stopped as quickly as she could and Rhema lay still at her side, a crossbow bolt sticking out of her side.

    Semeion spurred Thana closer to Rhema and just before he arrived he saw a sword wielding hobgoblin surge out of the forest beside Rhema. Semeion called upon the arcane power within him and yelled, “Thin-tok!” His right hand let go of the reigns and Semeion rose slightly higher in the saddle as he cocked his hand behind him. As the arcane words left his lips he brought is arm forward as if to throw a ball. A silver shimmering ball leapt forward off of his fingers and flashed towards the armed hobgoblin. The energy ball struck the hobgoblin and caught him off-guard. Semeion yelled, “Stay away from her or you’ll feel more than that, goblinkin.”

    The hobgoblin snorted and replied with a maniacal chuckle, “You’ll not hurt me because I will kill you first.” Semeion pulled up on the reigns and Thana stopped just out of the hobgoblin’s reach with its sword.

    Elistra thundered hard as her hooves pounded the ground in response to Ischarus’ further urging. The horse approached so quickly that it caught the sword wielding hobgoblin completely off-guard. Ischarus flashed his sword and a metallic ring shot through the forest as Ischarus lined up his aim. With a single swing the sword sliced through the air and contacted the hobgoblin creature on the side of its head directly below his jaw. Semeion closed his eyes as he saw the gruesome strike coming. The blow knocked the hobgoblin to the ground and his head bounced hard off the ground following the strike. The hobgoblin opened his eyes and saw Ischarus turning Elistra around as he held a bloodless long sword into the air. Both Semeion and the hobgoblin could tell he was yelling something.

    Semeion was able to focus on Ischarus’ words. “Find the other one back where Rhema was shot! He’s got a crossbow and can merely pick us off at will if we don’t find him quickly!” Ischarus yelled to Semeion and pointed toward the forest edge with the tip of his sword.

    Semeion pulled the reigns hard to the right and Thana spun in a tight circle until she was facing the opposite direction. Semeion urged Thana into a slow walk forward, scanning the edges of the forest. Suddenly he heard a string twang and felt pain in his own side. Looking down at his side he saw the bolt sticking out of his body. He followed the path of the crossbow bolt back into the woods and he spied a hobgoblin hurriedly trying to crank the winch of its weapon and load another bolt. Before the hobgoblin could finish cranking the device Semeion yelled, “Silicut al-Whass” and a single drop of magical oil formed on his the nail of his index finger. Semeion flicked the oil towards the hobgoblin and as it flew through the air the drop increased in size and struck the crossbow. Immediately the winch and the bow were coated in oil and impossible to hold and move.

    Seeing that his magical attack was successful Semeion yelled to his associate. “Ischarus, here! I’ve made the crossbow useless, though. Come quickly!”

    The hobgoblin heard the yell and immediately dropped the useless crossbow. It turned and began to flee deeper into the forest. As it fled hurriedly it left both a physical and an audible trail in its wake. Neither Ischarus nor Semeion would have trouble following the loud fleeing hobgoblin.

    Semeion turned to find Ischarus as the young mage dismounted to give chase. Ischarus had already dismounted and was standing over the hobgoblin’s body which was lying in the street. Ischarus had a length of rope in his hands and as Semeion called for him he turned and began running in the direction Semeion pointed. As Ischarus passed by he threw the rope at Semeion and yelled, “Here, use this on the one that’s already down! And watch out for a further ambush!”

    Semeion looked confused as he watched Ischarus disappear after the hobgoblin. “But … isn’t he dead?” Semeion asked in vain. Turning his head to look at the hobgoblin body lying on the road he realized that the hobgoblin’s head was still quite securely attached to its body. The hobgoblin lay motionlessly on the road. Semeion ran to the body and quickly flipped the hobgoblin over onto his stomach and secured its hands behind its back.

    Inside the forest, Ischarus made short work of catching up to the scrambling hobgoblin. Much of the magical oil had transferred from the crossbow and onto the hobgoblin’s hands. The oil made it impossible to grab onto anything or climb as the hobgoblin fled. As a result, Ischarus was able to catch up to the hobgoblin quickly. As he did, the hobgoblin turned and drew its rapier. Only then did Ischarus recognize that this hobgoblin was female. Her hand slipped off the end of the rapier as the magical oil prevented her fingers from solidly gripping the handle.

    Ischarus chuckled as he drew his own sword and pointed it toward the hobgoblin. “We can do this the hard way or the easy way, goblinkin. You’re coming with me either way.”

    The hobgoblin only snorted in reply and had a moment of brilliance. The female jumped towards Ischarus with the thought of grabbing the handle of the sword. Perhaps if she was lucky the magical oil would transfer to his hands as well.

    Ischarus lowered his sword and beat down upon her outstretched arm with the flat of his sword, snapping at least one of the thin bones that resided within the hobgoblin’s arm. Ischarus turned his sword and slashed out against the hobgoblin. The blade sliced at the creature’s leather armor and punctured it. A small trickle of blood formed within the cut as Ischarus remove his sword.

    The hobgoblin once more lashed out in an attempt to grab the sword in Ischarus’ hand, but her off-handed attempt to grab the weapon could not land a solid grip.

    Ischarus spun around once more and lashed out with his sword. The blade slashed forward and caught the hobgoblin on the outside of her thigh. She stumbled to the ground and Ischarus rose to his feet and pointed the blade down upon the hobgoblin’s chest.
    Ischarus spoke once more, slightly winded from the surge of action since the last time he spoke. “Again we have a choice. If you move you impale yourself on my sword. If you give yourself up and go back to the road you can live. You can do it the hard way or the easy way.”

    The female hobgoblin closed her eyes and said, “You win. I give up.”

    Ischarus released the grip on his sword with his left hand and reached down to pick up the hobgoblin’s dagger. He tucked the dagger under his own belt and then removed his long sword from the hobgoblin’s chest. “Get up slowly,” Ischarus growled. “If you make any sudden moves I’ll make sure you end up on the ground again.”

    The hobgoblin nodded and conceded control of the situation in compliance with Ischarus’ demand. She slowly raised herself up to a walking position and marched to the road. Ischarus retrieved the hobgoblin’s crossbow as they passed by, noting that the magical oil had vanished. There was no indication that the oil had ever been upon the weapon.

    Arriving out at the road, Ischarus saw that the first hobgoblin was restrained and still unconscious. On the other hand, Rhema was sitting up and being tended to by Semeion. She smiled as Ischarus emerged from the forest with a hobgoblin captive. “There’s my man!” she called out. “He always gets what he sets his mind on capturing.” Semeion turned and smiled at Ischarus and his successful capture.

    Ischarus caught Semeion’s eyes with his own glance and said, “In my saddle bag you’ll find more ropes for binding wrists. Pull one out and bind this one while I keep the sword on her.”

    Semeion nodded while Rhema replied in a tease, “Oh, I’m fine, thanks for asking.”

    Ischarus turned to Rhema and smiled. “Of that I had no doubt. You’d never allow yourself to leave this world on an ambush. You’ll leave this world by taking on a challenge more than you can control and not realize it until its too late.” He chuckled and Rhema smiled at the comment.

    Semeion retrieved the rope and made quick work of binding the hands of the captive hobgoblin. Once they were both secure Ischarus helped Rhema up onto her feet and even into her saddle. “You’re going to get sore by the look of that. You might as well get comfortable before the pain sets in. If we need to, we’ll get it looked at in Scarhaus before moving along.”

    Rhema replied, “Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.” She smiled, but her usual pleasant smile vanished in a grimace of pain.

    Ischarus lightly patted Rhema on the leg as he crossed under Shauvry’s neck. “I’m sure you will be fine, Rhema.” He rummaged through his saddle pack and lifted out a small pouch. He knelt down to the ground and held the pouch underneath the hobgoblin’s nose. After a few moments the eyes of the hobgoblin opened wide and he reeled his head backwards away from the smell of the pouch. Pleased that the pouch had been useful, Ischarus sealed the pouch up once more and placed it back into his saddlebag.

    Ischarus greeted the hobgoblin back to the realm of the conscious with a simple command. “You’ll need to stand, hobgoblin.”

    The hobgoblin replied, “I’ll do no such thing. Chimme will set me free.”

    The hobgoblin that originally shot Rhema with her crossbow spoke from where she stood. “No, Grangohr. I will not.”

    Grangohr turned his head and saw that his partner in crime had likewise been caught. He frowned slightly and begrudgingly stood to his feet and allowed Ischarus to connect his bindings to a longer rope that he tied to his own saddle horn. Once he was assured that the hobgoblins were secured he said to Semeion, “You will ride side-by-side with Rhema behind me and our prisoners to make sure they keep up their march and don’t try anything stupid.”

    Semeion nodded, finding it easier to take Ischarus’ orders in a situation of combat. He watched as Ischarus removed the dagger from his belt and held it out for Semeion to grab. “As a sign of good faith to your master’s widow I designate the hobgoblin’s sword, dagger, crossbow, and their armor to be sold for the benefit of the widow. That should give her enough money to provide food for her and her children for several months. If you don’t object, I’d like to make that part of our routine. Your responsibilities will become our responsibilities as long as you travel with us.”

    Semeion smiled at the gesture. “I am honored, Ischarus.”

    Ischarus looked at the hobgoblins, checked out their bonds, and then back to Semeion. As he mounted Elistra and urged her forward at a walking pace comfortable for the hobgoblins he turned sideways in his saddle and replied back to Semeion. “You’ll need it. We all will. It’ll be one more good thing that will let us sleep knowing the horrors we will see in Quehalost. We now journey for the freedom of the innocents in Quehalost and for the widow Sathwright.”

    The rest of the trip to Scarhaus passed in a more solemn tone as the horsemen kept watch for more bandits along the road. They passed along the route more slowly than normal on account of their captives. The party kept up the journey to Scarhaus well after the sun descended into the hills. Around midnight they saw the welcoming torches than lined a few of the streets.

    Upon seeing the torches Ischarus scanned the scene of lights. He smiled as he found what he was looking for. “Someone is awake in the inn, Rhema.” He paused to allow a smile to appear over his face. “They’ll be able to raise the jailor this evening.”

    Semeion looked on with interest. He knew this was the last safe place of rest before the border of Quehalost.


    Color Free Speech Section

    Three days later, three cloaked riders left the city of Reignsburg behind them and headed south for the mountains that separated the region of Tongra from the region of Quehalost. It had taken them a bit longer than Ischarus thought to find a horse that was suitable for Semeion to ride into hostile territory. The majority of the difficulty was in Semeion’s ability to pay for a horse that would be a reliable means of escape. Ischarus was very clear that Semeion needed to ride a stable yet reasonably quick horse because of the speed of the pursuit once the freedom of an enslaved person or persons had been achieved.

    Semeion had begun to question his ability to help the team be successful when Ischarus told him the story of how the red haired girl had been saved from the ancient red wyrm. Ischarus had no problems confessing that while he was frozen in fear of the beast’s tremendous pursuit it was actually Elistra’s instincts that saved them. Elistra wasn’t unable to out run the beast, but she was able to run through deep cover that forced the dragon to proceed on foot and lose the trail. Semeion had more than once grow ill at the thought of putting his life in such peril.

    Of course, in order to purchase the horse Semeion had to sell many of his personal belongings. He sold everything but the clothes on his back and what few arcane gifts Master Sathwright had instructed him to be necessary for the pursuit of his magical talents. As Semeion rode away from the only hometown he could remember having he bowed his head in reflection and a silent goodbye.

    Rhema slowly pulled Shauvry over beside Semeion and Thana, his new mount. “Don’t worry, Semeion. Ischarus and I always stop and spend a night in Reignsburg before heading out into Quehalost. In fact, we always spend a night when we return from Quehalost as well. Archis’ potatoes have become our traditional welcome home and going away dinners. You’ll be back.” Her genuine smile helped to embrace Semeion in the warmth of her words.

    Semeion returned the smile in appreciation of the words. He had already grown accustomed to Rhema’s sensitivities and realized that while her compassion could be interpreted as interest in forming a relationship it really was her gift in touching people’s souls. Her compassion was not self-motivated but motivated honestly for the betterment of others.

    All these thoughts passed through his mind as he replied to Rhema. “I’m not so much worried about coming back as I am seeing Channah, my master’s widow. She’s alone with the children now and I fear that she might not be able to support herself. I’ll regret not being around to check in on her.”

    Ischarus replied, “Well, it is not uncommon for us to find equipment and gems as we attempt to stop evil from doing its work. Often some of the best ways to ensure that you aren’t pursued is to remove their weapons so that they can’t effectively come after you. Or, in the case of a slaver the best way to keep a slaver from coming after you is to plunder his accessible wealth. If he doesn’t have the money to pay his hired goons he can’t well send them after you. The great thing about hired goons is that they won’t work if you can’t pay them.” Ischarus chuckled and smiled as he remembered several of his past trips.

    Semeion added, “But doesn’t that make them want to hunt you down even more?”

    Rhema laughed. “Very true, it does. But that is why we take a little time off at my family’s home. First of all, in the journey home the ones that we rescue become quite dependant upon us. It wouldn’t be fair to them if we rescued them and then handed them off to complete strangers while knowing nothing of the world around them. We welcome them into our lives and treat them like family.”

    She paused for a breath and Ischarus took up the story where Rhema left off. “But what Rhema is trying to say through focusing on the empathic side of the story is that the time we spend at Rhema’s father’s house helping the rescued to find a new life gives our trail some time to cool down. Sure, I expect that one day we’ll run across someone who is still looking for us. But for the most part if we can get a day or two head-start over our pursuers then we can be into Tongra before they even get a whiff of our trail. Once we are in Tongra their power diminishes vastly and they are much more unlikely to be able to find us. That’s why we plunder. It weakens their ability to find us in the short term in spite of increasing their long term anger. Besides, it also serves to weaken their ability to quickly find a replacement for the one we rescued. It isn’t perfect, but it’s worked so far.”

    Semeion added, “But doesn’t that feel like stealing? Do the ends justify the means?”

    Rhema began her reply softly and delicately. “Wait to ask that question when you head back into Quehalost for your second journey. Learn with your own eyes the torture and the pain that we are freeing these people from. Once you see what we’ve already seen many times over; then ask if it is wrong to plunder from people who use their resources for the destruction of the lives of others.” By the end of her statement Rhema’s words were strong and filled with vindication and authority.

    Ischarus agreed, “Yes, you are correct Semeion. Technically that does make us thieves. We steal from the rich who enslave and abuse others. But part of what we steal goes to replenish our own supplies and the remainder of it is left with Rhema’s father to help the ones that we rescued to build a new life. It isn’t right to steal. Of course not. But it isn’t right to let the people exist in slavery, bondage, or even to be sacrifices either. Sometimes in life it is not a matter of choosing between right and wrong. Sometimes life is about choosing which wrong will let you sleep at night.”

    Semeion was silenced by Ischarus’ corrective tone. Rhema perceived that Ischarus had come down harshly and chose to respond to Ischarus’ assertion softly enough so that only Semeion could hear. “Forgive him, Semeion. We have had this debate many times he and I. Ischarus has it every time we plunder our victim before stealing their slave, sacrifice, or whatever. He doesn’t like the thought of himself as a not-so-common thief. But he knows that if we do not hinder their abilities they will only replace the ones we take from them. Then what have we gained?”

    Semeion nodded in reply. “I suppose life is a difficult choice sometimes, and one cannot always only do things that are clearly right in the world. I guess that sometimes to live means to tread on doing something another thinks of as evil in order that we may see good.”

    Rhema smiled and nodded. A little more loudly she added, “Now you know what it means to live in dichotomy. One cannot be perfect. But one can strive for good.”

    Ischarus continued in his more somber tone. “And one cannot forget that doing harm to another so good may abound is not justification of the harm. It may be a necessary evil but that does not make it right. It is never right to steal. It may be necessary, but it is never right.”

    Rhema lightly prodded the side of Shauvry to get her to hustle past Elistra and Ischarus. “No,” she called to Ischarus as she rode by. “But not having fun in life will get you nowhere either!” She surged ahead of the other two and yelled, “C’mon, Semeion. See if you can catch me! Ischarus never can!”

    Both Semeion and Ischarus stood slightly in their saddles and encouraged their mounts to chase after Rhema and Shauvry. The horses seemed to enjoy the challenge in the change of pace and their nostrils flared to take in the necessary oxygen to maintain the greatly quickened speed of travel. Thana pulled ahead of Elistra since Thana could carry Semeion much more easily than Elistra could carry the larger Ischarus. Neither of the horses was able to catch Shauvry, however. Before long the three horses were spread out by several lengths and galloping down the dirt road that lead to Scarhaus and eventually the Tongra-Quehalost border.

    As Shauvry carried Rhema further down the road suddenly Ischarus and Semeion saw Rhema fall from the saddle to the left of Shauvry. From its detailed training Shauvry slowed immediately upon feeling Rhema’s weight fall off of her back. Rhema had managed to hold onto the reigns and as she collided with the ground the reigns jerked Shauvry’s head to the left. Shauvry stopped as quickly as she could and Rhema lay still at her side, a crossbow bolt sticking out of her side.

    Semeion spurred Thana closer to Rhema and just before he arrived he saw a sword wielding hobgoblin surge out of the forest beside Rhema. Semeion called upon the arcane power within him and yelled, “Thin-tok!” His right hand let go of the reigns and Semeion rose slightly higher in the saddle as he cocked his hand behind him. As the arcane words left his lips he brought is arm forward as if to throw a ball. A silver shimmering ball leapt forward off of his fingers and flashed towards the armed hobgoblin. The energy ball struck the hobgoblin and caught him off-guard. Semeion yelled, “Stay away from her or you’ll feel more than that, goblinkin.”

    The hobgoblin snorted and replied with a maniacal chuckle, “You’ll not hurt me because I will kill you first.” Semeion pulled up on the reigns and Thana stopped just out of the hobgoblin’s reach with its sword.

    Elistra thundered hard as her hooves pounded the ground in response to Ischarus’ further urging. The horse approached so quickly that it caught the sword wielding hobgoblin completely off-guard. Ischarus flashed his sword and a metallic ring shot through the forest as Ischarus lined up his aim. With a single swing the sword sliced through the air and contacted the hobgoblin creature on the side of its head directly below his jaw. Semeion closed his eyes as he saw the gruesome strike coming. The blow knocked the hobgoblin to the ground and his head bounced hard off the ground following the strike. The hobgoblin opened his eyes and saw Ischarus turning Elistra around as he held a bloodless long sword into the air. Both Semeion and the hobgoblin could tell he was yelling something.

    Semeion was able to focus on Ischarus’ words. “Find the other one back where Rhema was shot! He’s got a crossbow and can merely pick us off at will if we don’t find him quickly!” Ischarus yelled to Semeion and pointed toward the forest edge with the tip of his sword.

    Semeion pulled the reigns hard to the right and Thana spun in a tight circle until she was facing the opposite direction. Semeion urged Thana into a slow walk forward, scanning the edges of the forest. Suddenly he heard a string twang and felt pain in his own side. Looking down at his side he saw the bolt sticking out of his body. He followed the path of the crossbow bolt back into the woods and he spied a hobgoblin hurriedly trying to crank the winch of its weapon and load another bolt. Before the hobgoblin could finish cranking the device Semeion yelled, “Silicut al-Whass” and a single drop of magical oil formed on his the nail of his index finger. Semeion flicked the oil towards the hobgoblin and as it flew through the air the drop increased in size and struck the crossbow. Immediately the winch and the bow were coated in oil and impossible to hold and move.

    Seeing that his magical attack was successful Semeion yelled to his associate. “Ischarus, here! I’ve made the crossbow useless, though. Come quickly!”

    The hobgoblin heard the yell and immediately dropped the useless crossbow. It turned and began to flee deeper into the forest. As it fled hurriedly it left both a physical and an audible trail in its wake. Neither Ischarus nor Semeion would have trouble following the loud fleeing hobgoblin.

    Semeion turned to find Ischarus as the young mage dismounted to give chase. Ischarus had already dismounted and was standing over the hobgoblin’s body which was lying in the street. Ischarus had a length of rope in his hands and as Semeion called for him he turned and began running in the direction Semeion pointed. As Ischarus passed by he threw the rope at Semeion and yelled, “Here, use this on the one that’s already down! And watch out for a further ambush!”

    Semeion looked confused as he watched Ischarus disappear after the hobgoblin. “But … isn’t he dead?” Semeion asked in vain. Turning his head to look at the hobgoblin body lying on the road he realized that the hobgoblin’s head was still quite securely attached to its body. The hobgoblin lay motionlessly on the road. Semeion ran to the body and quickly flipped the hobgoblin over onto his stomach and secured its hands behind its back.

    Inside the forest, Ischarus made short work of catching up to the scrambling hobgoblin. Much of the magical oil had transferred from the crossbow and onto the hobgoblin’s hands. The oil made it impossible to grab onto anything or climb as the hobgoblin fled. As a result, Ischarus was able to catch up to the hobgoblin quickly. As he did, the hobgoblin turned and drew its rapier. Only then did Ischarus recognize that this hobgoblin was female. Her hand slipped off the end of the rapier as the magical oil prevented her fingers from solidly gripping the handle.

    Ischarus chuckled as he drew his own sword and pointed it toward the hobgoblin. “We can do this the hard way or the easy way, goblinkin. You’re coming with me either way.”

    The hobgoblin only snorted in reply and had a moment of brilliance. The female jumped towards Ischarus with the thought of grabbing the handle of the sword. Perhaps if she was lucky the magical oil would transfer to his hands as well.

    Ischarus lowered his sword and beat down upon her outstretched arm with the flat of his sword, snapping at least one of the thin bones that resided within the hobgoblin’s arm. Ischarus turned his sword and slashed out against the hobgoblin. The blade sliced at the creature’s leather armor and punctured it. A small trickle of blood formed within the cut as Ischarus remove his sword.

    The hobgoblin once more lashed out in an attempt to grab the sword in Ischarus’ hand, but her off-handed attempt to grab the weapon could not land a solid grip.

    Ischarus spun around once more and lashed out with his sword. The blade slashed forward and caught the hobgoblin on the outside of her thigh. She stumbled to the ground and Ischarus rose to his feet and pointed the blade down upon the hobgoblin’s chest.
    Ischarus spoke once more, slightly winded from the surge of action since the last time he spoke. “Again we have a choice. If you move you impale yourself on my sword. If you give yourself up and go back to the road you can live. You can do it the hard way or the easy way.”

    The female hobgoblin closed her eyes and said, “You win. I give up.”

    Ischarus released the grip on his sword with his left hand and reached down to pick up the hobgoblin’s dagger. He tucked the dagger under his own belt and then removed his long sword from the hobgoblin’s chest. “Get up slowly,” Ischarus growled. “If you make any sudden moves I’ll make sure you end up on the ground again.”

    The hobgoblin nodded and conceded control of the situation in compliance with Ischarus’ demand. She slowly raised herself up to a walking position and marched to the road. Ischarus retrieved the hobgoblin’s crossbow as they passed by, noting that the magical oil had vanished. There was no indication that the oil had ever been upon the weapon.

    Arriving out at the road, Ischarus saw that the first hobgoblin was restrained and still unconscious. On the other hand, Rhema was sitting up and being tended to by Semeion. She smiled as Ischarus emerged from the forest with a hobgoblin captive. “There’s my man!” she called out. “He always gets what he sets his mind on capturing.” Semeion turned and smiled at Ischarus and his successful capture.

    Ischarus caught Semeion’s eyes with his own glance and said, “In my saddle bag you’ll find more ropes for binding wrists. Pull one out and bind this one while I keep the sword on her.”

    Semeion nodded while Rhema replied in a tease, “Oh, I’m fine, thanks for asking.”

    Ischarus turned to Rhema and smiled. “Of that I had no doubt. You’d never allow yourself to leave this world on an ambush. You’ll leave this world by taking on a challenge more than you can control and not realize it until its too late.” He chuckled and Rhema smiled at the comment.

    Semeion retrieved the rope and made quick work of binding the hands of the captive hobgoblin. Once they were both secure Ischarus helped Rhema up onto her feet and even into her saddle. “You’re going to get sore by the look of that. You might as well get comfortable before the pain sets in. If we need to, we’ll get it looked at in Scarhaus before moving along.”

    Rhema replied, “Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.” She smiled, but her usual pleasant smile vanished in a grimace of pain.

    Ischarus lightly patted Rhema on the leg as he crossed under Shauvry’s neck. “I’m sure you will be fine, Rhema.” He rummaged through his saddle pack and lifted out a small pouch. He knelt down to the ground and held the pouch underneath the hobgoblin’s nose. After a few moments the eyes of the hobgoblin opened wide and he reeled his head backwards away from the smell of the pouch. Pleased that the pouch had been useful, Ischarus sealed the pouch up once more and placed it back into his saddlebag.

