Authors: Steven A. Tolle
“I always try to be careful.” Jonas said with a soft laugh. “Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out for me.”
The sounds of approaching horses interrupted them. Dominic rode up on Shadow, leading Dontas. He had a new breastplate on, though it did not seem to fit particularly well. Jonas looked meaningfully at it, a slight smile on his face.
“It was the best I could find.” Dominic said with a shrug of his shoulders. “I will have Norlan make a new one, if we return.” He handed the reins of Dontas to Jonas. “We are ready to go.”
Jonas climbed into the saddle and faced Silvan and Hailyn. He raised a hand. “Go with the blessings of the One. May He see you safely home.”
“As with you and our brothers and sisters as well.” Silvan replied, nodding her head.
With that, Dominic and Jonas rode over to join Alleon and his soldiers, the chosen clerics falling in behind Jonas. Amid the shouts of encouragement from the assembled soldiers, many raising their swords or spears in salute, the smaller group rode through the rest of the force and headed east on the road, quickly disappearing around the bend.
Captain Grashin called the rest of the solders back into order and began to turn everyone around. It was cramped on the narrow forest road and took nearly thirty minutes to get the wagons turned around and his force deployed as he wanted it. Once he was satisfied, he rode over to Keria, who was back in her carriage.
The carriage had two soldiers to drive it, both armed with bows. Silvan had arranged ten of her clerics around the carriage for protection; the rest were dispersed throughout the formation. Along with Marcus, who was on his horse next to the carriage, twenty soldiers were assigned to guard it directly, staying as close as the road would allow.
“Your Highness, with your permission, we will get underway.” Captain Grashin told Keria, hand raised in salute.
“You have my permission, Captain. Let us depart.” Keria replied.
With a shout from Grashin, amid the snorts and whinnies from the horses, the army began the ride out of the forest.
Hailyn was driving Jonas’ wagon, positioned a short distance behind Keria’s carriage. She sat there, her mind wandering from time to time, as the forest rolled by. She often turned to look over her shoulder at Jake, hoping for a change in his condition, but he remained the same.
She was surprised when, as the sky began to darken, the army continued to ride on. When Silvan rode by, moving around the caravan to check on the clerics, Hailyn hailed her.
“Sister, are we not stopping for the night?” She asked.
“No, Hailyn.” Silvan replied. “Grashin and I have decided that we will continue on until we clear the forest. You should prepare yourself for a long night in that seat.” With that, she rode on.
The pace slowed as night fell over the forest, the lead riders lighting torches to illuminate the way ahead, but the army did not stop. Hailyn recognized the side road that led to the miners’ camp as they passed it in dark, and then just like that, it was gone. The monotony of the journey, with only the sounds of horses and the soft murmur of soldiers’ conversations audible in the dark forest, began to take its toll. Hailyn caught herself drifting off on several occasions, shaking herself awake. She tried to focus on the movement of the riders in front of her, desperate to stay alert. It was a difficult and long night, but near dawn, they came upon the main north-south forest road. As the sun came up and showered the trees in light, they turned north and picked up the pace of travel. They rode at a steady pace for most of the morning, finally arriving at a well-worn dirt trail that stretched across the forest. They turned west again, moving slowly through the trees, and finally exited onto the rolling plains in the late afternoon.
Hailyn was glad to be out of the forest, savoring the open land in front of her. Once the army was out of the trees and onto the rolling grassland, Grashin called for a halt. Exhausted soldiers slowly climbed off their horses, shaking their legs and stretching. The horses began to graze on the green grass, moving slowly, clearly tired.
After a quick check on Jake, Hailyn climbed down from the wagon, grateful for the chance to move around. She was checking on the wagon horses when Silvan rode up.
“Hailyn, we need to heal the horses and relieve them of their fatigue. We are not stopping here.” Silvan said. “We will continue on until we reach the local garrison. Grashin has already sent riders ahead. It will be safer with some
stone walls around us, allowing us to relieve the soldiers and rest the horses. Once you finish with your horses, see to the others in the area.”
