Word from the forest by lhexa

Garon sighed, returning the half-read book to its place on the shelf, next to several other Books of Ohlreth. It was the Book of Virtues, a singularly convoluted volume, and no matter how much she tried, Garon could not summon enough energy to follow its twisted logic. Too much was happening, too many plans coming to fruition... and she had returned to the town of her birth for the first time since leaving into self-imposed exile. Here, she now knew, lay her key to entering the magnificent but aristocratic city of Othos, capital of the Annic kingdom and seat of the Archpriest of the Ohlrethan religion. Even the Great Temple itself would not be barred to her. From within the Ohlrethan seat of power Garon stood to do incredible damage to their system, which she would inflict with pleasure. How could she expect herself to read with success so soon at hand?

Kinsvale was much the same as she remembered, though larger. The workers' section was more extensive, of course: apparently there was no end to the amount of people willing to give up their freedom for a comfortable life. There was even an inn, now, though it consisted of a mere five rooms set aside from the main barracks. It catered to the traders and merchants who came to buy the plentiful crops that grew in the rich riverside soil. More familiar was the old mill, and the temple upriver from it. Her own house had long since been destroyed, replaced by another mud-brick barrack. That fact did not bother her in the least, for her old home had held too many memories best left behind.

Garon had come with her partner in business, Torrel, a man who hated the Ohlrethan aristocracy and its doings almost as much as she did. Most thought they were partners in another, more intimate, way. Though the rumor was false, Garon thought it better for others to know as little about the two as possible. Torrel was a strong, calm person. None would suspect that within his soul burned great hatred, fierce as a bonfire. He was posing as a trader, buying crops to be sold in the east, closer to Othos.

Returning to bed, Garon tried once again to sleep. The bed was certainly comfortable: more comfortable, in fact, than any had been for months. Try as she might, though, her thoughts kept returning to Drase, her unexpected key to Othos.

So ironic, thought Garon, that one of my childhood friends should develop such powers. When she had left, so many years ago, Garon had truly expected Drase to grow up and become another worker. He certainly had not seemed at all unusual: not nearly as strong or smart as his pride would have him think. The child had been perfectly average in every way, barring his outlandish appearance and slightly asocial temperament. Garon did not think so out of spite, or envy, but out of an honesty about herself and others that saw them all with unusual clarity.

Now, out of nowhere, Drase had gained abilities that allowed his mind to detect, read, and even control the minds of others, an ability with the potential to defeat the most powerful of mages. It was nothing at all like the more common ability of magic, which nearly everybody could use with training. Mind-mages like Drase were incredibly rare -- so rare, in fact, that normally only high-ranking nobles and mages knew about their existence. Garon herself had only come upon the knowledge accidentally. She also knew, or at least suspected, that mind-mages were a valuable commodity among the powerful, for they could send messages instantaneously over vast distances without being detected, and sway the minds of enemies.

Drase, lacking Garon's knowledge, thought that his powers were unique. That, too, suited Garon perfectly. She would take him to Othos and leave him with some low-ranking mage, under the patronage of a powerful figure who would be Drase's true employer. In no way was Garon being cruel to the boy... manipulative, certainly, but as a result he would end up in a better life than was otherwise possible.

At first Garon thought the tapping sound was simply noise from outside. By the time she realized it was coming from outside the thick wooden door a maid was already entering, her hands empty. Garon whirled out of the bed, visibly angry. The timid girl backed across the hall fearfully, mumbling apologies.

"I'm a'sorry, really, milady, I was just comin' t'clean the room, like master said, and it's late and --"

"That's enough, girl," Garon snarled, cursing herself for not keeping a weapon close to hand. "Just don't do it again." She watched balefully as the girl fled down the hallway, then returned to her room. There she noticed something that she had passed over before. The door had no lock.

After tilting the chair so that it sealed the door closed, Garon returned to bed, to find that weariness now crept eagerly into her body. Garon only had time to wonder what business a maid could have this late at night before sleep claimed her mind.

Next morning the sun rose from a clear sky, casting its light upon the prone body of a boy, brown-haired and green-eyed, beginning to wake where he lay in the fallen leaves of the autumn forest. He wore rough-woven cotton clothes that had been torn and mended dozens of times, and were now in need of more mending, for last night their unfortunate wearer had gone through a beating. The boy raised a hand to his bruised face, groaning from the pain the contact elicited. It took awhile for him to make any further effort, and when he did so the pain was nearly unbearable.

It's the first time in at least a year he's done that, thought Drase, struggling into a sitting position with his back to a tree. Every part of his body ached, especially his face. It was a miracle that no bones were broken. At least, he thought that none were. Last night Drase had been strolling in this forest as he always did, enjoying his surroundings, when the sound of running feet came to his ears. Remembering similar experiences from his childhood, Drase had run, but to no avail. Gabri was always faster.

Because of size and cruel personality, Gabri lorded over the children of his age, even now that they were well into adolescence. He had often gathered a group of his friends to pursue Drase, who never had cared for them and their violent games; luckily, they were too clumsy as a group to ever catch him, or Drase might not have survived to this day. Alone Gabri took more consideration, for he was as fast and bloodthirsty as a wolf. Doubtlessly Gabri would become one of the harsh overseers on Tolbert's lands when he became old enough, but until then he was still Drase's problem.

Maybe if I had actually learned to fight him rather than always running I might have stopped this. Then again, I've become pretty good at hiding my trail... and Gabri has little skill at tracking. I've just grown too lax since he stopped hounding me.

The pain was easing a little now that Drase felt more comfortable, but it still remained. Drase knew it would last for days, at the least. Was it possible that Gabri had somehow known that he would be leaving? No, Drase decided, it must have been some other cause. His new-found mental powers had been no help. They came and went regularly, and last night they had been completely gone. Had they been active, Drase knew that Gabri could never have approached undetected.

Now Drase could sense his ability slowly returning, characterized by a heightened awareness of his surroundings. Each bird call became more distinct, each small odor more noticeable, and it seemed he could clearly feel each painful bruise. This heightened awareness did not interfere at all with his normal thinking, for he could devote his attention to a problem while remaining aware of his surroundings. At the height of his ability, Drase could almost count the number of leaves in a tree.

His senses thus enriched, Drase spent a long moment simply enjoying the sounds of the forest. It was truly a beautiful place. The colors of the autumn leaves, the whistling of the wind among dry branches, the soft loam of the forest floor, now covered with leaves... each sensation was in its own right wonderful, but together they were beyond amazing. It was almost enough to make Drase stay near Kinsvale, but worse by far were the cold nights spent curled in trees, the constant hunger, and the disdain of most of the townsfolk. Drase's departure would give him little regret.

Ignoring the complaint from his abused muscles, Drase stood, and began walking slowly towards the north, following the trail which Gabri had found him on. He had agreed to meet Shona today at the falls upriver from the town, where the low, flat ground abruptly converted to rocky hills of rough stone. Shona will be surprised, mused Drase. Not only will he know I've been attacked -- which means he could be in danger, too -- but he'll also have to deal with me leaving. He'll be entirely without friends... but then, he should get used to that if he's going to take his father's place.

Shona was the son of Tolbert, owner of the lands and crops of Kinsvale, and, to Drase's mind, of the workers as well. Shona took every opportunity to display the wealth of his father, wearing fancy clothes, taking the foremost seat at every temple ceremony, and making sure to get everything the workers' children got, only better and more expensive. It was strange that he and Drase were friends. Shona, the richest child in Kinsvale, and Drase, by far the poorest, had formed a bond deeper than any of the other children could hope for in their lives. Drase surmised it was because they were both shunned by all the rest, and had only each other to look to for a friend.

Five years ago there had been another friend of Drase, Garon, though she was some six years older than him. He remembered little of that friendship, except that Garon had protected him well against Gabri and the other bullies. It had been a shock when she had returned, still regarding him as a friend, but the greater shock had been when, after Drase had told her about his new abilities, she had offered to take him away from this place. He had almost ceased to believe that such a thing could happen. Drase still wondered about that... was their friendship truly great enough for her to help him leave, or was there some other reason? However, this was not what really mattered to Drase. What did matter was that he was leaving Kinsvale, at last.

Drase's feet carried him out of the forest onto the riverside lowlands. To the east were the fields where cotton, wheat, and the other crops that provided Tolbert his income were grown. Many workers were in the fields, harvesting the grain and returning it to Kinsvale in horse-driven carts. The harvest was good this year, just as it was every year, and only isolation kept this fertile area from becoming densely populated. Smoke from the southern horizon marked the town of Kinsvale, nearly abandoned at this time of day. The forest, which remained to this day unnamed, loomed to the west, stretching north and south as far as the eye could see. The region that concerned Drase, however, was the north, where at the limits of vision could be seen slightly rougher ground. The meeting place was a long two or three hour walk to the north, but it was private.

Knowing Shona, he would be halfway there by now. Despite his appearance, Shona enjoyed physical activity as much as he did hearing about magic. Shona's greatest desire was to become a mage, and, indeed, one travelling mage had told him that he had a talent for it. He had even offered to take Shona on as an apprentice, but Shona's father had gainsaid what should have been the boy's decision. Tolbert intended Shona to take up the job as leader of the farming community, and would hear no argument on that matter.

Drase pulled a soft apple from an inside pocket, rather surprised that it had survived Gabri's attack. It was delicious, especially to Drase's hollow stomach. The falls are still several hours away, he told himself, speeding his pace a little. It'll do me good to eat something. Goodness knows I don't eat enough as it is. Drase sighed, and, still eating the apple, continued his journey.

Later, his bruises only slightly worse from the long walk, Drase climbed over a rocky outcropping and came within sight of the falls. They stood about six times the height of Drase, although the descent was not straight. Large, jagged rocks, like misshapen teeth, protruded along its height, ready to batter and crush any who fell over the edge. The base of the waterfall was equally fast and deadly, although anything caught in it would be forced to the side, out of the river. Drase saw that Shona was not atop the waterfall; still, there were many places he could be that were shielded from sight.

Drase followed the worn path he was using as it veered away from the waterfall, knowing that he did not feel up to taking any harder route. The ascent was still difficult, for as much time was spent scrambling over rocks as walking. Drase knew that Shona was there ahead, for his friend stood out clearly in Drase's other sense. In fact, Shona was waiting in concealment just ahead.

"Come out, Shona!" Drase yelled. Alarm tinged Shona's mind; apparently, he had not even noticed Drase. "You know I can't be caught by surprise now," Drase continued, ignoring for the moment Gabri's attack.

Shona emerged from hiding, his blue eyes sparkling with mischief. Shona was a fairly handsome young man, with short, currently wet brown hair. He had grown tall early, and lacked the common adolescent lankiness, but he was by no means strong. Shona looked like neither of his parents, for Tolbert was fat and slovenly, while his wife (Drase never had learned her name) was as small and delicate as a porcelain doll. He certainly did not look like an aspiring mage.

"It doesn't hurt to try," Shona replied merrily. "What in the world happened to you? You look like you fell down a mountainside."

"Okay, I take it back, I can be taken by surprise. Gabri sure managed to do so."

"Gabri? He did that to you?" said Shona with genuine concern on his face. "I thought he'd decided to leave you alone."

"That's one wolf who'll never lose his fangs. Yes, it was him alone, and he did a good job of it, too," Drase replied with a sigh, putting his hand to the tender, swollen flesh around his left eye. "I don't know why he's started again. I was just sitting in the forest, like usual, when I heard him coming at me. I had no chance of getting away."

Shona grimaced sympathetically. "I know how it feels. I just hope he doesn't start making it a habit again." He turned and walked to the riverside, where several high rocks stood, some in the river itself. Drase followed close behind. "So, there was something you wanted to tell me?"

Drase frowned, still concerned about how Shona would respond to his departure. Seeing no easy way to put the news, Drase stalled. "Later. How has it been going in Kinsvale? Did you convince your father to reconsider that offer from the mage?"

"Of course not!" Shona snapped. "I didn't even try. I know what his answer would be, anyway."

They sat, overlooking the turbulent falls. The water below the toothy rocks varied in depth from knee- to neck-deep, dangerous throughout, but neither boy paid heed. Drase thought for a moment, then responded, "Are you going to keep letting your father make all the decisions about your life?"

This was an old subject between them. "Of course not. It's just... what else can I do, right now? There is no alternative except to run away, and I don't think I could succeed at that."

"Well, you get loads of money from him now. You could use some of that to hire somebody to take you to some city. Then you could use the rest of that money to get yourself apprenticed to some mage."

"It's not that easy," Shona replied anxiously. "How could I find someone who wouldn't kill me and take my money instead of escorting me? And even if I did succeed, there would be no getting away from Tolbert. You don't know my father as well as I do. He won't hesitate a moment to send people searching for me, and to bring me back in whatever way is necessary."

I know Tolbert better than even you do, thought Drase as he said, "That's true. Tolbert is... capable of taking harsh measures."

"Right now I think that the best thing to do is to wait until I'm in control of his business, then hire a tutor in magic, or train myself with books. Oh, by the way, do you know who Lohni is?"

"Of course."

"Er... do you think she likes me?"

Drase snorted. "Her? Why should it matter? She's not worth your attention! Lohni is the most brainless and servile girl in a town full of brainwashed children."

Shona glared at Drase. "She's not that bad. Why, you yourself used to be her friend."

"As a child she was tolerable," Drase replied. "But now? Lohni seems to have become stupider with each passing year."

"That's not true!"

"Yes, it is. When I was her friend she was the smartest child in Kinsvale, though that was some eight years ago. She even managed to get Lora'kel to teach her to read, which is more than I can do. Now she justs sits around all day, weaving in your father's workshops and flirting with the boys in town." Drase shifted uncomfortably, then met Shona's angry stare with a matching one.

Through gritted teeth, Shona replied, "The Book of Laws says --"

"I don't give a damn about what any Book of Ohlreth says! We've been over this before. Those Books are as worthless as --"

"Why do you always have to argue with the least thing I say or do? I like Lohni, and what you think of her doesn't matter." Shona then grinned, his anger quickly abated. Shona was, at least in Drase's opinion, able to change mood with incredible speed. "Besides, I shouldn't be angry at you for doing something you've done so many other times. Argumentative is just the way you are."

Drase shrugged, unable to keep his anger burning against Shona's smothering cheerfulness. "I suppose so." He hesitated, then asked, "Did you know Garon is back?"

"Ah! I thought I recognized her. What is she doing with that light-haired man, anyway?"

"That's Torrel," Drase replied slowly. "Apparently the two do well as traders."

"That's as good a way as any to make a living. I am surprised that she's here, though. As I recall, Garon hated this town immensely... ever since they proved her father killed that woman."

Drase frowned. "They never proved anything of the sort. Lora'kel simply fingered the poor man, and they set on him like wolves on a lamb. Just because he looked different than everybody else."

"Like you?"

Glancing sharply up, Drase saw that Shona had not taken this question as seriously as he had. Still, the question tugged at Drase's mind... the townsfolk here were incredibly closed-minded, and were willing to kill because of something as unimportant as the color of eyes, or hair, or skin. Almost all the townsfolk of Kinsvale had black hair and blue eyes, a trait shared with most of the Annic nation. Shona, too, had sable hair and clear blue eyes... but Drase had brown hair, green eyes, and deeply tanned skin, unusually dark for this southern location. He considered himself in danger from the townsfolk, even though he had grown up among them.

"Yes, like me. Kinsvale would eventually find some excuse to kill me."

Shona did not seem stunned by this statement, but stayed deep in thought for several moments. Just as Drase was about to speak, Shona unexpectedly said, "You're leaving, aren't you?"

Drase's response was a shocked silence. Shona continued, "I knew it would happen eventually. You cannot resign yourself to the life of a field worker, and that's the only option for you here."

By now Drase had recovered his voice. He muttered, defensively, "What makes you think I'm leaving?" even though he knew that the assumption was true.

"That must be what you wanted to tell me. I can't think of anything else. Also, you've been so hateful towards Kinsvale..."

Drase was surprised to see that Shona was not as affected by this as expected. He suddenly felt shame for leaving Shona, who would have no friends, no one but his father to care for him. He replied, not wanting to deceive Shona, "Well, you're right. That is why I mentioned Garon. When she leaves east, I go with her. She thinks she can get a wizard to take me on, to study my powers... and that is a far better fate than this place."

"I just wish I could go with you."

Almost Drase told Shona that he could, if he would only dare his father's displeasure. But the look on Shona's face stopped him. Shona was ashamed of his submission to his father, and of his unwillingness to change his life, but he also felt envious of Drase's decision. Shona was not a person afflicted by self-pity; rather, he was one cursed with self-loathing. Drase sighed, and said, "I will be gone in a few days. This is probably the last chance we'll have to talk..."

Drase was surprised to see tears threatening to fall from Shona's eyes. Wordlessly, his friend stood, and left the way he had come, leaving Drase alone with his thoughts, and the whispers of regret lingering in his mind.

Shona had come to terms with his situation by the time he returned to Kinsvale late in the afternoon, and little trace of his sadness could be read from his face. The workers were still busy at the harvest, although they would stop for the day soon.

To his left, a few hundred feet away from the riverbank, loomed the trees, impassive as ever. Shona found it odd that none were cut for lumber, but an old superstition from Kinsvale's archaic past held that if any trees were cut the forest would reclaim this strip of land, killing its inhabitants and overgrowing the town until nothing remained. Oddly, this belief always caught on quickly among new workers, and thus all buildings in Kinsvale were made of stone or mud brick. Wood was only cut for fuel, and this sparingly, always from dead trees.

Although it allowed the workers to have fairly large houses, the thin walls were poor insulation. Shona himself lived near the center of Kinsvale, in the second-largest building, one which Tolbert had built from the town's profits. The only larger building was Lora'kel's temple, devoted to the worship of Ohlreth. There were also the storage buildings, the smithy and the mill, but these were paltry in comparison.

Fast approaching Kinsvale, Shona saw that the man on watch duty was, as usual, giving more attention to his mug of ale than to his surroundings: though the town had no tavern, there was still a large demand for alcohol. Supposedly he and the others on duty around town were watching for workers skirting their duty, but in fact the overseers in the fields kept such a high level of discipline that few common workers tried the deed. While they were treated well if working, they all knew that punishment for offenses was harsh and painful. The watchman was not so unobservant that he failed to notice Shona approaching, however, and he politely and meekly greeted the son of wealthy Tolbert.

Shona entered the narrow, twisting alleys between the workers' houses, slowly making his way towards the center of town. Soon he had left the dusty alleyways and set upon the paved road cutting through the center of town, towards the river, and from there over a bridge and into the eastern forests, leading eventually to Othos. The way also extended west, through the vast forest, going eventually to lands long forgotten by the eastern nations. Kinsvale had been built around the road, and so Shona was able to follow it to the town square.

To that place Shona came quickly, and stopped, wondering whether to talk to Garon, who had given Drase his escape. She might do so for him, as well, but once more caution -- or was it fear? -- overcame his desire. He turned from the barracks for unmarried workers wherein lay the small inn, and gazed at his house and the temple, with elderly Alin's dwelling lurking in between. To Shona they were living symbols of the power within this town. Although Tolbert's mansion was impressive, beside the austere and majestic stone temple its opulence seemed like just so much needless ornamentation. Shona knew that, although Tolbert owned the land and wealth of Kinsvale, Lora'kel held in his grasp the minds and wills of its population. The size of the temple reflected this power, for if he so desired, Lora'kel could raise Kinsvale, overseers included, against Tolbert. Shona wondered whether it was his fate to take his place within that hierarchy, seeking the favor and support of Lora'kel in all actions.

Then there was Alin's house, crouched between Tolbert's mansion and the temple like a hare between lions. Once Alin, along with his ancestors, had been the guiding force behind Kinsvale, and his abode had been its foremost edifice. However, with the coming of Tolbert, his power had steadily declined until he was no more than a reclusive old man, well-liked but mostly ignored.

As Shona stood contemplating, he heard the sounds of a drum from the north, marking the end of the working day. The townsfolk had been let out early today, because on the morrow the weekly Ohlrethan ceremony would be held. The workers would have that day completely to themselves, though most would spend it at the temple. Now workshops down the road disgorged the women and older children who worked for Tolbert spinning and weaving cloth of cotton and linen. Some women worked in the fields, but only those unable to spin or weave, for here the townspeople obeyed the strict rules of the Ohlrethans about the duties of women.

Shona noticed that one group of children was heading his way, and he noted with relief that Gabri was absent. Even though Tolbert was Shona's father, Gabri victimized the boy fearlessly, gladly risking punishment to do so. Of course, since Gabri had not been working yesterday, he would not be working today, for children were only required to work on alternating weeks.

Shona could recognize few of the children approaching, but Lohni was among them, so he stayed to talk. She grinned brightly, and greeted him. Shoving aside Drase's earlier words, Shona replied, "Good to see you, Lohni. Has your day been good?"

"Yes! Others may think that spinning and weaving are boring, but I think they're great things to do."

"Oh, come off it!" Shona retorted. "You can't possibly enjoy working all day long in that place." Drase's words came back with force. What could have happened to Lohni to make her so empty-headed and servile?

A boy near Lohni nodded his agreement, and said, "Don't bother trying to reason with her. She's as good an Ohlrethan as ever there's been. I wouldn't mind having a wife like her myself, come to think about it."

Lohni giggled vacuously, and Shona flinched despite himself. He could not help thinking that the conversation was lost on the girl. Shona agreed with the boy, for the Books of Ohlreth did state that servility and meekness was the place of woman, but he could not help detesting Lohni for what she was now. Any attraction he had felt towards her had been swept away by Drase's cynicism.

Shona hurriedly excused himself from the group, and returned to his house with haste. I'm getting as bad as Drase, Shona reprimanded himself. Why can't I just accept the Books and go about my life as any other Ohlrethan would, without worrying about what Lohni has become? Drase's beliefs have corrupted me.

Drase returned to Kinsvale shortly after Shona, although by that time the drums had beaten and the workers were returning. He too walked through the alleyways and emerged onto the paved highway, but his destination was the small bakery and the warehouse nearby. Drase could not get by on apples from the orchard downriver, so he regularly took loaves of bread and strips of dried, salted meat from storage. In theory, all the townsfolk were entitled to a certain amount of the food produced by Kinsvale, as long as it was not sold by them for profit; nevertheless, Drase went to great lengths to avoid detection in what might easily be considered thievery.

Now that he was close, Drase walked casually into the alleyway behind the two buildings. This was a dangerous time to be doing so, for although the bakers had gone, the regular workers would be stopping in to get their own provisions, and any one of them could recognize Drase. The only reason he had not waited until nightfall was that his hunger was too great. Drase entered the bakery from the rear doorway. No one was in this back room behind the oven, where the least fresh food was kept for sale to travelers. He did not dare risk the front rooms to get tastier bread, so he grabbed two wrapped loaves as long as his forearm and left quickly.

Getting dried meat would be far more difficult, for the storage building had but a single entrance, facing the road. Setting the bread down safely, Drase crept closer to the way and looked for any workers nearby. A group lingered nearby, obviously returning to their houses, so Drase waited for these to pass out of sight. Most of the other townsfolk were congregated in the town square gossiping, but that was far enough away that Drase did not worry. He darted to the doorway, and, after assuring himself that noone was inside, entered.

Luck was not with Drase that day. After taking enough salted meat to keep him filled for a few days, he returned to the exit, only to see a man leave the bakery and head his way. Drase ducked back inside and looked around. The meat, dried and preserved, was all packed into crates stacked against the walls or lain on tables for the workers. It seemed that there was no place for him to hide. However, this was not the first time Drase had been in danger of being caught. He moved swiftly to the end of a row of crates, where an irregularity in the wall allowed him to barely squeeze in behind the crates. Belatedly Drase realized that he had left his take behind, but by that time the man had already entered.

Breathing as quietly as possible, Drase listened carefully to the footsteps as the man walked through the room, took some dried meat of his own, and finally left the building. He sighed with relief, and slowly slid backwards out of the space. Because it was formed by a curve in the mud wall, and because the wall's base jutted in, allowing the crates to only come back so far, the space, though cramped, had served Drase well ever since this storage building had been constructed. In a few more years he would have been too big to fit, however, giving Drase yet another good reason for leaving Kinsvale.

As he picked up his little pile of jerky -- undisturbed, thankfully -- the sound of hoofbeats came to Drase's ears. He stopped, and stood still, wondering who it could be. Only travelers, or on occasion Tolbert, brought horses into the center of town. Risking capture, Drase looked out the doorway and saw a man astride a large dun horse. The newcomer instantly caught and held Drase's attention, being even more outlandish in appearance than Drase. The man was short, and completely bald. His skin had a grayish tinge to it, which was not entirely caused by dust. He was dressed in a sleeveless leather tunic and embroidered leather pants, both tasseled. The saddle was similarly decorated, as were the saddlebags. Finally, he carried two scimitars sheathed on either side of his waist, and by the muscular look of the newcomer he knew how to use them.

All this Drase took in at a glance, his mental powers allowing him unusual clarity of sight. He then saw that the strange man was moving towards the town square, and from there he would probably go to the inn. Intrigued despite himself, Drase followed after setting the strips of meat by the two loaves, taking one strip and eating it as he went. He followed a good distance behind as the warrior -- for what else could he be with two scimitars at his belt? -- entered the town square, meeting the curious and often hostile looks from the workers with an anxiety that seemed unusual to Drase, garbed as the man was in warrior's apparel. The fellow sat stiffly atop the horse, glancing fearfully at the crowd, and trotted the dun to the side of the barracks where the horses of Tolbert and Garon were stabled. It was strange that the warrior knew exactly where the inn lay. Perhaps he had heard of it from someone else. Drase returned to the alleyway, and, after picking up his stolen food, returned to the forest to find a place to sleep.