    Ischarus greeted the hobgoblin back to the realm of the conscious with a simple command. “You’ll need to stand, hobgoblin.”

    The hobgoblin replied, “I’ll do no such thing. Chimme will set me free.”

    The hobgoblin that originally shot Rhema with her crossbow spoke from where she stood. “No, Grangohr. I will not.”

    Grangohr turned his head and saw that his partner in crime had likewise been caught. He frowned slightly and begrudgingly stood to his feet and allowed Ischarus to connect his bindings to a longer rope that he tied to his own saddle horn. Once he was assured that the hobgoblins were secured he said to Semeion, “You will ride side-by-side with Rhema behind me and our prisoners to make sure they keep up their march and don’t try anything stupid.”

    Semeion nodded, finding it easier to take Ischarus’ orders in a situation of combat. He watched as Ischarus removed the dagger from his belt and held it out for Semeion to grab. “As a sign of good faith to your master’s widow I designate the hobgoblin’s sword, dagger, crossbow, and their armor to be sold for the benefit of the widow. That should give her enough money to provide food for her and her children for several months. If you don’t object, I’d like to make that part of our routine. Your responsibilities will become our responsibilities as long as you travel with us.”

    Semeion smiled at the gesture. “I am honored, Ischarus.”

    Ischarus looked at the hobgoblins, checked out their bonds, and then back to Semeion. As he mounted Elistra and urged her forward at a walking pace comfortable for the hobgoblins he turned sideways in his saddle and replied back to Semeion. “You’ll need it. We all will. It’ll be one more good thing that will let us sleep knowing the horrors we will see in Quehalost. We now journey for the freedom of the innocents in Quehalost and for the widow Sathwright.”

    The rest of the trip to Scarhaus passed in a more solemn tone as the horsemen kept watch for more bandits along the road. They passed along the route more slowly than normal on account of their captives. The party kept up the journey to Scarhaus well after the sun descended into the hills. Around midnight they saw the welcoming torches than lined a few of the streets.

    Upon seeing the torches Ischarus scanned the scene of lights. He smiled as he found what he was looking for. “Someone is awake in the inn, Rhema.” He paused to allow a smile to appear over his face. “They’ll be able to raise the jailor this evening.”

    Semeion looked on with interest. He knew this was the last safe place of rest before the border of Quehalost.
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    Ischarus pulled Elistra to a halt just outside the local inn that they were accustomed to staying at before heading into Quehalost. Rhema and Shauvry pulled up along side of Ischarus and he nodded to Rhema as she pulled up the hood of her cloak. “Go and tell Rapheus that he’ll need to send out Mardak. His boy is going to need to raise the jailor. Tell him we’ve got two highwaymen captured and they’ll need a night’s stay behind bars and a special examination to follow.”

    Rhema nodded under the hood of her cloak and stood up in her stirrups. She swung her right leg over the back of Shauvry and brought her right foot to the ground. As she did, Ischarus turned to locate Semeion. He spoke freely this night, and given the hour he felt comfortable giving orders to Semeion. “Stay back in the street and watch these highwaymen. After the walk they’ve just finished I doubt they’ve got the energy to escape. But if anyone comes along this road before the jailor comes it’ll be your job to steer them clear. We don’t need any trouble from people up late. We also don’t know the connections these hobgoblins have here in town.”

    Not wanting to say too much in his tired condition, Semeion merely smiled. Ischarus continued his instructions. “And pull up the hood of your cloak. This close to Quehalost we cannot be sure about anyone being friend or foe. They might know us by our cloaks, they might not. But I guarantee our enemies know us by our faces.”

    Semeion’s face turned emotionless at the serious tone taken by Ischarus’ voice. His hands instinctively rose to his shoulders and slid his hood up and over his head. The front edge of the hood hung just above the level of his eyes. He turned Thana in a half circle and faced the direction of the road that they had just come.

    Rhema slipped into inn without cracking the door too far. Only a sliver of light spilled out into the dark night as the thin woman slipped between the door and its frame. Inside, Rhema saw the familiar small lobby that ended in a desk opposite the door through which she had entered. Behind the desk stood a man who looked as though to have some elf-blood somewhere back in his heritage. The man smiled as he saw Rhema, his eyes recognizing the cloak immediately as a long time patron.

    “Once more headed back into Quehalost, milady?”

    “Aye, Rapheus. We’ll go in once more and then keep it up until justice has come to that land. It’s a difficult task to try and accomplish one person at a time, but each time we go in there is once more person free when we leave.”

    Rapheus smiled in response to Rhema’s words. “I’ll get the regular room ready for you then, ma’am. And you’ll have no worry that I’ll have the other room ready and waiting for your return whenever you show up.”

    Rhema replied, “You’re very kind, Rapheus. But we’ve business to take care of this night before we retire. Ischarus has caught a few highwaymen along the road. Hobgoblins, by the look of ‘em. I don’t think they were working as part of a more organized force – just independents trying to get a few gold coins from a passerby I think. But if you wouldn’t mind sending Mardak to raise the jailor this late, I’d appreciate it.”

    Rapheus’ face paled slightly at the mention of the highwaymen. “Certainly, milady.” He turned to the archway that rose behind his desk. “Mardak!” He turned back to Rhema as the sound of small feet could be heard scampering above them. “You were not injured, were you?”

    Rhema smiled with an easy expression. “Nothing to note, but thank you for your concern.”

    The sound of footsteps could be heard descending the stairs behind Rapheus. A young boy of about twelve years of age appeared, his head only barely above the level of the desk where Rapheus stood. Rapheus smiled at the boy’s quick response and said, “I need you to run to the jailor, Mardak. You remember Miss Rhema? She and her friends have caught a few hobgoblins attempting to steal from travelers along the road. The hobgoblins will need to be put in jail for an examination tomorrow. Can you go and bring the jailor?”

    The boy smiled broadly, happy to do any favor this late at night. “Sure, papa. I can run to the jailor and back. I’ll make sure that the Mr. Jairdaans is awakened and aware of the need before he comes to collect the goblins.”

    Rapheus smiled at his boy but corrected him. “Hobgoblins, Mardak. There is a difference.”

    “I know, papa. I was just saying that to save some time.”

    Mardak turned and ducked under the desk and smiled as he walked past Rhema. As he passed by the traveling woman, he turned his body so that he could watch her as he went by. Eventually he was walking backwards toward the door while looking to Rhema. He misjudged his approach to the door and struck the wall about a foot to the left of the door. Rhema chuckled as she watched the boy strike the wall and then turn away with an embarrassed expression upon his face.

    “I think my boy has a crush on you, milady.”

    “I am only flattered by his purity of heart, Rapheus. The admiration of a child is such a simple thing, but given with such honesty and sincerity. He is a good boy, you’ve done well to raise him.”

    Rapheus nodded in approval of Rhema’s words regarding his boy. “It’s been hard since Tasha’s death. But the business keeps him honest and has helped him grow.”

    Rhema looked to the side as Rapheus mentioned his deceased wife. She knew she had died only a few years back and the adjustment was still hard at times. Tasha had succumbed to an illness that brought on a severe fever and as a result she seemed largely out of her mind for the last day before she died. Other than the fever, though, Rhema knew that Tasha did not suffer much pain.

    Even after Rapheus finished speaking Rhema continued to look to the wall to the right. She replied, “You’ll need to meet our new associate, Rapheus. We picked him up in Reignsburg and I think he’ll be a welcome addition. He’s currently outside waiting with Ischarus and the horses.”

    Rapheus nodded and lifted the part of the desk that Mardak had crawled under. Once the hinged desktop was lifted on one side it allowed Rapheus to pass from behind the desk into the small lobby where Rhema stood. He had noticed her discomfort when Tasha had been mentioned and Rapheus placed his hand upon Rhema’s shoulder. “I know that you still mourn for my wife, Rhema. Feel free to mourn for her sake, but please do not mourn for me or for Mardak. We’ve finally begun to move past the pain and into life. She lived well and taught us many things about happiness.”

    Rhema turned her head and caught Rapheus’ gaze. “I know. It is still difficult to imagine this place without her, though. She brought such life to everything that she touched.”

    Rapheus smiled broadly. “Then how about we go out there and meet this new acquaintance of yours. As usual, I’ll avoid using names in public. We can wait for the jailor to come outside and then I’ll send Mardak in to show you your rooms while I stable your horses.” Rapheus motioned with one hand toward the door as he wrapped his other arm around Rhema in a slight hug. Rhema lingered in his embrace for a second before opening the door and spilling a small amount of light into the street.

    Outside, Rhema could just make out the small form of a young boy hurriedly retreating from her two companions. Ischarus and Semeion had obviously been talking quietly to the curious boy. It seemed, however, that the boy didn’t want to be caught by his father as he delayed from raising the jailor. Rhema smiled a bit as she stopped for a moment in the doorway. “You know …” she began and then stopped. She paused for another moment until she was sure the boy was out of sight. “Oh, never mind. It is nothing that can’t be handled once we are all inside.”

    Rhema finished passing through the doorway and quickly stepped out of the light, drawing the hood of her cloak tightly around her face in the darkness of the street. Rapheus also stepped out onto the street and allowed the door to close tightly. He nodded at Ischarus and added, “Good to see you again, sir. We have a room waiting for you and your companions once the jailor arrives.”

    Ischarus nodded in reply but said nothing. A very slight smile could be seen as Rapheus looked in under the hood of Ischarus as best he could. Rapheus could tell that Ischarus wanted to greet the man much more openly, but the openness of the street and proximity to the border of Quehalost would not be an appropriate place to have such a greeting.

    Rapheus looked to Semeion and nodded in greeting. Semeion lifted his hand in a simple gesture and lightly uttered a few magical words. “Par Ah-sahn.” Semeion lowered his hand to his side and Rapheus looked down to his own hand. Rapheus felt a slight pressure on his hand as well as the presence of faint warmth. The pressure and the warmth were as though he had shaken Semeion’s own hand. As quickly as the effect came, it vanished. Rapheus looked up to Semeion, but the gray cloaked horseman had turned his horse to allow him to watch the street once more.

    After a long five minute wait in silence, Mardak returned in the midst of a brisk jog. He turned the final corner and smiled as he saw his father standing in the street waiting for him. As though trained not to make too many noises Mardak approached the small gathering outside the inn before speaking. Rapheus could tell that Mardak had run hard as he approached; he seemed to have some difficulty catching his breath as he began to speak. “Papa,” Mardak began with a whisper to his father, “I have alerted Mr. Jairdaans and he has sent for a jail guard to meet him. Together they will come and take the highwaymen into custody.”

    “That is good, son. Now go inside and up to bed.” Rapheus answered. Mardak looked immensely disappointed at his father’s pronouncement. Rapheus gave Mardak a stern look that demanded obedience. Mardak started for the door but turned around as his hand reached for the doorknob.

    “Papa, can I at least stay until the jailor and the guard come?”

    Before Rapheus could speak, Rhema smiled and knelt to the level of the boy. “I’ll watch him, Rapheus. No harm will come to him. After all, he has had a part to play in their arrest. It is a good lesson to teach the youth to see things through to their completion.”

    Rapheus looked to Rhema and smiled. It appeared that Rapheus did not desire to make this a personal issue and his lips parted in a near laugh as he added, “Is it any wonder that the boy admires you? You pamper him ever time you are around.”

    Rhema only smiled in return, looking up to Ischarus. Her cloaked friend peered out from under his hood and shook his head slowly from side to side with a wide grin on his face.

    A few minutes later the armor of the jail guard could be heard as the jailor and his escort marched to the front of the inn. They approached much like Mardak had, refraining to talk until they closed the distance completely. Once they were at a casual conversational distance Mr. Jairdaans spoke first.

    “Good eve, Rapheus. I understand these hobgoblins have caused your travelers some difficulty on the road from Reignsburg to Scarhaus?”

    Rapheus replied, “Indeed they have. I understand that the highwaymen we interested in killing them and taking their possessions. It is only on account of the good faith of my friends that the lives of the highwaymen were spared at all. Fortunately for the hobliglins my friends prefer to refrain from taking life if they can avoid it.”

    Mr. Jairdaans looked up to Ischarus, who had drawn his cloak even more around his face to make it impossible to make out any features in what little shadowy light made it past the edge of the hood. The jailor addressed Ischarus by saying, “And who may I list as making the capture in case we discover anything from them during their interrogation?”

    Ischarus kept the silent vigil and Rapheus answered for him. “You may list the capturing party as myself. Or at the very least you may note that it is one of my patrons who would prefer to not be named. Any information that comes from these may be passed through me.”

    Mr. Jairdaans breathed in deeply. “The count will not approve of such an arrangement, Rapheus.”

    Rapheus smirked. “I have given Count Ahistrom no reason to doubt me in the past. He has no reason to question my loyalty to his rule. If the count has a problem with this arrangement then he can summon me to his quarters and we’ll discuss the issue there. But until such a time as the count informs me of a new policy, I seek to protect the anonymity of my associates. I take responsibility for their capture. That is how it always has been, Mr. Jairdaans. This is not the first time that this arrangement has been used.”

    The jailor nodded for the guard to put the city chains and shackles on the hobgoblins and then to remove the ropes used by Ischarus. He did motion for them to retain the gags that had been put in place to keep them from disturbing the town at night. The guard set to work about the task as Mr. Jairdaans turned once more to look at Rapheus. As the jailor turned, his dark eyes almost seemed to gleam for an instant with a crimson fire. “Your friends must pay you well for your trouble, innkeeper.”

    Rapheus smiled into the jailor’s glare. “My pay is of little concern to you, Mr. Jairdaans. You know that I appreciate your services and I had hoped I need not remind you that I do remember your services as well. These are simple matters, really. I continue to believe that the extra effort on your behalf to accept my name in place of the names of my associate would be easily enough forgotten under the proper considerations. I am assuming that is still correct?”

    Mr. Jairdaans smiled, backing away from the party. “If you should find it necessary to ensure the documentation appears as you would like; well, that is certainly your decision to make.”

    Rapheus nodded in what could be presumed as a dismissal of the jailor. The jailor paused just long enough to insinuate that Rapheus’ gesture had gone unnoticed before he turned and made his own gesture toward the jailor to move the bound and gagged hobgoblins down the street. Before long, they were gone.

    Rapheus turned to his son and a stern looked come upon his face once more. “Boy, you’ve seen enough for one day. Show these good folk to their room while I take their horses around to the stables.”

    Mardak’s face erupted in a large beaming grin. “Sure, papa. You can count on me!”

    Ischarus and Semeion finally dismounted once the jailor was gone. They handed the reigns over to Rapheus, who also collected the reigns of Shauvry before leading the horses around to the side of the building. The three adventurers entered into the lobby of the inn and followed Mardak up the stairs.

    As the boy walked under the desk and through the door, he wordlessly motioned for them to join him in ascending the stairs. At the top of the stairs it appeared as though the family’s quarters were to the right, placing it above the lobby. The boy turned to the left and added, “I know you know the way, ma’am. But I’ll show you to the door like papa told me.”

    When they reached the door Mardak opened it and stepped back into the hallway. Rhema patted Mardak on the head and knelt down before him once more. “You are a good lad, Mardak. You keep listening to your father and growing up and soon you’ll be a healthy young man. You already show such promise!” Rhema leaned in and kissed the boy on the cheek while ruffling the hair on the top of his head. Mardak instinctively kissed Rhema back on the cheek before she could pull away. As Rhema stood, the rest of the party could see that Mardak was blushing considerably.

    The boy watched as the rest of the party entered the room. Of course Rhema caught Mardak’s attention, but the boy also noted the other two as they entered as well. Mardak stared at Ischarus’ waist as he passed him by, noting that the sword hanging from Ischarus’ belt was nearly as long as the boy was tall. He also noted Semeion’s apparent lack of weaponry. Mardak did notice that Semeion’s hands were thin and frail, although the fingers seemed to be held stiffly and at attention.

    Mardak looked up to Semeion as Semeion turned to close the door behind him. For the first time, the boy could see under Semeion’s hood and the boy returned the smile that Semeion gave him. Just before the door closed, Semeion gave the boy a wink and added, “Now you should say goodnight and go to bed, young one. The only way you’ll grow is if you sleep.”

    Mardak smiled and replied, “G’night, sir.” Semeion watched through the slightly ajar door until the boy entered the private rooms for his family. Silently, he closed the door.

    The night passed uneventfully in the small in on the edge of Scarhaus. Semeion knew that tomorrow would be the day he entered the malevolent land of Quehalost for the first time.

    Color Free Speech Section

    Ischarus pulled Elistra to a halt just outside the local inn that they were accustomed to staying at before heading into Quehalost. Rhema and Shauvry pulled up along side of Ischarus and he nodded to Rhema as she pulled up the hood of her cloak. “Go and tell Rapheus that he’ll need to send out Mardak. His boy is going to need to raise the jailor. Tell him we’ve got two highwaymen captured and they’ll need a night’s stay behind bars and a special examination to follow.”

    Rhema nodded under the hood of her cloak and stood up in her stirrups. She swung her right leg over the back of Shauvry and brought her right foot to the ground. As she did, Ischarus turned to locate Semeion. He spoke freely this night, and given the hour he felt comfortable giving orders to Semeion. “Stay back in the street and watch these highwaymen. After the walk they’ve just finished I doubt they’ve got the energy to escape. But if anyone comes along this road before the jailor comes it’ll be your job to steer them clear. We don’t need any trouble from people up late. We also don’t know the connections these hobgoblins have here in town.”

    Not wanting to say too much in his tired condition, Semeion merely smiled. Ischarus continued his instructions. “And pull up the hood of your cloak. This close to Quehalost we cannot be sure about anyone being friend or foe. They might know us by our cloaks, they might not. But I guarantee our enemies know us by our faces.”

    Semeion’s face turned emotionless at the serious tone taken by Ischarus’ voice. His hands instinctively rose to his shoulders and slid his hood up and over his head. The front edge of the hood hung just above the level of his eyes. He turned Thana in a half circle and faced the direction of the road that they had just come.

    Rhema slipped into inn without cracking the door too far. Only a sliver of light spilled out into the dark night as the thin woman slipped between the door and its frame. Inside, Rhema saw the familiar small lobby that ended in a desk opposite the door through which she had entered. Behind the desk stood a man who looked as though to have some elf-blood somewhere back in his heritage. The man smiled as he saw Rhema, his eyes recognizing the cloak immediately as a long time patron.

    “Once more headed back into Quehalost, milady?”

    “Aye, Rapheus. We’ll go in once more and then keep it up until justice has come to that land. It’s a difficult task to try and accomplish one person at a time, but each time we go in there is once more person free when we leave.”

    Rapheus smiled in response to Rhema’s words. “I’ll get the regular room ready for you then, ma’am. And you’ll have no worry that I’ll have the other room ready and waiting for your return whenever you show up.”

    Rhema replied, “You’re very kind, Rapheus. But we’ve business to take care of this night before we retire. Ischarus has caught a few highwaymen along the road. Hobgoblins, by the look of ‘em. I don’t think they were working as part of a more organized force – just independents trying to get a few gold coins from a passerby I think. But if you wouldn’t mind sending Mardak to raise the jailor this late, I’d appreciate it.”

    Rapheus’ face paled slightly at the mention of the highwaymen. “Certainly, milady.” He turned to the archway that rose behind his desk. “Mardak!” He turned back to Rhema as the sound of small feet could be heard scampering above them. “You were not injured, were you?”

    Rhema smiled with an easy expression. “Nothing to note, but thank you for your concern.”

    The sound of footsteps could be heard descending the stairs behind Rapheus. A young boy of about twelve years of age appeared, his head only barely above the level of the desk where Rapheus stood. Rapheus smiled at the boy’s quick response and said, “I need you to run to the jailor, Mardak. You remember Miss Rhema? She and her friends have caught a few hobgoblins attempting to steal from travelers along the road. The hobgoblins will need to be put in jail for an examination tomorrow. Can you go and bring the jailor?”

    The boy smiled broadly, happy to do any favor this late at night. “Sure, papa. I can run to the jailor and back. I’ll make sure that the Mr. Jairdaans is awakened and aware of the need before he comes to collect the goblins.”

    Rapheus smiled at his boy but corrected him. “Hobgoblins, Mardak. There is a difference.”

    “I know, papa. I was just saying that to save some time.”

    Mardak turned and ducked under the desk and smiled as he walked past Rhema. As he passed by the traveling woman, he turned his body so that he could watch her as he went by. Eventually he was walking backwards toward the door while looking to Rhema. He misjudged his approach to the door and struck the wall about a foot to the left of the door. Rhema chuckled as she watched the boy strike the wall and then turn away with an embarrassed expression upon his face.

    “I think my boy has a crush on you, milady.”

    “I am only flattered by his purity of heart, Rapheus. The admiration of a child is such a simple thing, but given with such honesty and sincerity. He is a good boy, you’ve done well to raise him.”

    Rapheus nodded in approval of Rhema’s words regarding his boy. “It’s been hard since Tasha’s death. But the business keeps him honest and has helped him grow.”

    Rhema looked to the side as Rapheus mentioned his deceased wife. She knew she had died only a few years back and the adjustment was still hard at times. Tasha had succumbed to an illness that brought on a severe fever and as a result she seemed largely out of her mind for the last day before she died. Other than the fever, though, Rhema knew that Tasha did not suffer much pain.

    Even after Rapheus finished speaking Rhema continued to look to the wall to the right. She replied, “You’ll need to meet our new associate, Rapheus. We picked him up in Reignsburg and I think he’ll be a welcome addition. He’s currently outside waiting with Ischarus and the horses.”

    Rapheus nodded and lifted the part of the desk that Mardak had crawled under. Once the hinged desktop was lifted on one side it allowed Rapheus to pass from behind the desk into the small lobby where Rhema stood. He had noticed her discomfort when Tasha had been mentioned and Rapheus placed his hand upon Rhema’s shoulder. “I know that you still mourn for my wife, Rhema. Feel free to mourn for her sake, but please do not mourn for me or for Mardak. We’ve finally begun to move past the pain and into life. She lived well and taught us many things about happiness.”

    Rhema turned her head and caught Rapheus’ gaze. “I know. It is still difficult to imagine this place without her, though. She brought such life to everything that she touched.”

    Rapheus smiled broadly. “Then how about we go out there and meet this new acquaintance of yours. As usual, I’ll avoid using names in public. We can wait for the jailor to come outside and then I’ll send Mardak in to show you your rooms while I stable your horses.” Rapheus motioned with one hand toward the door as he wrapped his other arm around Rhema in a slight hug. Rhema lingered in his embrace for a second before opening the door and spilling a small amount of light into the street.

    Outside, Rhema could just make out the small form of a young boy hurriedly retreating from her two companions. Ischarus and Semeion had obviously been talking quietly to the curious boy. It seemed, however, that the boy didn’t want to be caught by his father as he delayed from raising the jailor. Rhema smiled a bit as she stopped for a moment in the doorway. “You know …” she began and then stopped. She paused for another moment until she was sure the boy was out of sight. “Oh, never mind. It is nothing that can’t be handled once we are all inside.”

    Rhema finished passing through the doorway and quickly stepped out of the light, drawing the hood of her cloak tightly around her face in the darkness of the street. Rapheus also stepped out onto the street and allowed the door to close tightly. He nodded at Ischarus and added, “Good to see you again, sir. We have a room waiting for you and your companions once the jailor arrives.”

    Ischarus nodded in reply but said nothing. A very slight smile could be seen as Rapheus looked in under the hood of Ischarus as best he could. Rapheus could tell that Ischarus wanted to greet the man much more openly, but the openness of the street and proximity to the border of Quehalost would not be an appropriate place to have such a greeting.

    Rapheus looked to Semeion and nodded in greeting. Semeion lifted his hand in a simple gesture and lightly uttered a few magical words. “Par Ah-sahn.” Semeion lowered his hand to his side and Rapheus looked down to his own hand. Rapheus felt a slight pressure on his hand as well as the presence of faint warmth. The pressure and the warmth were as though he had shaken Semeion’s own hand. As quickly as the effect came, it vanished. Rapheus looked up to Semeion, but the gray cloaked horseman had turned his horse to allow him to watch the street once more.

    After a long five minute wait in silence, Mardak returned in the midst of a brisk jog. He turned the final corner and smiled as he saw his father standing in the street waiting for him. As though trained not to make too many noises Mardak approached the small gathering outside the inn before speaking. Rapheus could tell that Mardak had run hard as he approached; he seemed to have some difficulty catching his breath as he began to speak. “Papa,” Mardak began with a whisper to his father, “I have alerted Mr. Jairdaans and he has sent for a jail guard to meet him. Together they will come and take the highwaymen into custody.”