“Yes, Sister.” Hailyn replied. Silvan gave her a nod and rode off.
Hailyn, along with her fellow clerics, spent the next twenty minutes moving from horse to horse, using her magic to refresh and reinvigorate them. In spite of her own fatigue, she could not help but smile at the playful head nudges and soft whinnies from the horses after she had restored them.
As soon as the clerics had finished, the army remounted and began moving again. Free of the trees, Grashin had the formation close ranks around Keria’s carriage while the outriders lit torches as night settled on the area. Hailyn found herself getting impatient with the pace, ready for sleep, almost trying to will the garrison to appear. The open grasslands did not give her the same sense of forward movement as she had in the forest.
Her mind drifting, her body craving rest, she was taken by surprise when the cheer went up from the soldiers. Standing up, she could see around the carriage and over the soldiers to spy the burning torches that lined the stone battlements of the local garrison’s fortress.
Within an hour of spotting the fortress, everyone was safely inside the walls. The courtyard was packed with wagons and soldiers. Nearly every inch of available ground was taken up by sleeping soldiers, many who simply sank to the bare ground, forgoing blankets. The horses had been taken to the stable area, with many tied up to the outside of the corral, as the barn was not big enough to hold them all. As she prepared the wagon seat as a makeshift bed, Hailyn watched somewhat enviously as Keria, with Marcus by her side, was led into the garrison commander’s quarters to sleep in a real bed.
Sighing, Hailyn rearranged her blankets again, trying to cushion the wooden seat a bit more. Despite the accommodations, she was grateful to be inside the walls, knowing that Jake was now safe. As had become her habit, she looked into the wagon bed to check on him. He lay there as he had since the battle, eyes closed. He still had not given any signs of coming around. She had to resist the urge to reach down and touch his face. As she sat there and studied his face in the torchlight, she almost jumped out of her seat when his eyes suddenly popped open.
In the hills far to the east, with the torches burning brightly behind him, Delan slowly paced across the rough road, looking up towards the rocks and trees, watching for anyone approaching. He had drawn the night watch, which initially angered him. After some thought, though, he had decided it was better than being inside with the Masters. They were still in a fury; it only took a single wrong word or action to bring their wrath down on any of the followers.
himself a short, ugly chuckle. That idiot Siban had drawn the attention of the Masters, as they squabbled over who would lead, saying out loud that they should simply let the strongest one do so. Temporarily setting aside their differences, several descended on him and ripped him apart, making a bloody mess. It was a lesson to any others that had opinions they wished to voice.
Secretly, Delan was glad since he hated Siban. He had been an arrogant fool and tried to lord over Delan when the demon they served placed him in charge. The Masters had saved him the effort of having to kill Siban himself.
Still, there had been much confusion after their lord had fallen. The Masters had begun to fight amongst themselves for power, rallying followers to their side. There had been numerous pitched battles inside the fortress, with several groups fleeing into the forest, until the Masters worked out a system to govern what was left.
In the end, three of the Masters would now work together to make the decisions. Delan shook his head as he thought about it. He really did not care who ran things. He only wished to be out raiding, taking lives, gold, and women.
As he glanced back at the other two followers standing guard, he heard the sound of approaching horses coming from the forest.
It may just be some of those fools who ran off, but I need to be sure.
He drew his sword and moved up to where some strategically placed boulders bordered the road, designed to prevent any attacker from flanking the guards. He stepped into the middle of the road and waited.
The sound grew louder. He could tell that there was a fairly large party approaching. He thought of raising the alarm, but he was not going to risk the Masters’ wrath if it was only some of the followers returning.
In the dim light of the torches, he saw a large man on a black horse come riding over the crest of the hill. As the horse ran straight for him, a long bright sword appeared in the man’s hand. Behind him came more riders.
Delan, already bringing his weapon up, felt himself go cold when he made out the scars on the man’s face. He knew who this was! He began to shout the alarm when several of the riders were suddenly surrounded by brightly glowing yellow auras, the one behind the scarred warrior outshining them all. The cry on his lips died when a bright lance of yellow fire raced out towards Delan, striking him, and he was suddenly no more.