Shona awoke slowly the next morning, laying as he was on an expensive feather-stuffed mattress, with sheets of finely woven linen and thick, warm blankets. Today was the day for the Ohlrethan ceremony in the temple and for prayer and fasting... but he could always attend a later service, and nowhere in the Books was it written that he had to abstain from sleeping.

Nevertheless, Shona had slept his due amount and, comfortable though his bed was, he had become eager to get up and do something... after seeing to the Ohlrethan service, of course. He came to his feet slowly, grabbed his tunic from where it was hung on a bedpost, and donned his pants laying nearby. Then, deciding not to wear his boots -- after all, he was just going to the temple to worship Ohlreth -- Shona left his room and slowly ambled downstairs.

There he was met by one of the servants. Shona ignored him as he always did, and continued towards the parlor. At the door, he stopped, hearing voices. One was of his father, but the other... was that Gabri he heard? The conversation was too quiet to hear, but Shona was not worried. Tolbert often used Gabri for simple errands that his own servants could not do.

Shona stepped through the doorway and met the surprised stares of his father and his enemy. Tolbert recovered quickly, and said to the still stunned Gabri, "Just make sure you... deliver the message on time, boy." Turning to his son Tolbert then said, "You're up early this morning! For once you're in time to attend the first worship. Come along, Shona, let us go there."

As the two left, Gabri was left behind in the parlor, still staring fearfully at Shona. Maybe he worried that Shona would try to avenge Drase's beating. If so, Gabri had nothing to fear, for Shona knew Tolbert cared not one whit about an orphan boy who would be leaving soon anyway. Tolbert left his mansion, walking briskly across the town square towards the temple, with Shona following. Bells pealed from the top of the temple, signifying the beginning of the service. They had come just in time.

Drase woke about an hour later than Shona, curled in a tree bole with an old, ragged blanket as his only cover. As usual, his muscles were all knotted painfully. Drase spent some moments stretching as best he could in the tree. Then, leaving the blanket up there, Drase descended, and, after relieving his heavy bladder, dug out his concealed cache of food and broke his fast by chewing on a loaf of bread.

If Drase had been any sort of an Ohlrethan, food this morning would have been forbidden to him. But that was just pointless dogma, as was most of the religion's practices. Many of the townsfolk would now be attending the service, which lasted some two hours. Drase had attended once, and had instantly been repelled by the surfeit of ceremony and repetitive ritual. Now Drase knew that his homelessness was due, at least in part, to that aversion. Had he swallowed his impetuousness and become a normal Ohlrethan, he might have gained a home from some charitable worker after Molina's murder instead of being cast out like garbage.

Such reflections were useless, Drase told himself. He did not regret his choices. At least they had kept him from becoming another worker, and now he had the chance to escape and start a new life in another place. After finishing off the loaf, Drase happily reclined against the tree, his stomach full. A moment later he stood, remembering that this day he was to leave with Garon, and, to his mind, the sooner that happened the better. Drase retrieved his blanket from the tree and wrapped up the meat and the remaining loaf as best he could, then, slinging the whole of his worldly possessions over his shoulder, returned to Kinsvale.

It took little time to get there, and once more Drase entered the maze of alleyways, heading towards the inn. He thought of saying goodbye to Shona, but realized the boy would be either asleep or, less likely, at the temple worshipping Ohlreth. It would probably be less painful for both of them this way, too.

Drase came to the side of the inn, where Garon's dappled horse, Torrel's dusky gray, and the strange warrior's dun were kept in crude but effective stables. He set his bundle down here, and entered the building from the side door, into a long, plain hallway with doors set at regular intervals on both sides. This was the barracks where new workers, and those neither married nor overseers, were lodged. The plain two-story building consisted of a single hallway on each floor, with identical rooms for two set at intervals on each side. There were also privies at the ends of the hallways with baths for those willing to pump and heat their own water, and a communal kitchen on the first floor. The inn itself was merely five rooms near the stables, the only ones without wooden plaques on the doors carved with the names of the occupants.

Drase walked to the door he knew to be Garon's, at the far end opposite the privy, and rapped on the antique wood with his bare knuckles. Apparently she was out of her room now, for even asleep the ever-alert Garon would have heard knocking and awoken. Drase tried rapping at Torrel's door, but no response came from within there either.

Mystified, Drase left the barracks and entered the town square, with the river on his left. He looked towards the temple and noticed the odd warrior he had seen yesterday standing just outside the temple entrance, watching the service but in a position where he would not be seen by the worshippers. That was interesting, but there was no chance of Garon being within, so much did she hate the Ohlrethans. Neither she nor Torrel were anywhere else within sight.

There's more than one way to look for her, Drase reminded himself. After all, what use are these powers if I never use them? He moved towards the east side of the town square, bordering the river and the bridge which spanned it. From there he ascended to the apex of the bridge, made himself comfortable, and set his mind to wandering.

Drase was still aware of his body, although its sensations were greatly diminished. Much more powerful was his awareness of those within the temple. Emotion was strong there, and Drase kept himself from being captured within that intensity. As he was now, Drase could only sense minds within a short distance, but he had found that he could actually separate his awareness from his body and send himself to other places.

The actual separation was not painful, although the sudden loss of earthly sensation was startling. Drase had no idea in what vehicle his consciousness resided while doing this. Neither did he know what force moved it, for he simply willed himself somewhere and his awareness moved in that direction. Now he willed himself west, and was moved in that direction, his feeling of the temple congregation gaining strength and then diminishing as he passed it. Farther west he drifted, entering the cluster of minds that he assumed to be Alin's house. None of these minds was Garon's, for Drase was familiar enough with her to be able to recognize her without a more thorough probe.

One of the odder facets of his abilities, and one that had caused him woe a few times before, was that Drase actually experienced the emotions, and sometimes the thoughts, of those nearby. That was why he had not lingered at the temple: the fervor within could easily capture his mind and hold it until the service's end. Drase thought of this as he moved through Alin's abode, for emotion was strong here, too... a sort of worried anxiety that was far too powerful to be something everyday.

Suddenly his mind was engulfed in terror beyond anything Drase had ever experienced; strangely, there was an undertone of satisfaction blended with the terror. He recognized what was happening, and tried to extract himself, but the terror and despair were growing, and Drase lost himself within the anguish of another.

The pain was like molten fire burning from within his chest, rushing from there to his arms, his legs, his soul. Alin slowly raised his gaze from the gaping dagger wound in his chest to meet the gleefully shining eyes of Gabri. Somehow Alin was not surprised.

Alin fell to his knees, grabbing a table with rapidly weakening arms. Parchment scrolls were swept away by his shuddering limbs. Alin sought for a quill pen, for ink, for any way to communicate the name of his killer, but they were beyond his reach... and, as if he were not already fast on his way to death, Gabri once more stabbed Alin, the bloody dagger sinking deep into the old man's shoulder.

Blood was flowing freely from his wounds. Alin could feel his life running from his body, bathing his skin, drenching his tunic, falling to the floor in an expanding puddle. Finally, he fell on his back, gazing mutely at his killer.

Gabri hovered for a moment over the body of his victim, then grinned in a ghastly way. Thoughts slowly coalesced out of the omnipresent pain, which the tiny, devastated point of awareness that was Drase heard but did not comprehend. Why has this happened? Now it's too late, too late, he's murdered me like he murdered Mollie, oh why did this happen now? Then Alin's thoughts gained more clarity. He must have known, but how, how? I finally gain the courage to accuse Tolbert... but too slow... too slow... another murder, and he'll get away with it, too.

Drase regained a slight amount of sanity, for Alin's mind was fading slowly, as was his pain. He opened his eyes just in time to see, as a despairing Alin saw, one of the maids enter, and scream, only to have that scream reduced to a gurgle as Gabri's dagger found her throat. Once more Drase was plunged into pain and sorrow beyond imagination.

Later, after Drase found the courage to recall his memories, he realized that the pain of two people dying had been far overshadowed by the horror of the gruesome ecstasy Gabri had felt, killing Alin and his maid. A part of Drase had been within that boy, too, as the dagger plunged, as he watched Alin die. And, because of the perverted creature Gabri was become, Drase had enjoyed it.

The harsh scream immediately silenced Lora'kel, who had been speaking his sermon. The stranger without, being a skilled warrior and scout, quickly located the source of the scream and ran towards Alin's house, where at that moment Gabri was leaving through the back. Moments later the mass of people within the temple followed.

The warrior shoved aside the milling servants in his way and quickly came to the library near the back of the house, drawing his scimitars as he went. Entering, he nearly stumbled over the body of the maid, and quickly saw that the killer must have left through the door at the far end of the room. He rapidly crossed the library, avoiding Alin's body, and stepped out the doorway, only to be confronted with a maze of alleyways. The ground was too hard for any footprints to be seen. Although the warrior listened carefully, he could hear no sound except the roar of the townsfolk behind him in the library.

Too late the stranger realized his danger. Before he could turn or make any move to defend himself, he was tackled from behind. The mob quickly disarmed the innocent man and bore him back to the town square, ignoring his desperate pleas.

The library had been thoroughly devastated by the rampaging mob. No one paid the bodies any more heed than was needed to avoid them, and thus they missed the obvious fact that the two had been killed by dagger's edge, not any blow from a sword. Neither did they care that the unfortunate warrior's scimitars were unbloodied.

The trial, such as it was, ended quickly. Lora'kel, upon hearing the situation from the enraged townsfolk, announced the guilt of the foreign man. Although the accused protested vigorously, it was in a strange and fluid tongue, which none present could understand; thus, the warrior was unable to defend himself in any way. He was then taken to the west of town, where preparations for his execution were already underway.

The killing and subsequent condemnation had been swift, merciless, and utterly final, just as Gabri had hoped for. Even better, actually, for the blame had gone entirely to the foreigner, the only man here who could not defend himself. Gabri strolled towards the edge of town, morbidly eager to witness a third death this day.

Garon returned to Kinsvale shortly thereafter, having readied her and Torrel's wagon, which was hidden to the east. Torrel had remained with it, waiting for Garon to bring the horses as well as Drase, despite the fact that they were not leaving until the next day. Now she had only to find him before leaving. Her search turned out to be very short, for she found him sprawled on the bridge, unconscious.

"You sure picked an odd place to sleep, boy," she said. "Get up, we're about to leave."

No response came. Garon kneeled and continued more loudly, "Come on, Drase! Don't make me kick you..." She grabbed ahold of the boy and shook him vigorously.

Drase came awake wild-eyed and panicked. Showing no recognition of Garon, he backed towards the edge of the bridge, and would have gone right over had not Garon grabbed his shirt and pulled him forward.

"What in all the hells is the matter with you, Drase?" she asked. He still struggled, but weakly. Garon waited, seeing no better option. Finally, Drase whimpered and collapsed back into unconsciousness.

This time Garon had more trouble reviving Drase. When she did, the boy seemed to have recovered slightly. He now simply sobbed silently, occasionally muttering words too quietly for Garon too hear. She waited.

Eventually he regained enough sanity to mumble Garon's name. She said, softly, "Drase, what has happened? Listen to me! What has happened to you?"

Drase gazed at her for a moment, then said, "Alin... killed..."

"What?" Garon shouted. "Are you saying that Alin's dead?"

The boy nodded weakly. Instantly Garon jumped to her feet and ran down the bridge, telling herself that she would return to Drase when she could.

The town square was utterly deserted, as was the temple. A strange silence had fallen over the area, which Garon noted worriedly. She ran into Alin's house, which also was oddly vacated. Garon searched the empty house thoroughly, fearing Drase's message, but only when she entered the library was her fear confirmed.

There were no bodies to be seen, but there was blood. Plenty of it. It was puddled in two places, one by the door and one halfway across the room. Obviously someone else had already been discovered, and the bodies removed. Did that explain the absence of townsfolk from this area?

Garon left Alin's house, deciding that there was nothing left there to find out. She searched the temple, but it seemed to have been abandoned halfway through worship. Then she went into the inn, looking for Chamesh, the forester who had come yesterday to meet Garon and receive a report of happenings in the east. He was not in his room, but that was not suspicious: the warrior might have departed already, returning to the west.

Mystified, Garon walked back towards the bridge. When she got there, however, she was startled to see that Drase had vanished. Damn that boy! she thought. He seems to make a habit out of strange behavior... must be that mind-magic of his that told him somebody, probably Alin, was being killed, and the death must have messed him up pretty badly. But... where has he gone now?

Sighing, she sat on the bridge and thought for a few minutes, just to calm her turbulent mind. Finally, now more relaxed, she returned to the town square. Ahead of her the road curved away out of sight, but a lone townsman was within her field of view, coming her way. Garon ran to meet him.

"What happened? Where has everybody gone?" she asked once she was close enough.

The man -- a worker, and not one that Garon knew -- replied condescendingly, "To the west, of course. Don't you know what's been going on?"

Garon snarled, and replied, "Of course not! That's why I'm asking you!"

"Someone's been killed, Alin I think. The guy who did it is about to be executed down the road to the west. Now, if you haven't anything else to ask, I'll be going on my way."

She ran past the townsman, a new urgency hastening her stride. Gradually the sounds of a larger crowd came to her ears... a large, angry crowd. She cleared the last of the buildings and came into sight of a great mass of human beings between her and the forest's margin. Before this mob was a crude gallows, with several nearly indistinguishable figures atop it.

Garon unsheathed her sword and sprinted with all her energy toward the execution, anger burning clearly from her eyes, for she recognized one of the men on the platform. It was Chamesh, her ally, a man who only fought when pressed to it, and Garon knew with all her heart that he was innocent.

From where Drase lay, on a high limb at the edge of the forest, he could see the scene clearly, although his thoughts were still so disorganized he had trouble comprehending the proceedings. A short time ago he had walked dazedly here, obeying some strange impulse, and climbed this tree so that he could... what? What was it he was going to do?

Though he thought for several minutes, Drase could summon no answer from his chaotic mind, which was still in shock from his earlier experience. There was some almost finished construction, right there in front of him, and Alin and Garon and Gabri and that man from gods know where were somehow involved with it, but he could not piece the situation together.

Sighing, Drase relaxed on the tree limb, but he could not sleep. His powers were still active, and Drase's mind was filled with stray thoughts and emotions from the waiting crowd. Anger and grief passed through Drase like so many shadows, leaving behind nothing of their presence. He simply basked in the minds' glow and waited for his confusion to pass.

A short time later there was some disturbance near the platform. Drase heard what passed in his mind, communicated from somewhere in that crowd.

"What just happened?"

"It's an attack!"

"No, it's not, you idiot! It's just some girl -- by Ohlreth, she's got a sword!"

"It is an attack."

"Wait, she's disarmed now." An image came into Drase's mind, of Garon, still struggling, being pulled down by the mob surrounding her.

"Get out of the way!" Drase recognized Lora'kel speaking, although he could not tell through whose ears the sounds were coming to him. "What has this woman done?"

"She came running towards the gallows, trying to save that murderer! And she was using a sword!"

"What? Did she hurt anybody?"

"No... by the looks of it, she used the flat of her blade."

"Keep her subdued, then, until the execution is done."

"Should we punish her? Give her a flogging, or something?"

"No! That's Garon... she's violent, but not a criminal. One punishment in a day is enough."

The rest of the conversation was lost to Drase, who had finally regained enough sense to withdraw his mind. He sat up again, and noticed the impending execution as though he had not seen it before.

What are they doing? They're going to kill that man! Drase thought, rubbing his eyes. But it was Gabri who killed Alin...

Maybe he could use his mental abilities... but no, Drase could not risk another experience of death. He still was only slightly recovered from Alin's killing.

For several long moments Drase simply sat and tried to think of a solution. He could also see Garon, held tightly by a clump of villagers. She was still struggling, despite the hopelessness of the situation. The execution itself was imminent, for a noose was now being drawn around the inert man's head.

There's almost nobody behind the gallows... if that man could get free, he could run to the forest and maybe escape there. But he can't, unless I help him. Fighting his own revulsion, Drase fell again into a trance and sought out the gallows.

On either side of the warrior stood guards, bearing swords. Maybe Drase could make one of them cut the prisoner down. He insinuated himself stealthily into a guard's mind, and was able to see and hear again. Now, he saw that the noose was being slipped over the prisoner's neck. The guard's mind was quiescent, ready to move quickly if something were to happen, but otherwise still.

Desperation fueling his actions, Drase tried to take control of the guard's body. The man squirmed uncomfortably, but although the attempt had gone unnoticed, it had not succeeded. Drase was still just an isolated observer within him.

Try to influence his mind instead, a voice from within Drase said. Make him think he is acting of his own will. Taking no time for consideration, Drase began to work more subtly, weaving suggestions into the tapestry of the guard's mind.

The foreigner must be innocent, the man thought, not knowing the notion came from Drase. There is no evidence against him... he was merely standing near the murder site. The guard became uncomfortable at where his own mind seemed to be leading him. He looked towards the captive, now with the noose wrapped snugly around his neck.

Lora'kel made a quick speech, saying in far more words that Ohlreth himself had decided this man was to die. With that the prisoner was raised into the air via a system of pulleys. This gallows did not operate by breaking the neck; rather, it was designed to kill in a more horrible way, by suffocation. The platform of the gallows was built high only so that the villagers might see the execution better.

I must act now! the guard whose mind Drase occupied thought. Drase was startled, for he had not known his suggestions had worked so well. The guard continued: But then again, Lora'kel said --

It doesn't matter, Drase interrupted, He could have made a mistake. You may be harming both of your souls by letting the foreigner die.

That worked. Drase extracted himself quickly enough to see the guard he had manipulated draw his sword, cut down the prisoner, and hold the sword's edge at the other guard's throat to prevent interference. The foreign man whose life Drase had just saved recovered quickly, and, leaping off the platform, darted rapidly toward the forest despite his bound hands. The crowd was stunned. By the time some thought to pursue, the escaped prisoner had attained the forest's edge, and it was too late. Some townsfolk ran towards Kinsvale to get horses, but Drase knew they were too late. Within the forest, there was far too much undergrowth and rough ground for mounted pursuit.

Drase turned his gaze back towards the gallows. The rescuing guard had dropped his sword, and was now at the mercy of the other. Drase worried for him, until he thought to look to Lora'kel instead. With enhanced sight Drase saw that Lora'kel gazed directly at his partly concealed perch. Somehow he knew what Drase had done.

Exhausted from manipulating the guard's mind, Drase could not summon enough energy to descend from the tree, much less escape. He could only wait and see what Lora'kel was going to do.

Lora'kel was a mage.

No person in Kinsvale knew that, of course. There was much that the villagers did not know about him.

The ability often brought help to Lora'kel. Now, standing on the gallows platform awaiting the execution, Lora'kel suddenly sensed faint magical activity nearby. It was centered on the platform, but it was so subtle that Lora'kel, although a mage of the Ninth Circle, could not determine the magic's purpose. He assumed it was one of the random emanations that came from the forest from time to time.

Lora'kel was thoroughly convinced of the guilt of the prisoner. After all, that had been the only person at the crime scene, with weapons still in his hands. Thus assured, Lora'kel shouted, "Look now! This man committed murder, and he has been caught, as all who disobey Ohlreth shall be caught. Ohlreth allows none to escape His wrath." The crowd stirred uncomfortably, and Lora'kel thought he heard a snicker. Probably just the imagination. He continued, "All who are good shall be rewarded, and all whose souls are evil shall be punished. Justice will always come in the end: now watch as justice is carried out." He signalled, and several men below the platform pulled on the heavy rope they held, lifting the prisoner into the air.

It was then that the first event of many which were to change Lora'kel's life occurred. Lora'kel heard a heavy thump behind him. He whirled around only to see the man who had been hanging rise to his feet, look angrily at the priest, then launch himself off the platform.

Lora'kel realized immediately the significance of the magic he had sensed: it had been used to control one of the guards. The disturbance was gone from the priest's otherworldly senses, but he was a Ninth Circle mage, and would not be daunted so easily. He closed his eyes, ignoring the chaos around him, and mumbled a brief ritual. Now he could sense the subtle traces of magic left behind. There was very little, meaning either that the magic had come from a very powerful mage, or there was some other, incredibly powerful, force at work.

Nervously he followed the traces to their source, but found no nexus of energy, no enemy mage ready to blast him. In fact, there was a total lack of active magic. Lora'kel opened his eyes and looked toward the forest's edge, where he had detected the source. On a high limb, partially concealed by foliage, lay sprawled a young boy with brown hair. Lora'kel remembered only one child with hair of that color: Drase, the orphan.

Slowly the chaos around Lora'kel settled. Most of the townsfolk had gone, and the miscreant atop the gallows platform had lain down his weapon and surrendered to the other guard, a slim man who was also an overseer for Tolbert. At the moment Lora'kel could think of no explanation for the recent events, so he turned to the gallows.

"You! Why did you free the prisoner?" Lora'kel shouted, suddenly realizing his anger. It did not matter that the guard had been the target of some kind of magic, for the priest needed some person to turn his wrath towards.

"He was... he was innocent, sir," the man mumbled. He gazed shamefully at his feet, awaiting whatever punishment Lora'kel might inflict.

"Innocent? How could you possibly think that?"

The miscreant glanced furtively around, taking his time as if he had no answer to that question ready. After thinking for several moments, he looked back at Lora'kel, and replied, "It slipped my mind earlier, but I saw him watching our ceremony from just outside the temple doorway. He was there when I heard the scream."

Lora'kel was stunned. All his anger fled from his shaking body. He too had seen the foreigner at the temple entrance several times. Lora'kel had almost killed an innocent man, if what the guard said was true, simply because he had never stopped to question the town's judgment. "Are you sure about that?" he whispered, after calming himself.

The guard seemed relieved at Lora'kel's quick change of emotion, for he knew Lora'kel would always act according to the Ohlrethan concept of justice the priest carried within his heart, and that ideal forbade executing an innocent man, even if that man were a non-Ohlrethan foreigner. The guard said, "Yes. I had been keeping my eye on him, wondering why he was watching our service so intently. Also... I'm not sure, but I don't think the wounds on the victims could have been made by scimitars, and that was all the stranger was carrying when he was captured."

That fact Lora'kel could not verify, for by the time he had arrived at the scene the bodies had been removed. "By Ohlreth... I almost killed him..." Lora'kel motioned for the slim guard to release the man he held. The priest thanked the still-anxious offender, also silently thanking Drase for his intervention. "There will be no punishment taken against you. You may now go."

He turned to the other guard. "You! What is your name?"

"Camber, if it pleases you," the unkempt guard replied.

"Where were the bodies and the scimitars taken?"

"I don't know about the swords, but the bodies're just outside the temple so's they can get cremated soon. Er... d'you actually think that foreigner was not guilty?" Lora'kel nodded.

Grimacing, the guard continued, "Well, that's a mess, but it's too bad he wasn't executed anyway. Foreigners like him deserve to die. You don't need a specific crime t'know that."

Lora'kel frowned, and left the platform angrily, followed closely by Camber. The priest was angry at that man for his hatred, but he also realized such feeling was predominant in Kinsvale. Why didn't they realize that evil men would be judged upon death no matter when they died? Human beings should dispense justice only when it was vital to the safety of the people, as Lora'kel had thought he had been doing. At that moment he made a drastic decision: he would abandon this place, and leave Tolbert and his followers to their destinies.

It was just as the bystander had said. Alin and his maid had been killed by dagger's edge, not scimitar. Lora'kel was ruminating over Drase. How had the boy managed his feat of magic? From the depths of Lora'kel's knowledge an answer came to him, one only available to mages of Eighth or higher Circle, one not well known even among them. Drase must be a mind-mage, he decided. Mind-mages were extremely rare, but almost always orphans, of questionable descent, and born into a low class... at least, that was what the books stated. They were also born near Portals more often than anywhere else: Kinsvale's nearby Portal had been one of the reasons Lora'kel had come to the town.

This led Lora'kel's mind to devise new questions. Why had Drase rescued the foreigner? Once the priest would have instantly assumed that the boy had acted from the goodness of his heart, but experience with men like Camber had taught him that was rarely the case. And why had the boy been so conveniently positioned to effect the rescue? Lora'kel knew little about Drase, but he did know the boy stayed far away from town during the worship day, to avoid the Ohlrethan services. The murder, capture, and farce of a trial had happened so quickly that Drase could not have known about it unless he was in the town when Alin was murdered.

There was still no one with motive enough to have killed Alin... but who knew what power like mind-magery did to the user? Lora'kel could come up with no better explanation for Drase's actions than that he had, deranged by his mental powers, killed the old man and his servant, and then prevented the foreigner's death because of guilt. It still left much unexplained... but then again, Drase never came to worship Ohlreth, and when his foster mother was murdered he had stubbornly insisted that Tolbert had killed her, although a different man had been convicted. The boy had blamed Lora'kel and Alin, too, for their complacency. Perhaps Tolbert was in danger, as well... and it was not unthinkable that such a deranged boy would dare to kill a priest of Ohlreth, as well.

Now Lora'kel began to worry. If, indeed, Drase was the murderer -- and Lora'kel was almost certain of it -- how could he be captured? Letting him go free would be dangerous, but how could Lora'kel prevail against Drase's powers? The old books spoke of the skills of mind-mages with awe. The effort of subduing one far surpassed the ability of a lone mage, even of the highest Circle, and Lora'kel was afraid to use the unpredictable power of the Portal.

