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Rated: 13+ · Campfire Creative · Novella · Action/Adventure · #322508
A group of six "adventurers" struggle to make their place in a mercenary band.
[Introduction]          This is a campfire set in the world I created called the High Plains. It takes place approximately ten years after the events of the Wraith-Knight story. It will basically be about a group of six, two women, four men, that are forced together. Each, for various reasons, has been "recruited" into the mercenary company known as the High Plain Marauders. They have been "volunteered" for the most dangerous duty any mercenary could have: seeking treasure in foul lairs and dungeons. This first, of several I hope, campfires will be done in three Parts. The first part will deal with their introduction, the second with their training, and the third their first mission.

         These are characters:

         Ty’nel(S-Styles )- A thief native to Tyj. He is wanted there for commiting several high profile jobs against the nobility. He was betrayed by an accomplice on one of those jobs. He has become extremely paranoid around people and trusts no one completely. Taken into custody for trying to steal from the Marauders treasury.

         Jurrel(S-Styles )- A large axeman from a clan of the Lijuak. Exiled from his clan for commiting unsantioned raids against a neighboring peaceful clan. Displays a casual attitude towards violence and is very bloodthirsty. Sentenced to twenty years hard time for sexually assaulting several women and severely injuring a number of men.

         Scarlet(S-Styles )- A former prostitute from Tyj. Wanted there for killing her pimp and a client who wouldn’t pay her “fee”. Taken into custody for plying her trade in town without the sanctioning of the Marauders. Scarlet has an extremly volatile temper and is bloodthirsty. Displays an exceptional ability with knives, daggers, and shortswords.

         Tio’nel(KC under the midnight sun )- Once a Knight of Loriea he has fallen into disgrace and drunkeness. Wanders from mercenary band to mercenary band, city to city, looking for easy jobs to pay for his excessive drinking habits. Got into a drunken brawl in the Mercenaries Quarter and was thrown into the holding cells. Once a skilled member of the Clerical Chapter of the Knights, his skills have weakened from disuse.

         Rain(Verm )- An apprentice Sorceress that never completed her training because of an unfortunate accident that resulted in her master’s death. No Sorceror would take her for training, fearing her bad luck, and she has been reduced to performing parlor tricks in order to survive. Came to the legendary Keep Illium, home of the feared High Plain Marauders, hoping to be apprenticed to Master Ly’nel, the most powerful Sorceror on the High Plains. Has only a middling potential for commanding the magic of a Sorceror.

         Kyle Menston(Verm )- A scholar from Mikaol who traveled to the Keep to record the deeds of the Marauders, who have been mentioned at the court of Mikaol. Has almost no battle skills but can read and write in a multitude of ancient languages as well as speak every major dialect of every sentient species walking the Plains.

         Justal(KC under the midnight sun )- A young Pliyian tribesman from the Pliyian Enclave in the northernmost part of what was once Loriea. Has dreams of becoming famous and returning to his people a lauded hero. He is especially skilled with bows of every shape and size as well as handling javelins like they were made for his hand alone.

         It would probably help to read these items to better understand the World of the Three Plains.

Part One


         There was darkness and there was pain.
         How long the two conditions had lasted only the gods knew. Days? Weeks? Months? The mind played funny tricks on a man in a tiny, lightless cell. His skin itched constantly and he didn’t know if it was his mind, the dryness of the cell, or unseen vermin crawling over every...
         The thief stopped that train of thought when he noticed the ragged panting his breathing had become. He had to stay calm and focused if he hoped to get out of this mess.
         Damn you, Liy’tey, you greedy bastard! he thought angrily.
         The thief had been a good one before he had been caught. There were a dozen jobs he had pulled off without a hitch in his home city of Tyj. No one had known who he was or how he had did it until the thief had caused his own downfall. He had broken one of his cardinal rules: never work with anyone. The thief had gotten himself an accomplice to pull off a very big and complicated job. The thief and his accomplice, a mangy little bastard named Liy’tey, had pulled off the job without a hitch. They had sold their loot and split the gold. Each had walked away with nearly a thousand gold pieces in their pockets. It was enough to set a man up in relative splendor for a decade as long as he didn’t waste his money. The thief had had nearly ten times that much in gold in his secret hideaway. He had been all set to retire at the age of twenty-five, something that was almost unheard of on the streets....and then he had been betrayed. Someone had tipped the authorities in Tyj off to the thief’s activites. They had known where he lived, what he looked like, and even his favorite tavern. Thanks to one of the thief’s paid informants he had been warned in advance about the trap that was forming around him. He also knew who the informant had been: Liy’tey. The greedy little bastard had tipped the nobles off to the thief in exchange for keeping a goodly percentage fo whatever they confiscated. Liy’tey had been publicly executed the next day.
         The thief had managed to make it out of Tyj alive with his skin intact. He was very good at what he did but even he couldn’t manage to take any of his considerable amount of gold with him. The thought, even with the darkness and pain, made his stomach roll with anger. The thief had made it to the independent holdings of Keep Ilium and had thought he had found a way to recoup some of his losses. It had been a very bad idea.
         The High Plain Marauders were as smart and fiercesome as any of their stories. The thief had turned a corner to make his way to one of their vaults with the key in his hand when he had met three of the meanest looking guardsmen he had ever seen. The thief had turned to sprint the other way and had run into another trio of very large and angry mercenaries. The thief’s world had been quickly reduced to low whimpers and pain. They had kicked, punched and stomped the thief for what seemed like hours but couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. He was still alive after all. They had moved him into the holding cell while he was semi-conscious. Now he waited.
         There were three successive banging sounds as the bolts to his door were pulled back. The narrow door was pulled open quickly and harsh torchlight flared before the thief’s eyes. The man tried to cover his eyes with his hands and was rewarded with sickening pain in his chest and shoulder muscles. He looked back and coughed up a little blood. His wrists were shackled to the wall and so were his ankles. A wooden bar stuck out of the wall and made him arch his back. That was why his arms, shoulders, and chest muscles were so sore and tired. He had wondered why that was. The thief looked down and winced through the swollen flesh of his eyes at what he saw. His chest, well-muscled if a tad on the small side, was a mass of yellow-purple bruises. He had been stripped of everything but his leather pants and even they were covered in blood and puke. He knew there had been something stinking up the place but he never thought it had been his own puke. He didn’t remember throwing up at all.
         “ Damn, he’s an ugly one, not like the one down the hall, huh? ” the huge shadow in the doorway spoke to the one holding the torches.
         “ Yeah, I hope we get to handle her again,” the torch-bearer agreed with lust oozing from his voice.
         “ Come on, you ugly little worm, time to meet your fate,” the shadow moved forward and began unshackling the thief. When the last shackle was undone the thief tried to jab the shadow in the throat. His body was unresponsive and he was ashamed when he flopped unbidden over the guards shoulder.
         “ Man, they really worked him over didn’t they? ” the torch-bearer said unsympathetically.
         “ Yeah, those damn vault guards always makin’ us carry the damnable thieves,” the shadow said as he hefted the thief in a fireman carry,“ Move your ass outta the way! ”
         “ Aw, don’t be such a woman, you’re supposed to be tough! ” the torch-bearer laughed.
         “ Shut up. ” the dungeon guard holding the thief said quietly and the torch-bearer shutup.
         The thief could only look at the wall as he head the torch-bearer close his cell door. Both of the guards were tall, the one holding him had to have been at least two meters tall, and the bulged with muscles. From what he could see the torch-bearer carried two torches in his hand but was armed to the teeth. There was a longsword in a sheath at his side, the scabbard at an angle for a quick draw, a shortsword between his shoulderblades, a spiked mace opposite his longsword, and a small, round shield strapped to an arm. The thief guessed the guard carrying him was similarly armed.
         The criminal was carried down a long dark hall in the bowels of Keep Ilium. He could hear low moans and crazed whispers coming from a number of cell doors. A slim hand stopped the guards at one cell in particular. The guards stood there in utter silence for a few moments as they listened to a soft, feminine whisper coming from the cell. The torch-bearer started forward when the one holding the thief started and slapped his companion in the back of the head.
         “ I’ll tell you what my Pa told me. ‘Never believe a whore, boy!’ Now let’s go. ”
         The two guards carried the thief to the end of the hall. The door had a large, barred window in it’s center.
         “ Open up, Yui’tol! ” the guard holding the thief pounded on the door.
         The door was unbolted, sounded like nearly five thick, steel bars, and the door swung open on well oiled hinges.
         “ Where you taking that one? ” a voice asked as the two guards passed.
         The other guard paused as his companion extinguished and discarded the torches,“ To see the Lieutenant. ”
         The unseen guard, Yui’tol, whistled,“ What the hell did he do? They should just execute him and be done with it. ”
         The guard holding the thief shrugged, making his burden cough,“ Not up to us. We’re just grunts. ”
         The unseen gaurd laughed as the two walked away. The thief noted that there were two other doorways in the room that probably led to more holding cells. There was a wide stairwell opposite the door they had just come from that the two guardsmen hurried up. The thief groaned quietly at the pain the jostling caused. His impressions were vague as he was whisked through the lower portions of the Keep Ilium. There were wide hallways, many lit by reflective mirrors, and narrow corridors seemingly lined with unadorned doors. Mercenaries walked confidently and proudly through the halls and corridors. The thief’s tired mind was vaguely surprised at that since the mercenaries he knew were always cautious, paranoid individuals.
         All too soon the guards stopped in a small anteroom. The thief couldn’t see much, he could barely keep his eyes open thanks to his sleepless time in the holding cell, but the
room didn’t give an impression of gaudiness.
         “ We’ve brought the first prisoner,” the guardsmen said, actually sounding slightly intimidated.
         A soft voice told the two something and the thief heard a set of doors opening. He was carried inside and was promptly dropped onto his back in the center of a rug.
         “ We have brough the prisoner as requested, Lieutenant! ” the guard that had carried him barked.
         Someone held something sweet-smelling under his nose and awarness returned in a flash. Someone in the robes of a healer was standing over him with a stern expression. The man nodded and walked out of the thief’s line of sight. The thief struggled to stand but the guardsmen made him kneel with hard, calloused hands.
         “ That will be all, guardsmen,” a relatively young voice told the two older mercenaries,“ Please wait outside. ”
         Without a noticeable pause the two guardsmen left the room and the doors closed behind them.
         “ You can stand, thief,” the young Lieutenant said in amusment.
         The thief stood and squinted at the relatively young mercenary through his bruised eyes. The young man, who couldn’t have been over thirty, was dressed in some kind of ridged black armor that the thief had never seen before. It looked like it covered most of his body except for his forearms. The mercenaries forearms were encased in blood-red gauntlets that seemed to pulsate sickeningly. The Lieutenant’s eyes were large, light brown....and possessed what thief liked to call a berserkers intensity. His hair was reddish-brown and bound in a long braid.
         The Lieutenant sat at a small desk that was nearly bare except for a few pieces of paper and a scabbarded longsword. From what the thief could see the Lieutenant could remove his head in the blink of an eye if the thief tried anything at all suspicious. He now knew why the guardsmen had been intimidated.
         “ Do you have a name thief? ” the Lieutenant asked.
         “ Ty’nel, sir,” the thief spoke as loudly as he parched throat would allow.
         “ Bart, could you get him some water, please? ” the Lieutenant asked the healer standing beside his desk.
         The healer nodded but his dark eyes never left Ty’nel as he went to a small stand and poured a tall, glass of water for the thief. The thief took it as soon as it came within reached and downed nearly half of it before coming up for air.
         “ Thank you, sir,” he panted, licking his dried and cracked lips.
         “ So, thief, what should we do with you? ” the Lieutenant mused, his fingers tapping the wood of his desk,“ I take it you now the penalty for stealing from the Marauders. ”
         Ty’nel nodded,“ Death. ”
         The Lieutenant smiled slightly,“ That’s right. Are you ready to die, thief? ”
         The healer spoke up in a gruff voice,“ The truth may help you. ”
         Ty’nel didn’t have to think long to come up with an answer,“ Not in the slightest, sir. ”
         The Lieutenant smile widened a bit,“ So you can be honest. ” The Lieutenant studied a paper for a moment before looking up again,“ It says here that you managed to infiltrate to within ten meters of Vault 3. That’s exceptional, thief, because no one has managed to infiltrate the Inner Keep let alone get almost to the vault. If you had scouted out the place a bit longer you would have known that we have enchantments on all our keys that let handpicked guardsmen know when one is on the move. I’m sure you regretted making their acquaintance. ”
         Ty’nel nodded solemnly in remembered pain.
         “ So, I’ve never been much for flowery talk, thief. ”the Lieutenant said, clapping a palm down on the desk,“ I may have need of someone with your skills. It will be dangerous and probably terrifying work. Death may be preferable to the training that you’ll be put through, let alone the mission itself, but that’s up to you. If you survive we may forget all about the small bit of trouble you’ve been to the Marauders. What do you say? ”
         Ty’nel’s mind spun,“ Can I know a little bit more? ”
         The Lieutenant smiled in bemusement,“ Only three questions. ”
         “ What kind of mission is it? ”
         “ Dungeon-crawling basically. We’ve located a number of ancient ruins only a few hours ride from the Keep. The mission will essentially be to go in and bring out every scrap of treasure you can find. That’s one. ”
         “ What kind of creatures are in there? "
         “ I don’t know. That’s two. ”
         “ Will I have to go in alone? ”
         “ No. That’s three. What’s your answer. ”
         Did he really have a choice?
         “ I’ll do it. ” Ty’nel said, quietly.
         “ Excellent! Guards! ” the Lieutenant boomed,“ The two guardsmen from the dungeon entered the room again,“ Escort our good thief here down to the dungeon infirmary and then to his bunks. Then go get the next one on the list. ”
         Ty’nel blinked,“ But we just came from the dungeon. ”
The guard that had carried him shook his head, his face paling a little,“ That was just the holding cells. I wouldn’t guard that dungeon for all the money in Vault 3. ”
         “ Why am I going there? ” Ty’nel asked, panicking slightly.
         The Lieutenant smiled slightly,“ For training. ”
         Ty’nel could only wonder what he had gotten himself into as he was led from the peculiar Lieutenant’s office.
         Consciousness returned to Ty'nel with shocking speed. One second he was floating in a warm sea of utter darkness and the next he was sitting upright on a hard cot. Ty'nel looked across the room, squinting his eyes in remembered pain, before realizing there wasn't any. Ty'nel looked down at his chest and flezed the muscles there. There was some pain and minor discomfort but nothing like the tearing he had felt before.
         Ty'nel studied his surroundings with a thief's eyes. The long room was obviously a barracks. There were rows of cots lining each wall, a dozen on each, with small wooden lockers between them. The room was illuminated by large lanterns strung up along the walls. The room was strictly military and had none of the amenities of civilized people.
         Ty'nel sat on the edge of the bed and shook his head as he tried to remember how he'd gotten to the barracks. He remembered a hazy passage through beautiful sunlit hallways. Then the trip had quickly turned darker and the halls had become narrow corridors. The two guards had nervously stopped in front of some kind of insanely huge, solid metal door. Ty'nel's "escorts" had quickly bundled him to the left...or was it right, and into some kind of infirmary. Ty'nel remembered a cool white light and soothing relief before complete darkness engulfed him again.
         Ty'nel stood and went through a series of stretches. He had to examine the room in length. There had to be a way to escape from this place. He'd find it given enough time. The question was would he have enough time during his "training".
         Ty'nel turned as the bolts to the solid wooden door at the other end of the room were noisily thrown back.
Justal sat in his cell waiting. He wasn't sure what he was waiting for.
He shifted into another position and grunted as pain shot up his left arm. He gingerly felt his arm, his light brown eyes never leaving the bared door.
His arm was broken, wonderful.
Justal jerked his head, trying to get the strands of coal black hair out his eyes, someone was coming. He pressed himself as far back into the wall as he could.

Two gaurds walked down the hall and stoped in front of his cell. One opened the door and steped inside.
"Come on, to you feet!" The gaurd grabed his broken arm and pulled him up.
Justal yelled in pain for a moment before he bit it back and said, his voice shaking slightly, "Hey thanks, I think you poped it back into place." The gaurd tightened his grip on Justal's arm and tugged him out of his cell and down the hall.

Justal didn't pay attention to where he was being led, he had a good idea already, and his arm hurt to badly.

The two gaurds stopped in front of a door.
"We've brought him, Lieutenant," the gaurd holding his arm said, then pushed Justal forward into the room. He winced and cradled his arm.
The Lieutenant looked him over for a moment.
"I'm going to skip the fomalities becasue I'm tired of them. I have heard of your skills with bows and javelins. I am giving you a choice, be executed like planed or join a few others on some missions. The training alone will probably kill you, but if you complete the missions I might let you go."
"May I be so bold as to ask what these mission might be?" Justal asked, his voice was quiet.
"Treasure hunting in dungeons," was all the Lieutenant said. Justal knew that there was more to it, but he didn't want to push his luck.
The training alone might kill him. The mission itself might kill him. Or he could be executed. Death no matter what.
"Might as well die doing something," Justal muttered, louder he said, "I'll do it."
"Excellent! Gaurds, take..."
"Justal," Justal quickly suplied.
"Take Justal to the dungeon infirmary then to his barreks." The two gaurds grabed him again and led him away.
Of course Kyle had figured it would just be a matter of time, the Marauders were bound to realize sooner or later what he was doing. Kyle had just figured it would be later, after he had already left.

They had come into the library, six men armed to the teeth, and quickly transported him to the dungeon. The forbidden books had still been lying on the table as their fists and feet had taught him just how wrong he was to try and steal knowledge.

Kyle touched his cheek gingerly, it had gone from purple and red to a lovely green and yellow. "Damn fools don't even know what they have." He shook his head, in another week, possibly a few days, he would have...He sighed, it was no use agonizing over it, he'd lost his chance.

He watched them drag a few of his dungeon mates off somewhere, and not come back. Then, they came for him.

"The crime you have committed is punishable by death, a slow and painful one at that." The man who spoke seemed to be fairly high up in the hierarchy here, Kyle began to have uneasy pricles down his spine.

"So I've heard."

The man smiled, the smile of a predator who's got his prey neatly trapped. "And yet, you took the risk despite." He paused, as if waiting for an explanation of this boldness. Kyle had decided that silence was probably safer, and so there was none.

"Very well, I offer you an alternative to execution, though it'll likely result in death regardless..."

Kyle accepted the offer, with the full understanding that there were more chances of escape outside of a dungeon than within it. As a token of goodwill, the Marauder officer had a healer repair the damage to Kyle which his men had inflicted. After the healer's ministrations, he was escorted to his new "home".

The guards threw more than led him, into his room. He blinked, and realized that he had company. Three people, two men and one lovely woman, sat on beds and were examining him curiously. "Um, hello, I suppose." The woman laughed and turned back to mending the tear in the pants she had on her lap, the men also lost interest.

"Well, aren't we a talkative bunch? Since it would seem we're going to be spending some time together, I think we should introduce ourselves." Or rather, tell him a way out, he meant.

"Shut up," the woman so courteously replied.

"It is lovely to meet you milady, I am Kyle."

She smiled, and he felt his heart twitch, she was incredibly attractive. "Kyle, hmm? Very well. Kyle, shut up."

Kyle gave up and lay down on one of the empty beds. One of the men came over and sat down on its edge, "Ty'nel," he offered his hand and Kyle took it. "I apologize, but we're not a very social group."

"I noticed."

"And don't mind the woman, I think she's always in a bad temper. Her name's Scarlet, and the young man is Justal."

Kyle nodded and smiled, "Thank you Ty'nel. Finally, the first civil person I've seen since agreeing to this ridiculous mission."

Ty'nel shook his head, "I wouldn't call it ridiculous, we have an opportunity for riches."

"True, but we also have a bigger opportunity for dying."

Ty'nel's eyes sparkled with mirth, "True. But I've always been an optimist."
Tio'nel wasn't sure what he became aware of first: his pounding headache, aching ribs, raw throat, or the stomping of feet back and forth outside his door. He mumbled a curse as he carefully righted himself, wiping his mouth against the back of one soiled sleeve. Leaning against the damp, fuzzy wall of his cell, he closed his eyes against his nausea, trying to ignore the trampings and yelling and fighting through the corridor.

I wonder what I've gotten myself into now, he thought to himself.

Just as he thought he would die of hunger before anyone came to fetch him, Tio'nel heard keys rattle in the lock. He lurched to his feet, leaning against the wall to catch his breath. He felt awful and knew he looked a fright, but he'd be d---ed if he'd be carried to his execution -- or whatever punishment he'd be given.

The guards entered cautiously, so cautiously in fact Tio'nel wished he could remember what had landed him in this cell. He took a step forward and would have fallen but for the arms of his jailors. Only by grace did he manage to keep back the vomit and retain his dignity, but somehow he managed it. He shook off the helping hands with a gruff word, striding from the cell on his own two feet.

With a guard before and behind, Tio'nel let himself be led down the passageways. He concentrated on just putting one foot in front of the other. His other, less-important injuries he could ignore, at least for now. But he had a splitting head-ache and from time to time, dizzy spells caused him to lurch dangerously from side to side and once he had to put out a steadying hand to the dungeon wall.

Exhausted, panting, and red from exertion, Tio'nel sighed in relief as his guards ushered him into a small room.

The man now staring at Tio'nel made him extrememly nervous. The figure behind the desk had every mark of the mercenary . . . And a good one at that. His eyes seemed to stare sraight into Tio'nel's very soul.

"So," the man sighed softly in Tio'nel's direction, "you made it up here on your own. I'm impressed, Knight."

Tio'nel bristled. He stiffened his back, despite the weakness in his knees. "I am no knight."

The man leaned back in his chair. "That is true. Your actions scarcely identify your knighthood, but your fighting prowess does. From all that I hear, Knight Tio'nel, you have much to be gained from listening from what I have to say."

Tio'nel wasn't about to let his guard down. "So," he said, feigning a lightness he most certainly didn't feel in the prescence of this man, "what do you have to say that has any relevance for me?"

Now the man leaned forward. "I offer only this: join my little band of adventurers, keep them alive, and bring back my prize and I will give you what you desire most."

Tio'nel didn't have to ask. He nodded shortly. "Then we are agreed."
         Jurrel bit hard into the wood between his teeth in frustration. The cursed mercenaries had strapped the block of wood between his jaws when he’d bitten deeply into the forearm of one of the bastards that had been dragging him to the cell. They had shackled him to the wall of a tiny cell with a wooden bar keeping his back arched and arms extended behind him. The position did nothing to help the multitude of bruises, cuts, and scrapes from his days of rampaging through the Mercenary Quarter. The clansman flexed the muscles in his shoulders and heard the subtle shifting of stone behind him. The pain caused by the motion almost made him black out though. The manacles around his wrists and ankles had to be thick iron. The chains fixing him to the wall were probably as thick as his forearm. The Marauders had probably dealt with his people often living on the forest border.
         Jurrel cursed himself for coming to this Keep. He had heard the rumors about the Marauders but had also heard about the good times that could be had in the Mercenary Quarter of the city. Who would have thought that mercenaries, of all the cursed peoples, would have viewed a man having a bit of fun so harshly. These lands and their people’s ways were truly bewildering. He should have just gone and gotten himself adopted into a clan that suited his personality instead of coming into a cursed city.
         Jurrel stiffened and went completely still as bodies moved outside the door of his cell. He listened as heavy bolts were thrown back. The door was thrown open and torchlight flooded into the room. Jurrel turned his head to the side and shut them against the sudden light. Someone stepped into the room and a spearhead poked him in the sternum.
         “ Hold still,” a rough, steady voice warned,“ Make a move and I’ll skewer you, barbarian. ”
         Jurrel chuckled slightly but stopped when he felt the point penetrate his flesh. He watched as a guard as easily as large as he was undid the iron manacles around his feet only to replace them with shackles. Jurrel winced as his wrists were undone and his arms finally were moved from their painful position. The guard also undid a strap that chained the large clansman to the wall as well as a collar that Jurrel had not even been aware of. Before Jurrel got feeling back into his unbound limbs the guard had skillfully bound them at the small of his back and through the loop on the back of his collar. The chain pulled on Jurrel’s neck and made him arch his head back.
         “ Now come out slowly,” the guard holding the spear ordered him.
         Jurrel laughed to himself because they hadn’t removed the gag. The fearsome clansman shuffled his way out of the cell and into the corridor. There were four guardsmen outside the door. All of them were big, none as tall or muscular as he was, and each was very well armed. Each of the guards had at least one weapon bared and ready for immediate action. The one with the torch held a wicked looking mace in a meaty hand while the one next to him held the long shafted spearhead against Jurrel’s exposed skin. The guard that had hidden himself on the other side of the door had a shortsword held across the small, round shield strapped to his forearm. The guard that had come into Jurrel’s cell had drawn a longsword and held it in a ready position beside his left leg. The four mercenary-guards arranged themselves Jurrel. The silent one with the shortsword went in front while the one with the spear went behind him. The point prodded into his back as once to get him shuffling behind the lead guard.
         Jurrel studied the route as they went, ignoring the wails and moan of fellow prisoners, until they entered the lower levels of the Keep itself. The place certainly seemed grand and splendid. Fit for a warchief if not the great Illel himself. This was no rich, foppish noblemen’s palace though. Armed and armored mercenaries seemed to lurk behind every corner. Almost none of them were as large or fiercesome looking as Jurrel’s guards but they all moved with deadly compentence. The hope of escape all but dwindled as the clansman realized how much opposition he would have to go through. He was no skulking, sneaking thief to escape without becoming embroilied in heated combat.
         All too soon it seemed they reached their destination. Jurrel was led through a small room in which there was a skeletal man with a long scar down the left side of his face behind a large desk. There were several high backed chairs opposite the desk. In one of those chairs sat a woman. The woman would probably have come to Jurrel’s upper abdomen if she were standing. The woman was not very comely but that had never stopped the barbarian before. Her smoky brown eyes were bold and confrontational as he stared at her though. The dusty brown robes and loose pants she wore hid her shape well but Jurrel thought he could detect the hint of enticing curvature. He smiled through his gag and nodded at the woman. A slight snarl formed on the woman’s lips but before she could reply the spear-wielding guard jabbed him in the back again.
         “ Keep moving! ”
         “ We’ve brought the barbarian,” the lead guard told the skeletal man.
         The man behind the desk nodded,“ Take him in. ”
         The guards led Jurrel into a good-sized room and stopped him in the middle of a rug that looked like it had been clan-spun. A man who couldn’t have been much older than thirty years, if that, sat behind a small desk. He was dressed in black, ridged armor that covered most of his visible body except for his forearms. The mercenary wore crimson gauntlets that seemed to flicker queasily in the light. A longsword was sitting on the desk and the young mercenary’s hands were settled casually on it.
         “ We have brough’ the prisoner as requested, Lieutenant! ” the lead guard barked.
         The Lieutenant nodded,“ Take off that gag and wait outside. ”
         The guard behind him quickly undid the gag and the four rushed out of the room. The door closed behind them with a bang and the young Lieutenant studied the clansman with eyes that could have belonged to a brother clansman.
         “ So, barbarian, it looks like your ways have gotten you into a heap of trouble,” the mercenary smiled slightly to himself,“ According to the reports you forced yourself on several women after beating their men to bloody pulps. ”
         Jurrel shook his head,“ I bet them their women in fair fistfights. Not my fault they lost. The woman only complain because I divide my attention between all three. ”
         The Lieutenant nodded,“ I can believe that about several of those woman, but there are other claims against you. There are several reports of you sexually assaulting women in every Quarter of the city. ”
         Jurrel snorted,“ All of your women here wonder what it’s like with a barbarian. ”
         The Lieutenant shook his head,“ The assaults alone wouldn’t have gotten you into so much trouble. You nearly killed those men you fought, barbarian. We don’t take attempted murder lightly around hear. The law has asked that you be sentenced to twenty years hard time. The Captain has agreed but I asked him to give you to me. ”
         Jurrel’s eyes narrowed,“ Why? ”
         The Lieutenant chuckled,“ I’ve fought your kind more times than I care to recall. Your people are, for the most part, a violent and blood-thirsty race. On the other hand the clans of the Lijuak produce the finest warriors seen on the High Plains. Some say your people are the finest warriors on all the Plains. I have need of someone with your size...and experience. ”
         Jurrel didn’t think he was that old but he had been in dozens of battles. The mass of scars on his chest from old injuries was evidence of that fact.
         “ What do you want? ” Jurrel asked, suspicious now.
         “ I’m putting together a group for dungeon-crawling and treasure-seeking in ruins close by . They’ll need someone with your strength and experience in battle. The training will be tough and you might not survive that let alone the real mission. If you do survive you will be pardoned and released. ”
         “ Will I get to keep some of the treasure? ” Jurrel asked, hopefully.
         “ No and that’s the last question from you. What’s your answer? ”
         There was only one choice for a clansman like Jurrel. Better to die swinging an axe than a sledgehammer.

*****

         Rain watched as the barbarian was escorted into the Lieutenant’s office. She wrinkled her nose in distaste at the smell that wafted from him as they passed. Moments later the barbarians four escorts emerged and waited tensely facing the door. Rain folded her arms beneath her breasts and waited impatiently for her summons. It was intolerable that this mercenary Lieutenant would see a comman axe-swinging barbarian before he would see a Sorceress. Ok, an apprentice Sorceress only halfway through her training, but still a wielder of powers unimaginable by commen men.
         Rain had made her way to Keep Ilium after the death of her master. It was not her fault that the fool had killed himself trying a complex spell that she had warned him would never work. Now she couldn’t find another master Sorceror to finish her changing. Most of the other court Sorcerors had been a superstitious lot and had spread the word through the entire Kingdom. Rain had quickly come to the decision that she couldn’t live her life doing cheap tricks for commoners on the street.
         The young Sorceress had left the Kingdom of Domhu without a moment’s hesitation. She had found that life in what had once been her people’s most “terrible” enemy was far from what she was used to. Poverty, disease, and violence were everday fare in the territories between the only true powers in the region. Conditions in the Pliyian Enclave were hardly better because almost no one would trade with them. The Loriean Province was much better but it was more of a military city-state than anything else. The surroudings demanded that the small province have a strong military force always at the ready. Rain had thought that the Sorcerors that worked for the army and nobles would have welcomed an addition to their ranks. Her Domhuan ancestry had worked against her. None of the Sorcerors would train someone many of them had long viewed as a hated enemy. That had left her with only one choice and it was a long shot.
         Every Sorceror, soldier, and mercenary knew about the High Plains Marauders being granted their own Keep. The Sorceror Ly’nel, rumored to be among the most powerful of the modern Sorcerors, made his home in the High Tower. No one knew how many Sorcerors the Marauders had on their rolls since any non-Marauder that viewed those rolls was subject to long years of hard labor. Some claimed that they had none, while others said they had an entire company worth. All Rain had hoped for was that Ly’nel might finish her apprenticeship. The stories about him always said he was quite odd for a Sorceror.
         “ Guards! ” the Lieutenants voice boomed and the four guards quickly entered the office.
         A moment later they were leading the barbarian out. They stopped beside the door leading into the corridor.
         “ The Lieutenant will see you now, m’am,” the sickly looking aide said.
         Rain stood and nodded as imperiously as she could. The apprentice Sorceress strode through the doors and closed them behind her. She took a casual note of the room’s make-up but her attention was mostly caught by the man behind the desk. The Lieutenant looked as young as his mid-thirties, but his hazel eyes made him seem older. He was dressed in ridged ebony armor of a type that Rain was completely unfamiliar with. His forearms were covered in obviously Worked gauntlets. What type of enchantment had been worked on them was the question. Probably a general strength enhancement by their sickly reddish hue.
         “ Hello, young lady,” Rain had to resist the urge to snort,“ I am Lieutenant Tai’sher. ”
         “ I am Rain-Emerald of the Grenm. ” Tai’sher nodded,“ It says here that you’ve been requesting an audience with High Sorceror Ly’nel. You want him to complete your training? What can you offer us? ”
         Rain’s brow furrowed,“ I’d gladly hire myself out to you for a two years. ”
         Tai’sher shook his head,“ We’ve already got enough Sorcerors and Ly’nel doesn’t take anyone on for free. Either you pay him or you pay us with service. Since we don’t need any more Sorcerors you have only one option. So, I repeat, what can you offer us? ”
         Rain felt her face scrunch up and she had to restrain a sob of frustration. This was not fair! Life was not fair!
         “ I do have a proposition for you, Rain-Emerald,” the Lieutenant said kindly,“ It will be dangerous work but I’m sure an apprentice Sorceress with your potential will have no problem. The training would be equally dangerous but if you agree Ly’nel will train you personally. ”
         Rain looked at Tai’sher suspiciously,“ What kind of mission is it? ”
         Tai’sher shrugged,“ Treasure-hunting in ruins we found close to the Keep. ”
         Rain bit her lip,“ How many will be in my group? ”
         " Several. All of them have skills that will be vital. ”
         “ Will that barbarian be in the group? ” the apprentice asked in disgust.
         Tai’sher nodded,“ Yes, but someone with your talents can take care of one over-muscled brute, I’m sure. ”
         Rain nodded,“ Will I get to keep any treasure? ”
         Tai’sher shook his head,“ Maybe, we will see how much you and the other treasure-seekers come out with. ”
         “ Where will I be training? ”
         “ Isolated parts of the Keep for awhile and then you will explore the smal dungeon beneath the Keep itself. The funny thing about dungeons is that somehow beasts always find ways into the places. There are more ways in and out of them than can easily be concealed or covered up. We sealed up what we could and cleared them out when we moved in, but now they’re full of nasties again. Nothing too formidable though and I’m sure a potent Sorceress will manage just fine. ”
         Rain felt herself blush slightly at the compliment and nodded at the Lieutenant,“ I accept your offer. ”
         Tai’sher dazzled her with a wide smile,“ Excellent. Sign the contract my assistant will hand to you, then follow the guards and they will take you to your new barracks. Leave everything you came in with Mahs’er. They will be returned to you when you complete your training. I’d advise you to not carry anything of material value. There are at least two thieves that will be training with you. Best not tempt them before we...acclimate them to the Marauder doctrines. I’m happy you’ve accepted, Rain-Emerald. ”
         The Lieutenant stood and held out his hand. Rain daintily placed her hand in his and was flattered when he brought it to his lips. The soft kiss he planted on the back of her hand made her skin tingle nicely. Rain-Emerald was surprised because men had never really paid that much attention to her. First that coarse barbarian and now this handsome, charming mercenary. It was fairly puzzling.
         “ Farewell, Rain-Emerald. I’ll see you again when your training is complete. ”
         Rain left the Lieutenant’s office in a daze and moved as though she were in a dream. She signed the contract, gave the sickly assistant her pack and followed the guards through the lower level of the Keep. The pace was slow thanks to the fettered barbarian but Rain barely noticed. The apprentice Sorceress noticed when a wall of fire rose before her.
         Rain halted and held a hand over her face to block the heat. She began to back up when blistering heat struck her back. She turned and discovered a section of corridor had been completely walled off. Rain frantically tried to think of a way out of it. She didn’t know if she had the power to drain the energy from the fire. The effort alone could kill her or permanently strip her powers.
         A man-sized shadow appeared in the flames in front of her and then was through the wall of fire. The man who emerged was taller than Rain and whip-thin. He had a thick moustache that was one with a sharply pointed beard. Gray-blue eyes studied her piercingly for a few moments before he heaved a satchel backed with books at her feet.
         “ You know who I am. ” he asked in a suprisingly light voice.
         “ You’re High Sorceror Ly’nel? ” she asked, her voice more tremulous than she would have liked.
         The High Sorceror nodded,“ These are books of instruction for you,” her master began to circle her slowly,“ You will have read the one called The Sorceror’s Apprentice in two days. Then I will test you on what you have learned. If you pass the test satisfactorily then you will be set to read the next manual. Your training will commence until you have read them all and then my job will be done. ”
         High Sorceror Ly’nel turned and began to walk through the wall of flames.
         “ Wait,” Rain said, angrily,“ My former master did not train me this way! I’ve never heard of training like this! ”
         The High Sorceror turned and fixed stormy eyes on her,“ Do not try my patience, girl! This is not your homeland so do not be presumptous with me! You have nearly completed your training,” Rain was about to protest but the man’s glare stopped her,“ Maybe your old master was waiting for you to open your legs to him. I don’t know or care. You only have a moderate talent for Sorcery girl. I felt it as soon as you came into the Keep proper. It would be a waste of my time and yours to try to teach you to be a Sorceror second only to me. That is what you hoped for when you came here. Don’t treat me like an idiot. Those books will finish your appenticeship and I’ll seal you myself when the time comes. But first you must pass my tests. I go now. ”
         With that said the High Sorceror disappeared through the flame walls. Rain-Emerald hugged the satchel of books to her chest and watched as the walls disappeared to reveal a very white-faced guard waiting for her.
         “ Come with me. ”

******

         Ty’nel lay on his bed and watched the ceiling. Scarlet was talking to the boy Justal, who seemed enamored with her for some reason, and the scholar named Kyle kept trying to talk to the thief. Ty’nel was trying to feign sleep but the stupid scholar wouldn’t shut up.
         Damn me for trying to be a little friendly anyway!
         A fourth person had arrived a short time ago but had not introduced himself. It had been a man nearly in his middle years, a bit long in the tooth for the group, and he had collapsed into a bunk only a few feet from the door. His snores seemed to shake the entire barracks.
         The doors opened and in stepped a small, curvy woman holding a satchel full of books. She had lank, dark brown hair that fell loosely about her shoulders. Her brown eyes glistened wetly with tears as she studied everyone in the room. The newest arrival ducked her head quickly and quickly made her way to the far side of the room. The robed woman threw her satchel on a bed and then herself on the bed next to it. Ty’nel thought he could hear low sobbing from the woman.
         Heavy bootsteps made Ty’nel turn back to the door again and his eyes widened in astonishment. The largest man the thief had ever seen was pushed into the room and the doors were closed behind him. The man had to be one of the murderous barbarians of the forest. His small coal black eyes and shaggy mane of dark hair were so dark as to almost be black. Those were colorings almost seen nowhere but the clans of the Lijuak. The barbarian’s arm muscles were larger than Ty’nel’s thighs. By the Will of Fate the man’s attention hadn’t fixed on Ty’nel.
         The barbarian’s eyes had immediately went to Scarlet. The expensive whore lay a hand bessechingly on Justal’s forearm as the barbarian smiled languidly at her. The Lijuak maniac began to ponderously make his way over to Scarlet. Justal stood and Ty’nel goggled when he realized the Pliyian was nearly as tall as the barbarian. Unfortunately he had the body of a born archer and not of a frontline fighter. Ty’nel shook his head but didn’t move to prevent the boy from getting his face smeared into a stain. The boy would learn a painful lesson about letting women pick his course but painful ones were often best remembered. Ty’nel winced in remembered pain and waited for the confrontation.
         A heavy thud sounded in the middle of the room and a deafening roar made Ty’nel cover his ears. Everyone, even the sleeping old man, looked toward the source of the sound in startlement. Ty’nel’s jaw nearly came off its hinge as he saw what it was. He slapped himself across the face to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. The pain made him come back to reality and the figure straight out of a story still stood in the middle of the room.
         It was a Tiger-Man.
         The Tiger-Man stood head and shoulders above the barbarian. Muscles bunched and writhed beneath his bronze and black fur. Large gold eyes studied each of the occupants of the room in turn. The points of the Tiger-Man’s incisors peaked out from between his thin black lips and gave him an even more feral appearance. The Tiger-Man was uncovered except for a loinclothe for his privates and a sash with a peculiar seal of a broadsword and an odd-looking spear. He didn’t seem to need any weapons because long black talons
peeked out from behind his hands and feet. The Tiger-Man looked as though he could kill them all with minimal effort and absolutely no mercy.
         “ I am called Sergeant by the Marauders. ” Ty’nel’s eyes bulged so much he thought they would fall out,“ I am your trainer. I will mold you into a unit by the Will of Fate. My orders are to be followed to the letter. Without question or else you will feel my claws. I do not joke. You will feel my claws,” the Sergeant held up a hand and three-inch long talons emerged from each of his fingertips,“ Now....STRIP!! I want everyone in their underthings in twenty breaths. ”
         Ty’nel looked around him in shock. Surely the Tiger-Man was joking. When the talons on each hand came out Ty’nel knew he was serious. The thief undressed as quickly as he could and saw that the others followed suit just as quickly.
         “ Line up by the doors! ” the Sergeant growled and it really did sound like a growl.
         Ty’nel did as he was told and found himself sandwiched between the old man and Scarlet. Unfortunately for him Scarlet still had on her top. The Sergeant was there in a flash and crouching down to get to eye-level with the human female.
         “ Why exactly is that top not off, whore? ” the Tiger-Man said in a low rumble.
         “ I don’t have a breastband. ” the whore replied haughtily.
         The Tiger-Man nodded and his lip curled in a snarl,“ Do I CARE, whore! I want it off NOW! ”
         Scarlet hesitated and then hissed in pain. Ty’nel glanced out of the corner of his eyes. A thin line of blood was trickling down the woman’s bare leg.
         “ Next time it will be your face. ”
         Scarlet didn’t hesitate this time and in a moment her upper body was bare to the world.
         Ty’nel kept his eyes forward but he heard the barbarian snicker. There was a loud smack and then the Tiger-Man roared again. Ty’nel turned to look this time and goggled. The Tiger-Man was holding the barbarian around the neck and holding his head against the ceiling with a single hand. The barbarian coughed and spittle began to flow between his lips. The Tiger-Man dropped the large man to the floor and waited for him to stop coughing. When the barbarian did the Sergeant hauled him to his feet and slammed his back into the door.
         “ Eyes front, barbarian” he said almost softly.
         The barbarian nodded slightly, still rubbing his throat, and then held his eyes to the front.
         The Sergeant backed up,“ That is why you are all in your underthings. You will be closer than family when I am through with you or you will be dead by MY hand. I can smell the arousal on you, men,” Scarlet must have made a sound because the Sergeant glared a her with his golden eyes,“ -and women! It makes me sick. You are not warriors and I will not address you with respect. ” the Tiger-Man came to the drunk and stared at him,“ You are the drunkard. ”
         Ty’nel kept his eyes front and found himself looking at the Sergeant’s well-muscled abdomen,“ You are scum. ”
         On down the line the Sergeant went. Scarlet was the whore, Justal the fool, the barbarian.... the barbarian, Kyle was the weakling, and the small woman was the disgrace.
         “ Now....we RUN! ” the Sergeant heaved the doors open with no effort at all.
         “ Like this. ” he heard Kyle whisper.
         “ Yes, like this. Don’t worry. I know parts of the Lower Keep no one goes through. They are COLD though, weakling! And if you scatter I WILL find you by smell alone and I WILL make you sorry your whores of mothers ever gave birthed your miserable carcasses. Now RUN! ”
         Ty’nel groaned silently and realized that the Lieutenant’s words about survival seemed like a prophecy at the moment.
The only thing Justal could think was, It's a good they didn't break my legs. Though his arm was healed and he could use it again it was still weak. Justal stared at the back of the barbarian's head. The Sergeant was still yelling at them
The Sergeant seemed to be hovering around the small woman. Just wait, Justal thought, soon we'll all tire out and the Sergeant will shed our blood getting us to finish the run. Justal stoped thinking for a moment and realized how cold it was. He went back to thinking. As long as the Sergeant didn't feel any emotion toward him, besides the utter loathing the Sergeant felt for them now. As long as Justal stayed as unnoticed as possible he just might stay alive.
With his feet pounding numbly away, and his all too bare skin covered in gooseflesh, Kyle decided he didn't particularly care for the Sargeant. He stole a look at Scarlet and tried not to have such indecent thoughts. Well, he thought, at least there's one thing I can enjoy about this escapade.