    “That is good, son. Now go inside and up to bed.” Rapheus answered. Mardak looked immensely disappointed at his father’s pronouncement. Rapheus gave Mardak a stern look that demanded obedience. Mardak started for the door but turned around as his hand reached for the doorknob.

    “Papa, can I at least stay until the jailor and the guard come?”

    Before Rapheus could speak, Rhema smiled and knelt to the level of the boy. “I’ll watch him, Rapheus. No harm will come to him. After all, he has had a part to play in their arrest. It is a good lesson to teach the youth to see things through to their completion.”

    Rapheus looked to Rhema and smiled. It appeared that Rapheus did not desire to make this a personal issue and his lips parted in a near laugh as he added, “Is it any wonder that the boy admires you? You pamper him ever time you are around.”

    Rhema only smiled in return, looking up to Ischarus. Her cloaked friend peered out from under his hood and shook his head slowly from side to side with a wide grin on his face.

    A few minutes later the armor of the jail guard could be heard as the jailor and his escort marched to the front of the inn. They approached much like Mardak had, refraining to talk until they closed the distance completely. Once they were at a casual conversational distance Mr. Jairdaans spoke first.

    “Good eve, Rapheus. I understand these hobgoblins have caused your travelers some difficulty on the road from Reignsburg to Scarhaus?”

    Rapheus replied, “Indeed they have. I understand that the highwaymen we interested in killing them and taking their possessions. It is only on account of the good faith of my friends that the lives of the highwaymen were spared at all. Fortunately for the hobliglins my friends prefer to refrain from taking life if they can avoid it.”

    Mr. Jairdaans looked up to Ischarus, who had drawn his cloak even more around his face to make it impossible to make out any features in what little shadowy light made it past the edge of the hood. The jailor addressed Ischarus by saying, “And who may I list as making the capture in case we discover anything from them during their interrogation?”

    Ischarus kept the silent vigil and Rapheus answered for him. “You may list the capturing party as myself. Or at the very least you may note that it is one of my patrons who would prefer to not be named. Any information that comes from these may be passed through me.”

    Mr. Jairdaans breathed in deeply. “The count will not approve of such an arrangement, Rapheus.”

    Rapheus smirked. “I have given Count Ahistrom no reason to doubt me in the past. He has no reason to question my loyalty to his rule. If the count has a problem with this arrangement then he can summon me to his quarters and we’ll discuss the issue there. But until such a time as the count informs me of a new policy, I seek to protect the anonymity of my associates. I take responsibility for their capture. That is how it always has been, Mr. Jairdaans. This is not the first time that this arrangement has been used.”

    The jailor nodded for the guard to put the city chains and shackles on the hobgoblins and then to remove the ropes used by Ischarus. He did motion for them to retain the gags that had been put in place to keep them from disturbing the town at night. The guard set to work about the task as Mr. Jairdaans turned once more to look at Rapheus. As the jailor turned, his dark eyes almost seemed to gleam for an instant with a crimson fire. “Your friends must pay you well for your trouble, innkeeper.”

    Rapheus smiled into the jailor’s glare. “My pay is of little concern to you, Mr. Jairdaans. You know that I appreciate your services and I had hoped I need not remind you that I do remember your services as well. These are simple matters, really. I continue to believe that the extra effort on your behalf to accept my name in place of the names of my associate would be easily enough forgotten under the proper considerations. I am assuming that is still correct?”

    Mr. Jairdaans smiled, backing away from the party. “If you should find it necessary to ensure the documentation appears as you would like; well, that is certainly your decision to make.”

    Rapheus nodded in what could be presumed as a dismissal of the jailor. The jailor paused just long enough to insinuate that Rapheus’ gesture had gone unnoticed before he turned and made his own gesture toward the jailor to move the bound and gagged hobgoblins down the street. Before long, they were gone.

    Rapheus turned to his son and a stern looked come upon his face once more. “Boy, you’ve seen enough for one day. Show these good folk to their room while I take their horses around to the stables.”

    Mardak’s face erupted in a large beaming grin. “Sure, papa. You can count on me!”

    Ischarus and Semeion finally dismounted once the jailor was gone. They handed the reigns over to Rapheus, who also collected the reigns of Shauvry before leading the horses around to the side of the building. The three adventurers entered into the lobby of the inn and followed Mardak up the stairs.

    As the boy walked under the desk and through the door, he wordlessly motioned for them to join him in ascending the stairs. At the top of the stairs it appeared as though the family’s quarters were to the right, placing it above the lobby. The boy turned to the left and added, “I know you know the way, ma’am. But I’ll show you to the door like papa told me.”

    When they reached the door Mardak opened it and stepped back into the hallway. Rhema patted Mardak on the head and knelt down before him once more. “You are a good lad, Mardak. You keep listening to your father and growing up and soon you’ll be a healthy young man. You already show such promise!” Rhema leaned in and kissed the boy on the cheek while ruffling the hair on the top of his head. Mardak instinctively kissed Rhema back on the cheek before she could pull away. As Rhema stood, the rest of the party could see that Mardak was blushing considerably.

    The boy watched as the rest of the party entered the room. Of course Rhema caught Mardak’s attention, but the boy also noted the other two as they entered as well. Mardak stared at Ischarus’ waist as he passed him by, noting that the sword hanging from Ischarus’ belt was nearly as long as the boy was tall. He also noted Semeion’s apparent lack of weaponry. Mardak did notice that Semeion’s hands were thin and frail, although the fingers seemed to be held stiffly and at attention.

    Mardak looked up to Semeion as Semeion turned to close the door behind him. For the first time, the boy could see under Semeion’s hood and the boy returned the smile that Semeion gave him. Just before the door closed, Semeion gave the boy a wink and added, “Now you should say goodnight and go to bed, young one. The only way you’ll grow is if you sleep.”

    Mardak smiled and replied, “G’night, sir.” Semeion watched through the slightly ajar door until the boy entered the private rooms for his family. Silently, he closed the door.

    The night passed uneventfully in the small in on the edge of Scarhaus. Semeion knew that tomorrow would be the day he entered the malevolent land of Quehalost for the first time.
    Last edited by Nonlethal Force; Saturday, 25th November, 2006 at 05:30 AM.
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    Chapter Two: INTO THE DEPTHS BETWEEN HERE AND THERE

    The party saddled up just before dawn the next morning and managed to escape the other side of the small town before the sun crested over the horizon. Each of them felt a bit on the weary and tired side already, but Semeion understood this to be a normal feeling for the morning the party headed into Quehalost. As the sun rose, Semeion looked for the first time to the south and saw the massive mountain range rising up out of the ground.

    Ischarus smiled as he noticed where Semeion’s attention rested. He spoke, breaking Semeion’s concentration. “They say that the good gods of the world drove the mountains up on the northern and eastern border of Quehalost to keep its denizens in. I’m sure there is some truth to that, because the mountains are nearly impassable via an overland route. There are a few places where they say that it is possible to pass when the weather is right. But for the most part the best way past the mountains is to go through them underground or over them in the air. Even then the air is so thin because the mountains are so tall that an aerial route is not always open.

    Semeion looked to his right towards Ischarus as he explained the next portion of their trip. Elistra and Thana walked side by side behind Shauvry. “And by ‘through them’ I assume you mean under them?” Semeion asked in reply.

    Ischarus smiled. “Indeed. In traveling under the mountains we can stay away from the cold winds of the mountain tops while enjoying the subtle warmth of the hot springs rumored to be deep in the ground. The tunnels are passable for the most part, but only to those with their wits about them. I doubt many animals or mindless minions could navigate the passageways successfully without it being completely luck.”

    Semeion looked ahead at their route. “It isn’t the mindless minions that I am worried about. We’ll be without the light of day to protect us down there. And don’t they typically say that the deep places of the earth contain more evil than the places where the light of the sun can reach?”

    Rhema chuckled from the front of the group as she eavesdropped on the conversation of the men. “That’s what Ischarus is for, dear. His sword has been able to fend off any attempts of foul play by the denizens of the mountain depths so far. Of course, we have a route that takes a bit longer to navigate but allows us to stay away from the majority of the truly deep passageways. We try to be safe. After all, if we don’t even get into Quehalost, how can we even hope to change the land and bring justice to its most unholy ground?”

    Ischarus replied quickly on the heels of Rhema’s speech. “The worst opponent we ever face is a few random gnolls. You need to be careful of their shamans; they wield some powerful magic. But for the most part their fighters can be handled by my threats and Rhema’s tongue. With the addition of your magical powers we should have an even better advantage over them.”

    Semeion looked once more toward the imposing mountains. Rhema added to Semeion’s thoughts as she said, “Remember, Semeion. We’ve made this trip what seems like countless times. The mountain deep is not what you should fear. The powers of Quehalost that are contained by the mountains are what should be feared. When we get to the other side you’ll have cause to truly be afraid. There isn’t a single time that I enter that land that I don’t get shivers up and down my back when I exit the underground mountain passage.”

    Semeion didn’t reply back. He merely looked ahead at the coming mountains. He realized that Rhema’s words were originally meant to ease his mind about spending so much time underground. Instead, they only brought home the reality of how dangerous this mission was which he had signed on. It seemed like death had haunted him from the time that his master was consumed by the dragon. Before that life-changing trip his life had seemed so enjoyable. Suddenly he discovered that the life of a wizard was much more serious than the life of a wizard’s apprentice.

    After several hours of riding the mountains drew much more close. The horses were now forced to pick their way toward the mountains along deer trails, for no right mind would conceive of making roads this close to the mountains of Quehalost. This meant that they traveled in a single file line with Shauvry leading the way and Thana in the back learning the route. This marching order settled just fine with Semeion’s stomach.

    The ground had taken to a significant climb as the party approached the looming mountains. Their peaks were tall and quite pointed, not at all like the rounded hills near Reignsburg that Semeion was accustomed to. The closer Semeion drew to the mountains the more the mountain spires reminded him of a large portcullis drawn across the land. He remembered the story that Ischarus had told him about the mountains being drawn up out of the land as a defense against the evil forces. This close to the tall spires, Ischarus’ creation myth seemed all the more plausible.

    Another hour in the shadow of the mountain spires led them slowly to a large yawning cavern in the side of the mountain. There was a small trickle of water that flowed out of the mouth of the cave and down the outside of the mountain. From this position on the side of the mountain the party was able to look northward into the land. They could only barely make out the town of Scarhaus where they had spent the night on account of the fog nestled up against the mountain. Semeion was able to trace the trickle of water down the mountain, however. The water flowed out of the cave and over the edge of the narrow trail the horses had found. Once over the edge of the trail, the trickle of water plummeted several hundred feet into a small lake nestled among the trees. The lake had not been visible except from above since the vegetation around the water’s edge was so dense. Semeion looked up from the lake and felt himself dizzied by the realization of how high they had come as they picked their way along the deer trails.

    Rhema pulled back on Shauvry’s reigns to bring the horse to a stop. Ischarus mirrored Rhema’s stop and turned to explain to Semeion as he dismounted. “We go by foot from here, Semeion, though we’ll lead our horses. We’ll need them on the other side. The caverns are low in some places and many of the ceilings have edges that could kill you if you are not careful about it. But if we go by foot we won’t have to worry about it. Besides, Shauvry likes to lead when we ride. When we go by foot, I can take the lead without having Shauvry get made at the fact that Elistra is in front of her.”

    Semeion nodded and watched as Ischarus ascended into the darkness of the cave. Rhema lightly tugged on Shauvry’s reigns and her horse began to follow her into the cave. Thana, however, had not been through this routine before. She was considerably hesitant to enter into the cave and leave the sun behind.

    Semeion sensed the hesitation from the horse and turned back to encourage her. “I know, girl. I don’t particularly like the idea either. But they’ve done this many times before. You’ve just got to trust me on this one.” Semeion spoke softly while trying to coax the horse to move forward into the cave. Thana didn’t budge; she wasn’t having anything to do with the underground tunnel. Semeion turned around to peer into the cave, but it was clear that neither Ischarus nor Rhema had noticed his lagging behind. Semeion turned around once more and lifted his hand up to stroke the horse on the side of her neck. Thana instinctively shifted her weight forward so as to lean her neck onto Semeion’s shoulder. As she leaned forward she stepped to balance her weight. Semeion patted his horse on the neck and coaxed her some more. “C’mon, girl. You can do this with me. I don’t know what I’m getting us into, but Shauvry and Elistra have learned to trust Ischarus and Rhema. You can trust me on this, I won’t lead you astray.”

    Slowly Thana allowed herself to be led into the cavern, only once hesitating at the sudden drop in temperature. Semeion also noticed how damp the air was inside the cavern, which of course didn’t help the cool feeling that surrounded them. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the cavern he spotted Ischarus and Rhema about 50 paces in front of him. Ischarus had stopped far enough into the cave so that the outside light couldn’t be seen from the inside of the cave. He struck his flint and steel together and managed to catch a spark. Slowly he lifted the spark to the wick of his lantern and raised the lantern up to the level of his head. As Semeion approached the other two he could tell that further down the tunnel there were several more tunnels that plunged deeper into the mountain. The tunnels each looked to be naturally made by condensing moisture that joined with long diverted underground springs. The tunnels looked old and not particularly well traveled.

    Semeion smiled slightly as he approached Ischarus. “Your flint and steel work well enough. But if you are even in a pinch for emergency light, all you need to do is ask. I can get you as much light as that lantern can put out. Of course my light won’t last near as long, either.”

    Ischarus replied, “I’ll remember to keep that in mind. Any other tricks you can do that I should know about?”

    Semeion smiled once more. “Not that I can think of. But as they come up, I’ll let you know.”

    Rhema giggled at Semeion’s response. Both Ischarus and Semeion turned towards the sound of Rhema’s giggle and Rhema gave Semeion and approving grin until she spied Ischarus looking at her too. As soon as she saw Ischarus her face took on a false serious look as if to say to Ischarus that she certainly wasn’t giggling at Semeion’s playful response to Ischarus.

    Ischarus held the lantern in front of himself and led the party to the back of the cavern. He had come this way often enough to know which tunnel to take. No sooner than Ischarus turned into the tunnel than his ears were accosted with a hiss and the skittering of several feet moving in a rhythmic dance. With a flash Ischarus had his blade drawn and his hand pushed Elistra back into the main tunnel. Rhema reached out to stop Shauvry from rearing back as Elistra backed out of the tunnel.

    Rhema called out to Ischarus at the sudden movement. “Ischarus, what is it?”

    Before Ischarus could reply, his eyes caught a flash of movement and he directed the beam of his lantern in the direction of the movement. What he saw made a grim smile fall upon his lips as he lowered the tip of his blade to a defensive position in front of his chest. Ischarus stared into what seemed like a thousand points of light – a point for each fractal eye on the face of the large spider that crouched before him. The spider held its position, ready to pounce at the slightest movement; and it looked unhindered by the sudden brightness of the light.

    As Ischarus prepared himself, the spider uncoiled its legs and sprang out in a mighty leap towards the sword wielding Ischarus. As the spider uncoiled from its crouch, Ischarus prepared for an attack he faced many times in coming through this tunnel. This was no ordinary spider; it was magically enhanced to grow to unbelievable proportions. This spider had a leg span of slightly more than five feet. Its fangs were as long as daggers and quite capable of delivering its poisonous venom through Ischarus’ armor. The fangs shot straight for the face of Ischarus, but the fighter crouched and raised his shield to deflect the spider’s blow. The fangs of the spider only found the unsatisfying taste of the cold steel of the shield as Ischarus used the spider’s momentum against the creature. As Ischarus crouched, the spider slid over top of his shield and landed on the other side. Unfortunately for Ischarus, now the creature was between himself and his allies.

    Ischarus returned the spider’s strike with a blow of his own. Before the spider could turn and face Ischarus, the sharp steel blade hacked downwards in a sweeping strike against the rear legs of the large beast. The blade caught the first legs and snapped through the hard exoskeleton. Fragments of the spiked chitin sprayed across the tunnel. The blow carried Ischarus’ sword through the final rear leg on the other side of the spider’s body and cracked the large arachnid’s exoskeleton covering that leg. The beast pivoted in pain as Ischarus realized that he had impaired the creature and deprived it of the full use of most of its legs.

    “Gnolls, Rhema. There are gnolls about in the tunnel today,” Ischarus replied as he watched the spider turn and prepare another strike. He was able to recover enough from his devastating blow to plan a counterattack against the strike that he knew was coming.

    Rhema turned the corner only a fraction of a second before the spider pounced again. Seeing the large spider focusing on Ischarus, Rhema focused her thoughts much like she had against the half-orc in the Cachinnating Roadhouse a few nights before. The spider crouched in what Ischarus thought was a precursor to a strike until he looked and saw Rhema approaching the beast from behind. As Rhema approach slowly the beast crumpled to the floor under pain. A few seconds later the spider collapsed completely in a motionless lump on the floor. Its remaining legs lay in awkward positions in varying directions from under the massive spider body.

    Ischarus spun on his heels as he saw Rhema defeat the large spider. He held his lantern out in front of him and thoroughly shined the light throughout the immediate tunnel. When he was convinced there was nothing to see, he stowed his shield and picked up the lantern with his left hand. In his right hand he once more drew his sword.

    Rhema saw Ischarus take an aggressive stance and scan the tunnel ahead. Suddenly Ischarus sprang into a run away from her. As Ischarus began to run frantically down the hall Rhema yelled after him. “Where are you going?” Her eyes widened as he quickly ran away from her.

    Ischarus called back over his shoulder, “Bring Elistra and Shauvry down the tunnel. That was a shaman’s intimate, and where the intimate is the shaman is not far. I’m going after the shaman before he can get back to his village as raise help!”

    Rhema exhaled heavily at Ischarus’ rash charge. She quickly turned to face Semeion, who had come up behind her to support her in case the fight with the spider had gone poorly.

    “What’s going on?” Semeion asked innocently, hearing the frustration in her sigh.

    Rhema smiled as she grabbed Shauvry’s reigns. “That fool,” she said with a laugh in her voice, “is headed after a gnoll shaman. He’s right in that he had to hurry, but I wish just once he’d at least think before charging down tunnel.”

    Semeion grabbed the reigns of Thana and added with some concern, “Will he need our help?”

    Rhema nodded in the affirmative. “We should hurry. Push Elistra into the tunnel after I take Shauvry. The shamans fight with magic and that is Ischarus’ weak point.”

    Rhema began to jog down the tunnel, careful to lead Shauvry away from any major rocks and holes on the ground that could pose a danger to the horse’s legs. Semeion pulled Elistra into the tunnel and with a swat on the hind-quarters he sent Elistra into a trot behind Shauvry. He turned to encourage Thana, but she appeared to understand the need for urgency. Without any encouragement needed she began to trot through the tunnel following Elistra.

    Ischarus charged down the tunnel with much more speed than Rhema, Semeion, and the trio of horses. Within seconds the light from Ischarus’ lantern was out of view and Ischarus was a turn or two ahead of the rest of the party. With the light source gone, Rhema slowed. “We can’t follow him quickly if we are blind,” she added in a tone that hinted at disgust.

    In the darkness, Semeion crept up slowly behind Rhema. Unable to see, he placed his hand on Elistra’s side to feel his way forward. Passing Elistra, his touch startled Rhema from out of the darkness. Rhema let out a simple yelp at being startled. Semeion quickly shushed her and added, “I have a solution to our problem. Give me the cords at the end of Shauvry’s reigns.”

    Rhema complied quickly and she could hear the quiet magical utterings of her new friend. Semeion said a simple word, “Arack.” The leather cording at the end of the reigns lit up as if it were a lantern in its own right. The tunnel was now lit and Rhema could see several paces in front and behind of her.

    Rhema smiled and reached her hand behind Semeion’s neck to pull him forward. Stepping up to her tiptoes so she could reach his face with her own lips she gave Semeion a kiss on the cheek. “I knew I liked you from the moment I saw you. It’s the simple things like this that will make you a valuable member to our team. You don’t know how many times I have been left in the dark by Ischarus, and I don’t mean intellectually!”

    Semeion blushed at the gesture of the kiss and smiled. He couldn’t find the words to utter in response, so he merely nodded as if to probe Rhema forward. She smiled in return, understanding that she had slightly embarrassed him. She turned quickly and began to jog once again in the direction Ischarus had gone. Elistra followed Shauvry without needing encouragement. Semeion quickly jogged alongside Thana in the final position.

    Ahead of the party, Ischarus continued to charge hard. As he ran, twice he could swear that he saw a faint outline of a running gnoll ahead of him, although each time it lasted only for an instant. As the faint outline of the gnoll appeared a third time, Ischarus heard the gnoll yell in a guttural voice, “Cathra soon-Utal” A sudden chill came over Ischarus and he could sense the humidity of the surrounding area increase dramatically. A mist began to rise up from the floor, but Ischarus knew there were no turns in the immediate vicinity so he continued to charge hard through the mist. He burst forth on the other side of the mist and wiped the condensation away from his forehead. He also noticed that he was beginning to gain on the gnoll shaman.

    The gnoll could hear Ischarus behind him and knew that the spell had not worked to slow down his pursuer. The gnoll tried one more spell that it had in its arsenal. “Granchus,” it called out with a glance over its shoulder.

    Ischarus heard a slight rumble – although not a rumble as if an earthquake or a cave-in were about to happen. Instantly he saw the source of the sound. The moss and the roots of the nearby plants grew forth in a quickened magical growth. The roots and the moss grew so quick as to catch him mid stride. Ischarus attempted to hack at the roots as they grabbed his legs, but the roots grew back even more quickly when he hacked at them. Before he could get a second swing the roots from the ceiling had grown down enough to entangle his arms and suspend him as if he were on a stretching torture device. The roots from above pulled up while the moss and the roots below kept his feet flat against the ground.

    The gnoll could tell from the sound that its spell had worked. The shaman stopped his retreat and approached Ischarus for a moment. “You lose this time, surface dweller.”

    Ischarus breathed heavily and struggled to keep from being torn in two. “You better run, dog-man. This spell can’t last forever, and when it ends I’ll be after you.”

    The look in Ischarus’ eyes must have been enough to convince the gnoll to turn tail and flee. The shaman quickly spun around and scampered down the tunnel, leaving Ischarus to struggle against the plant growth. A full half minute of struggling later Ischarus could hear the sound of horses coming up from behind.

    Ischarus heard the familiar voice of Rhema. “Ischarus? Is that you?” In a more panicked voice once she figured out that it was indeed Ischarus she yelled, “Are you injured?” She left Shauvry and ran to the edge of the plant growth. Shauvry slowed and stayed about twenty feet behind Rhema.

    Ischarus groaned under the strain of the plants but managed to add, “I’m uninjured, although the gnoll got away. He better hope I don’t catch up to him another day!”

    Semeion approached slowly and tried to comfort Ischarus. “If it makes you feel any better, Ischarus, the magic is nearly spent. A few more seconds and you’ll be freed of the magical trap.”

    Ischarus groaned as Semeion spoke. As predicted, about ten seconds later the plants began to ease their strain on Ischarus’ midsection. The roots and the moss began to recede back into the walls of the tunnel. Ischarus was finally able to lower his arms, and upon being free he dropped to the ground and doubled over.

    Rhema ran to his side. “Ischarus,” she said with the tone of a worried lover, “Are you sure you are not injured?”

    Ischarus nodded as he lay doubled over in pain. “I’m fine, just a bit overstretched. I’m all cramped up now, I’ll need a bit of a rest.”

    Semeion smiled as he looked down at the struggling man. He remembered Rhema’s earlier words about Ischarus and magic. This time, magic had won.

    Color Free Speech Section

    Chapter Two: INTO THE DEPTHS BETWEEN HERE AND THERE

    The party saddled up just before dawn the next morning and managed to escape the other side of the small town before the sun crested over the horizon. Each of them felt a bit on the weary and tired side already, but Semeion understood this to be a normal feeling for the morning the party headed into Quehalost. As the sun rose, Semeion looked for the first time to the south and saw the massive mountain range rising up out of the ground.

    Ischarus smiled as he noticed where Semeion’s attention rested. He spoke, breaking Semeion’s concentration. “They say that the good gods of the world drove the mountains up on the northern and eastern border of Quehalost to keep its denizens in. I’m sure there is some truth to that, because the mountains are nearly impassable via an overland route. There are a few places where they say that it is possible to pass when the weather is right. But for the most part the best way past the mountains is to go through them underground or over them in the air. Even then the air is so thin because the mountains are so tall that an aerial route is not always open.