When Lora'kel had first harnessed the Portal, one of the sources of the world's magic, he had been eager to test it, so he had crafted a spell upon some of Kinsvale's children. Looking back on this deed, Lora'kel felt nothing but guilt and disgust for his own arrogance, for usurping the childrens' wills and forcing them to behave like good Ohlrethans. His plan had gone horribly wrong. Although the children for the most part behaved immaculately, they would regularly revert to such a bestial state that it seemed all the pain and anger they should have been feeling had broken loose of the spell's restriction. Only a single girl, Lohni, never had such outbreaks, for she with such a violent will had been placed under the most powerful magic.

Lora'kel had hastily removed the spells, having belatedly realized his folly -- apparently Ohlreth preferred his children to learn His way themselves. Most of the children had recovered, leaving no adverse effect beyond parents mystified by their strange behavior. Lohni, however, had been permanently broken by the magic. She continued behaving perfectly after the spell's removal. Lora'kel now suffered a pang of conscience whenever he saw her, for, despite his devout Ohlrethan beliefs, he preferred the willful girl from before that baleful spell.

The priest had not used the power of the Portal since, although he retained the ability. Now he hesitated, wishing for an easier answer. Lora'kel looked back at the two black-shrouded corpses, which just yesterday had been vibrant, living creatures. They lay, the two empty shells, in the dirt in front of the temple, awaiting the hot funeral pyre to cleanse the world of their presence. He did not want to add another body to the collection.

As Lora'kel stood ruminating, Gabri, a boy the priest barely knew, came to stand by the bodies. Seeing Lora'kel's forlorn expression, he asked, "Is there anything I can help you with, sir? You seem disturbed."

At first Lora'kel kept stubbornly silent, but an urgent need to share his troubles had come upon him, and he replied after a moment, "That foreigner was innocent."

Gabri looked stunned, as Lora'kel had expected. Then, after waiting worriedly for the boy to reply, Gabri mystified the priest by grinning knowingly. Lora'kel shook his head, and continued, "Do you know of a boy named Drase?"

"That I do, sir."

The priest sighed, and continued tiredly, "He is a danger to all of us. He --"

"Say no more! I'll make sure he don't trouble you no more."

Lora'kel reeled, as if struck. "What?" he gasped.

"You want him dead. I can do that for you." Gabri laughed, and Lora'kel shuddered at the sound.

He's right, a part of Lora'kel's mind told him. Drase is a murderer, and he must die. Does it matter how it happens?

Yes! He shouted silently. I don't want him assassinated. Hellfire! This boy would probably enjoy it. Why should I condone such bloodthirsty murder?

No more bloodthirsty than Drase's murder, obviously, it replied perversely.

"No," he said solidly, both to himself and to Gabri. "There's no way you could get close enough to him. The boy has powers beyond my comprehension."

"Hah! Just yesterday I pounded him into the ground, and he never saw me coming. He's got no powers." Gabri leaned forward conspiratorially, after making sure no person was listening. Nobody was. "I can make Drase disappear, so that none but me will know you told me to kill him."

Although the priest was repelled by Gabri, a perverse side of his mind grabbed hold of the words and used them forcefully. You heard him! He can get to Drase without being harmed! Would you rather send villagers, or yourself, to death? And this way the village does not have to know of your error. Their faith in you will remain secure.

Lora'kel despaired in the making of such a decision... but, in his anxious state, he could think of no better answer. He nodded to Gabri, telling him where he had seen Drase just a few moments ago. Instantly the jubilant boy bounded away, off to accomplish Lora'kel's horrible mission. The priest hated himself, but he found a measure of consolation, thinking: Ohlreth watches over all. He knew the foreign man was innocent, so He saved the man's life. Ohlreth will not let Drase die if he, too, is innocent.

"May Ohlreth have mercy upon your soul," he called towards the departing figure, adding, quietly, "And upon mine."

Drase was relieved when he saw Lora'kel leave the platform and return to Kinsvale, but he remained mindful of his own danger. If the priest knew about Drase's interference, he could easily rouse the villagers against the boy they all hated... and it was not impossible that he would be caught, Drase thus weakened by the rescue of the guard.

Then he looked for Garon, who had attacked the mob so foolishly. She had done no serious damage before being subdued, and so had been left unharmed. Now she stood in the field, in the midst of confused townspeople. As Drase watched, she recovered her sword from where it had been thrown, and walked toward the platform.

Drase summoned enough energy to climb down from the tree. He stood there for a few moments, regaining his breath. Soon he strolled toward Garon, trying to look inconspicuous among the villagers, but not doing a good job of it. Garon noticed Drase quickly, and came to meet him.

She was still angry, and instantly demanded, "What happened? What are you doing all the way over here?"

"The man... the foreigner... didn't kill Alin," Drase responded weakly.

"I know that!" Garon snapped. Then her tone grew softer, and she said, "You're still dazed. I'm surprised you recovered enough to drag yourself this far. C'mon, let's head over to the platform, and you can explain everything once we're there."

Drase nodded numbly, and they walked to the platform steps. Even that small exertion tired him, and he was panting hoarsely by the time they arrived.

They sat down, and Garon continued, "Okay. You somehow knew about Alin before the rest of us. Was it your powers that told you?"

"Yes," Drase gasped. "I was in his mind when he died."

Garon grimaced. "That would explain your hysteria earlier. Do you know who did kill him?"


She hissed softly, startling Drase. "And I bet I know who hired him, too. Tolbert. Just like Molina."

Now Drase remained silent, submerged in his own memories. Molina had been his foster mother until she was murdered. Even worse, it had been Garon's father who was executed for the deed. Garon had abandoned the town immediately afterwards.

"Well, I can't get to Tolbert without putting myself at a lot of risk," Garon went on. "And Gabri is just his lackey. That fat bastard could hire any other villager just as easily. Hell! I'll just leave this town to itself. They deserve people like Gabri. The only good people in Kinsvale are you, me and Torrel, and we'll be leaving soon. The entire place can go to hell for all I care." During this harsh tirade Garon had become steadily angrier, but Drase was used to that. Anger was to Garon what Ohlreth was to Lora'kel: she practically worshipped the emotion. Garon seethed for awhile, then, finding no convenient object for her anger, talked to Drase again. "I couldn't see what happened to Chamest, and none of these damned villagers will tell me. He escaped, didn't he?"

"Chamest?" asked Drase.

"The foreigner. I was supposed to meet with him, but he has a way of getting into trouble at the worst possible times." Garon smiled grimly.

"Yes... he escaped into the forest."


"I used my... powers... to make one of the guards cut him down."

Garon laughed, and hugged Drase affectionately. He was so surprised at this odd treatment that he stood petrified for several moments, while Garon replied, "Ha! I knew I could trust you. It must have surprised those idiots, thinking they had a man to kill."

Drase interrupted her. "I couldn't have done it if the guard hadn't already been disturbed by the execution. I just strengthened his resolve, and he did the rest."

"Really?" Garon seemed astonished. "One of these villagers...? Well, I suppose it could happen. Who was it?"

"That man over there," Drase pointed. "The one with the sword."

Garon looked at the same moment as the guard in question was set upon by a mob, obviously angry at the rescue. One townsman snatched the sword away, while another spat at his feet. Startled, and once more angry, Garon stood and moved to interfere. Placing his hand on her shoulder, Drase warned Garon, "Please, don't. There are too many of them for you. Most likely they'll just rough the man up and leave."

She looked at Drase briefly, then replied, "If I don't do anything, I'll be just as bad as they are." Garon then shook his hand off and walked towards the group, unsheathing her own sword. Wondering where her 'leave the town to itself' philosophy had gone, Drase followed. It could be worse. She could have attacked as recklessly as before.

One of the hostile mob saw her, and said, "Look, Camber! It's the little tiger girl who tried to rescue that foreigner single-handed. She's a fierce one, she is!"

The man named Camber, whom Drase recognized as the other guard, turned and regarded Garon contemptuously. "Stay out of this, girl. This man is a traitor. He deserves all that he gets."

"Both he and the foreigner were innocent, and unless you leave this instant I will kill you," Garon replied, her voice as steely as her blade. Camber began to laugh, but several of his compatriots retreated before the unquestionable rage of the woman. They had seen her fighting earlier, and though she had been subdued, they knew of her skill.

"Lora'kel said that he was innocent as well," the beset man interjected. "Please, just --"

Camber snarled, and hit him with a spinning backfist. Simultaneously Garon jumped forward to attack, but the two men on either side of Camber blocked her way. She hesitated momentarily, then dispatched one with a kick almost too fast to follow, and followed it with a strike with the flat of her blade that disabled the other. When Camber turned again to confront Garon, he saw her standing over his two defeated compatriots, almost within swordsreach of him.

The half-dozen or so aggressors that remained fled in fear of Garon's skill, but Camber's pride was in mortal danger, and he did not wish to be seen as afraid of a single woman, no matter how skilled she may be. Being a guard, he too carried a sword, and this he drew angrily. He then leapt forward, slashing with his sword, but Garon parried the attack easily and followed through with a swift cut toward Caldi's exposed neck. The man's attack had been too clumsy for him to recover in time for a block; instead, he jerked himself aside in an attempt to dodge. Garon's attack glanced across his shoulder, wounding it shallowly. This time she wasn't fighting to stun, but to kill. Garon continued with a downward stroke that Camber would not be able to dodge.

"Stop!" shouted the guard who had been manipulated by Drase. "Please don't kill him."

Garon did stop, surprising Drase. She gazed into the guard's eyes for a moment, and, reading sincerity there, sheathed her sword. While Camber shamefully scrambled away, his shoulder bleeding, the erstwhile guard retrieved his sword from where it had been dropped by one of the fled townsmen.

"Thank you for helping me," he told Garon. "I... really appreciate it."

She nodded tersely. Probably she had, at first, been displeased by Drase's interference, but Garon knew what would have resulted from Camber's death: another execution, one which Drase probably wouldn't have been able to stop. "You were the guard who rescued Cham -- I mean the foreigner -- weren't you?"

The man nodded, and said, "Yes. I felt badly about the execution from the beginning, but I didn't think there was anything I could do, and Lora'kel had ordered it, after all. Then, towards the end, I somehow gained resolve, and did what I had to do. I don't know why. Maybe it was Ohlreth Himself who gave me guidance." He sighed wearily.

"Yes, you are a good man," Garon replied, chuckling. "Even if you do need a push from that old bastard Ohlreth every now and then." Drase had been doing his best to fade into the background. Now, he paused. Was Garon about to reveal his secret? Apparently not, for she continued, "Why do you live in this horrible little village? Even Othos is better!"

"Well... the people aren't great, but Tolbert provides for our basic needs. My family was starving in the east. Here, at least, they are assured of life, if not freedom."

Garon shook her head, but did not press the point. "You are welcome. Consider it repayment for stopping the execution."

The guard grinned, shyly. Then his face clouded, and he left after remarking, "Be wary of Camber. He might try to do something..."

The encounter had ended, and Drase was filled with a new-found respect for Garon's fighting skills. He asked her about them, and she replied, "I was trained in Melwydd, a country far deeper in the forest. Their skill surpasses that of all other countries, despite their isolation."

"Why are you heading to Othos, then, if that other place is so much better?" They had gone over this before, and Drase had never heard a satisfying answer from her.

Garon reacted as usual, evading by saying, "Melwydd is a good place, but I do not want to waste my life. I can accomplish much more in the Othoan Empire than I can in the west." Drase still did not know precisely what she meant to accomplish.

"Alright. But..." Drase hesitated, thinking enough had happened already, but nonetheless continued, "I think Lora'kel knows that I saved Chamest. I don't know how, but he spotted me after I finished."

She did not seem as perturbed at this as Drase had expected. Garon replied, "That's not really a surprise. Many priests are also mages; after all, Othos has both the Holy Compound and the School of G'trakis. Priests often attend both schools at the same time." She shook her head. "There's nothing much to worry about. Lora'kel is probably just a Fifth or Sixth Circle mage, and we're leaving tomorrow, so he won't have time to cook up any retribution. Just stay away from Kinsvale until the morrow, and you'll be safe."

Drase nodded relievedly, confident in Garon's experience. "I'll do that, after I talk to Shona."

"Talk to him about what?" Garon asked sharply.

"Somebody in this village has to know that Gabri was the killer, and Shona's my friend."

"Very well. Tell him, but don't get into any trouble, and stay away from Gabri if you can. Meet me tomorrow at noon on the bridge. Got it?"

"I do. Until then, Garon." With that Drase set out towards Kinsvale and Shona, while Garon remained behind in the nearly deserted field, contemplating the gallows which had come so close to claiming a life.

While Alin was being killed, Shona had been sitting on the front bench, giving worship to Ohlreth. Then the maid's scream had ripped through the air, throwing the service into chaos. Shona had wanted to go see what was happening, but his father restrained him, and they remained in the temple after all the others, including the priest, had left. Shona was mystified and not a little afraid, and after an unbearable length of time Tolbert gave up waiting and let him leave.

Outside the temple the town square was completely deserted. Shona did not know it, but at that moment Chamest was making his dramatic escape, aided by Drase. He stood confused for several moments, until his father followed him out, apparently convinced that worship was ended for the day.

"What do you think that scream was about?" Shona asked his father.

Tolbert mumbled a neutral reply, looking strangely worried. Shona ran to the barracks, but neither Garon nor anybody else was there. Then Shona saw two long, narrow bundles wrapped in black at the side of the temple. He knew what that color meant.

Fear and anticipation gnawing at his heart, Shona ran to the corpses, shouting for Tolbert to follow. Once there, he hesitated, smelling a faint but disturbing odor. Did he really want to look at the bodies?

In the end Shona's curiosity overcame his revulsion. He lifted the shroud from what he judged to be the head of the nearest corpse, and looked upon an unfamiliar face, pale in death. Unwisely Shona lifted the shroud further, seeing with horror the ragged slash along the woman's neck, crusted over with sticky, pungent blood. He reeled back, sobbing, just as his father arrived.

Ignoring Shona, Tolbert looked at the face and neck of the corpse without emotion, then covered it and went to the other body. Once his father uncovered it, Shona stammered, "Wh... Who is it?"

"Alin," Tolbert replied grimly, glancing furtively at the dead woman. "He was stabbed in the chest. I think the murderer -- that foreigner -- is being prepared for execution."

Shona turned and walked away, devastated. Elderly Alin had always been friendly to him, and, for that matter, to everybody else. Whoever killed him must have been sick indeed, to inflict such a wound upon Kinsvale.

He turned and walked east along the road. As he neared a bend a sprinting villager came into sight, followed by several others. They all looked incredibly irate.

"What's going on?" Shona shouted.

"The bastard escaped!" one of the men shouted. "I'm getting a horse and going after him."

The villager hurried past Shona, who now saw many others along the street. They were scattering in every direction, some grabbing tack and gear from their own houses, some sprinting towards the extensive stables on the outskirts of Kinsvale, and some returning to their homes, disgruntled but too apathetic for action. Eventually Shona got the rest of the story from other townspeople, and it disturbed him. But he could no longer be horrified by the escape after seeing the dead body.

He set out towards the edge of Kinsvale, wanting to see the situation for himself. Once there he could dimly see the gallows by the edge of the forest, with a few figures standing near its base. Occasionally a villager would gallop towards the woods on a horse, but they soon realized (often painfully) that a horse held no advantage of speed in the forest.

Shona was startled when he recognized Drase a good distance away, coming in his direction. Shona ran to meet him. Drase was visibly fatigued. His face was pale, and he walked slowly.

Drase smiled wanly at him, and asked, "Have you heard about the execution?" Shona nodded, while his friend continued, "And you know that Alin is dead?"

"Yes, I heard all about it," Shona replied excitedly, his earlier horror forgotten. Drase opened his mouth as if to say something more, but Shona cut him off. "Is it true one of the guards just cut down the murderer for no reason? And then he escaped into the woods, right?"

"Damnit, Shona, two people have died today. Why are you acting as if it's just the latest gossip in the town, there for your amusement?" Shona lowered his head guiltily. Drase was right. This was a matter to be treated seriously, for the murderer was, after all, loose in the woods to the west. Drase continued, "I have some important things to tell you, so that someone in the town will know after I've left. The foreigner -- his name was Chamest -- did not kill Alin."

Stunned, Shona asked, "How do you know?"

"I was in Alin's mind while he died."

Shona gasped. He knew how Alin had died: by dagger strike, just like the old man's servant. Drase must have felt the same pain that Alin had. "That's... horrible," he replied. "No wonder you look so weak. But what are you doing here?"

Drase did not reply to that question, so Shona asked another. "Well... do you know who did kill Alin?"


That was surprising, but not incredibly so, considering Gabri's violent nature. But could the boy go so far as to kill a man?

They stared at each other for awhile. Shona was once more adrift in a sea of conflicting emotions... anger at Gabri warring with fear of him, one telling him to accuse Gabri and try to have him executed, while another advised him to forget all that had happened and to resume his former life. Never did he doubt his friend's word, for Drase had no reason to lie about the matter.

Drase, sensing that the conversation had halted, turned away and walked north. Shona called after him, "Should I tell anyone else?"

He turned, and shrugged. This meeting was at an end; once more, the two were saying goodbye for the last time. Shona still wondered whether it truly was the last he would see of Drase. Much could happen in a day, as the morning's events had shown.

Finally, with nothing better to say, Shona simply called out, "Goodbye, Drase." Drase nodded, smiled wanly, and walked on.

Garon remained seated at the base of the gallows, watching with amusement the activity of the townsfolk. Many had mounted horses and foolishly tried to ride them into the forest. Most stopped at the edge, realizing their foolishness, while those who went on quickly hit low-hanging branches and were knocked from their saddles. Some entered the forest on foot, but Garon doubted they would find any trace of Chamest. He was a scout, and had spent his entire life there. No easterner could track one with such skill.

If they had hounds, they would have probably been able to hunt him down, Garon mused. It's a good thing Tolbert didn't foresee this possibility. Then again, maybe he's just too cheap to spend the money.

She had been waiting for more than an hour. Men were returning from the forest, disappointed at their lack of success. Garon continued waiting, until she was sure that most of the townsfolk had returned. Patience was not one of their virtues, it seemed... they had given up after barely beginning to search. Then again, maybe the villagers had realized the hopelessness of pursuing such a skilled forester.

Now that this side of town was nearly deserted, Garon set out for the forest herself. She came to the edge of the woods, and found it to be as overgrown as she had expected, so she found a path where a villager had stumbled through the brush and followed it. Garon continued down the path for a short time, until she came upon something resembling a natural trail. This far into the forest the shrubbery was less plentiful, but the earth on the trail was completely bare. She traveled at a slow pace, not worrying about losing her way.

Eventually she became aware of a soft rustling some distance to her left, and stopped, waiting. Soon Chamest emerged from the concealing underbrush, as Garon had expected. He was scowling fiercely, but she met his gaze nonchalantly.

Immediately the scout said, in the Melwyddan tongue both knew, "You told me that the village was safe."

"It was," Garon replied. "I had no way of knowing Alin would be murdered. If you had left right after I gave you my report, none of this would have happened."

"Do not make excuses," Chamest replied angrily. "If that guard had not cut me down, I would be dead now. Your report would have never reached Melwydd, and Jelena would not know to meet you."

Chuckling, Garon responded, "You think the guard just tossed away his fear like so much sand and selflessly rescued you? No! Drase forced him to."

Chamest lost his fierce expression, and asked, "Drase? The one with the mind-magery?"

Garon nodded. "I told you he would prove useful."

"Good, then. I forgive your indiscretion." Chamest smiled grimly.

"My indiscretion?" she scoffed. "Who was it that once challenged the swordmaster to a duel on a lousy bet?"

Chamest laughed, as though forgetting his recent travail, and replied, "That is true. But even then I did not come as close to death as I did today... and we are no longer in Melwydd, Garon."

"Thank the gods for that! The only excitement I had there was when the Forsaken came raiding in the summer."

"You are just the same as you always were: violent and bloodthirsty. So, is there anything else you want to add to the report?"

"Tell them to keep an eye on Kinsvale," Garon replied. "Right now it is no danger, but if Anngin decides to campaign against Melwydd they might claim and fortify it. Kinsvale is a strategic point: it is right on the highway, and any supplies would have to pass through it on the way to an army."

"It lies too far away from Melwydd to be a problem, even though Kinsvale is technically within our domain. To capture it and maintain a garrison there would be too costly. I will tell the council your advice, though... Garon?"


"Are you sure you would not rather return to Melwydd? Talinya is lost. There is little you can do to dislodge Anngin and the Ohlrethans, even from Othos."

"Probably not. But I will be damned if I stop trying."

Chamest nodded, and turned to leave, following the trail westward. Garon called after him, "Wait! Your horse and belongings are still in Kinsvale. Do you not need them?"

He turned back. "No. I still have a knife in my boot, and that is more than I need to reach the nearest outpost."

Garon had to admit to herself that Chamest could easily survive in the forest with only a knife. To attain the status of scout he had been required to live in the forest without weapons, clothing, or any other outside aid for several weeks. Garon's own training had not been in scouting, but even she could survive in the wilderness with enough resources. "Until we meet again," she called out in farewell.

"Very well. Just remember to pick a safer place next time." Chamest resumed walking.

Garon left along the path, taking the opposite direction from the scout. She needed to return to Kinsvale and prepare for departure, so that she, Torrel and Drase could leave as early as possible tomorrow.

Gabri left Lora'kel's presence elatedly, eager to carry out his new mission. Three deaths in one day! He had never been this lucky before.

He prided himself on being a complex person, certainly far beyond the level of all the simpletons living in this town. What other kind of person was capable of savoring the sweet pleasure that came from death?

Nothing filled Gabri with as much joy as killing. Farming certainly did not suffice. Before coming to Kinsvale Gabri had sated his lust for blood by torturing cats, rodents, and the occasional dog, but this town was nearly devoid of animal life, apart from the livestock and mounts. He would be lucky to find a single rat in a week of searching.

Fortunately for him, there had been Tolbert. That man knew a killer when he saw one, and had soon shown Gabri that murdering human beings was far more satisfying than killing animals. His first target had been a visitor to Kinsvale. Gabri did not know why Tolbert had wanted him dead, nor did he care. Likewise with the next victim.

Gabri was large for his age, as strong as a full-grown man, and had needed that strength to kill those first two. The first had awoken at an inconvenient time, and tried to resist, so Gabri had been forced to strangle him rather than using his preferred method, but the second had succumbed without struggle to Gabri's dagger. After killing each he had thrown their bodies into the river, with Kinsvale none the wiser. And Alin's death had been even easier, despite having to kill the maid as well, for the townsfolk had predictably blamed the foreigner for the murders.

But then the prisoner had escaped. No matter. The foreigner would not be back, and the idiots probably still thought him the murderer. Right now Gabri needed to carry out his current mission, and to do that he needed to find Drase.

He ran towards the gallows, where most of the villagers had been. It was the most likely place for Drase to be. Sure enough, as Gabri cleared the last of the houses he saw a ragged figure moving north. Gabri could tell it was Drase by the boy's brown hair. He waited until he was certain that Drase was leaving the village, then followed at a safe distance.

When they entered the cultivated fields, Gabri moved closer to the river. Here, upstream of the bridge, the ground to either side of the river was uneven with the ground further in, for the river flowed at a lower elevation than the surrounding fields. Gabri walked in this depression, able to see Drase and still hide if the boy turned around.

Gabri continued prowling in this manner for over an hour, the last of the village's fields eventually falling far behind him. That suited Gabri perfectly: the farther away from the village, the less likely the body would ever be found.

Nonetheless, he had never traveled this far upriver before, and the area was becoming steadily rockier. Ahead, the depression narrowed until the river flowed between two low walls of stone, and Gabri was forced to leave the river's edge. The distance between him and Drase had dwindled, thanks to the rougher ground, and they were now just a stone's throw apart from each other. Gabri was almost ready to make his move.

Drase suddenly veered towards the river, and the rockier ground there. He walked behind an outcropping of stone and was lost to Gabri's sight. Gabri cursed, and ran in that direction. He knew he could run faster than the other boy, but only if he could find him.

Gabri rounded the outcropping, then saw that Drase had stopped, and was now sitting on a stone next to the river. Below him was a short waterfall, with rapids further down. Drase sat with his back toward Gabri, apparently unaware of the pursuit. Gabri knew he had to approach quietly; from here, the other boy could easily escape over the rocks above the waterfall, and Gabri doubted he could follow.

Drawing his dagger from within his tunic, Gabri inched forward as quietly as he could. Nevertheless, he had barely covered half the distance when Drase jumped up and turned around, seeing Gabri. Gabri was certain he had made no noise... maybe his target did have powers of some sort.

Well, it wouldn't help him. Gabri again broke into a run, hoping his victim would react slowly. Drase's eyes saw the dagger in Gabri's hand, and then he, too, was running, but the distance between them was dangerously small.

As expected, Drase fled across the river. He jumped nimbly from rock to rock, staying well above the rapid current, until there were no more stones; then, he tottered hastily over a moss-covered platform ankle-deep with rapidly flowing water. Gabri followed with far less agility, trying not to think of the cataracts a short distance downriver.

Then Drase stumbled, his foot caught on an irregular projection, and lost his balance completely. Gabri followed exultantly, but clumsily. He too began to slide over the moss-covered stone, and crashed into Drase, who was still struggling to his feet.