“Where are we?” Jake asked, voice soft and raspy, looking up at Hailyn, who was staring down at him, her eyes shining in the light of the torches.
“We are at the fortress of the local garrison, near the north-south highway.” Hailyn replied, a large smile on her face. She reached out to touch his face, but, her smile suddenly fading, withdrew her hand. “How do you feel, Jake?”
“Really weak.” Jake replied, trying to shift in the blankets. “I can barely lift my head.”
Jake felt as though his whole body was sucked dry of strength. He had drifted in a quiet darkness after he had launched his last attack. He had been so frightened by the thought of Keria dying that he had frantically tried to gather every last bit of power to stop Creatos. There had been a brief sensation of his body being drained, as if something was being pulled from inside him, then darkness. He would occasionally detect a soft murmur, as if hearing voices from a great distance. There were brief moments when an impression of movement intruded in that quiet place.
He had been drifting along, oblivious to everything, when a voice suddenly rose in the darkness. It was the same voice that had spoken in his disturbing dream.
You have done well, child.
The voice said, kind and gentle.
But you must wake.
With that, he became aware of soft sounds of men snoring and fires crackling, could feel the blankets against his skin and opened his eyes. It had taken him a moment to for his eyes to adjust, finally seeing Hailyn with the watch fires in the background.
“You should just relax.” She stated. “We are safe here.”
“What happened?” Jake asked. “Is Keria ok?”
fine, thanks to you.” Hailyn responded. “We defeated the demon lord and all of us made it out of the demons’ fortress.”
“Dominic?” Jake asked quietly. He remembered the blow that Creatos had struck.
“Jonas healed him, Jake.” Hailyn said reassuringly. “He is his usual self.”
Jake let out a breath he did not realize he had been holding, a feeling of relief spreading through his body. He tried to move again, but his body did not seem to want to work.
“Do you need anything? Hailyn asked.
“Some water. My mouth feels so dry.” Jake said.
Hailyn reached down and pulled her waterskin from under the wagon bench. Out of reflex, she started to hand it to Jake, but then remembered Jonas’ admonishment.
“If I set it down next to you, can you pick it up?” Hailyn asked. She hesitated for a moment, but continued. “Jonas believes that you somehow interjected your life-force into your magic during the
battle, just as you did before in the forest. He is not sure how to help you yet, but has instructed that none of the clerics are to touch you or get too close. He is concerned that the clerics’ magic may trigger the transfer of power that occurred between you and him. He fears that, in your condition, such a connection may kill the cleric.”
Jake was stunned by that, but did not know what to say. When he tried to lift his arm, it was clear that manipulating the waterskin was beyond him. “Maybe you could just pour it in my mouth?” Jake suggested.
“I will help him.” A familiar voice said as Marcus walked up to the wagon. He had taken off his armor, but still had his sword on. With a slight smile for Hailyn, he took the waterskin from her, then reached into the wagon bed and, with unexpected gentleness, lifted Jake’s head, bringing the skin to Jake’s mouth.
Jake drank deeply and gratefully. Marcus watched him
closely, removing the waterskin when Jake gave a slight nod and setting his head back onto the blankets.
“I am in your debt for saving Keria, Jake.” Marcus said as recapped the waterskin, his tone serious. “You faced the demon lord, something I know that I could not have done and, because of your sacrifice, Keria was rescued. Except for giving up my pursuit of her or anything that would harm her, I stand ready to repay that debt. You only need tell me what you wish and I will make it happen.”
“We can discuss that later, Marcus.” Jake said cautiously. “How is she?”
“Tired, but safe.” Marcus replied. He gestured towards the commander’s quarters. “She was cleaning up and preparing for bed when I left her.”
Marcus stood next to the wagon while Hailyn filled Jake in on the events that had occurred since he lost consciousness, adding his perspective from time to time. He helped Jake eat some rations and drink more water while he was there.