    Semeion looked to his right towards Ischarus as he explained the next portion of their trip. Elistra and Thana walked side by side behind Shauvry. “And by ‘through them’ I assume you mean under them?” Semeion asked in reply.

    Ischarus smiled. “Indeed. In traveling under the mountains we can stay away from the cold winds of the mountain tops while enjoying the subtle warmth of the hot springs rumored to be deep in the ground. The tunnels are passable for the most part, but only to those with their wits about them. I doubt many animals or mindless minions could navigate the passageways successfully without it being completely luck.”

    Semeion looked ahead at their route. “It isn’t the mindless minions that I am worried about. We’ll be without the light of day to protect us down there. And don’t they typically say that the deep places of the earth contain more evil than the places where the light of the sun can reach?”

    Rhema chuckled from the front of the group as she eavesdropped on the conversation of the men. “That’s what Ischarus is for, dear. His sword has been able to fend off any attempts of foul play by the denizens of the mountain depths so far. Of course, we have a route that takes a bit longer to navigate but allows us to stay away from the majority of the truly deep passageways. We try to be safe. After all, if we don’t even get into Quehalost, how can we even hope to change the land and bring justice to its most unholy ground?”

    Ischarus replied quickly on the heels of Rhema’s speech. “The worst opponent we ever face is a few random gnolls. You need to be careful of their shamans; they wield some powerful magic. But for the most part their fighters can be handled by my threats and Rhema’s tongue. With the addition of your magical powers we should have an even better advantage over them.”

    Semeion looked once more toward the imposing mountains. Rhema added to Semeion’s thoughts as she said, “Remember, Semeion. We’ve made this trip what seems like countless times. The mountain deep is not what you should fear. The powers of Quehalost that are contained by the mountains are what should be feared. When we get to the other side you’ll have cause to truly be afraid. There isn’t a single time that I enter that land that I don’t get shivers up and down my back when I exit the underground mountain passage.”

    Semeion didn’t reply back. He merely looked ahead at the coming mountains. He realized that Rhema’s words were originally meant to ease his mind about spending so much time underground. Instead, they only brought home the reality of how dangerous this mission was which he had signed on. It seemed like death had haunted him from the time that his master was consumed by the dragon. Before that life-changing trip his life had seemed so enjoyable. Suddenly he discovered that the life of a wizard was much more serious than the life of a wizard’s apprentice.

    After several hours of riding the mountains drew much more close. The horses were now forced to pick their way toward the mountains along deer trails, for no right mind would conceive of making roads this close to the mountains of Quehalost. This meant that they traveled in a single file line with Shauvry leading the way and Thana in the back learning the route. This marching order settled just fine with Semeion’s stomach.

    The ground had taken to a significant climb as the party approached the looming mountains. Their peaks were tall and quite pointed, not at all like the rounded hills near Reignsburg that Semeion was accustomed to. The closer Semeion drew to the mountains the more the mountain spires reminded him of a large portcullis drawn across the land. He remembered the story that Ischarus had told him about the mountains being drawn up out of the land as a defense against the evil forces. This close to the tall spires, Ischarus’ creation myth seemed all the more plausible.

    Another hour in the shadow of the mountain spires led them slowly to a large yawning cavern in the side of the mountain. There was a small trickle of water that flowed out of the mouth of the cave and down the outside of the mountain. From this position on the side of the mountain the party was able to look northward into the land. They could only barely make out the town of Scarhaus where they had spent the night on account of the fog nestled up against the mountain. Semeion was able to trace the trickle of water down the mountain, however. The water flowed out of the cave and over the edge of the narrow trail the horses had found. Once over the edge of the trail, the trickle of water plummeted several hundred feet into a small lake nestled among the trees. The lake had not been visible except from above since the vegetation around the water’s edge was so dense. Semeion looked up from the lake and felt himself dizzied by the realization of how high they had come as they picked their way along the deer trails.

    Rhema pulled back on Shauvry’s reigns to bring the horse to a stop. Ischarus mirrored Rhema’s stop and turned to explain to Semeion as he dismounted. “We go by foot from here, Semeion, though we’ll lead our horses. We’ll need them on the other side. The caverns are low in some places and many of the ceilings have edges that could kill you if you are not careful about it. But if we go by foot we won’t have to worry about it. Besides, Shauvry likes to lead when we ride. When we go by foot, I can take the lead without having Shauvry get made at the fact that Elistra is in front of her.”

    Semeion nodded and watched as Ischarus ascended into the darkness of the cave. Rhema lightly tugged on Shauvry’s reigns and her horse began to follow her into the cave. Thana, however, had not been through this routine before. She was considerably hesitant to enter into the cave and leave the sun behind.

    Semeion sensed the hesitation from the horse and turned back to encourage her. “I know, girl. I don’t particularly like the idea either. But they’ve done this many times before. You’ve just got to trust me on this one.” Semeion spoke softly while trying to coax the horse to move forward into the cave. Thana didn’t budge; she wasn’t having anything to do with the underground tunnel. Semeion turned around to peer into the cave, but it was clear that neither Ischarus nor Rhema had noticed his lagging behind. Semeion turned around once more and lifted his hand up to stroke the horse on the side of her neck. Thana instinctively shifted her weight forward so as to lean her neck onto Semeion’s shoulder. As she leaned forward she stepped to balance her weight. Semeion patted his horse on the neck and coaxed her some more. “C’mon, girl. You can do this with me. I don’t know what I’m getting us into, but Shauvry and Elistra have learned to trust Ischarus and Rhema. You can trust me on this, I won’t lead you astray.”

    Slowly Thana allowed herself to be led into the cavern, only once hesitating at the sudden drop in temperature. Semeion also noticed how damp the air was inside the cavern, which of course didn’t help the cool feeling that surrounded them. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the cavern he spotted Ischarus and Rhema about 50 paces in front of him. Ischarus had stopped far enough into the cave so that the outside light couldn’t be seen from the inside of the cave. He struck his flint and steel together and managed to catch a spark. Slowly he lifted the spark to the wick of his lantern and raised the lantern up to the level of his head. As Semeion approached the other two he could tell that further down the tunnel there were several more tunnels that plunged deeper into the mountain. The tunnels each looked to be naturally made by condensing moisture that joined with long diverted underground springs. The tunnels looked old and not particularly well traveled.

    Semeion smiled slightly as he approached Ischarus. “Your flint and steel work well enough. But if you are even in a pinch for emergency light, all you need to do is ask. I can get you as much light as that lantern can put out. Of course my light won’t last near as long, either.”

    Ischarus replied, “I’ll remember to keep that in mind. Any other tricks you can do that I should know about?”

    Semeion smiled once more. “Not that I can think of. But as they come up, I’ll let you know.”

    Rhema giggled at Semeion’s response. Both Ischarus and Semeion turned towards the sound of Rhema’s giggle and Rhema gave Semeion and approving grin until she spied Ischarus looking at her too. As soon as she saw Ischarus her face took on a false serious look as if to say to Ischarus that she certainly wasn’t giggling at Semeion’s playful response to Ischarus.

    Ischarus held the lantern in front of himself and led the party to the back of the cavern. He had come this way often enough to know which tunnel to take. No sooner than Ischarus turned into the tunnel than his ears were accosted with a hiss and the skittering of several feet moving in a rhythmic dance. With a flash Ischarus had his blade drawn and his hand pushed Elistra back into the main tunnel. Rhema reached out to stop Shauvry from rearing back as Elistra backed out of the tunnel.

    Rhema called out to Ischarus at the sudden movement. “Ischarus, what is it?”

    Before Ischarus could reply, his eyes caught a flash of movement and he directed the beam of his lantern in the direction of the movement. What he saw made a grim smile fall upon his lips as he lowered the tip of his blade to a defensive position in front of his chest. Ischarus stared into what seemed like a thousand points of light – a point for each fractal eye on the face of the large spider that crouched before him. The spider held its position, ready to pounce at the slightest movement; and it looked unhindered by the sudden brightness of the light.

    As Ischarus prepared himself, the spider uncoiled its legs and sprang out in a mighty leap towards the sword wielding Ischarus. As the spider uncoiled from its crouch, Ischarus prepared for an attack he faced many times in coming through this tunnel. This was no ordinary spider; it was magically enhanced to grow to unbelievable proportions. This spider had a leg span of slightly more than five feet. Its fangs were as long as daggers and quite capable of delivering its poisonous venom through Ischarus’ armor. The fangs shot straight for the face of Ischarus, but the fighter crouched and raised his shield to deflect the spider’s blow. The fangs of the spider only found the unsatisfying taste of the cold steel of the shield as Ischarus used the spider’s momentum against the creature. As Ischarus crouched, the spider slid over top of his shield and landed on the other side. Unfortunately for Ischarus, now the creature was between himself and his allies.

    Ischarus returned the spider’s strike with a blow of his own. Before the spider could turn and face Ischarus, the sharp steel blade hacked downwards in a sweeping strike against the rear legs of the large beast. The blade caught the first legs and snapped through the hard exoskeleton. Fragments of the spiked chitin sprayed across the tunnel. The blow carried Ischarus’ sword through the final rear leg on the other side of the spider’s body and cracked the large arachnid’s exoskeleton covering that leg. The beast pivoted in pain as Ischarus realized that he had impaired the creature and deprived it of the full use of most of its legs.

    “Gnolls, Rhema. There are gnolls about in the tunnel today,” Ischarus replied as he watched the spider turn and prepare another strike. He was able to recover enough from his devastating blow to plan a counterattack against the strike that he knew was coming.

    Rhema turned the corner only a fraction of a second before the spider pounced again. Seeing the large spider focusing on Ischarus, Rhema focused her thoughts much like she had against the half-orc in the Cachinnating Roadhouse a few nights before. The spider crouched in what Ischarus thought was a precursor to a strike until he looked and saw Rhema approaching the beast from behind. As Rhema approach slowly the beast crumpled to the floor under pain. A few seconds later the spider collapsed completely in a motionless lump on the floor. Its remaining legs lay in awkward positions in varying directions from under the massive spider body.

    Ischarus spun on his heels as he saw Rhema defeat the large spider. He held his lantern out in front of him and thoroughly shined the light throughout the immediate tunnel. When he was convinced there was nothing to see, he stowed his shield and picked up the lantern with his left hand. In his right hand he once more drew his sword.

    Rhema saw Ischarus take an aggressive stance and scan the tunnel ahead. Suddenly Ischarus sprang into a run away from her. As Ischarus began to run frantically down the hall Rhema yelled after him. “Where are you going?” Her eyes widened as he quickly ran away from her.

    Ischarus called back over his shoulder, “Bring Elistra and Shauvry down the tunnel. That was a shaman’s intimate, and where the intimate is the shaman is not far. I’m going after the shaman before he can get back to his village as raise help!”

    Rhema exhaled heavily at Ischarus’ rash charge. She quickly turned to face Semeion, who had come up behind her to support her in case the fight with the spider had gone poorly.

    “What’s going on?” Semeion asked innocently, hearing the frustration in her sigh.

    Rhema smiled as she grabbed Shauvry’s reigns. “That fool,” she said with a laugh in her voice, “is headed after a gnoll shaman. He’s right in that he had to hurry, but I wish just once he’d at least think before charging down tunnel.”

    Semeion grabbed the reigns of Thana and added with some concern, “Will he need our help?”

    Rhema nodded in the affirmative. “We should hurry. Push Elistra into the tunnel after I take Shauvry. The shamans fight with magic and that is Ischarus’ weak point.”

    Rhema began to jog down the tunnel, careful to lead Shauvry away from any major rocks and holes on the ground that could pose a danger to the horse’s legs. Semeion pulled Elistra into the tunnel and with a swat on the hind-quarters he sent Elistra into a trot behind Shauvry. He turned to encourage Thana, but she appeared to understand the need for urgency. Without any encouragement needed she began to trot through the tunnel following Elistra.

    Ischarus charged down the tunnel with much more speed than Rhema, Semeion, and the trio of horses. Within seconds the light from Ischarus’ lantern was out of view and Ischarus was a turn or two ahead of the rest of the party. With the light source gone, Rhema slowed. “We can’t follow him quickly if we are blind,” she added in a tone that hinted at disgust.

    In the darkness, Semeion crept up slowly behind Rhema. Unable to see, he placed his hand on Elistra’s side to feel his way forward. Passing Elistra, his touch startled Rhema from out of the darkness. Rhema let out a simple yelp at being startled. Semeion quickly shushed her and added, “I have a solution to our problem. Give me the cords at the end of Shauvry’s reigns.”

    Rhema complied quickly and she could hear the quiet magical utterings of her new friend. Semeion said a simple word, “Arack.” The leather cording at the end of the reigns lit up as if it were a lantern in its own right. The tunnel was now lit and Rhema could see several paces in front and behind of her.

    Rhema smiled and reached her hand behind Semeion’s neck to pull him forward. Stepping up to her tiptoes so she could reach his face with her own lips she gave Semeion a kiss on the cheek. “I knew I liked you from the moment I saw you. It’s the simple things like this that will make you a valuable member to our team. You don’t know how many times I have been left in the dark by Ischarus, and I don’t mean intellectually!”

    Semeion blushed at the gesture of the kiss and smiled. He couldn’t find the words to utter in response, so he merely nodded as if to probe Rhema forward. She smiled in return, understanding that she had slightly embarrassed him. She turned quickly and began to jog once again in the direction Ischarus had gone. Elistra followed Shauvry without needing encouragement. Semeion quickly jogged alongside Thana in the final position.

    Ahead of the party, Ischarus continued to charge hard. As he ran, twice he could swear that he saw a faint outline of a running gnoll ahead of him, although each time it lasted only for an instant. As the faint outline of the gnoll appeared a third time, Ischarus heard the gnoll yell in a guttural voice, “Cathra soon-Utal” A sudden chill came over Ischarus and he could sense the humidity of the surrounding area increase dramatically. A mist began to rise up from the floor, but Ischarus knew there were no turns in the immediate vicinity so he continued to charge hard through the mist. He burst forth on the other side of the mist and wiped the condensation away from his forehead. He also noticed that he was beginning to gain on the gnoll shaman.

    The gnoll could hear Ischarus behind him and knew that the spell had not worked to slow down his pursuer. The gnoll tried one more spell that it had in its arsenal. “Granchus,” it called out with a glance over its shoulder.

    Ischarus heard a slight rumble – although not a rumble as if an earthquake or a cave-in were about to happen. Instantly he saw the source of the sound. The moss and the roots of the nearby plants grew forth in a quickened magical growth. The roots and the moss grew so quick as to catch him mid stride. Ischarus attempted to hack at the roots as they grabbed his legs, but the roots grew back even more quickly when he hacked at them. Before he could get a second swing the roots from the ceiling had grown down enough to entangle his arms and suspend him as if he were on a stretching torture device. The roots from above pulled up while the moss and the roots below kept his feet flat against the ground.

    The gnoll could tell from the sound that its spell had worked. The shaman stopped his retreat and approached Ischarus for a moment. “You lose this time, surface dweller.”

    Ischarus breathed heavily and struggled to keep from being torn in two. “You better run, dog-man. This spell can’t last forever, and when it ends I’ll be after you.”

    The look in Ischarus’ eyes must have been enough to convince the gnoll to turn tail and flee. The shaman quickly spun around and scampered down the tunnel, leaving Ischarus to struggle against the plant growth. A full half minute of struggling later Ischarus could hear the sound of horses coming up from behind.

    Ischarus heard the familiar voice of Rhema. “Ischarus? Is that you?” In a more panicked voice once she figured out that it was indeed Ischarus she yelled, “Are you injured?” She left Shauvry and ran to the edge of the plant growth. Shauvry slowed and stayed about twenty feet behind Rhema.

    Ischarus groaned under the strain of the plants but managed to add, “I’m uninjured, although the gnoll got away. He better hope I don’t catch up to him another day!”

    Semeion approached slowly and tried to comfort Ischarus. “If it makes you feel any better, Ischarus, the magic is nearly spent. A few more seconds and you’ll be freed of the magical trap.”

    Ischarus groaned as Semeion spoke. As predicted, about ten seconds later the plants began to ease their strain on Ischarus’ midsection. The roots and the moss began to recede back into the walls of the tunnel. Ischarus was finally able to lower his arms, and upon being free he dropped to the ground and doubled over.

    Rhema ran to his side. “Ischarus,” she said with the tone of a worried lover, “Are you sure you are not injured?”

    Ischarus nodded as he lay doubled over in pain. “I’m fine, just a bit overstretched. I’m all cramped up now, I’ll need a bit of a rest.”

    Semeion smiled as he looked down at the struggling man. He remembered Rhema’s earlier words about Ischarus and magic. This time, magic had won.
    Last edited by Nonlethal Force; Saturday, 25th November, 2006 at 05:33 AM.
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    Ischarus lay on the floor for several minutes before eventually beginning some simple stretching exercises. A few minutes later he brought himself onto his hands and knees and then raised himself upright on a single knee. When he was sure that he wasn’t going to pass out he stood the rest of the way. Rhema stood beside him the whole time as if to catch him should he fall. Of course, given Ischarus’ weight and size compared to Rhema’s delicate figure Rhema would have simply ended up underneath Ischarus had that possibility unfolded.

    Once he was sure that he was stable, Ischarus added, “We should probably hurry, I’ve wasted enough of our time here. If that gnoll managed to get back to his village and they’re not far from the main trail we can expect pursuit. We can handle a stray gnoll here and there, but I don’t think we have much of a desire to handle a gnoll retaliation effort. If they come in great numbers they could swarm us under.”

    Semeion snorted out a bit of a laugh and looked to Rhema. She replied to his snort, “Unfortunately, he’s pretty serious about that one …”

    Ischarus interrupted her. “I gave that gnoll a good scare. He was running for his life and he knew it. He might count himself lucky, but I doubt it. He’ll want to bring friends so he can watch me run.”

    He reached out for the handle of his lantern and Elistra’s reigns. The ends of Shauvry’s reigns continued to provide light in addition to Ischarus’ lantern and he noticed this new light source as he turned to accept Elistra’s reigns from Rhema. “That’s a nice trick, Semeion. It at least keeps Rhema from having to follow in the dark.” His lips parted slightly in a pained smile as he turned around to start the trio moving forward once more.

    Ischarus lead Rhema and Semeion through a maze of corridors underground. Semeion noted that at each and every turn there was no hesitation on the part of Ischarus. At each turn he knew precisely where to go in spite of the lack of markings and similarity to one another. Additionally, this deep under the mountain the air was terrifically still. Not even a gust of wind could be detected to alert them toward any directional sense. In spite of the lack of indicators, at every place for decision Ischarus decisively led the party forward.

    The party walked for nearly an hour in near silence. The only thing that could be heard was the faint treading of their feet upon the ground and this clip of the horse hooves as they occasionally struck a rock underfoot. Suddenly the near silence was shattered by the dark uttering of a bass voice. “Daancrah Pashraak,” spoke an unknown voice in the darkness ahead.

    Ischarus froze in his place for a split-second. Rhema instinctively froze as well. “Gnolls. Again,” Rhema cursed under her breath.

    “Spell casters, too,” Semeion added. “I’d know the sound of that language anywhere.”

    Before they realized what was upon them Rhema, Semeion, and Ischarus were completely covered in tiny spiders. The spiders seemed to swarm out of every crevasse in the ceiling, floor, and walls around them. The tiny spiders swarmed by the thousands over the three adventurers and their horses. The insect swarm was so thick that in only a matter of seconds the spiders had covered nearly every inch of their skin. The spider swarm grew so thick so quickly that before the adventurers could react there were spiders crawling upon the backs of the first layer of spiders. As Semeion looked around to Ischarus and Rhema he realized that the swarm was so intense that their skin was no longer visible through the dense mass of spiders.

    Realizing that the effect was arcane in nature, Semeion commanded from the back of the group. “Move ahead now. And move ahead quickly. You must find the speaker of the words and disrupt his concentration – or outright kill him!”

    Ischarus moved instinctively at Semeion’s shout; however his movement was more on account of the itching caused by the thousands of spiders crawling across his skin and clothing. The spiders swarmed over the adventurers as they attempted to find any means to sink their teeth into a patch of unprotected skin. Rhema quickly followed Ischarus. She was madly flailing her arms about, trying to shake the infernal spiders away from her arms. Her body was much more easily accessed than Ischarus’ body since Ischarus was dressed for battle and under armor. Ischarus managed to remove most of the tiny insects without being bitten often. Rhema was not as lucky as spider after spider found juicy flesh to sink its teeth into.

    Still holding the reigns of Elistra, Ischarus charged down the tunnel in the direction from which the chanting had come. He knew that Elistra was being bitten as much if not more than he and Rhema. The horse hide was far thicker than their own skin, but the crawling motions of the spiders had obviously disturbed his unfortunate horse. Ischarus also knew that Rhema, Shauvry, Semeion, and Thana would have no chance against the swarm of spiders if Elistra continued to block the tunnel. He pulled the horse along as he tried to run down the tunnel.

    As Ischarus charged, two large forms came into view. Both of them stood taller than he did and looked almost like jackals standing upright on two legs. As the enemy came into view Ischarus released Elistra’s reigns, drew his sword, and uttered a battle cry from deep within his person. “You will rue the day you attacked my companions, dogs!” The insult was a commentary on their hyena like faces than a standardized battle cry.

    Rhema came quickly up behind Ischarus. She fled the swarm of insects as quickly as Ischarus could move away from it. Semeion breathed deeply and lowered his head, stepping just as quickly as Rhema could move through the affected area of spiders. Fortunately the spiders seemed to seethe around the tunnel in a small foot area, so Semeion and Thana were able to pass through with a reasonably easy amount of effort before too many arachnid hitchhikers could latch on and find an unprotected area.

    As Rhema approached the back of Ischarus and Elistra she perceived the two gnolls that threatened Ischarus’ advance away from the spider swarm. With a simple gesture of her free hand she extended her index and middle finger outward toward the more warrior-like of the two gnolls. The gnoll saw her approach and she smiled broadly. Her thumb, ring finger, and pinky instinctively curled in towards her palm. Her mind began to harness its power and her eyes almost glistened as her thoughts came into reality. “You don’t want to harm us, gnoll. We’re too much of a serious challenge for you and you might actually get hurt. Drop your weapons and I’ll guarantee that my friend here doesn’t hurt you.”

    The gnoll hesitated for a moment, gripping its own axe tightly in its left hand. As Rhema spoke her soothing words through the deep power of her mind, the gnoll’s grip on the axe loosened and its face revealed its own surprise as the axe fell from its hand. The gnoll also dropped the shield it was carrying and uttered a comment in a voice even more bass than the one which had called forth the horde of spiders, “I think are you correct. You might hurt me, I will not fight today.” The voice was one that struggled with the language spoken.

    The other gnoll cursed loudly in its own language and yelled, “Farrung, what do you do?” In its own tongue it continued, “Bargrak drratch kratch, Farrung.” When the more warrior-like gnoll didn’t respond to the one who spoke, the gnoll refocused his attention onto Ischarus and readied a crude morningstar. The gnoll stepped toward Ischarus and swung the wooden shaft with a large stone at the top. Ischarus hoisted his shield up into the path of the oncoming morningstar and deflected the blow away from his body. The gnoll spat upon the ground as it knew it had missed with its first strike opportunity.

    Ischarus yelled as the attack was deflected. “You’ll not get many better chances than that one, dog!” He used the momentum of his shield thrust to extend his sword in a straight jab towards the gnoll’s body. The gnoll sidestepped Ischarus’ blow and spun away from the attack, thinking about his next assault onto Ischarus.

    Semeion joined the party, noting that after he passed through the spiders they had begun to dissipate and recede into the crevasses from which they had come. As Semeion caught up to Ischarus and Rhema, he noticed that about the same time as the spider had begun to recede the second gnoll had begun to attack Ischarus. “Tok-skrie Ah-su” Semeion shouted as he came into view of the gnolls. The gnoll that had been assaulting Ischarus began to grow, nearly doubling in size. The gnoll’s head slammed against the roof of the tunnel, sending a shower of dust and rock fragments onto the shorter Ischarus. Ischarus smiled at Semeion’s tactics. The gnoll was now far too large to maneuver effectively in the tunnel.

    Rhema continued to talk to the gnoll that was beginning to fall under her soothing control. “You’re alright, gnoll. You made the right choice in dropping your weapon. You’ll live to fight another day. You’ll live to return back to your den. Leave the axe on the ground and no harm will come to you.”