The collision stunned both boys, but Gabri kept his dagger in hand, and was soon scrambling towards Drase once again. His victim scurried away, only to be confronted with a channel of deep water, too fast to swim across. Gabri had Drase cornered.

Gabri stood, shakily, and walked slowly to Drase. Drase waited until Gabri was close, and then kicked at his legs, causing Gabri to slip and fall again. His victim tried to dash past, but Gabri caught Drase's ankle and pulled him down.

"Damn you, you murderer!" Drase shouted as Gabri hauled himself within striking distance. "You killed Alin, and now --" Gabri did not wait to hear Drase out, but let go of the ankle and stabbed downwards with his knife. His target barely squirmed out of the way.

Drase kicked frantically, but could not dislodge his attacker. Then, as the dagger flashed downward again, he grabbed Gabri's arm with both hands and tried to force it back. With his free hand Gabri punched Drase in the stomach, but the boy held on tenaciously. They struggled in this manner for several moments, with Gabri slowly gaining the advantage. When the dagger was nearly at Drase's throat the boy twisted sideways, kicking Gabri in the knee.

Gabri fell heavily, and the blade was wrenched out of his hand. He recovered only to see Drase on his feet, with the dagger in his own hand. Snarling, Gabri stood, wondering how the situation had gotten so out of hand. Drase once more had his back to deeper water. If Gabri could knock him in, the boy would be swept over the waterfall's edge.

He lunged, and Drase slashed with the dagger. It caught Gabri in the side, but he closed and grappled with Drase, both falling headlong into the current. Gabri managed to grip an underwater projection before being swept away, but he could not see whether Drase had gone over or not.

Slowly, Gabri pulled himself back to the shallower platform, fearing that his injury would prove fatal. It was nearly unbearable, and all he could do for a good time was lay with the water swirling about his face and pant hoarsely. Eventually he sat up to examine his wound, and found it to be less grievous than it felt. Drase had cut only an inch deep, several more long, but it was jagged and wide because of the blade's crudeness. The murky river water did seem to be aggravating the injury, though.

Finally feeling well enough for activity, Gabri stood and looked around for Drase, but did not see him. The boy had been carried away along with the dagger, and was certainly dead by now. Gabri struggled to a higher rock and looked out over the cataracts, but saw no body. Too weary to investigate further, Gabri left the way he had come, angry that he had been unable to enjoy this death.

At that moment Lohni sat in the warehouse, weaving, even though today was the day for worship. There had been much excitement earlier, beginning during the service, but she had been unable to follow the occurrences. First a man was being executed, then he had escaped; now, she had heard that someone was dead. Lohni had retreated to the familiar haven of looms and spinning wheels, preferring the reassuring monotony of such work to the chaos without. She reflected on this peacefully as she sat working.

No I don't! This isn't me...

The rhythm of the shuttle faltered as the strange thought flashed through Lohni's mind. Now where had that come from?

I hate this.

She pushed the thought away viciously. She was Ohlrethan! There was no room in Lohni's mind for such blasphemy. She knew her place in life.

Nervously, she resumed her weaving. How could she possibly hate this life? It was dull, aye, but fulfilling. Lohni was leading a productive life, though she was not yet an adult. She wove cloth, and that cloth was sold in the east, by Tolbert. Now, Lohni started to wonder why she was doing this work for a man who was neither kin nor nobility. He was just a merchant. Certainly by working she was following the will of Ohlreth, but was she doing it for the right person? These thoughts disturbed her, but not as much as the earlier ones had. Those had been horribly intrusive, as if forcing their way into her mind.

Her worries passed quietly by. Maybe Tolbert was not the best person to work for, but he did provide the villagers with all they needed.

Except for choice. Except for any alternative.

Lohni stopped immediately. What was happening to her mind?

How can I live like this? I hate weaving!

No I don't, she responded quietly, but despondently. She stood and stumbled away from the loom, but stopped as a figure darkened the doorway.

"Lohni? Is that you?" a boy asked. Lohni recognized Shona, and made a determined effort not to reveal the chaos that had entered her mind.

"Yes, it's me, Shona. What are you doing here?" she managed to ask.

"I might ask the same of you," he replied glibly, entering the warehouse.

She managed a weak smile. I ought to treat him well; after all, he is Tolbert's son, Lohni thought.

And I wouldn't want to get Tolbert angry...

"Are you sure you're all right? You don't look well. Is it the murders?"

"Oh, that's such a horrible thing," she began in her usual empty-headed way. "But I don't --"

I didn't used to be like this!

Lohni sat down hard, sobbing, for she had suddenly been filled with a dark loathing for her current state. Images flashed through her mind of a bright, cheerful girl who had delighted in learning new things: her, or at least the way she used to be. What a stupid, annoying person she was now! Shona rushed to Lohni's side, asking what was wrong.

Turning to face him, Lohni asked, "Was I -- was I different when I was younger? I can't remember..."

They changed me. Lora'kel changed me, Tolbert changed me, this whole town changed me...

Shona nodded mutely, perplexed. She continued, "Was I better then?"

"What do you mean?" he asked, confused and worried.

"Do you think I was a better person? Smarter? Happier, kinder? Did I go wrong somewhere?"

The boy remained silent, indecision clearly written on his face. Lohni knew what that meant. Shona preferred the earlier Lohni, the one she could remember only vaguely, but didn't want to say as much.

Crying, she jumped to her feet and fled the warehouse. Shona tried to grab her sleeve as she passed, but he reacted too slowly. Lohni ran east along the old highway, hearing Shona in pursuit, shouting for her to stop, but the fact did not register in her anguished mind.

I hate this place, and I hate myself. Why am I this way?

She reached the town square, and sprinted across it towards the bridge, leaving a trail of surprised townsfolk in her wake. She climbed to the apex of the bridge itself, and lifted herself over the old stone railing. A few people stood nearby, but they were too astounded to react.

At some point Kinsvale had ruined Lohni's life, and she had not even noticed. Her life ever since had been an illusion.

Now, that illusion would come to an end.

Shona was just a little too late. He mounted the bridge just as Lohni threw herself into the river. It was not as fast here as it was upstream, but the current was still enough to tax even a good swimmer. As townsfolk shouted and pointed wildly, Shona hurled himself into the river after her.

He plunged in deep. It might have been his imagination, but Shona thought he felt his hand brush against skin: Lohni, drifting somewhere below the surface. Shona tried to grasp her but failed, and could only kick towards the surface. He reached it just in time to be pulled under again by the current. Then, though he still struggled madly, he was only aware of the pain in his lungs and the turbulence of the water.

After an interminable time he felt rough hands dragging him onto the bank, then forcing the water out of his lungs. When he had recovered somewhat, Shona gasped out a single word at the men he saw standing above him. "Lohni?"

His rescuers remained silent. Then one shook his head, mournfully. Lohni had not been recovered.

Garon returned to her room at the inn, wondering how she would spend the time remaining before the morrow. Torrel's wagon was readied, while the grain and cotton they had bought from Tolbert was already stored for the trip. Two of their horses were still stabled nearby, so that she had a chance of escaping the town if there was danger. Garon wished that she could leave today, but with Drase gone that option was not possible.

She propped the chair against the door once again, wondering what that maid had been doing last night. Finally she decided Tolbert must have hired her to spy on the supposed guest, or maybe look through her belongings. The man had no subtlety whatsoever, except when it came to killing, though his assassinations were clumsy compared with the intrigue common among the nobility. Gabri had killed Alin with a dagger, in his own house. Anybody could have entered while he was doing so, and one person did. If Chames had not been at hand the villagers might have sought out the true killer, and might even have found him.

However, what Tolbert lacked in subtlety he more than made up for in pure viciousness. By having Gabri murder Alin he had removed any suspicion from himself. Even if the boy had been caught and forced to finger the merchant -- and Garon doubted it would take much forcing -- Tolbert could claim the boy was lying. If Lora'kel supported Tolbert, as the priest had always done in the past, the merchant would probably emerge unscathed.

A doubt entered her mind at this point. Was it possible that Tolbert had not hired the boy to kill Alin? The merchant had only slighter more motivation to do so than Gabri himself, and there was no clear proof of his involvement.

It was the same scenario as Molina's murder by strangulation some eight years ago. Tolbert's grip on Kinsvale had already been strong: fully half of its inhabitants were working for him at that time. The council of elders still possessed some power, then, but with the death of Alin the old way of life had now come to a permanent end. The other six elders had died or left Kinsvale some time ago; again, Garon suspected the hand of Tolbert at play, but could not confirm her guesses.

Garon's father had been the owner and operator of the mill, and well-known for his quick temper. What was not so well-known was that he had been urging the council to limit Tolbert's acquisition of land, and prohibit him from bringing in any more new workers. From what she remembered, the council had been on the verge of making that very decision.

Her father had also been courting Molina, Drase's foster mother, for some time -- Garon's own mother had died birthing a little brother, who did not survive his first week. One day some townsfolk noticed Garon's father leaving Molina's house in a rage, and the next morning Drase had discovered Molina's strangled body. The condition of the body indicated that it had been dead for a few hours at most. Garon had been as light a sleeper then as she was now, and had her father left during the night she would definitely have awoken. Drase, on the other hand, had been woken early in the morning by noises outside his window. He had seen a dim figure running north, away from the mill, but had merely gone back to bed, thinking nothing of the sight.

Because they were children, both Garon's and Drase's pleas had been ignored. Within the day the townsfolk had convicted and executed Garon's father.

Her father had not been rich, but he had kept a good amount saved, which, along with the mill, became her property upon his death. She sold the building to Tolbert for a handful of silver coins, cursing all the while the necessity of trading with the fat merchant. After giving half the money to Drase, she had bought a horse and a large supply of rations with the remainder, keeping her father's saved money unspent. Then she had left.

Much had transpired since then. She had ridden west; foolishly, for although the ancient highway stretched that way, the area was entirely foreign to the eastern lands. Garon rode west for weeks, and, her food long gone, had finally been found by a patrol from Melwydd.

She had grown through adolescence in that strange land, peopled with odd, but hospitable, folk, whose skill in battle was second only to their skill in music and artistry. The former was only a necessity because of constant raiding by a seafaring culture known only as the Forsaken, who came from the south every summer in droves. The Forsaken were a menace to Othos, as well, but the raids to the east were less numerous than those in Melwydd.

Taken in as a servant in a nobleman's house, and allowed the same military training as other Melwyddan children, it had not been long before Garon had discovered her great talent for both swordplay and unarmed combat. She had been transferred to special training as a professional soldier of Melwydd, to the great pride of the family which had 'adopted' her, lowly though she was. She became one of the most promising young warriors Melwydd had ever seen, but her cold mannerisms, so opposed to the voluble nature of most Melwyddans, prevented any closeness between them and her. After the training was completed, she had left for Melwydd's northern ally, Talinya...

...Arriving just in time to witness its defeat by the armies of Anngin, under the general Hant. There she met Torrel, once a captain in Talinya's army, now just a rebel living in desperation, doing what he could to oust the Ohlrethan Annics. Since there was little she could do to help Talinya with the Annic garrisons keeping such tight control over the population, she had resolved to find a way into Othos, where, she knew, a debate was raging among the Ohlrethan clergy as to the possession of Talinya. One faction wanted it to become a province of the Church, and the other wanted it to remain in the power of Anngin, and to then send Anngin to conquer 'other territories'. By that they probably meant Crenyn, north of Anngin, but it could also have meant Melwydd. The current Archpriest, Puttin, was weak and indecisive, and it appeared that the debate would only be settled upon his death.

Garon hoped that she could somehow influence events so as to free Talinya. Perhaps she could make Anngin hostile to the domination of the Ohlrethan Church, if such was possible. She was not well versed in intrigue, but Torrel was. With him stationed in the outer city, and the powers of Drase to help, she stood some chance of succeeding. Even if that was not to be, she would be delighted to harm the Ohlrethans in any way, oppressive bigots that she knew them to be.

Gradually Garon's thoughts returned to Tolbert. How could she prove him guilty of the murders? Eventually, Garon concluded it was impossible. The only way would be to capture the man himself, or Gabri, and force one to confess, but she didn't want to chance the villagers' wrath. There was nothing Garon could do; besides, Kinsvale deserved what it got for putting itself under Tolbert's power.

Her pondering completed, Garon then regarded the books on the shelf above her bed. There was the Book of Virtues, but even in a better mood she would find that volume exasperating. There were also a few of the Books of Wisdom -- three, four, and seven, to be precise. Those were collections of proverbs and fables designed to strengthen the teachings of Ohlreth. Finally there was the Book of Laws, a straightfoward collection of dictums over every aspect of life, from sex to the eating of food. It was the most disgusting by far, but most Ohlrethan countries modeled their laws after its dictates. Garon opened the Book to somewhere in the middle and began to read.

As luck would have it, she was in the section pertaining to the activities of women. Garon shoved aside her revulsion and read several pages. A few of the laws were common sense, and some were reasonable in a religious context, but most were downright absurd. For instance, full-grown women were prohibited from wearing their hair loose, or longer than waist-length, or to keep it cut shorter than shoulder-length. Breeches were allowed, but only of a brown or grey color, and only accompanied by boots. Hats were completely proscribed, as was staying awake later than midnight. When Garon got to the section on the 'proper conduct of women during courtship' she gave up in disgust, and turned to a different section.

It's a wonder Ohlrethan women don't go insane from all these restrictions, thought Garon. Then again, the women in Kinsvale obeyed few of the more arbitrary rules, preferring to dress and act as the situation dictated. Maybe it was the same way in Othos, with exact conformity to the laws attempted only by the devout.

Not that she would bother with those idiotic laws. With Talinya was under Ohlrethan dominion, Garon had pretended to be a young man, with great success. She lacked prominent breasts or especially feminine features, and she was more muscular than most men. With the right clothing, hairstyle, and appropriately altered voice and mannerisms, Garon would appear masculine enough to fool most observers. It would be tough, maintaining such a ruse, but it had worked in Talinya, and so should work just as well among the Othoans, to whom the concept of a woman disguised as a man would be almost inconceivable.

Garon found the section of laws pertaining specifically to men. It was only half as long as the other section, of course. As every pious Ohlrethan knew, Ohlreth was male, thus making men closer to Him than women. Garon regarded that as complete drivel. What need would a god have of gender? Unlike Ohlreth, all the gods of Melwydd were genderless.

She discovered that the rules for men were every bit as unreasonable as the womens', although less restrictive when it came to money and profession. Men were not allowed to grow beards, for one thing -- that would give Garon a good excuse for her bare chin. They were prohibited from wearing earrings, sandals, red gloves, and a host of other things she didn't see herself wearing anyway. Strangest of all, men were prohibited from using the privy during certain hours of the day which were designated as holy... not that she would risk being seen doing that at any time of the day. Living disguised as a man required many inconveniences.

Gradually Garon became aware of a dull pain in her left leg, hardly worth notice. She ignored it and continued reading the Book of Laws, remembering the more important rules for use later on. The pain grew until it felt like she had recently been kicked in the shin. Putting aside the book, Garon stood and paced around, trying to loosen up the muscles in that leg, but to no avail.

Returning to the bed, Garon coaxed her body to relax quickly, despite the pain, this skill being one of perks of a lifetime of military training. After several minutes of repose, a thought broke in on her mind, not obtrusive, yet unmistakably foreign: Garon... I need help.

She jerked upright, a glimmer of the truth already present her mind. Presumably Drase's ability included sending distant messages, but this was so strange... it wasn't like a voice within the mind, but an actual thought.

Where are you, Drase? Garon thought, trying her best to make the thought strong and clear. After a moment a reply came: At the waterfall, to the north.

Garon needed no more information. She removed the chair from under the doorknob and set off down the hall at a run. She burst out of the barracks just in time to see a girl running frantically towards the bridge, followed by a boy who could be Shona. She ignored the two, intent upon her own mission.

Running north, Garon was able to maintain an erratic dialogue with Drase. Taking this to be a sign that he was in no immediate danger, she slowed to a walk, conserving her energy. Eventually she learned that Drase was on the east bank, halfway through the worst cataracts, and that Gabri had been responsible for his injury. Garon kept a watch for the murderer, but caught no sight of him. Perhaps he was returning to Kinsvale through the forest.

Once more she silently cursed the sadistic boy who had disrupted so many of her plans. First his actions had drawn Chames into the matter, and now Gabri had struck directly at Drase. For all Garon knew, he would try to kill her next.

I'd like to see him try, she thought grimly. He'll get a lot more trouble than he bet on. She visualized Gabri, a mere brute, trying to fight her, a trained warrior, and vague amusement at the idea came from Drase, still present in her mind. His injuries could not be that bad, then, if he was capable of humor in his situation.

Eventually Garon arrived at the rougher section of the river, and, guided by Drase, climbed to the top of the rapids and crossed to the other shore. From there she could not see the boy, so she made her way down the shore, searching. Finally she found him, about a third of the way down the cataracts, in a relatively clear stretch, half out of the water.

Drase's condition was truly pitiful. His entire body was bruised and scratched -- though some of those bruises were from Gabri's earlier attack, no doubt -- and his clothes had been torn in many places. He was desperately clinging to a rock, and that was the only thing keeping him from being swept further downriver. Moreover, being in the water so long had left him shivering, bitterly cold despite the midday sun's warmth. Nevertheless, he managed a weak smile upon seeing her approach.

"Damn, you've really gotten yourself in trouble this time, haven't you?" said Garon, because they were separated by the high, steep walls of the cataract. Drase did not reply, of course, as he was still conserving his energy. Garon sighed and began to climb down the short, rocky cliff.

At the bottom, there was very little room to stand. She ended up with one foot on a jutting rock in the wall and another on the nearby rock to which Drase was clinging.

"I'm going to pull you up by the arms, Drase, and then you can cling to my back while I climb back up. Can you do that?" she asked, assuming that something had happened to Drase that prevented him from being able to climb on his own.

"Yes," Drase replied through chattering teeth. "I think my leg is broken, though. The left one."

That explained the odd pain. Bracing herself firmly, Garon grabbed Drase's arms and began to pull him out of the water. The boy gasped in pain as his legs dragged against the rock, and when Garon had pulled him almost all the way out, she saw that his leg was indeed bent at an unnatural angle, although the bone had not pierced through the skin. With her aid, he was able to stand, in a manner, on the rock.

Garon turned around awkwardly, still supporting Drase, so that he could cling to her back. He did so, wrapping his arms over her shoulders and around her neck, though too low to actually choke her. Belatedly Garon realized that her sword was still strapped to her back, but there was nothing she could do about that now. "Are you sure you can carry me?" Drase asked uncertainly.

"Maybe I couldn't carry a grown man up that wall," replied Garon, "But you're yet a boy, and a thin one at that. I've had to do worse." So saying, she began to climb, blessing whatever god might be listening that the wall over the river was broken as it was, riddled with fissures and small ledges. Even so, she climbed hesitantly, testing each hand- and foothold thoroughly before committing weight to it, and so never came near to falling. Drase whimpered with pain each time he was jarred, or when his broken leg was struck, but he endured the climb with surprising fortitude. Finally Garon gained the top, and set Drase down carefully before taking a much-needed rest.

"Thank you, Garon," Drase said quietly. "I'm in your debt."

She snorted disdainfully. "Debts are for those who can't be trusted to help others, not even friends," she replied. "Consider this rescue a gift, or, if you must, repayment for helping out Chames."

Thinking of Drase's wounded leg, Garon decided it needed a splint, but there was no loose wood handy. Only her sword was at all suitable, so she decided to use that and forego its protection for the time being. Unstrapping the sword, but keeping it sheathed, she moved to where Drase lay, and cautioned, "This is going to hurt."

"I know," he replied.

Nodding grimly, Garon grabbed his wounded leg, and, before Drase could react, pulled the bone back into place with an audible snap. The boy screamed in pain, but kept his leg from jerking wildly. The leg was still not well-set, so Garon pulled again, less harshly this time, but Drase screamed again. It was now straight enough to receive the splint... not a perfect job, for he would still feel his injury long after the bone had healed, but magic could always fix that. Garon laid the sheathed sword against the leg, and, using the scabbard's own straps, tied it there.

After giving Drase, and herself, more time to rest, Garon motioned him up. "You can lean on me and hop on your good foot," she told him, pulling him up. "It'll take awhile to get back to Kinsvale, but we'll manage it."

"Thanks." Drase accepted the support and the two moved south, Drase staying mainly on his right leg, though he occasionally used the other for balance. The rough ground proved problematic, but Garon solved this by taking easier paths down, though they were inevitably the longest. Even so they occasionally came to an abrupt step or break, and then Garon would lift Drase bodily over the hurdle, thankful all the while for the strength her military training had provided.

The sun was lowering fast in the sky, but the two were still far from Kinsvale. Gabri was no doubt ahead of them... but she could deal with that later, if it became necessary. They only had to survive until tomorrow before they could leave.

Many hours had passed since the departure of Gabri, and Lora'kel regretted his decision. Drase was a killer, certainly, but he had lived near the village without trouble. Maybe, if Lora'kel had let matters lie, Drase would have gone back to his reclusive lifestyle, doing no further harm. But would it have been wise to leave such a dangerous person free and able to commit further murders?

Damn, why couldn't I have thought this over before sending Gabri? Lora'kel mused anxiously, pacing in front of the stone altar. The villagers could easily have organized some kind of trap to capture Drase, so that he could be tried and hanged fairly. That's my problem... I never think before making a major decision.

Distressed, Lora'kel knelt to pray to Ohlreth. Gabri was probably dead already, victim to the priest's haste and Drase's mind-magic. Lora'kel could not bring himself to regret Gabri's possible death, for the boy had been far too eager to carry out the priest's will. In any case, Lora'kel would soon be forced to use the Portal once again.

Ohlreth, hear my plea, he began. Evil besets me on all sides, and I lack the ability to endure. Please lend me strength in this time of hardship, so that I may better carry out Your will, and...

Lora'kel heard footsteps in the aisle behind him. He turned, and saw Gabri.

"You're alive!" he gasped. "So... is Drase...?"

Gabri nodded grimly. He lacked his former unnatural glee, and Lora'kel could see why: the boy was bandaged about his midriff. The fight must not have been as easy as expected.

"Thank you," Lora'kel replied, exhausted. The deed was done, there was no revoking it. He would have to live with his guilt. "The will of Ohlreth is done. Please leave me now, and tell none of what you did."

The boy's visage hardened, and he stepped forward. Lora'kel might have been intimidated had he not held the Ninth Circle; as it was, he merely leaned against the altar and stared dazedly.

"Is that all?" Gabri demanded. "What about payment?"

Lora'kel snarled, all the guilt and uncertainty of the past day resolving itself into a sudden hatred for Gabri, Drase, and everyone else who tried to have their way in the world by treachery and evil. "Payment? You ask me for payment? You just killed a mere child! Drase was a menace to this village, yes. What you did was probably necessary. But you want to be paid for the evil you have done? You --" Lora'kel sputtered into silence, unable to fully voice the outrage he felt at Gabri. His earlier estimation had been correct. The boy was a bloodthirsty savage, killing for his own satisfaction rather than for Ohlreth.

Sneering, Gabri stepped forward again. He was now several paces from Lora'kel. "You think I did it for free? I'm not a cheap zealot who kills any person he decides Ohlreth doesn't like. Not even Tolbert has ever tried to cheat me like this!" He suddenly hurled himself at Lora'kel, slamming the priest against the altar.

Lora'kel's mind had gone blank with shock. What did Gabri mean about Tolbert? With the discipline of a high-ranking mage, Lora'kel summoned magical energy to himself, using it to violently push Gabri away. The boy stumbled a good ten feet back, then stopped to reassess Lora'kel. Evidently he still did not realize that the priest was also a mage.

Dispassionate, Lora'kel confronted the monster. He could not bring himself to summon any more anger, for the day's turmoil had left him thoroughly drained. But he would deal with Gabri as the creature deserved. "Tolbert has paid you to kill people?" he asked, without inflection.

Gabri laughed, and edged forward once more. Lora'kel gathered more energy about himself, ready to blast the boy if he dared to attack. "Of course!" Gabri replied. "You know that. Tolbert pays, I kill. He was even fair enough to throw in some extra gold since that maid walked in on --"

He stopped talking, noticing the stricken expression on Lora'kel's face. Then Gabri began to laugh. "What a fool...! You didn't know. You thought I offered to kill Drase out of the goodness of my heart!" Then he attacked again.

A ragged scream burst out of Gabri as the uncontrolled blast of magic flowed around him, some of it converting into heat. He reeled back, skin blistered. Lora'kel had thought himself emotionally exhausted, but he now discovered reservoirs of anger and hatred of unimagined fierceness. Somewhere deep inside Lora'kel knew the anger was founded on guilt and self-disgust, from the implications of the boy's words, but he did not allow himself to think of that. There was a murderer to be dealt with.

Establishing more control over his magic, Lora'kel lifted the whimpering boy into the air, a stray wisp of energy slamming shut the doors of the temple. The priest desired no intervention from the villagers. He prepared to blast Gabri into nothing but heat and ashes...

And found he could not. Lora'kel was a true Ohlrethan priest. He could bring himself to order a death, and feel much guilt afterwards, but he could not bring himself to actually kill the helpless boy, evil though Gabri was.

Waiting until Gabri had recovered enough to do more than sob fearfully, Lora'kel asked him, "How long has this been going on? How long have you been killing people?"

Gabri remained quiet, looking at the floor so far below. Then he managed to whisper, "You shouldn't talk. Who was it who ordered me to...?"