Scarlet noticed his gaze and gave him a look that would make even greater men wilt. He resolutely shifted his eyes to the dim before him and concentrated on breathing, which was now becoming somewhat of a chore.

Of all of them, Justal seemed to be the only one who wasn't bothered by the exertion. He even managed a self-satisfied smile as he ran along. Sargeant noticed.

"You! What's that on your face? Are you enjoying yourself?" Then, without waiting for a reply he called for a halt. "You, stay," he pointed to Justal, "Since you seem to be enjoying yourself so much, I've decided to extend your jog. The rest of you go back to the barracks, and clean yourselves, you reaking dogs, you make my nose hurt."

Kyle and the rest quickly took Sargeant up on his offer, not wanting to give him time to reconsider.

Once back at the barracks, Kyle eagerly grabbed his "towel" which was barely better than a rag, and headed off to where he believed the baths were.
While the others bathed, Tio'nel seated himself cross-legged on his bed (if it could be called that). He placed his hands, palm-up, on his knees and closed his eyes. He drew in deep breaths, forcing the air out, one breath at a time in an effort to reach a state of deep meditation.

I haven't done this in a long, long time, he thought, with some chagrin. What would Aleese say?

As his body relaxed, Tio'nel became more and more aware of his surroundings and the other people he shared a room with. Their immediate thoughts and feelings hammered at him and he hastily erected a wall to block them out, dismayed at his lack of control.

I'm worse than the newest of pages!

Though his body was weary, Tio'nel's mind was still fresh, his promise to the mercenary captain ever a thought away. He opened his mind to the others, feeling their exhaustion (especially Justal's, still running out there) and knowing their half-healed wounds.

Already Tio'nel's body was mostly recovered from the 'jog,' but the others had not the benefit of his background. The healing was unconsious to him; he did it without thinking about it. Now, with other people, however, he hesitated.

Then, out there in the tunnels, Justal tripped, ripping a muscle in the fall.

In his meditative state, the younger man's hurt struck at Tio'nel like a knife. Instinctively, he reached out, healing the muscles and refilling Justal's energy reserves. As he withdrew, Tio'nel directed that healing burst to his other companions.

Done, the ex-Knight of Loriea fell over sideways in exhaustion. I hope that bastard Sergeant couldn't smell my magic! was his last coherent thought.
         Jurrel lay back in one of the small little stone pools that was sunken into the floor of the bathing room in the back of their barracks. To the amazement of them all the pools were actually heated. There was a larger one farther in the back that was filled with cold water but most of them were temperatures ranging from mildly warm to almost scaldingly hot.
         This isn’t so bad, the clansman thought.
         The Tiger-Man, Jurrel could scarcely begin to believe what had just happened to him, probably had a worse bark than bite. Jurrel had heard tales of Tiger-Man from the clans of the deep forest but he had dismissed them as superstition. This Tiger-Man was much more than the superstitious beliefs of herd-gatherers and traders. Jurrel sank up to his neck and cautiously felt the still throbbing flesh around his throat. No man had been able to handle the clansman so easily since he was a boy. The knowledge that it could be done so easily threatened to crush his once indomitable spirit.
         What was he doing here? He had once been a revered warrior among his clan and feared among his enemies. It was disgraceful to be here with so many weaklings under the harsh eye of a monster he should have been doing his best to kill.
         Jurrel shuddered as an especially warm eddy of water flowed over him. His skin tingled oddly but the aches and pains caused by the healing magic of the Cleric in the infirmary faded away. The clansman sighed contentedly and rested his head in a padded recession in the side of the pool. His thoughts drifted back to the backside of the tall beauty. She was in a pool on the other side of the room from Jurrel, the little thief, and the weakling. Once Jurrel rested and regained some of his vigor he would see what she had to offer him.
         That last thought caused a slow smile to spread across the barbarians face.

****

         Rain-Emerald sniffled into her pillow as the wave of Cleric magic passed over her. She had been trained to recognize the feel of several different types of magic. The apprentice Sorceress sighed as her aches faded away into nothingness. It didn’t stop the hurt and betrayal that she felt inside though. That cursed Lieutenant and his easy smiles had won her completely over as though she were some farmer’s daughter.
         The run had nearly done her in. Only the almost constant attention of that strange being had driven her on. Rain had heard about the fabled Tiger-Men of the forests but she had never thought she’d meet one. The others might have thought he had been threatening her, but it had been far from it. His low, rumbling voice had offered nearly constant encouragement to the struggling young woman. The imposing figure had never offered her a hand when she faltered but always was there with encouragement and reassurances. She had been so afraid he would lash out at her with his claws that she had summoned a small reserve of Sorceror magic. Rain-Emerald had nearly panicked then but had maintained her composure. The Tiger-Man had then, in a voice oddly soothing, told Rain that her magic was being blocked by High Sorceror Ly’nel’s powers. Rain’s powers would only work when she completed all portions of her training. She would only be allowed to practice what she learned in special rooms that the High Sorceror had prepared before hand. Then the Tiger-Man had told her how all of her newfound teammates looked at her with contempt for being so weak. The Sergeant had encouraged her to show them all that she was stronger than she seemed.
         Rain-Emerald of the Grenm had never run anywhere a day in her life for pure exercise.
         Rain had felt so inadequate as the others walked as though they had only walked down to the local tavern and she fairly limped along. The Sergeant had made her feel so much better with a simple ‘you ran well’ that she could almost have sworn it was magic.
         None of this changed the fact that the Lieutenant had fooled her into being a part of a group of criminals. She had wanted to bathe with the rest of them but Rain couldn’t bring herself to in from of men. The apprentice Sorceress had settled on her bunk and prepared to study her texts. Instead she had found herself fighting tears with her face pressed against her thin pillow.
         Rain would show them all. She would show the Lieutenant, her “group”, and especially High Sorceror Ly’nel not to underestimate her. She would get even with them all. She would prove to the Sergeant that she was not a failure.
         Rain closed her eyes and quickly fell asleep. It never occurred to her that the Sergeant’s approval had somehow come to mean alot to her.

****

         Ty’nel sank back into his bunk with a small sigh of content. The damn barbarian was still asleep in a bathing pool. He’d come out red as blood if he stayed in there much longer. It wasn’t the thief’s concern though. The stupid barbarian could roast for all he cared.
         Ty’nel almost let out a little whimper when Kyle settled into the bunk next to him. What would it take to get rid of the little pest!?
         “ Hello, my friend, quite a bit of exercise today,” the scholar said, sounding not a bit out of breath.
         Ty’nel could only wonder at that. A wave of warmth had passed over him and it seemed as though his pains had faded away. It was the oddest thing. It had felt almost like the Infirmary Cleric’s magic, but rougher.
         “ I wonder how hard this ‘Sergeant’ will train us,” the scholar continued,“ Today wasn’t so bad. Why I think-? ”
         “ Yes, weakling, tell us what you think,” the Sergeant’s voice boomed into the barracks.
         Ty’nel closed his eyes as he heard Justal let out a yell as he was probably shoved into the barracks.
         “ Everybody!! Up!! ”
         Ty’nel opened his eyes and stood at the foot of his bunk. The Sergeant was there but this time he was backed by five figures. Two of them were big men with many scars on their faces, hands, and arms. One was a wiry figure who had a bald head except for a thin tail at the temple. There was a tall slender man who stood with the absolute stillness only a thief or an assassin trained to obtain. The other man was the Cleric from the Infirmary.
         “ These,” the Sergeant pointed to the men behind him,“ -are your assistant trainers. They know who they- WHERE IS THE BARBARIAN?! ”
         carlet pointed back towards the bathing chamber and the Tiger-Man stomped back their with his ears flat against his skull. Thunderous and inarticulate bellows erupted from the bathing chamber and moments later the barbarian was dragged back into the bunkroom. The man was clothed in nothing but a soaking loinclothe.
         “ So,” the Sergeant continued in nearly a conversational tone,“ Most of you have bathed and all of you have had some amount of rest. My hair’s standing on end so that means someone was using magic. I do believe it was the drunkard. Oh, joy! Now you are all healed up. I think each of you deserves some more running except for the fool here. He’ll go immediately to his training area. After your individual trainers have run you then you will all go to your areas for training. ”
         Someone raised their hand. Of course it was Kyle and of course he was next to Ty’nel.
         “ What is it, weakling? ”
         “ Where will you be, Sergeant? ”
         “ Around,” the Sergeant growled deep in his throat,“ Now....RUN! ”
         Ty’nel groaned and began to seriously consider breaking a certain someone’s neck the next time he slept.
The wiry man walked up to Justal.
"I am Galith. Disobey me and I will shed your blood quickly." That was all the man needed to say, Justal could see what he ment in his eyes.
"Follow me, Fool." Galith led Justal into a well lit room with bare walls and a high ceiling. There was a white sparing circle in the middle, dired blood was smeared on the floor.
Time to add a new coat. Justal thought.
"Pick a weapon." Galith's voice was low and clear. No emotion in it at all.

Justal looked at the rows of poorly kept weapons near the end he found a javelin. The tip was very sharp. Justal picked it up with one hand tested the weight then walked back to the circle. He had a fairly good idea of what he was going to do.
"Fight," Galith said. Justal began circling the man. Justal wasn't going to make the first move, he'd let Galith make it.
"Fight me Fool!" Galith said, his voice raising slightly.
Justal ran at Galith, holding his javelin at his side. Galith easily dodged it and Justal turned the end of the javelin in the direction he knew Galith was at and thrust the javelin backwards. He felt the javelin hit something as the flat of Galith's sword hit him in the back of the head. Justal was up in seconds, crouching and waiting for Galith to attack. He could tell Galith had blocked his first attack. Justal saw the flash metal and brought his javelin up in time to stop the sword from spliting his head down the middle.
Justal's foot lashed out, Galith dodged it and drove his sword toward Justal's stomach. Instead of cutting Justal's stomach open Galith made a shallow cut up to his chest. Justal ignored the pain and swept javelin around to knock Galith's feet from under him. Galith jumped kicked Justal in the head, sending him reeling backwards. Galith's sword was over Justal's heart.
"You make stupid moves. Trying to kick made you lose your balance," Galith said. He lifted his sword and Justal got up. He was in a relaxed fighting stance, he didn't trust this man at all.
"You want to keep fighting?" Galith asked, "Alright."
Kyle found himself in a bare room, only a worn table and chair for decoration. He shrugged and sat down.

"Don't do that." The voice came suddenly and Kyle jumped. At that moment, a man entered the room.

"What?"

Without reply, he went to the recently vacated chair and sat down. The book he carried was transfered to the table with a resounding thump. Kyle moved to a position to see.

"This," the man pointed to a page he'd turned to, "name the language."

"Ancient Drov."

The man turned to another page. "This?"

"Rugorian."

They continued in the same way for half an hour, until there was one that was alien to Kyle. The man smiled, "It's Attlel. You won't need it."

Kyle nodded, though without knowing what he was agreeing with. Seemingly satisfied, the man closed the book and stood. "My name is Jorek you will report to me in two days, be ready."

"With what?" There was no answer, only the appearance of Sargeant.

"Come, you're to the weapon's instructor now."

Shaking his head, Kyle followed.

------------------------

Rain could feel her stomach trying to escape her body via her throat as she was led up the stairs, then down, into an underground room. She thought she was prepared for Ly'nel, but how could she be sure?

He was waiting for her, and didn't waste time. "The first incantation of light, recite it."

She did, her voice shaking, but true. The spell failed. "I don't understand, that's how it was in the book..." Her entire body was shaking now.

Ly'nel stopped her. "You have failed the simplest incantation." He watched her for a moment, then made a gesture of dismissal. "When you can perform, perhaps I will attempt to train you. However, that day seems unlikely."

She was fighting tears as the guard escorted her for weapon's practice. She only managed to compose herself with the thought that if she was a complete failure, they wouldn't be wasting time training her in combat, would they? With what she hoped was a brave expression, she readied herself for her first lesson.
         Tio'nel closed his eyes as he ran, another old, old exercise long since discarded. He trusted in his instincts -- OR SHOULD! he reminded himself as he winced, opened his eyes and found he was nowhere close to running into anything.
         He turned his head slightly, to look at the cleric running at his side. The young man's eyes were closed, his breath coming easily. Tio'nel flushed angrily. Who he was mad at most he couldn't quite decide: the cleric for showing him up, or himself for letting himself get so out of shape.
         He gasped a few more breaths, then closed his eyes again, to try once more. He opened them again to a raging headache and the leering face of the cleric.
         "What's the matter, old man? Not get your firewine today?"
         Tio'nel scowled and heaved himself to his feet. He tried to put a hand out for balance, but the cleric knocked his hand away.
         "What? Are your skills so weak, so worthless you cannot cure even a slight headache?"
         Tio'nel only barely refused the taunt . . . and the urge to growl a reply. Why, in his day, he'd been the greatest Knight-Cleric of all Loriea! Well, perhaps not that great, but that was what -- Tio'nel's mind lurched away from that pain-riddled abyss. He shuddered uncontrolably, silently cursing the cleric for reminding him of his growing withdrawal cravings.
         "UP! Get up, old man, I'm not through with you yet!"
         Tio'nel let himself be heaved to his feet, forcing himself to continue running. As the pain and weariness increased, his legs began to shake, but Tio'nel refused to quit. I'm not going to let this upstart think he's my better! he thought.
         He brought his hand to a sudden cramp, the pain startling Tio'nel almost as much as the sudden relief. How did I do that? he wondered, irritated by yet another failure. Scowling, Tio'nel closed his eyes again to concentrate, trying to trace the magic like a novice.
         His lip curled in self-loathing and anger, Tio'nel reached. His questing mind, rusty from disuse and time, struggled to remember and then . . . he grunted in satisfaction as he found the door. Sweat poured off his body and face as he tried, struggled with all his might, pounded, and mentally swore, trying to force open a door he'd shut a decade or more ago, and all the painful memories that went with it.
         Tio'nel didn't know the exact moment his foot slipped, but he knew exactly when he hit bottom: the door safeguarding everything Tio'nel had wised to forget (as well as the reason he'd wanted to forget) spilt open. Spells, memories, habits tumbled out, hitting Tio'nel with the force of a stone floor. He groaned, ignoring the kick sent his way by the cleric. Tears slid down his cheeks as he sobbed, his fists becoming bloody from his bludgeoning them against the stone.
         The Sergeant's claws ripped Tio'nel off the floor, shook him hard enough to make teeth rattle, then dropped him.
         Startled and with the breath knocked out of him, Tio'nel to found that he was somewhere even grosser and slimier than his cell, covered in muck from his fall, and all alone . . . With Sergeant.
         "So, think you can just leave your trainer? Huh? Just like that?"
         Tio'nel knew better than to answer that question.
         "Answer me, you disgrace of a Knight!"
         With an ease that startled Tio'nel so bad he almost lost the magic, the once-great Knight-Cleric waved away his pain and harsh breathing and stood. Level-headed and free for the first time in fifteen years from dependance on the bottle, Tio'nel took a deep breath, reveling in the feel of being able to do that.
         He looked Sergeant straight in the eye and said, "I am no knight."
         Sergeant's voice was soft, deadly. "So, what are you then?"
         Tio'nel raised his chin stubbornly, hardly believing he was standing up to this devil. "I am a Knight-Cleric, sir."
         The Sergeant's eyebrow curved impossibly high. "Really," he drawled.
         His claw sliced through air too fast to see, slicing through flesh, muscle, and organ too quick for Tio'nel to immediately react. Sergeant turned away.
         "If you're so great, why is Ra'siel dead?"
         Tio'nel lurched away from the wall, blood streaming from between his cupped hands. "D--n you!" Tio'nel screamed at Sergeant's departing back. "D--n you all! I care nothing for this petty quest, do you hear me? You can all rot in some forsaken hole for all that it matters to me!"
         "And break your word?" Sergeant's voice echoed slightlty in the tunnel. "What wouls She say then?"
         The Knight-Cleric sank to the floor, tears running unnoticed down his cheeks. He felt the lethargy, knew the risk, and still he hesitated. But, as she had so long ago, Ra'siel's face appeared before him. She held the face of her love and kissed him one last time, a caress the like of which only angels could even imagine. "Live," she breathed. "Live for me -- swear it!"
         As he had then, Tio'nel promised: "I swear!" he sobbed.
         Ra'siel's face lit up with a smile that would have put the gods to shame. "I love you," she whispered, then spoke no more.
         Tio'nel sobbed into his wound, feeling his lifeforce beginning to fade. With great reluctance, spurred only by an oath to a dying woman, he called forth the magic that would save him. His mind followed the magic, seeing the torn organs and muscles and flesh join and heal, seeing the blood returned and feeling the strength flow back into his limbs.
         He knelt there a moment, with his blood-soaked clothes and hands, and prayed.
         My Lady, long have I strayed from your service. Your humble servent would now wish to beg your forgiveness. I have one last task to achieve, My Lady, and then I shall forever more be indebted to your service. This I swear. Pray forgive me, My Lady, for I have done you much wrong. Settle my hands and speed my limbs that I might return to you the swifter.
         Tio'nel stood. Surveying the darkness, he reached out with his healer's instinct, finding the barracks where his companions rested wearily. Their pain called to him and he began to jog. They would have need of him soon.
         Jurrel stood in the center of a sparring circle in a good-sized chamber. The clansman breathed heavily through his mouth as he stood before his ‘trainer’. The man was almost as tall as Jurrel and might have been more muscular. His large brown eyes seemed to dig deep into Jurrel but the barbarian shrugged the sensation off. The man was not even breathing hard from the exhausting run. True Lijuak warriors never ran long distances, that was for runners, and walked almost casually to any potential battlefield. All of this running was infruriating the barbarian.
         If the fool of a mercenary actually wanted to spar with real weapons then the man would meet a bloody end.
         Several other mercenaries, all big men with scarred faces, entered the chamber and ringed the sandy sparring circle.
         “ I have fought your people before, Lijuak,” Jurrel’s ‘trainer’ said, slowly walking around the clansman,“ I know you are a fierce race of warriors but I don’t know about you personally. Today we will see what kind of warrior you truly are. You may call me Instructor. ”
         Jurrel gritted his teeth and cast sidelong glances at the mercenaries lining the ring. Each was armed with gleaming blades that seemed hungry for his blood.
         “ These,” the Instructor pointed to a small stand of axes, maces, and a warhammer,“ -will be what we will use to see how good you are. ” the Instructor pointed at rusty suits of leather-and-mail armor on the floor. “ Those will be your sparring partners,” the Instructor blew on a strange whistle that hung around his neck.
         Jurrel’s eyes widened as the suits sprang to life before his eyes. In the blink of an eye, three armored figures stood before the clansman, and each one was armed with a longsword. The clansman wasted no time in turning and grabbing a weapon. He picked a long-handled steel hand-axe and the wooden, round shield at the base of the weapons rack. Jurrel turned, twirling the hand-axe, and let loose a thunderous battlecry before charging his foes.
         Jurrel slammed aside the pathetically slow swing of the magicked armor’s longsword and smashed the head of his axe into the juncture between shoulder and neck. The suit flopped lifelessly to the floor as it ‘died’. Jurrel spun, a powerful blow making the round shield shake against his forearm, and drove his shoulder into the chest of another walking suit of armor. As the suit stumbled back the barbarian brought his hand-axe around in an overhand smash directly into what would have been the suit’s head. The suit crumbled into a pile of dusty armor instantly. The clansman dived forward just as the final animated suit came up behind him. Jurrel rolled to his feet and turned to face this last foe. This animated suit seemed slightly more skilled, and fluid, than the last two. The suit circled the clansman as it looked for an oppurtunity to strike.
         Without breaking it’s rhythm the animated suit of armor lunged at Jurrel. The clansman calmly stood his ground and at the last minute stepped to the side of the thrusting sword. Pain flared briefly along his thigh as the longsword scored a thin gash. Jurrel hit the armor right between it’s shoulderblades as it stumbled off- balance past him. The final magicked suit of armor crumpled to the sandy floor of the circle.
         “ Excellent, Lijuak,” the Instructor said, tonelessly,“ You’re dead. ”
         Jurrel looked at the man in confusion,“ I still stand. ”
         The Instructor shook his head,“ You’re wounded. ”
         The mercenary pointed at the wounds on Jurrel’s forearm and leg. Jurrel had not even noticed the wound on his forearm.
         The big clansman shrugged,“ They’re only scratches. ”
         The Instructor pointed at one of the longswords,“ Look at the blade closely. ”
         Jurrel did and immediately saw what the mercenary was talking about. The blade was covered in sickly looking greenish paste as well as having odd symbols etched into it’s metal.
         “ There are more types of poisons and necromantic sigils in the DeepDown than you can imagine. Those poisons on those blades only slow you down a little, but they are meant to reinforce that you must always be watchful of what you face. ”
         “ I won. I am alive. How well would you fare? ”
         Before the mercenary could respond, Jurrel was charging for him, and his heart soared. If he caught them by surprise he might be able to escape with weapons and armor. Let the Tiger-Man come for him then and Jurrel would test the beast’s mettle. Jurrel’s feet moved much more sluggishly than they should have even if he were exhausted. The clansman knew a moment of shock before pain crashed into head and the world went black.

         Ty’nel stood panting before the lithe, menacing figure of the Sergeant. The two stood in a large room with a small obstacle course set up. There were several walls to climb, each with different terrain covering them, several free climbing ropes, a chain net suspended above that over what looked like a deep pool, then a simple run over high and low beams.
         Ty’nel could guess what the Sergeant had in mind for him. What he didn’t understand was why he was training with the Tiger-Man. Ty’nel searched the room suspiciously for any surprises that the Sergeant undoubtably had for him. He had an itch between his shoulderblades and another at the back of his neck. That had to mean that someone was watching him and that they were planning to stab him in the back. He had to be careful and maybe he would have an oppurtunity to escape. Ty’nel thought he might be able to elude the Tiger-Man if only he got a big enough headstart.
         The Sergeant stood beside the first of the scaling walls,“ Okay, scum, I presume you know the drill. Get to it. ”
         Ty’nel walked tiredly up to the first wall and began scaling it. The wall’s surfaces was relatively smooth granite with protruding footholds and handholds. Ty’nel took his time scaling the wall as he was constantly looking for traps. Ty’nel was nearly at the top when the Sergeant spoke up.
         “ Did I mention that you have to the count of one hundred? A lash for every count over one hundred and you are up to fifteen. ”
         Ty’nel bit back a curse and scrambled onto the other side of the wall. The thief began his own count in his head. Ty’nel was at the bottom of the first wall in five seconds. The thief raced to the next wall, a craggy surface, and leaped onto it. He scrambled up and over as quickly as he could. Ty’nel hissed as he rubbed his palms raw on the hard stone as he climbed. He ignored the pain as he landed as light as a cat.
         “ Twenty-five! ” the Sergeant roared, following Ty’nel as he made his way through the course.
         Ty’nel began clawing his way up the third wall and found the going more difficult than he expected. This wall was made up of nothing more than hard-packed dirt with jagged hand- and footholds carved into it. Ty’nel was a superb thief and an expert climber though. He was on the other side in no more than fifteen seconds. Ty’nel was breathing heavily as his feet touched the cold stone floor.
         The thief rallied his strength and began hauling himself up one of the free climbing ropes. There were large knots spaced along the length of rope to aid climbers and, much to Ty’nel’s disgust, the thief needed to use them. By the time he got to the top of the rope his arms were beginning to tremble from exertion.
         “ Fifty seconds! ”
         Ty’nel began to swing across the chain net, his hands becoming slick with blood from the steel chains, and almost fell before he made it to the wooden ramp nearly eight meters from the ropes.
         Ty’nel tiredly plodded down the ramp and sidehopped over the first of the high beams. Then he rolled beneath a low beam. Ty’nel’s feet had barely touched the ground after the second high beam before the world fell out from under him.
         Ty’nel screamed hoarsely as he fell into a black pit. Cold, black, fetid water met him at the bottom. The thief sank in over his head before kicking himself back up above the surface. He swan over to a wall and looked up through the hole he had fallen through. The light from the obstacle room came from nearly five meters above Ty’nel’s head. The grim visage of the Sergeant peered over the lip of the trap.
         “ You’re dead. ”



Part Two



         Ty’nel had quickly learned that time losses all meaning when day and night become interchangeable. The thief had no idea how much time had passed in the outside world. His world was one of lanternlit tunnels and chambers. His life had been reduced to one of exhausting training and studies. The only imperfect measurement of time for the thief was how quickly his beard grew.
         Ty’nel tiredly rubbed his fuzzy chin as he fell backwards onto his hard cot. He heard the others doing the same all around him as they plodded in from their various days of training. Kyle had long ago stopped talking anyone to death after his second day of instruction at the hands of the general combat instructor. Ty’nel smiled wistfully as he lay his forearm over his eyes. The thief stil did not know the name of the one the Sergeant had labeled the failure. The small woman had barely spoken to anyone in the...days they had been imprisoned in the bowels of the Keep.
         Ty’nel’s mind, as had become habit, began to recount all the things he had learned since he had agreed to take part in the suicidal mission. It seemed to be the best and fastest way to get him to sleep. Oddly, it also helped him remember his lessons the best. The Sergeant had run Ty’nel through that small obstacle course what felt like hundreds of times. Sometimes the Sergeant would coat the ropes and walls with slime. Sometimes he would have chains hanging from the net above the pool and tell Ty’nel to swing across. Over and over again did the thief navigate that stupid course. Then the Sergeant had switched him to enduring hours of lectures and study devoted to the traps and puzzles found in a variety of cultures dungeons. How to judge if a room or corridor had pit traps, gas traps, or poisoned dart traps. How to circumvent or disable the traps without dying. Droning hours of indoctrination that Ty’nel thought was intended to make him the ideal pointman for their little group. It was probably the most dangerous position and he trusted no one at his back. He would have to find a way for them to get them to put Scarlet in that position. The whore moved well and with a little training she might make a good thief.
         That thought brought a small smile to Ty’nel’s lips as he drifted off to sleep.

         “ Up, you pack of furless dogs! ” the voice of the Sergeant boomed into Ty’nel’s ears.
         “ You heard ‘em! Get UP! ” Jurrel’s instructor’s voice boomed nearly as loud as the Sergeant’s.
         Ty’nel resisted the urge to groan, that had gotten him into trouble only once, and quickly stood at the foot of his bed.
         “ You dogs get a break today! No warm-up run. Fall out by instructor. Move! ” the Sergeant ordered.
         Ty’nel and the others, everyone was still dressed in clothes they had fallen asleep in, fell in behind each of their instructors. Ty’nel followed the furred back of the Sergeant through the corridors to a place he hadn’t been yet. The thief realized that he was so tired he had not even attempted to memorize the route. He tried to force a yawn and get some adrenaline pumping but it didn’t work.
         How much sleep did they let us get?, he thought.
         The Sergeant opened the door and gestured for Ty’nel to enter. The thief did but did so quickly and turned to face the Sergeant as he entered the room. The Sergeant fixed the thief with a baleful glare as he entered the expansive room. The Tiger-Man pointed to the far end of the well-lit room. The room was empty except for a single large, wooden chest on a dias at the far end of the room.
         “ I want you to retrieve the pendent in that chest for me. Here’s a revealer,” the Sergeant tossed Ty’nel a fine necklace with a slightly glowing orb at the end of it,“ You can use any of that,” the Sergeant pointed to dungeoneering equipment neatly laid out,“ You have an unlimited time limit. ”
         Ty’nel nodded at the Sergeant, covering his gaping mouth with a fist, and studied the layout of the room. He glanced briefly at the dungeoneering equipment before shrugging tiredly. The thief jogged unconcernedly across the bare floor and right up to the chest. He passed the revealer once around the chest. The enchanted stone would reveal, by the colors it emitted, what kinds of enchantment traps any container might have on it. The orb glowed a pearly white and Ty’nel nodded to himself. The thief expertly picked the poorly made bronze lock with the simple tools he had been given in a matter of seconds.
         Ty'nel studied the interior of the box for a few seconds to determine if there were any traps inside. He was through with his check quickly and retrieved the pendant. Ty’nel turned around and plodded tiredly back to the Sergeant who fixed him with a steely gaze.
         “ Why’d you cross the floor so quickly? ” the Sergeant asked as Ty’nel handed him the pendant.
         Ty’nel yawned again and shrugged,“ The floor is uniform. Just enough odd spots so I knew it was real and didn’t have any pits. And the walls jagged and cracked. Can’t hide very many trap mechanisms in those kinds of walls and still have solid bases. Then simple checks on the outside and inside of the chest. ”
         The Sergeant stared at the thief for a few long moments before opening the door and gesturing for Ty’nel to exit. He could only tiredly follow as the Sergeant led him through the dimly lit corridors. Ty’nel was surprised when he found himself in front of the barracks. The Sergeant opened the doors and waved him in.
         “ You earned some sleep. Go get some. ” was all he said.
         Ty’nel was only too happy to obey.


         Jurrel yawned as the Instructor led him into a long hall. Six seperate piles of what Jurrel had come to know as enchanted armor stretched out along the hall. The Instructor gestured to a weapons rack besides the entrance. The ever-present enforcers were standing besides the doors as well. Jurrel had quickly learned to ignore their presence and to not attack the Instructor. The first time Jurrel had done so one of the enforcers had taken him down. The second time the Instructor himself had felled the big clansman with the hilt of a shortsword. The third time all of the enforcers had taken him down.
         There had not been a fourth time.
         Jurrel had not changed clothes in nearly two days and he knew that the enforcers and the Instructors could tell. Jurrel was too tired to feel shame or even anger. They had not had to endure, the clansman though they couldn’t have, what Jurrel had. The constant runs, training, and droning lectures were exhausting. The clansman had never had indoctrination so intense even when he was being trained to be a clan-warrior. The only saving grace about his treatment was the fact that he wasn’t alone. His fellow prisoners never wrinkled their noses at him in disgust. Each one of them had as little energy as he had for personal hygiene as of late. Even the women were not taking as much care with their grooming habits as normal.
         The Instructor, as usual, stared piercingly at the clansman for a few moments before speaking,“ Simple exercise, Lijuak. You pick three different weapon types: one blunt, one stabbing, and one cutting. Then you make it through the gauntlet. You can pick up a shield if you prefer. ”
         “ How much time do I have? ” Jurrel asked and frowned when the Instructor shrugged.
         Jurrel quickly selected weapons he had become the most familiar with. A warhammer that's shaft had been shortened by half, a clan saber, and a Loreian short-hafted battleaxe. The warhammer went on his left hip, the saber on his left hip, and the battleaxe could fit in a breakaway loop on his back if he needed. He also picked up the familiar wooden round shield. Jurrel let loose a mighty yawn before striding wolfishly towards the gauntlet of enchanted armor.
         The first suit came to life and Jurrel saw it was armored in thick iron plate. The clansman quickly hefted his warhammer and went forward to meet the enchanted armor. The armor held a slim longsword in a steel gauntlet. Jurrel easily dodged the first clumsy swing and slammed his warhammer into the armor’s middle. The force of the blow made a horrible dent in the iron armor and hurtled the enchanted suit away. Jurrel went forward to meet the next rising armor. This one was dressed in large loops of steel that covered the leather breastplate and breeches. Jurrel swept aside the clumsy swipe of it’s shortsword and brought the head of his warhammer down onto it’s iron helm. The helmet crumpled like paper and the enchanted armor collapsed. Jurrel jogged down to the next sext of armor as it was rising. He booted it onto it’s chainmail covered back and brought his weapon onto what would have been its collarbone. It went flaccid as he stepped over it.
         In another minute Jurrel was panting lightly over the lifeless armor at the end of the gauntlet. The Instructor and enforcers walked over to him with surprised expressions on their faces.
         “ Why didn’t you use the other weapons like you were taught? ” the Instructor asked, his expression odd.
         Jurrel yawned and held up his warhammer,“ Hammer’s good for any beast with bones you can break and these are supposed to be men. ”
         The Instructor chuckled slightly,“ Take him back to the barracks. You’ve earned extra sleep, Lijuak, though I should make you stay and explain all the dents. ”
         Jurrel was too tired to care as he removed his weapons and was escorted from the room.
It seemed that Galith knew of Justal's plan to go unnoticed. He worked Justal hard, very hard. Apperently Galith wanted to break Justal, wanted Justal to lose his control and attack, as he had heard Scarlet doing many times.

Justal never did anything besides what he was told, he didn't speak, he didn't move, he didn't even make a face, he always kept his face blank.

He didn't care what the others would think, should they ever talk, he was alive.

Galith made Justal's training harder when Justal wasn't completely sure he had the orginal test down.

While Justal was training, fighting with batons on wooden stick twenty feet in the air, Galith started telling Justal about the Test. About the two rooms, about the Nargrasims, about the disks he had to gather. Then Galith jumped off the pegs and said, "Follow me." And walked away. Justal quickly followed, knowing where he was going.
On his second meeting with Joreck, Kyle had walked into a reprimand. "Why aren't you prepared?"

"Prepared with what?"

"How can you expect to learn the language if you have no supplies for copying? You didn't actually think I'd let you borrow the book, did you?"

"But I have no supplies, how could I possibly bring them?"

Joreck shook his head, "You must ask before you can expect to receive, that will be your first lesson." He clapped his hands and a man came forward with coarse paper and a stick of charcoal. Joreck passed them to Kyle, then opened the book.

"You've heard of the Griks?"

"Only that there is little proof of their existance."

The man pointed to the page, "This is their language. They inhabited parts of the beneath for some time, it may prove useful."

Kyle nodded and set to copying symbols. "If we encounter their leavings, it may be useful to know something of their culture, just for the sake of knowing what to expect." He looked up at Joreck, "If you have any documents of that nature, may I copy them?"

Joreck clapped his hands again, bringing forth a different man, bearing a different book. "You learn fast."

"I have found it beneficial to my health in the past."

"And so you will in the immediate future." Kyle had no doubt of that, he had been right.

His quick mind had served him well with both his instructors. His knowledge of languages and obsurely ancient cultures had grown exponentially. His swift mind had been just as exercised with the weapons instructor. The man had immediately started him on the bow, stating the fact that those with no experience and little strength and speed would get themselves killed in close fighting.

Kyle's softness had dissolved under the constant attention of the instructor and he was now a passable shot with a variety of bows, not excellent but, "enough to keep him from getting himself killed immediately".

That morning, he had been ushered into the training ground and run through a series of mock battles, the enchanted armor used for the purpose had proved relentless, but in the end, was collectively defeated. The instructor had shrugged and sent him to Joreck.

By now Kyle had become familiar with traps, mazes, and the like where the only clues to prevent lethal consequences were those he could decipher with what he learned. That afternoon, Joreck presented him with the gauntlet. "Take as long as you want, just try not to get yourself dead." Kyle had swallowed hard, and, ignoring his already aching muscles, began. Hours later, he was alive, and presenting his mandatory "treasures" to Joreck.

----------------

Unlike Kyle, Rain had not been adaptable to the bow. Her aim was accurate only when she was close enough to her target to be easy prey. The instructor had attempted to train her on every weapon they had available, only for Rain to fail to become even slightly skilled in the use of any. He had cursed, she had cried, and then one day things had come to a head.

"You worthless whore! I have tried to teach you that which a child could master, and you have failed. You can't aim, you can't block, you can't even use a crossbow. I may as well kill you know and save your comrades the trouble of doing it later when you become a liability in the dungeons."

She had fallen to the floor, sobbing into her hands. He reached down and hauled he roughly to her feet, "Get up!" She had stood shakily, tears running down her face. He walked over to the weapons rack, and selected two sturdy staffs. One he threw to her, the other he kept.

"This will decide whether you live or die. Know this, if you cannot defend yourself, I will not stop until you are dead." He was no longer angry, merely ready for battle.

The first blow was to her stomach, and Rain doubled over, trying to breathe. An instant later, the wood cracked over her back, sending fire across her body. The next blow took her feet from under her, as her jaw slammed against the hard floor, she could feel the distinct crack of bone. Tears of pain, humiliation, and fear poured down her cheeks, her staff now lay off to the side, long since dropped. It was only a nearly accidental roll that prevented her skull from being crushed in the next instant. As she rolled, she saw the instructor's eyes, cool and distant. Then he raised the staff again, and she knew there was nothing she could do, she was about to be killed in a dark room by a brute of a man, and no one would notice her death, much less mourn.

From deep within, rage boiled forth, completely erasind everything else and leaving only molten fury. "No!" She screamed so loud, she could feel tearing in her throat. Her abandoned staff shot up from the floor and blocked the descending weapon. The instructor's staff was knocked from his hands and Rain's began to hail blows. All the while, Rain was shrieking in rage. The disembodied staff continued its abuse. The ever-present guards barely managed to save the man's life. As they rushed to subdue Rain, something within her snapped and she collapsed.