    The gnoll attacking Ischarus attempted a feeble swing with his now large morningstar. Ischarus easily dodged the attack, although the miss was more attributed to the fact that the gnoll bounced the morningstar off of the ceiling and the side of the tunnel before beginning a very ineffective swing.

    Ischarus smiled once more at Semeion’s previous tactical maneuver. He hoisted his sword once more in an attack against the gnoll and this time struck the much bigger target. The blow was tremendously placed – the flat of the blade impacted the gnoll’s exposed ribcage and then the sword cut down into the gnoll’s large thigh. The leg wound was not deep at all. Ischarus had designed the blow to impair the creature’s movement rather than try to kill it. Ischarus didn’t realize at first that the gnoll had been knocked unconscious by the strike against the ribcage, making the blow to the leg immediately unnecessary. The large gnoll fell to the cave floor and sprawled about the entire horizontal surface. Due to the enlarged creature’s great size made it impossible to move the horses further down the tunnel.

    Rhema saw the beast fall and knew exactly what to say. “Semeion, can you dismiss your spell and return the creature to its normal size?” She immediately understood the logistical problem. Without even a word Semeion smiled and the gnoll gradually shrank back to a more normal size. The creature remained unconscious and lay still upon the ground.

    Rhema turned to the remaining gnoll and said, “Listen to me. Your gnoll brother is not dead, merely wounded and unconscious. There is no need for him to die – nor for yourself. I think you should leave your armor and weapons on the floor and allow us to remove the weapons of your companion. If you allow us to do that, I can guarantee that no more harm will come to you or your friend. You can tell me you agree be removing your armor and leaving it on the ground with your axe and shield.”

    The gnoll was well within Rhema’s mental grasp by this point. The creature would have likely obeyed any command she spoke short of jumping into a molten lava pool. The gnoll quickly began to unfasten the crude straps that held the armor securely around its body. In short order the creature left the pile of armor on the ground beside the shield and the sword. Rhema smiled at the gnoll and nodded to Ischarus.

    Ischarus stowed his weapon and approached the wounded gnoll, stripping it of its morningstar. Ischarus also gently tugged on the straps that held this gnoll’s light leather armor in place. Even though the gnoll had been trying to kill him – and he had been trying to hurt the gnoll in return – it was obvious to Rhema and Semeion as they looked on that Ischarus had a deep respect for this gnoll’s life. Ischarus knew the gnoll was wounded badly and did not want to do anything else to injure the gnoll beyond what had already been done.

    As Ischarus undid the gnoll’s armor he also found a few useful stones within one of the pockets of the armor. Rather than pulling the stones out and revealing them to the gnoll who was watching him to make sure he did not abuse his companion, Ischarus merely noted their presence and made sure that as he removed the armor the stones stayed within the pocket of the armor. As the armor was gently taken off of the body of the wounded gnoll, Ischarus also discovered two daggers with rather ornately carved handles. It was obvious to Ischarus from their craftsmanship that these daggers were not of gnoll origin but most likely of dwarven make. As he removed the daggers Ischarus stood and nodded once more to Rhema. He carried the armor, daggers, and morningstar away from the body.

    When Rhema saw that Ischarus was done, she smiled once more at the gnoll that was under his control. “See? As I told you, your companion is unharmed. We are taking your weapons and armor as payment for sparing his life. If you go unarmed and unarmored, it also guarantees us that you will not cause any more trouble until we have seen this passage through to the other side. Do you understand?”

    The gnoll nodded slowly in an affirmative gesture. “I understand. You take items in trade for letting Farrung return to village with Traact. I do not like losing, but I do like living.”

    Rhema smiled at the simple logic of the gnoll. While the gnoll at least had enough wisdom to love life over victory, this gnoll was clearly not one of the more intelligent gnolls to be born. As she looked at him she almost had sympathy upon him for being the simple warrior muscle that his clan certainly must use him for. She continued, “Farrung, your companion Traact is injured because he fought back. He is not in danger of dying yet, but if he does not receive some help soon he may worsen. Does you village have anyone who can heal?

    Farrung nodded in the affirmative once more. “My clan is blessed with six shaman. One shaman sent Farrung and Traact to find you and bring you back to him. Farrung will not go to that one to heal Traact. Farrung will go to one more able to heal.”

    Semeion rubbed his hand across his face as he listened to the slow and deliberate speech of the gnoll. He breathed deeply and exhaled rather loudly as he glanced toward Ischarus. The party’s fighter returned the loud exhale with a smile of his own.

    Rhema looked pleased at Farrung’s answer and accounting of his clansmen’s abilities. “You may get the body of Traact, Farrung. If you approach the body slowly and do not come near my friends I promise they will not interfere with your task. Be careful when you move you friend since he is wounded and should be handled gently whenever possible. Do you understand?”

    The gnoll nodded once more as it moved forward on its canine like legs. Its face showed no sign of malice as it looked at Rhema and her friends, acknowledging to Ischarus and Semeion that Rhema’s power over the gnoll was still largely in effect. Farrung gently lifted his fallen companion up off of the ground and turned once more to look at Rhema before heading down the tunnel.

    Once the gnoll had made his way off, Ischarus decided it was time to move once more. “Get the armor and daggers while I pick up the larger gnoll’s armor and weapons. Load them into Elistra’s saddlebags, and quickly. Rhema’s powers will have little effect once the gnoll gets a certain distance away from us. We don’t need to give it any excuse to turn back and fight for its companion’s honor.”

    As Ischarus spoke, Semeion leapt into action and quickly gathered up the items, bringing them to Elistra’s saddlebags. Ischarus moved down the tunnel a bit further and approached where Farrung had dropped his own equipment carefully. When he was sure he wasn’t going to be blindsided from another attack he knelt to the ground and picked up the items.

    While the two men were gathering up the items, Rhema took Ischarus’ lantern and cautiously walked the direction that the gnoll headed, hoping that her subtle gesture would allow her control to last even a few seconds longer. When she could no longer feel the gnoll’s thoughts and emotions in her mind she turned and quickly rejoined the party. “He has moved beyond my control,” Rhema spoke hurriedly as Semeion finished loading the equipment into Elistra’s saddlebags.

    Ischarus turned and nodded in Rhema’s direction. His hand contained the stones that he had recovered from the armor of the gnoll. He handed eight gold pieces, five pieces of obsidian, and three pieces of sardonyx to Rhema as she returned. “Thanks for letting me know. We must hurry, then. Keep the stones with the funds we may need to pay for equipment and housing.” Rhema nodded and easily stuffed the gemstones into her coin pouch.

    Semeion reached for Thana’s reigns and prepared to follow Rhema and Shauvry once Ischarus moved. He looked to Ischarus and questioned the urgency of Ischarus and Rhema. “Are we in that much danger? Won’t it take him some time to return Traact to the village?”

    Ischarus turned to bark a response back to Semeion, but Rhema’s eyes intercepted his sharp look and her look softened his tone. Without a word being spoken, Ischarus turned back around and set a brisk pace down the tunnel. As Rhema started up with Shauvry she answered back to Semeion, “It isn’t that we are in immediate danger. But I’m sure you were able to conclude that the shaman that Ischarus chased had sent two of his own back to hinder our movement – perhaps even bring our own heads back to the gnoll village in the shaman’s honor. When the shaman realizes that the two he sent out to hinder our movement through the tunnels came back without their prize, the shaman will certainly send out more against us. He might send out more than we can handle – certainly more than I can effect with the mind control effect that I am accustomed to using on the gnolls.”

    Semeion thought for a moment and replied as he and Rhema hustled behind Ischarus. “That makes sense. How long do we have to get away?”

    Rhema let out a short snort through her nose in a subtle laugh. “The spider swarm attack came reasonably quickly after the shaman fled. We can assume that their clan village is close – or at least a guarded outpost for tunnel control is near. Either way, the threat is most likely quite near.”

    Semeion replied, “If the threat was so close, then why did we let them go so easily?”

    Rhema smiled as she knew Semeion was beginning to feel the inner turmoil of what it really meant to be good in one’s heart and not just neutral toward other people. “We are freedom fighters, Semeion. We are not judges in this world. We have no right to declare guilt or innocence. We all have the ability to perceive people as just or unjust, but honestly who are we to judge? If we kill another life that has a mind capable of rationalization, are we any better than those who enslave the living in Quehalost? If we want to truly be good and be considered freedom fighters, we cannot force our judgment of righteousness on anyone in terms of death. To kill another being means that we did not do our job properly. We can strike out and wound – knocking them unconscious. We can control them telepathically as I do. We can even try to convince others through a display of force that they really don’t desire to take on our challenge. But we cannot kill another mind that is capable of rationalization. The spider I killed could not grasp our purpose – it was in hunt mode. It was either kill or be killed. The gnolls are different, though. By our refusing to kill them in spite of how badly they desired to kill us, we have brought justice and peace into their lives even for a short instant.”

    Semeion did not reply as his mind churned through Rhema’s assertion about what their work entailed and how difficult it would be to live up to these standards of honoring life. Sensing his internal quandary, Rhema changed the topic. “How are you on magical abilities until we can find rest?”

    Semeion closed his eyes for a moment and searched his mind. With a slow and dramatic effort his eyelids reopened and he responded, “I have enough for another conflict or two. Of course, I have these two new daggers to help out if the spells run out.”

    Ischarus turned his head slightly to look at Rhema in response to Semeion’s overconfident gesture of combat effectiveness. Rhema nodded slightly and concluded, “Semeion, you weren’t brought on this team because you can be an effective combatant. Let us hope it does not come to that.”

    The party continued on for the next several minutes in complete silence. Only the striking of their feet and the horse hooves upon the tunnel floor interrupted their individual contemplation of Rhema’s words. After a few minutes Ischarus uttered a quiet prayer that was soft enough so neither Rhema nor Semeion were able to hear it. “Thank you for making her have mind-reading abilities and not abilities that allow her to know the future.” A grim smile crossed his lips as the sarcastic prayer was finished. Once the prayer was over he hustled even harder down the tunnel.

    Color Free Speech Section

    Ischarus lay on the floor for several minutes before eventually beginning some simple stretching exercises. A few minutes later he brought himself onto his hands and knees and then raised himself upright on a single knee. When he was sure that he wasn’t going to pass out he stood the rest of the way. Rhema stood beside him the whole time as if to catch him should he fall. Of course, given Ischarus’ weight and size compared to Rhema’s delicate figure Rhema would have simply ended up underneath Ischarus had that possibility unfolded.

    Once he was sure that he was stable, Ischarus added, “We should probably hurry, I’ve wasted enough of our time here. If that gnoll managed to get back to his village and they’re not far from the main trail we can expect pursuit. We can handle a stray gnoll here and there, but I don’t think we have much of a desire to handle a gnoll retaliation effort. If they come in great numbers they could swarm us under.”

    Semeion snorted out a bit of a laugh and looked to Rhema. She replied to his snort, “Unfortunately, he’s pretty serious about that one …”

    Ischarus interrupted her. “I gave that gnoll a good scare. He was running for his life and he knew it. He might count himself lucky, but I doubt it. He’ll want to bring friends so he can watch me run.”

    He reached out for the handle of his lantern and Elistra’s reigns. The ends of Shauvry’s reigns continued to provide light in addition to Ischarus’ lantern and he noticed this new light source as he turned to accept Elistra’s reigns from Rhema. “That’s a nice trick, Semeion. It at least keeps Rhema from having to follow in the dark.” His lips parted slightly in a pained smile as he turned around to start the trio moving forward once more.

    Ischarus lead Rhema and Semeion through a maze of corridors underground. Semeion noted that at each and every turn there was no hesitation on the part of Ischarus. At each turn he knew precisely where to go in spite of the lack of markings and similarity to one another. Additionally, this deep under the mountain the air was terrifically still. Not even a gust of wind could be detected to alert them toward any directional sense. In spite of the lack of indicators, at every place for decision Ischarus decisively led the party forward.

    The party walked for nearly an hour in near silence. The only thing that could be heard was the faint treading of their feet upon the ground and this clip of the horse hooves as they occasionally struck a rock underfoot. Suddenly the near silence was shattered by the dark uttering of a bass voice. “Daancrah Pashraak,” spoke an unknown voice in the darkness ahead.

    Ischarus froze in his place for a split-second. Rhema instinctively froze as well. “Gnolls. Again,” Rhema cursed under her breath.

    “Spell casters, too,” Semeion added. “I’d know the sound of that language anywhere.”

    Before they realized what was upon them Rhema, Semeion, and Ischarus were completely covered in tiny spiders. The spiders seemed to swarm out of every crevasse in the ceiling, floor, and walls around them. The tiny spiders swarmed by the thousands over the three adventurers and their horses. The insect swarm was so thick that in only a matter of seconds the spiders had covered nearly every inch of their skin. The spider swarm grew so thick so quickly that before the adventurers could react there were spiders crawling upon the backs of the first layer of spiders. As Semeion looked around to Ischarus and Rhema he realized that the swarm was so intense that their skin was no longer visible through the dense mass of spiders.

    Realizing that the effect was arcane in nature, Semeion commanded from the back of the group. “Move ahead now. And move ahead quickly. You must find the speaker of the words and disrupt his concentration – or outright kill him!”

    Ischarus moved instinctively at Semeion’s shout; however his movement was more on account of the itching caused by the thousands of spiders crawling across his skin and clothing. The spiders swarmed over the adventurers as they attempted to find any means to sink their teeth into a patch of unprotected skin. Rhema quickly followed Ischarus. She was madly flailing her arms about, trying to shake the infernal spiders away from her arms. Her body was much more easily accessed than Ischarus’ body since Ischarus was dressed for battle and under armor. Ischarus managed to remove most of the tiny insects without being bitten often. Rhema was not as lucky as spider after spider found juicy flesh to sink its teeth into.

    Still holding the reigns of Elistra, Ischarus charged down the tunnel in the direction from which the chanting had come. He knew that Elistra was being bitten as much if not more than he and Rhema. The horse hide was far thicker than their own skin, but the crawling motions of the spiders had obviously disturbed his unfortunate horse. Ischarus also knew that Rhema, Shauvry, Semeion, and Thana would have no chance against the swarm of spiders if Elistra continued to block the tunnel. He pulled the horse along as he tried to run down the tunnel.

    As Ischarus charged, two large forms came into view. Both of them stood taller than he did and looked almost like jackals standing upright on two legs. As the enemy came into view Ischarus released Elistra’s reigns, drew his sword, and uttered a battle cry from deep within his person. “You will rue the day you attacked my companions, dogs!” The insult was a commentary on their hyena like faces than a standardized battle cry.

    Rhema came quickly up behind Ischarus. She fled the swarm of insects as quickly as Ischarus could move away from it. Semeion breathed deeply and lowered his head, stepping just as quickly as Rhema could move through the affected area of spiders. Fortunately the spiders seemed to seethe around the tunnel in a small foot area, so Semeion and Thana were able to pass through with a reasonably easy amount of effort before too many arachnid hitchhikers could latch on and find an unprotected area.

    As Rhema approached the back of Ischarus and Elistra she perceived the two gnolls that threatened Ischarus’ advance away from the spider swarm. With a simple gesture of her free hand she extended her index and middle finger outward toward the more warrior-like of the two gnolls. The gnoll saw her approach and she smiled broadly. Her thumb, ring finger, and pinky instinctively curled in towards her palm. Her mind began to harness its power and her eyes almost glistened as her thoughts came into reality. “You don’t want to harm us, gnoll. We’re too much of a serious challenge for you and you might actually get hurt. Drop your weapons and I’ll guarantee that my friend here doesn’t hurt you.”

    The gnoll hesitated for a moment, gripping its own axe tightly in its left hand. As Rhema spoke her soothing words through the deep power of her mind, the gnoll’s grip on the axe loosened and its face revealed its own surprise as the axe fell from its hand. The gnoll also dropped the shield it was carrying and uttered a comment in a voice even more bass than the one which had called forth the horde of spiders, “I think are you correct. You might hurt me, I will not fight today.” The voice was one that struggled with the language spoken.

    The other gnoll cursed loudly in its own language and yelled, “Farrung, what do you do?” In its own tongue it continued, “Bargrak drratch kratch, Farrung.” When the more warrior-like gnoll didn’t respond to the one who spoke, the gnoll refocused his attention onto Ischarus and readied a crude morningstar. The gnoll stepped toward Ischarus and swung the wooden shaft with a large stone at the top. Ischarus hoisted his shield up into the path of the oncoming morningstar and deflected the blow away from his body. The gnoll spat upon the ground as it knew it had missed with its first strike opportunity.

    Ischarus yelled as the attack was deflected. “You’ll not get many better chances than that one, dog!” He used the momentum of his shield thrust to extend his sword in a straight jab towards the gnoll’s body. The gnoll sidestepped Ischarus’ blow and spun away from the attack, thinking about his next assault onto Ischarus.

    Semeion joined the party, noting that after he passed through the spiders they had begun to dissipate and recede into the crevasses from which they had come. As Semeion caught up to Ischarus and Rhema, he noticed that about the same time as the spider had begun to recede the second gnoll had begun to attack Ischarus. “Tok-skrie Ah-su” Semeion shouted as he came into view of the gnolls. The gnoll that had been assaulting Ischarus began to grow, nearly doubling in size. The gnoll’s head slammed against the roof of the tunnel, sending a shower of dust and rock fragments onto the shorter Ischarus. Ischarus smiled at Semeion’s tactics. The gnoll was now far too large to maneuver effectively in the tunnel.

    Rhema continued to talk to the gnoll that was beginning to fall under her soothing control. “You’re alright, gnoll. You made the right choice in dropping your weapon. You’ll live to fight another day. You’ll live to return back to your den. Leave the axe on the ground and no harm will come to you.”

    The gnoll attacking Ischarus attempted a feeble swing with his now large morningstar. Ischarus easily dodged the attack, although the miss was more attributed to the fact that the gnoll bounced the morningstar off of the ceiling and the side of the tunnel before beginning a very ineffective swing.

    Ischarus smiled once more at Semeion’s previous tactical maneuver. He hoisted his sword once more in an attack against the gnoll and this time struck the much bigger target. The blow was tremendously placed – the flat of the blade impacted the gnoll’s exposed ribcage and then the sword cut down into the gnoll’s large thigh. The leg wound was not deep at all. Ischarus had designed the blow to impair the creature’s movement rather than try to kill it. Ischarus didn’t realize at first that the gnoll had been knocked unconscious by the strike against the ribcage, making the blow to the leg immediately unnecessary. The large gnoll fell to the cave floor and sprawled about the entire horizontal surface. Due to the enlarged creature’s great size made it impossible to move the horses further down the tunnel.

    Rhema saw the beast fall and knew exactly what to say. “Semeion, can you dismiss your spell and return the creature to its normal size?” She immediately understood the logistical problem. Without even a word Semeion smiled and the gnoll gradually shrank back to a more normal size. The creature remained unconscious and lay still upon the ground.

    Rhema turned to the remaining gnoll and said, “Listen to me. Your gnoll brother is not dead, merely wounded and unconscious. There is no need for him to die – nor for yourself. I think you should leave your armor and weapons on the floor and allow us to remove the weapons of your companion. If you allow us to do that, I can guarantee that no more harm will come to you or your friend. You can tell me you agree be removing your armor and leaving it on the ground with your axe and shield.”

    The gnoll was well within Rhema’s mental grasp by this point. The creature would have likely obeyed any command she spoke short of jumping into a molten lava pool. The gnoll quickly began to unfasten the crude straps that held the armor securely around its body. In short order the creature left the pile of armor on the ground beside the shield and the sword. Rhema smiled at the gnoll and nodded to Ischarus.

    Ischarus stowed his weapon and approached the wounded gnoll, stripping it of its morningstar. Ischarus also gently tugged on the straps that held this gnoll’s light leather armor in place. Even though the gnoll had been trying to kill him – and he had been trying to hurt the gnoll in return – it was obvious to Rhema and Semeion as they looked on that Ischarus had a deep respect for this gnoll’s life. Ischarus knew the gnoll was wounded badly and did not want to do anything else to injure the gnoll beyond what had already been done.

    As Ischarus undid the gnoll’s armor he also found a few useful stones within one of the pockets of the armor. Rather than pulling the stones out and revealing them to the gnoll who was watching him to make sure he did not abuse his companion, Ischarus merely noted their presence and made sure that as he removed the armor the stones stayed within the pocket of the armor. As the armor was gently taken off of the body of the wounded gnoll, Ischarus also discovered two daggers with rather ornately carved handles. It was obvious to Ischarus from their craftsmanship that these daggers were not of gnoll origin but most likely of dwarven make. As he removed the daggers Ischarus stood and nodded once more to Rhema. He carried the armor, daggers, and morningstar away from the body.

    When Rhema saw that Ischarus was done, she smiled once more at the gnoll that was under his control. “See? As I told you, your companion is unharmed. We are taking your weapons and armor as payment for sparing his life. If you go unarmed and unarmored, it also guarantees us that you will not cause any more trouble until we have seen this passage through to the other side. Do you understand?”

    The gnoll nodded slowly in an affirmative gesture. “I understand. You take items in trade for letting Farrung return to village with Traact. I do not like losing, but I do like living.”

    Rhema smiled at the simple logic of the gnoll. While the gnoll at least had enough wisdom to love life over victory, this gnoll was clearly not one of the more intelligent gnolls to be born. As she looked at him she almost had sympathy upon him for being the simple warrior muscle that his clan certainly must use him for. She continued, “Farrung, your companion Traact is injured because he fought back. He is not in danger of dying yet, but if he does not receive some help soon he may worsen. Does you village have anyone who can heal?

    Farrung nodded in the affirmative once more. “My clan is blessed with six shaman. One shaman sent Farrung and Traact to find you and bring you back to him. Farrung will not go to that one to heal Traact. Farrung will go to one more able to heal.”

    Semeion rubbed his hand across his face as he listened to the slow and deliberate speech of the gnoll. He breathed deeply and exhaled rather loudly as he glanced toward Ischarus. The party’s fighter returned the loud exhale with a smile of his own.

    Rhema looked pleased at Farrung’s answer and accounting of his clansmen’s abilities. “You may get the body of Traact, Farrung. If you approach the body slowly and do not come near my friends I promise they will not interfere with your task. Be careful when you move you friend since he is wounded and should be handled gently whenever possible. Do you understand?”

    The gnoll nodded once more as it moved forward on its canine like legs. Its face showed no sign of malice as it looked at Rhema and her friends, acknowledging to Ischarus and Semeion that Rhema’s power over the gnoll was still largely in effect. Farrung gently lifted his fallen companion up off of the ground and turned once more to look at Rhema before heading down the tunnel.

    Once the gnoll had made his way off, Ischarus decided it was time to move once more. “Get the armor and daggers while I pick up the larger gnoll’s armor and weapons. Load them into Elistra’s saddlebags, and quickly. Rhema’s powers will have little effect once the gnoll gets a certain distance away from us. We don’t need to give it any excuse to turn back and fight for its companion’s honor.”

    As Ischarus spoke, Semeion leapt into action and quickly gathered up the items, bringing them to Elistra’s saddlebags. Ischarus moved down the tunnel a bit further and approached where Farrung had dropped his own equipment carefully. When he was sure he wasn’t going to be blindsided from another attack he knelt to the ground and picked up the items.

    While the two men were gathering up the items, Rhema took Ischarus’ lantern and cautiously walked the direction that the gnoll headed, hoping that her subtle gesture would allow her control to last even a few seconds longer. When she could no longer feel the gnoll’s thoughts and emotions in her mind she turned and quickly rejoined the party. “He has moved beyond my control,” Rhema spoke hurriedly as Semeion finished loading the equipment into Elistra’s saddlebags.

    Ischarus turned and nodded in Rhema’s direction. His hand contained the stones that he had recovered from the armor of the gnoll. He handed eight gold pieces, five pieces of obsidian, and three pieces of sardonyx to Rhema as she returned. “Thanks for letting me know. We must hurry, then. Keep the stones with the funds we may need to pay for equipment and housing.” Rhema nodded and easily stuffed the gemstones into her coin pouch.

    Semeion reached for Thana’s reigns and prepared to follow Rhema and Shauvry once Ischarus moved. He looked to Ischarus and questioned the urgency of Ischarus and Rhema. “Are we in that much danger? Won’t it take him some time to return Traact to the village?”

    Ischarus turned to bark a response back to Semeion, but Rhema’s eyes intercepted his sharp look and her look softened his tone. Without a word being spoken, Ischarus turned back around and set a brisk pace down the tunnel. As Rhema started up with Shauvry she answered back to Semeion, “It isn’t that we are in immediate danger. But I’m sure you were able to conclude that the shaman that Ischarus chased had sent two of his own back to hinder our movement – perhaps even bring our own heads back to the gnoll village in the shaman’s honor. When the shaman realizes that the two he sent out to hinder our movement through the tunnels came back without their prize, the shaman will certainly send out more against us. He might send out more than we can handle – certainly more than I can effect with the mind control effect that I am accustomed to using on the gnolls.”