Lora'kel's anger ascended to new heights, briefly overcoming his self-discipline. Lora'kel constricted the magical energy around Gabri's forearm, snapping it in two places. Gabri screamed, but the priest was prepared. No sound would get past the spell of silence laid on the temple.

"I'm going to accuse you and Tolbert before the villagers," Lora'kel snarled. "Then they will hang you, and that fat merchant will get his due as well." The priest walked past Gabri toward the temple door, towing the floating boy along.

Halfway there, Lora'kel heard Gabri whimper, "You... you can't do this."

"Why not?" the priest snapped, not bothering to turn. He contemplated crushing Gabri's other arm, but contented himself with saying, "I'll be damned if I let another injustice go by! You're a cold-hearted killer, and you deserve to die."

"And you don't?"

Lora'kel froze. He knew perfectly well what Gabri meant... for it was he who had ordered Drase's death. Gabri had been a mere tool. "That changes nothing. You are evil, your soul irrevocably damned. I can only hope Fides treats you well."

More bravely, Gabri continued, "If you turn me in, you'll have to admit your own evil. You'll die along with me."

The priest did not even pause, this time. "I sent you against Drase to preserve my reputation, though there were some villagers who knew the foreigner was not the killer. I won't allow myself to succumb to greed again. If I am condemned along with you, I will accept my punishment."

"But... if they know your virtue is to be doubted, why would they believe you when you accuse Tolbert? You two lead the village. The town won't kill you both. And I won't give him away, it'll be your word against his, and you already stained by your own honesty."

Enraged, Lora'kel threw Gabri to the floor. At that moment the temple doors burst open and a panicked townsman ran in. Ignoring the prostrate Gabri, he said in a rush, "Priest! There's something you have to know. At the bridge...!"

Gabri ran for the door, and was outside before Lora'kel could resume his casting. The priest quickly discarded the idea of attacking with magic again, for there were villagers around that could get hurt. Instead, he shouted at the man who had entered, "Catch him! He must not escape!" The confused villager obeyed, chasing the wounded Gabri.

Lora'kel began to follow, but suddenly his denied guilt resurfaced. The spell of silence around the temple collapsed as Lora'kel sagged onto a bench.

I killed Drase! he wailed inwardly. Gabri was right. I'm as much of a murderer as he is. Drase was rescuing the foreigner out of kindness, not guilt, then I ordered him to be killed... the tirade of self-hatred continued, but Lora'kel denied himself the tears that might alleviate some of the sorrow. He deserved the pain.

After a few minutes, several more villagers rushed into the temple, as distraught as the last who had entered. Before Lora'kel could send them away, one hoarsely shouted, "Ohlreth save us! Lohni is dead. She threw herself off the bridge in a fit of madness, and Shona followed her. Neither has been pulled out yet. None know why, they just saw Lohni running as if she had seen a demon, and then..."

No one understood why Lora'kel collapsed off the bench, sobs wracking his body as he cried for his shame and his guilt and all the evils he had caused. But they did their best to comfort him.

They left him crying on the bank, that boy who had tried to rescue Lohni. The villagers knew he would live, and so had left him in order to search for the girl's body downstream. Shona waited until his exhausted muscles could bear the strain, then lifted his body up, gazing about himself with tear-blurred vision. He stood near the edge of town, the bridge from which he had hurled himself hidden by buildings to the north. A few villagers rushed back and forth, accomplishing nothing, all the while ignoring Shona. He began to walk back to the bridge, knowing that Lohni's body would probably never be found.

Why wasn't I faster? he asked himself. Why didn't I try to do something when Lohni started acting strange? It's all my fault! Why... He forcefully shut out this line of reasoning. It would do no good, and he could not stand the pain of his self-interrogation. Instead he focused his mind onto a single question: What had caused Lohni's suicide? She had seemed shaken, but sane, then she had broken into tears. Was it the murders? No, Lohni may have been emotional, but not that emotional. And why the questions about the way she had been as a young child? Shona's memory was vague, but he knew there had been a drastic, abrupt change at some point. What had reminded her of that change, and why had she taken it so seriously?

Shona could think of no answer. Instead he thought about Gabri, whom Drase had accused of being the murderer of Alin and his servant. Obviously Gabri had no connection with Lohni's madness. But something had to be done about him, about the murders. As it was now, Gabri would escape punishment unless Drase spoke up, and Shona didn't think that he would.

Still, what proof was there, other than Drase's claim? Certainly it could be proven that the foreigner, whoever he was, didn't kill Alin, but Gabri's activities at that time were unaccounted for. He had been absent from the Ohlrethan service, but the same could be said of others. Before that, Shona had only seen him briefly, exchanging a few words with Tolbert.

He briefly imagined what Drase would say about that exchange. Though his friend tried to conceal it, Shona knew Drase believed Tolbert was somehow responsible for his foster mother's death. That was an absurd notion, of course, but Shona supposed the boy needed some way to alleviate the pain of his homelessness.

Shona's soul felt numb. He had nearly died, trying to save a girl who had been swept downstream anyway. But the grief seemed to have disappeared, leaving in its place an odd sort of apathy. Shona was soaked, his clothing torn, but he felt neither sorrow nor any other emotion. He merely stumbled through Kinsvale until he reached his own house, then collapsed on a couch inside, wanting only to sleep.

Tolbert was there. Shona had not noticed his father until now: not hard, because his father did not have much presence. Tolbert cleared his throat loudly, and Shona met his gaze.

"There's something I need you to do, son," Tolbert began, but Shona cut him off. Still he felt no anger, or sorrow, just an empty desperation.

"Damnit, I almost drowned, father!" he exclaimed.

"What? How did that happen?" Tolbert rose from his chair, to stand looming over Shona.

"Lohni threw herself into the river. I jumped in after her," Shona replied succinctly. "They only managed to pull me out."

"How could you do that? You know how dangerous that river is! If...!"

Shona was wrong. He did still have the capacity for anger. Surging up from the coach, Shona shouted, "I knew that! Did you think I went after Lohni to have a swim? No, I was trying to save her. And I failed. Can't you see that?"

"Just be glad you're alive," his father mumbled, slightly intimidated. "Do you need time to rest?"

"No, I'm fine," Shona responded, numb again. What kind of anger came and went with such abruptness?

Tolbert sighed, and continued, "There's still an errand I need you to do for me. Gabri..."

Shona stiffened. "What about Gabri?" he asked suspiciously.

"Awhile ago I saw him leaving the temple at a run," his father replied. "I need you to find Gabri, and tell him to come see me. It's important."

"Why?" Shona asked vehemently. The anger was back, like a sudden typhoon. It had flooded Shona's mind with irrationality, and now he even suspected his father of murder.

"That doesn't matter. Just find him," Tolbert said, then began to turn away.

"I will not!" Shona shouted, nearly screaming. He almost let Gabri's crime slip from his lips, but some foolish caution held him back; because, if Tolbert actually was guilty in some way...

The fat man turned back, and croaked at his son, "I am your father. I don't care if you almost drowned. That was your own foolishness. Do what I say!"


Tolbert struck Shona. The blow had nearly no force, but Shona was so surprised that he fell back onto the couch. The two gazed at each other, slowly, and Shona realized that he now hated his father.

He also realized that he had never, in truth, loved the man. Shona's mother had always remained aloof from him, but at least she could claim fragile health; in any case, she was just a figurehead in his life, present but effecting no change. Tolbert himself had rarely shown Shona any kindness. Shona had been gifted with luxury and pampered living, but it was the servants who had raised him, and not even they had done an especially good job of it. Shona was, in his own way, just as much of an orphan as Drase, who had at least been cared for by an actual mother during the early years of his life.

However, unlike Shona's mother, Tolbert did not remain aloof from Shona's life. He was being trained as his father's replacement, and offered no alternative. For some reason, Tolbert saw him as a tool. An important tool, but a tool nonetheless.

Shona looked up at his father, and saw the usual piggish guise: dark blue eyes, set deep within a round face, large upturned nose, bags of fat wherever he looked. Short black hair covered the man's head like dark, fuzzy grass. Physically, nothing could be said of Tolbert other than that the man was fat. Nothing that could be called a muscle was to be seen: he was just a round, walking mass. Tolbert wore voluminous purple overshirts, and loose trousers which somewhat negated the man's size without seeming to ever get in the way. And, he was short. Shona realized with a sense of astonishment that he himself was as tall as, or taller than, his father.

Here was the man who consistently smothered Shona's dreams. The boy wanted to be a mage, learned and wise, capable of performing feats of wonder. One low-rank travelling mage had even thought he had an aptitude for it. However, Tolbert intended his son to replace him as head of the complex mercantile system called Kinsvale.

Here also was the man who held an entire town in absolute thralldom, if Drase was to be believed. Each year Tolbert went east to hire more of the destitute masses to people his farms, on the condition that they faithfully spend their lives in his service -- and there were plenty of highly-paid overseers to ensure the faith was kept. Meanwhile, the herds raised and the crops cultivated in this fertile river valley brought Tolbert a vast profit every year, enough for him to expand the town even more...

Here also was, quite possibly, the man who had ordered Alin's death. Why else would he be so interested in the fate of Gabri? However, Shona still kept enough faith in his father to not contemplate that thought. If true, then there was no chance of Gabri being punished, and even if not, revealing the murderer would probably still be futile.

Shona nodded, stood, and left his mansion. Tolbert, satisfied at his son's seeming obeisance, returned to his own chair. But Shona was not leaving to look for Gabri. He was going to find Drase and Garon.

As he walked towards the barracks and the inn -- the most likely place to find them, he decided -- the hatred that had possessed Shona slowly faded, replaced briefly by the old grief, then, once again, mere numbness. Contempt for his father still remained, but he also felt an Ohlrethan sense of responsibility towards Tolbert. Still, not even his Ohlrethan upbringing was enough to stop Shona from taking his life into his own hands now.

He entered the inn through the side door, seeing the row of doors on either side of him. Those that constituted the inn held plaques proclaiming them as such. Shona rapped on each in turn, but got no response. He then sat on the floor, deciding here was the best place to wait. His friends would not be leaving until tomorrow, after all.

At some point Shona fell asleep. After some time -- maybe an hour, maybe more -- he heard noise outside, and before he could stand up Garon had pulled open the side door. Drase was leaning heavily on her, and, before Shona's startled eyes, she lifted Drase up the steps and set him down gently inside before herself entering and then closing the door.

"Why are you here?" she asked. Shona opened his mouth to answer, but then he saw Drase's condition. An entirely new set of bruises and scrapes overlaid his previous wounds, and a broken leg had been crudely splinted with Garon's own sword.

"What in all the hells happened to you?" exclaimed Drase, barely ahead of Shona.

Shona looked at himself, only now realizing how bedraggled he looked. His clothes and hair were still damp, and the entire set of clothing had been shredded beyond repair. The dye was even starting to run, in some places. "I... fell in the river. I'll tell you more later. But look at yourself!"

Drase smiled ruefully despite his obvious pain, and was about to reply, when Garon interjected, "Not now. Drase needs to rest, and his leg needs a better splint." She glanced quizzically at Shona. "Go find a plank or something I can use, Shona, while I get Drase into the room."

He, impressed by the woman, obeyed. Shona was still amazed that she was strong enough to lift Drase; then again, his only experience with the other sex had been people like Lohni and his own mother. Maybe women like Garon were more common in other towns.

On the other side of the barracks lay a haphazard pile of wood, variously chopped and sawed, under an extension of the roof. A quick search located two thin planks, both slightly longer than necessary, but smooth and firm. Shona returned to Garon's room with the planks.

Drase was lying on the bed, his face pale and his leg held straight and taut by Garon. The sword had already been untied. Shona silently handed her the wood, and she quickly tied these around Drase's broken leg, then drew his breeches back over the splint. The injured boy seemed to be in pain during the process, but he allowed himself no more reaction than gritted teeth. "Much better," she commented. "A single sword isn't really enough. It takes at least two pieces, on either side of the leg, to make a halfway effective splint. A cast would be even better, of course... but this village hasn't got the right facilities." She turned her gaze to Shona. "So... tell us why you look like a wet mouse who just escaped from a hungry cat, then Drase can tell you about his own escapade."

Shona recounted the story. It was impossible to tell which of the two was more startled by the first-hand account of Lohni's sudden insanity. Toward the end, Shona discovered that tears once more threatened, and he concluded: "...then they got me out, but Lohni is still missing."

"Is there any chance the girl, Lohni, is still alive?" Garon asked. Both Drase and Shona shook their heads, for they knew firsthand how dangerous the river was. "Amazing," Garon continued. She seemed astonished, but not otherwise moved, by the girl's death. "Only magic could do something like that... and I hadn't thought there were any mages in Kinsvale. I suppose there's no way to find out, now."

Then Drase recounted his own story, leaving Shona aghast. Earlier, Gabri's violence had seemed a remote thing, but now it looked much more sinister. Why would that monster attempt three murders in one day? Why, in fact, would he even go after Drase? Shona desperately hoped that his father was not behind all this violence. He felt even more amazed that Drase had been able to use his mind-magic to contact Garon, despite the agony of a broken leg.

"So... is that the only reason you came?" Drase asked. He was still pale, but apparently the pain had subsided.

Shona shook his head. "No... I have something to ask of you."

"Well, go ahead," his friend replied impatiently.

"I'd like to go with you when you leave."

Drase was plainly stunned, but he did not answer. His gaze darted quickly to Garon, so Shona knew the decision rested with her.

She was silent, her face expressionless. After remaining deadlocked for what felt like an hour, Garon suddenly erupted into laughter. Shona just stared at her, feeling that he should be happy, but unable to summon the emotion.

"That'll show the fat bastard!" she chortled. When Shona asked for an explanation, she replied, "I'm perfectly willing to take you: we've got supplies enough. Hells, I'd do it just to annoy that fool you call a father." Shona remained unaffected by the insults to his sire. "He's caused Drase and me so much misery, it's about time he got some in return. But I'd have taken you anyway, you know. You're wanting to be a mage, right? You can help Drase get into Othos. Somebody there can take you in as an apprentice, and we can pretend Drase is your servant."

Shona slowly digested this information. He could finally become a mage, like he had always dreamed! Still, for some reason he did not feel jubilant. Maybe it was due to the price his freedom had exacted.

"Why'd you change your mind?" asked Drase, now smiling.

"...My father... I can't stand him anymore," Shona replied haltingly. "Then, he told me I had to look for Gabri --" he stopped, still unwilling to betray his father's reputation.

Drase and Garon suddenly became very still. After a moment, Garon said, "Your presence requires we change our plans. Tolbert might send out someone to capture you once he discovers you're missing. We leave tonight, before it gets dark. I'm already packed." Drase gave an exaggerated moan. "I know Drase has nothing to bring except some food. What about you, Shona?"

His friend shook his head. There were possessions Shona valued, including several Books of Ohlreth, but they were 'gifts' from his father, and held no sentiment. Better that he leave all trace of his past life behind. "I'm ready to go."

Without another word, Garon once more lifted Drase -- giving Shona more opportunity to be amazed at her strength -- while also retrieving her sword and a small pack, Drase leaning on her shoulder. Then, Shona in front, the three left without further ceremony. As Garon and Drase awkwardly descended the steps, Drase told Shona, "I've got some meat and bread wrapped up in a blanket by the back wall of this building. Could you get it?" Shona nodded, and trotted to receive the bundle.

When he returned, the two had already made significant progress toward the bridge. What few townsfolk remained in the square stared oddly at the couple, but passed without comment. Many strange things had happened today, and they were not too surprised at a bit more oddness.

Catching up, Shona asked, "We're just going to walk? Where's your wagon?"

"About two miles east of the river, in the woods," she replied. "Torrel, my partner, is waiting there. It'll be a tough walk for Drase, but not nearly as bad as it was getting here."

They ascended the bridge with difficulty, and at the top Drase asked to pause for a rest. The location made Shona uneasy, because this was where he had thrown himself into the river, but he could handle the purely psychological effect. Suddenly Drase pointed towards the south. "What's that?" he asked.

Shona looked, and saw of group of men walking upriver, carrying a burden. "I think they found Lohni," he answered.


It soon became clear that the burden was shrouded, though in white rather than black. Maybe they had used up all the black cloth to cover the other dead bodies, Shona thought perversely. Children ran back and forth to the group, and upon asking Shona heard firsthand that Lohni was, indeed, drowned. All three bodies were to be cremated this very night.

Without another word, the three turned away and departed Kinsvale. Not a one of them looked back.

Bodies moved about the sitting priest, but Lora'kel paid them no heed, submerged in his guilt. He had killed three people, mere children. Drase's death, at the hands of Gabri, but on the order of Lora'kel. Lohni, her mind broken and suicidal because of his inept and foolish attempt at magical coercion... and Shona, drawn in by accident.

Each had been killed with good intentions. He had thought that, with the power of the Portal, he could guide the childrens' minds onto a true Ohlrethan path. But that wasn't guidance. It was slavery, and most had responded by periodically reverting to a vicious, violent state, as if all the aggression had merely built up behind the barrier of the spell. None of the children Lora'kel had coerced improved. They merely became unpredictable. All except Lohni, of course, and even then Lora'kel had not liked the effect. Obeying Ohlreth was good, but it didn't require near mindlessness.

Today, Lohni had snapped. Lora'kel should have expected it, but the spell had already taken permanent effect when he had removed it those years ago. All the repressed emotions must have surfaced as self-loathing: that was why she had thrown herself off the bridge.

And then, there was Drase. Lora'kel had not known the boy well, but that made his guilt even worse. The poor boy had been malingered ever since his mother's murder and the subsequent accusations. Without a family or dependable home, he had survived on his own wits for years. Yet he had enough goodness in him to rescue a man he hardly knew, when Lora'kel's only thought had been to kill the foreigner. Then, the worst of all injustices, he had been murdered for that very same crime...

There was no way Lora'kel could have anticipated the outcomes, of course, but that was no comfort. He should not have resorted to unethical methods, coercion and assassination, to solve his dilemmas. Ohlreth certainly knew how to punish recalcitrant followers.

It seemed that, no matter where he went, Lora'kel always managed to do everything wrong, albeit unintentionally. Almost two decades ago he had held office in Uriss, a city governed by representatives from both the ancient Triplanist religion and the relatively new Ohlrethan creed. Lora'kel's stay had been marked by overt hostility, sometimes even violence, between the dark-skinned Triplanists and the lighter-hued Ohlrethans. Lora'kel had been unable to establish any sort of governance, and, as here, his attempts had only seemed to aggravate the problems. He left Uriss after a mere two years, convinced he was unworthy of the position, and came instead to Kinsvale, where he had thought he might find peace. Humility was strange in a High Priest, but not unknown. What a foolish hope it had been.

What could Lora'kel even do now? Gabri was still free, still unpunished for his murder. Lora'kel knew that he must reveal the boy's guilt, no matter what the cost to himself. It was the only way. Yet still he cringed at the thought of revealing his own willingness to have Drase killed. What would the villagers think of him, who had been their model of Ohlrethan virtue for so many years?

There was a solution. Lora'kel could leave Kinsvale as he had left Uriss. Lora'kel was not strong enough to handle even such small responsibility, and he was far too inept to be a leader. The priest's words carried much weight in this devout town: he could simply write a note detailing Gabri's guilt, and the villagers would heed it. Lora'kel did not even have to admit his own part in the day's deaths, for Gabri's accusations would carry no weight without the priest himself there.

Lora'kel slowly lifted himself from the bench, wiping the tears away from his face. That was one thing that would never leave him: the guilt. But Lora'kel welcomed it. He had sinned grievously, and mere remorse was a small penance to pay. He looked around, searching for Elad, his aide, who carried out minor functions within the temple. Elad lacked full clerical training, and worked in the fields besides, but for such a small town he would be sufficient.

Seeing him, Lora'kel called the man over, and said, "I'm leaving, Elad."

The aide stood aghast, then sputtered, "You... you can't! What will Kinsvale do without you?"

"You'll have to take over as priest," Lora'kel replied quietly. "Kinsvale is small... I think you can manage it."

"Why?" Elad nearly shouted. "For years you've been our priest... but now...!"

"Listen! I have to leave... I have to. Alin's murderer was not that foreigner. It was one of our own townsmen..."

While Elad listened solemnly, Lora'kel recounted the story of Gabri's recruitment by Tolbert, and his own request that the boy go after Drase, leaving out only the genesis of Lohni's madness. When he finished, Elad looked near to fainting, but the aide nonetheless managed to ask, "You want me to have Tolbert and Gabri punished after you've gone?" Lora'kel nodded.

"But why can't you do it yourself? It's you the townsfolk look to for guidance, not me! They'll definitely believe you, but they don't respect enough..."

"Don't say that! You are the emissary of Ohlreth, if an untrained one, and it's your duty to tell them of this!"

"It's your duty!" Elad snapped.

Stiffening, Lora'kel replied, "I told you why I have to leave. If the villagers learn of my involvement, I'll have no authority over them."

"They'll learn anyway, when I tell them. But... there was no malice in your action! You thought you were doing the right thing, you just acted out of ignorance... the villagers would surely understand that. And, we need you..."

"No!" This time Lora'kel did shout. A few loitering nearby glanced at him curiously, but soon returned to their own doings. More quietly, "I'm going to leave... I have to. There is no other option left to me."

Elad looked like he was about to object, but instead he merely whispered, "Why?"

Lora'kel was still. His guilt had receded, replaced by a dull anger at his underling, yet the question made him pause. Instead of considering further, Lora'kel merely turned, and, as he left the temple, answered, "I already told you."

Drase, Shona and Garon moved through the forest as swiftly as they could while hindered by Drase's broken leg. Night was falling swiftly, and Shona hoped the three would reach Torrel and the wagon before there was no light left. Here the trees overhung the narrow highway even more thickly than in the west. Drase had only rarely come this way, for there was little of note east of the river: just the road, and the omnipresent trees.

About three miles east of the bridge, by Shona's estimation, Garon turned down a rough trail, coming eventually to a clearing a few hundred feet from the road. Garon's wagon stood to one side, and two horses, gray and black, grazed nearby, seemingly unconcerned at the entrance of the three. At the far end of the clearing Shona saw a firepit, recently used, to judge by the ashes. Torrel was nowhere to be seen, though he probably would not have recognized Shona anyway.

"Hey! Wake up, Torrel!" Garon suddenly shouted. Almost immediately a man appeared on the driver's platform of the wagon, a naked blade in his hand: clearly Torrel had not yet gone to sleep.

Torrel was at least a foot taller than Shona, who was himself considered unusually tall for an inhabitant of Kinsvale. Garon's partner also had strength to go along with his height, as Shona could tell merely from looking at the man's huge muscles. He had dark brown, currently disheveled, hair, and a beard that complemented the impression of barely restrained savagery.

Nevertheless, Torrel appeared calm as he took in the three who stood before him, affected neither by Drase's injury nor Shona's unplanned presence. He merely lowered the sword, and asked, "Why are you here early?" The voice seemed unnaturally soft for the trader's appearance.

"We need to leave. Now." Garon replied.

"Why?" Torrel asked again, without moving.

"I'll tell you as we go, but we have to leave now. There might be danger following."

Torrel turned and reentered the wagon. Shona thought the trader might be refusing Garon's demand, but soon he reemerged carrying tack in place of the sword, and, jumping from the wagon's platform, moved to the horses. After a quick signal to Garon, she and Drase limped toward the wagon, while Shona marveled at the partners' silent rapport. Obviously they had worked together for a long time.

As Shona followed the two, Torrel called to him. "Come here, boy."

Nervously, Shona obeyed. Torrel was putting a bewildering array of straps, buckles and leather on one of the horses, a gray who endured the treatment placidly. After a few seconds, the man asked, "What is your name?" Shona found himself more intimidated by Torrel's unfathomable coolness than by his enormous stature.

"Shona," he replied softly.

"Why did you come along?" the trader asked without turning.

"I... well... I want to be a mage, but my father won't let me. He wants me to be his replacement." Suddenly Shona felt afraid of the circumstances he had thrown himself into. If for some reason he failed now, or if Torrel refused to take him east, there would never again be any chance to fulfill his dreams. Shona's father would be suspicious of his knowledge of Gabri -- and worried about his own involvement, a perverse part of Shona's mind whispered -- and would take any effort to keep him under control. Shona was determined now, but any number of things could go disastrously wrong.

Torrel finished by bridling the mare, attaching several straps to those covering the horse's face. Shona still could not discern the purpose of any of those attachments. Then Torrel turned to face Shona, and said, "Your father is Tolbert, right? No need to answer. Only his son could be wearing clothes like that. But, your father's restrictions are not why you decided to leave. There is something else..."

Shona could only stare speechless at the traveller. What did he know, and how? After several moments Torrel continued, in the same calm, disquieting voice, "It doesn't look like you'll tell me that, and I won't force you. You can come with us. There's certainly food enough, and Garon must have her reasons for bringing you." With that, he left, guiding the horse to the front of the wagon, where he proceeded to fasten it to the pronged front end. Shona, still dazed, walked behind and stepped up into the wagon, where Garon and Drase had already settled themselves.

A lit lantern hung from a peg, illuminating the small interior. A narrow aisle ran between two bunks, one on each side, each holding a thin straw-stuffed mattress. The space underneath each was filled with boxes, as were the two compartments above each bunk. A trapdoor could be seen, halfway down the aisle. Shona suspected that the bed of the wagon was filled with the supplies bought from Tolbert, which would account for the height to which he had had to lift himself to get in the wagon. The other wagons Shona had seen used taut canvas as sides and roof, stretched over a wooden frame, but a solid wooden structure completely enclosed Torrel's wagon.