The first thing she saw when she opened her eyes, was Ly'nel's face. His only comment was, "That caught even myself by surprise. We can begin your training tomorrow."
         Tio'nel spent most of his time meditating, regaining old skills. He watched and waited as the others finished preparing. For the first time in a decade he was free from his cravings for alchohol and he began to notice things again. And for the first time he began to notice how cut off from everyone he'd become. He longed to just talk to someone, about anything, but in their present states, his companions were not great conversationalists. He wondered if he should become friends with them, but he didn't know how.
         So he stayed by himself, alone with his thoughts. He was rarely bothered, so he took to running and exercising on his own. Somehow, getting back in shape made the world seem less bleak and hopeless and the desperate need to escape his depression drove him every step.
         His clerical powers were exercised almost constantly, though no one had yet connected him with their miraculous healing. Tio'nel considered it almost miraculous himself, the way he could heal their semi-serious and minor wounds with little more than a thought, no matter where he was in the dungeons. So he wasn't worried about that aspect of his training at all. He thanked the Goddess every day, several times a day, for returning his skill to him.
         But there came a time where it seemed the stress level jumped up exponentially. All of a sudden he and the others were being pushed with ever-increasing force toward being ready, whatever that 'ready' meant. The sudden change alarmed him, but he wasn't sure why.
         The dreams started then and most nights he would wake up, drenched in sweat and shaking, but he could never remember why. He began to take himself to the exercise room more frequently, especially after one of those dreams. It took hours to go back to sleep after one of the dreams, so Tio'nel would work himself to the brink of exhaustion, run until everyone else began to stir, then return to the barracks to sleep.
         A couple of weeks passed by like this, with Tio'nel growing more and more tired and cranky and increasingly stressed. The others gave him a wide berth, speaking to him only when necessary. His face became pale and gaunt, his eyes puffy and red-rimmed from lack of sleep, and the weight began to melt from his bones extraordinarily fast.
         One morning after his run, Tio'nel returned, stumbling with fatigue, to fing Sergeant blocking his way. The tiger-man had his arms crossed over his chest, his eyes boring into Tio'nel's.
         "You are driving yourself too hard," said the tiger-man finally.
         Tio'nel shrugged.
         "Tell me what weighs on your mind."
         Tio'nel laughed, cutting it short at the expression on Sergeant's face. He rubbed his jaw, unused to the expression and looked up at the tiger-man wearily. "I need some rest, that is all."
         Sergeant shook his head. "No time for that. Your training days are nearly over, but you are being graduated early."
         Tio'nel gave Sergeant a quizzical look. "Where am I going, then?"
         "Up," the tiger-man replied simply. "The others will be brought to you at the completion of their training. You will not heal them from this point until then. Understood?"
         Tio'nel nodded. "I will need books to study."
         "You will be provided that which is necessary. Any more questions? Good, let's go."
         Ty’nel stood at attention before the Sergeant yet again. This time they were what looked like an archery range. This time they were not alone either. Justal and his gnarly trainer were at the opposite end of the range. Ty’nel had gawked at the tall Pliyian’s speed and accuracy with. It didn’t seem to matter what kind of bow Justal used. The Sergeant had growled something under his breath and told Ty’nel to wait there. The Sergeant had taken Justal’s trainer to the side and the two had seemed to be arguing in hushed tones for a few minutes. Finally the Sergeant had returned and led Ty’nel down to the far end of the range.
         The Sergeant had a small selection of Ty’nel’s favored ranged weapon in the stall they had chosen. There were several sizes and designs of hand-crossbows. Ty’nel kept his eyes front while the Sergeant pulled the ropes that controlled the parchment shapes. Normally the targets would have been shaped like men but Ty’nel was not training to kill men. There were also target on thin stands along the floor. Those were usually small and had bullseyes on their tiny heads and sometimes in the midline of their bodies. The shapes that hung from the ceiling were big, grotesque shapes with bullseyes in odd places. One, which was shaped almost like a man, only had a bullseye in the crotch.
         Ty’nel was sickened simply by what his imagination conjured up from the silhouette.
         “ Pick your weapon and show me. ” was all the Sergeant said before stepping aside.
         Ty’nel stepped up and studied the weapons before him. He grined his teeth together as his eyes settled on a pair of the smallest crossbows. There was no visible string on these crossbows and the cross seemed a little too flexible. These crossbows were spring loaded and the action of the cross flexing backwards gave the bolts extra pentrating power within their range.
         They were the weapons that the Marauders had taken off a Ty’nel.
         Ty’nel picked them up and picked two bolts from one of the small quivers hanging on the wall. Ty’nel smiled as he examined one because of course the arrowheads were blunt. Each was covered in a blue paste that was used to determine marksmanship. The thief held the trigger and slid a bolt into the hole in the wooden block that was crossbows body. When the entire length of the bolt’s shaft was inside, and only the arrowhead protruded, Ty’nel released the trigger. There was a metallic click and the crossbow was loaded. Ty’nel loaded the other crossbow quickly.
         “ Kill the large target just to the left. ”
         Ty’nel held his left forearm at a right angle and held the crossbow in his right hand at arms length across his outstretched forearm. He closed one eye and sighted down the small cross-sight at the front of the weapon. Ty’nel drew in a breath and released it slowly as he squeezed the trigger. The cross snapped backward and the bolt leapt forward from the crossbow. Ty’nel was sighting with his left arm before the bolt had crossed the fifteen meters seperating him from the target. The second bolt was released as the first struck the target squarely.
         The Sergeant grunted and pulled the ropes that would guide that target closer so they could see Ty’nel’s accuracy. Ty’nel knew his was an excellent shot with weapons that not many people could use accurately. The small crossbows were notoriously inaccurate past ten meters and thus were not used by many. Only the most skilled thieves could recognize their value. A pair of the easily concealed, powerful weapons could make an impossible situation manageable in seconds.
         The Sergeant nodded slightly as he studied Ty’nel accuracy in the bright lights from the ceiling mounts overhead. Ty’nel had hit both bullseyes, one in the short figures chest and the other in the lower belly, only a little off- enter.
         “ Good, now we see how you fare when the target is moving towards you. ”
         The Sergeant moved one of the small targets on the ground to the dark end of the range while Ty’nel loaded his crossbows. Without warning the Sergeant began smoothly pulling the rope with deceptive speed. The target was rushing at Ty’nel far faster than he thought a man could move. The thief snapped his right crossbow into a ready position and took slow steady breaths as the target raced to within range. When Ty’nel felt the crossbow sing in his hand he pulled the trigger. He heard the bolt smash into the target, or was it the target smashing into the bolt, and looked apprehensively as the Sergeant pulled it close enough to determine his accuracy. The blue mark had just missed the bullseye.
         “ Enough for a kill. Now we try two targets moving towards you. ”
         The Sergeant was pulling back on two rope even as he spoke. Ty’nel hastily reloaded his spent weapon and began to take deep calming breaths. He had never tried firing the weapons without the bracing effect of his forearm. The thief did not know if he could keep the crossbows steady enough to be accurate. He would find out though.
         The targets began racing towards the thief. He tried closing one eye as he usually did but there was no way to look at both targets as fast as they were coming. By the time one was in range, he fired one crossbow, the other target would have reached him. He led the targets a bit, let his breath out, and squeezed both triggers.
         Both bolts sailed wide.
         The Sergeant cursed low and long before finally regaining his composure,“ Again. ”
         Ty’nel reloaded his weapons and silently moaned. It was going to be a long day.

******

         Jurrel was perplexed as he stood at attention in the familiar sparring circle. There were no piles of enchanted armor in the circle with him. The living armor had been his constant sparring partners almost since the first day of training. It felt odd to be inside of a training circle without them.
         The Instructor stood in the circle opposite Jurrel. He studied the clansman with puckered lips. Jurrel knew he had regained all the muscle that he had lost from his months of relative inactivity when he had been drinking and whoring. The clansman felt stronger than he had ever felt before and he thought that his body lent weight to that thought. The Instructor seemed to be sizing Jurrel up as if for the first time.
         “ I’m going to introduce you to a new weapon today, Lijuak,” the Instructor said, and gestured to one of the ever present guards.
         The guard handed the Instructor a weapon the likes of whcih Jurrel had never seen. The weapon was nearly a head taller than the Instructor and the mercenary was nearly as tall as Jurrel. The weapon was nearly as thick as a quarterstaff but had bladed weapons at both ends of it. Jurrel studied the blades at the top and he felt his hands began to tingle oddly. The blade was dual-sided, one side was a wicked half-moon blade, and the other was a spike that was slightly short of a half meter. Both the axehead and the spike were covered in jagged symbols etched into their metal.
         The Instructor held out the weapon before him in both hands. With almost an imperceptible twitch of his wrists, the Instructor had the weapon spinning slowly about him, and the weapon was quickly whirling around him in a dizzying blur. The Instructor brought the axehead down in a blindingly fast downward slash and then twisted like a tumbler so that he could bring the same axehead back up to strike at whatever imaginary foe was behind him. The Instructor twirled the weapon in his hands so that the spike was now the leading edge of the weapon and brought it down before him. Then he spun around on his heel and lashed at with the axehead on the opposite end of the weapon. It was then that Jurrel noticed the blades were placed in opposing directions at either end of the staff.
         This whirling, dancing exercise of the Instructor continued for at least a minute. Jurrel couldn’t stop his jaw from coming unhinged when, with a deft twist and pull, the Instructor neatly seperated the two halves of the shaft. now the Instructor held two short-hafted, dual-headed axes in his hands. The short-hafetd weapons were twirled and spun even more energetically. Jurrel could barely follow most of the weapons movements and knew that it would take a skillful man with a very large, sturdy shield to penetrate the Instructors range of motion.
         Finally the Instructor stopped and reassembled the weapon with another deft push and twist. The burly mercenary handed the weapon back to one of the guards and wiped the sweat from his brow. Jurrel hadn’t noticed but the Instructor was covered in sweat.
         “ That-,” the Instructor said, not sounding one bit out of breath,“ -is a Tiger-Man fighting staff. We call it a lio’tar, a mauler of men, after an infamous Loriean general. There are few men who can wield such a weapon with skill. Normally only Tiger-Men and adult Lizard-Men in their prime can wield them. We will see how you fare with one. ”
         The Instructor picked up two quarterstaffs that had been sitting in the sand of the sparring circle. He tossed one to Jurrel and shook his head at the expression on the clansman’s face.
         “ Lijuak don’t use quarterstaffs and you need to get used to what you can and can’t do with them,” the Instructor, as his moniker said, instructed Jurrel,“ Once you are acquainted with the movements then we add weights mean to get you used to what a real lio’tar feels like. Then we move onto the weapon itself. Now....defend yourself. ”
         The Instructor rushed at Jurrel and the clansman held his quarterstaff as though it were a glaive. He swung mightily at the smaller mercenary and hit nothing but air. The Instructor drove an end of his quarterstaff into Jurrel’s midriff and then reversed the motion to pound a thunderous blow onto the clansmans left shoulder. His entire arm went numb and he dropped his quarterstaff. Jurrel was struck mercilessly with blindingly fast blows that seemed to come from everywhere. Finally he succumbed and sank to his knees. The Instructor, only breathing as heavily as he had to start with, broke contact and stood at ease across the sparring circle.
         “ Pitiful, Lijuak. Never underestimate an opponent because of his weapon. Now get up! ”
         Jurrel clamped his right hand down on the quarterstaff and surged to his feet with a mighty battlecry.
         It was going to be a hard day.
Justal went into the room at a slow jog, making no sound. He wondered vaugly if the cracking of bones being broken would count as noise.
There were ten disks in all, the first thing to come to his mind would be five in this room, five in the next room. But Justal wasn't sure if he was right.
Justal stoped just before he fell down a hole in the ground. It went from wall to wall. There was one of the disks hanging on the wall around the center.
This seemed to easy. Find a way to jump over the hole, grab the disk without making a sound. Though it was hard it seemed to easy.
Oh well, I am the Fool after all. Justal thought and began thinking of a way to get over hte hole.
The day after completing the obstacle course, Kyle was presented with a problem.

"I know you plan to escape when you get the chance," Joreck continued, without waiting for a reply, "And you're obviously not detered by the issue of your iminent death should you attempt it. So, I present you with something else." He handed Kyle a scrap of paper.

Kyle read the one word, Wyqn, then folded it and placed the paper in his pocket. "I am ready for today's lesson."

---------------

Rain was escorted to what would now be her training room. Inside was an assortment of objects, ranging from weapons and mirrors, to jewelry and stones.

While she was looking at them, Ly'nel entered.

"You're telekinetic, so we'll progress accordingly. First, you start with small objects," he picked up a feather from the table, "then you move on to larger objects. Now, concentrate." He raised the feather so she could see it, and began to slowly turn it in his fingers.

Rain focused on it, noticing and taking in every detail. She became hypnotized with its turning, she became so absorbed in it that she soon thought she could even feel its weight in her mind. Then she realized that Ly'nel was no longer holding it.

She blinked and it fell to the floor. Ly'nel picked it up, "Again." He gave no sign that she had pleased him, yet she found herself fighting to keep from smiling, she had done it. Rain shook her head, and turned back to the feather.
         Srarrar, third son of the fourth litter of Arllara, stood at what human warriors called ‘stiff ’ attention before his superior. Srarrar was Brofhl, what the humans called Tiger-Men, and was feared throughout the High Plains. The Marauders called him Sergeant for some obscure reason and he had taken the bond-name as his own. Srarrar towered over Lieutenant Tai’sher and yet found himself in awe of the relatively small, frail-looking human warrior. Srarrar had found out years before, when he had met Tai’sher and the human that was now called the Harbinger, that looks were very deceiving.
         The Lieutenant leaned backwards in his chair and fixed Srarrar with a steady gaze,“ So how is their training coming along, Sergeant? ”
         Srarrar tried not to let his pleasure show on his face, even though he doubted humans could read Brofhl faces easily,“ Their training is coming along faster than we expected, lieutenant. All of the instructors say they are well-pleased with their newest students. Scarlet is proving to be like quicksilver in temperment, but her talent with shortswords is undeniable. Jurrel grows stronger everyday and his skill increases just as quickly. Ty’nel is nearly as quiet as I am when I am stalking prey. Good scholar Joreck is much impressed with the intelligence of young master Kyle. I think one of us should have a talk about Galith’s method of training the boy. First he has Justal playing with sticks and when I want to see how good of a crossbowman Ty’nel is Galith chooses that time to have the boy at the range. ”
         Tai’sher held up his hand,“ Galith knows my plans for them and I trust his judgement. ”
         Srarrar noded and continued,“ I do not know what the High Sorceror feels about Rain-Emerald, but Ba’sher’s opinion of her has changed greatly since she nearly beat him to death with nothing but the force of her fury. He says that she is gaining some moderate skill in the use of her body as a weapon. Ba’sher also claims that she is using her Sorcery to make herself stronger, but he cannot prove this is so. Tio’nel seems to have managed a complete turnaround and seems to have regained many of his old skills. It is very impressive considering we have only had them for three months. ”
         Tai’sher rubbed his chin thoughtfully,“ We need to pick up their training, Sergeant. It looks like war is coming with the Domhu, several border Lijuak clans to the east, and an as yet unidentified force from the southeastern border. We will need a large amount of gold to hire on more mercenaries, maybe even another company, if we want to hold onto this place. Your little group may prove profitable if we can make it work. Start teaching them how to be a team, Sergeant. And do it quickly. ”
         “ By your command, Lieutenant. ”

****

         Jurrel yawned instead of groaned as the Sergeant’s voice thundered into the bunkroom. Jurrel hopped from his bunk quickly and stood at erect attention at the foot of the bunk. He kept his eyes forward but was surprised that his Instructor was not there in front of him already.
         “ You have caught yourselves a break today,” the Sergeant boomed from the front of the room,“ It will be a day of light physical training and then you will return here. Everyone must complete the running course today by the time the bell chimes. ” Jurrel was sure his face was not the only one that was puzzled,“ Do not worry your poor little heads. You will here the chime. If you do not complete the course by the time the chime sounds then you will only be allowed to come back here to do whatever you wish. If you all complete the course on time then you will be treated to a banquet in the infirmary as well as another light day of training. Am I making myself clear? ”
         Jurrel’s stomach growled loudly as they barked in unison,“ Crystal, Sergeant! ”
         The group of mercenary treasure seekers in training had been feed unreliably at best. Sometimes it had felt as though Jurrel had not eaten in days and othertimes the clansman felt as though he was eating several times a day. They were in a very lean period right now and Jurrel’s stomach let him know that.
         “ Fall out out front,” the Sergeant commanded and left the bunkroom.
         Jurrel and the others began to strip to their underthings silently. There had been little communication between the members of their puny little band. Jurrel had at first been tempted to try to see what the expensive whore had for him during one of their sleep periods, but he had been too exhausted to think about that. Now, after so many such viewings, the sight of her bare flesh seemed to not have the same effect as it once had. Even the small woman, who at first had seemed so embarassed, now seemed to think nothing of being nearly nude in front of the men of the group.
         Jurrel was too tired to consider what that meant.
         Jurrel was also too tired to note the return of the one the Sergeant called the drunkard.The older man had been taken away some time ago without a word. Now he was back and smelled as though he at least had had the time to bathe. The drunkard walked out of the bunkroom without a glance at any of his fellow prisoners. Jurrel yawned and followed the small woman as she wearily shuffled her way from the room. The Sergeant was waiting outside of their barracks with a neutral expression on his face. Jurrel had not been around the Tiger-Man as much as the little thief, but he thought he knew the signs to look for on the Sergeant’s face. Floating in mid-air next to the wall was a perfect ball of white light.
         “ Those,” the Sergeant pointed to the ball of light,“ -will be your guides. I will be waiting for you at the end of the course. Do not disappoint me. ”
         The Sergeant promptly strode into the infirmary and closed the single door leading to it. The seven prisoners stood around for a few seconds in numb shock before the drunkard muttered,“ Come on. ”
         The burly older man set off at a jog and the others quickly followed suit. It was not long before the whore, the little thief, and the tall boy were pulling ahead of the rest of them. Jurrel was striding between the short woman and the scrawny scholar. The clansman had to admit that the scholar was not quite as scrawny as he had been the first time Jurrel had seen him. The drunkard was in the middle and clearly trying to keep up with the three faster prisoners. The three came to where the hall split into three different directions and the magic balls of light only went down the one to their left. Jurrel knew what they were thinking. They could continue the exercise or they could try to escape. Each of them knew how fast and silently the Sergeant could move, but maybe if they had a large enough headstart.
         The drunkard was speaking almost before he came to a stop,“ I wouldn’t advise it. I have seen a few maps of this place and heard the mercenaries talking. This level is completely surrounded. I have seen the levels above us and heard about the ones below. Each if teeming with at least fifty mercenaries at any one time. They are there to prevent any of the dungeon creatures from breaking out. Even if you could find a way out around either level you still would have to contend with either bloodthirsty mercenaries or bloodthirsty monsters. ”
         “ I’m hungry. ” Jurrel said, and began jogging down the corridor that the lights led.
         Someone behind him cursed, he thought it was the whore, and the others folllowed. The group soon resumed their running order with. This time the three were out of sight for long periods of time as the rounded corners ahead of the four slower prisoners. The clansman heard the scholar mutter,“ Do they not listen. ”
         The clansman could only nod his head in agreement. No one would get feed if those three did not make sure they all finished before the course. Jurrel rounded a corner and almost laughed at what he saw. The hall was blocked halfway down its length by a wall of rock. The three runners were pushing at it with all their might and it only swung upward slightly. They did not have the strength for it. The drunkard stopped and was shaking his head at the three exerting themselves foolishly. The little thief said something and the whore snapped something at him that Jurrel couldn’t make out. The tall boy said nothing and simply kept trying to push the stone wall upwards. Jurrel’s stomach growled to remind him of the food it was promised.
         Jurrel slapped the drunkard on the shoulder as he passed,“ Come. ”
         Jurrel walked up to the wall and roughly pulled the whore away by one surprisingly muscular arm.
         “ Don’t touch me, hairy bastard!! ” she spat in a fury as she backed away.
         Jurrel ignored her as he watched the drunkard remove the thief and then placed his own big hands on the wall,“ Bend over, push with your legs, and do not arch your back in. Now....push. ”
         Jurrel bent at the waist and began pushing with his legs. The heavy wall began to move almost immediately as the three stronger members of the band pushed. There was a slow grinding stone-on-stone sound before the wall began to clear the floor. Soon Jurrel was straightening up and slowly raising his hands above the floor. He let out a low sigh of exertion as the weight of the wall settled on his arms. He had to bend at the knees slightly so that drunkard and the boy could take some of the weight.
         “ Hurry! ” the barbarian grunted around his clenched teeth.
         The four smaller prisoners quickly ducked beneath the wall and to the other side.
         “ We move forward as one,” the drunkard said, and slowly began shuffling his way forward.
         Jurrel and the boy followed him but the wall seemed to get heavier the closer they got toward the edge of it. When they were nearly there Jurrel’s arms were quivering with the effort of holding up the wall. He could see that the others were as tired as he was. He began to doubt if they were going to make it. The clansman looked up and into the deep brown eyes of the small woman. She raised two fists up towards them and slowly opened them. Sweat began to dot her brow as her eyes narrowed in concentration. The weight of the wall slowly vanished from Jurrel’s hands under the tiny woman’s gaze.
         “ Hurry! ” she nearly shrieked as sweat began to pour from her.
         Jurrel’s arms hesitated, and so did the others, as his mind told him he could not trust the woman. It wasn’t like the clansman had a choice. The others reached that conclusion at almost the same time, because they all dropped their hands and dived forward. Jurrel looked back and his mouth dropped in awe. The wall was staying aloft in the air from apparently nothing more than small woman’s will.
         Then the wall smalled back into place as if it were connected to unseen springs. Which it might have been for all Jurrel knew. He turned back to the small woman and saw that she had collapsed onto the cold stone floor. The others were staring at her with the same gap-jawed astonishment Jurrel had. The clansman’s stomach rumbled again and snapped him out of his shock.
         “ I’ll carry her. ” he said, standing and scooping his savior in his arms,“ Go. ”
         The seven set out again and the three ranged ahead again. Jurrel’s mind began to ponder his own peculiar behavior. Normally the feel of a woman’s soft skin and body was enough to turn him into a drooling beast. Here he had a nearly nude, shapely woman in his arms, who’s skin was soft even if hard muscle was beginning to show through, and his thoughts were only on his stomach. This was not the way he thought a true clansman should behave, but he was too tired to think about it just at the moment.
         The trailing four again rounded a corner to find the other members of their party occupied. The little thief was leaning against a wall with a self-satisfied smirk on his face while the boy was glaring at him.
         “ Where is the woman? ” the drunkard asked as he came to a stop.
         The boy pointed and Jurrel followed his gaze to where the hall became a room of huge proportions and the entrance was blocked by an absolutely monstrous wall. The wall was surrounded by craggy, irregular rock surfaces that Jurrel guessed the shapely whore had climbed. The little thief looked very pleased with himself as they waited.
         The whore’s voice called out from above and made them all look up,“ I need you up here, you little worm! ”
         Jurrel shook his head and thought that the woman was truly a viper. Maybe it wasn’t a surprise that he did not have much desire for her anymore. She was as likely to slit his throat as murmur nightwords in his ear. The little thief cursed softly and jogged to the wall. Jurrel goggled as the thief ascended with impossible speed and disappeared over the top. Seconds later an invisible door in the wall grinded slowly upwards. The five walked through the door and were met by the two more agile members of their party.
         The seven set out across the room but were brought up short by a trench in the room. It looked to extend from one end to the other and it was too far for Jurrel to jump. He did not think that the older man or the others in the party could either. It seemed as though they were stuck.
         “ Look. There is a lever. ” the drunkard pointed and Jurrel saw the long handle sticking up from the floor.
         Jurrel looked at the unconscious woman in his arms and growled,“ How do you expect us to reach it? ”
         A blur of motion raced past the clansman and leapt into the air over the trench. Jurrel could not believe his eyes as the form of the boy hurled himself across the seemingly bottomless chasm. Jurrel doubted if he could make it and prepared himself to hear the boy’s death cry. The boy rolled to his feet as he cleared the opposite edge of the trench with room to spare. The tall Pliyian pulled the lever and a stone bridge rose into view from the depths of the trench. The six crossed and the party resumed the course.
         They finally came to the end of the room and were brought up short by a huge iron door. There was no lock, no switches, and no levers. Jurrel was about to curse the Will of Fate when the scholar pointed.
         “ What are those? "
         Jurrel looked and saw odd-looking symbols carved around the frame of the door. The scholar went up and began to read the symbols on the sides and the bottom. He seemed to be trying to squint to see the symbols along the top of the tall door. Jurrel gestured for the tall Pliyian to take the Sorceress from his arms and then gave her to him. The clansman grabbed the scholar around the waist and hoisted him onto his shoulders.
         “ Th-thank you,” the scholar sputtered before continuing to read,“ Please set me down. ”
         Jurrel did so and waited to see what the scholar did. The small scholar began to chant something in a deep, flowing voice. The nonsensical words thrummed in the clansmans ears for some time. He began to think that the scholar was mad after what felt like hours of chanting.
         The door disappeared in a shower of bright blue sparks.
         The Sergeant stood only a few meters into the room and growled,“ What took you so long? ”

****

         Ty’nel was clean and not exhausted for the first time in what felt like forever. After the run the Sergeant had congratulated the seven of them and told them they had earned their meal. The barbarian’s face had split into a huge grin then and Ty’nel had though he would hug the Sergeant.
         The seven of them, six if you counted Jurrel and the small woman as one, had followed the Sergeant back to their barracks and all of them had promptly passed out on their bunks.
         Sometime later, after far more sleep than Ty’nel could remember getting, the Sergeant had awakened them all to tell them that the meal would be ready soon. They had all wordlessly walked to the bathing chamber to get clean. The barbarian, Justal, the drunkard, and Kyle had all crowded into the largest, heated pool. So Ty’nel had shared the next hottest pool with the two women in the group. The small Sorceress had not acknowledged Ty’nel’s presence in the least while Scarlet had glared at him and hissed recriminations if he thought about touching her. Ty’nel had not said that he would rather touch a poisonous lizard than her flesh. It amazed him that she had supposedly been a sought-after whore with her tempermental personality.
         The seven of them waited around the entrance to the barracks after they had bathed and dressed. Each was dressed in uniform brown woolen pants, soft-soled boots, and soft long-sleeved shirts. The Sergeant was opening the door before the thief had even heard him approaching. It unnerved Ty’nel how quietly their trainer could move.
         “ Let’s go. ”
         The Sergeant led the way to the infirmary and opened the doors for them. Ty’nel entered and was impressed by the changes. The place had been cleared, even the supply cabinets it seemed, and a large banquet table had been placed in the center of the long room. Several smaller round tables were plaed around the table and were filled with desserts and flasks of wine. The banquet table itself had seven places set with wooden plates and utensils. Th erest of the space was taken up by large dishes of venison, ham, beef, roast pheasant, rolls, potatoes, corn, there were so many choices that Ty’nel’s mouth was so confused it forgot to drool.
         “ Enjoy. You may stay as long as you wish. When anyone is done simply knock and someone will take you back to the barracks. ”
         The Sergeant left then and everyone raced to find places at the table. Ty’nel found himself seated between the drunkard and Kyle. As everyone was frantically filling their plates, Kyle coughed and spoke up.
         “ I do not entirely feel comfortable calling you by the ah....titles the Sergeant has given us. I would like to know each of your names in full,” Kyle coughed and bowed his head to everyone,“ I am Kyle Menston. ”
         Kyle nudged Ty’nel and the thief groaned,“ I am Ty’nel out of Tyj. ”
         The drunkard spoke up clearly,“ I am Tio’nel out of Tyj. ”
         Justal, at the head of one end of the table, spoke up next,“ I am Justal of the Mnimia, son of Jonal and Slafiah. ”
         Scarlet snorted,“ I’m Scarlet. ”
         Ty’nel shook his head at the whore’s attitude while the Sorceress hesitated,“ I-I am Emeralda. ”
         Ty’nel looked at the woman oddly because that was the kind of name one would expect from a whore and not a Sorceress.
         The barbarian at the end of the table spoke up and Ty’nel’s jaw dropped,“ I, my good scholar, am Jurrel, once the most feared and revered warrior of the Standing Oak Clan. Is that enough information for you, my foppish scholar? ” Jurrel ended with a courtly flourish of one hand.
         Ty’nel burst into the first honest laughter he could remember in a very long time and the others, even Kyle, joined him. Jurrel had perfectly mimicked the scholars courtly tones and pronunciation.
         The laughter was only slightly muffled as the seven dug into their meals.
Justal was eating quietly, thinking. He couldn't get this one quote out of his mind. 'Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die.' He knew he was being paranoid but he couldn't help it.
Scarlet, who was sitting beside him, turned to Justal and said, "Well, Justal of the Mnimia, son of Jonal and Slafiah, you've been quiet."
Justal smiled and said, not turning to look at her, "I never understood why chldren were named suchlong names. It gets to be annoying. Most call me Justal for short but if you want to use my full name be my guest."
He glanced up at her and saw a flash of anger, becasue he had turned the joke around Justal guessed.
"You've been very quiet. You didn't so much as squeak while running the course with us. And you went to another pool all by your lonsome."
Justal still didn't look at her, "What I find more interesting is that you even, Scarlet."
"Why don't you look at me and say that?" the woman purred. Justal was very tempted but didn't.
"Only those that have something to hide do not look into the eyes of others."
"What kind of answer is that?" Scarlet asked, all silk and honey gone from her voice, now only annoyence and a little anger.
"You tell me."
Scarlet turned away and Justal smiled again. He had everything figured out, He'd see how things went during the first mission then on the second he should have a plan of escape.
Rain couldn't shake the the uneasy feeling she'd had since they'd been brought to the feast. She finally realized it was because she knew she was being judged by her "dining companions". Despite her roll in getting them here, she couldn't help but feel they'd still find her lacking. She sighed. If anyone noticed, they gave no sign.

Since developing her telekinesis, it had become a habit to levitate objects around her. It had helped her build her mental "strength" and had given her more control on the object involved. Without really noticing her action, she concentrated on the napkin in her lap.

Slowly she lifted it, one corner at a time. Then she folded it. With the look of a living thing, it opened back up and assumed the shape of something having a head and arms and legs. It bowed to her and began a simple dance. Soon, it had gone to more compicated steps and Rain felt herself smile. Ty'nel, who had been watching out of the corner of his eye, chuckled when the napkin did a difficult move. Startled, Rain broke out of her reverie. A hot blush raced across her face.

"That was pretty good, you've got a very coordinated napkin." He smiled as he said it, but Rain wanted to sink into the earth nonetheless.

"What's going on?" Kyle asked from down the table.

"She's got a dancing napkin."

Rain's face felt like it was on fire.

Kyle thought for a minute, the walked to one of the ever-present guards. He said something to the man, and the guard left. A few moments later, he returned, carrying something. The something turned out to be a weird instrument with a dozen strings attatched to the face. Kyle carried it back to the table and began plucking the strings one at a time and turning pegs until he was satisfied with the results.

He noticed the others watching him and smiled, "What good is dancing when there's no music?" He turned to Rain, "Shall we?"

After a bit of stammering and some urging by the others, she relented and placed the napkin on the table. Within a few moments it was dancing to a waltz that Kyle played on the instrument. Slowly, as the others watched her feat and even smiled, Rain felt herself relax and prompted the napkin to more and more complex tricks.

At the end of the waltz, they clapped and Rain smiled. "Another song, Kyle?"

"But of course."

----------------

Kyle let his mind wander, knowing his fingers could go through the song on their own. So far everyone was wary of each other, with very little trust between any. They did seem to be warming up to each other ever so slightly, however.

He thought of something Joreck had told him, "Sometimes you can be what you are by being what you aren't." He was a scholar above all else, and if being a musician served his purposes, so be it. At the moment, his studies were aimed at his companions. They were all paying very much attention to their entertainment, and very little to him. This, added to the fact that they had all been enjoying their wine, gave Kyle the perfect opportunity to observe.

He knew they all thought him a fool, a constantly gibbering one at that, but it was only a minor detail. Besides, most people gave away more when irritated or angry than any other time, and he'd been getting on quite a few nerves. Kyle smiled and another round of applause brought him back from his thoughts.

"I thought you were a scholar." Scarlet half asked, half demanded.

"I am. However," he winked at her, "I am a man of many talents."

She rolled her eyes and made an obscene gesture. Kyle turned to Rain, "Another dance?"

She shook her head, and rubbed her temples. "Not tonight, too much and my head feels like it wants to explode." She hesitated, "Do you know any more songs?"

"Indeed." Kyle smiled and began to play again, this time as a solo act.
Tio'nel smiled along with the others, but he was far from merry. He blinked and rubbed his eyes.
         I'm getting too old for this, he thought.
         He sighed quietly, then made himself smile to a jest from farther down the table. Looking up, catching Kyle's gaze. The scholar smiled and said something which Tio'nel didn't catch, but he was suddenly unaccountably uncomfortable.
         Tio'nel stifled a yawn, poking at the half-eaten meal on his plate. His fingers itched for the wine that sat so enticingly near and it was with some effort that he kept his hand on his fork instead of taking a long, refreshing draught from the -- Tio'nel fropped his fork with a clatter into a lull in the conversation.
         "What?" he asked, blinking at Emeralda blankly as he fumbled for the utensil.
         The sorceress gave Tio'nel an odd look, her eyes following his hand as he groped for the fork. "I asked," she said quietly, "if you are feeling well?"
         Tio'nel forced a smile and a chuckle. "I am just old, young woman. The young spirits at this table have worn me out."
         Ty'nel picked up one of the empty bottles, reading the label. "Actually," he joked, "there's nothing young about these spirits!"
         He laughed, as the others did, too, and Tio'nel began picking at his food again. The evening wore on and his eyelids began to grow heavier.
         His hand was around the bottle and halfway to his mouth before Tio'nel realized with a start what he was doing. The others stared at him, their eyes glazed over with drink. Scarlet leered at him, drawling something that he couldn't understand. Tio'nel wanted to puke.
         Gods! He thought. I was like that! He swallowed hard. For too many years. Aleese would be so disappointed with me.
         Tio'nel set the bottle back on the table with a soft clunk. He stared at it for a moment. Why? He asked himself, am I thirsty all of a sudden?
         Since the incident in the hallway with Sergeant, Tio'nel hadn't once felt a craving for alchohol. He was nervous, parts of overheard conversations over the past few weeks and suddenly being brought back to the dungeons combining to make him nervous and anxious. What are they planning?
         Tio'nel drummed his fingers on the table, reluctant to leave, but not hungry, or sleepy anymore. He tried to relax, to calm down and enjoy the respite from the heavy cramming he'd been currently involved in. Physics, anatomy, physiology, biology . . . the equations and pictures and words swam in his mind. Despite himself, Tio'nel felt himself beginning to drift off again. And this time he couldn't help himself.
         Ty’nel had forgotten what it was like to be so full of food and expensive wine. All of the group, with the exception of Emeralda and Tio’nel, looked as languid as he felt. Jurrel, seemingly capable of operating under the effect of so much wine, reached for a pile of pastries at the same time Justal did. The barbarian looked at the Pliyian youth and reached for the tray with a drunken bellow. Justal, moving faster than Ty’nel had given him credit for, darted in and grabbed the edge of the tray at the same time. Justal grabbed his edge of the tray with both hands and pulled mightily. Jurrel held onto the tray with his single hand easily. Suddenly the tray was tipped over into the air and pastries flew all around the table. Ty’nel casaully dodged several, snatched one out of the air, and began munching on it. He looked around at the sudden silence and saw what had caused it.
         A pastry, these were filled with tasty jellies, had hit Scarlet squarely in the face. The hateful woman wiped the mess off her face and fixed the two offenders with a withering glare. Spouting obscenities that Ty’nel could barely keep up with, Scarlet began flinging food indiscriminately around the table.
         Death by chicken bone.
         The thought was so funny that Ty’nel could not help but begin to laugh hysterically. The laughter ended when a roll floated into his mouth to shut him up.
         Ty’nel spat it out and fixed Emeralda with a vengeful stare that quickly turned into a grin at her impish, innocent expression. That didn’t stop the thief from side-arming a piece of apple cake at the Sorceress. Obviously her earlier efforts had tired her because the cake hit her in the chest. Her face gaped in astonishment and with a bark of laughter began hurling food at Ty’nel. Ty’nel, as a first-class thief, had nearly supernatural reflexes and hand-eye coordination. That was when he wasn’t drunk and full of food. The volume of food flying around the table was so high that even he could not dodge all of it.
         Only the drunk-, Tio’nel, stayed out of the foodfight. He shielded himself with a large platter as though he were too dignified for the event. Even Scarlet’s face had relaxed and she wore a small smile on her face. Ty’nel thought she didn’t seem like such a harridan when she forgot to hate everyone and everything. Ty’nel pointed at Tio’nel and everyone nodded in agreement. They managed to stop their laughter and the area became silent.
         Tio’nel cautiously lowered his shield and peeked out. Ty’nel ripped the platter from his hands and the pitcher of juice that Emeralda was holding over his head was overturned as he was pelted with pastries. The dignified older man was sputtering in outrage after being covered in jellies and juice. The others nearly laughed themselves to death at his expression.
         A familiar roar sobered them all up quickly. They turned to find the Sergeant shaking his head at their behavior.
         “ I did say you could stay as long as you wished, but it seems as though I misplaced my faith in you. You people still have a training day tomorrow and you’ve stayed up almost the entire sleep period. Up! Everyone back to the barracks and get some sleep. ”
         Ty’nel and the others regretfully stood and made the short trek back to the barracks. Ty’nel did not know how it had happened but he ended up on the floor beside his bunk instead of in the bunk itself. Large hands picked him up and dropped him roughly on the bed. He thought it was the Sergeant but when he looked up he saw it was Jurrel.
         “ Than’s,” he mumbled sleepily.
         Jurrel nodded and walked to his own bunk.
         Sleep descended upon the thief quite stealthily.

         Ty’nel awoke to a roaring pain in his head as well as the Sergeant's wake-up roar.
         “ Bathe and change into training gear. Make it quick! ”
         Ty’nel moaned softly to himself as he rolled out of bed and plodded to the bathing chamber. This time he found himself in a pool with Jurrel and Emeralda. It looked like she was too hungover to be modest as she quite unconcernedly bathed herself in front of the two men. Usually Ty’nel could catch at least one glance from Jurrel at one of the two women in the company, but this morning Jurrel only shut his eyes and sank chin deep into the warm water.
         Ty’nel himself was too tired and ached too much to worry about which one of them would try to drown him when his attention lapsed. Everyone performed their bathing rituals quickly and went to their chest-bunks to get fresh clothing. Soon they had all lined up in front of the Sergeant.
         The tall, lithe Sergeant paced back and forth as he studied them. Finally the Sergeant snarled,“ Heal them, drunkard! ”
         Ty’nel kept his eyes forward but they widened against his will as a wave a warmth washed away his headache and nausea. So that was the older man’s role in their little group. He was obviously a cleric but how powerful a cleric was he?
         “ Now. We run. ” the Sergeant said, and opened the door to the bunkroom.
         The group fell out and began running along the course that the magical lights led them through. Ty’nel was struck by a sudden sense of foreboding.
         Where were their personal trainers?

***

         Jurrel ran beside Emeralda and Kyle as was slowly becoming accustomed to. Tio’nel, who was obviously one of the magical healers the clansman had heard tales of, was pacing himself in the middle as usual. Justal, Ty’nel, and Scarlet ranged ahead but still struggled to keep up with the Sergeant. Then the Sergeant put on a burst of incredible speed and turned a corner.
         Jurrel, Emeralda, and Kyle barely avoided running into the backs of the others as they came around the corner. The long hall in front of them was completely empty.
         “ Wha-? ”
         The unlatching of numerous doors down both ends of the hall stopped all attempts at conversation. Jurrel watched as several doors in front of him opened. Several large, dirty men in the rags of prisoners emerged into the hall. They looked about for a moment before their eyes settled on the small group.
         “ There are more behind us. ” Emeralda said, her voice shaking slightly.
         “ Save the women. We can use them before we escape. ” Jurrel heard one of them say quite clearly.
         Emeralda began to pant heavily behind him while Scarlet’s face tried to turn the color of the whore’s working name. Jurrel turned at a scrambling sound and looked in disgust as Ty’nel scampered up the wall to disappear into the shadows. Scarlet flung herself forward to meet the escaped prisoners, all nearly twice as large as she was, with a shrill battlecry. Jurrel stood in shock for a moment.
         What a crazy bitch! he thought, and another quickly followed, My kind of woman.
         Adding his own bellow to Scarlet’s battlecry, Jurrel went to meet his enemies. Scarlet was there before he was and ducked beneath the wild swing of one of them. The harridan grabbed a fistful of crotch and twisted viciously. The man grabbed her hand and howled more shrilly than Scarlet had moments ago. Jurrel reached the man, picked him up by the back of the neck and shirt, and flung him headfirst into the closet wall. There was a dull crunch and a wet snap as the man’s skull was crushed and his neck broke.
         Finally Jurrel was getting a taste of battle.
         It had been too long.
Justal waited for an attacker, most of them were concentrating on Scarlet and Jurrel.
Justal picked out a rather thin man that had his back to him, he ran toward him, kicked him in the back of the knee, forcing him down on one knee, then quickly snaped his neck. He put his bak against the wall and looked for someone else to fight.
A man ran at Justal, screaming like a mad man. Seconds before the man tackled him Justal steped to the side, grabed his arm and slamed the man against the wall.
He steped back and looked for someone else to fight, most of the men's attention was elsewhere. That would be their fatal mistake, Justal thought, smiling slightly.
Rain felt panic rise in her throat, then forced it down, she could do this. While chaos erupted around her, she backed against the wall and surveyed the scene.
We can use the women....
The phrase would not stop frantically circling inside Rain's mind. Fear, cold and paralyzing, gripped her limbs. Her mind was filled with nothing but that frightening thought.
The escaped prisoners that had emerged from behind the group were now entering the fray. Now their attentions were divided between Justal, Jurrel, Scarlet. Ty'nel had shown himself a coward, Kyle seemed just as fearful as she was, and Tio'nel stood trembling as though he fought himself.
Rain fought her own shivers as a shadow fell over her. The small Sorceress looked up and into an ugly, leering face. The man's head seemed a size too small for his massively muscled body. all Rain could see was his gap-toothed, blackened smile.
" I'm going to have fun with ya," he said, his eyes wide as he took a good look at her body.
Rain shivered uncontrollable as the man reached out for her. When his hand clamped down painfully on her shoulder, Rain closed her eyes and she screamed piercingly.
It felt as though something tore lose in the Sorceress' head and her arm shot out faster than the blink of an eye. There was wetness, resistance, then her hand clamped around something hard and round. The escaped prisoner's other hand clamped down on Rain's other shoulder and clutched convulsively at her. Rain opened her eyes and looked at her left arm.
It was embedded up to the forearm in the man's lower abdomen.
Blood, hot and slippery, coated her arm. She could feel the man's insides throbbing with life. Rain looked up into his eyes, his wide brown eyes, and almost wept at the childish innocence they now possessed.
" It...it...hurts," the man coughed, and warm, stickiness covered Rain's face," Take it out...please...take...it out. "
Rain instinctively wrenched her arm free of the man's body and flinched at a sickening snapping sound that accompanied the motion. The man screamed shrilly as he collapsed to the floor. Rain held up what she had pulled from the man's body in stunned disbelief.
A long, cylindrical piece of bone, glistening in crimson streamers, and covered in chunks of greyish flesh. The end, a flaring spike-like thing, quivered slightly as though it were still alive.
That was the last thing Rain was aware of before unconsciousness took her.

