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Rated: 18+ · Novel · Action/Adventure · #2127728
An orphan boy is the cornerstone in an ancient conflict between one man and the gods.
Hello, my name is Elliot, and I'm an aspiring author. I welcome comments and constructive criticism, and honestly hope to improve my craft until it can stand on its own. This is the first rough draft of the first book I ever wrote, Xen's Chosen. Enjoy!

O'tambwe walked down the dusty road, his brown eyes alert. The tall old man's black skin and black robes embroidered with gold enchantments struck an imposing figure. His face was weatherworn, and his head bald. He stooped slightly as he walked. Not because of age, but to hold the hand of his daughter who was barely up to his knee. She was dressed similarly in clothes of his own design. To the left and right for miles stretched farmland as far as the eye could see.

O'tambwe smelled smoke.

He gazed out to the village ahead of him. It was, to all appearances, an ordinary farming community.  A cloud of dust made its way to the east, moving away from O'tambwe even as a plume of black smoke rose from the distant cottages. On a beautiful day like this, there would be men working, children playing, and women resting in the shade, surreptitiously watching the men. O'tambwe saw none of these things.

The village was on the outskirts of the Empire, nearly falling in the shade of Feld Mountain, the towering landmark dominating the center of the land. It was visible from every corner of the continent, with a shape so unique that children were taught to place themselves on a map simply by reading the mountain. A village on the outskirts like this one had no defense against attack, but on the unified continent there weren't any particularly large groups of outlaws who would do this.

"Little one," O'tambwe said as he bent to face his daughter. "Your father is going to see if anyone needs his help, I want you to hide here, and if anyone tries to hurt you, throw this at them." He said, gingerly placing the magic bound up in soft clay in her tiny hands. He knew no harm could come to her as long as she wore his enchantments, but it made both of them feel better for her to be armed, albeit with a nonlethal spell.

Neya darted off the road and dived into the sea of wheat. She began looking for the best vantage to observe her father, and run to his rescue if he needed her help. Neya gripped the clay ball in one hand and began crawling forward, stealthily shadowing her father.

O'tambwe eyed his daughter clumsily snaking through the wheat and sighed, turning back to the village that was just now beginning to show visible flames. He began trotting, maintaining the most comfortable pace his age would allow. In a few short minutes he arrived at the well in the center of the village.

O'tambwe's gaze passed over the brutalized corpses of men and women intermingled with a handful of dead giants, their skin unnaturally white. The giants were nine feet tall and riddled with deep wounds, while the humans surrounding them showed signs of being stabbed with spears of hacked with swords.

O'tambwe's brows furrowed. Not a single human looked like they had been hit with the kind of force one of these giants could muster. He would have expected at least a few of the villagers to be cleaved in two or an entire side of their body to be crushed.

O'tambwe shook his head and looked up at the burning homes. He needed to see if there was anyone he could save now, rather than search for clues.

"Hello!" he shouted, his thin voice lost in the now roaring blaze of many former cottages. "Is there anyone alive? I am a wizard from the country of A'ktala, I can help!"

No response. O'tambwe looked about, his eyes watering as the smoke thickened. Giving up the worst burning cottages as lost, he began searching ones that had not yet been consumed by the fire.

He had braced himself, but seeing what he already suspected was unnerving. Men, women, and children had been put to the sword in each house. They were lined up in their main rooms as if there had been a head count before they were removed from the Weave.  At last the heat became too great and O'tambwe had to abandon his search.

Back at the well, O'tambwe drew a bucket of water and smelled it before he drank. Wells are prime targets in warfare, and he would not have been surprised to detect the faint odor of sewage. The water seemed clean enough, so he drank. He poured the rest of the bucket over his head, intending to try one more house before he gave up on the town.

Looking up, he noticed one house, near the edge of the village, was slower to burn than the rest. The others danced in flames so ferociously no amount of water would have saved his skin.

Dripping, O'tambwe limped to the last building, his body no longer able to sustain heroics for any length of time. If anyone was even alive in that house, a few moments more would not kill them. He reached into his midnight black robe for a small charm made of gold. It contained the spell of healing he had made for his wife. If there was someone there whose soul hadn't yet departed, it could help them.

Sadly the scene in the last house was no better than any of the others, with one exception. Beyond the man and woman who lay slain in the center of the room was the body of another grown man, wearing riding gear and holding an extinguished torch.

He lay in a steaming puddle of soup. His face was a mass of blisters contorted in a rictus of pain. The handle of a kitchen knife protruded from between his ribs. The dead rider's sheath was conspicuously empty, and there was no sword to be found on the rough wood floor of the cottage.