After Hailyn finished speaking, he made to leave. “I will be sleeping outside Keria’s room, if you need me.” He said. “I believe that we will spend tomorrow here, allowing the soldiers and horses to rest, then depart the following day. I will come by in the morning to check on you. Good night to you both.” With that, he strode back towards the commander’s quarters, carefully stepping over and around the sleeping soldiers.
“I need to get some sleep. You should try and rest also, Jake.” Hailyn said with a yawn. “I will be here if you need me. Just call out.” She gave him another smile, and then lay down on the wagon bench.
Jake lay there looking up at the sky, the torchlight blocking out some of the fainter stars. Amidst the snores of the soldiers, he heard Hailyn’s gentle breath fall into the regular rhythm of sleep. He
stared at the dark sky, his thoughts churning, then slowly, his mind calmed and he fell into the familiar oblivion of sleep.
With the sun already in the sky, Jake woke to smell of cooking food and the sounds of the hustle and bustle of soldiers moving about the courtyard, talking and laughing. He tried to lift his head, but was only able to raise it a few inches, feeling as if some invisible hand was holding it down.
“Good morning, Jake.” Hailyn’s voice came from the bench behind him. He twisted his head around to look at her. She was in fresh clothes and evidently had found the time to bathe, her damp hair glistening in the sun. She gave him a warm smile, her brown eyes catching the morning sun, the golden flakes seeming to shine. “How do you feel?”
“Everything seems to be working, but my body is still really weak.” Jake said, returning her smile. “I wish I knew what happened to me.”
“You need to rest and be patient.” Hailyn responded, voice confident. “Once Master Jonas returns, I am sure that he will find a way to help you.”
“If what you said about the clerics and me is right, then I can’t let him do anything.” Jake stated. “I don’t want him to get hurt or worse for me.”
“Well, that is an issue that we will address when it happens.” Hailyn said soothingly. “Maybe you will simply get better with a little time.”
“Maybe.” Jake said, turning his head back. “I just wish I could sit up.”
“That is easy enough.” Marcus’ voice sounded as he walked up to the wagon. Jake turned his head to see that Marcus had also bathed and changed into clean clothes.
I guess I’m the only one who isn’t getting a shower.
Jake thought self-consciously as he looked at his dirty clothes.
Marcus piled some blankets against the side of the wagon’s rails, and then assisted Jake into a sitting position, lifting and pulling him until he was resting against the blankets. Jake was embarrassed that Marcus had to do most of the work, but was mostly distracted by an odd crawling sensation that occurred when Marcus touched him. He had not noticed it last night, but now it felt like ants crawling on him, of all things. It was slightly uncomfortable, but mostly just really weird. It faded away when Marcus released him, leaving Jake pondering what it was.
Now sitting up, Jake had a view of the courtyard, seeing the smoke rising from the numerous cook fires, observing the groups of soldiers working and noticing the guards on the stone battlements watching for any approaching danger. The smell of cooking food set his stomach growling. Jake blushed slightly when he realized Hailyn had heard it.
“I will get you something to eat, Jake.” She said as she slid off the wagon bench. Jake watched her as she made her way towards the nearest cook fire, nodding and responding to the greetings from the soldiers.
“Have you thought more on how I can settle my debt?” Marcus asked, pulling Jake’s attention back to him.
“Look, Marcus, you don’t owe me anything.” Jake said, looking him in the eye. “We both wanted Keria safe and we both did what we could to make that happen.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “I would like to continue our truce, at least. I would rather have you as a friend than an enemy.”
“What about Keria?” Marcus asked quietly and intently, leaning close. “How can we be friends if we both want her?” He now paused, looking away, then looked back at Jake, eyes determined. “I will not step aside. I love her.” He stated simply.
Jake sighed heavily, looking down. He did not have a good answer for that. He tried to raise his hand to his face, but could only make it about halfway, his arm shaking, then let it fall back into his lap.