----------------------------

Kyle pushed himself against the wall, trying to disappear. His heartbeat raced until he felt the organ would soon make its exit from the rest of his body. Above the rushing blood, he forced himself to think.

-Why were these men here?-An obvious answer, their "trainers" had seen fit to test them.

-Did they see him?-No, not yet. He pressed himself tighter against the wall in the hopes of remaining unseen.

Slowly, as he realized none of the attackers were making it through their "front flank", he forced himself to come away from the relative safety of the wall.

He looked at his comrades fighting for their lives, and steeled himself to attempt to help. His mind began to race, he was unarmed, and wouldn't even be much help had he been weaponed. Physically attacking was less than laughable, and he had little in the form of options.

He frantically scanned the hallway, in the hopes of seeing something, anything, that would give him an idea of what to do. The answer didn't come from something he saw, but rather, heard.

Through the chaos, Kyle heard one man shouting, giving orders and apparently in charge. He was shoulding in Veld. Instantly Kyle realized two things; at least most of their attackers were foreign, he could do something.

Dodging blows and making his way nearer the actual fighting, Kyle cupped his hands around his mouth and, saying a silent prayer, shouted. "Do not listen to this man, he is the cause of your deaths!"

Nearly two men actually heard him, one even turned to look. Amongst his comrades, Kyle also received a strange look or two, but they were brief as all had more immediate cares to attend.

He swallowed and tried again, "We are not your true enemies, you and we are but the pawns of those who use us both!"

The foreign leader made pause in his attack, "Who are you to tell us?!"

"I am a scholar, no more, and I know who is responsible for this! Believe me, we only fight you because you attacked!"

"What are you doing?" Scarlet hissed in his ear.

"Trying to get out of this alive."

The Veld considerred, "How can we trust you?!"

"I give you my word!"

The man began to lower his weapon, then one of the others attacked with a cry, and Jurrel reacted with reflexive speed, all could hear the crunch of bone.

The lull in the fighting was over.

Kyle shook his head and ducked back to relative safety, so much for attempting to resolve things in a civilized fashion.
For long moments Tio'nel could only stand and stare in shock. These prisoners! Why? Why would they attack??
         This makes no sense, he thought, but little here does. No doubt this is some new aspect of our training.
         He swallowed hard against the bitterness in his throat and mumbled a quick prayer for the poor souls dispatched so brutally by his companions. The urge to heal them, to save them was almost more than he could bear. Power surged to his hands and he shook them reflexively against the itch, then ran into one of the now-empty rooms.
         Tio'nel hid there, eyes closed against the sounds of battle, trying to regain control. He shivered with reaction, ached for a weapon, yet hurt from the accumulated injuries and deaths. All his training of the past few months seemed to go straight out of his head.
         A small form flew past the Knight-Cleric, to thud against the wall. He fell, limp and unconsious, rolling to land near Tio'nel's feet. Instinctively, Tio'nel knelt down and placed his hands on the man's head. He didn't have to coax his power this time. No, his healing energy channeled down his arms and through his hands to the man below without any concentration at all.
         The healing left Tio'nel temporarily drained. He put a hand to his head, slightly dizzy and nauseous. Control, he told himself. Or I'll be spent too soon.
         As Tio'nel gasped back his breath, the man came around. With an enraged snarl, the prisoner grabbed the healer around the neck and slammed him to the ground. Already winded, Tio'nel's eyes began to glaze over from lack of oxygen. Frantically, he struggled, but to little use.
         As he started to slip into unconsiousness, an old, old training technique, long-past ingrained into his memory, took charge of Tio'nel's reflexes. Tio'nel dropped his hands, relaxed his whole body, and went limp. He didn't even breathe, except shallowly.
         Laughing insanely, the prisoner let go. He stood, but that was as far as he went.
         As soon as his attacker stood, Tio'nel snapped back to consciousness, amazed and furious. The words of the spell-prayer already in his mind, Tio'nel whispered the final phrase. His hands began to glow red-white and when the prisoner stood, the Knight-Cleric latched onto his ankle.
         Tio'nel pushed himself out from under the other man's body and said a quick prayer to help guide the man's soul to the afterlife.
         Thank you, my Lady, he prayed, for giving me to power to vanquish my foes. Now, O Benevolent One, lend me the strength and knowledge to send you these that are beyond mortal help.
         Tio'nel blinked his eyes as the room darkened around him. The confines of the cell melted away, leaving him standing alone, on a hill, under the warm sunshine. A beautiful lady stood before him, her hunting hounds by her side, her warhorse just beyond. Her long, brunette hair trailed down one shoulder, twisted into an exquisite braid.
         Tio'nel fell to his knees in supplication.
         At ease, brave Tio'nel, she said, her voice as melodious as the wind. Please, come before me.
         The Knight-Cleric rose in a daze, squinting from the glare off her dazzling armor. "My Lady, what do you wish of me?"
         Tio'nel, you served me well and faithfully for many years. Everything I asked of you, you did, without question. You have before you a quest, and a promise.
         Tio'nel looked up, startled.
         She looked him in the eye and nodded. Yes, I know of it. Dear Tio'nel, do you not think I know how you have suffered? I have waited long for you to return to my service, and for long I despaired.
         I know the deeds of man, and I know your part in this. Go now, help your companions, and know that I will give you all that you need, should you only ask.

         The Lady of Loriea extended a hand to the kneeling man. Give me your hand, she said.
         Tio'nel placed his hand in her palm. He watched in wonder as the goddess magically traced an ornate symbol on the palm of his hand.
         Now, she instructed him, you have only to reveal this to your enemy to instill within them a fear so large such as no living or undead being can withstand. Say to them my name and I shall set upon you the power to destroy that which is undead.
         She took Tio'nel's other hand, tracing upon it another sacred rune. To this, show your allies and those you must defend. Say to them my name and I shall multiply their courage tenfold.
         She took both his hands and kissed them, saying, Faithful Tio'nel, lay upon your hands and as you wish it, you may heal. But, she cautioned him, You may also destroy. Be careful what you desire, for all power has its price. Her eyes held Tio'nel's. Go now. I shall be waiting, as ever I am, for my faithful to return.
         Serene eyes the color of a glorious sunset smothered the supplicant in their warm embrace.
         Jurrel once again found himself in the midst of violent, bloody conflict and he gloried in it.
         Jurrel had lashed out at the next closest with a palm-strike to the bridge of his nose after dispatching the first prisoner. His next victim’s eyes crossed and the large, dirty man slumped to the ground. Dead, or unconscious, Jurrel did not care either way. Jurrel saw that Scarlet was having a hard time dealing with the two that she had rushed at.
         Thoughts of helping the rage-filled harpy never arose as the last one in front of the clansman rushed forward with a hoarse bellow. Jurrel happily ran to meet the man and grinned savagely as the prisoner hesitated at Juurel’s shocking speed. The clansman lifted the man
off his feet in a shoulderblock that crushed the prisoner against the wall. Jurrel thrust his elbow into the man’s throat while he was stunned. The pale-skinned brute grabbed his crushed throat and fell to the floor as he gasped feebly for air.
         Pain, a sharp jabbing pain, in the clansman’s lower back forced him against the wall. Jurrel’s knee crashed painfully into the dying prisoners skull and pulverized the back of the man’s head. Jurrel turned with a vicious elbow that caught the large brute that had attacked him on the side of the face. The bald man stumbled to the side but managed to recover and came back with a swift hook. Jurrel blocked it with his forearm and brought his own vicious hook around to connect against the already purpling spot where his elbow had struck. Jurrel followed that with a right hook and then a high knee to the prisoners torso. The man stumbled backwards and the clansman grabbed his wrist to wrench the large man back to him. Jurrel spun the smaller man around and wrapped his arms around his prey's neck and head. With a quick jerk Jurrel snapped his neck and dropped the quivering corpse.
         The mighty clansman turned towards a low, muffled groan warily. The remaining ex-prisoner held a badly beaten Scarlet upright as he worked frantically at his pants. Jurrel raced up to the man and planted a meaty fist in the escaped prisoners lower back. Jurrel cupped the man’s chin as his head snapped back. Looking directly into Scarlet’s dazed eyes, the clansman tore a handful of the ex-prisoners throat out. Blood sprayed directly into Scarlet’s already battered and bloody face. Jurrel left her to slide down the wall as he turned to see what other enemies remained.
         Back down the hall Justal was on the ground being enthusiastically stomped by two men. Kyle was attempted to fend off a smaller, but just as tough-looking, escaped prisoner. Jurrel raced to the two that were destroying the Pliyian and smiled wrly at the thought that he was going to save one of the bronze-skinned tribesman. Then all thoughts were of defeating his foes as he brought an elbow down into the juncture between neck and shoulder of the closer man. There was a snap as the man’s collarbone broke and he clutched it with both hands as he fell to the side. Jurrel ducked the wild backhand, but was surprised by what felt like a clubbing blow to the back of his head. Pain, white-hot, flared in his skull as he stumbled forward into the knees of the foe in front of him. Jurrel lifted the man by his grimy pants and tattered shirt. With a mighty lunge that brought dizzying pain to his throbbing head, Jurrel launched the heavy bastard in his hands into his smaller companion. The two collided with a bone-breaking crack that Jurrel could feel from two meters away. Jurrel slowly, as his vision was beginning to swim, walked over to the groaning men. With practiced ease the clansman finished them off and then killed the man with the broken collarbone. Kyle raced over to Jurrel,“ Are you injured? ”
         Jurrel looked at the small scholar as though Kyle had gotten his brains scrambled,“ Where is the old man? He is a healer of some kind, right? ” Kyle nodded but continued to look at Jurrel with wide, frightened eyes. “ Go find him! ”
         Kyle looked around warily,“ What if there are more of them around? ”
         Jurrel shrugged,“ Then you fight or die. Now go! I can not see very well. ”
         Jurrel slumped to the ground then and sat with his head between his legs. The pain in his head seemed to increase with every heartbeat. He still did not know what the other man had hit him in the head with. It had felt like a warhammer but Jurrel knew he would have been dead if it had been the case. His head still felt like it had been split open. Jurrel gingerly touched the back of his abused skull and examined the fingers. They were covered in dark red blood that glistened wetly in the dim torchlight.
         Justal groaned behind him and Jurrel turned slowly to see him cough out blood and what looked like a few teeth. From up the hall Scarlet moaned louder in what Jurrel suspected sounded a little like noises she made in the sleeping chamber when at work.
         “ I found him! ” Kyle squeaked and Jurrel raised his head.
         It seemed the scholar had not only found the old healer. Ty’nel, his shirt ripped to shreds and long, bloody furrows criscrossing his flesh, was held in the grip of the Sergeant. The Tiger-Man, who’s face Jurrel had come to know at least slightly, did not look happy in the slightest. His ears, what Jurrel could see with his blurry vision, were quivering slightly and that was not a good sign. Tio’nel looked as a man just waking from some fantastic dream.
         “ Heal them, drunkard! ” the Sergeant roared, cuffing the man on the back of the head.
         Tio’nel shook his head once and the dazed look fled his eyes. The old healer rushed up to Jurrel and held out his hand.
         Jurrel shook his head,“ I am Lijuak. A warrior of- ”
         Jurrel had tried to stand but instead crashed forward onto his face into darkness.

***

         Ty’nel woke in a bad mood and the wounds across his chest and back made it no better.          Ty’nel had fled at the first hint of danger in the hall and had been quickly contemplating his escape. He had been at least five turns away from the battle when pain had lanced across his back. The thief had spun around in bewilderment because he had heard no one approaching. The only person that could have done it was the Sergeant. At that realization Ty’nel had turned to run. The Sergeant, all bristling fury, had stood there glaring ominously at the thief.
         The next few minutes had been composed of low growls of recrimination and pain for Ty’nel.
         When the two had returned to the battle the Sergeant had forbid Tio’nel from healing Ty’nel under pain of death. The old man had looked as though he would refuse by the way his bearing suddenly changed but a low moan from Scarlet had diverted his attention.
         The Sergeant had led the newly healed group back to the barracks and told them to get some rest because there was lots of work to be done the next day.
         After what felt like too little sleep, Ty’nel found himself blinking the blurriness from his vision, and attempting to stifle the urge to yawn. The group stood at attention in front of the Sergeant as he studied them all with a withering gaze.
         “ You people have been together for more than three months and yet no bonds of loyalty or trust exist here. Was your running formation merely a coincidence? I assumed it was sound tactics that someone had thought up in case I, or a trainer, ever attacked you. As soon as contact with the enemy was made you all scattered like the wind,” the Sergeant stepped up close to Scarlet,“ You charged an enemy of superior numbers and strength recklessly. What were you thinking!? You may be strong, fast, and tough, but that will not save you from men stronger, faster, and tougher than you are!! The next time the barbarian may be too injured, or dead, to save you. What then!? ”
         Ty’nel was next and he tried to keep his face impassive,“ You are a coward. The places you will be are infinitely more dangerous alone. NEVER leave your squad again or I will kill you myself! ”
         Justal was next and Ty’nel could not believe the Sergeant's words,“ Nice work. Sound tactics. ”
         The Sergeant growled as he stepped up to Kyle,“ Never try to deal with the enemy! Where you will go that may get you killed!! Anyone who attacks you without cause is to be dealt with quickly and without mercy! You are not as physically capable as some of the group, but you have some training. Use it! ”
         Emeralda came next,“ You panicked and let fear overtake you. I can understand it. It was your first battle. You must learn to ride your fear. Harness your violent nature and use it at will,” Emeralda was shaking her head in denial,“ If you do not have a violent nature then how was it that you punched a fist through a man’s body and ripped out his spine? Accept it and you will be all the more powerful for it. ”
         Tio’nel stood there and his bearing seemed even more insufferable than before,“ Where were you, drunkard?! It is your job to keep your squad healthy and capable of functioning! Concentrate more on your job and less on your drink!! ” Tio’nel opened his mouth to speak and the Sergeant let out a bestial roar that silenced him.
         The Sergeant glared for several more moments at the healer and moved onto Jurrel,“ Your battle-skill is impressive, barbarian. If you learn to temper that bloodthirst with wisdom you will survive that much longer. ”
         The Sergeant stepped back then and fixed them all with a scathing glance,“ I am very disappointed! We will run now and then we go through formation drills where I will explain everyone’s role. Now...RUN!! ”

         Ty’nel stood sweaty and tired in the corridor where they had been attacked earlier. The Sergeant had run them mercilessly through the halls and the thief’s wounds itched now. They were standing in the order that they normally ran in and the Sergeant was at the head of them.
         “ This is a good formation for advancing in unknown territory,” the Sergeant gestured around them,“ Especially in a confined space like this. You have the three fastest up front to scout. A ranged fighter, someone who could be an assasin if they controlled their emotions better, and a scout that can not be trusted out of sight. In the center is a healer that can cover the vanguard and rearguard if it becomes necessary. In the rearguard is your most powerful melee fighter, a Sorceress and someone who’s knowledge is too valuable to risk in the van. It is a good formation in theory, not reality, but hopefully we will make it so. When battle is joined in close-quarters from the front I want you to break formation and regroup like this. ”
         The group quickly followed the Sergeant’s terse directions as no one wanted to risk his wrath.
         “ Now the fool and the disgrace can pick off however many they can before they are upon you. The drunkard, the scum, and the whore can protect the weakling if you are surprised from the rear. If it is a rear attack then the only difference is that the fool and disgrace shifts position with the whore and scum. If any enemy survives the barrage and makes it to the line this is how I want it to be,” again they shifted and moved under his command,“ Now we have the three ablest to survive a pitched melee in the van while keeping the drunkard able to heal. The fool, the whore, and the barbarian should be able to make short work of whatever foe the fool and the disgrace left. The scum, the disgrace, and the drunkard would all be in the rear to protect the weakling in case of surprise attack. If you are attacked from the rear and front at the same time, this is how I want you to form up,” Ty’nel groaned as he knew he would forget his place if there were very many formations,“ The weakling is in the center for his protection. The drunkard can heal both ends of the formation. The van and the rear are on their knees to give the disgrace and fool room to cast ranged attacks against whatever enemies may be charging. Once contact is made this is how I want you to move. ” Ty’nel was sure he would forget now,“ The fool will go to the whore and scum at the rear. While the disgrace will go to Jurrel. Do not look at me like that, disgrace. I have seen into your battle-soul and it can roar if you would only let it. ” The Sergeant looked at them and growled low in his throat,“ You do not break formation until the situation, always uncertain in battle, changes. You will have instruction later in when it is appropriate. For now we run and practice breaking formation and regrouping. The formation names are Scout, Fore Attack, Rear Attack, Contact, All Sides, All Contact. Now....Scout! ”
         Ty’nel knew he was going to get more momentos from the Sergeant during the course of the day.
Justal hurried into his right positions as the formation names were called out. He made mistakes in the beginning but after awhile he got the hang of it. He tried to look at the walls all the time but sometimes he glanced at the Sergeant or one of his 'compainions'. He vaugly hoped that everyone would be to tired to remember what the Sergeant had said to him. He didn't need attention of any kind, good or bad.
They drilled until they were ready to collapse, indeed, Kyle tried to, only to be hauled bodily to a standing position by a growling Sargeant. "Get up, you're not done yet!" An eternity later, they were released for sleep. Kyle fell onto his bunk, asleep before his head hit was all the way down.

-----------------

Rain dreamed, unremarkably, about formations. They raced through her head, and her feet twitched periodically, then, thankfully, she sunk lower, to the level where dreams faded and she was left with only blackness. Then, as her sleep cycled, she came once again to dreaming.

She was in the passage, and she was once again facing the man who's spine she'd torn out. He was facing her, and her hand was once again imbedded in his torso. Against her will, her hand began to pull back. She stared at the quivering body part in her hand, and as she watched, it began to grow. It grew and grew, pulsing with weird life of its own, then it began to twist and turn, then came at her.

Rain woke screaming.
         Jurrel collapsed backwards onto his bunk after another long day of training. The Sergeant had been running them through wide field drills today. The Tiger-Man had seemed to be roaring at them the entire exercise for being out of place in formations and generally making a mockery of his training. Their Instructors had been there in various roles during the training. The group had finally been given wooden training weapons to use, but at the cost of always having a squad’s worth of mercenaries around them at all times. Their guard squad was armored in sturdy looking leather-and-mail and was armed with lethal looking steel weapons.
         It had been a long time since the Sergeant had first begun training them as a group. From the tolls of the bells he knew it had to have been nearly four weeks. They seemed to finally be coming together as a band, but Jurrel knew that it only went so far as the surface. The clansman felt no bond with his fellow prisoner-mercenaries and he knew they felt the same.
         “ If you step out of line one more time, you little disgrace, I’m going to shove this sword so far...! ” Scarlet shouted angrily.
         Jurrel groaned and covered his ears at the now familiar scene. Ever since the meal and the fight in the corridors Scarlet had grown increasingly bad tempered. The fiery whore would normally direct it at the easily intimidated little Sorceress. Jurrel thought it was because the Sergeant seemed pleased with the little woman’s progress and the face that Emeralda had killed one of their foes with her bare hands.
         “ My dear, Scarlet, perhaps you could calm down a bit. Emeralda was only out of place for a moment and the Sergeant never noticed. ”
         “ Why don’t you shut your mouth, little man! ” Scarlet screeched like a banshee,“ You’re always tryin’ to make peace! I don’t want piece! I just want to stick this sword in that little weaklings tender area. ”
         “ Try it,” the little Sorceress’ mild voice resonated strongly in the room.
         There was a moment of silence that was utterly shattered by an unearthly wail. It built to an ear-splitting level before quickly fading.
         “ What was that? ” Ty’nel asked sleepily.
         “ If it does not concern us then I say it does not matter. ” Jurrel growled, burying his head into a pillow.
         The others voices, talking in worried whispers, intruded on the clansman’s attempt to sleep and then the muted sound of a gong echoed through their barracks.
         “ What is that? ” Emeralda asked in a worried whisper.
         The doors to their barracks crashed open and in stalked Jurrel’s and Justal’s trainers. Behind them came the others carrying bundles of equipment and weapons. The Sergeant came behind them and quickly unrolled a long cloth. It contained a long row of varied weapons. Jurrel got out of bed quickly and looked at the weapons in puzzlement and a bit of irritation.
         All of them looked to be made of iron.
         Rusted iron.
         “ Everyone up!! We are under attack and you will be the first to fight. Arm yourselves!! ” the Sergeant commanded and everyone quickly complied.
         Jurrel was too concerned about equipping himself to notice that no one displayed the least bit embarassment in stripping down to armor themselves in front of each other, but everyone gave the trainers withering glances if their eyes began to roam. The clansman received a set of badly maintained hard leather armor. He did not have the option of being picky though. Jurrel qickly armored himself in the leather pants with hard leather greaves, a padded sleeveless undershirt, the hard leather breastplate, and the nearly rotted bracers. The boots were the only piece that seemed in fairly good condition... if they had not been too tight.
         The clansman then began a much more delicate process in choosing his weapons. There were a variety of short-shafted battleaxes for him to choose from and Scarlet’s trainer had brought in a number of shields. Finally the clansman selected a battleaxe with a large axehead and a pronged back. He also picked out two long-handled hatchets to strap to his thighs. A wooden shield covered with boiled leather was the last addition to his limited arsenal.
         Jurrel flexed his arms and reveled in the feel of being in battle-garb. The clansman looked at his wary groupmates and could not keep a contemptuous sneer from his face. The men were all garbed in the same type of armor in the same terrible condition. There were differences of course. The thief wore a hard leather jerkin instead of a breastplate as did the Pliyian. Tio’nel had an overlarge left shoulder guard to better protect his swordarm the clansman assumed. Kyle had on a helm that looked as though it obscured his vision and the scholar looked terrified of the impending danger. How the most timid of them had gotten in this situation in the first place still bewildered the barbarian. Scarlet wore a hard leather jerkin as well but hers left a considerable expanse of bosom exposed. Maybe the whore thought it would distract her enemies. The Sorceress was garbed in a tight-looking soft leather jerkin that was buckled oddly. Jurrel also noticed the odd gloves she wore. They were thick and fingerless but the oddness came from the flowing lines written all over them. The lines looked as though they had been written in blood. As Jurrel watched the Sergeant walked over to Emeralda and began doing up her jerkin right. The quiet woman nodded her head as she looked up at the Sergeant with Jurrel thought was awe and respect. The Sergeant patted her on the arm softly and growled low in his throat. Jurrel’s eyes widened when the little woman giggled softly and returned the gesture.
         It was too much for a clansman to try to understand.
         The others had armed themselves as best they could. The thief had a shortsword at his waist, crossed bandoleers filled with throwing knifes, and the Spirits knew how many dirks hidden about his person. Justal was armed with a recurved shortbow that was extremely powerful in such close ranges. A quiver of arrows was on his back as well as a quartet of javelins over his left shoulder. The Pliyian had two odd looking shafts of wood dangling at his waist. Tio’nel was armed with a rusted looking mace and a large wooden round shield. Kyle was armed with a simple shortbow, a quiver of arrows at his waist, and a quarterstaff across his back. Emeralda had only a long-bladed knife at her waist, but Jurrel doubted if she would have need of it. Scarlet was the most surprising of the others. The whore actually looked the part of some kind of demon-assassin. She had dual shortswords at her hips. A single bandoleer of throwing knives ran across her bosom. A long-bladed dagger ran down both thighs. What really surprised Jurrel was what she had strapped between her shoulderblades. It was a single weapon with a rounded club for one side and the other was a wickedly curved blade designed to pierce the flesh and rip out whatever it hooked. That kind of weapon would leave very nasty wounds.
         The Sergeant looked over them one final time before barking,“ Form up out front! ”
         Jurrel led the way this time and the prisoner-mercenaries quickly assembled in front of their barracks. The clansman was surprised when the Sergeant did not immediately tell race through the corridors to wherever the attack was coming from. Then the first thunderous impact on the huge doors at the end of the corridor made them all whip their heads in that direction. There was a moment of shocked silence before another thunderous impact made the iron doors, impossible as it seemed, rattle on their hinges.
         “ What is that? ” Kyle asked, his voice quivering.
         “ An enemy to kill,” the Sergeant said, a growl in his voice.
         The Sergant unhooked a lio’tar from his back and gripped it so hard the wood creaked. It was then that Jurrel noticed their trainers had scattered like the wind.
         “ Our trainers will not fight? ” Jurrel asked, as their guard-squad finally came around the corner armed and armored as heavily as ever.
         The Sergeant was silent for a moment as he looked each of them in the eye,“ You are more expendable. The order of attack and defense is made up on your expendability. You are all the most unreliable, have the least amount of training, the lowest quality equipment. It will not cost the Marauders much to lose you. The trainers, who have probably turned over a thousand cubs into killers, are worth far more to the Marauders than you, me, or the squad that guards you. Right now the trainers are taking their positions in the corridors just in case there is a breakthrough here. All of the training squads are scrambling to get themselves ready for battle to race here when they can. They are expendable and unreliable so it will probably fall on us few to halt this sacking. Now, Fore Attack!! ”
         Jurrel and the others automatically got into formation almost before the last word was out of the Sergeant’s mouth. Almost before they got into formation the doors to the dungeon exploded outwards. Jurrel began to duck behind cover before he saw Emeralda raising her arms. The small woman swept her arms to the side and the debris that had been flying toward them slammed into the walls instead of their bodies. Jurrel turned to her and gasped at the color of her eyes. Her entire eye had turned a pulsing golden color.
         “ Here they come,” Emeralda said in an awful whisper.
         Jurrel turned his attention back to the remnants of the doors and saw shapes charging through the mist. A bestial yipping sound echoed towards them as short, wiry shapes boiled out of the darkness beyond the door. Jurrel’s lips curled in disgust at the enemy that was charging at them. The tallest could have been no more than five feet tall. They looked like hyenas with slim muzzles that had decided to stand up on two legs. These hyenas had an oily looking, grey skin that was covered in rock-like lesions. The hyena-beasts wore leathers in as sad a state as Jurrels but they’re weapons did not share the rusted look of the prisoner-mercenaries.
         The doors to the infirmary and barracks both burst open.
         “ All Contact!! ” the Sergeant roared, charging to the left.
         Jurrel’s feet seemed to move of their own accord as he unslung his shield. Suddenly he found himself on the opposite side of the corridor from Emeralda with Scarlet directly behind him. Anyone looking to go throught their center would be trapped between Jurrel, Emeralda, and Tio’nel. Jurrel found more immediate concerns for his attention though.
         The first hyena-beast came at Jurrel with a wild yipping sound. Jurrel knocked aside its wild swing of a slightly curved sword and slashed it across the middle with his axe. The beast flew backwards into the wall with bone-crunching force. The clansman whirled, lashing out to catch another hyena-beast on the side of its head, and brought his axehead back down onto the skull of another. Jurrel hopped back from a slash at his abdomen and smacked his shield into a hyena-beast on his left. The one that had tried to skewer him leapt forward into the air in some insane attack.
         Jurrel ducked under it slammed his shield into the creature’s belly, and pushed him forward into the horde of his fellow beasts in front of them. Jurrel turned and spat in disgust as he saw the old man frantically defending both Kyle and Emeralda. The two quivered in place behind the old man as he fought frantically. The Sergeant was doing the same behind them and it was at that moment that Jurrel had a glimpse of how reponsible the Sergeant felt for them.
         Jurrel’s attention was jolted back as he leaned back from a downward slash as another hyena-beast tried the leaping maneuver. Jurrel brought his axe up underhand to cleanly slice the ugly bastard’s head off. It flew through the air and nearly collided with the back of Scarlet’s head. Time seemed to slow down for Jurrel as he caught a brief glance of the whore fighting. Scarlet danced her way through the enemy in a shower of blood. She wielded dual shortswords and they cut a path of death around her. Scarlet grinned with a savage joy, blood coating her face, as she cut into the enemy.
         Jurrel grinned in kind and unleashed a booming battlecry as he lashed out with his weapon.

***

         Ty’nel fought for his life as the barbarian let out a bass roar that was quickly followed by the Sergeant’s. The thief’s eye bulged when Scarlet let out her own, shrill, ululating cry and began killing even more feverishly. Ty’nel was filled with the urge to run for his life.
         That was what life as a thief had taught him. Fight when you have to, but avoid it at all costs. This fight could have been avoided if they had run, but they were not allowed.
         Ty’nel threw three throwing knives simultaneously into the bodies of a trio of the creatures. He sliced left, right, and forward with his shortsword but the ugly, little things just kept coming. Ty’nel leapt to the left, ran along the wall for a moment, landed and ran one of them through from behind. He kicked the dying creature away and before he knew it his legs had carried him back into position besides the Pliyian.
         All of the training was definitely bad for his self-preservation instinct.
Kyle did not like the thought that he was expendible. He liked the...creatures even less. Because of some unfortunate circumstances wherein his elderly bow snapped in half the first time he'd drawn it and his doubt to the equally aged staff's integrity, he was now armed with an elderly shield and sword he'd retreived from one of the dead hyena beasts. He hoped he'd never have to face anything, due to the fact that his success in hand to hand combat had been rather less than stellar. He was very attatched to his skin and hoped to remain that way.

The battle chaos seemed content to stay in front of him and the scholar tried to keep out of sight behind Sargeant. He saw Scarlet fighting with carnal glee and felt a small shiver run down his spine. And to think, he'd been sharing a room with her...One thing for certain, he was very glad her wrath was directed at their inhuman attackers rather than him.

Lost in his thoughts, he didn't see the approaching beast. It crashed into him, its blade glancing off his shield by mere luck. He jerked around to face it and caught a whiff of its ripe aroma, he felt his stomach protest to his nose and fought to keep it from doing anything more. The creature's second blow swung down on him and this time it was the training that saved his life. He swung his sword to intercept and felt the blow ringing down his arm. His hand went numb.

The beast lost no time in attacking and Kyle used his shield. It stopped the blade, but not without a complaining, hollow sound that warned it could not take much more abuse. Kyle's mind raced, he couldn't defend himself much longer. Suddenly, with a move half skill, mostly luck, he fell to the ground under the creature's swing and brought his sword up under its guard and into its abdomen. As he stood, he saw Sargeant watching him. The Tiger man nodded to him and turned back to the fighting.

--------------------------------

Rain caught a glimpse of Kyle out of the corner of her eye, and saw the hyena beast rushing him. She nudged its arm as it swung its first and helped Kyle dodge the others. It was her who kept him on his feet and helped bring his blade home. Once she saw his attacker disposed of, she turned back to the fighting.

Sargaent gave her a look, it seemed to be one of approval. She turned back to the melee and became more aggressive. A creature leapt at Ty'nel and she caught it in mid-air and slammed it into the wall by Jurrel. As it slumped to the floor, the clansman disposed of it. She saw a lance lying amongst the bodies and hefted it with her mind. She took careful aim and skewered three beasts with it, the point thudding home in the remains of the door, with the creatures solidly fixed.

She didn't notice the beast that crept up behind her, nor did she need to, Sargeant had already killed it. She had gone into the battle knowing that her life lay in his hands, because her power demanded incredible focus and in a battle such focus often proves deadly in the face of an unexpected adversary, and the fact had not bothered her. If he wished her dead, he had long had the chance and the fact that she was still alive indicated that he meant to keep her as such.

And yet, despite his intention, the Tiger man still had to guard himself and a stray blow struck Rain full upon the back of the skull. She fell upon the floor in an unconscious and bleeding heap.
. . . Left . . . Right . . . Duck . . . Swing . . . Advance . . . Advance . . . Fall back! . . . Right . . . Left . . . Left . . . Duck . . . Pause . . . Block . . . Swing . . . Swing . . .

. . . Hmm, hit something there, not sure what . . . There! To the right . . . Whoa! Way to close . . . Aha, got ya . . . Where is Jurrel now? . . . Ah, there . . . Augh, didn't see that one . . . I'll get you . . . Quick, to the left . . . No, no, the other left . . . Out of the way, out of the way! . . . [gasp]Scarlet, you stupid whore, hold still a second . . . Augh! This shield won't take much more . . . Got'cha . . . And again . . . .

"Tio'nel!!"

Sergeant's gutteral roar startled Tio'nel from the fight. His concentration broken, the beasts surrounding him scored a hit to his sword arm, knocking the mace from his grasp.

No big loss, he found himself thinking, as he ducked and rolled out of harm's way. Now he could feel Rain's absence, and Sergeant's own preoccupation as he kept the beasts at bay. He made his way to her side as quickly as he could, to lay both hands on her. But a few creatures got past Sergeant, attacking the healer and causing him to lose focus.

Tio'nel rolled from the blow, finding himself staring up into the descending sword of the beast. Instinctively, his hand came up as he ducked, bracing himself, but no blow did he feel. Warily, he peered around his 'protecting' arm.

The beast, he saw, was cowering next to the wall and, was that, could it be, tears? running down the creature's snout?

Tio'nel stared. The cloth with which he'd wrapped his hands after the last battle had come free. It works! he thought.

"It works!" he whispered aloud.

He looked up, over to where Sergeant had his back to him, surrounded by beasts. Tio'nel raised his hand. He took a deep breath, gathering the power within him.

"Back!" he shouted. "Back, you vile creatures!"

It didn't work quite as Tio'nel had hoped. About three-quarters of the beasts remained unaffected, the others stared around at each others, dazed and confused.

The healer shrugged, and returned to the sorcerer. He healed her back to consiousness, then paused, taking a deep breath, before repairing the damage to her skull. As he helped her to her feet, one of the attacking beasts charged them. This time, the spell worked and the creature fled, howling in fear.

Rain stared at Tio'nel. He gave her a shrug and a modest grin, then picked up the nearest weapon, unfortunately another rapidly-decaying mace. Armed once more, Tio'nel charged back into the fray.

He ran this time to Ty'nel's side, healing the assassin, while keeping the beasts at bay with the power of the spell engraved upon his palm. He was rather ashamed with himself for having forgotten about the power, but he'd half-convinced himself it had been but a dream. And he hadn't wished to have it proved so.

But the battle wore on and on and as Tio'nel tired, his concentration faltered, and his healing began to have less and less of an effect, even on himself. He lost track of where he should be, cursing himself for his age and the memory loss incured from being mostly drunk most of the last ten years. He should be able to remember formations like that, da---it!

The mace was quickly replaced by a sword, then another, and another as the fighting wore on. He couldn't keep a shield in one piece long enough to make it useful, so he quit looking for one, instead absorbing the damage, or, mostly, just keeping out of the way.

His mind wandered as he fought, a bad sign, but by that point, he could hardly have told himself so. He staggered when he ran and, finally, when blocking a blow, he fell to his knees and could not stand again. With the last of his remaining strength, he killed the creature.

Then a muffled sound came to his ears. Sergeant, the most deadly of this ill-put-together team, was being mobbed, and his cry was of pain!

Somehow, Tio'nel was back on his feet, running to the Tigerman's side. His weapon struck aside those in his path, clearing the area for a brief moment. Tio'nel placed both hands on Sergeant's shoulder, pouring forth the energy necessary to stop the bleeding from the badly scored wound on the Tigerman's leg. The healing consumed Tio'nel, blocking all sense and reason in his focus. If he could have thought, he would have known that he was too tired to risk a healing, too exhausted to stop himself before all his life-blood went to the one being healed. As it was, Tio'nel gave and gave, unheeding, unable to stop himself.