The next instant, O'tambwe felt a heavy blow ring from the nape of his neck.

Neya was sneaking around to the last house her father had entered when she heard the ring of steel on stone, and a child screaming.  Neya abandoned her clever hiding spot and sprinted towards her father's last known location.

She tripped, tumbling end over end, and slid to a stop, her face in the dirt.

When Neya got to her feet, both knees were bleeding from the rough tumble, there was dirt in her mouth, and her eyes stung from the smoke. The only thing she could think to do was plop down and cry for help.

The powerful enchantments woven in O'tambwe's robe broke the sword, and the boy hiding in the rafters fell to the ground. The thing that disturbed O'tambwe the most was that he had not stayed down, or crawled away, or cried out. Instead the boy rolled to the dead rider and pulled the knife from the corpse's breast.

In the space of a breath, he leapt at O'tambwe, trying in vain to disembowel the wizard.  The knife bounced and dented against O'tambwe's stomach a half dozen times before he could grasp the child's wrists. "Be calm, child, I am not one of them," he said, gently holding the struggling child. "I am here to help you." At last the boy began to cry out. Beginning as a whimper, his voice rose to a wail. Shortly his breath gave out and he simply collapsed.

O'tambwe looked down at the sleeping child. If he had not been a wizard dressed for the dangers of the world, he would have died today. The rider's sword was shattered, strewn across the floor. The boy had hauled it up into the rafters above his head and fell on O'tambwe sword first, rightly expecting gravity to do the work of muscle. He was dressed normally for a child of this village, with not much more than a burlap sack cinched about his waist with a rough rope.

O'tambwe saw nothing wrong with him, physically. He was unnerved though, at the efficacy of this child's attempt on his life. Unnatural for one so young, the same size as my Neya. He thought to himself. This little one may grow to be a monster, but perhaps with the right guidance, he could be Neya's monster.

It was about that time, as the wizard was contemplating the boy's fate that he heard his daughter crying and shouting for him. O'tambwe let out another sigh and carefully scooped up the boy and went out to see what trouble she'd gotten into herself into.

Neya, true to form, was sitting in the center of a burning village with both knees skinned. She didn't say anything, just wordlessly shrieked and reached for her father.

O'tambwe laid his burden down next to her and picked up his daughter, one arm supporting her while she smeared snot on his robes worth a king's ransom. With his other hand he pressed his wife's healing charm against her forehead. Shortly she wound down to sniffling, and then stopped altogether.

Neya began getting restless, kicking him in her squirming. He set her down. "better now, little one?" he asked.

Neya nodded, finally taking an interest in the boy her father had placed next to her. "Who is that, papa?" she asked.

"It's a boy who's lost his parents today," Otambwe said, glancing down at the village boy. "I am going to look after him, and in return he can help me look after you."

Neya looked down at the unconscious child. "But he's not wearing any pants!" she said, pointing at him.

You only get one chance to make an impression, O'tambwe thought to himself, rolling his eyes.

Unnoticed by Neya, his hand casually touched the nape of his neck. The impression the boy had made on O'tambwe left a thin trail of blood oozing from the back of his neck.

Chapter 1

Ezyk walked along the paved road leading away from the academy towards the clearing used from day to day as a practice field for any discipline that could result in bodily harm. His heart pounded in his chest and his limbs tingled with excitement. Today they would get to see some real magic, not glorified trade school.

O’tambwe had pounded the basics of a dozen disciplines into the students, day after day, and today was the day he would give them their first lesson on spellcraft rather than carving, calligraphy, chemistry and metallurgy, history or math.

Beside Ezyk, in front and behind him were the other students of O’tambwe’s Wizardry class, excitedly chatting amongst themselves. They filed into the practice field and took their seats on the stone semicircle at the edge of the grass.

O’tambwe stood near the seats with a table stacked high with bowls, paper, and what seemed to be a knitting needle. A large barrel of water and several buckets were nearby. There were suspicious swaths of grass between where they stood and O’tambwe himself that were blackened as though they had caught fire.

O’tambwe motioned for the students to sit on the seats facing him. As soon as the class had settled down, he got their attention.

“Good afternoon children,” he said, standing in front of the table. “It has been a long time coming, and today you will begin to learn practical magic.” The class gave a cheer, and Ezyk found himself grinning.

“Indeed,” he continued, “from this afternoon on you will be able to kill yourself, your friends and family just by writing a few words on paper.” The students went silent.