    Semeion thought for a moment and replied as he and Rhema hustled behind Ischarus. “That makes sense. How long do we have to get away?”

    Rhema let out a short snort through her nose in a subtle laugh. “The spider swarm attack came reasonably quickly after the shaman fled. We can assume that their clan village is close – or at least a guarded outpost for tunnel control is near. Either way, the threat is most likely quite near.”

    Semeion replied, “If the threat was so close, then why did we let them go so easily?”

    Rhema smiled as she knew Semeion was beginning to feel the inner turmoil of what it really meant to be good in one’s heart and not just neutral toward other people. “We are freedom fighters, Semeion. We are not judges in this world. We have no right to declare guilt or innocence. We all have the ability to perceive people as just or unjust, but honestly who are we to judge? If we kill another life that has a mind capable of rationalization, are we any better than those who enslave the living in Quehalost? If we want to truly be good and be considered freedom fighters, we cannot force our judgment of righteousness on anyone in terms of death. To kill another being means that we did not do our job properly. We can strike out and wound – knocking them unconscious. We can control them telepathically as I do. We can even try to convince others through a display of force that they really don’t desire to take on our challenge. But we cannot kill another mind that is capable of rationalization. The spider I killed could not grasp our purpose – it was in hunt mode. It was either kill or be killed. The gnolls are different, though. By our refusing to kill them in spite of how badly they desired to kill us, we have brought justice and peace into their lives even for a short instant.”

    Semeion did not reply as his mind churned through Rhema’s assertion about what their work entailed and how difficult it would be to live up to these standards of honoring life. Sensing his internal quandary, Rhema changed the topic. “How are you on magical abilities until we can find rest?”

    Semeion closed his eyes for a moment and searched his mind. With a slow and dramatic effort his eyelids reopened and he responded, “I have enough for another conflict or two. Of course, I have these two new daggers to help out if the spells run out.”

    Ischarus turned his head slightly to look at Rhema in response to Semeion’s overconfident gesture of combat effectiveness. Rhema nodded slightly and concluded, “Semeion, you weren’t brought on this team because you can be an effective combatant. Let us hope it does not come to that.”

    The party continued on for the next several minutes in complete silence. Only the striking of their feet and the horse hooves upon the tunnel floor interrupted their individual contemplation of Rhema’s words. After a few minutes Ischarus uttered a quiet prayer that was soft enough so neither Rhema nor Semeion were able to hear it. “Thank you for making her have mind-reading abilities and not abilities that allow her to know the future.” A grim smile crossed his lips as the sarcastic prayer was finished. Once the prayer was over he hustled even harder down the tunnel.
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    After hustling down the various dark and damp corridors of the mountain for almost an hour, Rhema called out for a breather. “Ischarus, please!” Her voice sounded out of breath as she paused between nearly every other word. “We’ve been hustling for some time now. Can we slow our pace at least a little?”

    Without turning to stop and look to his companions, Ischarus slowed his footfalls to a walk. His stride still insisted that the walk was reasonably brisk, but it was at least a walk. Elistra sent an appreciative snort through a set of flared nostrils that echoed down the passageway. Ischarus managed a smile and reached up with his hand to rub the short-haired bristly nose of his mount. “That’s a good girl, Elistra. You can relax now, the trot is over. We’ll walk you down and let you cool off for a bit.”

    Taking up the final position, Semeion was able to close the slight gap that he had allowed to open between himself and Rhema. It wasn’t so much that he desired to have the gap; it was more that his body conditioning wasn’t near what Rhema and Ischarus were used to doing. He continued the slight jog until her caught up to Rhema and Shauvry.

    Several more hours of walking passed and the party became confident that they had managed to outmaneuver any pursuit that may have been following them. Of course, there was always the possibility that there was no pursuit and they were taxing their bodies for no apparent reason. The tunnel that the party was heading down opened into a larger underground cavern. The cavern appeared as though it was natural in its creation, but there were definite signs that some time ago the cavern had been expanded by pick and shovel. The cavern had the look of an intelligent excavation – this was no large random animal desiring to make a den. Nor was this the work of a long since dried up river. At some point in the not-to-distant past this cavern had some type of significance.

    “We’re here a little on the early side, aren’t we, Ischarus?” Rhema asked as her eyes took in the cavern. The light from Ischarus’ lantern illuminated the walls, but the very top of the ceiling was lost in the darkness.

    Ischarus also looked around at the walls before replying. “Yeah. That hustle away from the gnolls drove us here a little more quickly than typical. But we’re here so we should rest. There isn’t another place to rest until tomorrow night. If we pass this one up we’re going to walking for some time before it’s safe to stop again.”

    Semeion looked a bit puzzled. “You mean we’re going to spend our time resting in this big cavern? Isn’t that just a bit on the obvious side? Sounds to me like an invitation to trouble if you ask me.”

    Rhema chuckled as Ischarus answered. “Well, if we were actually staying in the cavern your caution would have merit, Semeion. However, over here you will notice something rather special.”

    Ischarus shone the lantern toward the left wall and Semeion could see that among the jagged rock edges of the natural wall was what appeared to be an excavated section. An arch opened at an odd angle between two outcroppings of rock. The arch was obviously cut in such a way as to make it as hidden as possible against the natural formations of rock around it.

    Ischarus explained what Semeion saw for the first time. “The hole leads to a natural shelter against the foot traffic of the cavern. The arch leads to a decently sized cave – large enough to bed a few horses for the rest and allow us to sleep for a spell.”

    Semeion wrinkled his eyebrows as his mind puzzled over the strange creation. “Doesn’t it get occupied frequently?”

    Rhema took her turn answering his question. “Not as frequently as you might think, Semeion. Remember where we are headed. Thos who dwell under the mountains typically have their own lairs. Those who are heading away from Quehalost are not about to stop and pause for rest unless there is a large number. The typical person fleeing Quehalost is usually on his or her own and panicked. They probably wouldn’t even notice such a place on their way through. Of course, adding to the hysteria of knowing that they are pursued, those fleeing Quehalost are at the disadvantage of also not knowing their way through the tunnels like we do. That leaves only people like us who are heading into Quehalost. Of course, there aren’t many who are crazy enough to voluntarily head into Quehalost.” A wry smile passed over her lips as she spoke the words.

    Semeion responded, “Yeah, I guess not,” spoke Semeion as he began to think through Rhema’s assertion. There was a reason people didn’t try to steal their way into Quehalost. The reality of that situation began to sink into his mind.

    Rhema’s words broke into Semeion’s introspection. “Come on, Ischarus. We’re wasting time now. Give me Elistra’s reigns while you go in and check out the cavern to make sure it is suitable. Or, make sure it is at least unoccupied.”

    Semeion swallowed hard as another moment of reality poured over him. He looked to Rhema and Ischarus as they seemed to remain so calm about being underground in the absolute darkness. Of course, he knew that they had done this many times over. That fact didn’t work to ease his mind much, however.

    Ischarus took the lantern and entered into the side cave. As his light passed through the arch, the main cavern became patch black. Shauvry and Thana snorted and jostled nervously. Rhema remained silent but the sound of her hand lightly patting Shauvry on her neck could be heard. In less than a minute light shined back out of the cave entrance as Ischarus made his way back. The light burst forth into the darkness and Ischarus popped his head out of the entrance.

    “Except for a few spiders and other creepy crawling animals, the place looks clear. I think we’ll do fine to rest here for as long as we need.”

    The party gathered in the room and spread out their bedrolls and mats to make an effective barrier against any potential wandering that the horses might try while the party slept. Of course they set a watch, but having the horses secure would mean a much easier job for the sentry. With the watch set, the time for resting passed by rather uneventfully.

    Several more days passed by as the party journeyed through the underground tunnels below the steep mountains. Ischarus knew of several more direct routes – routes that they would probably take on the way back. But they were in no particular hurry to get into Quehalost so they took the safest passages on the journey in.

    Towards nightfall on the third day Ischarus broke the quiet introspective mood that had overtaken the party given the depressive effect from the removal of the sun from their lives. “I think we’re close now, Rhema. Within a half hour, perhaps?”

    Rhema replied, “I think you are correct, Ischarus. This looks about right, although it feels as though this trip was shorter than the ones I am used to. Perhaps having the extra security of an additional person has allowed us to move more quickly?

    Semeion interjected his own conjecture over the others’ experience. “And made the rests easier. It’s a lot easier to get rested up when you can sleep for two watches rather than alternating them.”

    Rhema nodded in agreement. It took no leap of understanding to realize that the rest periods did seem much more refreshing than she remembered from other trips. After the short interruption in the silence the party returned to the silence for the rest of the trip.

    The rest of the underground journey passed quickly and within the hour Ischarus pointed ahead. “It looks like it is dusk outside. That’ll work in our favor as our eyes won’t need to adjust to the bright light outside the mountains. The dimming light of the sun will help us make the next stage before we can rest once more.

    The trio exited the cave and emerged into the relatively thick forest that grew all along the south side of the mountain range. The tunnel they used to exit the underground was not nearly as high in altitude as the tunnel they used to enter on the other side. The clear advantage of this tunnel was the fact that their exit was immediately camouflaged to any of the denizens of Quehalost. Their exit from the bowels of the mountain was marked merely by a few birds and a particularly chattering squirrel.

    None of the chattering from the forest animals caused Ischarus any concern as he encouraged his companions. “We should really mount up and ride to our next resting place. We’ll make better use of the darkness on horseback, and I’m sure the horses wouldn’t mind stretching their legs with a bit of a trot or canter.”

    Ischarus softly rubbed Elistra’s long muzzle and even leaned in for a simply kiss just above the horse’s nostrils. ”Let’s get some distance between us and the caves, eh girl? We’ll give you a chance to stretch before we bed for the night.”

    As Ischarus climbed into the saddle using the proper balance necessary to bring him and his light armor balanced into position, Rhema merely smiled and with a graceful jump she leapt almost seemed to slither up the horse’s side and into the saddle. Semeion placed both hands on the saddle horn and with less grace than Rhema used his legs and arms to bring himself up.

    “Shauvry knows the way, Semeion. Have Thana follow as before.”

    Rhema took the lead once more and Ischarus and Semeion rode side-by-side behind her as they had done on the trip from Reignsburg to Scarhaus. The next little stretch of riding passed by easily and eventually they came to the spot that Ischarus desired to use as a resting point. The canopy of the forest was particularly thick and the trees seemed to provide a natural place for a rest. Ischarus nodded to Semeion to advance before him and into the secluded spot.

    As Semeion dug his heels into Thana’s side to get her to move ahead of Elistra, Semeion heard the sound of quick moving armor and the ring of steel from directly behind him. Rhema heard it also and spun Shauvry around in a quick circle.

    “What’s wrong, Ischarus?” she asked loudly over the ring of metal. When she turned she saw that Ischarus had dismounted and stood with sword and shield at the ready. Ischarus looked as though he was fully intending on ignoring Rhema’s question.

    The party’s sword master spoke into the darkness. “I know you’ve been following us for some time, stranger. Your lack of bathing betrays you every time we head up a hill. Come out and face me if you desire to follow us any further!”

    At the sound of Ischarus’ voice Semeion also spun Thana around and contemplated dismounting. Rhema saw his movement and replied, “No, Semeion. You may need to ride hard depending on what Ischarus has sensed. Stay on your mount as often as possible in Quehalost.” This last sentence was clearly more of a command than friendly advice.

    A hidden voice yelled a curse towards Ischarus. “May Grixanthrosiliss consume your bones, challenger!”

    Rhema and Semeion watched as a strange green glow seemed to appear and surround Ischarus. The green glow was absorbed by Ischarus’ armor and skin and seemed to disappear.

    Ischarus replied boldly as the magical effect took hold of him. “Your evil magic tricks will not work on me, hidden one. You’ll have to do better than that affect me!”

    A large man stepped out from behind the brush along the side of the road. “I’ll not need to do better than that, fool. You have already been affected. I will kill you first and then move on to your weaker friends which you protect.”

    Ischarus laughed out loud and then spoke again. He had little desire to have this come to a fight without knowing why lives were being put at stake. “Then it was a mighty pitiful affect, because I feel no different, fool. Tell me – who sent you after us. Which false king of the land do you serve?”

    The man steadied his large sword and held it at the level of Ischarus’ chest as he slowly closed the distance between them. “I serve the one from which you have stolen. He has given me the power to bring you to your knees.”

    This time it was Rhema who laughed at the man’s words. “Stealing is a word open to interpretation based on your position. But from your perspective we have stolen from many in this land to set them free in another. So tell us, of the false lords that we have stolen from, which one do you serve?”

    The large man focused his attention over Ischarus’ left shoulder upon Rhema. “I serve the true lord of Quehalost and soon the ruler of Enigmatica, Grixanthrosilithiss.”

    Semeion and Ischarus both snorted at the same time. It was Ischarus who spoke. “That sounds like a dragon’s name if I ever heard of one. But tell me, fool, who is this false lord you serve for I have never even heard of his name.”

    The large man smiled grimly. “You will. All will bow or be forced to feel the wrath of the lick of his flames.”

    Rhema smiled. “The red one, then. In fact, he was the last one we freed a servant girl from. I believe you were going to offer her up as a sacrifice!” Rhema said with a rising fire in her voice.

    The man growled in anger. “Then it was indeed you who stole from our master. We have felt his wrath ever since. Only tomorrow will we be free of his wrath, especially when I bring him your severed heads. Then the name of Druff will be honored with the name of Charis.”

    Semeion interjected, “Charis is a female name meaning grace. Are we to assume that you are Druff, then?”

    The man turned and leveled his sword towards Semeion. “I suppose it is only fitting that you know the name of the one who is going to slay you. Druff is my name, and Charis will be the new Provenience as our dragon father demanded in exchange for the one you stole as a sacrifice. Charis will be honored highly.”

    Ischarus spat at the words of the opposition. “Then you are Drakontos, then? You are the child of dragon breeding.”

    Semeion shot Rhema a quick glance revealing that he had no knowledge of the Drakontos in spite of his arcane studies. Rhema ignored his glance, choosing to focus on the man instead.

    The man smiled and added, “Indeed. The blood of dragons is in these veins, and my dragon tainted blood will relish in the spilling of your feeble human blood. The time for talk is over!”

    The man pulled the sword back and prepared to step forward and swing away. Ischarus was prepared for this as he had felt the man’s anger fueling his words more each time he spoke. As Druff stepped forward Ischarus held out his own blade with a quick jab. Druff easily batted the sword away and Ischarus’ half-hearted attempt to stop the battle early was spoiled.

    Semeion would waste no time or effort allowing the weapon wielders to trade blows. “Thin-tok” he spoke with purpose. The familiar light blue energy ball formed between his palm and his outstretched fingers and shot forth to strike Druff. The ball dodged to the left of Ischarus and then jerked to the right again to strike the enemy in the chest. The Drakontos grimaced at the pain but continued his attack against Ischarus.

    Rhema knew that charming the Drakontos was a risky maneuver, especially since the green glow had seemingly taken effect upon Ischarus’ ability to fight. She lifted a finger to her head once again and focused hard on the opposition in much the same way that she had done against the gnoll shaman’s spider pet underground. As she focused, Druff released the handle of his weapon and it fell hard to the ground. His hands shot toward his head and gripped them while his face contorted in writhing pain. After what seemed to be an eternity of pain, the Drakontos dropped completely to the ground. Rhema looked on with deep concern as he dropped to the ground.

    Rhema looked on with concern. “Ischarus … he’s not … is he?” Her breaths became shallow as Ischarus stowed his sword to check on Druff’s status.

    Ischarus cautiously knelt beside the Drakontos and took off one of his own gauntlets. He held his hand over the mouth of the Drakontos and looked up to Rhema. “He is breathing, rest easy. You have not killed him.”

    Rhema interrupted Ischarus as he tried to calm her down. “It was just that … with the green glow and everything … and he seemed to turn aside your strike so easily …”

    Ischarus raised an outstretched hand up to Rhema indicating for her to remain quiet. “Semeion, could you bring me some of the rope that Elistra carries? I’d get it myself but I don’t want to turn my back on Druff, here.”

    Semeion nodded and dismounted. As he brought Ischarus the rope he caught the fighter’s eyes and asked, “You know about the Drakontos? I have never heard of them. And he looked so human!”

    Ischarus smiled and looked down to Druff. “I suppose in a manner of speaking, Druff and I are a strange sort of family, Semeion. Because I bet you think I look human, too.

    Semeion gave Ischarus a puzzled glance but didn’t address him further.

    Instead, Ischarus continued his explanation. “The Drakontos are a race created by dragons to serve the dragon, love the dragon, or fear the dragon depending on what type of dragon it is. The evil dragons find the human race pliable enough to reproduce with them and taint their hearts toward evil. Sure, the first generation and second generation of dragon born have a more ghastly draconic presence. Often they have horns – or even bony frill coming up out of their skull. They are far stronger than humans, but they are also much more stubborn and less able to master a variety of purposes. When these dragon born are reintroduced into human society and bred with more humans, eventually the dragon bloodline is diluted enough that the noticeable differences fade.”

    Semeion studied Ischarus’ face hard as he spoke. Once he had finished speaking, Ischarus went to work on tying Druff up and inserting a gag into his mouth so that he was able to breath through his nose but unable to alert anyone through the night.

    As Ischarus worked, Semeion continued to ask Ischarus of the dragon blooded. “And you are one of these dragon born? You mean that somewhere back in your heritage is the same red dragon that bore Druff’s ancestors?”

    Ischarus chuckled slightly. “No, Semeion. Fortunately I was not given that fate. Most Drakontos born to evil dragons live a life of personal enslavement. So long as they are useful to the dragon they are allowed to live. As they age, they are often offered up as sacrifices before they can become feeble. The evil dragon societies are adept at brainwashing these Drakontos that it is better to return to the master through his stomach than to die a useless form on the earth. Rather than be a burden on their society, they become food.”

    “And this is what is to become of Charis? She will become food? We’ve got to do something!”

    Rhema spoke up and asserted her opinion after being silent for some time. “That’s the Semeion I knew was inside. That’s the fire that drives us through the mountain each and every time. Now you understand.”

    Before Semeion could respond to Rhema, Ischarus answered Semeion’s most recent assertion. “Unfortunately, death would be more welcome than what she is to become. She is to be their new Provenience. Charis will be the mother of the dragon’s next round of dragon born. She will bear the children of the red dragon she serves under until he is finished with her services. Once she is beyond childbearing age she will be consumed and the people will hold a great festival in her honor. She is brainwashed into bearing clutches of four to five dragon blooded children each time. The stress on her body will be incredible. And all of her children will in turn bear more and more children.”

    “But, why does the red dragon need more? If his whole tribe is dragon blooded, they should not loose the concentration of blood in their line. They should be able to simply reproduce and maintain what the dragon desires.”

    Rhema sighed heavily and Ischarus shot her a hard glance. “Unfortunately, we are held at least partially responsible. The dragon must have been angry with his people and demanded a sacrifice. When we rescued the last sacrifice the dragon must have demanded a young virgin. By allowing us to free that sacrifice the dragon most likely became incensed. The people don’t know it, but they are about to become exterminated – or at least reduced in numbers greatly. The people have failed their dragon once too often and the red must think it is time to start over.”

    A silence was cast across the party as Ischarus finished his work. The horse that Druff had been using to follow the trio had begun to make movements in the brush and Rhema was alerted to the noise. “I’ll go retrieve it,” she added with a nod and she turned Shauvry in that general direction. “You two finish up. I think Semeion has another question.”

    Ischarus looked up to Semeion, who asked, “So, if you are a Drakontos, then you escaped?”

    Ischarus shook his in return. “No, my master was not an evil dragon. He is a great silver dragon. He did not create us to be his slaves, but rather he created us to help bring a utopian society into existence. He knew that the hearts of humans strayed as often to evil as to good. Perhaps they stray more to evil than to good. My father dragon believes that the noblest way to guide the world is through the creation of us as his servants. He raises us and cares for us and sends us into the world to make a difference. We are his agents of change and good in the world. One day after prayer my own dragon father decided to send one of his servants into Quehalost to observe the dangers growing in the land. Of course, my dragon father was particularly afraid of the growing draconic strength. That was my very first mission and I have come back ever since. I do not target the dragons and their Drakontos society specifically; but I would also be lying if I told you that I do not seek every opportunity to save a Drakontos from the grips of the evil from their own dragon father.”

    Semeion nodded as he tried to absorb all of the new information. It seemed nearly inconceivable that this man before him was Drakontos and knew a silver dragon personally. As his mouth hung slightly agape, Rhema returned with the fourth horse. She smirked knowing that Ischarus had startled Semeion with his story.

    Ischarus stood, lifting Druff from the ground. “Come, we should rest while Druff is unconscious. His horse will be useful, especially if we are able to rescue Charis. I believe that should be our goal. If we stop the red from mating with Charis we will have interfered substantially. Your dragon father would be proud.”

    Weary from the journey, the new information, and the combat the party headed in silence to the alcove where they established a quick watch and prepared to sleep the night away.

    Color Free Speech Section

    After hustling down the various dark and damp corridors of the mountain for almost an hour, Rhema called out for a breather. “Ischarus, please!” Her voice sounded out of breath as she paused between nearly every other word. “We’ve been hustling for some time now. Can we slow our pace at least a little?”

    Without turning to stop and look to his companions, Ischarus slowed his footfalls to a walk. His stride still insisted that the walk was reasonably brisk, but it was at least a walk. Elistra sent an appreciative snort through a set of flared nostrils that echoed down the passageway. Ischarus managed a smile and reached up with his hand to rub the short-haired bristly nose of his mount. “That’s a good girl, Elistra. You can relax now, the trot is over. We’ll walk you down and let you cool off for a bit.”

    Taking up the final position, Semeion was able to close the slight gap that he had allowed to open between himself and Rhema. It wasn’t so much that he desired to have the gap; it was more that his body conditioning wasn’t near what Rhema and Ischarus were used to doing. He continued the slight jog until her caught up to Rhema and Shauvry.

    Several more hours of walking passed and the party became confident that they had managed to outmaneuver any pursuit that may have been following them. Of course, there was always the possibility that there was no pursuit and they were taxing their bodies for no apparent reason. The tunnel that the party was heading down opened into a larger underground cavern. The cavern appeared as though it was natural in its creation, but there were definite signs that some time ago the cavern had been expanded by pick and shovel. The cavern had the look of an intelligent excavation – this was no large random animal desiring to make a den. Nor was this the work of a long since dried up river. At some point in the not-to-distant past this cavern had some type of significance.

    “We’re here a little on the early side, aren’t we, Ischarus?” Rhema asked as her eyes took in the cavern. The light from Ischarus’ lantern illuminated the walls, but the very top of the ceiling was lost in the darkness.

    Ischarus also looked around at the walls before replying. “Yeah. That hustle away from the gnolls drove us here a little more quickly than typical. But we’re here so we should rest. There isn’t another place to rest until tomorrow night. If we pass this one up we’re going to walking for some time before it’s safe to stop again.”

    Semeion looked a bit puzzled. “You mean we’re going to spend our time resting in this big cavern? Isn’t that just a bit on the obvious side? Sounds to me like an invitation to trouble if you ask me.”

    Rhema chuckled as Ischarus answered. “Well, if we were actually staying in the cavern your caution would have merit, Semeion. However, over here you will notice something rather special.”

    Ischarus shone the lantern toward the left wall and Semeion could see that among the jagged rock edges of the natural wall was what appeared to be an excavated section. An arch opened at an odd angle between two outcroppings of rock. The arch was obviously cut in such a way as to make it as hidden as possible against the natural formations of rock around it.

    Ischarus explained what Semeion saw for the first time. “The hole leads to a natural shelter against the foot traffic of the cavern. The arch leads to a decently sized cave – large enough to bed a few horses for the rest and allow us to sleep for a spell.”

    Semeion wrinkled his eyebrows as his mind puzzled over the strange creation. “Doesn’t it get occupied frequently?”

    Rhema took her turn answering his question. “Not as frequently as you might think, Semeion. Remember where we are headed. Thos who dwell under the mountains typically have their own lairs. Those who are heading away from Quehalost are not about to stop and pause for rest unless there is a large number. The typical person fleeing Quehalost is usually on his or her own and panicked. They probably wouldn’t even notice such a place on their way through. Of course, adding to the hysteria of knowing that they are pursued, those fleeing Quehalost are at the disadvantage of also not knowing their way through the tunnels like we do. That leaves only people like us who are heading into Quehalost. Of course, there aren’t many who are crazy enough to voluntarily head into Quehalost.” A wry smile passed over her lips as she spoke the words.