Sergeant pushed himself from the wall he'd been leaning against, feeling new energy flowing through his body. The pain and fatigue left him with a speed that left him slightly dizzy. And still more flowed within him. The necessary blow cut at him, but still he struck, knocking Tio'nel away. The older man slumped to the ground, but Sergeant had no time to see if he was all right. There was work to be done, a battle to be won.
         Jurrel hammered the blunt edge of a hatchet into the mouth of a hyena-beast and split its skull with the slashing edge of the opposite. The clansman shouldered aside one on his left into the whirling lio’tar of the Sergeant. His bloodlust screaming through his veins, the feared berserker turned.... and saw only a scattered handful of the little beasts left.
         These remaining few raced back into the darkness on the other side of the shattered doors to the dungeon. The clansman roared to spur them to greater speed but he knew he was too wounded to pursue them. His shield had fallen to pieces after being bashed into one too many skulls and his axehead had bent in two after colliding with a helm that had been sturdier than it looked. He had felt the peculiar healing magic wash through him several times but the clansman was still hale. There was a long gash on his left side and a deep, stabbing wound in his upper thigh. Blood gushed everytime he moved and he could already feel himself growing disoriented from blood loss. The rest of the group looked as though they were in the same condition.
         Scarlet’s wild cry came from behind Jurrel and the crazed woman jogged in a painful trot towards the retreating enemies. She, like Jurrel, was covered in blood almost from head to toe. Most of it was probably from fallen foes but Jurrel knew some had to be hers. The carnage the two had managed to reek made the clansman react without thought.
         “ We CRUSHED them, little sister! ” he roared, putting one huge arm around her and hugging her to his uninjured side.
         The warrior woman looked at him oddly and it was then that he noticed he had spoken in his native tongue.
         “ We crushed them like ants! They will fear us! They will fear you! ” Jurrel said, his grin appearing through a tacky sheet of blood covering his face.
         Scarlet’s blood-splattered face split in an equally huge grin before she came back to her usual self. With a sneer of disgust the harridan pushed away from Jurrel.
         “ Touch me again and I’ll shove this into you,” she twirled the short-handled scythe-like weapon in one hand.
         Jurrel looked back at one victim of the weapon, it’s ribcage had been split gruesomely open, and grinned even more widely at the woman.
         “ Fear you indeed. ”
         Scarlet turned away from him quickly but not before Jurrel saw an almost satisfied little smile on her face. The big clansman turned as their guard-squad came walking up accompanied by a large number of nervous-looking young men in well-tended leather armor wielding equally well-tended iron weapons. The prisoner-mercenaries gathered the old man up and limped into their barracks. Jurrel and Scarlet were the last in the door and did not take their eyes off of either the guard-squad or those sent to secure the dungeon entrance. The battle-heat still ran high in the two and, from Jurrel’s experience, it would take some time to cool. The guard-squad, and especially the recruits, looked at the clansman and the berserker woman nervously. Jurrel grinned widely before turning to enter the barracks.
         The floor behind him was literally covered in the smashed, pulped, sliced and split remains of the hyena-beasts.
         Jurrel walked up to where the others had gathered at the far-end of the barracks. They stood around the cot they had lay Tio’nel on. The old man looked as pale as new snow and there was a small streak of pure white hair just behind his left ear. Tio’nel still breathed but it was slow and unsteady.
         “ What is wrong with him? ” Jurrel asked, stepping behind Emeralda.
         The Sergeant growled,“ Drained himself dry healing us. I will be back. ”
         The Sergeant turned and ran nimbly back through the barrack doors. Without a word the group began divesting themselves of most of their blood-stained and damaged armor. In a few moments they stood in nothing but what they usually slept in. Jurrel nodded slightly in approval that everyone kept a weapon close at hand. Everyone except Jurrel and Scarlet slid to the floor around the old man’s bed and stared off numbly into space. The clansman retrieved a roll of bandages from the chest at the foot of the cot.
         Jurrel and Scarlet sat on the bed next to Tio’nel’s that was closer to the exit. Scarlet kept a firm grip on her odd weapon and long dagger as Jurrel began wrapping the wound on his leg.
         After a moment Scarlet spoke in a soft whisper without looking at Jurrel,“ Did I really do well? ”
         Jurrel paused in his careful bandaging and did not look at the the woman as he spoke,“ Yes. ”
         “ That was my first battle. ”
         “ Haven’t you killed before? ”
         “ Yes, but never so many at once. Never with so many screams, so much heat, so much fear, so much rage. ”
         “ The first time is the sweetest but maybe not the best. There will come a time when there will not be much fear from you and then it will be glorious. ”
         Now Scarlet did turn wide-eyed to the clansman,“ How many battles have you fought? ”
         Jurrel shrugged as he continued his bandaging without looking at her,“ You lose count after so many. More than a hundred, less than a thousand, that is as close as I can give you. You are training to be an assassin, yes? ”
         Scarlet grumbled an affirmative.
         “ Do not become too used to this. You will have your own kind battle-glory flowing when you are at your work,” Jurrel chuckled,“ I do not think assassin’s want to fight very many pitched battles. That would mean you are not a very good assassin and I am sure you are. ”
         Scarlet actually chuckled slightly,“ Not to hear Merngar talk. ”
         The sound of voices carried to them and Scarlet hissed suddenly and loudly,“ I’m surprised you’ve lived this long, you hairy bastard! I don’t need your advice. ”
         With a snort Scarlet got up and sat on the bed opposite Jurrel’s. The clansman could only shake his head in bemusement. It seemed that no matter how terrifyingly excellent a fighter Scarlet was she still acted like a large number of the women the clansman had known. It almost made him want to laugh out loud. Jurrel looked up and saw that it was the tall, willowly old cleric that had healed them all on their arrival. The old cleric was completely bald and wore coarse, brown robes that came down to his ankles. His blue-green eyes were hard and unforgiving though as he stopped in front of Tio’nel’s cot. The cleric shook his head and waved his hand in a wide gesture across the room before exiting the way he came.
         The six prisoner-mercenaries arched, shivered, trembled, or convulsed as the healing magic took effect. Jurrel felt his wounds knitting and closing themselves. Bruises and aches faded away within moments. Shortly after Tio’nel sat upright in his bed and gave a short bark of alarm. He looked around and winced at pain he felt but Jurrel could not see the cause of.
         “ Did we win? ”

****

         Srarrar, his wounds healed by cleric Lai’sher before the old man had gone to heal his trainees, stood at a table inside the Captain’s warroom. Lieutenenat Tai’sher was there, as well as several of the senior sergeants, and the Captain stood at the head of the table.
         Miniature maps of the region were placed at each of the eight settings at the table. A larger map of the entire area that had once been Loriea was in the center of the table.
         “ Alright, Sergeant, what happened? ” Captain Ahs’er asked, his voice rough from years of bellowing orders in the field.
         Srarrar turned towards the man who looked like nothing more than an older, tougher, more world-weary Tai’sher. He was dressed in the casual equipment he wore in the Keep proper. A simple steel chainmail and leather breastplate with leather pants. His enchanted longsword was at his waist as always.
         Srarrar quickly began reciting what had occurred in the dungeon below them. He managed to keep the pride he felt upon telling his superior officer that his team had stopped the attack single-handedly. When the details were finally told the Captain rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
         “ Theories? ” he asked, expecting them immediately.
         He got them almost before he spoke the question.
         “ The beasts have some kind of leader who wants to expand his territory? ”
         “ Some overlord in the DeepDown wants more slaves? ”
         “ Someone managed to gain control over these creatures and wants to use them to loot our vaults? ”
         “ No,” a soft voice interrupted the sergeants spouting of theories.
         Srarrar turned to see a tall figure with brilliantly shimmering white hair step from the shadows behind Tai’sher. Everyone except the Captain bowed their heads to the Marauders Necromancer-Prime. The woman’s faintly glowing green eyes cast their gaze over everyone and those that had their heads bowed could feel it when it passed over them.
         “ Rise,” she said, in an echoing, unearthly voice.
         “ What can you tell us, Necromancer-Prime? ” Ahs’er asked, his voice unwavering before her gaze.
         The powerful necromancer paced around the table slowly,“ They are being controlled by a powerful Sorceror. The beasts fear powerful magics and are easily coerced through this fear. This Sorceror knows much of necromantic powers, thus I can not determind where they are or who they are. I do know that this Sorceror has help of demonic origin. ”
         Outraged shouts and demands for immediate action were fragile attempts to mask the fear everyone except the Necromancer, but Srarrar could smell it all.
         “ We need the Harbinger back here! He can led some of his men down into the DeepDown to root out this Sorceror and his pet demon. ” sergeant Mar’nel roared.
         The others quickly agreed with that suggestion.
         The Captain raised his hand for silence and looked at the necromancer,“ Can we get him back here? ”
         Bethany shook her head,“ He is on the hunt now. There are forces moving on the border. Strange, powerful forces that he must investigate. I do not know when he will be able to come to our aide. ”
         “ What about the High Sorceror? ”
         Captain Ahs’er shook his head,“ He is on a vital mission in the Lijuak forests. It would take at least a month to find him and two weeks for him to arrive. Tai’sher, what are our assets here? ”
         The Lieutenant shifted in his seat slightly,“ Seventy recruits in training. Our usual compliment of one hundred Keep guards. My squad and the Sergeant’s experimental squad of prisoners. Those that are not on assignments are probably somewhere in the Mercenaries Quarter. It will take at least a week to round them all up and get a head count. ”
         The Captain looked at Srarrar thoughtfully for a moment,“ Sergeant Mar’nel, begin rounding up the Marauders in the Mercenaries Quarter. The rest of you, start organizing the recruits into proper squads. I want at least two of those squads guarding the entrance to the dungeon at all times and put the others in the barracks. The infirmary if they all can’t fit. Go! ”
         The senior sergeants quickly exited the room and left Srarrar alone with three of the most intimidating humans he had ever met. It did not help when all of their eyes turned to him.
         “ I am going to have to ask something extraordinary of you, Srarrar. ” the Captain began and Srarrar struggled to contain a growl of anger,“ I need you to take your squad of....Seekers to locate this Sorceror’s base. Where the demon is kept as well if you can. Then you will lead the Lieutenant’s squad to it and they will eliminate the Sorceror and the demon. If all goes well your team will not have to battle at all. ”
         Srarrar bit back his angry retort,“ They are not ready, Captain. They did well today, but they could have done much, much better. All they need is- ”
         “ Damnit, Sergeant! ” Ahs’er interrupted angrily,“ There isn’t any time left for training! This is an urgent mission and we can’t wait! Your team has al the elements it needs to succeed. It’s own knight-cleric, a Sorceror, a skilled thief, a scholar, and even an assassin. If you do not succeed then we will have no choice but to seal up that portion of the Keep and hold out until the Harbinger can arrive. Many Marauders will die if we have to hold off wave after wave of those evil little beasts. This Sorceror’s base can not be too far away or he would lose his control over the beasts the moment they had a convenient escape route, right? ” Ahs’er turned to the necromancer and got a nod in return,“ By the time they are prepared for another attack we could have a team in place to eliminate them. Now, you are going, is that understood? ”
         Srarrar growled his reply out,“ Perfectly. ”
         “ There is hope, Srarrar,” the necromancer had managed to glide to his side,“ The demon can not be one of great power if a single Sorceror can control it. ”
         Srarrar growled but kept his thoughts to himself.
         Maybe it was a comfort to them.

***

         Ty’nel couldn’t keep his mouth closed as the Tiger-Man outlined the details of their first mission as Marauders. It was crazy. Impossible and...and...CRAZY!! Jurrel had a huge grin on as he clapped his hands together in anticipation.
         Scarlet actually smiled slightly at the big man’s gesture before catching herself and settling her face into a scowl. The scholar and Emeralda both looked pale while Justal was as expressionless as ever. The kid seemed to have lost all traces of humanity in his weeks underground. Tio’nel was the only one who didn’t react in some way because he was fast asleep.
         “ I will go over the details before we leave,” the Sergeant told them, sounding tired for the first time that Ty’nel could remember,“ We leave in twenty-four hours. You get to keep the weapons we brought with us today. We have just enough time to repair, clean, strengthen what we can, and get some sleep. Work on what you can while I go get the repair kits. ”
         With that the Sergeant left and Ty’nel began cursing like there was no tomorrow.
         The thief wished there was no tomorrow.
Justal looked at the bow, he had used all of his arrows during the battle. With a sigh he tossed it onto his bed.
He clean the javlins that he did have and left the shafts of wood at his waist.

"Why are you so quiet?" Rain was sitting by him.

Justal smiled and tapped his head, "All part of a plan. If no one notices you it'll take them awhile to figure that you're gone. And as much as I'd love to scream while in battle it's pointless with my weapon of choice," he nodded at the bow on his bed.
Justal gave a soft 'Ahhhhh', pretending to scream and back a rough movment of firing a bow.
"It doesn't have the same effect as, say, riping out someone's rib cage. And I'm usually on a hill trying to pick off as many as I can before they figure out where the arrows are comming from." He shruged and went back to his weapons.
Kyle eyed his "new" bow skeptically. He's been fortunate enough to get a replacement, but aside from a vague idea of it seeming to be decent, he had no standard of judging its quality.

He sighed, then decided that he would need to learn more about his weapon. Taking advantage of opportunity, he walked over to Justal.

"What?"

Kyle held out his bow, "I'd like you to teach me about bows, judging quality and the like."

Justal looked him over, then shrugged, "Very well." He took the bow from Kyle and examined it for a few moments. He pointed at the curve of the wood, "Well, first..."

------------------

Rain, promptly ignored, decided that she could use a hot bath and gathered her minimal necessities. A few minutes later she submerged herself to the chin in just less than scalding water.

As her muscles promptly turned to the consistency of overcooked pasta, Rain turned her thoughts to the sorceror. Despite the heat of the water, a shiver ran up her spine.

This was no petty magicker they were going to go up against, but a full-fledged wielder of the power. For an instant she imagined what it would be like, to be that powerful. Then she pictured their battle with the hyena creatures and dismissed the thought.

Soon, feeling the effects of the battle and the hot water, she drifted off to sleep, her chin resting on her chest above the water. Somehow, she slept without dreaming, not a single gory nightmare disturbed her rest. When she woke, her only discomfort came from the cramp in her neck. She pulled herself out of the bath and went to bed for more traditional sleep.
Tio'nel slept.

And slept.

And slept.

For the next twenty-four hours nothing short of a minor disaster (say, the roof caving in) could have roused the Knight-Cleric from his slumber.

He awoke at last, his stomach loudly roaring its hunger. But at least his raging headache had mostly subsided. Blinking bleary eyes, he stumbled off to take care of the first thing upper-most on his mind.

He sighed with relief as he came from the privy, rinsed his hands, splashed some water on his face, and gave a mighty yawn.

Scarlet rolled over onto an elbow, unfortunately right next to the old man's bellow, and glared at him. "So, awake are you?"

Tio'nel looked up, startled. "Ah, why, yes."

"Good." She smirked at him. "Looks like I won."

"Hmm?"

She explained, "There was a bet going to see if you would actually rise before the Sergeant came for us."

"Oh? Where are we going?"

The door slammed open with a loud BOOM, interrupting whatever Scarlet had been about to say. Sergeant was there, shouting, shaking the others from their beds.

The trainees lined up, dressed and armed, in their customary line for inspection. A sorry sight, in Srarrar's mind, but all he had. "Let's go," was all he said.
Part III



         Jurrel shifted the heavy weight on his back with a grimace as he plodded along in position between Kyle and Emeralda. Justal and Tio’nel were far ahead of them up the corridor but moving at the same pace. Scarlet, Ty’nel, and the Sergeant were out of Jurrel’s sight but he knew they were somewhere far ahead.
         The clansman struggled to control his anger at the situation he found himself in. He was one of the finest warriors of a people known for producing the best warriors on the High Plains and he was being used like a pack yar’rill. Jurrel carried a large, cumbersome backpack filled with a variety of equipment dungeon explorers needed. His backpack was by far the heaviest but he was not alone in his burden. Kyle had a belt of small glass rods which glowed when warmed by a person’s hand. The scrawny man also had a backpack full of water. Emeralda had nearly thirty feet of a thin, yet incredibly strong black rope coiled over one shoulder and across her chest. Justal carried most of their food. Tio’nel carried some food and the groups healing supplies. The three scouts carried only a small canteen of water each. It hardly seemed fair to Jurrel.
         Each of the group was armored as they had been for the last battle but this time their armor was in better condition. Jurrel had even scavenged pieces of iron chainmail from some of the bodies of the hyena-beasts to fit onto the shabby looking leather bracers. He had found himself another axe, this time with dual half-moon blades, but it was still only iron. A clansman needed good steel that would not bend under his massive strength, but Jurrel did not have much choice. He had kept the hatchets and gotten a new wooden shield that he had stretched scavenged leather over. The armor and weapons were less than a true warrior would desire but it was better than nothing.
         “ Where do you think we are going? ” Kyle whispered.
         Jurrel said nothing and continued walking.
         “ Did you hear me? ” Kyle asked a little louder.
         Emeralda spoke up then,“ Yes. ”
         Kyle mumbled quietly for a moment before speaking again,“ So? Where is the Sergeant leading us to? ”
         “ To kill the beasts. To kill a demon. ”
         “ The beasts are called sessel’s. Are you sure? What if he plans to disobey orders and run? What if he frees us once we help him escape? ”
         Emeralda hissed loudly,“ Shut up! The Sergeant would never run. ”
         Jurrel nodded,“ I would like it to happen but she is right. How do you know what these beasts are called? ”
         Kyle sulked for a moment at having his sky-dreams shattered but perked up when Jurrel asked for his expertise. The little scholar seemed to relish the attention.
         “ We are not the first people to encounter this race. Though there have not been recorded confrontations with them in nearly two centuries since a crusade to completely eliminate all the denizens of the DeepDown was led by King Arnaz’ of Evaria. The King led over five thousand men, two hundred of his personal guard, and several Sorcerors. None of them returned and it- ”
         Jurrel sighed just as Kyle yelped and rubbed his backside.
         “ Just tell us about these...sessel’s, Kyle. ” Emeralda urged him, shying away from Jurrel’s grin and Kyle’s hurt expression.
         “ Yes, well, several scribes returned from the crusade’s initial penetration of one of the scant large entrances to the DeepDown hundreds of miles to the north. It was written that the first obstacle they encountered were hordes of beasts like the ones we just fought. They called them sessels and wrote only bits and pieces about them. The scribes wrote that they only attacked when they greatly outnumbered their opponents or when they were defending their territory. There were reports of rudimentary weapon use, but those were only stone clubs and such. There were no indications of them using forged weapons or even leather armor. Their culture is very primitive and seems to have barely gotten past the discovery of fire. The scribes also reported that they did have a curiously advanced form of runic writing that seemed to be derived from- ”
         Kyle yelped again and Emeralda said,“ Thank you, Kyle. ”
         Jurrel contained a grin as they continued walking through the bowels of the Keep. Sometime later the three was approaching the others as they gathered around an inconspicious alcove in an ordinary looking corridor. The Sergeant was reaching out towards the alcove when the sounds of running feet echoed down the corridors. It seemed that they could be coming from any direction. The Sergeant turned back the way they had come and gestured at Scarlet. The deadly woman jogged back the way they had come. Jurrel nodded at her and was surprised when she gave him an almost comradely little smile. The clansman turned and was not surprised that she had disappeared into the shadows of the corridor.
         “ Fool, get your bow ready. ” the Sergeant commanded,“ Barbarian, drunkard, Emeralda, watch the rear. ”
         Jurrel slipped his hatchets from their loops and got into position between the cleric and sorceress. The sounds of running got closer and closer. Jurrel’s heart began to beat faster as he anticipated imminent battle. Suddenly the footsteps stopped with only a slight shuffling sound.
         Emeralda turned but Jurrel and Tio’nel, both veterans, kept their eyes forward.
         “ It’s all clear,” the Sergeant said, and only then did the two turn to see what was happening.
         Scarlet was standing over a man on his knees with her hands somewhere behind his head. The man, in the garb of a Marauder, had a look of horror on his face as he grabbed at the strangling wire she had slipped around his neck.
         “ Let him up, whore. ” the Sergeant told her, and had to growl when she did not immediately release the hold.
         The fiercesome woman snorted in contempt and released the man. She walked past him, carefully putting her the thing piece of wire away, and stopped beside Jurrel.
         “ There had better be a reason for you being here. If there is not then you will be at the mercy of the woman there. Trust me....she has none. ”
         Scarlet casually began picking her nails with a small dirk she had produced from somewhere on her person.
         When the Marauder got his coughing under control he began speaking,“ Urgent....from...the Cap’n. H-h-here! ”
         The man shoved a piece of paper at the Sergeant, turned, and lurched back the way he had come. Jurrel could hear him occasionally coughing for a long while as the Sergeant studied the paper.
         The Sergeant handed the paper to Emeralda,“ Burn it. ” The small woman threw the paper into the air and it flared into ash. “ It seems several wealthy merchants and even a minor noble have gotten themselves kidnapped while they were staying in Ilium. The Captain thinks the ransom demands that he has received messages about from Tyj are being sent by whoever is in command of these beasts. ”
         “ They’re called sessels. ”
         The Sergeant nodded at Jurrel,“ Whoever is in command of the sessels seems to have plans for this area. The Captain has given us a secondary mission. We are to locate and free the prisoners if it does not interfere with our primary goal. There will be commissions for every prisoner rescued. ”
         “ Will that be enough to let me go free? ” Ty’nel asked, cautiously.
         “ No,” the Sergeant said, doing something to the wall of the alcove.
         A door slid open to reveal a set of ancient stairs leading down into darkness.
         “ Take these,” the Sergeant passed out dripping rags he from somewhere on his person,“ Wipe yourselves down with them. Cover everything and I mean everything. ”
         “ What is this? ” Scarlet asked in disgust.
         “ Musk glands. It will help mask our scents. ” the Sergeant waited while the group finished their grisly task. “ Long Scout. Keep it quiet. Let’s go. ”
         Jurrel replaced his hatchets, shifted the bulk of his backpack, and followed the others down into darkness.

***

         Ty’nel moved even more silently now than he had when he was first “recruited”. That was small consolation when put up against the fact that he was rushing to meet a sorceror and a demon. A demon. Who would have thought the thief would be descending into a merciless den of beasts and demons? Certainly not Ty’nel himself. The thought was so ludicrous it made him want to laugh.
         Ty’nel willed his thoughts back to the task at hand before he drove himself mad.
         The group had finally reached the bottom of the stairs and had fallen out behind the Sergeant. The six prisoner-mercenaries found thenmselves in a place much like the upper level. The only difference was that this place seemed somehow more hostile to them. It was as if they were not wanted here. One sign that the supposedly “clean” dungeon wasn’t so clean was pretty obvious.
         There was light.
         There was not much light. Large braziers, that filled some of the narrower corridors with a light haze of smoke, were placed strategically wherever a narrower corridor intersected a hallway. The Sergeant stopped at each one and carefully examined the floor. Finally they came to one and he waited until Scarlet and Ty’nel caught up. The thief stayed in the shadows just inside the corridor while Scarlet exposed herself and stood beside the kneeling Sergeant.
         “ What is it? ” she asked impatiently.
         The Sergeant held up a clawed hand,“ The weakling, get him. ”
         Ty’nel couldn’t be sure but he thought the whore’s face paled in fury as she turned to get the scholar. Ty’nel waited in his place in the shadows as calmly as the situation allowed.
         Demons... he couldn’t believe it.
         Within moments Scarlet was dragging Kyle to the Sergeant and the Tiger-Man pointed,“ What does that say? ”
         Kyle peered at something the Sergeant was pointing at on the floor for a long time before answering,“ It says that way is towards the Den and that way is Home. ”
         “ Is not that the same thing? ” the Sergeant asked.
         “ If I am reading it right the Den is similar to a barracks. Home would be where they originated from. ”
         “ Then that’s where we go. Back to your position. ”
         The Sergeant followed Kyle, Scarlet followed the Sergeant, and Ty’nel followed them all with the blank look of a deadman on his face. The Sergeant led them through a convoluted series of corridors and hallways. Ty’nel memorized the route easily through the habits he had picked up as a thief. He was pretty sure the others, with the possibly exception of Scarlet, were at a complete loss. The cobbled stone walls of one corridor looked more or less like every other. Only a veteran eye would be able to discern tell-tale signs of which corridor was which. The place seemed a vast, lonely one. Occasionally a chill wind could be felt, almost heard, moaning through the corridors. It was enough to unnerve even the thickest of sword-swinging buffoons.
         Suddenly the Sergeant stopped and dropped into cover. Scarlet faded into the background across from him better than Ty’nel would have given her credit for. The thief wedged himself into a tiny alcove halfway off the floor. The Sergeant slowly crept back from the apparently sealed end of the corridor after a moment. There was a small wooden door there beside what looked like a window. The place was so poorly lit and far away that even Ty’nel’s sharp eyes had trouble seeing. The Sergeant stopped directly beneath Ty’nel and began to whisper.
         “ There is a guard post just up ahead. I want you to scout it out, thief. There is a crawl space to the left of where I took cover. I think it leads into the post. ”
         Ty’nel didn’t believe what he was hearing.
         “ Why don’t you send the barbarian and the whore? ” he whispered back, not willing to leave his hiding place.
         The Sergeant growled,“ We are not here to slaughter. We are here to locate. Do not make me come get you. ”
         Ty’nel cursed himself, and Liy’tey’s ghost for getting him into this mess, before sliding out of hiding. He quickly and quietly made his way down the corridor until he got to where the Sergeant had taken cover. The thief immediately saw the tiny hole and knew then why the Sergeant hadn’t already scouted the position. The crawl space was much too small for the Tiger-Man.
         Ty’nel slipped inside the cramped, dusty space and was immediately reminded of his days robbing the rich folk of Tyj for all they were worth. Even now the memories brought with them a vengeful delight. Ty’nel allowed himself a quick grin before slithering on his belly down the crawl space. It seemed to be part of a massive network of ducts running under the floor. The thief added that to his running tally of possibly useful facts. Ty’nel ignored all that did not lead towards his destination. A sudden chittering sound in front of him made the thief freeze.
         Slowly, very slowly, Ty’nel slid his handbows from their retraints up his sleeves. Bolts were slid into each just as slowly and then he drew his only long-bladed knife from it’s coal-blackened sheath on his leg. Ty'nel never took anything larger than the knife with him while supposedly "scouting". Ty’nel quietly clamped the blade between his teeth and began slithering forward again with a mini-crossbow in each hand. He could see less than six feet in front of his face as the only light filtered down through minute cracks above him. The thief was used to operating in near darkness but never with things that thrived in it. Another burst of chittering did not make him stop but only made him slither faster. His heart began to pound against his ribcage. Sweat broke out on his forehead even though it wasn’t even warm in the crawl space.
         I’m going to die, he thought, I’m going to die this time.
         Shadows exploded into motion ahead of him and the theif reacted almost without thought. A bolt ripped into the shadows ahead of him as Ty’nel flipped onto his back. The thief leaned up and fired his second bolt at the shadow that was scurrying toward him from behind. Ty’nel dropped flat on his back, whipped his knife from between his teeth, and plunged it towards the ceiling of the crawl space. With a grunt of exertion he slapped the tacked sole of a foot down onto the large head of some creature. Ty’nel heard it’s skull crack with a sickening thud.
         Ty’nel, his heart hammering madly in his chest, stared up at what he had impaled with his knife. The blade of his knife had entered the chin and exited the top of the skull of a giant rat. The bastard was easily two feet long and that didn’t even include it’s tail. Blood dripped down onto the thief’s arms and quickly began filling the crawl space. Ty’nel drew out his knife and looked back at the other one. His bolt stuck out of one of its eyes and his boot had finished the job by crushing it’s skull. He collected his handbows and returned them to their restraints. Ty’nel barely slithered past the stinking rat corpse, cleaning his knife on its equally nasty fur as he passed, and found a hatch only a few feet away. Maybe someone had put the rats there as guardians. Ty’nel doubted it though. The place smelled like they had been down here a very, very long time. A scattering of bones near the hatch proved it.
         Ty’nel rolled around as best he could, smearing the rat blood against his clothes and the wall, trying to make sure he wasn’t dripping before leaving. When he was satisfied the thief stuck an ear against the hatch and listened. No breathing. No movement. It seemed as though the immediate area was clear. There was only one way to be absolutely sure though.
         Ty’nel took three deep breaths and slowly raised the hatch up only enough so he could look through it with one eye. The hatch opened up into a small chamber with only one entrance and that was on his left. The entrance was also partially obscured by rotted looking crates. Ty’nel quietly slipped out of the crawl space and into the room. He knew immediately that there were a number of the sessels in the next room by the barks and yips. He walked in a crouch as he examined the room. There were several tables that had fallen apart from age, maybe battle, and a scattering of some kind of leather-like parchment on the crates. One of them looked almost like a map. Ty’nel took that one, as well as another with a lot of the funny symbols on them, and put them inside his jerkin.
         Ty’nel cautiously went up to the entrance and pulled his viewing mirror from his pocket. It was a tiny mirror attached to a collapsible piece of wire. The instrument was very useful for peering around corners without exposing a person. There were at least a a dozen, maybe a dozen and a half, well-armed sessels gathered around a large fire. Over the fire roasted one of the giant rats.
         Guess they weren’t pets, Ty’nel thought disgustedly.
         One of the sessels stood and began shuffling towards the room. There was no time to get back to the crawlspace. Ty’nels mind raced as he remembered all the minute details he had absorbed as soon as he entered the room. Without hesitation Ty’nel leaped off the floor and tucked himself into a tiny niche covered by a thin drape. Inside the niche were the broken remains of some kind of pottery. Without making a sound Ty’nel settled himself on the pottery. He managed it by taking most of his weight off them by bracing with his hands and knees against the sides of the niche. The knife in his hand wasn’t made for throwing but it would do in a pinch.
         The sessel soldier shuffled into the room and dazedly walked over to a corner. There was some kind of hole there that it squatted over-
         A high trumpeting sound, followed by a gay yip, made Ty’nel gag in disgust. An abysmal stench filled the room and for a moment the thief thought he would pass out. After several more trumpeting blasts the little creature fairly skipped out of the room. Ty’nel held his breath as he waited to be sure it was gone. He sucked in another quick breath before quietly descending back into the welcomed, stifled air of the crawlspace. The thief crawled as quickly as he could back towards the others, pausing to collect his bolts from the rat corpses, and breathed a sigh of relief as he emerged into the corridor.
         Ty’nel made his way back, ignoring the looks the others gave him, and slumped tiredly against a wall. Without a word he handed the parchment pieces to the Sergeant and tried to still his hammering heart.
         Ty'nel could still smell the foul stench emitted from the nether regions of the sessel.
         The Sergeant growled in what Ty’nel thought was pleasure," Let’s go. "
         The Sergeant led them back and into an almost hidden little room near the last wide intersection. He directed them to a corner where they all huddled behind huge musty canvas bags.
         “ We need light, weakling,” the Sergeant said, and a light rod was held out to him,“ Everyone gather around and give us light. Get over it as much as you can to block it. ”
         The group gathered and did as they were told while Kyle studied the maps and parchment on the floor.
         “ This is Home,” Kyle said, pointing to places on the map piece,“ This is the Den for the soldiers. This is the Den of the....Lieutenant would be an indirect translation. It looks like they sealed off every entrance to the second level. ”
         “ What about here? ” the Segeant asked, pointing to a place at the far corner of the map.
         “ There’s only a three-man observation post here. ”
         “ Good. I always thought there was a cavern to the DeepDown there. We can use that to get to level two. Let’s go. ”
         “ What about the other parchment? ” Kyle asked, trying to read as much of it as he could.
         “ What about it? ”
         “ I need more time to translate it. ”
         “ You will have time later. We must go. ”
         The Sergeant put his light rod away and everyone followed suit. Kyle was allowed to hold onto the map and the other parchment.
         “ Nice work, thief. ” the Sergeant growled as Ty’nel walked past him.
         Ty’nel said nothing and only wished he didn't smell like rat blood.

         Sometime later the group was huddled around the corner from the observation post. This one was not totally walled off and looked as though there were two rooms that could be the post on either side of the corridor.
         “ You have the one on the right, thief. The left for you, whore. There is no other way around from what I could tell. Do it quietly and with little blood so we can make it look like they abadoned their posts. Go. ”
         Ty’nel slipped his handbows from their retraints again and grumbled soundlessly to himself.
         What good was having an assassin if he had to be one too?
Justal crouched with the rest and waited for Scarlet and Ty'nel to come back. While they were gone he began thinking about what they were facing. A demon. He didn't think to much about what else they'd be fighting, e knew they could be defeated. But he wasn't so sure about the demon, or he wasn't sure of what it took to kill this demon and if they had it.
Tio'nel's back hurt. His feet hurt. And the dust made his nose itch.

Why am I doing this again? he asked himself. He answered his own question: Because I swore I would. He cursed inwardly. The Lady curse me for regaining my conscience!

He fidgeted as they waited for the thief. The straps on his backpack dug into his shoulders and his back ached from the strain. He felt naked with no armour and the worn mace at his side was so inadequate compared with what he was used to. He wanted to pace. Badly, but he dared not move from his vanguard position.

Come on, all ready, he thought, drumming his fingers on his thigh.

Instantly, Sergeant was next to him, one of his many, leathal claws mere inches from Tio'nel's neck. The Tiger-man scowled ferociously, silent in his warning.

Tio'nel scowled back. He disliked lurking in dark, creepy caves. It was undignified.

But, he nodded, ever so slightly, to acknowledge the warning. He scowled into the darkness behind the party, willing Ty'nel to hurry. He thought he almost felt something, but put it off to his nerves. He was so keyed up any sound seemed magnified a hundred-fold, and his body trembled for action.

Ty'nel tumbling from the hole startled the Knight-Cleric upright and he had to forcibly remove his hands from the mace. He obediently followed Sergeant and the others, clasping his hands to his pack straps to keep them from shaking.

Tio'nel frowned as Sergeant told them what they were to do. More dungeon-crawling, he thought with disgust. Frustrated, both with the mission and with himself, he stubbornly willed his mind back on task. Think of it as a special operations mission, he mused. Think of it as pest control. Aargh! This is no use. This is ridiculous! No job for a Knight. Relax, Tio'nel. You've had plenty of these types of jobs. By the Lady, what is wrong with me? Why'd I have to recover my scruples now?

Emeralda nudged Tio'nel. She gestured with her eyes. He nodded.

I'm coming, he grumbled.
         Ty’nel crouched beside the entranceway to the possible observation post and waited for the volatile whore to make her move. The shadow that was Scarlet made a scuffling noise with her boot before silently wedging herself above the floor. Ty’nel found a little niche with deep shadow beside the door and promptly crawled into it. A few moments later a sessel came out, scratching it’s behind, and peered sleepily about. Somehow Scarlet had braced her legs against something because she leaned at an acute angle to wrap her arms around the sleepy creatures head and neck. There wasn’t even time for the beast to start in surprise before Scarlet broke it’s neck with a dull cracking sound. The fledgling assassin hauled the body to the left before going back into concealment. Ty’nel saw her shift her position almost soundlessly until she was right above the archway. The second sessel came out, this time more alert, with his short sword drawn.          Scarlet slipped her strangling wire around his neck and hauled him off his feet. The little creature’s feet kicked furiously before Scarlet snapped it’s neck with a convulsive tug of the wire. Then the sessel’s legs only spastically twitched. A third sessel suddenly sprang from the Ty’nel’s door. Ty’nel took careful aim and fired both handbows. The miniature bolts lodged themselves at the base of the sessel’s skull. It amazed Ty’nel that the creature managed two more steps before collapsing as though it had no bones.
         The thief sighed tiredly as the others trotted to join them.
         This is way too much work for me, he thought despairingly.

****

         Jurrel carried the two corpses under his arms as the group marched into the wide cleft that had been opened in the wall behind the observation post. They stepped into a world of glowing blues and greens. Jurrel stopped and stared in wonder. He had never seen anything so beautiful in his life.
         “ Where is that light coming from? ” he asked, breathlessly.
         “ Moss, lichen, fungi, take your pick,” Kyle filled them in self-importantly.
         “ We do not have time for taking in the scenery,” the Sergeant growled as he sniffed the air,“ This way. ”
         The group had entered a small cave that had three entrances. The Sergeant led them into a tunnel that sloped downward. Holes, almost like primitive windows, opened up on the groups right into a pit that seemed bottomless.
         “ Jurrel, dump them,” the Sergeant ordered without stopping.
         Jurrel piled the corpses onto one another and tossed them through the next opening large enough. He had tossed them far enough that he could not hear their bodies striking any surfaces. It was a reminder that this place was probably as large and confusing as the Forests were to anyone not of the clans.
         The tunnel they were in narrowed until the group had to walk single file. They had only practiced this type of manuever a handful of times in the Keep but everyone took their assigned places. Scarlet was supposed to be taking the lead but the Sergeant had usurped that position. Justal was behind the Sergeant with Scarlet, Tio’nel, and Kyle behind him.
         Jurrel had the rearguard position and Emeralda was in front of him. The little thief was in front of Emeralda and looking like he wanted to be in the middle with Kyle.
         Then a scuffling sound behind them made the group stop in mid-step.
         “ What was that? ” the clansman heard Kyle whisper and someone promptly shut him up.
         Jurrel listened as hard as he could but he still heard nothing.
         “ Double time! ” the Sergeant suddenly exclaimed and the group continued down the tunnel at a fast trot.
         The pack on Jurrel’s back banged painfully against him as he trotted but he gave no complaint. He did not want to be sandwiched in the close confines of this tunnel if something decided to attack them. The Sergeant led them around a bend in the tunnel.
         Jurrel almost collided with Emeralda as everyone had come to a stop. The Sergeant’s muffled growls and grunts of exertion made Jurrel’s blood warm. The clansman turned and divested himself quickly of his burden. His shield and battle-axe came into his hands just as the first of his foes reached him. The creatures moved so fast Jurrel couldn’t get a clear image. They moved like wild, hairless dogs. They were not dogs though because dogs did not have eyes like the great forest cats and bug-like fronds coming out of their skulls. Jurrel could see their teeth....so many teeth.
         Jurrel grinned and stilled the urge to give a mighty bellow as he went forward to meet the first of them. It leapt at him and the clansman’s axe came up, then down in a brutal chop that cleaved it’s skull. Another darted under it’s dead packmates corpse before it could hit the ground and tried to bite Jurrel in the shin. Jurrel brought the point of his booted feet into the animals chin and cursed as he felt his toe break on it’s jaw. The animal howled in pain though as it crashed through a thin section of wall beneath one of the “windows” in the tunnel.
         His axe was in position again to strike down another beast when several of them went sailing out of the hole the last beast had made. Jurrel turned to Emeralda and gave her a savage grin. The little Sorceress smiled shyly in kind before a look of surprise came over her as a blurry shape ripped into her back from behind. Jurrel took one step before something hit him in the back. The clansman was a being of dense muscle and bone so he was not knocked from his feet by the blow. He turned and bashed the offending creature into the wall as it leapt again. Jurrel turned and watched in surprise as the beast that had attacked the Sorceress was torn apart in a bloody spray by unseen hands.
         Emeralda stood, her eyes glowing, and raised a hand towards Jurrel. The Sorceress screamed as one of the vicious creatures hit her from the side and into the already damaged section of wall. The entire thing collapsed beneath their weight and Jurrel watched in horror as the tiny woman disappeared into the darkness.
         Jurrel turned and furiously hacked at anything that came within range of his axehead. The weapon struck sparks from the stone and was probably on the verge of breaking but he did not care. Limbs flew and blood sprayed as he attacked the beasts just as viciously as they had attacked Emeralda.
         “ JURREL! ” her voice nearly knocked him over with it’s intensity.
         Something wrapped around his waist and Jurrel felt it go taut with strain. He looked down and his eyes widened in shock. It was Emeralda’s rope that had tied itself around his waist. He felt something else tug at the rope and turned just in time to see one of the beasts bite through the rope. He heard Emeralda scream just as he moved in one explosive motion. The world seemed to move so slowly as Jurrel decapitate the creature in one blow and lunge for the rope at the same time. Through it all he heard his companion scream.
Kyle struggled to stay alive as he struggled with an infuriating sense of familiarity. These creatures were familiar, he was sure he'd heard of them before. One leapt at his face and he dodged it in time so that it only managed to rake his arm. The pain was stinging, but not debilitating.

He knew he had to get out of the way, because fending for himself was not an option. After a quick glance around, he saw a niche and tucked himself in it. His attacker was now occupied with Sargeant, and paid no attention to the scholar.

His arm ached, he could feel the bloody dampness of his sleeve. He forced the pain to the back of his mind and tried to concentrate.

Finally it came to him. Dorin. He rushed to Sargeant's side, dodging blows as he went. "Light!"

"What?"

"They aren't used to it. The never go above the surface and their eyes have adapted. Even a relatively dark light will blind them."

Sargeant looked away to block a sword, then back at Kyle for a split second. "You fool, of course their vulnerable to light. So is just about everything else we'll meet. That's why we can't use it as a weapon." Kyle ducked a blow aimed at his skull, and Sargeant elaborated. "Look, if we use a torch or anything, reports will get back to our enemy that the creatures encountered surface dwellers. Then the sorceror will know where we are. As is, we have a chance that this will end up looking like just a regular skirmish with their neighbors."

As this insight sunk in, Kyle forgot to watch his surroundings. Sargeant drew back his arm to strike a blow, and the pommel connected with Kyle's temple. He fell to the floor in an unconscious heap.

------------------

The first thing Rain noticed when she woke was the intense pain in her head. She tried to stand, but discovered that her foot was trapped beneath a rock. Miraculously, it hadn't been broken.

She sighed and gave herself a quick once over to make sure she hadn't sustained any serious damage. She reached out with her mind and "felt" the rock. It wouldn't budge. A slow feeling of dread crept over her as she realized her head injury was the source of her failure. A quick test with a pebble reassured her that her talent wasn't gone, only weakened.

Then she heard movement behind her and realized that she was not alone.
Unlike Jurrel behind him, Tio'nel had no time to drop his pack. One step he'd been right behind Scarlet, the next overcome with leaping dog-monsters as he tried to sheild Justal long enough the boy could shoot the attacking creatures.

The Knight-Clerics rusty skills made his head ache furiously as all seven of his companions were attacked at once.

Where are the cursed things coming from? he thought.

They came in droves, packs, swarming the beleaguered group. In the dark, the even darker creatures could only be spotted by their eerily-glowing eyes and the soft swishing noise they made when they leaped at someone.

The narrow passage was filled with cries of pain, but Tio'nel couldn't spare the time, not and -- The mace in his hand snapped in two over the head of a beast.

"Aarrugh! @#$%!!!!" Tio'nel cursed bitterly, heaving the handle in his hand into the face of another of the creatures.

Somehow, a portion of his mind remained open to reflect, disgusted, at the incredible injustice of it all. Why -- why couldn't there have been real enemies? Why was he back here, busting his ass over four-legged fiends?

Duh!
he told himself, Because a frontal assault wouldn't work! We're trying to sneak in all quiet-like -- Well, obviously, it ain't working! snapped another part of his mind. Well, the Lady be praised, he's seen the light! Only taken the Lady knows how many hours! Sneaking through dungeons, murder - assassinations --

Tio'nel snarled, partly in surprise, partly in pain, but mostly in anger and frustration as the dog-beast he'd meant to kick dodged and bit him in the foot instead.

The Knight-Cleric ended up flat on his back, crushing the fragile portions of the contents. He cursed again, swinging his fists at those attacking. But the beast continued to drag him -- backwards, toward Jurrel and the others, snarling at him and chewing the hell out of his foot.

As they passed Ty'nel, Tio'nel was slammed with an agony so extensive he almost passed out. Concentrating hard, he pulled himself separate, immediately focusing his healing on Emeralda. Opening his eyes, he didn't see her --

But as he passed Jurrel, Tio'nel grabbed the big barbarian's boot, where the man lay belly-down on the floor.

By the Lady, Tio'nel cursed, What is going on?