“Let’s begin.” O’tambwe said after giving his words a moment to sink in. “Long ago, when the world was created, the gods devised a written language that was so intrinsically linked to the thing that it represented, that it would allow them to change the world as they saw fit. In the end, the gods left us to our own devices, and the master key to reality they left for any man to use. Why then, is wizardry such a rare art? Am I not teaching a group of twenty five this very thing? There are many reasons. The more obvious I will share with you.”

“First, it’s difficult,” O’tambwe said, holding up a gnarled finger. “These runes resist being used. You’ll see what I mean today.” He held up another finger. “Second, it’s complicated. There are more than three thousand of these words that we know of, some so similar in shape that a layman could not pick out the difference. And others that we know must exist, but we do not know the rune for.”

O’tambwe extended his thumb. “And lastly, it’s dangerous. If every one of you is careful, and take the best precautions, only one or two of you will die. But we all know you’ll get confident in yourself eventually, and sooner or later you’ll start to drop like flies.” O’tambwe scanned the nervous students for a moment, his eyes briefly resting on Ezyk before moving on.

“Case in point, there is a small charm that could be used to clean your boots,” Otambwe said, pointing to his feet. “This combination of runes is almost identical to one which would gut you like a fish. My advice is to play it smart and never, ever, clean your boots with the power of the gods.” This got a small laugh.

O’tambwe moved to stand beside the table. “I have, for each of you, a book of common runes arranged by similarity and complexity,” he said, patting the books. “If you want to live a good long life, cross reference the runes of every spell you create with similar runes to make absolutely sure it’s not going to release a poisonous gas or hell spawn beast if you forget a stroke.”

O’tambwe clapped his hands together and spoke. “Now that I’ve hopefully impressed on you the danger of magic,” O’tambwe said, eyeing the students with a malevolent grin. “There is one little trick that will prevent you from killing yourself almost entirely. And that is blood.”

“I’m going to pool a small amount of blood from each of you into these bowls,” O’tambwe said, motioning to the bowls. “Which you will then use as the ink for your first forays into the magical arts.”

The students whispered to each other, most of them sneaking terrified looks at the needle that until recently had seemed innocuous. Ezyk heard the phrase ‘blood magic’ tossed around more than once before a small girl near the front raised her hand.

“Yes, my dear?” O’tambwe asked with a smile as he unfolded a velvet cloth filled with shiny needles.

“How does using our blood prevent us from hurting ourselves?” she asked. “It seems like the opposite!” Ezyk was sure that he and everyone else were thinking the exact same thing, which meant this was part of the old man’s game.

“I’m glad you asked my dear,” O’tambwe said. “It’s a simple matter of the spell assuming properties of the medium with which it was created.” The blank stares of the class had O’tambwe befuddled for a moment. He scratched his bald head for a moment before tossing one of the needles to the closest student, a young man with a fair, freckled face.

“Kill yourself,” O’tambwe said.

The boy sat stock still in the seat as every eye turned to him.

“I’ll give you extra credit,” Otambwe said. “Award you with full marks posthumously.”

The freckled boy shook his head.

“Do it,” Otambwe said, placing his index finger on his neck. “Just line the needle up with the major vein here, and go to sleep. That’s not so hard.”

The boy shook his head more emphatically, his hands shaking.

“Do it!” O’tambwe shouted, and the freckled young man dropped the needle onto the grass and began crawling away from the wizard, climbing up the stone steps to seek safety with his friends.

“Sorry, Paul,” O’tambwe said, stooping to retrieve the needle as he addressed the class. “Put simply, a spell created from a living creature’s blood cannot directly harm that creature, since it is anathema for a living creature to kill itself.” Still, silence reigned.

“I suppose a demonstration would convince you?” he asked, raising a brow as he scanned the students. This met general enthusiasm from the class.

Ezyk leaned forward, eager to see what would happen next. He was unprepared for O’tambwe, the wizard who had raised him like a son for 9 years to suddenly slip out of his robe, revealing himself in all his wrinkled majesty. Amid the silent squinting, scattered groans and a single catcall, O’tambwe calmly folded his robe and placed it on the table before taking up one of the bowls and a clean needle.

With a practiced motion, O’tambwe jabbed the needle into his left wrist. The open end of the needle spurted blood into the bowl he held with his left hand. No more than 4 seconds went by before he withdrew the needle and held his thumb over his wrist. O’tambwe set the bowl of blood down and took up a small necklace Ezyk had not noticed next to the bowls.

After a moment, he set it back down and removed his thumb, revealing that the bleeding had stopped and the hole in his wrist was gone. “Good,” O’tambwe said, flexing his left hand. “We can begin.”  O’tambwe picked up the bowl with a flourish and grabbed a sheet of paper. He then moved a short way away from the table and sat cross legged, setting the bowl beside him.