Drase lay on one of the bunks, resting his wounded leg. The pain of the injury was apparent on his face, worsened by the several-mile walk. Garon crouched on the other bunk, her knees pulled up to her chest, like a gargoyle on its stone parapet. Hesitating a moment, Shona moved forward and sat next to her, then said, "I just met Torrel. He's..."

"Odd?" prompted Garon, smiling.

"I've never met a man so calm... so peaceful."

Garon chuckled. "Don't let it fool you. Torrel can be as hateful as any Talinyan, but only to a few. To everyone else, he's as gentle as can be... it's almost as though the hatred itself makes him that way. He always keeps it under the tightest control, not even allowing himself the slightest release. If the self-discipline weren't so necessary, I bet he'd be acting more like us lesser creatures."

Shona found that description hard to swallow... but what else could he expect from someone who traveled with Garon? "Who does he hate? And, why?"

She dropped her legs to the floor, leaning against the wall of the wagon. At that moment Shona heard Torrel jump onto the front platform, now hidden behind a low door. Then, with a sudden jerk, the wagon started to move toward the path leading back to the highway. Garon closed her eyes. Then, quietly, she explained, "His family -- wife, children, maybe others -- were killed by Annic soldiers, under the general Hant. They are who he hates."

"But why is he here? What does he think he can do in Anngin? If --"

"Be quiet," Garon growled, her eyes still closed. Shona obeyed, worrying that he had pressed her too far. After an uncomfortable period, she stood abruptly and went through the door to the driving platform, leaving Shona and Drase to themselves.

"Don't worry, Shona," Drase whispered. "Neither of 'em wants to talk much about their reason for being here. Just be glad they are."

They sat quietly as the wagon moved up the trail, listening to the foliage scraping against the sides and the wheels creaking as they rolled over the uneven ground. Drase had elevated his broken leg in hopes of avoiding the worst of the rattling, though with little success. Then, with a sudden lurch, the wagon turned onto the highway. Now the only sounds from without were the steady pace of the horses' hooves, and the relatively smooth sound of wheels on concrete. The lantern, which had looked dangerously close to falling off its peg, now settled, casting even illumination over the interior. The ride was still far from smooth. Ages had passed since the construction of this road, and it was now far from even. Drase still winced in pain each time the wagon passed over a particularly rough crack, but now he was able to rest his leg directly on the bunk.

Shona was beginning to find the experience disquieting, much more so than before. All of Kinsvale, the fields and the workers, the priest and the weekly Ohlrethan services, his very own father, were now nothing more than a speck in the distance, a locale rapidly fading away into the dark. He might never see the town again, might never even hear its name again, such a small and insignificant place it was, and that was making his entire life there seem insignificant. He had asked for those boundaries to be removed, that had always before held him with more strength than any chains of steel, but now that his wish had been granted, Shona began to wonder what type of a world was actually awaiting him.

The world is not small, he thought, and the thought itself suddenly frightened him. His life had been restricted but comfortable. Now he was free, but every new event further disoriented and unsettled him. Already Shona's entire conception of his town had been shattered, and he now knew just how imperfect its members were. At least one was a murderer, and even more were capable of the act... but then, Drase had said all along that such was the case.

Drase himself had become more and more of an enigma in recent days, though the boy himself had changed little. Rather, it was Shona's perspective that was evolving at such a disturbing rate. Drase was a natural outsider, like Garon and Torrel seemed to be, but unlike them, no dark and brooding thoughts hid just under the surface of his mind, fuel for sudden anger and violence. Drase had an unearthly calm about him that Shona marveled at, knowing how poorly he himself stood in comparison... though Drase laughed, and smiled, and scowled, and doubtlessly cried when he was alone and the world came pressing down, but he seemed to handle it all with ease. Maybe it was the mind-magic...

That was another thing Shona struggled to cope with. Neither boy knew the scope nor the importance of the new power, but Garon's reaction and events so far indicated it was something far beyond the ken of normal people. What would Drase be like if his ability became great enough to change history?

Drase was not evil, Shona was sure about it. But was he good, either? Shona could not even come to a conclusion on that matter, fond though he was of his friend. Drase showed much conscientiousness, but it could just be a reaction to his painful life. Maybe Drase would prove himself the counterpart of Gabri or Tolbert, given a more secure life.

None of it really mattered, at least not now. Drase was Shona's friend, and would remain so. It was the other two Shona had to worry about, Garon with her odd mix of compassion and violence, and Torrel with his steely calm and, if Garon were to be believed, tightly bound hatred. They were not to be trusted casually, either of them.

The precariousness and sheer unlikelihood of his existence was beginning to appear absurd to Shona, and he felt a manic glee drifting through his heart. Here he was, in the hands of two admitted rogues, maybe killers as well, heading to an unknown destination in the hopes that some mage would find it in his heart to take in a young, aspiring apprentice, and teach him the secrets of the universe. Meanwhile, Drase would find some comfortable niche and Garon and Torrel would complete whatever their shady plan was, and all would be happy.

It's not going to happen that way, Shona told himself, frowning inwardly. He had thought Kinsvale could be bad, but surely the wide, wide world had far worse agonies to offer a youth from the farthest outpost of civilization. Garon's invitation was just a ruse, a trap that would send him willingly into the worst the world had to offer.

Shona forced himself out of that fatalistic mindset, reminding himself that it was only the shock of leaving his former life that made him feel so, but still a insane giggle threatened to force its way out of his mouth. Instead, Shona lay on the bunk with his head to the front of the wagon, and asked his friend, "Do you really know what you want to do, Drase?"

Drase chuckled, though he did not do so much as turn his head to look at Shona, then replied, "No. Even you've got more planned than I do... I suppose I'm still intending to find some mage willing to study my powers, and go from there. And you, I already know what you want: it's magecraft, and family and comfort be damned."

Embarrassed, Shona nodded. It did seem to be a rather odd goal, now that he thought about it. "At least there's a chance we'll be together that way," he added.

"Yeah. Shona, I'm curious... have you ever thought about becoming a priest instead?"

Startled, Shona responded, "No. Why do you think I would?"

Now Drase did turn his head, giving a weak grin to his friend. "You're pious enough for one, I guess. And it's a far more likely goal than wizardry. More studying to do, less combat."

"It... the priesthood's not nearly so wonderful as the craft of the mages," Shona replied, then began yet again to enumerate the marvels he had heard in rumor or story. Briefly Shona wondered why Drase, antagonistic towards the Ohlrethan system, would seriously consider such a possibility, but it was a question no easier to answer than why he and Shona, one so devout, the other so unorthodox, were each other's best friends.

Once he had exhausted his supply of fables about magic, most of which he had learned from the other children of Kinsvale, Shona recounted the small bit he had learned from the first, and last, itinerant mage to travel to Kinsvale. Drase turned to stare again at the ceiling, listening silently. When he had done, Drase spoke: "I see. I never knew you were such a romantic, Shona."

Just as Drase was about to continue, the front door slammed open and Garon strode through, indifferent to the two. She opened a compartment at the head of Drase's bunk, and pulled out a small parcel wrapped in paper. Then, she turned to the two whose conversation she had interrupted, and said, "You two should sleep. We're not going to stop anytime soon. You got any questions?"

"What are you planning to do with us?" Shona asked thoughtlessly, and immediately regretted the phrasing.

Garon's brow furrowed as she regarded Shona, then, detecting no intent to insult, answered, "We're going to Othos. You do know about the school of mages there, right?" He nodded, and she continued, "I know a mage there, high-ranking, whose name is Jelena. She can find someone to take you two in, if anyone can."

"Thanks, Garon," Shona replied. "For everything."

She nodded brusquely, and returned to the door from whence she had come. Then, just as she was about to leave, she added, "We passed a man on horseback a few minutes ago. A messenger, by the look of his horse's barding. Just thought you'd like to know."

As Garon closed the door behind her, Shona wondered what those words might portend, but could think of no explanation. Finally he stood and doused the lantern flame, leaving the wagon in pure darkness. "Good night," Shona said to Drase, who mumbled the same in return. Then he returned to his own bunk, or at least his own for the night.

Beside him Shona heard Drase uncomfortably shifting the blanket about, trying to get covered without paining his broken leg, a process which took some time. Shona did the same, only taking off his boots before pulling the covers over his head. Normally by this time Shona would be bathed and in his nightclothes, sleeping peacefully in his soft bed. However, the boy did not mourn the loss. Soon Drase settled into a fairly sedate position, and the night was empty of any sound but the rumbling of the wheels as they moved along the ancient highway, traveling to Othos.

Lora'kel wasted no time in leaving Kinsvale. He saddled a horse and departed, taking only a tent and bedroll, along with a pack full of trail rations. He did not even change out of his ceremonial dyed cotton robes, trusting instead to the benevolence of temples further east. All that mattered now was getting out of the town before he damaged it more.

Word had spread quickly about his departure. Apparently Elad was trying to shame the priest into staying. A small crowd of villagers stood in the square, turning as one as Lora'kel trotted by on his mare. They said nothing, and neither did he. As he neared the bridge, Elad stepped forward, dressed in robes as gaudy as Lora'kel's own. The assistant opened his mouth as if to speak, but at that moment Lora'kel kicked the horse into a gallop, riding quickly over the arch of the bridge and out of sight of the city.

He continued in that manner for a mile, then slowed the dappled mare into a walk. He knew too little of equestrian lore to judge the endurance of a horse, and not wanting to push the creature too hard, though she did not seem tired to Lora'kel's untrained eye.

Lora'kel took the opportunity to slump exhaustedly, drained both physically and emotionally. Once, long ago, he had left Uriss in a similar manner, only in a carriage rather than ahorseback.

Why do I always choose the most isolated places to flee from? he wondered, wiping his brow even though he was not sweating. For that matter, why am I always fleeing? Am I that much of a coward?

No, that could not be the case -- or at least, not all of it. A spiritual experience had prompted his departure from Uriss in the far north, and the original exodus from Othos was undertaken by most priests. At Uriss he had proven himself unskilled at the management of people, so, desiring the closest thing to a hermit's existence possible within the Church, Lora'kel had come to the tiny, still half-unconverted village of Kinsvale. Sadly for the priest, Tolbert had come about the same time, bringing along with him a pregnant wife and an elaborate plan, one that had proven fruitful. Lora'kel found himself provided with a flock of peaceful and devout townsfolk to guide and nurture, despite his own desire for solitude. Being a sincere, if not capable, Ohlrethan, he had tried to fulfill his duty... I should have known better than that. It took awhile, but I did fail.

The priest reached around and unstrapped the pack from his shoulders, rummaging through it for a short meal. As he did so, Lora'kel's gaze fell upon a curved metal bar, perhaps his most important possession. Forgetting food for the moment, Lora'kel pulled the queer item from his pack, contemplating the tool of power.

It was a cylinder of steel, maybe half the thickness of his wrist, bent in a half-circle with a good length of straight metal at either end. In all, it was shaped somewhat like a horseshoe. This was not a very complex tool, as far as those went. Merely one end of a conduit of power -- but such power...

In the early days of his stay at Kinsvale, Lora'kel had spent much time in the forest. There was not much else at the time: a smattering of mud houses, a water-driven mill, and a church not nearly as large as the one standing now. The forest, on the other hand, was a vast world in which every vista was different, much like Lora'kel imagined Spes, one of the afterlives created by Ohlreth, would be. One of these woodland locales, hours away from the highway, contained scattered evidence of an ancient city, a profusion of stone buried but a few feet beneath the ground, shells of structures that must once have dwarfed anything built in recent times.

Possessing a great deal of training in magecraft, Lora'kel knew what a Portal was: a source of the world's magical energy. Despite their importance, the Portals were primarily objects of legend. The whereabouts of only two were known, though many more were believed to exist. Lora'kel had been completely bewildered, then, when he drew upon the power in the area only to discover himself flooded with more energy than he could normally have gathered in a month. The immense energy was concentrated in a small plaza between two long-forgotten monuments. Beyond the boundary, the energy was just as that which flowed in every other place.

Recognizing the import of his discovery, Lora'kel had hastened back to the river, and thence to Kinsvale to prepare a tool that could harness the power of the Portal. An itinerant blacksmith had provided the priest with steel, which he then shaped into two pieces, each one end of a pipeline for magic. Then, magical crafts in hand, he had returned to the forest. But such was the nature of that place that the only things rarer than landmarks were trails, and it took him a half-dozen trips to rediscover the Portal. Then, with one horseshoe-shaped craft left on the turf, it had been done: Lora'kel had become the most powerful mage in all the domains where Ohlreth held sway. Though the conduit was so inefficient that the supplied magic was only about a third as intense as the Portal, it was far more than any other mage could draw upon.

The power helped him in no way. At first, his spirit launched into optimism by thoughts of what good he could do, Lora'kel had devised the spell that had killed Lohni and dealt tragedy to so many others. That mistake was enough to convince Lora'kel that any kind of power was best kept out of his own hands, but the tool remained, just in case. Were he more confident of his abilities, and willing to alert every mage in Othos to his presence and power, Lora'kel could have used the tool to travel quickly to the city, but his resolution never to invoke it except in times of dire need held strong.

Nevertheless, as Lora'kel gazed at the metal in his hands, he once more felt tempted to use that strange power. After all, what better cure for ineptitude was there than experience? However, a lifetime of such hopes shattered by far too real foolishness had taught him well not to take power when it was offered. Maybe Lora'kel would give this craft to a wiser priest and mage, instead, one like his friend and fellow High Priest, Kiel.

Sensitive hands tingling from contact with leaking magic -- steel was not the best material for such work, merely the optimum available -- Lora'kel returned the shining metal into his pack, and retrieved what he had been seeking: a meal. What he carried was the most nutritious, compact and enduring food possible: in other words, the worst tasting. He devoured a large hunk of break so hard that, when he bit a mouthful out of it, it did not so much tear as shatter. Nonetheless, some townsperson had thoughtfully seasoned the food when it had come fresh from the oven. It still did not taste good, but at least he could force it down. Following the bread with some standard strips of dried beef, common in Kinsvale, Lora'kel finished with dried fruit that had been sitting so long that it no longer even tasted sweet. The priest drank water, too: he had only one canteen to satisfy his thirst, but it could easily be replenished by the many streams and river branches intersecting the road. With turbulent emotions subdued briefly by a full stomach, and a full bag once again on his back, Lora'kel idly gazed at the dusky road ahead, while the mare trudged onward.

It was very dark, Lora'kel noticed with no little surprise. Had he been gazing at the metal bar for so long? No, it was evening when I left the village... and the stars tonight are just bright enough to light the way well, despite these trees. He decided to continue for a few more miles then stop for the night.

Lora'kel would never have noticed that there was something more in the shadows beneath the trees than underbrush, had not that something emerged riding a pale horse and blocking the priest's way. Lora'kel recoiled, then fearfully invoked light to see what this apparition was. The mystery resolved itself into a darkly clothed man with dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark look... making his choice of mount, an almost completely white horse, seem odd. The man started at Lora'kel's use of magic, then simply gazed at the priest calmly, while Lora'kel could only stare in turn. Finally the man on the white horse said, "Where are you going so late at night, High Priest Lora'kel?"

Almost stammering, he replied, "How do you know my name?"

"By your clothing. In case you haven't noticed, those are priests' robes... and, the last time I heard, the only priest in this direction is you."

"Well, what do you want with me?" Lora'kel snapped. "Leave this servant of Ohlreth be, so that he can continue on his way."

Nonplussed, the herald continued, "I have a message to give to you, then I'll be on my way."

His blood rushing from startlement, Lora'kel was suddenly very aware of the chill night, and desired nothing more than to get this strange encounter over with. Still, what could be so important that the Church would send a messenger so far into the wilderness? There was only one rank higher than Lora'kel's, but the priest had made it clear to his fellows on the Ohlrethan Council that he wished to have peace and isolation. Lora'kel held out his hand to receive a message tube.

The dark man stared scornfully at the priest's open hand, then stated his missive, apparently intended to be spoken rather than written down. It meant that the news was either absolutely secret or already common knowledge in the east. "High Priest Gaiman asked me to tell you of recent happenings in Othos. Two High Priests have died since you left, and replacements selected."

"Is that all? That's scarcely worth disturbing a sedentary priest for," Lora'kel muttered, despite the fact that he was, at the moment, in a hardly peaceful situation.

Now levelly meeting Lora'kel's gaze with that same uncaring scorn, the herald responded, "It is necessary. Your presence is needed in Othos immediately. A month ago exactly, Archpriest Puttin died, and a replacement shall be chosen as soon as the Council is completed."

Speechless moments passed while the herald merely stared placidly. Finally Lora'kel said, "Continue to Kinsvale and tell my underling -- now the town's priest -- this news. They need to know, as well." The dark one complied readily, spurring his pure white horse towards Kinsvale, leaving Lora'kel to sit stunned in the middle of the highway, on a horse that didn't care whether she was stopped or moving.

This was serious news indeed.

Shona awoke on the twenty-ninth day after leaving his home to discover that the forest had ended. As was their custom, Garon and Torrel had driven on through the night and into the morning. Usually they stopped and camped for the day, sleeping while Drase and Shona were awake. Then, at night, the situation would be reversed: the two boys slept while the older pair guided the horses.

The trader and the warrior had not stopped to sleep; instead, they drove on as the day approached noon. Shona clambered onto the narrow back platform (little more than a jutting plank) and gazed about himself with wonder. He could once again see sky in every direction, rather than mere brief glimpses through the overhanging trees. After several moments, Shona realized something more: the highway was surrounded by cultivated farms as far as his eyes could see. Behind the wagon sat a few farmhouses in the vicinity of the road.

He was finally in Anngin, the most powerful kingdom of the Othoan Empire! In a place far more civilized than Kinsvale, a country of great power and even greater population, where anything could be found and anything could be done...

Nevertheless, Shona felt in a small way as though he were returning home. The past four weeks had been monotonous to an extreme, and far less comfortable than his previous existence, a journey completed with nearly unbearable periods of self-doubt. Now, as Shona once again looked out on the expanse of farmland, so similar to that in Kinsvale, his hopes were burgeoned.

However, there were still many differences from his own town. Most obvious were the isolated cottages and shacks, each presiding over its own farmlands. In Kinsvale, all the buildings had been clustered near the bridge. Also, though Kinsvale had already begun harvesting when he left, these new crops were not yet reaped. More, they were both shorter and less healthy than their counterparts in Kinsvale. Were the farmers risking winter conditions in the hope that, given longer to grow, the crops would improve? Shona did not know. He was no farmer or laborer.

Shona sat and viewed the passing landscapes for nearly an hour, admiring civilization and marveling at the strange houses. In Kinsvale all were made of bricks of hardened mud, but here most of the structures were built of wood -- wood! -- no doubt from the forest itself, which Shona's villagers had held so sacred.

Then Shona heard the voice of Drase from within the wagon, asking what he was doing: Shona's friend tended to sleep, better to aid in the healing of his leg, which could now be used with minimal pain.

"Watching the land, Drase," he called in return, then added, "We're finally in Anngin!"

At that, Drase stumbled onto the platform, clutching the doorway for support. Shona moved to accommodate him. "Why the hells didn't you wake me?" he muttered.

"Oh, but you were sleeping so peacefully," Shona teased lightheartedly, "I just couldn't bear to."

"Do you remember the day you broke your back, Shona? I do. Garon does, too." His friend was not listening, so Drase fell to watching the panorama. Then he suddenly grunted, "So that's what it's like," and reentered the wagon with a clatter. Shona, mystified as he so often was in exchanges with Drase, followed.

Drase sat on his cot and massaged the tender leg, which had not worn a cast for the last two weeks. "There are a surprising number of people out there," he said quietly, his eyes characteristically vague as always when using his peculiar mind-magic. "Just about all of them in the fields, too, though I can't tell for sure what they're doing... my range seems to have doubled since I left Kinsvale, though of course I couldn't tell in the forest. Nothing but animals live there."

Shona still wore the same set of clothes he had left Kinsvale in, and, nice though those were, they were now starting to show signs of their heavy use. He had taken them off only once during the entire trip, to bathe in a stream, but such was the chill of the water that nothing came of the effort. Drase, too, still wore his mismatched clothing, but he was accustomed to it. Both of their garments were too thin to be comfortable in this cold. Again it was a condition to which Drase, but not Shona, was accustomed, but even he remained wrapped in a blanket whenever possible. This morning was not the coldest they had seen, but Shona covered himself anyway, seeing no reason to restrain himself.

"So, what now?" asked Shona. "Do you think we're close to Othos?"

"Ask," Drase replied succinctly. "Garon shouldn't mind."

He hesitated a moment before taking Drase's advice. Despite a lack of hostility on her part, Shona found Garon to be somewhat disturbing. Maybe he was just too unfamiliar with the idea of a woman being a professional fighter. The same went for Torrel, that one who had remained aloof ever since their first conversation. Shona opened the front portal and stepped again into view of the sky. Garon and Torrel sat next to each other on the driver's platform, not conversing. They probably only did so when the two boys were asleep.

Garon's gaze flickered to Shona's face, then returned to the road ahead. Shona vaulted onto the rooftop above the door, his favorite spot to sit while they were driving; luckily, the wooden frame of the wagon was more than strong enough to hold his weight. Before Shona could ask anything, Garon said, "We'll be reaching Peor -- that's a town -- in an hour or two. Then, maybe a week until Othos. We'll also be seeing a woman named Jenla in Peor... she is a mage, one who can get us into Othos."

Startled at this rush of information, Shona could only stammer, "Othos? How...?"

Laughing, she interrupted, "I've been trying to get into that place for years. Don't you think I'd have something of a plan by now? All I needed was someone like you or Drase, for an excuse to get in."

"Okay, I believe that... but what is your reason for wanting in there?"

Her expression hardened. "It's not something I can tell you. I wouldn't have even told you that I will be there too, except that I need you in my confidence. Just... remember that I was the one who got you into Othos."

"I will," Shona replied quietly, still confused. But four weeks together had told him almost nothing about the woman's history and goals, aside from some vague hostility toward the Ohlrethan priesthood, hostility which Shona regarded with discomfort. Still, unless events persuaded him otherwise, Shona would regard her as one to be trusted.

Shona dropped back down and reentered the wagon to tell Drase the plans, but he found that his friend had been listening at the door. Before either could say a thing, Torrel spoke: "I see the town ahead."

Turning, Shona could just barely make out a cluster of buildings on the horizon. If that was all there was to Peor, then it would be disappointing, but a few more structures soon came into sight, showing the town to be about half the size of Kinsvale, albeit with many more outlying farms. Shona gave the town the attention he had earlier devoted to the landscape, and Drase did the same. In minutes, just a few minutes, they would be meeting for the first time the people of the east, be they different or not.

An hour later Shona lay in a bed, a desire sated at last. After weeks of a hay mattress so thin he could feel the wood of the bunk beneath it, Shona experienced the once-familiar sensation of complete relaxation as something divine. People in Kinsvale just did not appreciate how good sleep could feel...

However, now was not the time for sleep. He raised himself from the bed with a groan, all the soreness developed from the long trip returning at once. His overnight room was sparse, but no more so than the barracks of Kinsvale. There was the bed, taking up half the floor space. What remained was a narrow aisle between the door and a window, beneath which sat an empty chest, all of the group's supplies still being in the wagon. The window looked out on a path circling around the inn, beyond which were only crops. Shona had not realized just how small Peor was until now. Even Kinsvale boasted structures beyond those lining the highway.

He ambled lazily into the hallway, marveling again at the cramped architecture. The inn was not large, its first floor maybe twice the area of a Kinsvale worker's abode, and the group of travellers were staying in a pair of handful of rooms on the upper floor. Doors stretched in both directions toward stairwells at either end of the hallway, perhaps five rooms on either side. The doors were all identical and unnumbered, so Shona had no way of knowing in which room his friends slept. He only knew his own room as the second one from the main stairway, facing the highway. He let his eye wander where it would, admiring the new and strange architecture. Maybe the inn wasn't anything so special, but in his present mood he felt it to be.

As Shona loitered, Drase suddenly emerged the next door down. Seeing his friend, Shona called out a greeting, despite the fact that they had not been apart long. "Good to see you again! Been enjoying the comfort of a bed at last, eh, Drase?"

Somewhat to Shona's surprise, Drase smiled and said, "Yeah, tonight's going to be the best sleep I've had in a while... maybe for you it's just going to be a return to your old habits, but I haven't slept in an actual bed for years. Even the cot in the wagon was a new luxury, despite my leg. Whaddaya say we go down to the main room and see if Garon is still there?" Drase had been grim and uncommunicative during the journey through the forest, presumably from his broken leg, so Shona was glad to see his friend cheerful again.

"Sure, that sounds good," Shona replied, then followed Drase to the stairway, noticing as he did that Drase's injury still pained him greatly, though he was able to walk. They descended the narrow stairs, and emerged into the inn proper: a modest room filled with plain tables and even plainer benches. The walls were unadorned, though polished, wood, a luxury Shona would never have imagined in Kinsvale. Apparently there were fewer superstitions this far east.

Only one table was occupied, by two unremarkable-looking men who talked to each other over mugs of ale. The place certainly didn't seem as seedy as Shona had expected inns to be; then again, Peor had a local bar as well. Maybe that was where the dangerous were to be found. A single serving girl sat, bored, by the door to the kitchen, ready to respond to any request that might be made.