Tio'nel clung to Jurrel's foot for all he was worth, kicking at the dog-beast with his uninjured foot and pouring as much strength as he could allow into the barbarian. And somewhere, in the back of his mind, he thought he heard hysterical laughing, but it made no sense and he had to wonder: Am I crazy?
         Ty’nel fought ferverishly through the nightmare he found himself in.
         These new monsters seemed to spring from the cursed rock around them. He couldn’t see them very well at all except for their eyes... and teeth. Ty’nel turned at the sound of a woman’s scream and felt his bowels go numb at the sight of Emeralda disappearing through a large gap in the wall. A low growl behind him was barely enough warning for the thief to duck and roll backwards beneath a springing beast. His hand whipped forward and the creature began thrashing around on the ground with the hilt of a throwing knife in it’s throat. Ty’nel stood and slashed a beast across the back that was about to lunge at the barbarian’s unprotected back while Jurrel hacked into it’s packmates.
         We’re all gonna die down here, he thought in numb disbelief.
         “ JURREL!! ” Emeralda’s voice roared back up from the pit and with it came the rope she had been carrying.
         Ty’nel watched in amazement as the rope snaked across Ty’nel’s waist and tied itself. The rope went taut and Jurrel was looking down at it in stunned disbelief when one of the dog-like creatures leapt at the rope. One of Ty’nel’s handbows was aiming at the beasts neck the second it was airborne. The trigger was pulled just as it’s deadly sharp teeth slashed through the rope. Jurrel dived, taking a swing at the already dead creature as it dropped lifelessly to the ground, and reached for the severed rope. His hand just snagged it and Ty’nel, against his normal behavior, let out a short victory whoop.
         Jurrel gave a pain-wracked cry as a hidden wolf-creature leapt from the shadow and ripped into his back as though it were digging for a bone. Jurrel’s hand involuntarily opened and the rope disappeared into the pit. Ty’nel raced forward, his teeth clenched in rage, and booted the monster off of the barbarian’s back. The beast was on it’s feet and leaping almost before Ty’nel kicked it. It got his other handbows bolt right in it’s eye. Ty’nel elbowed the heavy body aside so that it struck the wall with bone-breaking force.
         Now his damn elbow hurt.
         The things were really starting to piss him off.
         The old man was dragged past Ty’nel by one of the beasts. Tio’nel face was a mask of anguish, though Ty’nel wasn’t sure if it was because the beast was worrying his foot like an old bone, but he somehow managed to snag ahold of Jurrel’s foot. Ty'nel dropped his handbows and slashed the thing across the throat as it tugged at the cleric’s foot. It let go and Tio’nel promptly passed out.
         “ Ty’nel! ” Scarlet roared, her voice coming up behind him.
         Ty’nel half-turned and caught the hilt of one of her shortswords. Scarlet came to stand beside him with the small, scythe-like weapon in one hand and one of her long daggers held in a reverse grip in the other. With the shrill battlecry that was quickly becoming her signature, Scarlet charged half-dozen or so of the beasts that were left. Ty’nel shook his head, but his feet carried him behind her. He quickly found that his job was not to attack the creatures but to make sure none of them found the whore/assassin’s unprotected back. Finally, as Ty’nel drove the shortsword into the ribcage of an airborn wolf-beast, there were no more attackers.
         “ They have retreated. I need an injury tally! ” the Sergeant barked softly, his eyes large, shining discs.
         “ Emeralda’s dead,” Jurrel groaned, as he pushed himself up with his hands. The barbarian groaned as he rolled himself into a sitting position.
         “ What? ” the Sergeant asked in disbelief.
         “ She went out that hole,” Ty’nel said, nodded to it as he retrieved his handbows.
         “ Shouldn’t we be going? In case they come back? ” Kyle asked, nervously from where he had managed to stay out of the fray.
         “ We don’t leave our people behind,” to Ty’nel surprise it was the barbarian who said it.
         Scarlet laughed,“ What are we now? One big happy family?! ”
         Scarlet gathered her shortsword from Ty’nel and began quickly cleaning it with an already dirty rag. The whore let loose small bursts of laughter at Jurrel’s question. The Sergeant had quietly gone over to peer down into the pit. His lio’tar was held loosely in one hand and Scarlet almost snatched her shortsword back from him.
         “ I thought you didn’t care if we died,” Scarlet said, her voice cold and empty.
         The Sergeant turned to fix the whore with an almost sardonic expression on his face,“ I didn’t give her permission. ”
         The Sergeant dropped his lio’tar and promptly leapt backwards into the gaping emptiness of the pit. For several moments the group just stared blankly at the space the Sergeant had just occupied. Then, almost as one, they rushed to crowd around the hole in the wall.
         Ty’nel’s eyesight was good, but even he had trouble seeing down into the pit. There were patches of the light-making plants on the walls, but they were few and far between. Ty’nel looked down into the pit and saw shifting shadows that might have been the Sergeant and Emeralda. They all watched tensely as scuttling shapes along the wall cautiously circled the two. The larger shape lifted something up onto it and leapt at least four meters straight up. The shadow began climbing the wall much faster than even Ty’nel could, but the scuttling shadows climbed even faster.
         “ Justal! ” Ty’nel hissed and aimed a handbow at one of the chasing shadows.
         Before Ty’nel could fire his first shot, the Pliyian had two whistling through the air, and the Sergeant’s huge golden eyes were visible. Ty’nel pulled the trigger and then aimed with his offhand at another shape. He fired again just as the Sergeant pulled himself over the edge with a pale Emeralda on his back. The Sergeant picked up his lio’tar and gestured for them all to move.
         “ We have to find a place to rest. ”
         Ty’nel mind boggled at the thought of finding someplace to rest in the cursed place.

****

         Jurrel slowly slid the packpack over his raw back. The cleric’s magic had only partially healed him, leaving deep, half-healed furrows in his back, and the clansman found himself gritting his teeth against the pain.
         “ Ready? ” the Sergeant growled impatiently.
         Everyone nodded and the Sergeant set off at a slow jog for him. For the rest of them it was almost too much after their fierce battle. Tio’nel, older than the rest, seemed to move in a daze and was helped by the Pliyian. The boy had a bloody tear in one of his pant legs but he moved well despite it. Jurrel would die before letting a green warrior outlast him.
         Ty’nel and Kyle seemed unhurt. The Sergeant seemed as invincible as ever. Emeralda seemed to be clinging tightly to the Sergeant’s back. The wounds on her back looked as painful as Jurrel’s own. Scarlet was covered in blood and the clansman couldn’t tell how hurt she was, but she didn’t move as gracefully as usual.
         Jurrel’s mind wandered back to why he had objected to leaving Emeralda behind. Clan warriors were trained to not leave their battle-brothers behind, but these people were not clansman. Jurrel would have killed the old man on sight if they had met only ten years ago and the others would have just been easy pickings. Especially before any of them had been trained by the Marauders. Yet now he found himself reacting to the loss of one of them as though she were a part of his raiding party. It would have been funny if Jurrel hadn’t felt like he was turning into someone else.
         The Sergeant led them to the end of the tunnel and into a small cave with three other exits. Two seemed to lead further down while the third curved around in the general direction of the dungeon. The Sergeant sniffed the air and immediately headed for the tunnel that curved around. This tunnel led them into another small cave that only had two exits. One of them ended with a crack in the wall through which torchlight could be seen.
         “ Wait,” Kyle urged them, peering at what looked like another blanket of the light-making moss on the wall a short way down the other tunnel.
         “ What is it, weakling? ” the Sergeant asked impatiently.
         “ Look,” Kyle said, and swept the moss aside.
         The group looked into a fairly large cave that was occupied solely by a few mushroom clusters. A small pool of water rested in the center of the space and the air was very heavy with water.
         “ We can rest here,” Kyle said, all too pleased with himself.
         “ Are you sure? ” the Sergeant asked, warily peering into the cave.
         “ I’ve read about these in the journals of Imin Lefer. The moss seems to act almost with thought when it masks the presence of water sources for it’s own benefit. Some say that- "
         “ We rest here,” the Sergeant interrupted and bullied his way past Kyle.
         The Sergeant led them a ways into the cave and then around into a tiny corner where he laid Emeralda down. The little Sorceress thanked him in a tiny voice before propping herself up against the wall. The others lowered themselves gingerly to the ground, thankful for the rest, except the Sergeant.
         “ Stay here and start taking an inventory of what we have left. Somebody try to get the drunkard alert so he can be of use. Ty’nel, keep a sharp watch. I’m going to get some fire wood. Emeralda’s not in any shape to heat up a stone circle for us. ”
         “ Aren’t you worried about us escaping? ” Scarlet asked, though her heart didn’t seem to be in her nettling.
         The Sergeant turned to her with the look he had given her at the pit,“ Where would you go? ”
         The Sergeant left without a sound and Ty’nel followed closely behind him. Jurrel clamped his teeth against a groan as he slid his pack off and began unfastening it to take see what he had.
         Jurrel didn’t notice the satisfied little smile that had appeared on his face because this was the kind of life a clansman was supposed to lead.
Jurrel didn't like the way Scarlet's voice had sounded, weak and like it was coming from a distance. He scowled and walked over to her slumped form. "Scarlet, are you sure you're all right?...Scarlet?" He put a hand to her face and the skin felt like it was burning.

"Shit."

"What is it?" Kyle asked, making his own way over.

"Poison. Someone wake the cleric, or else we may be one person short when we move on."

"Hang on. We shouldn't wake him, he's too weak. Without a chance to regain his strength..."

"Shut up," Jurrel's voice was firm, with a hint of lethal, "And wake, the, cleric."

Rather than that, Kyle did his own inspection of Scarlet. He sniffed her wound and inspected it as well as he could in the vague luminosity. Then he nodded to himself, confirming his suspicions. "The els mushroom."

Jurrel glared, and began making his way over to where Tio'nel lay.

"No. Leave him. We can help her without him," Kyle whispered urgently, "We'll need him strong, and that'll never happen unless he gets rest."

"What do you know about healing, weakling?"

"Quite a lot, actually. I'm a scholar, remember. Now, do as I say and we can save her."

Jurrel paused, wavering between his own judgement and Kyle's.

---------------------

"I think he knows what he's talking about," Rain's voice came unexpectedly.

Jurrel hesitated a moment longer, then growled. "Fine, but work quickly. If you can do nothing, we still need to be able to wake the cleric in time."

"Good." Kyle turned from Jurrel, to Rain. "I need you."

She looked at him, her skeptical expression wasted in the gloom. "I'm no healer."

Kyle sighed in exasperation. "I know. How small can you manipulate?"

"What do you mean?"

"We have to get the poison out of her body."

"You can't be serious."

"I am. Hurry, we don't have time. The mushroom's toxin works quickly."

Rain hesitated, not liking the idea of another's life in her "hands". Then took a breath to steady herself. "Tell me what to do."
How long he was aware of the low voices nearby, Tio'nel didn't know, but he came abruptly to when someone tapped his shoulder.

It was Kyle. He looked haggard and tired, his eyes half shut, but he nodded over to where the Sergeant crouched by the door to their retreat. "Your watch," he said.

Tio'nel nodded. He sat up straighter as the scholar went and lay down. Tio'nel yawned and stretched, his muscles only slightly feeling the strain. He rubbed his shoulder absently, feeling for the deep lacerations that should be there.

Nothing.

He looked over at Sergeant. The Tiger-man nodded toward the rest of the group. "They elected to let you rest. Now we will watch."

Ah, thought Tio'nel. He moved slightly, to examine his foot. The wounds were mostly healed, but the foot was still very tender; all that was left of the boot was a thin circlet around his ankle.

Tio'nel scowled, then shrugged, forcing himself into a better mood. He cut lengths from his cloak to wrap around his foot, grimacing with the discomfort of the harsh cloth. He scooped up some water and washed his face and hands and he let a little trickle down his dry throat. Filling up his canteen, he sat back again and began to take stock.

The glass bottles, with their priceless medicines, were all broken and Tio'nel bit his lip in dismay. Only the smaller potions and salves, in the cruder containers, were okay. The rest of his healing kit remained intact, though most of the bandages were still wet from the broken bottles.

Tio'nel eyed those warily, about to throw them out, but he stopped, his eyes going to his sleeping companions. He'd been unable to heal them, that he knew, and their exhausted slumber was only broken by soft moans of distress. Rain, the closest to him, slumped awkardly, her lacerated back starting to ooze from the sores just beginning to heal.

With gentle hands, careful not to wake the woman, and not wanting to embarass her or cause her pain, Tio'nel stripped her of her shirt and tunic, cleansing the wounds and bandaging her with secure bonds against any movement. For a brief moment, he set both hands on her, feeling for internal injuries. There were none, he found, with relief, and dressed her once more.

He moved on to Ty'nel, asleep nearby. The thief woke instantly the moment the Knight-Cleric touched him.

"Remove your shirt," Tio'nel told him.

Ty'nel gave the old man a suspicious glare, but removed the shirt. Tio'nel took his arm and probed the elbow with quick, sure touches that made the thief hiss in pain. He watched as the cleric's eyes crossed momentarily, then noted with amazement that the pain in his arm, elbow, and should had dissipated to an ignorable amount.

"It will be weak," Tio'nel whispered. "I will do more later. Is there anything else?"

Ty'nel shook his head.

"Then sleep."

Leaving him, the Knight-Cleric made his way amongst the others, binding their wounds the best he could, giving a small 'pep,' as he called it, to speed the healing. When he reached Scarlet, his brow furrowed in consternation. Poison, was his first thought, but she was not fevered, nor seemed paralytic or anything else as obvious. He touched her, carefully turning her over to examine her other wounds. None were bad, and he bandaged them quickly with the last of the potion-soaked bandages. He touched her carefully, then, assessing the internal damage. There was nothing of the poison remaining, though she was weak, and he could clearly see the marks the poison had left.

Tio'nel poured a little more of his healing into Scarlet, but he dared not do too much. Who knew what they'd be getting into today?

Getting to his feet, the Knight-Cleric limped his way over to his pack. At Sergeants agreement, he started a small fire, just barely enough to boil water, so that he could make a rejuvenating tea. He stared into the bubbling water, musing.

"I offer only this: join my little band of adventurers, keep them alive, and bring back my prize and I will give you what you desire most."

That was what the mercenary lieutenant had offered, and only that. Why was it, then, that he felt so drawn to these people, these strangers only a few months ago?

Tio'nel shook his head, overcome with memories of other campfires, other friends and companions. He remembered the talking, the drinking, the laughing, and the kinship, and his heart beat a strange tatoo in his chest.

Yes, he thought to himself. I surely am crazy. But then he grinned, a lopsided grin that actually made him seem younger, and more human.

"What the heck?" he murmered. "Why not?"
         Jurrel fingered a tear in his chainmail covered bracer with a sneer before rising from his resting place. The clansman yawned mightily as he stared with blurry eyes around the small campfire that had been built in a corner of their shelter. Several of the others seemed to be in the same state as Jurrel. There was surprisingly little pain in his back as he stood and stretched to limber up his muscles. The others quickly joined him in limbering up for the trials ahead.
         The Sergeant crouched like a living statue near the entrance to the group’s hideaway. He had growled that they were moving out by the time the campfire died and that everyone had better be prepared. Jurrel checked his weapons over once more before placing them on his body. Everything seemed to be in good working order still. The clansman was checking his backpack over when Emeralda stopped in front of him.
         “ The Sergeant said you have something to replace this,” the small Sorceress held up her tattered leather jerkin.
         Jurrel looked up and saw that she was topless except for a narrow breastband. The once shy woman seemed totally comfortable with giving the big man a clear view of so much of her pale flesh. Jurrel nodded and took the torn jerkin from her. A quick search of his pack produced an overlarge homespun shirt that someone had sloppily fire-sealed links of iron rungs over.
         “ I failed you,” Jurrel said, as he handed her the shirt.
         She looked at him strangely as she was about to put on the attire,“ What? ”
         “ I almost let you die. I tried to save you but I failed. ”
         Emeralda’s head appeared above the collar of the shirt and she shrugged,“ You tried. That’s what counts. Thank you. ”
         The small woman turned away but Jurrel stood and put a hand on her shoulder. She turned and looked up at him without the nervousness and fear that he remembered,“ I will not let it happen again. I swear it. ”
         Jurrel held out his arm, palm out, to her and waited. Emeralda, after a moment’s confusion, plaed her small palm in his. Jurrel placed his fingers between hers and closed his hand. He squeezed, very gently, and nodded down at the Sorceress. She nodded back and the clansman let her hand go. That done, Jurrel put the torn leather jerkin inside the pack and slid the still heavy load onto his back. His back was only a little sore from the battle earlier. Tio’nel had probably healed the wounds while Jurrel had slept. The others looked slightly sore and tired but they prepared themselves quickly.
         By the time the fire had died down to coals the group was ready to go again. The Sergeant quickly disposed of the campfire and growled for them to take the Scout formation.
         Jurrel took his place, axe in hand, and followed their leader back towards their enemies heart.

***

         Ty’nel was once again at the front of their little group and resenting every minute of it.
         The Sergeant lead the way back through the tunnel and back into a place where things wanted to kill them specifically. It was a recipe for disaster if anyone had bothered to ask Ty’nel. No one had though and it looked like no one was going to.
         Scarlet brushed past him with a scowl on her face and disappeared into the shadowed contours of the tunnel ahead. The Sergeant had stopped by what looked like a small crevice that led back into the dungeon. Ty’nel sneered at the spot where Scarlet had disappeared and wondered why anyone would want to save the woman.
         The thief sighed, edging sideways through the crevice, and wondered when death would come to take them all.
Tio'nel limped painfully in his place in line. He ground his teeth together to keep silent and kept his eyes focused on the way ahead.

Where the tunnel split into three more branches, the Sergeant stopped. One was a mere crevice that Ty'nel slithered through. Scarlet paced off down the one on the right and after a whispered command to Justal, the Sergeant trotted down the other.

Jurrel, Tio'nel, Kyle, and Emeralda crouched down in the tunnel, watching in all directions. The seconds ticked by like hours until the others returned.

Ty'nel, the thief's face, hands and clothes smudged and torn, returned first. "I couldn't get through," he reported when the Sergeant joined them, "but I think it's another room like the other -- some sort of barracks. They didn't appear alarmed." He frowned, as though something bothered him, but he didn't know how to explain the feeling.

The Sergeant nodded curtly. With a gesture toward the tunnel leading straight, he murmered, "That way's a dead end. Underground lake. You?" His last was for Scarlet, just returned.

She knelt down on the ground and drew a small diagram. "It twists and turns for several hundred yards or so, then ends here, at a locked door." She looked up at them. "I took out the guard, but he had no key."

"Move out," ordered the Sergeant. "You first," he said to Scarlet and "Can you open the door?" he asked Ty'nel.

The thief shrugged. "Of course."

"Then get up there with Scarlet. You, Drunkard, you make too much noise. Drop to the back. Jurrel, you with him. Move."

The group obediantly traded places, keeping any grumbling to themselves.

As they trekked down the narrow tunnel, Scarlet and Ty'nel opened up the distance between them and the rest. The Sergeant, with Kyle, Justal, and Emeralda, followed after 10 feet or so, with Jurrel and Tio'nel lagging further behind to bring up the rear.

As they neared the place where Scarlet had indicated a map, Jurrel startled Tio'nel by giving a wild bellow and charging off into the darkness.

The Knight-Cleric squinted, but could make out nothing in the near-dark. He heard nothing, but increased his pace to a painful trot. "Jurrel?" he whispered.

Tio'nel slowed down again to a stumbling walk when he realized he could see nothing. The warrior Jurrel had disappeared, and there was now a low murmur from somewhere at the older man's back. He swallowed and licked suddenly dry lips.

The noise was closer now, and, as Tio'nel half-turned, trying to peer through the darkness, his foot slipped on a slanted surface and he began fall.

Waving his arms furiously, Tio'nel threw himself backwards, clawing for purchase in the dirt and stone of the tunnel corridor. Gasping for breath, he felt around him with one hand.

To his left, Tio'nel felt a huge, gaping hole, mere inches to either side of the tunnel walls. to Tio'nel's right was solid ground. Bracing himself, he carefully leaned over the hole. Some kind of trap, he thought.

The floor of the tunnel appeared to be hinged in the middle of the gaping hole, a vertical line blocking Tio'nel's view of the rest of the corridor ahead. Even as he watched, the floor righted itself, revolving so that the floor was once again horizontal.

Now the noise was even closer.

Hesitantly, Tio'nel pressed down on the floor to his left. It held. Must be weighted.

He pulled himself to his feet, grabbing three fist-sized chunks of rock. He hefted the first down the corridor, hoping Ty'nel or Scarlet or one of the others had gotten past the trap and could hear. He concentrated a moment on the other two rocks and pressed himself into the sides of the tunnel to wait.

He didn't have long. A pack of the dog-like creatures that had attacked, their eyes glowing in the darkness. Behind them came two sessels, and something, or someone, Tio'nel couldn't quite make out.

The dogs growled as they caught his scent and Tio'nel's body went cold, even as he began to sweat more profusely.

You there, come out.

Tio'nel shivered convulsively, barely restraining himself from obeying that unspoken command. He concentrated on the rock (Be one with the rock! his mind teased him) and gripped his crude missiles tighter.

Come forth!

That voice again. Tio'nel followed the thought to the will seeking to overtake his own. It was an old, old skill, one that Aleese had taught him when he was a boy, one she'd specifically told him never to tell anyone that he'd learned.

But he was clumsy, the other knowing instantly what Tio'nel attempted. They grappled, each trying to force his will upon the other. Tio'nel was the first to break free, gasping for breath, afraid from head to toe. Oh, Lady! he prayed, let that not be what I think it is!

Tio'nel burst from the turn in the corridor which had concealed himself, hurtling his stones toward that tall, cloak-enshrouded form. Both hit, drawing a muffled curse from the target, but that was not Tio'nel's concern of the moment. Taking a hasty step backward, he made a running leap across the pit-trap . . . .
         Ty’nel worked frantically at the lock in front of him as all around him the group battled. He heard Jurrel bellow his eardrum bursting warcry and the sound of the barbarian's axe striking solid flesh soon followed. Ty’nel worked as fast as he without taking his eyes off of the relatively huge keyhole in front of him. Several of his tools peaked out of the holes and he almost had the last tumblers in place.
         “ Where is the drunkard?! ” the Sergeant bellowed, just behind Ty’nel, the wind of his lio’tar passing caressing the back of the thief’s neck.
         The howl of one of the dog-beasts, an agonized howl, sounded just before something hit the heavy iron door with a wet thump.
         Don’t think, he thought, Just work.
         Click.
         The lock practically sprang open, the locking bar nearly smacking the thief in the forehead, and Ty’nel buried his shoulder in the door to push it open. Ty’nel was diving forward almost before the door was open more than a hair. Sparks flew as a short sword was swung into the door right where Ty’nel’s head had just been. The thief stood, a handbow coming into his grip, and fired a bolt right into the sternum of the sessel behind the door. Another came charging at him from the left and Ty’nel simply fired a bolt from his second handbow into the middle of that ones collar. The sessel slammed itself against the stone wall where it slid to the ground to began its death throes.
         “ Let’s go!! ” Ty’nel roared back through the doorway, keeping his eyes forward, and reloading his handbows.
         The wiry thief moved to the side as first Scarlet, then Kyle, then Emeralda, then Justal. The Sergeant came through next, carrying a dazed looking Tio’nel over his shoulder, and was closely followed by Jurrel. The barbarian hurled a lantern full of oil through the doorway, just as Justal loosed a penetrator back through the doorway, and Emeralda flicked a tiny ball of fire after the arrow.
         The hungry roar of flames was cut off as Jurrel and Justal shouldered the heavy door closed.


****


         “ Keep moving,” the Sergeant growled, still holding a groaning Tio’nel over his shoulder.
         Jurrel shook his head at the enfeebled old man and took his place as the rearguard once again. He was alone for a moment before Emeralda fell back to stride beside him. The group, too large and burdened with equipment to move quietly, fairly clanged their way down the rough-hewn tunnels that quickly became corridors.
         Within moments they were back inside the Keeps dungeon-proper. The Sergeant suddenly made a turn and soon enough the group was crouching in a dilapidated storeroom.
         “ Weakling, the map,” the Sergeant said, taking one of the glow rod from the little scholar.
         Kyle retrieved the map from his belt pouch and laid it out once more in front of the group.
         “ Where do you think we are, weakling? ” the Sergeant asked him, his shadowed features ominous.
         Jurrel watched while the pale scholar studied the map with a furrowed brow. After several long moments Kyle stabbed a finger down somewhere close to the place he said was where the Lieutenant had taken up residence.
         The Sergreant growled deep in his throat,“ We need to scout out this location before we move on to the place they call Home. This Sorceror and his pet demon might not be there but we need to find out. Scout Formation, keep it tight, and be sure of what your hitting. I know you all can not see as well as I in the dark. ”
         The Sergeant stood and placed the rod in Kyle’s belt to cool,“ Time to go. ”
         Scarlet held her valin close to the blade, her hand slightly unsteady, as she stood flattened in the darkened corner of a tunnel intersection. She did not hold her breath, that would only make it all the more difficult to suck to fight if she needed to, instead she breathed through her nose. Slow, relaxed breaths in time with the noise those she hoped to evade made.
         Then they were in sight and Scarlet unconsciously tried to wiggle back further behind cover. A full squad’s worth of sessel’s marched past her, an undisciplined march to her eyes, but they all moved as though being sheparded. Scarlet saw the shepard and had to struggle to keep her breathing nice and paced.
         This thing looked like the giant cousin of the sessels. It’s head looked almost exactly identical except for the fact that it’s eyes were huge and round like a cat’s. Its body was as muscled as the sessel’s body’s were wiry. The creature was dressed in finer looking, though still rusty in spots, long chainmail shirts. The shirts reached down to their knees and it looked to Scarlet like that was the only covering they wore except for maybe some kind of groin-covering underneath the chainmail. Their biceps were all decorated with bronze armbands with deadly looking iron spikes protruding from the back. Each of the brutes wielded a shortsword and a crude version of Scarlet’s valin. Those crude valin’s were made of bone, but they also had a hard knob opposite the curved stabbing weapon that was probably used as a cudgel. Scarlet may have seemed impervious to fear to the others, and it was true enough many times in the heat of battle, but she dreaded testing her mettle against those foes.
         When she could no longer hear then, and felt enough time had passed, the assassin-in-training skidded a pebble back down the way she had come. All along the tunnel arose her companions in the madman’s quest. This was the third time they had been forced to go to ground because of patrols. The Sergeant said that this meant that their prey was close and they in turn were getting close. That little speculation had done little to put the group at ease.
         How’s anyone supposed to react to the news that a powerful Sorceror and his little pet demon were nearby? Scarlet thought angrily, the ever-present rage boiling to the surface.Damn the Captain for sending us here!! Damn those mercenaries for capturing me in the first place. And damn the gods for abadoning me so long ago!!
         Scarlet silently admonished herself for the errant thought about the unfairness of her situation. She had long ago vowed never again to wallow in such... unproductive self-pity. She looked to her left and saw the Ty’nel emerge from somewhere above the floor in one of the impossible places the thief seemed to find so easy to hide in. It made Scarlet burn with envy and that in turn made her angry that she was envious of anyone.
         For so long she had been one of the best at her chosen profession. She was not used to feeling as though she were less than someone. The Sergeant gestured for Ty’nel to take the lead and the man... flickered was the only word Scarlet could come up for the way the thief was there one moment and then not. It wasn’t magic, her bastard trainer had told her, but a skill bordering on otherworldly. Scarlet growled mentally and did her best to keep track and keep up with Ty’nel. The two played a game of follow the leader almost until they were one turning and an large open area away from where the area marked as Home.
         Scarlet was right behind the thief, looking over his shoulder, as they both peered around the the corner of this last intersection. There was little cover once they had to abandon the smaller side corridors. There were evenly spaced braziers up and down every wide avenue they had come to. Scarlet was sure she could find ways to hide, as would the Sergeant and Ty’nel, but the others would definitely not.
         A small smirk formed on her face. If only they would get themselves killed. Then all I’d have to do is find a way out. Right, easy as pie.
         The Sergeant came up on both of them without making a sound, something that threatened to unhinge Scarlet everytime it happened, and she very nearly attacked him with the valin she still clutched in her hand.
         “ Both of you,” the Sergeant ordered them quietly,“ Scout it out. Look for places we can hide if a patrol comes through. Get back here after you scout out the big chamber. We can plan from there if there are no problems. ”
         Scarlet nodded, drawing a shortsword in her opposite hand, and scuttling into the corridor. She was making steady time when a blur passed her by with a barely audible scuffing sound. The talented assassin-in-training had located where the source of the sound had gone and her head immediately oriented on it. Ty’nel crouched in a shadowed hole in the ruinous stone wall with both of his little handbows at the ready. With a wink and a tight grin he was dashing off to another hidehole he had spotted. Scarlet sneered and hurried after him.
         The section of corridor leading to the large chamber had to have been at least two hundred meters long. Thankfully it was filled with a large number of places to hide that the rest of the group could take advantage of. Then Ty’nel stopped at few meters from the entrance of the chamber, laying belly-down in a shallow indentation in the floor, and Scarlet crawled on her own stomach to lay beside him. She saw immediately why he was laying there without making a sound. There was the obvious reason of the two king-size sessels standing to either side of the entryway. Scarlet couldn’t see them, but she could see the shadows cast by braziers that they probably stood next to like idiots, and the fact that they smelled worst than either she or Ty’nel.
         The more serious problem was what was going on in the chamber ahead of them. Sessels, and their giant cousins, of varying sizes toiled in the chamber. The chamber itself was much larger than the map indicated. Scarlet couldn’t see the other end but she could see fires there. There were small dens of rock scattered throughout the chamber as well as larger ones presumably for the larger, sessel-like creatures. None of the creatures in the chamber were armed with weapons that Scarlet recognized and she could only conclude that this was at least part, if not all, of these creatures' tribe. There was no way they could pass through this place without raising an alarm.
         Ty’nel touched her arm, she almost snapped at him, but stopped when he pointed back behind them. They both edged backwards on their hands and knees until they were a good ways back down the coridor. Ty’nel pointed and Scarlet nodded as she saw the grate in a small alcove on their right. The thief seemed to love crawling around in tight, enclosed spaces.
         The two hurried back to the Sergeant to make their report. Scarlet was more winded than she would have liked, the effects of the poison she knew, but so was Ty’nel by the look of him.
The Sergeant himself seemed to be starting to show signs of tiring. The Tiger-Man’s eyes had lost a bit of their luster she had begun noticing. He still moved and spoke as though he were tireless though.
         “ Report,” he beckoned them, all three crouching down in the shadows.
         “ It’s some kind of communal center,” Scarlet began.
         “ Guards posted at the entrance and maybe scattered within, we couldn’t be sure,” Ty’nel continued.
         Scarlet nodded at the thief,“ No way around the guards and the traffic is very thick inside the room. ”
         Ty’nel nodded back at Scarlet,“ They all looked unarmed and would probably run away at the sight of armed humans and a Tiger-Man. ”
         Scarlet sneered,“ Right to warn whoever their leader is. ”
         The Sergeant growled,“ Did you see any other way? ”
         Both of them were silent before another growl prompted Ty’nel to speak,“ There looks to be a service grate that leads someplace beneath the corridor. Probably drainage tunnels or something that run under the entire place. ”
         The Sergeant thought for a moment before speaking,“ Alright. Both of you go this time. Find out if this Sorceror and his pet demon are here. We will wait here for you. As soon as you confirm their location you two get back here. We will find a way out of this hellpit and your mission will be completed. ”
         “ What about the commission for the prisoners? ” Scarlet spoke up, thinking only of the gold.
         “ Your compassion speaks much for you, Scarlet, but we can not complete our primary goal if we all die trying to free prisoners. ” the Sergeant said, actually hearing him using her name brought a feeling of accomplishment and a surge of pride, something she had swallowed many times in the past along with other... things.
         An angry retort almost made its way free but the feeling of accomplishment blocked it and she only nodded.
         “ Go fast and go quiet. Go! ” the Sergeant said, before turning to tell the others the plan.
         Scarlet and Ty’nel made their way quickly back to the grate in the alcove. Ty’nel pried the grate loose with hardly a sound and gestured for Scarlet to precede him.
         “ Ladies first,” he said with a small grin.
         Scarlet snorted, but slithered through the opening on her belly with her weapons leading. The first thing Scarlet was aware of was the smell and then she was sliding headfirst into darkness. The sliding tunnel ended quickly though as it deposited her on a slick surface that she desperately tried to cling to. Finally she managed to jam the end of her valin into a crevice in the slime-covered floor. One of her legs dangled off of the edge of a space that could have been forever for all Scarlet knew. She heard Ty’nel sliding down the tunnel and almost called out for him to be careful. Instead she tried to get into a better position to catch him should he fall. There would be a better chance of her surviving this little adventure if she had someone to take the fall when it really counted. She was surprised when Ty’nel shuffled out of the little tunnel with his hands and feet braced against its sides.
         Clever, she thought despite herself, I’ll remember that next time.
         Ty’nel stood and took out his only glowrod. Scarlet followed his example and within moments they could see where they were. It looked for all the worlds like some kind of sewer. The ceiling was well over their heads, the walls cobblestoned and slick with slime, and a drainage ditch filled with disgusting looking water behind them. Scarlet shivered when she though about how close she had come to falling into the ditch. There was no telling how deep it was and there was no way she was treading water with so many weapons on her. The two stood on a fairly wide ledge that continued both ways down the tunnel. Further to their right they could see a wide intersection in both the ditch and the ledges. That was the direction of the living chamber and thier quarry.
         “ Let’s get this over with. ” Scarlet said, aching all over from the aftereffects of the poison.
         Ty’nel nodded and the two walked along the edge to scout out the base of their enemies operation. The tunnels were fairly simple in design. Each seemed to lead to a different area of the base. Each tunnel then branched off to different places in that area in a fairly methodical, left and right, configuration. At the end of those branching tunnels would inevitably be a small waterfall of sewage from a pipe and a service ladder that led to a small alcove with a grate. Scarlet and Ty’nel had explored all the branches in the left tunnel and now they were on the last in the right. It looked like, of course, that their prey was going to be found straight ahead.
         Scarlet was laying on her belly observing the goings on of a small, darkened chamber when she felt a presence coming up the ladder. Before she could turn around to see what was going on, she felt Ty’nel laying down on top of her. She could feel him pressing himself against her and one of her long-awaited fears was finally being realized. The former whore, jaded by occupation, had wondered how long it would take before the men in their company tried to force themselves on the women. She had thought it would have happened when both she and Emeralda were relatively unschooled in the arts of warfare.
         Fortunately everyone, especially Jurrel, had been kept too busy and exhausted to entertain such thoughts. It seemed though that their situation had spurred Ty’nel to attempt this even though she could kill him in an instant.
         “ Wha-?! ” she began furiously as she started to struggle.
         Somehow one of his hands snaked it’s way around to wrap around her waist and another covered her mouth. It was grimey and she wrinkled her face in disgust.
         “ Quiet,” he hissed in her ear, turning her head to face towards the tunnel,“ Or we’re both dead. ”
         Scarlet then noticed that Ty’nel had made his glowrod disappear. Then she heard it, though she wanted her ears to be liars, and became as quiet as a mouse. Something was breathing, heavy, wet breaths, and walking through the drainage ditch toward them. It was big, judging by it’s breathing, very big. Scarlet could hear the waters of the drainage ditch sloshing against the sides of the tunnel. Then she smelled it, something so rank as to make even the sessels behind them pause as it presumbaly filled the room, there was muted barking as the room was evacuated but the two Marauders had no easy exit.
         Scarlet’s eyes widened as she got a glimpse of a glowing red eye atop a massive head that topped an equally inhumanly muscled body. The hand clutching her stomach squeezed a little tigher and Ty’nel wiggled against her as if unconsciously trying to bury them both in the stone beneath Scarlet. Normally the contact would have infuriated the woman, but now it Ty’nel presence, as wiry as it was, was oddly comforting. Ty’nel moved his hand from her mouth and took his long knife from his mouth. The thief held it in a reverse grip against the floor as the beast let loose a thunderous roar that vibrated the stone beneath Scarlet. It moved with lightning speed and ducked it’s head down into the drainage ditch.
         Something squealed and struggled as it was pulled from the muck. Something that must have been big judging by the splashing and a predator judging from the roars. Scarlet was really glad neither of them had ever fallen into the murk now. Finally the beast with the glowing red eye won the conflict and began eating it’s prey as it turned and plodded slowly away. Ty’nel and Scarlet were both disinclined to leave their positions for a long time after the sounds of it disappeared. Then Ty’nel silently got off of her and scuttled back down the ladder. Scarlet followed him and took out her glowrod.
         The floors and ceiling were coated in a brackish smelling, greenish fluid that was probably the blood of one of the monsters. The one that had lost most likely.
         Scarlet turned to the thief, who was peering back down the tunnel,“ Thanks. For warning me. ”
         Ty’nel turned back to Scarlet and his eyes widened slightly as he looked at her heaving chest.
         “ You’re not getting that in return you little-” she began venomously just as Ty’nel long knife flashed and ripped something from her chest that hit the wall with a wet splat.
         Scarlet looked and gasped at the creature that had obviously been hooked to her breast. It looked like a mean mix between a crab and a spider. The jagged knives it had for legs did not give Scarlet confidence as to it’s benign intentions.
         “ Let’s go,” Ty’nel said, his face and voice emotionless, where as before he had seemed to welcome her company on their little mission.
         Scarlet cursed herself because now she owed two men for saving her life. What could happen that was possibly worse than that?

***

         Ty’nel led the way up the last tunnel they had to check. He had no idea why he had not only saved the venomous whore’s life once but twice even. It was probably because it was easier doing things like this with someone who was at least fairly competent and could take some of the risks. He still didn’t trust her very much though, but she probably trusted him even less.
         This tunnel didn’t seem to have any side tunnels and instead ended at a spectacularly wide water fall under some kind of scaffolding. Ty’nel climbed the rusty ladder up to it and discovered a low, wide tunnel that sloped upwards. Scarlet joined him and seemed to want to follow his lead.
         Ty’nel gave a mental shrug and shimmied his way up the tunnel. Scarlet soon joined him and together they climbed upwards for what Ty’nel though was at least fifty meters. They reached a grate though and found themselves overlooking a scene out of someone’s worst nightmares.
         The pair were above three concentric circles, each deeper than the last, and a huge brazier filled with green fire of all things stood in the deepest. Figures, of all shapes and sizes, were impaled along the borders of each circle. Ty’nel thought he even saw a few sessels and the giant cat-eyes sessels on the stakes. Several of the figures actually jerked spastically as though they had been freshly impaled. Bloody trails covered the entire macabre scene before them but the real horror lay in the center circle.
         A man-shaped figure, cloaked in robes that seemed to gather the shadows, stood on a raised throne before the brazier. A huge skull adorned the top of this thrown and it seemed as though it would engulf any who sat in the throne if it so chose. The figure on the throne laughed and gestured with his finger. One of the jerking victims exploded in a fiery white light. An inhumanly deep, throaty laughed issued from the smoke above the green fire. The smoke cleared slowly and Ty’nel’s eyes widened in disbelief at what he had heard but was actually seeing.
         A... demon... floated above the brazier, wreathed in the green flames and smoke, and talked to the cloaked man. It seemed to have thick, bull-like, blue-black skin and an elongated parody of a man’s face. There was a short, lizard-like tail on it’s rear end and it had almost horn-like ears protruding from the side of its head.
         “ So, tell me, Ilmon,” the voice of the demon made sweat burst from every part of Ty’nel’s body,“ How goes your campaign? ”
         The cloaked figure shrugged,“ Well, thanks to your powers, though these Marauders are proving more trouble than their worth. ”
         “ I thought this...man,” the demon said that worth with so much contempt that it practically licked Ty’nel,“-you fear so much was off chasing another of my brethren you have one to your cause. ”
         The cloaked figure growled,“ I do not fear the Harbinger. I simply know, from experience, what he is capable of. Him and that bitch Necromancer of his. And you had best handle her powers carefully my friend. She is far more powerful than she would have others believe. ”
         The demon laughed his terrible laugh again,“ She is not as powerful as you believe. How else would I know about their little scheme? ”
         The demon turned in the smoke then, his head raising, and he fixed gleaming, yellow eyes on the both of them.
         Ty’nel slid on his belly down the tunnel and grabbed Scarlet’s foot on the way. She made no protest and within moments both of their feet hit the scaffolding. Ty’nel turned to go down the letter when he heard Scarlet growl in good imitation of the Sergeant. The thief looked down the ladder and swallowed hard to contain the fear that threatened to make his bowels loose.
         They were surrounded.
         Sessels, their giant cousins, and what looked like a pack of those wolf-beasts, waited for them on both sides of the waterfall and below the ladder. Ty’nel almost did loose control of his functions when the sessel at the bottom of the ladder spoke.
         “ Drop....wea-...-pons,” it said quite clearly.
         Ty’nel was debating when he heard something clatter to the scaffolding floor behind him. He turned and watched in disbelief as Scarlet began removing her weapons. He followed suit and only wished he had the courage to dive into the water to escape.
         When a sessel accidentally fell in and never surfaced the feeling quietly subsided.

***

         Jurrel shifted his position to relieve some of the tension in his aching feet and ankles. They had been waiting for what seemed like an eternity and it looked as though Ty’nel and Scarlet would never return. The clansman clutched his axe tightly as they continued to wait.
         The Sergeant stood from his hiding place and moved swiftly to Jurrel’s side.
         “ They have been gone too long,” the Sergeant said, his voice almost worried.
         Jurrel nodded,“ What do we do now? ”
         The Sergeant’s upper lip curled slightly, exposing the sharp fangs on that side of his mouth,“ I am going to find out what happened to them. Tell the others. I will be back shortly. ”
         Jurrel nodded and turned away from the Sergeant to tell the others. Light suddenly flared in the tunnel, making Jurrel instinctively shield his eyes, and died down until it was only no longer blinding. The clansman uncovered his eyes and prepared to fight to the death as he got a glimpse of that which lay before him.
         The rest of the Seekers were held captive in the arms of the giant sessels that the whore had told them about. Emeralda was unconscious in the arms of one of the brutes. Jurrel turned and found the way blocked by more sessels and their giant brethren, but there was no sign of the Sergeant.
         “ Drop... weapon... us... kill... them,” a shaky voice called out from behind them.
         Jurrel turned and watched as a sessel gestured and one of the huge beasts held Emeralda toward him by her neck and shook her like a ragdoll. The urge to fight his way to a glorious death befitting a warrior was strong within him for a moment, especially when he realized they were all likely to die anyway, but then he remembered the promise he had made to Emeralda.
         With a disgusted growl, Jurrel dropped his weapons, and raised his arms in the air.
Rain sighed. Yet again, caught and trussed. The special helmet they'd put on her chafed and limited her to tunnel vision. She peered at her companions.