“This is a worst case scenario,” he said, dabbing his middle finger into the bowl.  O’tambwe began tracing an intricate symbol on the paper. The air began to feel thick, shimmering around the old wizard and pressing against the sensitive tissue of Ezyk’s eyes.

O’tambwe burst into flame.

A wave of heat washed across the faces of the onlookers, causing Ezyk to throw his arm over his eyes. Somewhere someone screamed as the boy in front of Ezyk prepared to bolt.

A moment later, the heat was gone. Ezyk stood, because the boy in front of him was blocking his view. Looking to the left and right, Ezyk saw the rest of the class standing as well. In front of them was O’tambwe with his arms akimbo, his skin glowing a deep red in the afternoon sun. 

“Thus will using your own blood protect you from most harm,” O’tambwe said, still nude. “But not from everything. A wizard in the military can’t afford to be bleeding themself constantly either. Sooner or later you are going to have to work without that safety net.”

“So, who wants to quit while they’re alive?” O’tambwe asked.  A few hands shot up, a shorter girl going so far as to bounce on her toes. Ezyk was frightened, but the appeal of the fantastic drew him in, and so he kept his hand down.

O’tambwe’s gaze crossed each person with their hand up, briefly settling on Ezyk. “That is the correct answer,” he said, a smile forming on his weather worn face.  “You will make excellent wizards. I can’t actually allow you to leave my class, but that level of caution is exactly what I expect. Now form a line in front of the table.”

O’tambwe slowly walked over to the table, and very gingerly slid his robe on, grimacing as the silk slid over his tender skin.  As students filed by him, he quickly went about handing them a book from under the table, a bowl, and a paper from the stack.

When Ezyk’s turn came, he spoke up. “Are you all right sir?” he asked.

“I expect I’ll peel tomorrow” O’tambwe said, giving him a grin that was shockingly white framed by his dark, burnt skin.

After all the students were seen to, O’tambwe gave them a quick lesson on spell structure before allowing them to sit wherever they liked to read their books. O’tambwe only insisted that if a student wished to try a combination of runes they would allow O’tambwe to review it first. Then O’tambwe would draw a bit of their blood into a bowl to allow them to work the spell safely. Other than that, they were free to peruse their books and begin building their own spells.

Ezyk sat down with his friend Jaque, and they began looking through the runes together. “That line about gutting you like a fish couldn’t possibly be right,” Jaque said, resting his chin on his palm as he flipped through the pages. “It has nothing to do with cleaning boots.” Jaque scanned the pages quickly.

“Oh wait,” Jaque said, squinting as his gaze flickered between two runes. “Nevermind, ‘clean’ and ‘hollow out’ are unbelievably similar. Yeah, I could see that happening.”

“He’s expecting us to make our own spells,” Ezyk said impatiently. “Let’s browse through the simplest runes for useful ones. That way we’ll be allowed to try it out sooner than everyone else.”

Jaque ignored him and was flipping through pages with increasing excitement, holding several places with his fingers while delving deeper into the book. “Hold on, I need to check something,” Jaque said, dashing off toward O’tambwe. Ezyk decided to not bother with him for the time being and began scanning through the first five pages for possible combinations.

Jaque came trotting back with his cheeks flushed and a stupid grin plastered on his face. “What did you do?” Ezyk asked, hoping his friend hadn’t done anything that would spill over onto his shoulders.

“ I am a genius,” Jaque declared, sitting cross legged in front of him “I showed O’tambwe my plan for a breast expansion spell, and with only a minor revision he says it will work perfectly.”

Ezyk was speechless. Mostly he was aghast at his friends impending misuse of magic, but a small part of him was curious. “And what was this minor revision?” Ezyk asked.

“An extra rune to allow the growth to stop.“ Jaque said, getting back up again. 

Ezyk rolled his eyes and went back to scanning the page. His eyes caught the simple rune representing lodestone that looked somewhat like an apple that had been sliced in half. As a child, he always found it fascinating trying to push together like ends of lodestone and having them magically repel each other. If he could find a way to make other things behave like lodestone...The only problem of course was that lodestone attracted as well as repelled itself, he’d have to find a way to harness only one aspect of it.  What If he made everything within a small area essentially represent an equal and identical amount of lodestone? That would either cause everything to be drawn in or repelled.