“Let us put that aside for now.” Marcus said, a note of sympathy in his voice. “I will honor our truce. We can discuss it later, once you have healed.”
They remained there quietly, both lost in their own thoughts, until Hailyn returned with a plate of food. Marcus took it from her and helped Jake eat. The food was hot and satisfying, distracting Jake from his troubles for the most part. That strange sensation reoccurred every time Marcus’s hand got very close to Jake, almost touching, fading when he removed it, taking some of the enjoyment away from the food.
After Jake had finished eating, Marcus excused himself and went back to the commander’s quarters. Adjusting his position to get comfortable, Jake just sat there, staring aimlessly at the activity in the courtyard, his mind jumbled with thoughts of Keria, Marcus and his physical condition. Hailyn sat on the bench, watching him, but saying nothing.
“How is our patient this morning?” A female voice intruded into his thoughts, pulling Jake’s attention outward. Jake saw a middle-aged female cleric approaching, a serious look on her plain face, her hair, streaked with gray and pulled tightly back from her face, tied into a long ponytail. She nodded a greeting to Jake and turned towards Hailyn.
“He is better than yesterday, Sister Silvan.” Hailyn replied courteously. “He is still physically weak, but he knows where he is and has an appetite.”
“That is good to hear.” Silvan said. She came closer to Jake, peering at his face, trying to gauge his condition. She leaned in, studying his face and looking over his body. When she got closer, Jake could feel that crawling sensation again, but it was much stronger this time. He frowned, wondering
what it could be. He was not sure if he should mention it to Hailyn, since she could not touch him to see if there was anything wrong. Thankfully, Silvan backed away, apparently satisfied, and the sensation faded away.
“I will leave him in your care, Hailyn.” Silvan said as she made to go. “Try and rest today. We will be leaving at first light tomorrow and driving hard for Sanduas.” With a nod to Jake, she strode off.
For the rest of the day, Jake sat there thinking and kept drifting in and out of sleep. When awake, he was distracted and frustrated by his weakened state, not feeling the need for conversation. Hailyn seemed content to simply be nearby, talking with Jake when he wanted to talk, sitting and quietly reading a scroll when he was quiet.
Marcus came out several times to see if Jake needed anything, bringing water and food when asked. Jake had to endure Marcus helping him to the latrines, since his legs were not able to support his weight to go on his own. Marcus took it in stride, unaffected, but Jake was embarrassed to need help in this, conscious of the soldiers nearby, as well as Hailyn. The indignity of not being able to care for
himself, combined with that odd sensation that returned when Marcus helped him, had put Jake in a foul mood by the time he came back to the wagon.
He sat there, his frustration and anger at himself boiling over, and, for the want of doing something, reached for his magic. His frustration faded when, after a moment’s delay, he felt his magic come alive. It filled him, that familiar thrill brightening his mood. He could see the blue nimbus of his power surrounding him.
“Jake, what are you doing?” Hailyn asked, concern in her eyes.
“I just wanted to see if I could call it up.” Jake said, holding onto his power tightly. With his magic, he felt stronger and tried to push himself up. To his surprise and delight, he was able to move. He still felt weak, but he was able to slowly move to the edge of the wagon, swinging his legs over the rear. Taking a deep breath, he tried to stand up. His legs buckled for a moment, but he was able to recover. Letting go of the wagon, he took a hesitant step away and stood there swaying.
“That is enough, Jake.” Hailyn said firmly, a frown on her face. “Please get back into the wagon. You should not task yourself.”
“I’m alright, Hailyn. I just want to try something.” Jake said. He stood still for a few seconds, getting his feet under him and legs set, and then released his power. Immediately, his legs gave out and he collapsed to the ground. He muttered curses as several nearby soldiers heard Hailyn’s startled cry and came to his aid.
Before he could attempt to recall his power and stand, they lifted him back into the wagon at Hailyn’s command. She came over to stand near him, her frustration of not being able to get close or touch him visible on her face. Jake grumbled his thanks to the soldiers, who returned to what they had been doing.