Some were fidgeting, namely Scarlet, and some were simply sitting motionless. Kyle busied himself with examining the room and its devices, seeming particularly interested in the door.

Rain sighed again and laid her head against the wall, it made a dull twang.

---------------

Kyle remebered something the others seemed to have forgotten, Sargeant was not caught yet. The likelihood that they had captured him and brought him to another holding place was slim. Possible, but slim. The sessels didn't do much in the way of strategic planning. However, their "shepherds" might...

Kyle gave a mental shrug, no use thinking about maybes. He had to both assume he was caught, and assume that he was not. If they were ready for either, they just might make it.

The door swung open and a creature walked in. Kyle quickly searched his mental encyclopedia and provided the name, Yuirlin. This was his first look at one, up close and he felt his stomach turn. It was the color of a yellowed bruise and had all manner of proturbences along its flesh, like whiskers, they sensed the creatures' surroundings. It was covered in thin skin and seemed to be...leaking at random places on its body. It gave off a strong lakeish smell, stagnant water and decomposing fish.

It quickly surveyed the prisoners, then spoke...
. . . "You are my prisoners," rumbled the yellow fiend, rubbing his? her? . . . well, anyways, its hands together.

The way the fiend stared at him made Justal want to throw up.

"Well, duh!" hissed Scarlet, just loud enough to be heard by Justal's quick ears.

"You have trespassed . . . "

Another soft curse.

" . . . And you will be punished. My master has something special planned. For each of you."

Justal concentrated on not being noticed, something he'd always just seemed to know to do, and was both ashamed and relieved when the fiend's gaze moved past him, to fix on Tio'nel.

Despite himself, Justal frowned, and tensed. He should be first! It should be him! Couldn't he see that he, Justal of Mnimia, son of Jonal and Slafiah, be tortured first? After all, HE was famous. Of course, Justal thought bitterly, it was only a fiend, after all. One couldn't expect a creature such as that to know of him. Still, it was rather depressing.

" . . . My master shall have dealt to you such punishments as you have never before felt," the fiend was saying. "You shall wish your death long, long, long before my master is through with each, and every, one of you." It laughed, a harsh sound that echoed around the room.

Justal fought the urge to be sick.

"Sadly," began the fiend once more, "I shall not have the privilege of dealing with all of you. No," it licked its lips, "for I have been given a special treat." The fiend gnashed its teeth together, gazing hungrily at the old man, the drunkard and healer. It stared back around the room at the rest of the party. "I shall enjoy watching you die."

As soon as the yellow, whiskery puddle of goo had left, Justal collapsed by himself in a corner. He wrapped his arms around his long legs, pressing his forehead against his knees. I'm too young to die! I'm too young to die!

His heart pounding a mile a minute, he let himself wallow in self-pity and panic for a moment before he forced himself to regain control. Don't be a fool! he snapped to himself. If you die, die with honor. Die a death that will be spoken of back in Pliyia. Do not die the fool everyone thinks you are.

* * *


Tio'nel was bound and gagged the instant they were captured. In fact, he would reflect later, they woke me from a very pleasing dream!

At least he'd had enough time to heal his poor feet, though wandering around a dungeon without any shoes hadn't done much for the still-tender skin. Other than that, he really had only one other concern: that creature in the passageway. There was perhaps only one species that Tio'nel had absolutely nothing but fear for. He'd only ever run into one, and he prayed that that creature in the passage was not what he thought it was.

He took his seat in the holding room, grateful to take his not-inconsiderable weight off his poor feet. Bowing his head and closing his eyes, he prayed, silently, desperately . . . Let it not be!

The Knight-Cleric didn't have to look up to know that his prayers had gone unanswered -- his greatest fear come true. A Yuirlin. Its slithery mind pressed against his and despite himself, Tio'nel flinched. By the Lady!! he wailed inwardly, the monster's laughter reverberating in his skull.

Tio'nel's hands began to shake and he pressed them into the wall he leaned against, taking deep, (hopefully) calming breaths. Still whispering prayers, Tio'nel steeled himself to sleep, as much he could, for when the torture started, he'd need all his strength.

* * *


Justal couldn't believe it. He'd gone to sleep! He stared at the old man, horrified. Didn't he know what was going on here?!! And what was he doing? Sleeping!

The boy moved to wake him, but Emeralda's hand on his arm stopped him.

"No." Across the tiny room, Kyle chimed in.

"Leave him be," Jurrel agreed.

"Why?" Justal fought the urge to scream.

"We will need him to keep us alive," drawled Scarlet, scowling at him.

"I think, I think he and that Yuirlin, that's that yellow thing," explained Kyle, "know each other."

"They're bound to take him first," said Ty'nel, silent up til now. "He's a magic user. Even without their 'knowing each other,' they'd take him first, cause he can heal US. You know, keep us alive."

"We should all sleep," rumbled Jurrel. He smiled slightly, nodding (Was that with RESPECT? Justal wondered) toward the drunkard as the old man began to snore.

"Ugh!" Justal grunted, moving away.

As if I could sleep, he fumed, beginning to pace.

And, despite their brave faces, the others didn't seem to be sleeping either; except maybe Emeralda. It was hard to tell what she was doing inside that helmet.

Justal fretted himself into exhaustion, then slumped against a wall, pillowing his head on his knees. The heavy hand on his shoulder made him jump.

Jurrel smiled encouragingly at the boy. He's so young, he thought, saying aloud, "We will be all right."

Scarlet grunted, turning her back on them.

Justal bit his lip to keep from, unheroically, bawling his eyes out. He nodded his head in thanks, then, his eyes widening in horror, he stared at the door, as it slowly began to creak open . . . .
         Ty’nel feigned sleepy disinterest as the door opened to reveal one of the sessel-brutes with that nasty glob of slime resting on his shoulder. The slimeball seemed to ooze and loose shape except around the two evil crimson eyes. It looked as though it had two arms and four legs but the thief couldn’t be sure as the mass of gelatinous goo fairly quivered in depraved delight.
         The Yuirlin barked sharp orders in the tongue of the sessel and the sessel-brute it rode stepped back. Sessel-brutes, nearly as heavily muscled as Jurrel, stepped into the room to collect their captives one by one. Scarlet fought furiously, biting and trying to headbutt her attackers in their snouts, while they simply huffed laughter at her ineffectual efforts. Everyone else went with little trouble, shuffling out on manacled feet, their hands bound in front of them. Jurrel could barely move with the lengths of chain around his feet and the heavy
iron of the manacles on his hands.
         The group was led down a corridor, line with doors to other cells, as poorly lit as most of the corridors they had been down. The screams of animals and intelligent creatures alike burst forth from every cell. Some sounded as though they were starving, others as if they were being tortured... while some were the screams of the deranged. Then a human hand, bearing a small glint of copper on the index finger, was thrust through the barred doors of a cell on his left.
         “ Help us!! I beg of you, mercenary, help us!! ” Ty’nel got a good look at a dirty face with the undeniable look of a noble of Tyj about him.
         “ How much?! ” Ty’nel shouted as they slowly walked down the corridor.
         “ Wha-?! ” the man sounded confused, then frightened as one of the sessel-brutes smashed his mace against the bars of the door.
         “ How much to free you!? ” Scarlet roared at the man, trying to be heard as the distance widened between them.
         “ A hundred Loriean silvers!! ”
         It was only worth a measly ten High Plains gold jits, nowhere near the King’s ransom the thief had had in Tyj, but it was a start.
         “ We’ll be right back!! ” Jurrel yelled back towards the imprisoned noble.
         The Yuirlin cackled in evil glee,“ Keep thinking that, you stupid skinwalkers, though I won’t be able to call you that for long.,” the Yuirlin’s mount came up beside Tio’nel and it actually reached down and caressed the man’s face,“ And I have something extra special planned for you, Knight-Cleric! ”
         Tio’nel shuddered and Ty’nel could understand the emotion after hearing the madness in that cooing voice.
         The prison corridor opened up directly into the center of the demon-pit that Ty’nel had seen earlier. The thief could practically feel the horror and fear rolling off of the others in his little group. The Pliyian boy leaned over and was promptly sick all over the floor.
         Ty’nel carefully moved to avoid it, only to have Kyle follow suit, and puke all over his shoes. The thief grimaced in distaste as the haft of a mace was pushed into his back to keep him moving. Ty’nel studied the pit and decided it was even more horrific from this viewpoint. Blood from the poor fools impaled around the pit ran down into the center in macabre crimson rivers. Ty’nel stepped over over a thin one, still moving sluggishly, and followed it to the twitching body of a sessel-brute. Ty’nel looked away with a disgusted grimace as the sessel-brutes anguished eyes turned to him. What the thief’s eyes fixed on was even worse than what he had turned from.
         The demon’s glowing yellow eyes took them all in as a group and promised terrible fates without a word spoken. Ty’nel felt himself sweating profusely and his bowels felt almost instantly looser. There was no way that he was going to give into the urge to sob like a child and he was surprised that none of the others did, especially Kyle and Justal.
         “ What Spirit-forsaken, warty ass did you get dropped out of?! ” Jurrel shouted with feigned incredulity.
         Spikes of hardened goo sprang from the Yuirlin’s skin as it sputtered in outrage,“ You...dirty....smelly... ”
         The demon reared back in surprise at such insolence but remained silent. Laughter, dark, reverberant, rolled over them from the other side of the brazier. The captives were brought before the Yuirlin’s master’s throne and forced onto their knees.
         Ty’nel thus found himself face to face with the fiend that had been trying to kill them for the better part of a day. Well, not really face to face, since the bastard had his face covered by the dark shadows cast by his cowl. The figure gestured languidly to the Yuirlin and the creature leaped, much farther than Ty’nel would have given it credit for, across the dias and onto it’s masters shoulder.
         The evil Sorceror leaned back in his throne and Ty’nel could feel his pleased grin even though his face was hidden,“ So these are the best that my enemies had to send against me? How... disappointing. ”
         “ You’re not exactly awe-inspiring. My mother makes a more impressive sight. ” Jurrel said, sounding as if he were taking his leisure at a dingy tavern.
         Scarlet barked laughter while the sessel-brutes stirred uncomfortably. Ty’nel kept silent and discreetly studied the place. There had to be way to save his own neck.
         The Yuirlin spoke up, sputtering with rage,“ We’ll see how sharp that tongue is when it’s lying on the floor. ”
         Jurrel chuckled,“ For a pile of yellow shit with no mouth you sure talk alot. ”
         The Yuirlin turned a livid shade of purple then,“ Let me kill him now, master. Have you ever seen a more arrogant bastard in your entire life!? ”
         “ Relax, Munbidi. Let’s start with the usual. Start on the one with the smart mouth. ”
         The Yuirlin chuckled and began rattling off phrases to the sessel-brutes holding them. Two sessel-brutes held Jurrel’s arms out from his sides while another hurriedly cut Jurrel’s jerkin and shirt into shreds. Bloody scratches from the sharp blade oozed blood across the barbarian’s lightly furred chest as the sessel-brute stepped behind him. The two holding Jurrel’s arms leaned him forward so his back presented a nice angle for the sessel-brute behind him.
         “ I want them all to watch, Munbidi, ” the Sorceror’s voice said with sick joy.
         The little pile of slime began barking orders and Ty’nel felt his head gripped between a pair of wreaking palms. The hands kept his hands straight and his vision focused on Jurrel’s exposed back. The sessel-brute brought the already blodied knife down to gently rest the edge against the upper shoulder of the barbarian. Jurrel didn’t let out a gasp or whimper as enough pressure was put on the blade to draw blood. The sessel-brute drew the blade down in almost a straight line down to Jurrel’s lower back. Then the beast moved the blade sideways, then back up the opposite side, and then back across until the barbarian’s entire back was outlined by the long cut.
         “ I want them to watch!! ” the Sorceror actually sounded petulant, almost like a child,“ Munbidi!! ”
         Orders were barked against and this time thick, grubby fingers forced Ty’nel’s eyelids apart. The sessel-brute had continued his oddly delicate, if grotesque work, by dividing the outline into thin bloody columns. Still, Jurrel made not the slightest move, let loose not the tiniest of gasps, as his back was divided into bloody strips.
         The sessel-brute cleaned his bloody knife with a dirty rag and sheathed it at his waist. It was then that Ty’nel noticed, with terrified fascination, this lackey had a myriad of sharp instruments around his belt. The torturer removed a pair of tiny tongs from his belt and lifted the edge of the strip closest to Jurrel’s left shoulder. With excruciating slowness the torturer peeled back the strip with a horrid sucking sound that made Ty’nel shudder in fearful anticipation.
         The only acknowledgement of Jurrel’s torment was a brief hissing intake of breath. Then all was quiet again except for the ragged panting of someone on the far side of the row of captive onlookers. Finally the torturer reached the barbarian’s lower back, but instead of breaking the strip off, he left it to hang from Jurrel’s waist.
         “ Tell me all that you know and your torment can end quickly,” the Sorceror offered, his voice taking on the seductive tones of a polished courtesan.
         “ Alright,” Jurrel sighed,“ Your ugly friend’s face back there? It looks like my ass. ”
         The demon’s terror-inspiring voice boomed then,“ Simply sacrifice them to me so that I can feed on their souls. We need not go through these ridiculous games. ”
         “ Patience, my servant, patience,” the Sorceror stood and stood in front of the barbarian,“
         I know of your kind, barbarian, I know what you like. I can give you enough gold to hire the finest courtesan for a month. Just tell me what you know and I can give you pleasure, not pain. ”
         Scarlet barked laughter and spat as the sessel-brute pulled back on her head,“ He is not as weak-willed as you think, you stupid bastard. He’s resisted me for months and you think to tempt him with a second-rate whore?! Your mind is probably as sharp as your little slimy friend is attractive. ”
         “ I can’t believe this, master! Who do these insolent-?! ”
         The Sorceror silenced his servant with a wave and at the same time Scarlet shrieked in pain and fury. Out of the corner of his eye, Ty’nel could see a livid burn on the side of the assassin’s apprentice’s face.
         “ I am going to watch you die and it will bring me pleasure. ” Scarlet said, and the most disturbing thing was the complete lack of emotion in her voice, as though she were merely stating a fact.
         “ Give them to me, master!! ” the demon roared, his voice shaking the earth beneath Ty’nel’s knees.
         “ There is no need for this, good sirs,” the scholar’s voice, small and frail, spoke into the silence following the demon’s roar,“ We are all prisoners. We were forced to violate your territory by our jailers, the Marauders. I am sure if we cooperate we can find a way for everyone to come away with what they want. ”
         Ty’nel’s eyes would have bulged if his eyelids weren’t being held open. The scholar was actually trying to bargain their way free. Maybe Kyle was stouter than any of them had guessed.
         “ What is he thinking? ” the Sorceror asked, his voice taking on an interested note.
         The demon made a frustrated noise and said nothing for several long moments while Jurrel bled down his pants. “ What is it, Nultistos? ”
         “ A shielding prevents me from reading their thoughts,” the demon answered in annoyance.
         “ I told you their Necromancer was more powerful than you thought,” the Sorceror sounded as though he was gritting his teeth,“ Can you get anything? ”
         “ I can smell their souls,” the demon said, his voice deeper than before,“ The Cleric, the Pliyian, and the little one are all relatively pure of heart. Those other three... I would not trust them as far as the length of Munbidi. ”
         “ I don’t need any put-downs from a brazier-smoking, purple bastard like you, Nultistos!! "
         “ The scholar is right about me, Sorceror,” Ty’nel found the courage to finally speak from somewhere deep inside,“ All I ever wanted was to escape and get back the fortune that I lost in Tyg. I could show you where it is if you let me join you. I’m sure you’d find uses for two thousand High Plains gold jits. ”
         “ Is he telling the truth, Munbidi? "
         Munbidi extended nasty looking....feelers towards Ty’nel,“ Yes, master. ”
         The Sorceror came over to Ty’nel and crouched down before him. Ty’nel couldn’t see very many features of the man’s face in his shadowed cowl but he could see a pair of glowing red orbs. The Sorceror cupped the thiefs chin in one gloved hand and studied him for a few moments before standing.
“ Release him. ”

***

         The pain was unlike anything Jurrel had experienced in his life. He imagined that this was the kind of pain Hevel the Betrayer had felt when he had endured the Living Death centuries ago. His back was a map of agony as the cuts in his flesh stung while the exposed flesh along the left side seared like fire. Every breath hurt, evern movement brought fresh waves of pain. So far Jurrel had managed to repress the urges to bellow in agony. He had to set an example for the others. Let them see that he was not cowed by these posturing fools. Jurrel vowed to lose consciousness before he gave into the urge to scream.
         Such was his concentration that he wasn’t aware of the betrayal until he was being strapped to a stake with a cross-brace. His legs and arms were spread on the arms of the cross while his body rested against the stakes. Pain flared in his injured back as the wood chafed exposed nerves. Ty’nel stood before them as the last of the remaining five were planted in the ground before the demon. The Sorceror was once again resting in his wasteful throne with his nasty little blob on his shoulder. How he ached to splatter that thing into a million tiny blobs.
         The little thief sauntered up to each of them with a smirk plain on his face. Without warning Ty’nel smacked Scarlet across the mouth and actually reached over and began to fondle Scarlet’s breasts. Jurrel’s battle-sister endured it with her lips whitened as she fought to contain her fury. Then Ty’nel actually leaned forward to sloppily kiss her.
         Contact was broken almost instantly and Scarlet glared coldly at Ty’nel as the thief walked back towards his new master. The Sorceror looked at Ty’nel and the wiry man shrugged.
         “ I owed her,” the thief said, a corner of his mouth tugging upwards.
         Jurrel looked out of the corner of his eye for the cleric. They had only bound his arms with a single thickness of rope. He would be able to break free and maybe free the others if only his back were healed. Fear threatened to consume his Lijuak heart as he saw that the Yuirlin had somehow managed to latch onto the old man’s face. The only part of the cleric’s face that was slime free was his nose. Oddly enough the cleric seemed to still be sleeping.
         “ I think they’re wondering why the cleric doesn’t heal their big friend, Munbidi,” the Sorceror laughed insanely.
         The talking slimeball cackled from it’s obscene seat,“ I’m going to suck your cleric dry. First his mind, then his power, then his soul. I’ve been waiting for this for fifteen years. ”
         A timid little sessel in ornately decorated leather armor trotted around into the center pit and began babbling at the Sorceror. The robed figure turned to the blob and gestured impatiently.
         “ He said that there is another group of humans loose in the upper levels. This group is moving much more quickly than the others and seems less concerned about being stealthy. ”
         “ Then tell him to send two dozen sessels and a pack of hunter-beasts to eliminate them. ” the Sorceror said, impatiently.
         The message was relayed but the sessel barked back at the Yuirlin.
“ He says that these humans have already eliminated most of the guard posts on level one and seem to be heading here. ”
         The Sorceror stood quickly,“ Is it the Harbinger? ”
         The demon spoke then,“ No, if the Harbinger is as powerful as you say, I would have sensed his presence. ”
         “ Then who could it be?! Munbidi!! Go with him and handle this!! ” the Sorceror made a sweepoing gesture as he turned to sit back on his throne.
         The little blob removed itself from Tio’nel’s face with one convulsive move that was accompanied by a wet sucking noise. Blob-thing and the sessel raced from the pit at a furious pace.
         “ Do you know who these new intruders are? ” the Sorceror asked Ty’nel.
         The thief shrugged,“ Probably are back-up. The Marauders didn’t have much faith in us. ”
         “ Is there any wonder why? ” the Sorceror barked laughter and turned back to Jurrel and the others.
         Suddenly the earth trembled around them and a hollow boom echoed in the cavern. A few of the impaled bodies toppled over but unfortunately none crushed the loathsome Sorceror. The Sorceror hastily sat in his throne while the huge sessel-creatures shifted nervously around them.
         “ Getting nervous? ” Jurrel managed to mumble through his pain.
         “ Your tongue remains insolent I see,” the Sorceror said, his voice quiet for once,“ Once your would-be rescuers are dispatched,” he paused to run his tongue over his lower lip,“ We will see long your insolence lasts. ”
         “ Oh, talk like that,” Jurrel’s lips tightened for a moment against the pain,“ -gets me excited. ”
         There was a long drawn out silence as the Sorceror waited for word from his servant. When the sessel bearing the little blob returned the Sorceror stood up from his seat so quickly that it looked as though the throne might topple. The sessel’s leather was ripped and charred in several places.
         “ What happened?! ” the Sorceror’s voice almost sounded shrill.
         “ Only a squad, master, led by the Tiger-Man that escaped. ” the Yuirlan reported.
         “ Only a squad?! ONLY A SQUAD!! ” the Sorceror voice was definitely shrill now.
         “ They are all armed and armored with enchanted weapons, master. We need your help to defeat them. Only someone with your great power can hope to defeat them. ”
         The Sorceror seemed to grow in height by a few inches,“ Yes. Tell them to leave three to guard and the rest are to be my shields. ”
         The Yuirlan barked orders as the Sorceror strode away to confront the intruders. All of the guards except three moved to follow the Sorceror. Ty’nel had somehow managed to move close to Emeralda just as the Sorceror presumably left the cavern. One of the huge sessels moved in that direction but he was too slow. Ty’nel snatched the helmet from the Sorceress’ head so fast that it seemed as though it simply disappeared.
         “ The ropes, Emeralda, the ropes! ”
         Ty’nel screamed as the huge sessel reached for him.

***

         Scarlet looked up as the ugly sessel-cousin moved to snatch up Ty’nel. In the blink of an eye the thief was perched on the brutes back with the strangling wire he’d taken from around her breasts wrapped around it’s throat. Another guard blocked Scarlet’s vision and she spat convulsively. The tiny, poisoned dart the thief had slipped her with that impromptu kiss, buried its head into the exposed fat rolls on the creatures neck. The big monster took three more steps before falling flat on its face. Scarlet watched as the last guard closed with an already embattled Ty’nel.
         “ Emeralda!! ”
Rain fought for focus. All the ropes, chains, feeling their weight wasn't something that could be done in an instant. She breathed in, then out. Once more, and she had it. With a slightly demonic smile, she reached for their bindings and "tugged". In an instant the company was freed, and their bindings had found their way to the bodies, and throats of the guards. With arms bound and throats constricted, the guards were little challenge for the group and soon there was only the sound of dripping blood in the room.

Jurrel tried to aide the quick battle, but he was losing strength and every step was agony. Rain saw him stagger and sent a kinetic force for him to lean on.

Scarlet clapped Ty'nel on the back, and even allowed him a trace of a smile. "Not bad, thief."

Ty'nel shook his head. "We have to get out of here, hide. They won't be gone for long." The group nodded their concurrence.

"What about our wounded?" Rain asked, gesturing to Jurrel and Tio'nel.

Jurrel gritted his teeth and spoke up, "Leave me, I'll only slow you." He took a breath to speak again, but Kyle interrupted.

"Rain?"

"What?"

"I have an idea."
-------------
Kyle was surprised at their reactions, they actually looked at him with something like attentiveness.

Ty'nel hesitated a moment, then nodded to him. "Be quick." He turned to Scarlet, "Care to scout the way out?"

She nodded and disappeared.

Kyle hurried over to Jurrel, and motioned for Emeralda to do the same. After a quick examination of the wounds, he shook his head, "We can't do this here." He turned to see Scarlet returning.

Ty'nel looked for sign of trouble, that was too quick, even for Scarlet. "What is it?"

"I found a place. It's completely deserted and just down the hall."

Kyle was relieved. "Ty'nel, Justal, can you two carry Tio'nel? Emeralda and I will help Jurrel." In short order, the group had relocated to Scarlet's hiding place.

The room was perfect, abandoned and recessed, with a hidden passage leading to another room, likewise abandoned. It was here they stopped. "I don't like it," Ty'nel sighed, "But we've little choice. All right, scholar, whatever you're going to do, do it now."

Kyle nodded. "Well Emeralda, it looks like you're turning into a healer whether you like it or not."

She felt a twinge in her stomach, she was a telekinetic, not a healer. What was he thinking?

"I could explain it, but we don't have time. For now, you'll just have to trust me and do what I say."

She nodded.

"Now, I've got knowledge of the body, you can work with tiny things. We'll put the two together and knit him back together."

As gently as he could, Kyle laid the strip of flesh from Jurrel's back to where it had originally grown. A hiss escaped the warriors lips. "Sorry Jurrel. And I'm afraid this next part will probably hurt as well. We'll go quickly, but it won't be pleasant."

Kyle quickly talked Emeralda through basic anatomy and Jurrel passed out from the pain. With utmost concentration, Emeralda matched flesh to flesh and did her best to put things as they had been. It turned out an ugly result, but at least the bleeding was staunched and Jurrel's back was once again coverd in skin.

As they heard the sounds of search, Emeralda collapsed exhausted. Those who remained conscious kept watch...
Tio'nel was lost, completely, hopelessly lost. All around him he could hear screaming, but he walked dazedly through some kind of fog. From time to time faces, from ages past, their names long since forgotten, emerged from the mist, muttering epithets and curses. He shrank from any sound, the harsh words causing him to cower, sobbing.

All around him was darkness, darkness and pain. He was blinded, staggering blindly, covering his ears, screaming for the pain to stop.

But there was only the laughter.

He stumbled, fell. The ground softened around him, so that he was covered in gelatinous goo. And he was burning. Faces, people that he knew, came to stare, to mock, to curse him.

"I hate you!" spat one woman, the words like a dagger to his heart. "I wish you would just give up and die!"

The words were taken up by the others. "Why can't you just die!" "You died years past -- quit fooling yourself!" "Die! You'll be doing us a favor!"

Another woman, older, shook her head sadly. "You fool," she said. "You were a waste of my time!"

Tio'nel cried out, screamed after her retreating back, to wait, WAIT! But there was nothing. Nothing but the incessant laughter.

I am a failure, he thought, and began to sob. I've never done a bit of good. No one will care if I die.

The acid bit deeper, but Tio'nel could no longer feel the pain. He was beyond pain, beyond feeling. He felt totally numb; he could no longer even think.

"Ah, ha, ha, ha ha!" cackled a new face. The yellowish blob floated before him. "Pitiful," he snarled. "And I thought I would be facing a worthy foe. But no, your years have softened you, Knight-Cleric." It laughed, bitterly. Then its gooy face turned greenish in rage and it lashed out at Tio'nel with acidic tentacles. "I'd treasured this moment for years! Years! This should be my moment of triumph! But you have ruined it! Ruined it!! I shall curse your name for a thousand of your generations! Your kind shall be hunted by mine for all of eternity!"

It screamed maniacally, shrilly, deafeningly.

Tio'nel could only watch, in a kind of bemused fascination as the creature turned an even darker shade of green.

Then it stopped. Those nasty, beady, little eyes stared into Tio'nel's until what was left of Tio'nel trembled in fear. "I shall kill you," it snarled, "and I will take my time."

The last Tio'nel remembered, before the chaos that was left of his mind swarmed him once more, was the glowing eyes, disappearing into the darkness.

* * *


Justal shuddered, shaking himself awake. The thief's hand in the darkness made him shriek in fear, but luckily Scarlet was there, to slap a hand over his mouth.

"Shut up!" she hissed at him.

The boy flinched from her reproof, held-back tears streaming down his cheeks. "Oh god, oh god, oh god," he whimpered quietly, trying to make himself into as small a ball as possible, rocking back and forth in the semi-darkness.

Ty'nel looked at Scarlet. Her lip curled in distaste, then she leaned over and smacked the young boy. He slumped over, unconscious.

"He will sleep it off," said the whore softly, looking away.

Ty'nel kept his thoughts to himself, turning instead to check on the old man. The drunkard was still unconscious, but what scared the thief was how quiet he was. Almost afraid to, he touched Tio'nel's hand, to feel for a pulse, but his hand came instantly away.

"He's cold!" he whispered in horror. As Kyle and Scarlet came to investigate, he did force himself to feel for a pulse. He could feel nothing, though perhaps he only missed it, what with the trembling of his own hands.

"Try his neck," the scholar suggested, though he himself made no move to do so.

"You do it!" hissed Ty'nel, too afraid of what he would find.

Scarlet rolled her eyes, stepped past both males to reach for the old man's throat, past the acid-burned face, still as a corpse. Her eyes narrowed as her fingers fought for a pulse.

Nothing.

Scarlet licked suddenly dry lips, gazing wide-eyed at the other two.

"How can he have -- just died!" Kyle squealed.

"Is he, is he breathing?" asked Ty'nel, not really caring to know the answer.

Scarlet turned away, but both men saw the slight shake of her head.

"Oh god," murmered Ty'nel, biting his lip to keep it from trembling.

"Maybe, maybe it's some clericy thing," said Kyle, his eyes darting between thief and assassin. His face begged for reassurance. "Maybe he's not really dead!"

"Yeah, believe whatever you want," Scarlet half-snapped, but she hadn't the energy to put any venom in it.

* * *


Bone-weary, exhausted, Tio'nel slumped to the floor. He rubbed acheing eyes, full of dirt and grit from countless hours spent squinting into total darkness. There was a queer . . echoing in his ears now; they . . ached from the silence.

How long, he wondered, have the voices been gone?

He was cold, he suddenly realized. How long had he been here? Days? Months? Years? Where was he?

A sudden thought brought his head up: Who am I?

He pursed his lips, staring around him, trying to take it in, struggling with his memory. He was afraid . . deadly afraid of summoning back the voices. He knew, without questioning how he knew, that should they return, he wouldn't survive. I've been to the brink of madness and beyond, he thought. There should be . . . There should be something I can do . . . but what?

Meditate.

The answer came to him as abruptly as if someone had just come up behind him, to utter the word.

Meditate. Hmmmm. Yeah, that sounded right.

Tio'nel closed his eyes . . hopefully. He really couldn't be sure against the absolute darkness. He took several long moments to clear any thoughts from his head, to still his body, to calm his soul.

. . .

. . .

. . .

. . .

. . .

. . M . . u . . n . .bidy!!!!!!

* * *


Every member of the party came to full alertness with a single, whispered word; the rage, pain, and anger behind it unmistakeable. Their hearts racing, eyes wide, they stared, frightened and alarmed at the source of the commotion.

Tio'nel came to instant awareness, springing to his feet so fast it looked instantaneous. His face was a mask of boiling emotion, his eyes near-glowing in rage.

To Jurrel's (and everyone else's amazement), the old man growled, a menacing roar, not unlike a tiger's.

Tio'nel's hands seized on the first person he saw: Justal, the boy still staring at him open-mouthed. The old man picked up the limp youth, shaking him, demanding to know where the yuirlin was.

The others, wide-eyed and open-mouthed in astonishment, blinked, or rubbed their eyes, or pinched themselves to see if they were dreaming.

"Wha-at!" gasped Emeralda, struggling to comprehend what was going on.

Tio'nel shook the Pliyian youth until Justal's teeth rattled his brains loose. He struggled, ineffectually against the healer's iron grip. "Hey, hey! Lemme go!"

There was a noise just outside. Everyone froze.

Silence, blessed silence.

"No one's there," said Tio'nel. He released Justal, blushing, trying to straighten the boy's tunic self-consciously. "Sorry."

"What was that for!" squeaked the youth.

"Shhhh!" both Scarlet and Tio'nel hissed.

"There's no one there," said Tio'nel, louder. His eyes kind of . . lost their focus, then refocused on the suspicious faces of the others. "They're all gone. We're safe, for the time being at least."

He brushed past the thief and assasin, not looking at the scholar. "Jurrel. How are you doing?"

The barbarian half-shrugged, thought about shaking his head, and thought better of it. "Not so good."

"We tried," said Kyle, irritated. "Me'n Emeralda --"

"I can see that," said Tio'nel quietly. "Good work." He looked Jurrel in the eye. "I can heal what remains, or we can start over. Either will be painful, but it depends on what kind of use you'll want of your back and shoulders. Really, with your life-style, it might make little difference, because the effects, if any, of leaving it like this, will show when you reach middle age. It is your choice, but this is the only time, with it half-healed, will you have any choice but to accept your decision."

Jurrel considered. He looked at the old man, who no longer looked his age, and burned inside with some kind of fierce determination that lent strength to his words and actions. Now he looked like a warrior.

"Heal me. Heal me to . . before this."

Tio'nel nodded. He handed the barbarian a strip of gnawed-on leather. "Clamp your teeth on this, and hold still, best you can."

The Knight-Cleric knelt beside Jurrel, his hands hovering an inch or a little less, over the scarred back. Tio'nel took a breath, mumbled a few words, and, as his hands lit up in a blue glow, traced the wounds on Jurrel's back.

The warrior's eyes bulged, grunting in pain, and locking his jaws. To the others, he was engulfed in the light, which grew brighter, until they all turned their heads and closed their eyes and still they winced from its brightness.

When they could look again, Jurrel was peacefully asleep, his back complete and whole, and the light gone. Tio'nel stood, walked over to Scarlet, placed a hand on her cheek. She gasped at the suddenness and the cold, but had no time to either grasp what he was doing or move away until after it was done.

She put a hand to her cheek. "T-thank you."

Tio'nel looked round at the rest of them, including Jurrel as he came awake once more. "Now. I am going to hunt that little, no-good, yuirlin of a slimeball." His eyes flashed in fury. "Who's coming with me?"
         Ty’nel cursed under his breath as he and Scarlet wrestled the old man back into a corner. Jurrel carefully stood, stretching his back and shoulders, grunting in a pleased fashion. Emeralda, Kyle and Justal stared at the former knight-cleric with openly astonished expressions. Tio’nel was stronger than he looked and it wasn’t until Jurrel came over to firmly place a huge hand on the drunkard’s shoulder that Ty’nel felt Tio’nel relax.
         “ Sit down, old man, and I’ll tell you why that is the dumbest damn thing I’ve ever heard anyone say. Scarlet, Jurrel, can you two keep watch while I try to talk some sense into him? ”
         Jurrel grunted, picking up one of their pilfered shortswords, and stalking into the next room to seek good cover.
         “ Oh, right away, kind master! ” Scarlet said, with the kind of forced good cheer one found in public servants.
         Ty’nel shot her back a nasty look as she walked away with crude valin and shortsword in hand. The thief sat next to the former knight-cleric, who’s hands were clenched in white-knuckled fury, and ran a grimy hand through equally grimy hair.
         “ He must pay for all the evil he has done, thief,” Tio’nel said through gritted teeth.
         “ Yes, I’m sure someone will make him pay, but it won’t be us. We’ve got three shortswords, two of those crude weapons that Scarlet uses, and two short-bladed knives between us. I don’t think that’s going to get us far, old man. ”
         “ We have my powers and Emeralda’s. "
         Ty’nel shook his head,“ I got the impression the demon could ‘see’ you more easily because you have magic. It won’t be hard for him to set another trap if we go gallavanting all over the place. We’ll have to leave here very quickly if we don’t want to get trapped. ”
         The knight-cleric looked at the thief for several long moments before unclenching his fists,“ You’re right. I can’t get more companions killed in my quest for vengeance. ”
         Ty’nel remained quiet and simply nodded.
         “ Ty’nel!! Tio’nel!! Over here! Come look at this! ” the scholar’s voice came over to them in an urgent whisper.
         “ Make it quick. We’ll have to leave here soon,” Ty’nel said, as he and Tio’nel walked over to where Kyle was peering intently at shadowed writings on the wall.
         “ Emeralda, can I get some light? ” Kyle asked, absentmindedly.
         Emeralda waved her hand in a graceful motion and a tiny ball of pure white light floated from a fingertip. It cast a soft glow that illuminated the entire room quite nicely. The markings on the wall became more easily discernible. Kyle waved his hands and wiped his already ruined sleeves across them. Tio’nel took a startled breath as he gazed at one symbol in particular. This was the apex of a circle of writings and was at least as twice as large as the others. It was a crossed shield and spear design that Ty’nel thought he should recognize from somewhere.
         “ I don’t recognize the large symbol. I think it must be native to the High Plains. Do any of you? ”
         Ty’nel shook his head while Tio’nel nodded in obvious awe,“ It’s the seal of the Wraith-Knights. I haven’t seen one in nearly ten years. ”
         “ Hmmm,” Kyle said, tracing the circle with a finger,“ It says that only two castes may enter this guarded place. The Knights of the Spirit and those loved by the woman.... no Lady. Why would someone who’s loved by a noblewoman be allowed entrance? ”
         “ Not a lady, boy,” Tio’nel said, stepping closer,“ The Lady. My goddess. What does the rest say? ”
         Kyle began tracing again,“ It says that one seeking to defend themselves need only place their hands within the ring. If they meet the requirements then they will be allowed access. If not then they will be executed. ”
         Ty’nel shuddered and took a few steps back. He gasped as Tio’nel unflinchingly placed both palms in the center of the ring. With a strangled cry, Kyle leapt backwards, trying to protect his face from whatever blast of magic his imagination had created. Instead there was a quite natural stone-on-stone grinding sound and the circle of writings, now in the center of a large door, slid backwards into the wall. The heavy stone door swung open on well-hidden hinges and the sparkle of lots of metal caught the thief’s eyes.
         “ Lady be praised,” Tio’nel muttered softly, as he entered the newly discovered room.
         “ Justal, go get Scarlet and Jurrel. ” Ty’nel said, as he cautiously followed the old man
into the room.
         Ty’nel couldn’t believe his eyes as they carefully scrutinized the room for hidden traps. There were none to be found though and it appeared as though it were nothing more than it appeared.
         A small armory.
         There was a rack of a dozen longswords and one of spears and short-hafted javelins on their left, another of long-handled battleaxes and unstrung shortbows on their right. In the center of the room was a small table with at least half a dozen sheathed shortswords, three long-handled maces, a short-handled warhammer, four sheathed long knives, and there were even several of the short-handled battle-axes that Jurrel had been favoring. In the back of the room was a row of what looked, hopefully, like armor and shield stands. All glittered as though they had been freshly sharpened and polished.
         Luck was truly on their side this day.