    Semeion responded, “Yeah, I guess not,” spoke Semeion as he began to think through Rhema’s assertion. There was a reason people didn’t try to steal their way into Quehalost. The reality of that situation began to sink into his mind.

    Rhema’s words broke into Semeion’s introspection. “Come on, Ischarus. We’re wasting time now. Give me Elistra’s reigns while you go in and check out the cavern to make sure it is suitable. Or, make sure it is at least unoccupied.”

    Semeion swallowed hard as another moment of reality poured over him. He looked to Rhema and Ischarus as they seemed to remain so calm about being underground in the absolute darkness. Of course, he knew that they had done this many times over. That fact didn’t work to ease his mind much, however.

    Ischarus took the lantern and entered into the side cave. As his light passed through the arch, the main cavern became patch black. Shauvry and Thana snorted and jostled nervously. Rhema remained silent but the sound of her hand lightly patting Shauvry on her neck could be heard. In less than a minute light shined back out of the cave entrance as Ischarus made his way back. The light burst forth into the darkness and Ischarus popped his head out of the entrance.

    “Except for a few spiders and other creepy crawling animals, the place looks clear. I think we’ll do fine to rest here for as long as we need.”

    The party gathered in the room and spread out their bedrolls and mats to make an effective barrier against any potential wandering that the horses might try while the party slept. Of course they set a watch, but having the horses secure would mean a much easier job for the sentry. With the watch set, the time for resting passed by rather uneventfully.

    Several more days passed by as the party journeyed through the underground tunnels below the steep mountains. Ischarus knew of several more direct routes – routes that they would probably take on the way back. But they were in no particular hurry to get into Quehalost so they took the safest passages on the journey in.

    Towards nightfall on the third day Ischarus broke the quiet introspective mood that had overtaken the party given the depressive effect from the removal of the sun from their lives. “I think we’re close now, Rhema. Within a half hour, perhaps?”

    Rhema replied, “I think you are correct, Ischarus. This looks about right, although it feels as though this trip was shorter than the ones I am used to. Perhaps having the extra security of an additional person has allowed us to move more quickly?

    Semeion interjected his own conjecture over the others’ experience. “And made the rests easier. It’s a lot easier to get rested up when you can sleep for two watches rather than alternating them.”

    Rhema nodded in agreement. It took no leap of understanding to realize that the rest periods did seem much more refreshing than she remembered from other trips. After the short interruption in the silence the party returned to the silence for the rest of the trip.

    The rest of the underground journey passed quickly and within the hour Ischarus pointed ahead. “It looks like it is dusk outside. That’ll work in our favor as our eyes won’t need to adjust to the bright light outside the mountains. The dimming light of the sun will help us make the next stage before we can rest once more.

    The trio exited the cave and emerged into the relatively thick forest that grew all along the south side of the mountain range. The tunnel they used to exit the underground was not nearly as high in altitude as the tunnel they used to enter on the other side. The clear advantage of this tunnel was the fact that their exit was immediately camouflaged to any of the denizens of Quehalost. Their exit from the bowels of the mountain was marked merely by a few birds and a particularly chattering squirrel.

    None of the chattering from the forest animals caused Ischarus any concern as he encouraged his companions. “We should really mount up and ride to our next resting place. We’ll make better use of the darkness on horseback, and I’m sure the horses wouldn’t mind stretching their legs with a bit of a trot or canter.”

    Ischarus softly rubbed Elistra’s long muzzle and even leaned in for a simply kiss just above the horse’s nostrils. ”Let’s get some distance between us and the caves, eh girl? We’ll give you a chance to stretch before we bed for the night.”

    As Ischarus climbed into the saddle using the proper balance necessary to bring him and his light armor balanced into position, Rhema merely smiled and with a graceful jump she leapt almost seemed to slither up the horse’s side and into the saddle. Semeion placed both hands on the saddle horn and with less grace than Rhema used his legs and arms to bring himself up.

    “Shauvry knows the way, Semeion. Have Thana follow as before.”

    Rhema took the lead once more and Ischarus and Semeion rode side-by-side behind her as they had done on the trip from Reignsburg to Scarhaus. The next little stretch of riding passed by easily and eventually they came to the spot that Ischarus desired to use as a resting point. The canopy of the forest was particularly thick and the trees seemed to provide a natural place for a rest. Ischarus nodded to Semeion to advance before him and into the secluded spot.

    As Semeion dug his heels into Thana’s side to get her to move ahead of Elistra, Semeion heard the sound of quick moving armor and the ring of steel from directly behind him. Rhema heard it also and spun Shauvry around in a quick circle.

    “What’s wrong, Ischarus?” she asked loudly over the ring of metal. When she turned she saw that Ischarus had dismounted and stood with sword and shield at the ready. Ischarus looked as though he was fully intending on ignoring Rhema’s question.

    The party’s sword master spoke into the darkness. “I know you’ve been following us for some time, stranger. Your lack of bathing betrays you every time we head up a hill. Come out and face me if you desire to follow us any further!”

    At the sound of Ischarus’ voice Semeion also spun Thana around and contemplated dismounting. Rhema saw his movement and replied, “No, Semeion. You may need to ride hard depending on what Ischarus has sensed. Stay on your mount as often as possible in Quehalost.” This last sentence was clearly more of a command than friendly advice.

    A hidden voice yelled a curse towards Ischarus. “May Grixanthrosiliss consume your bones, challenger!”

    Rhema and Semeion watched as a strange green glow seemed to appear and surround Ischarus. The green glow was absorbed by Ischarus’ armor and skin and seemed to disappear.

    Ischarus replied boldly as the magical effect took hold of him. “Your evil magic tricks will not work on me, hidden one. You’ll have to do better than that affect me!”

    A large man stepped out from behind the brush along the side of the road. “I’ll not need to do better than that, fool. You have already been affected. I will kill you first and then move on to your weaker friends which you protect.”

    Ischarus laughed out loud and then spoke again. He had little desire to have this come to a fight without knowing why lives were being put at stake. “Then it was a mighty pitiful affect, because I feel no different, fool. Tell me – who sent you after us. Which false king of the land do you serve?”

    The man steadied his large sword and held it at the level of Ischarus’ chest as he slowly closed the distance between them. “I serve the one from which you have stolen. He has given me the power to bring you to your knees.”

    This time it was Rhema who laughed at the man’s words. “Stealing is a word open to interpretation based on your position. But from your perspective we have stolen from many in this land to set them free in another. So tell us, of the false lords that we have stolen from, which one do you serve?”

    The large man focused his attention over Ischarus’ left shoulder upon Rhema. “I serve the true lord of Quehalost and soon the ruler of Enigmatica, Grixanthrosilithiss.”

    Semeion and Ischarus both snorted at the same time. It was Ischarus who spoke. “That sounds like a dragon’s name if I ever heard of one. But tell me, fool, who is this false lord you serve for I have never even heard of his name.”

    The large man smiled grimly. “You will. All will bow or be forced to feel the wrath of the lick of his flames.”

    Rhema smiled. “The red one, then. In fact, he was the last one we freed a servant girl from. I believe you were going to offer her up as a sacrifice!” Rhema said with a rising fire in her voice.

    The man growled in anger. “Then it was indeed you who stole from our master. We have felt his wrath ever since. Only tomorrow will we be free of his wrath, especially when I bring him your severed heads. Then the name of Druff will be honored with the name of Charis.”

    Semeion interjected, “Charis is a female name meaning grace. Are we to assume that you are Druff, then?”

    The man turned and leveled his sword towards Semeion. “I suppose it is only fitting that you know the name of the one who is going to slay you. Druff is my name, and Charis will be the new Provenience as our dragon father demanded in exchange for the one you stole as a sacrifice. Charis will be honored highly.”

    Ischarus spat at the words of the opposition. “Then you are Drakontos, then? You are the child of dragon breeding.”

    Semeion shot Rhema a quick glance revealing that he had no knowledge of the Drakontos in spite of his arcane studies. Rhema ignored his glance, choosing to focus on the man instead.

    The man smiled and added, “Indeed. The blood of dragons is in these veins, and my dragon tainted blood will relish in the spilling of your feeble human blood. The time for talk is over!”

    The man pulled the sword back and prepared to step forward and swing away. Ischarus was prepared for this as he had felt the man’s anger fueling his words more each time he spoke. As Druff stepped forward Ischarus held out his own blade with a quick jab. Druff easily batted the sword away and Ischarus’ half-hearted attempt to stop the battle early was spoiled.

    Semeion would waste no time or effort allowing the weapon wielders to trade blows. “Thin-tok” he spoke with purpose. The familiar light blue energy ball formed between his palm and his outstretched fingers and shot forth to strike Druff. The ball dodged to the left of Ischarus and then jerked to the right again to strike the enemy in the chest. The Drakontos grimaced at the pain but continued his attack against Ischarus.

    Rhema knew that charming the Drakontos was a risky maneuver, especially since the green glow had seemingly taken effect upon Ischarus’ ability to fight. She lifted a finger to her head once again and focused hard on the opposition in much the same way that she had done against the gnoll shaman’s spider pet underground. As she focused, Druff released the handle of his weapon and it fell hard to the ground. His hands shot toward his head and gripped them while his face contorted in writhing pain. After what seemed to be an eternity of pain, the Drakontos dropped completely to the ground. Rhema looked on with deep concern as he dropped to the ground.

    Rhema looked on with concern. “Ischarus … he’s not … is he?” Her breaths became shallow as Ischarus stowed his sword to check on Druff’s status.

    Ischarus cautiously knelt beside the Drakontos and took off one of his own gauntlets. He held his hand over the mouth of the Drakontos and looked up to Rhema. “He is breathing, rest easy. You have not killed him.”

    Rhema interrupted Ischarus as he tried to calm her down. “It was just that … with the green glow and everything … and he seemed to turn aside your strike so easily …”

    Ischarus raised an outstretched hand up to Rhema indicating for her to remain quiet. “Semeion, could you bring me some of the rope that Elistra carries? I’d get it myself but I don’t want to turn my back on Druff, here.”

    Semeion nodded and dismounted. As he brought Ischarus the rope he caught the fighter’s eyes and asked, “You know about the Drakontos? I have never heard of them. And he looked so human!”

    Ischarus smiled and looked down to Druff. “I suppose in a manner of speaking, Druff and I are a strange sort of family, Semeion. Because I bet you think I look human, too.

    Semeion gave Ischarus a puzzled glance but didn’t address him further.

    Instead, Ischarus continued his explanation. “The Drakontos are a race created by dragons to serve the dragon, love the dragon, or fear the dragon depending on what type of dragon it is. The evil dragons find the human race pliable enough to reproduce with them and taint their hearts toward evil. Sure, the first generation and second generation of dragon born have a more ghastly draconic presence. Often they have horns – or even bony frill coming up out of their skull. They are far stronger than humans, but they are also much more stubborn and less able to master a variety of purposes. When these dragon born are reintroduced into human society and bred with more humans, eventually the dragon bloodline is diluted enough that the noticeable differences fade.”

    Semeion studied Ischarus’ face hard as he spoke. Once he had finished speaking, Ischarus went to work on tying Druff up and inserting a gag into his mouth so that he was able to breath through his nose but unable to alert anyone through the night.

    As Ischarus worked, Semeion continued to ask Ischarus of the dragon blooded. “And you are one of these dragon born? You mean that somewhere back in your heritage is the same red dragon that bore Druff’s ancestors?”

    Ischarus chuckled slightly. “No, Semeion. Fortunately I was not given that fate. Most Drakontos born to evil dragons live a life of personal enslavement. So long as they are useful to the dragon they are allowed to live. As they age, they are often offered up as sacrifices before they can become feeble. The evil dragon societies are adept at brainwashing these Drakontos that it is better to return to the master through his stomach than to die a useless form on the earth. Rather than be a burden on their society, they become food.”

    “And this is what is to become of Charis? She will become food? We’ve got to do something!”

    Rhema spoke up and asserted her opinion after being silent for some time. “That’s the Semeion I knew was inside. That’s the fire that drives us through the mountain each and every time. Now you understand.”

    Before Semeion could respond to Rhema, Ischarus answered Semeion’s most recent assertion. “Unfortunately, death would be more welcome than what she is to become. She is to be their new Provenience. Charis will be the mother of the dragon’s next round of dragon born. She will bear the children of the red dragon she serves under until he is finished with her services. Once she is beyond childbearing age she will be consumed and the people will hold a great festival in her honor. She is brainwashed into bearing clutches of four to five dragon blooded children each time. The stress on her body will be incredible. And all of her children will in turn bear more and more children.”

    “But, why does the red dragon need more? If his whole tribe is dragon blooded, they should not loose the concentration of blood in their line. They should be able to simply reproduce and maintain what the dragon desires.”

    Rhema sighed heavily and Ischarus shot her a hard glance. “Unfortunately, we are held at least partially responsible. The dragon must have been angry with his people and demanded a sacrifice. When we rescued the last sacrifice the dragon must have demanded a young virgin. By allowing us to free that sacrifice the dragon most likely became incensed. The people don’t know it, but they are about to become exterminated – or at least reduced in numbers greatly. The people have failed their dragon once too often and the red must think it is time to start over.”

    A silence was cast across the party as Ischarus finished his work. The horse that Druff had been using to follow the trio had begun to make movements in the brush and Rhema was alerted to the noise. “I’ll go retrieve it,” she added with a nod and she turned Shauvry in that general direction. “You two finish up. I think Semeion has another question.”

    Ischarus looked up to Semeion, who asked, “So, if you are a Drakontos, then you escaped?”

    Ischarus shook his in return. “No, my master was not an evil dragon. He is a great silver dragon. He did not create us to be his slaves, but rather he created us to help bring a utopian society into existence. He knew that the hearts of humans strayed as often to evil as to good. Perhaps they stray more to evil than to good. My father dragon believes that the noblest way to guide the world is through the creation of us as his servants. He raises us and cares for us and sends us into the world to make a difference. We are his agents of change and good in the world. One day after prayer my own dragon father decided to send one of his servants into Quehalost to observe the dangers growing in the land. Of course, my dragon father was particularly afraid of the growing draconic strength. That was my very first mission and I have come back ever since. I do not target the dragons and their Drakontos society specifically; but I would also be lying if I told you that I do not seek every opportunity to save a Drakontos from the grips of the evil from their own dragon father.”

    Semeion nodded as he tried to absorb all of the new information. It seemed nearly inconceivable that this man before him was Drakontos and knew a silver dragon personally. As his mouth hung slightly agape, Rhema returned with the fourth horse. She smirked knowing that Ischarus had startled Semeion with his story.

    Ischarus stood, lifting Druff from the ground. “Come, we should rest while Druff is unconscious. His horse will be useful, especially if we are able to rescue Charis. I believe that should be our goal. If we stop the red from mating with Charis we will have interfered substantially. Your dragon father would be proud.”

    Weary from the journey, the new information, and the combat the party headed in silence to the alcove where they established a quick watch and prepared to sleep the night away.
    Last edited by Nonlethal Force; Wednesday, 13th December, 2006 at 11:07 PM.
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    Chapter Three: FINDING GRACE

    The next morning came quickly, although Semeion was already awake before the sun came up. He had requested to take the final watch so that he could begin to work on the arcane talents that he might need to draw upon for the next day. As the sun rose, Semeion concluded his mental exercises and looked one last time at his book of arcane writings. He smiled one last time as his fingers traced along one of the lines of the book before he snapped the book shut. Once his mind was set with the mysteries of the arcane he rose to wake Ischarus and Rhema. Druff still lay unconscious from the previous night.

    “I suppose we should wake him,” Ischarus stated with a sneer once the party was up and ready to move.

    “I don’t see why we need to wake him up,” Semeion argued. “If we secure him to his horse he won’t be any trouble while unconscious. And when he wakes up…”

    “And when he wakes up,” Rhema interjected, “he’ll be more trouble than if we let him get it out of his system now. Besides, with our luck he’ll stay unconscious completely until we get within the realm of the red dragon. Then at the worst possible moment he’ll wake up and we’ll need to contend with him beside the Drakontai of his village.”

    Ischarus continued while offering a polite smile of peace toward Semeion. “Which then means that we’ll have to contend with him as well as explain our harsh treatment of him to the other villagers. No, we’ll wake him now and let him get his frustration out of his system while we are far away. Once we approach the village I’m sure Rhema can take care of him. She does have a way with people, after all.”

    Semeion looked to Rhema and noted that she blushed slightly under Ischarus’ praise. He added, “Indeed, that she does.”

    Ischarus took his gloved hand and slapped Druff across the face. The Drakontos didn’t wake. Ischarus struck him once more, this time slightly harder. The Drakontos moaned a bit and slightly cracked his eyes open. As his eyes increased in opening Ischarus could tell that Druff was in no condition to even focus his eyesight.

    Ischarus chastised the Drakontos warrior. “Wake up, fool. We’ve got a few miles to cover and its time you were reunited with your people. In fact, I think you might even be of some use to us before this day has reached its conclusion.”

    The Drakontos spat into the air, obviously hoping to strike Ischarus where he stood. His spittle missed Ischarus wide by nearly a foot, betraying the fact that his mind was still scrambled enough that his eyesight had not returned to its full use. Druff could obvious see well enough to pick up on colors and shadow, but his hand-eye coordination was still not yet normal.

    Ischarus laughed as Druff missed his mark. “You are still feeling the effects of my associate’s mind wrenching powers. If you are lucky, you’ll live long enough for your head to sort out what is wrong with your eyes. If not, I’m sure your dragon father won’t mind the taste of your flesh whether you can see or not.” Ischarus winked at Semeion as he spoke, knowing that Druff could not see the gesture. Ischarus knew that Semeion was inexperienced at knowing when he was bluffing and when he was telling the truth. He wanted Semeion to know for certain this was a bluff and that he wasn’t actually planning on offering him up to the red dragon.

    Druff sneered at Ischarus’ words and emitted a low growl. “Set me free from these bindings. I’m no threat to you as I am. Free me so I can strike you down – or die trying.”

    Ischarus laughed at the boldness of the Drakontos. “That’ll be the day. Now get on your feet!” Ischarus’ gloved hand reached down and grabbed a fistful of Druff’s hair. He tugged on the Drakontos’ hair and Druff grudgingly rose to his feet. After a few heated moments of discussion Druff was sitting atop of his horse and fastened to it to prevent escape. The rest of the party quickly followed suit and they headed back onto the beaten path where they had met Druff the night prior.

    Once onto the road they made decent time away from the mountains on the border between Tongra and Quehalost. Druff’s vocal complaints made it increasingly clear that his vision was returning and he would be a significant hassle once they reached the village. When Ischarus felt that they were closing in on the village he nodded to Rhema. “Time to work your magic, girl. I don’t think that we dare get any closer to the village with Druff carrying on the way that he is.”

    With some confidence in her riding abilities, Rhema spun Shauvry around so that she faced Druff as he rode his horse. Druff’s horse stopped at the maneuver and nearly reared back as Shauvry unexpectedly turned into its path.

    “Whoa, now, boy!” Druff shouted trying to maintain control with both his knees and his voice. Control was difficult to acheive since his hands were not at his disposal. Once his horse had settled down he looked back to Rhema and shouted, “You’ll be wise to stay away from me with your mind powers, witch! If I am ever freed from these bonds I’ll hunt you down and you’ll regret anything you plan on doing to me.”

    Rhema smiled and her eyes started to glaze over as if she were looking through Druff into the horizon. “There is no real reason to fear us, Druff.” Her words seemed normal to Semeion and Ischarus as they listened; but to Druff the words seemed to bounce around the woods and echo in his mind. ”We’re here to help your people, Druff. We know that the red dragon you serve is planning on feasting on those of your village while it mates with your sacrifice. We don’t want all those people to die without knowing the threat that looms above them. Help us free your people, Druff.”

    Although her words took less than a minute to speak, it seemed to Druff that Rhema had been speaking to him for an hour. His mind struggled to wade through her words and make sense of how her soothing voice contradicted the rage he felt inside. Soon the flow of Rhema’s voice washed Druff free of his anger and he began to think more clearly again. Rhema’s words subsided and Druff smiled as he looked at Rhema. ”Come on, then. Free me from these bonds so that I can help you all free my people. They are in grave danger in the village. Grixanthrosilithiss has set aside his most loyal servants to help raise the young when they are born. Everyone else will die. They must be stopped!”

    Rhema spun Shauvry around make eye contact with Ischarus. “He’s under my power now. We have one hour, Ischarus. I say we free him and make the most of it.”

    Semeion’s eyes shot open with amazement. “What?” He exclaimed in shock. “You plan to set him free?”

    Ischarus turned to Semeion. “Not only set him free, but I plan to let him lead us into his village. He knows the quickest way and his people will be more likely to listen to us if Druff leads us into his village.” After completing his thought, Ischarus stood in his saddle slightly and guided Elistra to Druff’s side. He leaned in his saddle until he could reach Druff’s bindings and then he freed the Drakontos warrior. “There, Druff. You are free. Now ride hard to your village so that we can follow and make good time. But first, how many are there that your father plans to keep from his destruction as trainers of the next generation?”

    Druff brought his hands around to grip his reigns as he turned to look towards Ischarus. “Five, including myself: two male and three female. I’ll handle them; you all focus on the rest of the village!”

    Druff charged off into the front of the party as Semeion gave Ischarus a blank stare of disbelief. His mouth hung slightly agape as he watched the proceedings. Rhema chuckled and urged Shauvry into following Druff’s horse. “Druff is what I like to call charmed by my personality, Semeion. I have influenced his mind into believing our cause is his cause. But my power over him will only last an hour. We must make great haste if we plan to get into his village, save the Provenience, and get away with enough distance between us and them to evade the pursuit – and probably the dragon.”

    Rhema took off first, Shauvry accustomed to leading before Elistra and Thana. Shauvry was able to keep pace with Druff’s hustling horse. Elistra and Thana were also able to keep up, although Elistra was more taxed by the speedy charge down the forested path than the other horses. After a short ride Rhema, Semeion, and Ischarus could hear Druff calling forth in his own language.

    Ischarus called to his friends, “It seems like Druff is calling the people together! Rhema, are you sure your control over him is intact?”

    Rhema yelled back over her shoulder, “I know that my power over him was effective, if that is what you are asking. I cannot tell Druff what to do, but I know that Druff now considers us friends and allies. I’ve no clue as to what his plan is from here.”

    Semeion shook his head and chastised, “Do all your plans go this smoothly?”

    Ischarus grinned at Semeion’s comment and yelled back, “They do when we are on horseback! Normally, though, we don’t have this advantage!” It was clear from the tone of his voice that he was enjoying this particular challenge.

    The trio of horses emerged out of the forest into a circular clearing with a diameter of about one hundred yards. Primitive houses lined the outside ring of trees and a large flat stone with a diameter of about twenty feet rested atop five smaller pillars each about 4 feet tall. A young female of obviously the same lineage as Druff lay strapped to the center of the stone. Druff rode wildly around the central stone, calling for the tribal community to make its presence known.

    “Grixanthrosilithiss has deceived you all!” Druff yelled. “You all must flee or you will become food for our father dragon!”

    No sooner did Druff raise the alarm to the people than two female warriors emerged from one of the outside buildings and ran towards the center of the circle. “You fool!” yelled the taller of the females. “What do you hope to gain from this? Grixanthrosilithiss will not be pleased if the people are driven from their homes around the circle! It is forbidden to leave!” Both women drew their weapons and Ischarus immediately realized his prior miscalculation. Druff was unarmed.

    Ischarus yelled out for Elistra to ride hard forward and attempt to intercept the charge of the women as they came to attack the defenseless Druff. As he charged forward atop Elistra, Rhema and Semeion began to notice that some of the locals were beginning to gather outside of their buildings. They could tell from the reaction of the people that this was an uncommon sight. They seemed confused at Druff’s words.

    Rhema turned to Semeion and addressed the young mage. “Give me Thana’s reigns and get onto that stone. We must save the Provenience before too many people have gathered. At the moment, I only see two of the women that Druff mentioned before. That leaves one man and one woman unaccounted for. The rest only pose a problem if their numbers grow too large that we cannot handle them.”

    Without hesitation Semeion leapt onto the ground from atop Thana’s back and slid his horse’s reigns into Rhema’s grasp. He quickly charged to the stone and with a simple swing of his hips Semeion swung his legs up over the edge of the stone. In a second he was on his knees and then he stood up. He shuffled across the smooth stone’s slippery surface and drew one of his daggers.