Shona sat to wait at the table closest to the stairs, while Drase dropped onto a bench opposite him. As they did so the door to the inn was slammed open, and a bald man strode through, calling loudly to the waitress. Drase spared him a single glance then returned to a solemn contemplation of the table, but Shona watched the newcomer intently.

The bald man was dressed in cotton, like everyone else in the room, but his had the unique distinction of being completely unsoiled. The other two wore clothes as dirty and shabby as Shona's and Drase's own, probably because of a similar lack of spare apparel. Only the well-to-do could afford frequent changes of clothing, something Shona had been perceived during his pampered life in Kinsvale. For all else, one or two sets of clothing would suffice, providing they were sturdy enough to survive harsh treatment; besides, the region's climate was not one that particularly demanded warm clothes in autumn.

A few other signs gave hint to the fairly high position of the man. Although he lacked the almost courtly manners of Tolbert and Lora'kel, he was well-fed to the point of chubbiness. He wore several pieces of jewelry, apparently crafted of silver and bronze. Most significantly, he moved with the assurance of one who did not care what anyone else in the room could do to him. The poorer folk often treated strangers -- for instance, Shona and company -- as though by a single remark their characters could be judged, not particularly caring about the ordeal that had brought them this far. Perhaps poor folk really were that uncaring, at least at times. However, the bald man carried himself like he knew that no likely decision from most of the people he met could alter his future one way or another. He did not fear Peor's justice.

Shona wondered, briefly, why he was thinking this way so suddenly. For some reason, the people of Kinsvale had never had never seemed so... distinct. Not that his former neighbors had lacked individuality, for long acquaintance had given Shona some insight into their characters. But with many of the people in Peor, motivations, fears, and lifestyles could be discerned with unnatural ease, were far more plain... maybe Shona was seeing more than was there in truth, imagining that outward behavior reflected their entire lives. Or was it that only now, amidst so much novelty, he was willing to actually look?

The bald man called the girl over, gave her instructions of some kind, then sat at a table in the middle of the room. One of the two ale-drinking men nodded in recognition at the richer one, who nodded back. Nothing seemed out of place there... soon the serving girl returned from the kitchen bearing a plate with bread and butter and a full mug. She set these in front of the bald one, who without further comment began to eat. The girl waited for a moment, hoping perhaps for a tip, then gave up and left the man to his food. With a start, Shona realized that she was heading towards him and Drase. Did she think they wanted food already?

"Is there anything you're wanting?" the girl asked.

Her voice and accent were the same as those of Kinsvale, and her black hair and blue eyes would not seem out of place there, but Shona reminded himself that this was the outside. However, before he could ponder further, Drase replied, "No, I don't think so. Maybe later."

The serving-girl turned to leave, then, quite suddenly, turned back. "You two're from... Kinsvale, isn't it?"

Before Drase could drive her away with his customary abruptness, Shona responed, "Yes, we are... why?"

Without further prompting the girl sat down across from Shona, next to Drase. "I've heard some things. Is it true that you can get work and food there for nothing more than promising good faith?"

"It is. Are you thinking of going there?"

"Don't do it," Drase interjected harshly. "It's not worth the price."

"Shut up, Drase," Shona replied with equal rudeness. Drase withdrew with an offended, but not truly angry, look on his face. Turning to the girl again -- who, he noticed, was watching the proceedings with far more intensity than either boy displayed -- Shona continued, "What do you want to know about Kinsvale?"

"Just tell me anything," she murmured.

"Okay," Shona paused for a moment, wondering where to begin, then settling on a basic description: "Most of the people there work in the fields -- the farms, you might say -- though people with special skills are sometimes allowed to practice them. Anyone married lives in mud-brick houses about two-thirds the size of this room, except for maids, the priest, and... and Tolbert." Shona found he could not name his father without feeling some grief and not a little anger.

"Unmarried workers live in the barracks... kind of like this inn, though the rooms are rather smaller. The fields are all cultivated starting a bit north of the village, and some to the south as well, though that's mostly pasturage. We grow wheat and cotton mostly, but I think there's some flax and corn too. From what I hear, the town makes a profit now that Tolbert has taken over. Apparently the fields are very fertile. I wouldn't really know..."

"But how are the workers paid?" the serving-girl asked quickly, urgently. Shona began to sense something important about this conversation that he did not understand... looking at Drase, whom he had come to depend upon for perspicacity, Shona noticed that his companion seemed just as puzzled.

Maybe Drase's hopes were confirmed, and there was something vitally different about non-Kinsvale people that would soon be revealed. Rationally, Shona knew it to be a silly hope, but with Kinsvale having been, until now, his only world, Shona was eager to learn more. He went on, "They are only paid money for exceptional service." For some reason the girl seemed startled, but motioned for Shona to go on. "Basically, for working in Kinsvale the entire life, a worker is given food, shelter, and a few luxuries."

"How is the food?" she asked.

"I'm not really sure... there's meat, bread, a few fruits and cheeses, but not much else."

"I mean, how much can you get?"

Shona could not recall any restrictions on this, and said as much to the girl. "But I think Tolbert would punish a worker who took more than he could eat," he added.

"That's... that's something I'd dream for. The food, I mean. I would go there, if I could..." Tears misted the girl's eyes, startling Shona. The sense that there was something more to this conversation built, until he was almost sure that only backwoods lack of worldliness was keeping him from perceiving it.

Apparently it was nothing so obvious. Drase, oblivious -- strange, considering his ability -- suddenly demanded of the girl, "How can you say that? You'd give up your freedom to that jackal Tolbert?" Shona started at the insult to his own father, but was not overly moved by it. "What about the worse parts of the merchant's arrangement? Not only are there workers, craftsmen, and servants, but also overseers to make sure everything is done to Tolbert's satisfaction. And if not... whipping, maybe worse. And children of workers are automatically bound to the same deal, no matter what they themselves want. How can you submit yourself to that?"

The tears ceased to flow, and the serving-girl was suddenly as grim as any warrior. "Freedom? You mean this freedom?" She pulled from around her neck an icon of some dead Archpriest, hung on a loop of twine. Before Shona could understand this action the icon was once again around her neck, concealed. "You don't understand how much that food -- by Ohlreth, that life! -- means to me. Compared to it your freedom is... is... I don't know."

"So Tolbert keeps you fat and warm like any favored dog," Drase replied belligerently. "While he gets so much more out of it than you do! He has reaped such a profit from the town that he built a mansion there, despite the isolation. And the only payment is a reward for being a good slave. You could have it so much better free, your future undetermined!"

"I don't get paid money here, either," the girl snapped. "And no way can I get a better job than this elsewhere -- the way things are now, if I leave the inn, I starve. That's bondage of a different type than yours, but bondage nonetheless."

Shona stared across the table, disoriented by the vehemence of both speakers. Neither seemed to understand the other, and Shona found the both of them perplexing, despite the fact that his attitude fell somewhere between their extremes. Weakly, he asked the serving girl, "Not paid? Not even tips, payments for good service?"

"No! Nobody does that. They know how it is around here... and I know," she added, glaring at Shona, "that I want to go to Kinsvale."

The servant stood to leave. Before she went, she turned one last time to look at Shona... and he saw something in that gaze that left him trembling, mostly because he knew no way to interpret it. Anger? Desire? Her eyes were sharp, her jaws tightening in a way that could not be described as frowning or smiling... before Shona could react with any consideration the girl had turned away as if the preceding conversation held no meaning, and her visage was removed from view, though the image remained in Shona's mind. He turned to Drase, who was still glaring after the girl. "Did you see that?" he demanded.

"See what?" Drase snapped in return. The morning's cheerfulness seemed to have faded rather quickly.

"The way that girl -- I don't even know her name! -- looked at me just before she left," he replied.

Now Drase's disconcerting gaze rested on Shona's face. Within a moment the expression dissolved and was replaced with honest confusion, something Shona had never seen, had never honestly expected to see, so strange appearing on that boy's hard face that Shona missed his next words.

Not that they were anything worth hearing. "I saw... I saw --" Drase mumbled, "I don't know. I wasn't looking." Now he stared down at the table once again, though the expression of confusion remained.

It made Shona feel a little less overwhelmed to know that his friend could also be shaken by the strangeness of non-Kinsvale humanity. Turning his thoughts away from analyzing his friend's behavior, Shona thought about the expression he had seen just as the girl had left. It couldn't be anger: Shona was familiar enough with that to recognize it in others. What, then? Lust? Shona's staunchly Ohlrethan mind shied away from considering that, but he nonetheless knew intuitively that it was nothing so simple. Shona decided to set the matter aside for the moment. He soon joined Drase in contemplation of the tabletop.

Drase suddenly broke him out his reverie with a nudge. Shona looked up, startled, to see that his friend's face now wore only a faintly sad expression, eyes toward the stairway. Shona turned to see that Drase was watching a peasant boy descend the stairs: nothing unusual in that, though Drase seemed to think so. There being nothing better to do, Shona too watched the boy. He was fairly slim, his black hair short, dirty and disheveled, and he had not yet reached the age to start growing a beard.

The peasant then thoroughly shocked Shona by taking a seat next to Drase. That one merely looked amused, but Shona was startled. "Who are you?"

The boy responded by smiling slightly and replying, "Your upbringing is getting the better of you, Shona."

Shona's mind was fairly quick; in a few seconds, he had realized that Garon's boasting of her ability to pass as a man was entirely deserved. Blood rushed to his face, as Shona tried to find a similarity between this figure and the Garon he knew, and found he could not. Sure, the height was the same, and she was still slim... but he could find no trace of femininity in her face, aside from the lack of beard or mustache. "S-sorry, Garon," he mumbled, embarrassed.

Now grinning fully, she replied, "You rich types are easily fooled by a change of hair, clothes and mannerisms. I guess that's how you judge the world." Shona's face grew even redder. "Of course, my profile isn't anything worth looking at. Maybe that's why I'm so good at this kind of disguise."

Finding some courage to speak, Shona replied, "But... your hair?"

"A dye somewhat like writing ink, but not as expensive. The rest only needed a knife." Garon looked at the other people in the room, but apparently decided they were out of listening range. They certainly did not see anything amiss in Garon. In fact, looking at the figures sitting across from each other, Garon would appear to be the youngest, when she in fact had at least four years on both.

"Now all we need is for Torrel to enter in skirts," Drase said jokingly. Garon did not respond at all.

Unexpectedly, Shona felt a twinge of conscience concerning the disguised woman. What in the world would a good Ohlrethan be doing concealing her gender? Shona reminded himself forcefully that he was the only one at this table who came close to that standard of piety. Furthermore, Shona realized that he had never treated Garon like a woman -- at least, not as that was defined by the girls of Kinsvale -- and he was too far into the group's scheme, whatever it was, to do otherwise. It would certainly make his goal simpler, not having to treat Garon differently.

Eager to change the subject, Shona asked, "When will that mage get here?"

"Soon enough," Garon replied. "Before nightfall, at least. You can't be sure with them..."

Shona nodded, satisfied. Without prelude, Drase rose from his bench and signalled that he was going to go outside. Shona considered asking him why, but decided his friend seemed too moody to bother. He knew well that, when Drase wanted his privacy, nothing could be done to deter him. That did not stop Garon, though, who asked, "Where are you going?"

Without turning, Drase replied, "Just outside. I don't feel like waiting. I'll get back in time, don't worry," then left through the front door.

Shona looked at Garon, still marvelling at her disguise, but she had receded into a brooding silence. It looked like he would remain bored for a while yet.

Drase left the building in a grim mood, cursing himself for his mistake, small though it was. Shona was right: there must have been something more in the girl than a contemptible disregard for freedom. He was the possessor of mind-magic, not Shona, and yet that pampered boy had shown more regard for the maid's reactions. Sure, his ability was at an ebb right now, but a simple scanning of nearby emotions should have been within his power.

The truth was that Drase knew as little about people beyond Kinsvale as Shona, and did not share his friend's nonchalance at that fact. Accustomed to the minds and moods of Kinsvale, he had not thought to prepare himself for the outside. Equipped with a simple solution to the problem of ignorance, Drase had forgotten to use it.

He looked around. The street was empty, as he had expected. Peor villagers were even more afraid of the night than those of Kinsvale, it seemed. Aside from the inn, the only notable feature was another, even seedier boarding-house, one that apparently doubled as a local tavern. A scattering of other buildings lined the highway, none of them worthy of note. Drase circled around the side of the inn to find something more interesting, cursing his limp. Othos, with its numerous healers, was still weeks away.

Emerging from a rather broad alley, he noted the canopied stable servicing the inn. It only held four horses, including Garon's and Torrel's, and that small number nearly filled it, though the wagon itself was outside. Noticing for the first time a back entrance to the inn -- maybe it led to the kitchen -- Drase walked past it, following a dirt road running behind the buildings. Peor was just as boring from this side as from the highway, one side filled with rows of wheat, so Drase was relieved when he found a narrow path cutting through the thickly packed crops.

At this distance reading the emotions or thoughts of someone back at the inn would require effort, especially with his ability strangely diminished, but he could sense their presences fairly easily. Assuring himself that he would notice the signature of Garon's mage when she arrived, Drase walked swiftly between the fields of neck-high wheat. In Kinsvale at this time of year, the crop would already have been harvested. Drase figured the tradition must be different here. Certainly he neither saw nor heard any farmers at work.

After a dozen minutes he paused, amazed at the disorienting sensation the unending vista of wheat provided, though he still sensed the inhabitants of the inn and the village in the direction he had come. It had never been like this near Kinsvale. Even in the forest, large as it was, his surroundings had never seemed so unchanging, and he had certainly never ventured far into Kinsvale's crop fields. The wheat stretched in all directions except where the path cut through it, looking as if the ranks of produce had pulled aside ever so slightly, leaving a thin line of bare ground that would be barely noticeable even from above. Drase wondered where it would lead.

The question was answered soon enough, as Drase came to the end of the fields. Beyond was a clearing, a small house at its end, and more wheat beyond. Drase paused at the end of the trail, crouching in the wheat from an ill-defined desire to conceal himself from whoever lived here. With his mind-magic Drase could sense two, with more in the fields, but Drase did not send his mind further. He was content to stare at the homestead, finding it more interesting than any of the other buildings he had seen. For some reason, he found himself wondering what kind of people lived there. If the serving-girl could be used as a typical example of these folk, even in part, then they were far different than the Kinsvale villagers he was used to. Grimmer, for one, and far more poor.

The house held three rooms at the most, being about ten paces long and probably a similar number deep. An open loft sat atop, between the ceiling and the triangular roof, and held a small supply of hay, wheat, and other bulky goods. It was built of unpainted, but well-cut, wood, windowless walls formed as a series of upright planks without the framework visible. Drase wondered fleetingly whether the Peorians took it from the great forest, or were as superstitious as Kinsvale villagers and bought it elsewhere. The planks fit each other well, indicating good carpentry, but upkeep must have been poor, for gaps in the loft roof and loose planks were evident. The surroundings were just as simple, merely a wide space empty of grass and a well -- another item Drase was unfamiliar with, having always taken his water from the river.

Drase could find plenty of evidence of strangeness: nearly everything about the place, from its material to the lack of windows to the storage of supplies in the dwelling itself, not to mention the lack of draft beasts, a plow, or any other farm tool in evidence, although those could just be out of sight. However, he could not begin to analyse the place's oddity. Nothing about it told Drase anything about its inhabitants.

Entertaining the thought of looking into the inhabitants' minds to see what they were actually like, Drase did not notice at first that the event he had been awaiting had taken place. But a moment later, he noticed that another mind had join those already at the inn, one that, if he was not deceiving himself, seemed more vibrant than those of the Peorian townsfolk. Cursing himself for being as sentimental as Shona, Drase ran back down the narrow path.

He trotted through the back door, despite the possibility that it led somewhere private, but all that was revealed was a short hallway with the maids' stairway at the far end and two doors along its sides. Drase took the doorway that he figured would lead to the main room, passing along the way the girl to whom he had spoken earlier.

Drase halted in momentary surprise at the mage's appearance. In all his life Drase had been among people with lighter complexion than his, and up until now that had also held true in Peor. His own skin, a deep bronze that never paled even in the winter, had always been one of his most distinguishing features, but the mage, whatever her name was, made the difference seem paltry. Her skin was not quite black, but might be mistaken for such at a distance. It was the deep brown that old hardwood sometimes held, yet much more vibrant. If it did not sound so incongruous, Drase might have thought that her skin glowed, supporting his earlier perception of vibrancy. Her braided hair was, on the other hand, completely black, but that was the color prevalent among Ohlrethans. Aware that he might be gawking, Drase crossed the floor and took his earlier seat, noticing as he did that the others present were making no effort to hide their curiosity.

Shona and the mage were already deep in conversation when Drase arrived, so she must have been here for some time, but the two broke that off when they saw him. Garon was watching all three with frank amusement, though she did not look completely relaxed in the mage's company.

"My name is Jenla," she said before Drase could speak. "Drase?"


"The one with the mind-magic?"

"Yes... can I ask?"

Smiling, she replied, "Go ahead."

"Where do you come from?"

"Your friend asked that just a moment ago," she replied graciously, not surprising Drase. "I come from far in the north, from a city called Alabas, though my ancestors lived even farther away. Not many look as I do, even there," she added, and it was clear to Drase that curiosity about her strange coloring must be commonplace. "But there are some. However... it is you I am interested in. As for Shona, I see no reason why he should not be able to train as a mage, although it is usually only after the first or second year of apprenticeship that one can be sure that the aspirant is qualified."

Shona wore a wider grin than Drase had ever before he had seen on his face, and with good reason, seeing that his life-long dreams had just been promised fulfillment. Drase wondered whether Shona had handled the sight of this woman as awkwardly as he had. Still, with Shona's ambitions of becoming a mage, awkwardness wouldn't have held him back for long.

Jenla continued, "I do not know what to believe about your ability that we have so flippantly called mind-magic, for as nearly as I can tell it is not magic at all. You perform feats that would take a mage years of training with instinctive ease, and the amount of power at your command is untested. It is, within my knowledge, unique, but not necessarily unexplainable. Would you mind if I test it a little?" Drase shook his head.

"Alright. How many horses are in the stables right now?"

That was possible to answer even without the mind-magic: if the mage had ridden a horse in, that would make five considering the previous four. Drase checked just in case, and, though the presence of a horse's mind was more subdued, less noticable than a human's, he counted the expected number. He said as much.

"Good... but you could have counted them on the way in. I'm going to ask something a little harder: I will concentrate on a few images, and you tell me what they are."

"You sure you don't mind?" Drase asked sharply, aware that it would take courage on Jenla's part to let him touch her mind... unless she did not actually believe he could do it.

"I don't. Now... what am I picturing?"

Closing his eyes, Drase shifted his attention completely to the mage's presence. Immediately he felt, vicariously, the curiosity she was feeling at the moment, underlaid by a watchful serenity. Concentrating further, he became aware of an image, appearing to him as normal vision would, but not quite as intense.

After describing the view of Peor as it would be seen from the doorway of the inn, Drase was glad to hear her voice confirm his vision. "Now?"

"Torrel, I think."

"That's right... one more."

Although aware of another image, Drase could find no way to describe it... at times it seemed as if he were watching leaves rustling across a forest floor, or the shifting patterns of sunlight shining through the forest canopy. He narrowed his attention even further, until he was able to detect Jenla's own interpretation of the image. Drase realized with disquiet that the mage's thought overlaid his own, like the glass of a window pane.

"Runes?" he hazarded at last.

Jenla blinked, surprised. "Yes. I'm surprised you got that. Runes are actually impossible to visualize completely, for they are far more than a visual pattern... anyway, that is simply astonishing. I sensed nothing whatsoever in the way of magic when you did it. However, it did seem to take you some effort. I'm going to try something else. See if you can duplicate it." Then, for several long moments, the entire table was quiet. Suddenly, without preamble, Drase heard a noise in his own head, more like a memory of a noise, a whisper as soft as the wind.

Do you hear me?

Replying was fairly simple, though he had only done it once before, motivated by pain and fear. He placed himself within Jenla's mind as he had done before, until he was aware of a multitude of foreign thoughts flitting through his own head. Ignoring these, he thought, as if with words: Yes, I do, feeling something within him behave in a way he could not quite describe.

Jenla stiffened, her face becoming completely blank; then she relaxed and said slowly, "That was the strongest sending I have ever felt. And there was no warning! I would have wondered if it came from my own mind if the thought had not been so strong..."

Drase's eyes flashed open with surprise. He felt a bit fatigued, as he had after coercing the villager to disrupt the execution, but he was still shocked that his efforts had borne so much success.

"I think that's enough," Jenla said, now smiling once more. "You are certainly something worthy of note... although I don't want many of the mages knowing about you. Not all would take it well. We are, after all, a rather elitist lot, and the idea of a boy gaining tremendous power without training or effort would disturb many. Garon... what are your plans?"

"They are my own." The mage did not seem surprised at this statement. "However, I'll be with these two in Othos. All I need is a patron so impressed by Drase that no questions will be asked."

"You know how those academics are..." the mage closed her eyes reflectively. "The school of magic would only accept you as a student. Likewise for the Church. The nobility is just as strict about admittance to the inner city, but they at least keep servants. Was that your idea, to live in Othos as one of them? It would explain the disguise."

Garon smiled grimly. "Yes... that's quite perceptive of you. However, it's still just my affair."

"One piece of advice, still. Don't seek the patronage of a noble or a mage. Use a priest instead."

"What?" Garon hissed. Jenla's eyes darted open. The reaction startled Drase, though he was used to unusual sentiments from Garon. Though he often sensed a hostility towards the Ohlrethan priesthood and knew its probably cause, he still had no idea what that hostility signified.

A moment passed with the two women silent. Then Garon spoke again, her voice grating stonily. "That is absurd. What priest could be trusted with knowledge of Drase's powers? Any one of them would just use him for political gain."

"As would a nobleman or a mage, most likely," Jenla replied amusedly. Now Garon shifted uncomfortably at the truth in that statement. "There are some priests who would not be so greedy, Garon."

"Then they would still misuse him, but in the name of Ohlreth."

"In that case, let me be more specific. Select Pennard as your patron."

Eyes narrowed, Garon regarded Jenla suspiciously for several long seconds while Shona and Drase waited uncomfortably. The latter, though annoyed at being spoken of as an item for barter, nevertheless listened intently. Finally Garon replied, "You know who he is."

"Yes, I do."

"You can't possibly --"

"Yes, I can."

Drase could not tolerate the suspense any longer. "Just who in all hells are you talking about?"

Not at all surprised by his outburst, Jenla replied, "A High Priest... possibly the most powerful of the twelve."

Next to the mage, Shona's eyes widened. "The twelve..." he gasped. "Are you talking about the Council?"

"Tell me why you think he would work," interrupted Garon, paying no attention to either Shona or Drase.

"For one, he is an honorable man. But," Jenla continued, seeing Garon grimace, "I know that is not enough to convince you.

"Although he is not dying, Pennard has been living in intense pain for at least the past ten years. He has an illness that is slowly eating away at his body. Recently he lost the ability to move on his own, and now he must be carried by minor acolytes. Nothing seems to help the pain. Pennard would do anything, short of betraying Ohlreth, to be free of it... and Drase could do just that."

Garon rested her chin in her palm, thinking, then spoke in a low voice. "I did not ask you to come here to arrange things for me."

"Then why did you?" Seeing no answer forthcoming, the mage continued, "No one will question whom a man of such high rank hires. And... were he to die, his patronage would not be revoked, being that of a High Priest."

Slowly Garon relaxed. "Alright, he sounds good... so long as I can make him swear not to reveal Drase to anybody else. Now... how do you know all this?"

"I have my secrets too. It is enough for you to know that I owe the man a favor... now, where do you plan to wait in the outer city?"

"Shona, Drase, your part of the conversation is over. You may leave now."

Recognizing a dismissal, both boys stood and went to another table. Immediately upon sitting, Drase asked, "So what's the Council?"

"The twelve priests just below the Archpriest, who is the leader of the Church. Each of them corresponds to one of the Ohlrethan kingdoms... that makes them almost as powerful as the kings themselves! More powerful, certainly, in areas of spirituality."

The fact stunned Drase. He had expected something much less... but he was to be a servant of such a powerful man? It was more than he could comprehend, at the moment. Instead, he asked another question. "I heard them say that priests don't use servants. So, how can Pennard be our patron?"

"I don't know much about the system, but apparently any mage, priest, or noble can be a patron to someone in any other hierarchy. Patronage is little more than an oath of loyalty and a promise upon the patron's honor that the servant, or whatever, won't commit any crimes... it's usually something they award to favored lackeys, children and relatives. Anyway, it's also used to keep track of who enters the inner city. The lower ranks can't go there without a patron, and the mages enforce this rule."

Drase nodded, though he wondered why the aristocrats deemed such exclusivity necessary. A minute passed in silence, while both boys watched Garon and Jenla talk, though no words could be heard. Suddenly Shona murmured, "I would not have thought it possible to have skin like that."

"I wouldn't have thought so either," replied Drase. "The others here keep glancing at her, too. Still, I can't see it being very important."

Shona did not share his friend's impassivity. From time to time he would glance at the mage, then return his gaze to the table while he shook his head in wonder. Drase watched this behavior with amusement.

Some minutes passed. Eventually Shona, obviously looking for some sort of activity, asked, "Do you know how that mage came here?"

Eyebrows raised, Drase hazarded, "On horseback?"

"Well... yeah. But in less than a day, all the way from Othos! She told me as much."