***

         Scarlet adjusted the steel-scaled, fingerless guantlet on her left hand as she walked out of the armory. Now she felt more... steady was the right word for it. The assassin’s apprentice had been dismayed at the silvery sheen of all the of armor in the room before Tio’nel had shown her to a small armor cabinet where there had been black-stained clothing with steel chainmail sewn in their linings. Most of the gear had already been pre-conditioned for stealth movement. Perfect for a thief or an assassin.
         Now Scarlet was garbed in dark, featureless clothing. Slightly billowy black pants made of a material she had never seen before tucked in tightly to ankle high boots with a tight black sash holding in a sheer, black shirt. Over the shirt went the customary jerkin with the chainmail lining and Scarlet had even added fingerless gauntlets to her outfit. The former whore couldn’t contain a bemused smirk at the situation she found herself in. A year ago her outfit of choice would have been something sheer, nearly translucent, and guaranteed to get her lofty sums of money from clients. Now she was more concerned with stealth versus weapon capacity.
         Her current gear was well balanced. There were enough slots for two shortswords and a long-bladed knife. There were no throwing knives in the room, Tio’nel had said that Wraith-Knights and Knight-Clerics rarely practiced those weapon disciplines, and Scarlet missed their comforting weight across her chest. The assassin’s apprentice turned at the faint clinking of metal plates as Jurrel emerged from the room.
         The barbarian cut an imposing figure in a steel-plated, leather cuirass, steel bracers with several rows of half-inch long spikes along them and steel-plated leather pants. He had belted one of the short-hafted battle-axes at his left hip and was balanced by a short-hafted warhammer on his right. She could see the spiked top of the shaft of the long-handled battle-axe that he had put through the axe loop on the back of
his cuirass. Strapped to one of his arms was a medium-sized steel round shield.
         Ty’nel came out next in garb very similar to Scarlet’s with the exception of the a second shortsword. The thief had fashioned a baldric for himself for the shortsword and had a pair of long-bladed knives through his belt.
         Justal walked out with a bit more confidence in archers leathers. The breastplate was hard while the sleeves were soft and short. Steel archers bracers protected both forearms and there was a peculiar device held over his left eye by a headband. It was a little iron circle with a crosspiece in it’s center. The boy had a case of four short-shafted javelins and a long spear strapped across his back. In his hands he carried a strung shortbow. Two full quivers of arrows were strapped to both thighs.
         Emeralda walked out of the room in clothing similar to Scarlet’s but it was a size too big. Jurrel had proven surprising aid as he had removed the sleeves and tucked the shirt in so that it was not so large an encumberance. The barbarian had even found segmented armor that covered the exposed surfaces of the small Sorceress’ arms. The last remaining knife hung at her waist.
         The scholar came out in full chainmail armor. He had a chainmail shirt, pants, gloves, and even a hood that he had pulled up. The chainmail had made an awful amount of noise until Ty’nel and Scarlet had done their best to make it as stealthy as possible by threading strips of cloth between as many links as they could. A single shortsword was belted at his waist and he carried a wooden round shield with a steel plate in it’s center.
         Finally the old man came out except that he no longer looked as... docile as he had before. The old man had really out done himself in donning steel, half-plate, half-mail armor. He wore a solid steel breastplate with what he said was the seal of the Wraith-Knights and his arms and legs were protected by light chainmail and steel bracers. He also had a chainmail hood on but had added even more protection with a helm that only left his half-mad eyes uncovered. He held a long-handled mace in one hand and a steel round shield in his other. Peeking over one shoulder was the hilt of a longsword. A shortsword was belted at his waist.
         “ Do you have any objections to my finding that loathsome slime, thief? ” the former knight-cleric asked in a quiet, voice filled with a quivering intensity.
         “ Yes, you damn fool, I’m not getting-,” the thief suddenly stiffened like a dog finding a scent and a familiar glint came into his eyes.
         Ty’nel turned to Scarlet and suddenly she knew what he was thinking.
         “ The nobles!! ” she exclaimed, returning his grin without reservation.
         “ The nobles? ” Tio’nel asked, his tone perplexed.
         Ty’nel's face took on a serious expression,“ Don’t tell me your Lady would allow you to leave innocents behind while you sought personal vengeance? ”
         The old man’s eyes glared fiercely at the smaller man for a few moments before he sighed,“ You’re in the right, thief. Probably the first time in your life that your words ring with the nobility of spirit. ”
         The thief turned to Scarlet and she had to restrain laughter at the restrained laughter in the Ty’nel’s scrunched face. She took a brief mental pause to consider the feeling. She could not remember the last time she had found true amusement in anything. It was a curious feeling to have the anger that was always below the surface be... less than something else.
         “ But how do we get past the demon? ” Jurrel asked, bringing Scarlet back to their current situation,“ I am surprised it did not raise the alarm when we escaped. ”
         Tio’nel shook his head,“ The demon’s mind is focused on the Sergeant and the Lieutenant and his men. It is trying to pierce the shroud that the Necromancer-Prime as placed over them. If we are quick and quiet we can sneak past it. ”
         “ Let’s go then and then we can come back here to wait for the Lieutenant to arrive to take care of our demon friend. Agreed? ”
         Everyone agreed quickly except for Tio’nel. The knight-cleric’s eyes still burned with that mad light.
         “ Scout Formation, keep it loose, don’t bunch up. We move quiet and we move fast. Like Tio’nel said. ” Jurrel spoke up in what Scarlet had come to recognize as the tones of a natural warleader. She couldn’t help but wonder what kind of tales the barbarian had to tell of his home and his life. Maybe she would ask him later... if there was a later.
         Scarlet nodded as she moved quickly past the barbarian. Ty’nel moved as quietly as a whisper beside her and Justal followed a few meters behind them. She heard the others following but quickly focused on everything but the sounds of the little group.
         Scarlet and the thief actually made a pretty good team. He took the lead more often than not as he was much better at stealthy movements than she was, but if he thought there might be trouble he waved her forward to take the forward position. In this manner they actually made excellent time back to the place of their recent escape.
         The entrance to the hall they had found refuge in was on the level above the center of the demon-pit. The shadowy outline of Ty’nel crouched at the threshold of the entrance and waved Scarlet towards him. Scarlet swiftly made her way to him and crouched very close to his back. He half-turned toward the wall and spoke out of the corner of his mouth.
         “ The demon is gone. Tell the others to hurry. ” he whispered.
         Ty’nel got up from his crouch and slithered over the edge of the ledge. Scarlet would never get used to the thief’s inhuman climbing abilities. The assassin’s apprentice signaled back to Justal for him to tell the others to hurry. He nodded and turned back to let the others know. Scarlet entered the demon-pit and quickly made her way along the ledge to it’s center. The bodies of their former captors lay where they had fallen and Scarlet spared them not a single glance. Ty’nel was pressed against the wall just inside the hall leading to the dungeon. Scarlet made a small noise to get his attention and got very close to him so they wouldn’t have to talk very loudly.
         “ Two of the big sessels in there. One leaning on the the wall to the right at the turn of the corridor. Another walking the cells. You can hear when the walker is close or walking away real easy. ”
         Scarlet nodded,“ I’ll handle it. "
         The assassin’s apprentice sidled along the wall until she was at the turning in the corridor. She looked down and saw the large shadow of a sessel-cousin as it stood against the wall just around the corner. Scarlet concentrated on the sounds around her and heard the scuffle of heavy, leathery feet on stone as the other made his rounds. She moved back a little and quietly drew her shortsword. In her opposite hand she clutched the hilt of her long knife. Three quick, bracing breaths was all the preparation she gave herself bfore she sprang into action.
         Scarlet swung into the corridor and put all of her strength, in addition to her momentum, into driving the point of her shortsword into the sessel-cousins skull. The large beast convulsed once and a horrible stench arose as it's bowels evacuated. Ignoring it all Scarlet calmly raised her knife into the air, extending her opposite arm to better her aim, and let fly the blade. The weapon’s balance was horrible, but her talent more than made up for it. The sessel-cousin had just fully turned to find the source of the noise, his fellow guard’s body sliding to the floor, and the knife embedded it’s entire blade into his throat. The huge creature slammed into a cell door on his left, denting it inward from what Scarlet could see, and fell to the ground where it writhed as it died.
         Scarlet rose from her half-crouched throwing position and waved the others forward. Placing one boot on the skull of the corpse, Scarlet pried her shortsword from it’s recent resting place, and then quickly cleaned it on dirty cloth hanging from the dead beasts armor. She jogged down the corridor, ignoring the mad screams that came from the cells all around her, and messily retrieved her knife from the twitching body of the sessel-cousin. Ty’nel jogged down the corridor past her, bending to snatch the rusted keys from the belt of the sessel-cousin at her feet, and stopped at a door only a few meters ahead of her. The hand with the copper signet ring once again thrust its way through the door. Scarlet leaned against the wall to the right of the door just in case the fool nobles were too far gone into madness. She nodded to Ty’nel and the thief turned the key and opened the door.
         A slender man, slightly taller than Scarlet, warily stepped out of the cell. He blinked at the torchlight as if it were the brightest sky he had ever seen. The nobles watery blue-green eyes searched around him unseeing for a few moments before they focused on Scarlet. Then his eyes widened and his pale face flushed with embarassment. He turned quickly away from her and didn’t see her smirk. The fool had once been one of her best clients and how it must have rankled for him to be rescued by a lowly whore. The three other prisoners, all wearing torn merchants robes, emerged hesitantly from the cell. All of their skins looked ashen and unhealthy. Though they all seemed refreshed by the thought of their escape.
         “ I knew my cousin would send someone to rescue me. How large is your party, warrior? How many of the Lord’s Elite are there among your number? Lord Byr’nel and my cousin are close friends and I’m sure there are enough to eradicate these caverns clear of these vermin. ”
         Scarlet and Ty’nel shared smirks as the noble rattle on. Finally Ty’nel shook his head,“ Quiet, my lord, we are only seven. There are no “Elite” among us. We must move quickly. Follow me. ”
         Ty’nel moved back down the corridor, dodging noxious liquids and solids alike, while Scarlet watched as the noble and mercahnts were thoroughly drenched. They didn’t seem to mind though and Scarlet could only shake her head as she managed to avoid the deluge. The others were standing guard at the corner and the freed prisoners reactions to them was amusing to say the least. The four seemed confused by the presence of Emeralda and Kyle while their eyes filled with awe as though they were staring at something out of a bard tale when they saw Tio’nel. Their attitudes quickly turned hostile as they got a look at Justal but the hostility did not last long under the glare of Jurrel. Scarlet could only shake her head as she and Ty’nel walked past them to take their positions.
         “ Let’s go,” Jurrel said, and Scarlet thought nothing of taking his advice.
         Ty’nel and Scarlet made their way across the center of the pit as one and were only a few meters up the tunnel when soft noises made them both take cover. Scarlet listened intently for the noise and heard it again. It was the high-pitched language of the sessels and the lower growls of their larger cousins.
         There were alot of them.
         “ Back! ” the two said at the same time.
         Scarlet stood and was right behind Ty’nel as he sprinted back to the others.
         “ What is it? ” Jurrel asked as they stopped in front of him.
         “ Sessels, big ones, alot of them,”
Ty’nel said, quickly, pointing back the way they had come.
         “ We go up! Move! ” Jurrel snapped, gesturing hurriedly.
         Scarlet only managed two steps before fire blossomed on the wall high over their heads. A large metal grate clanged off the wall above her and she dived towards the wall as it came crashing down. The room trembled and the floor beneath them cracked as the grate hit the ledge. The entire section the group stood on parted from the wall and began to slid into the center of the pit. Scarlet braced herself and leaped off the slab of stone at the last minute. She rolled on her side and came to a bruising stop against the brazier. The assassin’s apprentice stood and rubbed her shoulder while she glared at the thing. It hadn’t even budged when she’d hit it.
         Without warning the brazier flared to smoky life. The demon, Nultistos, appeared in the flames and he looked really pissed off.
         “ Hurry, master, you can escape down here!! ” he roared, as though he had no idea Scarlet was right in front of him.
         There was another quake in the earth around them, followed by a massive boom, and then the Sorceror’s shrill voice,“ Run, Munbidi, we’ll get these bastards another day!! ”
         Scarlet looked up and saw several shapes descending towards them. The assassin-in-training walked slowly backwards to the group and soundlessly pointed towards the Sorceror and his henchmen. Jurrel nodded and mimed shooting the Sorceror to Justal. The Pliyian nodded and drew an arrow from his quiver. He nocked it and drew the string back to it’s full extent. The arrowhead wavered not in the slightest as it tracked the Sorceror’s movement. Scarlet had to admit that the boy was good.
         “ Master!! They’ve escaped!! ” the demon bellowed just as Justal loosed his arrow.
         Scarlet willed the arrow to greater speed as the everything seemed to slow down around her.
         The arrow sailed through the air and Scarlet knew that it would find it’s way true. With a contemptuous gesture the Sorceror created a shield of flame before him. Scarlet cursed as the arrow neared the flame-shield. Her heart dropped down into her chest and hope seemed a distant thing. They were all going to die and there was nothing any of them could do about it.
         A small hole opened up in the shield just before the arrow burned itself into nothingness. The arrow sailed through and Scarlet caught a glimpse of a surprised expression on the Sorceror’s face as the arrow buried itself into his chest. There was a screeching sound as of metal rubbing against metal and Scarlet knew that the bastard had been wearing armor beneath his robes. She knew the arrow had still penetrated by the way the flame-shield disappeared. The Sorceror staggered forward, clutching the wound just above his heart, and fell headfirst over the edge. Unfortunately for Scarlet the edge was over a slope that let the bastard survive the fall without breaking his neck.
         “ Master!! ” the nasty, little blob called Munbidi screamed.
         The sessel-cousins that had been following the Sorceror leapt down the slope after him. Arrows whizzed through the air and four bodies rolled bonelessly down the slope. A thunderous roar erupted from the tunnel Scarlet had hoped to find refuge down. She looked up and saw what looked like a mob of sessels, their huge cousins, and alot of those dog-things.
         “ TIO’NEL!!! ” the little slimeball roared as somehow it soared through the air around
them like some grotesque bird.
         “ MUNBIDI!! ” Tio’nel shouted and began chasing after the creature with wild swings of his mace.
         It was true madness.
         Justal began firing furiously into the mob of sessels that was quickly making it’s way along the descending ledge. Soon the boy was on his second quiver of arrows and they just keep coming.
         “ Kyle, take them back to the cells!! ” Jurrel asked,“ Get them out of the way!! ”
         The noble jogged over to the body of one of the sessel-brutes, dodging a wad of greenish slime that caused the stone to bubble and smoked, and picked up a mace.
         “ I can fight!! ” he roared, only to be knocked out by a loose rock that suddenly broke loose above him.
         “ KYLE!! ” Jurrel roared, drawing his long-handled battle-axe and racing towards the beginning of the ramp.
         The scholar actually picked up the slender noble in a fireman’s carry and slowly began making his way back to the cells. Scarlet could only watch in astonishment as Jurrel began swinging his axe in calculated fury as the first of the sessel’s made his way to the center. The axehead cleaved the little beast completely in two and his upper half, arms still flailing wildly, hit the wall with a sickening crunch. Then Jurrel’s axe was a whirling dervish as it carved a bloody swathe amongst the sessels, their huge cousins, and the dog-beasts alike. The barbarian truly blossomed with the long-handled weapon but there were still too many enemies for him alone. Scarlet knew he would be overwhelmed soon if he didn’t get help. There was no way she could help without getting close to the deadly axehead.
         Then the thought came to her and a feral grin grew on her face. Without a word she sprinted for the wall that led up to a section of the ledge just behind the mob. She thought she had never climbed so agilely in her life as she was at the top in moments. One of the big sessel- cousins was waiting for her as her hand came to rest on the floor of the ledge. It raised it’s mace and got an arrow through it’s eyeball for the trouble. Scarlet dodged the body as it fell to the floor below her and pulled herself up onto the ledge.
         The sound of her shortsword sliding from its sheathe... it was almost as good as gold coins.
         Scarlet calmly jogged up behind a sessel and wrapped the arm bearing her knife around it’s neck. With a vicious tug she drew the knife’s blade across it’s throat and simultaneously threw the dying beast over the edge. One of the dog-beasts half turned and was met by a boot to the side of it’s face. The solidly muscled beast was merely stunned but that was all Scarlet needed. The assassin-in-training effortlessly swung the shortsword around into a downward stab through the back of the beast’s neck. She sliced the weapon’s hilt downward and then pulled back up in a quick motion that left the head half severed. A sessel-cousin raised it’s mace and roared only a half meter from her. Scarlet darted forward, whipping the incredibly sharp edge of her shortsword to the left, and planted the knife into the monster’s belly as it’s severed hand fell to the ground. Scarlet twisted her weapon, making the sessel-cousin roar in agony, and drew it messily out.
         Luck was with her as the blood blinded a sessel that was charging at her from the right. Scarlet parried the thrust of it’s shortsword and brought her weapon back across it’s exposed throat. Another sessel came at her from the left and she turned with another parry. Her momentum carried the point of her long knife into the side of it’s neck. Sparks flew from her shoulder as a sessel landed a glancing blow. The pain made her lose her grip on the knife and for a crucial moment she was off balance. The sessel yipped in what she thought was glee as it sprang for her. Fear welled within Scarlet and she screamed in terror.
         A slim shape ducked beneath the sessel and stopped it’s flight with the blade of a shortsword. The sessel let out a tortured bark that was ignored as the body was flung away. Ty’nel stood and shook his head at her.
         “ You’ve got me up here,” he said,“ So I guess we’d better dance. ”
         Scarlet drew her other shortsword with a feral grin.

***

         Jurrel let loose his mightiest battlecry as he took the head of yet another beast. The clansman twisted the top-heavy weapon in his hands and reversed it’s stroke with more ease than he had ever been capable of. The move caught one of the big sessels completely by surprise. The axehead dug a deep crevasse in it’s chest armor as well as it’s flesh. It stumbled backwards bellowing in pain but was only met by the ravenous attentions of the dog-beasts.
         Jurrel spun, swinging his axe in a wide arc, over and under, that took the legs of several sessels, cut several almost in two, and split several of the big sessel’s heads. Jurrel contuined the motion but made the mistake of planted the axe-head cleanly in the skull of a dog-beast in front of him. There was no time to remove it and several sessels noticed it immediately. They charged at him as one as the clansman reached for his warhammer.
         A blur passed before his eyes and hit the line of foes with a wet splattering sound. Jurrel blinked in disbelief as all four of the sessels were impaled through the side by one of the stakes that had been planted around the pit. Jurrel silently thanked Emeralda as he waded into battle.
         A dog-beast leapt at him and was bashed aside by his shield. The shield had a small spike in it’s center that could serve as a handy weapon. Jurrel blocked a wild swing at his middle and brought the warhammer down onto the sessel’s head. Gore flew high and wide as the beast fell. Jurrel strode through it all uncaringly as he lashed out in all directions with his warhammer. A dog-beast leapt onto his back and began trying to gnaw his shoulder. He heard several teeth snap as the beast failed to penetrate his newly donned armor. Jurrel’s warhammer smashed the mouth of a big sessel and the clansman found himself too busy to take care of the annoyance. Unseen hands wrenched the beast from his shoulder and pulped it against the wall. Jurrel let loose another battlecry as he elbowed a dog-beast out of mid-air and smashed it on the skull before it hit the ground.
         The cavern shook as though the Spirits themselves had taken an interest in their battle. Jurrel paid no heed to anything but surviving the battle. He fought as he had been bred and trained to fight. Ruthlessly, fearlessly, and with the knowledge that death in battle was all a true warrior craved. Blood, pieces of bone and brain, all coated the clansman... and it only fueled him to more furious motion. It took his mind back to his days as a battleleader of his clan. His arm ached from wielding his warhammer and his chest burned with every breath. Still he fought with a wild grin and booming warcries.
         And then he found himself facing a glorious sight.
         Scarlet stood before him holding the body of a sessel with her shortsword through it’s throat. The assassin twisted the blade, severing the beasts head, and raised her eyes to meet Jurrel’s. Jurrel went to meet her, and the thief, to celebrate their victory.
         A hellish light burst from the center of the pit and a force pressed them all against the wall. Jurrel tried to move the side of his face and almost pulled every muscle in his neck.
         “ What’s happening?!!” Ty’nel shouted, his face only inches from Jurrel’s.
         “ The demon!! ” Emeralda shrieked from somewhere behind him.
         Suddenly the force vanished and Jurrel found himself slumped against the floor. A deep, blood-chilling laugh filled the room then and Jurrel suddenly knew what Emeralda had meant. His warhammer was gone so he unshipped his battleaxe but he doubted it would do him much good. He raised his eyes, praying to Spirits he was only half-sure existed, that he would not see what he dreaded he would.'
         The Spirits were indeed powerless in this place as his worst fear was realized. Standing in front of a... hole in the very air itself, that opened into a place of floating rock and storm, was the demon Nultistos. The demon was far more terrifying in the flesh than when he was in the brazier. Nultistos towered over Jurrel by nearly three feet. It’s horn-like ears looked incredibly hard in the flesh. It’s crotch was covered in coarse black fur but Jurrel could tell it was very much male. The deepset yellow eyes glared at them all with a hate that was otherworldy in its intensity.
         “ Kill them!! ” a voice wheezed from the corner.
         Jurrel looked and couldn’t believe what he saw. The cursed Sorceror was still alive and rising shakily to his feet. Jurrel stood and squeezed the shaft of his axe until the wood creaked. A javelin blurred through the air and embedded itself into the throat of the demon. Nultistos laughed and plucked the deadly weapon from it’s flesh as though it were nothing more than a splinter. He snapped it between his fingers and laughed his sinister laugh.
         His breeding took over then and Jurrel could not help himself. With a thunderous warcry, Jurrel raced forward, axe at his side, going towards his destiny. There was a soft breeze across Jurrel’s face just before something hard hit him in the side. It took his breath away and took his feet off the ground. The shock was probably all that saved him from serious injury as he hit the wall with bone-jarring force. He hit the ground on his belly and lay there facing the demon as it attacked his companions.
         The little thief tried to leap away and scramble up a wall. Maybe he was trying to get into a better position, maybe he was trying to escape, Jurrel knew not. The demon hurled the body of a big sessel at the thief. It flattened Ty’nel into the wall and the thief rolled down the steep wall before landing in an unconscious heap.
         Scarlet let out her shrill battlecry and charged the creature with both shortswords in hand. The monster tried to bat the assassin aside but Scarlet actually leaped above it. A shortsword cut a gleaming arc beneath her and the demon bellowed in rage as smoking black blood gushed from a cut on it’s wrist. Scarlet let loose a victorious whoop as she thrust a shortsword forward at the demon’s middle. The demon exhaled explosively and the assassin screamed as the demon-wind plucked her from her feet and sent her hurtling toward the wall at a blinding pace. The assassin slowed just enough so that she didn’t die as soon as she hit the ledge above Jurrel.
         The Pliyian boy held his spear out before him and charged the demon with a cry almost as shrill as Scarlet’s. The demon contemptuously gripped the shaft of the spear and gripped the boy by one arm. The demon swung Justal by the arm as though he were a doll, Jurrel cringed in remembered pain as the snap of bone filled the pit, and tossed him away as though he were trash.
         Then there was only Emeralda. Small, slender, Emeralda. The courage that Jurrel had always known came to the fore as the Sorceress held up her palms to the demon. Nultistos grunted and his baleful eyes widened as he slowly began to slide backwards towards the hole to his home. Then the demon laughed his awful laugh and muscles bunched on every part of his body. Slowly Nultistos began taking ponderous steps forward. The talons on his feet cast sparks from the bloody stone floor.
         “ I will enjoy tasting you, Sorceress. "
         Light, so pure as to make even the most evil of men weep, burst into the pit from the way the horde had come. The blob called Munbidi floated onto the shoulder of Nultistos. The little blob looked the worse for wear as its body color had changed to a pale yellow. Blotches of whitened patches also marred it’s skin and several arrowheads protruded from it’s flesh.
         “ He opened the portal? ” the little blob asked tiredly.
         “ Yes. ” the demon chuckled as it continued it’s inexorable march towards Emeralda.
         Suddenly a shape lined in that pure light landed before the Sorceress. Several other shapes, sessels, landed beside it. Jurrel couldn’t be sure from his position, his vision had begun to waver, but it looked as though rings of the light surrounded each of the sessels heads. The knight-cleric looked as though he had fought in an epic battle. The left half of his breastplate looked as though it had partially melted. Entire sections of his chainmail seemed to have been simply ripped away. Tio’nel’s helm was gone and the links on the left half of his head were shattered.The only weapons he had left were his mace and shield and they looked as though they had seen recent, hard use. Blood, red and dark against his armor, oozed from somewhere beneath his breastplate. The knight-cleric’s eyes still burned with a righteous fury though.
         “ Kill him. ” Tio’nel said, gesturing at the demon.
         The four sessels leapt into action with unnatural speed. The demon was completely caught off guard. Jurrel couldn’t believe his blurry eyes as the little creatures struck with phenomal strength and speed. It had to be magic that so enhanced the creature’s abilities but even that was not enough. Soon all four sessels lay in broken, bloody piles around the demon. Nultistos had not escaped unscathed though. The hilt of a shortsword protruded from his back and there were several huge gashes in his chest and stomach. The stories said that anything that didn’t immediately kill a demon was nothing more than an annoyance but Jurrel had never believed the stories.
         The clansman’s eyes widened as the wounds began to close before his eyes. The demon reached behind him and pulled the shortsword out with a meaty sucking sound. Nultistos chuckled again and continued marching towards Emeralda and Tio’nel. The knight-cleric raised his shield and mace when the demon got within range but was easily swatted to the side where he lay motionless. Once again it was only Emeralda and Nultistos. The demon reached for her and memory seared Jurrel’s soul.
         I will not let it happen again...
         Jurrel’s tired, bruised body responded to his will for what felt like the last time as he surged to his feet. His legs pushed him forward into a furious sprint that quickly brought him within range of the demon. Jurrel leaped, spinning in the air, and lashed out with his axe. The blade took the demon high in the throat and it stumbled back as it’s unholy blood gushed from the wound. Something sizzled and popped on his chest. Jurrel looked down and watched in horror as some kind of slime ate away at his plated cuirass. He had not the strength to do anything but collapse on the floor at Emeralda’s feet.
         “ Jurrel? ” the Sorceress asked in a dazed, husky voice.
         The clansman didn’t have the strength to reply.
         “ Push the demon back, Emeralda!! Push it back through the gate!! ” Kyle roared, his voice sounded as though he were exerting himself.
         Jurrel managed to turn his head and saw an unbelievable sight. The scholar had his blade planted firmly in the Sorceror’s gut. The magic-user fought feebly but he was no match for the scholar. Kyle removed the blade and swung the sword with a bellow that would have done a clansman proud. The Sorceror’s head flew from his body in a gory mess and a backblast of light tossed Kyle across the room. Jurrel heard Emeralda scream above him and several blurs sailed over them. The demon roared in agony and Jurrel smiled tiredly. Four stakes had driven more than half their lengths through the demon’s chest. Justal’s spear shakily floated up and suddenly darted through the air. The demon caught it in an iron grip and Jurrel saw that the tip of the weapon was a hairsbreadth from his eye.
         “ Fool, girl, you can not win. You are powerless against one such as I!!! ”
         A tingling sensation spread throughout the clansman’s bodies and a bizarre crackling sound filled the pit. Emeralda screamed a battlecry that the Spirits themselves had to have heard. The demon’s eyes widened as two huge balls of crackling blue light hit him in the chest and sent him back through the slowly closing hole in the air. Jurrel saw the demon spinning wildly as it floated in that place of storm.
         “ I’ll kill you ALLLLLLL!!!! ” his voice became ever distant.
         The little blob Munbidi made a last, desperate leap back through the hole. A figure arose with the end of the shaft of the a mace in both hands. The figure swung at the flashing blob and hit it with a nasty squishy noise.
         “ TIO’NEEEEEEEEEEELLLL!! ” the little blob screamed as it joined it’s demon friend in the place of storms.
         The hole shut with a bang and a tiny puff of smoke. Emeralda slumped to the floor behind him, her panting breaths hot on his neck, and he knew she had overdone it. For that matter it felt like he had overdone it.
         “ Impressive. ”
         It looked like the Lieutenant had finally arrived.
         Jurrel chuckled on his way into the darkness.
Rain's skull throbbed with a fierce vengeance. At one point, she even put a hand
to her ear to make sure her brains weren't coming out. She groaned.

Fortunately, their trip back to Marauder territory had been fairly quick. She
looked forward to the ministrations of a healer.

As they entered the stronghold, they received strange looks and out right
gaping. A few sniggers were meant for them, but these were quelled as others
amonst their ranks reacted. It soon became known that these were truly the
bunch who had defeated the sorceror and daemon. One did not argue with the head
of one's order.

Rain could not care less of their opinion. All she cared to think of was the
deadening of her headache and a place to lie down. They were ushered into their
room, told they could bathe and that a healer would be along presently to
attend them.

As soon as Rain sat down, she decided healing could wait, and that sleep was a
much more pressing requirement.

---------

The healer had come 'round, as he had done for the past week regardless of the fact that they had their own Knight-Cleric, and the group had been examined once again. After which Kyle felt his body was in need of loosening.

Once at the baths, he closed his eyes, soaked into the water up to his chin, and hoped no one would have any use for him until much later.

After a time, he heard footsteps behind him, followed by the sounds of disturbed water. He opened his eyes and saw Ty'nel and Scarlet on the other side of the pool.

Kyle thought of how close the two had become and wished he had a book. The companionship of the written word had been long absent and he found himself feeling lonely.

Ty'nel glanced over at him. "Ah, so you are alive. We had wondered."

Kyle grinned. "Alive yes. Actively though? Not at all."

Scarlet rolled her eyes, but Kyle saw more good-nature behind the gesture than out right scorn. "Shut up weakling."

"As you wish, milady," Kyle replied. He was rewarded with a spray of water in his face. He spluttered, "That was uncalled for whore."

Scarlet gave no reply other than to swim to his side and dunk him. The three of them erupted into an all out water fight. Right in the middle of it, Justal walked into the bathing chamber.

For a moment, their actions stopped and he surveyed the scene with a critical eye. "Hmm...shall I leave you two to get your money's worth?"

In the next instant a bar of soap sailed through the air and hit the Pliyian between the eyes. He doubled over as the soap stung his eyes. "You bitch. You'll pay for that." He looked up at her and grinned. With a splash, he jumped in the pool and the water battle erupted once more.

When they were all sufficiently wet, the four of them climbed out of the water and returned to their room. They walked in and saw Sargeant.

The tiger-man nodded to the others, and then to them. "If you're ready, you have somewhere to be. It's time for your debriefing."
Tio'nel gripped the letter in his hands in a death grip. He couldn't tear his eyes away. The letter was short, and to the point:

Knight-Cleric Tio'nel of the Lady
c/o the Marauders

         Dearest Tio'nel;

         I have prayed every day for your safety. That one day you would return to us. Pray tell me my prayers have not been in vain.

         Your Sisters and Brothers in the Faith eagerly await your return, for I have forseen your coming. Pray do not linger, for we have much to discuss and my ties to this world weaken by the day.

May the Lady Guide you and Speed you Always on your Journey.

Aleese of Loriea and the Lady
High Priestess


* * *


Jurrel lay, head pillowed on his arms, regarding the ceiling. Little more than an arms-length away, the sorceress snored softly.

His back, healed to almost better-than-new condition itched, but that was a mere discomfort, and the warrior decided to ignore it. For the time being, at least. He thought he might ask the cleric when he returned if there was something he might do for Rain, she seemed in a bad way . . . where was that old man, anyway?

The laughter and noise from the bathing room beckoned, but despite Jurrel's contentment, he had a lingering bout of melancholy he just couldn't seem to shake.

He wanted -- he wanted something, something more, Jurrel decided. Some more, some MORE of THIS! That was it. He grinned.

"What's so funny?"

He turned his head. Rain lay on her side, head propped in one hand, regarding him, curious, and trying to restrain her curiousity.

"It has been a good day."

"Aye," she answered, though clearly not convinced that that was what lay so heavily upon his mind. "What do you think," she asked, clearly having decided to change the subject, "will happen to us now?"

"Don't know, but I have no wish to be someone else's puppet forever."

"Nor do I."

"I think we've more than fulfilled our side of the bargain."

"Are you sure? Seems I remember being hired to get some kind of treasure. Here, maybe," her voice trailed off, almost as if she spoke only to herself, "or under us, somewhere?"

Jurrel shrugged. "I don't care, whatever it was."

"What do you plan to do?"

He grinned again. "Why don't we wait, to see what's offered us!"

Both sat up abruptly when Sergeant entered. The tiger-man shrugged one shoulder towards the bath room, asking, "The others, I take it, are in there?"

"Yes," Rain answered, "everyone is, except the old -- except, ah, that is, Tio'nel's not, but everyone else is."

"Well, I'll come back for them." His eyes fastened on them, back from his own thoughts. "The Lieutenant wants to see you two specifically."

Jurrel and Rain exchanged a concerned glance. After a moment's strained silence, Jurrel asked, "Why?"

One of Sergeant's eyebrows lifted. "I am sure he will tell you, when we get there. Come on."

Sergeant led barbarian and sorceress back along tunnels and corridors, up stairs and through doors neither had seen since first arriving among the Marauders, willingly . . . or not, so very few months ago.

Up in the keep proper, Sergeant led them into the Lieutenant's office. The small room was crowded with people, most notably Captain Ahs'er and Sorceror Ly'nel. Lieutenant Tai'sher stepped around his desk to lean against it, effectively shielding the two seekers from what the others had been discussing.

"What do you want?" Jurrel demanded, uneasy in such company and irrationally relieved the Lieutenant's longsword remained in the sheath at his waist.

The Lieutenant's eyes latched onto the barbarian. "You, Jurrel of the Lijuak, will remain silent unless spoken to. Now," he continued, in a slightly easier tone, "rumor has it, that it is you, Rain-Emerald of Domhu, who has rid us of that sorceror and his demons."

Jurrel fumed.

Rain shook her head quickly. "No, not -- not I. Jurrel and I held back the demon, but it was Kyle, Kyle it was who slayed the sorceror. I was -- was preoccupied. I missed -- I didn't realize --" she broke off, looking up at Jurrel for help.

"Kyle killed the sorceror," supplied Jurrel, uncharacteristically modest. "Rain held back the demon, while he did it." He grinned. "Even I am no match for our Sorceress."

Rain nodded, hastening to explain, "I did not notice the sorceror had linked the demon plane through his own life-force." Her shoulders sagged a little in defeat. "If not for him, and Jurrel, I would be dead." She lifted her eyes, forcing herself to meet the Lieutenant's gaze. "The demon was too strong."

"Where did those bursts of magic come from?"

Rain's chin rose, her chest inflating with pride. "Me," she said. "I did it."

"I have heard surprising things about the two of you," said the Lieutenant, seeming to consider them a moment. "You, barbarian, seem to be quite the leader among your ragged band, and you," his eyes flicked back to Rain, "Your skills have quite improved." He leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest. "So, now, tell me, what have you in mind? Now that your, hmm, how to say this? Now that your time with us has come to an end?"

"What can you offer us?" Jurrel questioned right back.

The Lieutenant allowed a rare smile. "Not what I would've expected from you, barbarian. Well," he reached behind him for a sheaf of papers, "as it so happens, your, ah, contracts with us have expired. You, Rain-Emerald, as per our arrangement, were to have been apprenticed to Sorceror Ly'nel, but I'm afraid that can no longer be."

She stared. "But, but . . . ."

"Never fear, young woman, it is not that you made some mistake or failed some way. Indeed, quite the contrary. It seems your skills have surpassed anything Ly'nel could hope to teach you. In fact, no one living has any chance to teach you more than you already know. Any . . mundane magic you could learn is best learnt from your own studies."

"I will conduct your sealing," Ly'nel interrupted, "as I said I would."

Rain relaxed. A little. "What do you mean?" she asked.

"To be blunt, you are alone in your skill. There is, literally, no one, who can apprentice you. Ly'nel tells me your grasp of magic is at the limits of even his own, as far as your own powers go, you understand." He shrugged. "You're unique, Rain-Emerald. Surely you understand that."

Jurrel bristled, but before he could open his mouth, Rain spoke. "I do understand." She faced Ly'nel and bowed. "Thank you, Master, for allowing me to take up so much of your time."

"Humpf!" Ly'nel snorted, though he was certainly pleased by her deference.

"But," Rain continued, turning back once more to the Lieutenant, "if there is no contract . . . ?"

"Ah, but there is -- was a contract, and it was fullfilled. Will be," he corrected himself again, with an annoyed twitch of his lips, "once you are officially your own master. Now the matter turns once more to you and your hulky friend there." The lieutenant frowned, looking down at the papers he clutched. "It would seem news has gotten out about what was accomplished." He shook the papers at them. "And in fact I have recieved several requests for the two of you, singly, of course, to hire you away from us, and, I admit, they are fairly established posts for one such as yourselves."

He handed the papers to Rain. "The choice is, of course, yours."

Rain looked down a moment, at what she held in her hands, her dearest dreams come true, and almost missed Jurrel when he spoke:

"We are a team," he said, shaking his head.

She looked up at him, wonderingly. Then, "Jurrel's right," she said. "Us, and the others, we'll stick together."

"What have you to offer us?"

The lieutenant smiled slightly. "Ah, as for that, yes, we do wish to hire you, and, while the tasks set you will be interesting, they are also potentially deadly." His voice took on a decidedly solemn note, "And once taken, an oath to the Marauders is not so easily undone." He shook himself, standing, "But you can decide later. Think on it, while I speak to the others. Sergeant, are you back yet?"

The tiger-man was instantly at Rain and Jurrel's side, escorting them out, while at the same time bringing in Kyle, Ty'nel, Scarlet, and Justal.

The four stood apart from each other, yet together, away from the others in the room. Silently, the lieutenant regarded them.

"So what is it now?" Scarlet was the one to speak.

"I have recieved a request from Sergeant, that I have decided to grant," the Lieutenant said, fastening his formidible gaze on Scarlet, so that she twitched, uncomfortable. "I need a small force, mobile, and silent. But, I have also recieved numerous requests for service. You, whore, number among those. Should you desire them, you should also remain silent." His words rang in the hushed room.

Scarlet turned nearly as red as her name, scowling furiously. Ty'nel nudged her with his elbow.

"That's better. Now, Kyle, I have it on good standing that you are to be commended for your bravery and for the killing of the sorceror, which allowed for the demon to be returned to his own plane of existence."

The scholar blushed, nodding. "Thank you," he murmured.

The lieutenant frowned. "Anything else you wish to say?"

Kyle looked up sharply. "Only that I -- I might not have noticed, but that I had just returned. That is, Ty'nel told me to guard the prisoners -- get them out of the way, I mean. I missed most of the battle. Luckily, the sessels, and their bigger cousins, didn't get past Jurrel. Or, or Scarlet, either. I only guessed, I didn't really know, for certain, I was right, until after. But it didn't seem that anyone else could do anything about it, either!"

"Seems you should learn how to accept praise a little more graciously, Kyle Menston."

The lieutenant's eyes moved to Ty'nel. The thief stiffened.

"Lucky for you your ploy worked, traitor-thief. Do you really think you would have gotten away with such treachery?"

"Of course not," Ty'nel answered smoothly.

The lieutenant surprised them by laughing. "See how easily he does it!" he remarked to no one in particular.

Then Justal was under the stare. He squirmed.

"And where were you, boy, in the midst of all this?"

"He -- lping," he squeaked. And flushed.

Tai'sher waited.

"I -- I tried to stop Tio'nel," said the boy. "He'd gone mad, chasing that little, yellow guy." Absently, he rubbed the back of his wrist, where some of the acid had burned through. "Didn't turn out to need me, though, and I shot anything that moved, of course. I did get the sorceror." He smiled, a self-satisfied little smirk. "Wasn't expecting that, he wasn't. Didn't believe anything could get through his shield."

"So I see," the lieutenant murmured.

"If this is supposed to be a debriefing," muttered Ty'nel, "how is it you know everything already? What more can we say, that you don't know all ready?"

"I've found out what I need to know. You need more patience, especially if you are to join Sergeant in his elite hunting party."

Ty'nel stood up straighter, like-to have been prodded suddenly with a needle. He was of two minds: astonishment and awe at his good luck and that someone -- not just someone, but Sergeant! would request him, but also resentment. He wasn't theirs anymore, dammit!

"We've concluded any requests you could make of us," Scarlet said shortly, before Ty'nel could more than wheeze, still speechless.

"Indeed," the lieutenant agreed so quickly even Scarlet was put off. "Which is why you are here. You have fulfilled your half of the deal -- not exactly what we had initially planned, in fact you may yet have that adventure, but you've succeeded all the same. So, I'll put it to you as I did the others: yes, we do wish to hire you, and, while the tasks set you will be well worth the while, they are also potentially lethal." His voice took on a decidedly solemn note, "And, once taken, an oath to the Marauders can not be so easily undone."

"You mean, become a Marauder?" Justal demanded.

The lieutenant silenced him with a look. "I will get to you, boy. It is to you, Ty'nel, Scarlet, I put this to." Reaching behind him, he withdrew a stack of papers for each of them. "Here, think on these. I'll summon you again for your answers."

As the thief and assassin left, Justal and Kyle glanced at each other nervously.

"You, Kyle Menston." The lieutenant handed him a key. "To the library, if you accept our offer. We have several unsolved mysteries in this keep of ours, like our constant trouble with fiends in the lower sections. I have a team on it. Your old mentor, Jorek, has requested you. Seems you've somehow earned his respect. Or," he offered Kyle a few papers, not nearly the stack given Scarlet or Ty'nel, "you may choose from among these."

Then Justal was alone in the room of strangers.

"I don't have any requests for you," the lieutenant started.

Justal looked down at his toes.

"Except one. Can you ride?"

* * *


The dinner that evening was a quiet one, quite the opposite to the merry affair of a few weeks ago.

And, Kyle suddenly realized, they were two short. "Hey," he said, "where's that old man? Tio'nel? and Justal?"

The others looked around, only just now realizing for themselves that someone, in fact two someones, was missing.

"What's going on?" Kyle asked.

"Isn't it obvious?" Rain asked.

"What is?" he demanded sulkily.

"That we're going off in our own directions," the sorceress explained. "We've all outgrown our old group." She sighed softly. "We're getting our own, harder tasks. I think -- I think I shall miss you all."

"Huh. Well, I won't miss any of you," Scarlet harumphed.

Ty'nel lifted his goblet. "I say, a toast -- to the Seekers."

"The Seekers!"
" Yes, Justal did get the glory, fame, and respect he sought, after many storied adventures. You may or may not have heard of Duke Ty'nel of Brynia. There is no doubt that you have heard of Jurrel, Messiah of the Lijuak, founder of the Empire of the Clans at who's right-hand stands his partner in all things, High Sorceress Rain-Emerald. You wish to know of Scarlet... if I wrote it here then I would forfeit my life to her minions and that is all I am allowed to say. There are not many lands that are not crawling with the acolytes of the Temple of the Lady commanded by High Priest Tio'nel. As for how our heroes arose to such historic positions... that is a story for another book. "


-From the Chronicles of The Seekers by General Menston of the Second Mikaolan Occupational Army
I'd like to thank all who participated in the campfire for their additions. I am well pleased with the outcome.

A special thanks to KC and Vermy. Without you two I would have not been able to complete the campfire half as well.

Write on...

The End!

© Copyright 2002 S-Styles, The Nameless Hermit, Verm, KC under the midnight sun, (known as GROUP).
All rights reserved.
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