    The woman tied to the stone cried out in her native tongue, “No! I am a gift to our father!” She was clearly afraid for her life and the sacrifice being interrupted.

    Semeion slashed down with his dagger. He easily severed one of the cords that strapped the Provenience to the stone. With a simple motion he drew the dagger upwards again and prepared to strike at another.

    Semeion’s act enraged the woman who was to be sacrificed. “No!” The woman screamed again. Many of the onlookers had shifted their attention from Druff to Semeion’s work. Most of them began to shout in wide-eyed horror as Semeion cut the ropes of bondage. The Provenience yelled and struggled against Semeion. “You cannot take me from my father! I am to be his gift! I am to be his honored queen!”

    Semeion had enough of this crazed woman’s babblings as he cut another cord. “Listen, lady. I don’t know what you’ve heard but I know that if your dragon father gets a hold of you that you will bear children until you are swollen and of no more use to this dragon you prize. Then you will be consumed!”

    While Semeion worked on the bondage of the Provenience, across the village Ischarus intercepted the blows designed for Druff. Elistra swung between Druff and his attackers and Ischarus deflected the attacks o the female Drakontai with his own sword. He turned to Druff and yelled, “Druff, you must warn these people of the impending doom and convince them to run and flee to safety. Tell them to not stay together when they flee. They will be more successful if they scatter. That will make it more difficult for your dragon father to find them all. And tell them to run to the mountains. They’ll listen to you.”

    Druff steered his horse and it charged back around the circle as Ischarus handled a few more attacks from the women warriors. As Druff rode circles around the platform he yelled a stern warning to his people. “Grixanthrosilithiss will not forgive your insolence. He has already made designs on your destruction. I and four others were chosen to remain; the rest of you will be sacrificed to our dragon father. You must flee with your lives before our father is aroused! You must flee through the mountains to be saved!”

    Druff made this appeal several times. A few of the villagers listened and grabbed onto their smaller children to drag them inside their homes. After a few moments of hurried packing these few villagers burst forth out of their homes and ran screaming through the village. The compulsion of Druff was strange enough, but most of the villagers were even more bothered by the emergence of the strangers bent on freeing the Provenience. It was an omen to all regarding the coming destruction at the hands of the dragon father.

    Semeion thrust his dagger down onto the binding ropes once more and slashed the third rope. The rope snapped and recoiled across the stone surface. Only one rope remained. The Provenience screamed even harder, and now that both of her legs were free she pushed off with her feet and brought her legs around to meet up with the side of Semeion’s head.

    As the woman’s feet connected with Semeion’s head, he sprawled forward across the large flat stone. His hands lost control of the dagger and it slid out of his reach from where he fell. Quickly he rose to his feet and scooped up his dagger. He was determined to make another attempt at freeing this young woman.

    The Provenience realized that only one bond remained and kept her chained to the stone. Using her warped and brainwashed logic she swung herself into a standing position and put herself between Semeion and the rope. “I am the Provenience,” she demanded of Semeion, “you must come no further. I am to be the bride of our dragon father and that is my honor!”

    “You will be his slave for procreation and bear his children until your body wears out!” Semeion shouted in return. His anger was starting to get the better of him. After all, he was attempting to save this woman’s life.

    The woman growled at Semeion and took up a defensive stance against Semeion’s assault. She managed to deflect Semeion’s next blow and get a single hand on the blade of the dagger. As she wrestled for control of the weapon she heard a soft voice speaking to her inside her mind.

    It was Rhema’s voice she heard, although she did not know Rhema. “Provenience, forgive my intrusion into your mind. But you must listen to Semeion. The words he speaks are true. You body will be violated in gross acts of procreation until you are worn out and useless. There is no glory or honor in what you are asked to do.”

    Slowly her eyes began to gloss over and her strength left the hand she had on Semeion’s dagger. Semeion freed the dagger from her grip and easily avoided her body to strike out at the last binding. Once she was free, the woman spun around several times as if struggling with her orientation. He body began to sink as her knees grew weak from dehydration and stress.

    As Semeion stowed his dagger he noticed that the woman began to lose her balance. Semeion reached out and caught her before she could fall. He picked her up and with great effort brought her back to Rhema. He was grateful that Rhema had chosen to come out of the forest and close the gap in order to approach the stone. He could also tell that the Provenience was suffering from heat stroke and dehydration from being strapped to the stone for much of the morning.

    The young mage looked with concern to Rhema. “That’s two you have control over if I am not mistaken, Rhema.”

    Rhema nodded. “That I am not worried about, Semeion. We need to separate Druff from his horse. We also need to separate Druff from the rest of the people who are fleeing. When he is freed of my control he will come to his senses. If there are any of the villagers who are near him when he is freed, they will most certainly be brought back for a feast for the red dragon’s behalf.”

    Semeion laid the Provenience down onto the stone and looked at Druff as he continued to charge atop his horse through the village. More and more of the natives were taking his warnings seriously and they were beginning to flee in all directions. Semeion caught Druff’s eye and yelled as loud as he could muster. “Druff, you must bring your horse to me so that we can save the Provenience from the wrath of the dragon father. We will need your steed. You must go to Ischarus and draw your sword from his pack and help him against the women warriors of your people. Then we must all flee!”

    Semeion gave Rhema a questioning glance, wondering if that would make sense to the Drakontos warrior. Semeion’s words did seem to get through to Druff, and the Drakontos warrior turned his horse toward Semeion and charged through the mayhem of the fleeing villagers. Once he was at Semeion’s side he gave Semeion the reigns and leapt off the horse onto the stone. He hoisted the Provenience onto his horse and turned to Semeion. “The horse’s name is Abijou, he’ll protect her.”

    Semeion gave Druff a casual smile as Druff turned towards Ischarus. The Drakontos warrior ran across the slippery stone surface with a confident motion that demonstrated his experience with the sacrificial stone. Upon reaching the other side, he approached Elistra and in a single motion drew his sword from where Ischarus had stowed it. He held it in a defensive manner and struck against the two women.

    Ischarus turned to see from whom this assistance had come. Upon seeing Druff he spun Elistra around to face all three of the Drakontos warriors. Ischarus looked up to Semeion upon the stone and urged him to leave with a gesture of his sword.

    Semeion leapt from the stone onto Thana’s back and reclaimed the reigns from Rhema. As he did, Rhema gave him advice and encouragement. “Take her and go now, Semeion. Your progress will be slowed on account of her inability to guide her own horse. She’s dehydrated and won’t do well. Get a head start; we’ll catch up to you when we can!”

    Semeion gave Rhema a look of argumentation as if to say that he would not leave her side. Rhema looked back to Ischarus and then to Semeion before he could speak. “Ischarus will not let anything happen to me. Now go, before it is too late!”

    Semeion nodded and tugged on Abijou’s reigns. The horse followed Thana out of the clearing and back into the woods. As Semeion turned in his saddle once more, he saw Druff and Ischarus fighting side by side, paving the way to allow the villagers an opportunity to escape unhindered.

    Rhema shouted words of encouragement in the draconic language. These were words that Ischarus had taught her to speak. The people did not seem to understand her desire to help them, but they were appreciative of the advice nonetheless. Semeion couldn’t help but marvel at the chaos of the scene. He also couldn’t help but marvel at the peace inside his own heart knowing that they had saved the Provenience. They had begun the destruction of a red dragon’s following. For the time being it felt good. He was sure this was not the last they would hear from the dragon, however. Perhaps this was the same fate that had eventually caught up with his master. At the thought of Master Sathwright his internal peace ended. There was still work do be done. He would make Master Sathwright proud.

    Color Free Speech Section

    Chapter Three: FINDING GRACE

    The next morning came quickly, although Semeion was already awake before the sun came up. He had requested to take the final watch so that he could begin to work on the arcane talents that he might need to draw upon for the next day. As the sun rose, Semeion concluded his mental exercises and looked one last time at his book of arcane writings. He smiled one last time as his fingers traced along one of the lines of the book before he snapped the book shut. Once his mind was set with the mysteries of the arcane he rose to wake Ischarus and Rhema. Druff still lay unconscious from the previous night.

    “I suppose we should wake him,” Ischarus stated with a sneer once the party was up and ready to move.

    “I don’t see why we need to wake him up,” Semeion argued. “If we secure him to his horse he won’t be any trouble while unconscious. And when he wakes up…”

    “And when he wakes up,” Rhema interjected, “he’ll be more trouble than if we let him get it out of his system now. Besides, with our luck he’ll stay unconscious completely until we get within the realm of the red dragon. Then at the worst possible moment he’ll wake up and we’ll need to contend with him beside the Drakontai of his village.”

    Ischarus continued while offering a polite smile of peace toward Semeion. “Which then means that we’ll have to contend with him as well as explain our harsh treatment of him to the other villagers. No, we’ll wake him now and let him get his frustration out of his system while we are far away. Once we approach the village I’m sure Rhema can take care of him. She does have a way with people, after all.”

    Semeion looked to Rhema and noted that she blushed slightly under Ischarus’ praise. He added, “Indeed, that she does.”

    Ischarus took his gloved hand and slapped Druff across the face. The Drakontos didn’t wake. Ischarus struck him once more, this time slightly harder. The Drakontos moaned a bit and slightly cracked his eyes open. As his eyes increased in opening Ischarus could tell that Druff was in no condition to even focus his eyesight.

    Ischarus chastised the Drakontos warrior. “Wake up, fool. We’ve got a few miles to cover and its time you were reunited with your people. In fact, I think you might even be of some use to us before this day has reached its conclusion.”

    The Drakontos spat into the air, obviously hoping to strike Ischarus where he stood. His spittle missed Ischarus wide by nearly a foot, betraying the fact that his mind was still scrambled enough that his eyesight had not returned to its full use. Druff could obvious see well enough to pick up on colors and shadow, but his hand-eye coordination was still not yet normal.

    Ischarus laughed as Druff missed his mark. “You are still feeling the effects of my associate’s mind wrenching powers. If you are lucky, you’ll live long enough for your head to sort out what is wrong with your eyes. If not, I’m sure your dragon father won’t mind the taste of your flesh whether you can see or not.” Ischarus winked at Semeion as he spoke, knowing that Druff could not see the gesture. Ischarus knew that Semeion was inexperienced at knowing when he was bluffing and when he was telling the truth. He wanted Semeion to know for certain this was a bluff and that he wasn’t actually planning on offering him up to the red dragon.

    Druff sneered at Ischarus’ words and emitted a low growl. “Set me free from these bindings. I’m no threat to you as I am. Free me so I can strike you down – or die trying.”

    Ischarus laughed at the boldness of the Drakontos. “That’ll be the day. Now get on your feet!” Ischarus’ gloved hand reached down and grabbed a fistful of Druff’s hair. He tugged on the Drakontos’ hair and Druff grudgingly rose to his feet. After a few heated moments of discussion Druff was sitting atop of his horse and fastened to it to prevent escape. The rest of the party quickly followed suit and they headed back onto the beaten path where they had met Druff the night prior.

    Once onto the road they made decent time away from the mountains on the border between Tongra and Quehalost. Druff’s vocal complaints made it increasingly clear that his vision was returning and he would be a significant hassle once they reached the village. When Ischarus felt that they were closing in on the village he nodded to Rhema. “Time to work your magic, girl. I don’t think that we dare get any closer to the village with Druff carrying on the way that he is.”

    With some confidence in her riding abilities, Rhema spun Shauvry around so that she faced Druff as he rode his horse. Druff’s horse stopped at the maneuver and nearly reared back as Shauvry unexpectedly turned into its path.

    “Whoa, now, boy!” Druff shouted trying to maintain control with both his knees and his voice. Control was difficult to acheive since his hands were not at his disposal. Once his horse had settled down he looked back to Rhema and shouted, “You’ll be wise to stay away from me with your mind powers, witch! If I am ever freed from these bonds I’ll hunt you down and you’ll regret anything you plan on doing to me.”

    Rhema smiled and her eyes started to glaze over as if she were looking through Druff into the horizon. “There is no real reason to fear us, Druff.” Her words seemed normal to Semeion and Ischarus as they listened; but to Druff the words seemed to bounce around the woods and echo in his mind. ”We’re here to help your people, Druff. We know that the red dragon you serve is planning on feasting on those of your village while it mates with your sacrifice. We don’t want all those people to die without knowing the threat that looms above them. Help us free your people, Druff.”

    Although her words took less than a minute to speak, it seemed to Druff that Rhema had been speaking to him for an hour. His mind struggled to wade through her words and make sense of how her soothing voice contradicted the rage he felt inside. Soon the flow of Rhema’s voice washed Druff free of his anger and he began to think more clearly again. Rhema’s words subsided and Druff smiled as he looked at Rhema. ”Come on, then. Free me from these bonds so that I can help you all free my people. They are in grave danger in the village. Grixanthrosilithiss has set aside his most loyal servants to help raise the young when they are born. Everyone else will die. They must be stopped!”

    Rhema spun Shauvry around make eye contact with Ischarus. “He’s under my power now. We have one hour, Ischarus. I say we free him and make the most of it.”

    Semeion’s eyes shot open with amazement. “What?” He exclaimed in shock. “You plan to set him free?”

    Ischarus turned to Semeion. “Not only set him free, but I plan to let him lead us into his village. He knows the quickest way and his people will be more likely to listen to us if Druff leads us into his village.” After completing his thought, Ischarus stood in his saddle slightly and guided Elistra to Druff’s side. He leaned in his saddle until he could reach Druff’s bindings and then he freed the Drakontos warrior. “There, Druff. You are free. Now ride hard to your village so that we can follow and make good time. But first, how many are there that your father plans to keep from his destruction as trainers of the next generation?”

    Druff brought his hands around to grip his reigns as he turned to look towards Ischarus. “Five, including myself: two male and three female. I’ll handle them; you all focus on the rest of the village!”

    Druff charged off into the front of the party as Semeion gave Ischarus a blank stare of disbelief. His mouth hung slightly agape as he watched the proceedings. Rhema chuckled and urged Shauvry into following Druff’s horse. “Druff is what I like to call charmed by my personality, Semeion. I have influenced his mind into believing our cause is his cause. But my power over him will only last an hour. We must make great haste if we plan to get into his village, save the Provenience, and get away with enough distance between us and them to evade the pursuit – and probably the dragon.”

    Rhema took off first, Shauvry accustomed to leading before Elistra and Thana. Shauvry was able to keep pace with Druff’s hustling horse. Elistra and Thana were also able to keep up, although Elistra was more taxed by the speedy charge down the forested path than the other horses. After a short ride Rhema, Semeion, and Ischarus could hear Druff calling forth in his own language.

    Ischarus called to his friends, “It seems like Druff is calling the people together! Rhema, are you sure your control over him is intact?”

    Rhema yelled back over her shoulder, “I know that my power over him was effective, if that is what you are asking. I cannot tell Druff what to do, but I know that Druff now considers us friends and allies. I’ve no clue as to what his plan is from here.”

    Semeion shook his head and chastised, “Do all your plans go this smoothly?”

    Ischarus grinned at Semeion’s comment and yelled back, “They do when we are on horseback! Normally, though, we don’t have this advantage!” It was clear from the tone of his voice that he was enjoying this particular challenge.

    The trio of horses emerged out of the forest into a circular clearing with a diameter of about one hundred yards. Primitive houses lined the outside ring of trees and a large flat stone with a diameter of about twenty feet rested atop five smaller pillars each about 4 feet tall. A young female of obviously the same lineage as Druff lay strapped to the center of the stone. Druff rode wildly around the central stone, calling for the tribal community to make its presence known.

    “Grixanthrosilithiss has deceived you all!” Druff yelled. “You all must flee or you will become food for our father dragon!”

    No sooner did Druff raise the alarm to the people than two female warriors emerged from one of the outside buildings and ran towards the center of the circle. “You fool!” yelled the taller of the females. “What do you hope to gain from this? Grixanthrosilithiss will not be pleased if the people are driven from their homes around the circle! It is forbidden to leave!” Both women drew their weapons and Ischarus immediately realized his prior miscalculation. Druff was unarmed.

    Ischarus yelled out for Elistra to ride hard forward and attempt to intercept the charge of the women as they came to attack the defenseless Druff. As he charged forward atop Elistra, Rhema and Semeion began to notice that some of the locals were beginning to gather outside of their buildings. They could tell from the reaction of the people that this was an uncommon sight. They seemed confused at Druff’s words.

    Rhema turned to Semeion and addressed the young mage. “Give me Thana’s reigns and get onto that stone. We must save the Provenience before too many people have gathered. At the moment, I only see two of the women that Druff mentioned before. That leaves one man and one woman unaccounted for. The rest only pose a problem if their numbers grow too large that we cannot handle them.”

    Without hesitation Semeion leapt onto the ground from atop Thana’s back and slid his horse’s reigns into Rhema’s grasp. He quickly charged to the stone and with a simple swing of his hips Semeion swung his legs up over the edge of the stone. In a second he was on his knees and then he stood up. He shuffled across the smooth stone’s slippery surface and drew one of his daggers.

    The woman tied to the stone cried out in her native tongue, “No! I am a gift to our father!” She was clearly afraid for her life and the sacrifice being interrupted.

    Semeion slashed down with his dagger. He easily severed one of the cords that strapped the Provenience to the stone. With a simple motion he drew the dagger upwards again and prepared to strike at another.

    Semeion’s act enraged the woman who was to be sacrificed. “No!” The woman screamed again. Many of the onlookers had shifted their attention from Druff to Semeion’s work. Most of them began to shout in wide-eyed horror as Semeion cut the ropes of bondage. The Provenience yelled and struggled against Semeion. “You cannot take me from my father! I am to be his gift! I am to be his honored queen!”

    Semeion had enough of this crazed woman’s babblings as he cut another cord. “Listen, lady. I don’t know what you’ve heard but I know that if your dragon father gets a hold of you that you will bear children until you are swollen and of no more use to this dragon you prize. Then you will be consumed!”

    While Semeion worked on the bondage of the Provenience, across the village Ischarus intercepted the blows designed for Druff. Elistra swung between Druff and his attackers and Ischarus deflected the attacks o the female Drakontai with his own sword. He turned to Druff and yelled, “Druff, you must warn these people of the impending doom and convince them to run and flee to safety. Tell them to not stay together when they flee. They will be more successful if they scatter. That will make it more difficult for your dragon father to find them all. And tell them to run to the mountains. They’ll listen to you.”

    Druff steered his horse and it charged back around the circle as Ischarus handled a few more attacks from the women warriors. As Druff rode circles around the platform he yelled a stern warning to his people. “Grixanthrosilithiss will not forgive your insolence. He has already made designs on your destruction. I and four others were chosen to remain; the rest of you will be sacrificed to our dragon father. You must flee with your lives before our father is aroused! You must flee through the mountains to be saved!”

    Druff made this appeal several times. A few of the villagers listened and grabbed onto their smaller children to drag them inside their homes. After a few moments of hurried packing these few villagers burst forth out of their homes and ran screaming through the village. The compulsion of Druff was strange enough, but most of the villagers were even more bothered by the emergence of the strangers bent on freeing the Provenience. It was an omen to all regarding the coming destruction at the hands of the dragon father.

    Semeion thrust his dagger down onto the binding ropes once more and slashed the third rope. The rope snapped and recoiled across the stone surface. Only one rope remained. The Provenience screamed even harder, and now that both of her legs were free she pushed off with her feet and brought her legs around to meet up with the side of Semeion’s head.

    As the woman’s feet connected with Semeion’s head, he sprawled forward across the large flat stone. His hands lost control of the dagger and it slid out of his reach from where he fell. Quickly he rose to his feet and scooped up his dagger. He was determined to make another attempt at freeing this young woman.

    The Provenience realized that only one bond remained and kept her chained to the stone. Using her warped and brainwashed logic she swung herself into a standing position and put herself between Semeion and the rope. “I am the Provenience,” she demanded of Semeion, “you must come no further. I am to be the bride of our dragon father and that is my honor!”

    “You will be his slave for procreation and bear his children until your body wears out!” Semeion shouted in return. His anger was starting to get the better of him. After all, he was attempting to save this woman’s life.

    The woman growled at Semeion and took up a defensive stance against Semeion’s assault. She managed to deflect Semeion’s next blow and get a single hand on the blade of the dagger. As she wrestled for control of the weapon she heard a soft voice speaking to her inside her mind.

    It was Rhema’s voice she heard, although she did not know Rhema. “Provenience, forgive my intrusion into your mind. But you must listen to Semeion. The words he speaks are true. You body will be violated in gross acts of procreation until you are worn out and useless. There is no glory or honor in what you are asked to do.”

    Slowly her eyes began to gloss over and her strength left the hand she had on Semeion’s dagger. Semeion freed the dagger from her grip and easily avoided her body to strike out at the last binding. Once she was free, the woman spun around several times as if struggling with her orientation. He body began to sink as her knees grew weak from dehydration and stress.

    As Semeion stowed his dagger he noticed that the woman began to lose her balance. Semeion reached out and caught her before she could fall. He picked her up and with great effort brought her back to Rhema. He was grateful that Rhema had chosen to come out of the forest and close the gap in order to approach the stone. He could also tell that the Provenience was suffering from heat stroke and dehydration from being strapped to the stone for much of the morning.

    The young mage looked with concern to Rhema. “That’s two you have control over if I am not mistaken, Rhema.”

    Rhema nodded. “That I am not worried about, Semeion. We need to separate Druff from his horse. We also need to separate Druff from the rest of the people who are fleeing. When he is freed of my control he will come to his senses. If there are any of the villagers who are near him when he is freed, they will most certainly be brought back for a feast for the red dragon’s behalf.”

    Semeion laid the Provenience down onto the stone and looked at Druff as he continued to charge atop his horse through the village. More and more of the natives were taking his warnings seriously and they were beginning to flee in all directions. Semeion caught Druff’s eye and yelled as loud as he could muster. “Druff, you must bring your horse to me so that we can save the Provenience from the wrath of the dragon father. We will need your steed. You must go to Ischarus and draw your sword from his pack and help him against the women warriors of your people. Then we must all flee!”

    Semeion gave Rhema a questioning glance, wondering if that would make sense to the Drakontos warrior. Semeion’s words did seem to get through to Druff, and the Drakontos warrior turned his horse toward Semeion and charged through the mayhem of the fleeing villagers. Once he was at Semeion’s side he gave Semeion the reigns and leapt off the horse onto the stone. He hoisted the Provenience onto his horse and turned to Semeion. “The horse’s name is Abijou, he’ll protect her.”

    Semeion gave Druff a casual smile as Druff turned towards Ischarus. The Drakontos warrior ran across the slippery stone surface with a confident motion that demonstrated his experience with the sacrificial stone. Upon reaching the other side, he approached Elistra and in a single motion drew his sword from where Ischarus had stowed it. He held it in a defensive manner and struck against the two women.

    Ischarus turned to see from whom this assistance had come. Upon seeing Druff he spun Elistra around to face all three of the Drakontos warriors. Ischarus looked up to Semeion upon the stone and urged him to leave with a gesture of his sword.

    Semeion leapt from the stone onto Thana’s back and reclaimed the reigns from Rhema. As he did, Rhema gave him advice and encouragement. “Take her and go now, Semeion. Your progress will be slowed on account of her inability to guide her own horse. She’s dehydrated and won’t do well. Get a head start; we’ll catch up to you when we can!”

    Semeion gave Rhema a look of argumentation as if to say that he would not leave her side. Rhema looked back to Ischarus and then to Semeion before he could speak. “Ischarus will not let anything happen to me. Now go, before it is too late!”

    Semeion nodded and tugged on Abijou’s reigns. The horse followed Thana out of the clearing and back into the woods. As Semeion turned in his saddle once more, he saw Druff and Ischarus fighting side by side, paving the way to allow the villagers an opportunity to escape unhindered.

    Rhema shouted words of encouragement in the draconic language. These were words that Ischarus had taught her to speak. The people did not seem to understand her desire to help them, but they were appreciative of the advice nonetheless. Semeion couldn’t help but marvel at the chaos of the scene. He also couldn’t help but marvel at the peace inside his own heart knowing that they had saved the Provenience. They had begun the destruction of a red dragon’s following. For the time being it felt good. He was sure this was not the last they would hear from the dragon, however. Perhaps this was the same fate that had eventually caught up with his master. At the thought of Master Sathwright his internal peace ended. There was still work do be done. He would make Master Sathwright proud.
    Last edited by Nonlethal Force; Tuesday, 5th December, 2006 at 10:41 PM. Reason: Simple Review, adding minor details
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