"Did she tell you how?"

"No... I doubt I'd understand her magic, even then. But I will..."

Drase grinned. "Of course. The day draws ever closer."

"You're sure feeling good... me, I can barely wait to get into that bed."

"I could see why."

"So... aren't you excited?"

"I suppose."

Shona pressed on. "I mean, there's a mage sitting right over there! This is the kind of stuff that doesn't happen to normal people..."

Drase had never known what normality was like. So, he did not share that sense of wonder. Stung, he replied curtly to Shona's further attempts to start a conversation, until his friend receded to an uncomfortable quiet.

He felt unsettled, the facts of the day -- Jenla, the servant girl, the sights of this town -- unable to form coherent patterns in his mind. Momentarily he considered what he would have to do for a patron. Drase had no reservations about helping an old priest with his pain, but he was not sure about anything beyond that. Finally, he assured himself that he would refuse any dishonorable duties.

After some time Drase became aware that the mage was standing at their table. "Remember," she said, "I am Garon's friend, and thus yours. If you ever need help while in Othos, try to find me." Then Jenla was out the door. Behind her, the voices of the two conversing townsfolk who had been uncomfortable in her presence rose again. Garon came near.

"Our plans are set, though I'm still not sure whether a priest will do... I'm going to go tell Torrel. Here, buy yourself a meal." From a pocket Garon pulled forth a few copper coins and dropped them on the table, then she left for her room.

Shona pushed the coins over to Drase. At his questioning glance, Shona responded, "I wasn't lying when I said I wanted that bed." Then he, too, went upstairs.

Drase waved the serving girl over, and ordered whatever the kitchen was serving. As he paid for his plate of fruit, bread and cheese, she said, wearily, "I can see that you're all going somewhere better, away from places like this, so you may not understand how it is for those of us can't do that. I want to go to Kinsvale, but the road is long, far too long, and I'll never have enough money for the journey. The town's not going out to recruit anymore. It looks like I'm stuck with... your freedom." She said that last word with a bitter tone.

He was now using his abilities as well as he could without full concentration, and the thoughts and emotions revealed reflected the ones made obvious in her countenance. Still, the serving girl was weary in a way he did not understand. He compared what he was now seeing with the farmhouse seen earlier, sensing some kind of resemblance, but the link evaded him.

"Thank you for the food," he replied. As the girl turned away, Drase felt a pang of sympathy and said, "Wait. Have this," and handed her the remaining coin. If he had expected some change of expression, none was forthcoming. She left, pocketing the coin.

Somewhere out in the darkness, Gabri whimpered and died, whispering, "Lohni..." Kneeling over him, Jenla said, "I'm sorry, my child. You were supposed to make it further... we were to leave this place together." She looked wistfully to the east. "I wanted to give a clean parting... a memory of love and loss, rather than an empty place within. But I will not let you enter such a hard fate alone." Jenla picked up the boy's body, soft tears rolling down her face, and carried him back into the forest.

Time passed hazily for Garon, but that was nothing new for her. At times, in those moments of most importance -- stealthy missions in Talinya, speaking with Jenla, the multitude of events in Kinsvale, for instance -- the lethargy would lift, and Garon felt like she might still have the old capacity for enthusiasm, though not since leaving Melwydd had that emotion suffused her life. Drase and Shona might think that her customary grimness and forbearance was a result of some driving purpose, but they were wrong. It was merely a relic of a past best forgotten. Now, Kinsvale seeming far in her past, Garon was entering Othos with the air of one who had put all hesitation, all doubt, behind her. For the first time she felt as if the goal for which she had left Melwydd would be accomplished.

Meanwhile, Shona's gaze darted about with the curiosity to which Garon had become so accustomed, while Drase's expression was a bit pale and harried, probably something to do with his mind-magic. And Torrel was... strangely listless, as though he had lost a part of himself. He was grim in a way far different than Garon, and if he noticed her brooding, he did not care. None of the city dwellers gave a damn about the wagon and its riders, of course.

As the wagon rolled farther down the wide highway -- in this city called, with typical hypocrisy, the Road of Ohlreth -- the buildings crowded ever more densely, forced to greater and greater heights until most houses topped four stories. No security barred their way, though some guards policed the streets, for only the inner city merited such treatment. Finally she found the looked-for inn: The Gryphon's Launch. It was to the inn in Peor what Tolbert's house was to the huts of his workers.

"Drase, Shona," she said to her still oblivious companions, "Torrel. We've arrived."

Stepping down from the wagon, Garon entered the building.

"I've arrived," Lora'kel announced.

"Who are you?" a voice sounded belligerently from the symbol of Ohlreth nestled in an alcove in the west temple of Othos.

"Lora'kel, priest, and mage of the Ninth Circle. My name is on the books."

"Wait a moment... Church business, right? You're a bit late. The Church has been summoning priests since two months ago."

Sighing, Lora'kel dropped his head back onto the padded back of his seat. Most priests prayed in a more austere setting, but few of the higher ranks denied themselves small luxuries. Lora'kel was not one of those who favored wealth, but he had been the one to choose which alcove was enchanted for communication.

"Listen. I spent three weeks getting through the forest with only my horse for company." For such learned people as mages there was only one forest he could be talking about. "I found that, until the one at Peor, all the westernmost anchors were no longer working... and that one was already being used by another mage."

"I'm sure we'll get around to fixing them someday," the voice replied drily. "Why'd you spend so much time in the forest when you could've just bespelled the horse to move faster?"

Forcing his words past a barrier of guilt, Lora'kel replied, "I'm... not very skilled at using magic on living creatures. With my luck, I'd have only killed the poor beast." Lora'kel decided not to mention the fact that he could have easily found another alternative with his pipeline to the magic of the Portal. But he had needed that time riding through the forest to let the guilt and sorrow fade.

"I'm sure," came the sarcastic reply. Lora'kel thought poorly of this mage's manners, but he knew what such routine duty could be like. "Okay, your arrival's recorded. You'll be using the Priest's Gate, of course."

"I'd prefer the Mage's Gate," Lora'kel replied sharply. The Priest's Gate required far too many formalities for his taste.

"Let me see if protocol allows it." There was silence for about two minutes. Then the voice of the mage sounded again, now with a touch of awe, "Holy Ohlreth. You're a High Priest... the Council joins as soon as you get in. So the answer's yes, much ceremony is necessary. You'll be met outside the Priest's Gate as soon as you decide to make an entrance, and that had better be soon, the politics of the Church are getting out of hand. Apparently it's not at all clear who's to be the next Archpriest..."

"Thank you, that's enough," Lora'kel replied, then cut off the flow of magic to the icon. Best to get it over with quickly, he thought, deciding to leave immediately for the inner city. Without a doubt, the mage on communication duty was now running to tell his superiors the news of his arrival, but if Lora'kel got there quickly the priesthood would have had no time to prepare a ceremony.

Lora'kel had few illusions about his standing with the other eleven High Priests of Ohlreth. At most, he had two allies among them. The rest considered him far too rebellious and asocial for his position. Many must still be puzzling over the fact that he had been appointed in the first place. Lora'kel himself did not begrudge the others their politics, deciding it was, in an indirect way, formed from their own ideas of devotion to Ohlreth, but he would in no circumstance act the same way.

The priest of low rank who had shown Lora'kel to the alcove after he had arrived, still sore from his long ride along the ancient highway, knew nothing of such high matters; for him, a priest of Lora'kel's rank was barely different from Ohlreth himself. The man probably did well enough in the west temple, but he obviously lacked enough creativity to go beyond what ritual dictated; at the moment, he had just returned with two of higher rank to make sure that the proper rituals could be obeyed. Lora'kel scowled at the lot of them and walked the other way. When the three scurried after, Lora'kel told them curtly that he did not desire a procession, thank you very much, and that his travelling clothes would do, and that they had better take their attention elsewhere, so that when he finally left the temple through a small, acolyte's entrance, he would be alone, emblem of rank concealed once again beneath his shirt.

There were nine temples in the outer city of Othos, spaced irregularly. Although each bore the name of a famous Archpriest, they were known by the eight cardinal points, while the last was named the seaside temple, for obvious reasons. Therefore, finding the inner city from the west temple was a simple matter of walking east, although the distance between the two intimidated many. He took to the Road of Ohlreth, confident that no one would recognize a rogue High Priest who had been gone for two decades, but one look at the street ahead told him the situation was not that simple.

The middle of the street was utterly clear, for one thing: guards in the white livery of the Church were herding people out of the street. From the east approached a block of ten acolytes, followed by at least a half-dozen priests of all ranks precisely ordered around a large, central carriage. Farther behind were even more acolytes, guards, priests, countless unfortunates bound to this ritual. Lora'kel ground his teeth in annoyance for the pointless mummery surrounding the movements of a High Priest.

Who it was could not be made out at this distance. Even as Lora'kel tried to look, a white-garbed soldier ordered him to move farther to the side. Lora'kel obeyed, wondering whether he should do anything. He could easily appropriate one of those horses and reach the inner city far more quickly than on foot, but it would mean risking exposure to the multitude of ceremonies these priests would feel obligated to impose on him.

Finally sheer impatience spurred him to action. Although the priests rode either ahorseback or on the carriage, the densely-packed acolytes marched on foot, slowing the procession to their pace. After about five minutes of waiting they had only begun to pass him. Gritting his teeth in frustration, Lora'kel strode past them to the nearest full-fledged priest, before the nearby guards could do anything more than gape in amazement at his boldness. As he did so Lora'kel drew from beneath his shirt his emblem of rank, shaped as the icon of Ohlreth.

To Lora'kel it was little more than a glorified compass rose, for he lacked any awe for the physical symbolism of Ohlreth. However, to judge by his sudden inability to breathe, this priest did, and Lora'kel had to admit there was reason for the fright. The eight-pointed star was crafted entirely from platinum, magically hardened, and inscribed with the name of each of the Books of Ohlreth; of course, only High Priests merited such valuable jewelry, and they would never sell one. However, its worth was such that Kinsvale could be bought five times over with its price.

The presence of such a splendid jewel in the hands of one who looked to be a peasant, as well as the nearly unimaginable scenario that implied, was enough to scatter the wits out of the poor priest. However, a fellow next to him had more presence of mind, and waved away the guards who were closing in on Lora'kel. He motioned Lora'kel forward, obviously distrusting his possession of the medallion, but knowing it was Lora'kel's head on the block if any thievery was discovered. This new priest sent word, and after an impatient wait a carriage arrived. Lora'kel chuckled to himself, recognizing the high rank that its ornate panelling implied.

Amused at the confusion spreading among acolytes, priests, and peasants alike, Lora'kel walked forward to the carriage and stepped up onto its sidetrack. All around him people stared, though they averted their gazes rather than meet his own. There was one thing to be said for ritual: nothing was more amusing than making a shambles of it.

Ignoring their words, Lora'kel only waited long enough for the side door of the carriage to be opened. He did wonder how many here thought him an impostor, but that would be set to rest as soon as he met the other High Priest. Any of them would know Lora'kel, if not personally then by reputation.

Lora'kel entered the carriage, and paused at the entrance, surprised by its layout. Lacking the usual gilded seats, the interior of this one held nothing more than a bed, covered thickly with blankets of silk, bearskin and other rich materials. In comparison to the carriage, which could have seated -- no, slept -- more than a half a dozen, the High Priest within looked comically small.

"Who is it?" a familiar voice called tremulously from within. It was really too dark for Lora'kel to see anything more than the Hight Priest's outline, despite the door being wide open.

It took a moment for long-dormant memories to return, but when they did Lora'kel asked, "Pennard?"

"I said who... Lorasnos? Is that really you?"

"My name is Lora'kel now, Pennard," he replied softly, wondering at his old friend's condition. Then he continued, with customary lack of etiquette, "What happened to you?"

"It's been twenty years..." Pennard spoke wonderingly. "We were beginning to think you had died."

Lora'kel shrugged. "With reason," he replied. Then, after a moment's thought, "A divan would have been more comfortable for you..."

"Not for the acolytes who'd have to carry it." Pennard lifted his hand towards Lora'kel, who clasped it dazedly. The hand was nearly fleshless, and he could feel the ridged bones of the High Priest's hand through the skin. It was also hot, almost feverishly so. Lora'kel fought back a shudder of dismay.

Pennard, not oblivious to Lora'kel's query -- for it seemed his mind had not decayed along with his body -- spoke again: "It doesn't matter much, anyway. The pain is always there, and a rough ride can't add much to it."

"Pain...? What is the cause of your pain?"

Closing his eyes, Pennard responded, "Fifteen years ago, there was a project to tie all the anchors within the Othoan Empire into the structure of a wheel, to be controlled from here in Othos. However, the runic binding we used to arrange the anchors failed almost immediately. I drew the majority of the backlash into my own body, but ever since... my muscles waste away, my joints burn with an increasing pain, my skins tears of its own accord. All because we tried to take control."

Made almost wordless with pity, Lora'kel murmured, "Have the mages...?"

"Yes, but I now refuse their aid. I eventually realized that their magic hastened the deterioration of my body, and I have too much work to do before I pass on."

Marvelling at his friend and one-time tutor's strength, Lora'kel remained silent. After a moment Pennard spoke the adage common to peasants: "Ohlreth works in mysterious ways."

Theological debates had a way of flourishing around Lora'kel, but he did not answer, deeming it cruel to argue with a dying man. "But we both know that's not the entire story," Pennard continued. "Ohlreth does not free us from the consequences of our own actions."

Lora'kel nodded, agreeing with this much. Now that he was accustomed to the dim interior, he studied his friend's face for a few seconds. The High Priest was completely bald, but had been so for decades. Worse were the sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, and bloodless complexion bespeaking the man's illness: Lora'kel was forced to look away despairingly. It was as if Pennard was paying the penance for Lora'kel's sins, when he would be more than willing to take them on himself.

"Listen to me," Pennard whispered. "You have come at a troubled time for our Church. You must know..."

"It can wait!" Lora'kel snarled before he could stop himself. Then, "Damn the politics. I'll figure it out soon enough, but I don't want any faction -- not even yours -- trying to sway me to their side."

"Politics is your duty," Pennard replied. "You can't... never mind, I think I understand. You hate the backstabbing and deception that infests the Council, but you will still choose the option you feel is right."

"As well as I can," Lora'kel responded softly, thinking of the many instances in which his choices had been for the worse. "I... I suppose you need to go about your business. Can I take one of your priests' horses to get to the temple?"

"Of course. Would you give me the privilege of a visit after we have made our decision?"

"Yes," Lora'kel answered, marvelling at the dignity his friend displayed despite unimaginable pain. "You actually think the Council will gather soon?"

"As I said before," Pennard replied softly, "We were only waiting for you to arrive."

"This city is amazing!" Shona gestured in a grand manner out the window of the third-story room the two boys were sharing. Drase looked, but saw only only a sea of brown-tiled roofs ending at the wall of a large temple. He felt delirious from the presence of so many other minds. Othos had grandeur enough, but the density of people pressed in on him. Still, not willing to lower his friend's high spirits, Drase replied, "Sure. Are you ready yet?"

"Almost," Shona replied, and went back to tugging at his hair, trying to untangle the strands which had grown a fair amount during their journey. Drase had solved the same problem by cutting his hair down to a short length. Add to that a similarly hasty bathing, and Drase considered himself presentable.

Torrel had met them in the bottom floor of the inn a few hours after their arrival, bearing news that they would meet the High Priest, named Pennard, in the nearby temple when the evening bells rang. Drase noted that he still seemed listless and wan, a far different man than the strong figure who had departed the forest. Torrel was waiting downstairs, for apparently the evening bells would be ringing soon. Drase, too, was ready to go -- but Shona, shaken by his approaching encounter with a High Priest, preened himself frantically.

Finally Shona gave up on his hair and adjusted once again his clothes, even though they were the same ones he had been wearing for months, and, as far as Drase could tell, perfectly clean thanks to the inn's servants. Shona examined his appearance in the vague reflection of the glass windows, a luxury that Shona, for once, was indifferent to. Finally Drase, annoyed beyond restraint, snapped, "Let's go, now."

"Can't you wait just one more minute?" Shona asked, not even turning around.

Beginning to reply, Drase's words were stolen from the air as the sound of tolling bells filled the room. Shona froze, his hand at his collar, then dashed for the door. Drase, wincing with pain, followed after.

The rented room was about three times as large as the one in Peor, and far more luxurious; more, there were eight suites on this floor, eight more below, and three massive suites on the fourth. Each level, moreover, had its own latrines and bath, although all water had to be pumped in by hand. Drase, rarely enthusiastic for luxury, nevertheless regretted that he would only be sleeping here one night.

He caught up with Shona at the stairway. Shona, who had paused to let Drase catch up, watched Drase with an unsettingly direct gaze. "Are you feeling alright?" he asked.

No, he was not, but such was the obstinancy of Drase that he was loathe to admit the fact. His power, boon that it had once been, had in the previous weeks proven itself not without penalties. Drase knew no way to consciously diminish his ability, and now, in the middle of a city of thousands, he found himself at all times pressed inward by the hundreds surrounding him, almost painfully aware of the thoughts of those closest. It had not yet proven debilitating, but the sheer amount of input almost overwhelmed his mind. Drase feared that, unless he discovered a way to control his own perception, he might be trapped again by another's overwhelming emotion, similar to the murder of Alin...

"Drase," Shona said, pulling on his friend's arm. "What's wrong?"

He did not want to reply, but Shona was a friend and deserved an explanation. Drase tried to bring himself to communicate his pain with his friend, but could not bring himself to diminish Shona's proud moment. He jerked his arm from Shona's grasp. "There's nothing wrong with me. Can we go?"

Shona's mouth worked silently. Then, words came forth reluctantly. "You've been acting strangely the entire time we've been in this city..."

"That's absurd," Drase replied, beginning to tremble despite his best efforts at control. He had thought that he had kept the nauseating input under control. "I was just... taking a moment to think."

Apparently Shona did not want to pursue the matter. Instead, he simply followed Drase down the stairs. At the second floor landing, he asked, "Drase? Is your mind-magic still paining you, like it was in those other towns to the west?" Drase nodded curtly. "Do you think you should stay here...?"

Grimacing, Drase interrupted, "I said I'm fine!"

At the shadowed second-floor landing they stopped briefly to compose themselves. Drase discovered with some surprise that he was nervous, not only from the thoughts of so many others but from the meeting soon to come. Then, cursing himself for a coward, he followed Shona down the stairs. "Are we late?" he asked Shona curtly, who replied, "No, that was just the tolling of the hour. Shall we go?"

Drase nodded, and strode towards the door, passing along the way a bar, several curtained alcoves, and a row of paintings, more evidence of the richness of this inn. Upon entering for the first time he had given a long look to the artwork, but they all showed sickeningly Ohlrethan panoramas. So far, Othos was living up to its reputation of gaudiness.

At the door he stopped, realizing that Torrel was not yet with them, but Shona soon led the fellow out of the common room, along with Garon. As they left the inn the traveller whispered, "Stay behind me. We can't go in the front entrance of the church, but one of the acolytes' doors will do. Torrel?"

"Everything is ready," their companion replied, stepping outside ahead of the three. "See... the High Priest comes right now."

As he moved outside, Drase was nearly overwhelmed, but he forced himself to regain his composure. From the center of the city approached a short procession headed by a grim and serious guard. Behind them rode some low-ranking priests mounted on well-adorned horses, surrounding a rickety but ornate carriage topped by a huge carving of the Hand of Ohlreth, raised as if in blessing. Drase felt a momentary dizziness, which soon passed.

Shona was eagerly devouring the spectacle, while Torrel showed mild curiosity. Meanwhile, Garon was angry as Drase had only seen her once before, on the road to Othos, when a travelling priest had demanded one of their horses after riding his own to death; luckily, he had been content to recieve enough silver to buy one at the next town. However, Drase was too busy fighting off the crowd's emotions to analyze the feeling he was receiving from his friend.

Torrel led the trio around the Gryphon's Launch to the alley in the rear. Then, they turned again toward the east and followed the winding way, until it ended abruptly at the wall of the temple. By now Drase felt that he was out of danger of falling prey to his own mind-magic, and he gave some attention to his surroundings.

The side of the temple was of grey brick from which thrust every several paces a wide buttress, supports for the huge weight of the temple. Torrel led them south along the strange wall, with nondescript houses on the facing side, until they came across a well-hidden door. It was nestled between two of the broad supports, utterly plain and nondescript. Nothing around them gave any clues to its presence, though the door was not precisely concealed. Obviously the entrance was made to be unnoticable.

Torrel rapped on the wood of the door with his knuckles, and it was immediately opened with only the barest hint of creaking wood. An acolyte stood holding the door, and as he opened his mouth to send the non-priests away Torrel lifted a hand, revealing a grimy silver ring on one of his fingers. The acolyte's mouth twisted into a grimace, but he let them inside.

The entrance was just a gray room with a single chair and two doors. Torrel led the way through the inner portal as the acolyte sat back down, glaring menacingly at the intruders. Just inside was a larger room, with two desks. One was empty, but at the other an aged priest slept with his head nestled in his arms. Before any of the others could take a more polite approach, Garon slammed her fist onto the surface of the desk. Considering the situation, the priest reacted with remarkable calmness, only stiffening quickly into an upright position. A scowl identical to that of the acolyte quickly appeared on his face, which showed no trace of shame at his laziness.

"What's your business?" the priest whined in a high, wheezing voice.

"Ohlreth sends help to His most faithful servants," Torrel replied cryptically, a faint smile on his lips. The priest began to show uncertainty. He flipped open a wood-bound ledger, which until a moment ago had served as his pillow, and glanced down at its contents. His face twisted in a smirk.

Looking up at Torrel with amusement, the priest instructed him, "Turn left outside of this doorway, and go until you see a flight of stairs. Climb to the next floor and wait there. If you do anything else, the penalties will be on your heads." Then he neither spoke further nor changed position until they had left through the opposite door; afterward, Drase fancied he heard a chair shifting as the priest found a comfortable way to sleep. He still did not dare to use his mind-magic for eavesdropping, for despite his best efforts the impression of people in every direction forced its way into his mind.

"What strange architecture..." Shona said, casting his gaze at the stone walls. Garon shot him an annoyed look, while Torrel seemed to not be listening. "I mean, the design makes no sense. I don't even see any chapels or prayer alcoves or icons, just doors and more doors."

Garon laughed contemptuously. "I've seen Ohlrethan temples before, boy. Common folk never get past the main chapel, and that's as pretty as human hands can make it, while the areas where high ranking priests walk and live are fancy too." Neither boy thought to ask how she knew this. "But everywhere else the theme is cheapness, ugliness, and priests packed into cells thicker than soldiers in a barracks. The Church can never have enough servants, apparently. Since no acolytes are around to pester us --", a fact Drase had noted as well, "this is probably just storage area. See?" Without warning, she opened a wooden door that they were passing by, and stale air rushed into the corridor.

"What are you doing?" Shona shouted, but Torrel had already pushed Garon away and slammed shut the door.

"So much for your experience," their companion said, his voice low. "That room once contained memories, but they have long since been consumed by the greedy. I want to leave, I want to finally leave. Let us tarry no further."

The three remained locked for a moment in their respective positions: Garon tight-jawed and obviously at a loss for words, staring at the doorway, Torrel grim, with his hand still on the knob, and Shona staring in stupified amazement at both. Drase found a moment to pity his friend's inexperience. Then he turned and, pretending to be undisturbed, continued down the corridor. His companions followed behind, and they soon came to the stairway the priest had mentioned, a flight so narrow that two people could not stand abreast.

Here Drase stood aside while Torrel ascended. He found to his surprise that his mind-magic had suddenly and abruptly ceased to disturb him. It was as though it had weakened to the level of when he still lived in Kinsvale: his senses were heightened, but he could only sense the minds of his companions, and detecting thought or emotion would take a conscious effort. What had happened to his mind-magic? Exhaustion, Drase decided. The ability must still require energy to work, even if I can't control that energy. There must have been too many minds out there to sense all at once, at least for long.

He took the ascent last, just after Shona, and was amazed at how uncomfortably it had been built. To reach the next stair he had to step up shin-height, onto a slab only slightly wider than his own foot. After three steps he was already sore; worse, his shoulders brushed against the walls with every step. With the narrowness of the flight and the height of the ceiling, Drase felt like he was ascending some freakish stone well, and the slight dampness on the walls increased this impression. Finally he saw Shona reach a landing which was almost as narrow as the stairs, and, his friend stopping to take a rest, Drase took the opportunity to survey the cramped stairway. There was only a single oil lamp high on the wall above the landing, which threw every object and person into sharp contrast. Shadows flickered across Shona's face in a ghastly way, and high above the darkness danced along the cobwebs and the stone like a thing alive, following the flickering of the lamp's flame. Drase found it odd that shadows would seem so much more alive than anything else present; shivering, he directed his gaze upward, and noticed that both Garon and Torrel -- seemingly indefatigable compared to him and Shona -- were almost at the top. He nudged Shona, who began once again to climb.

Turning, Drase descended all the way back to the bottom of that tall passage. She looked down at the Books which she had written so long ago, and began to cry, while on the stairs the shadows moved.

Word from the forest


12 October 2015 at 13:08:18 MDT

Dedicated to Allen and Devin.

I wrote the majority of this story from ages ten to fourteen, intending it to be the first novel of many. Instead, I fell in love with philosophy, and left fantasy to languish on my hard drive. In 2012, I rediscovered the fragment, proofread it, and finished it.

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