Ezyk got to his feet and walked to where O’tambwe stood. “Sir, I’d like to build a spell based on lodestone.” He said. “Oh? Describe it to me, young man.” O’tambwe said. “I’d like to use these runes,” Ezyk pointed at the Lodestone rune, the Becoming rune, Symmetry rune, and the Cloud rune. “to make an area around the spell in which everything will repel everything else, the purpose of this enchantment would be to turn aside sword and arrow blows.”

O’tambwe looked over the runes with a frown. “this is not my speciality,” Ot’ambwe said flipping through Ezyk’s book. “But substitute this,” he pointed at the cloud rune. “With these two.” he pointed at two others, further back in the book than Ezyk had looked. “And you will have a more definite border.”

“If you make an enchantment out of two pieces of lodestone bound together against their own force you should be on the right track,” Otambwe said, glancing up at Ezyk from his seat in the shade. “It would make the spell permanent, and reinforce the power of the Lodestone Rune.”

Ezyk was about to ask where he might get a large enough lodestone when O’tambwe put a hand on his shoulder, looking past him. “Be somewhere else right now,” O’tambwe said. “I would prefer it if you were beneath their notice.”

Ezyk glanced over his shoulder and saw the Dean bearing down on them, a dark look on his face. Behind him was the son of count Heager. Until recently he had been a member of the class, but he had stormed off a week ago when O’tambwe had moved from a month of minerals and smelting to a weeklong primer on woodcarving and scrimshaw.

Ezyk turned to stand beside O’tambwe rather than hide. O’tambwe looked down at Ezyk with a glimmer of frustration before addressing the now arriving Dean. “Dean Richmond, what business brings you here today?” O’tambwe made a small bow.

The dean looked over the field of students with their heads bent over books, conversing in twos and threes. He looked back at Otambwe. “What are they doing?” he asked, his face growing red.

“They are learning, my friend.” O’tambwe said.

“This boy here told me that you had been teaching these student nothings they could not learn from an engineering course,” The Dean said. “Of course I didn’t believe him, but then another came to me not five minutes ago, and told me you’d asked for volunteers to quit, told a boy to kill himself!”

The Dean’s face grew redder and his voice rose “then she confirmed that today was the first day you taught any real wizardry!” he shouted “The Empire is not funding your class for smiths, carpenters, engineers and scrimshaw artists! They want wizards to support the reclamation of the Interior! It’s been three months, and they know nothing!”  The Dean gestured at the students, who were now staring.

“Ah, I see you are most astute, and right to be critical,” O’tambwe said. “I hope this will allay your concerns about my students.” O’tambwe motioned a short, plain girl with black hair and thin features to join them. “Heather, say you were working for the army, and they came across a wood bridge that had been destroyed by the enemy, and your troop needed to pass that day? What would you do?” heather ducked her head , hiding her face behind her book.

The Dean snorted, and was about to continue his tirade when she responded, “I would flatten the main beams, and carve Memory and Growth to cause the two sides of the bridge to grow back together.” She said, craning her neck to look at O’tambwe and the dean.

“A creative solution my dear, thank you,” O’tambwe said, patting her on the head. She blushed a little and almost skipped away.

“What the hell did that prove?” Dean Richmond demanded. “Wizards are weapons! Their utility lies in destroying the enemy!”

“If you want weapons instead of wizards, I could easily make some fire spells that any idiot could use.” O’tambwe said, his hand sliding into the pocket of his robe.

The light around O’tambwe dimmed, and his voice grew deeper, until it began to shake the ground. It seemed as though space had drawn around him like purse strings that had been firmly pulled closed. The only thing anyone could do was look in awe, as already tall wizard seemed to grow to a frightening height.

“The wizards I teach will be problem solvers!” He said, his voice shaking the earth. “If that happens to include enemy soldiers, they will solve that problem! Right now you are being a problem!”

The dean fell backwards, scooting away from O’tambwe, the red draining from his face, leaving him pale and sickly. The count’s son was already nowhere to be seen. A moment later the dean scrambled back to his feet, cowed by O’tambwe’s display.

“We will discuss this in private, another time” he stammered, before turning and walking away at a pace almost too brisk to be considered walking.

As his students continued to stare, O’tambwe took his hand out of his pocket and placed a small charm carved from what appeared to be a fingerbone on the table beside him. The moment he broke contact, the sky lightened, and he seemed to shrink back to normal.

O’tambwe waited for the dean to no longer be visible, then motioned his class to approach. When they had gathered around, he spoke. “this is a charm of my own invention, I like to call it The Alpha Wolf,” he said with a grin. “I use it for... well, exactly what you saw there. I suggest you make one of your own, children. When you leave my class, you will be required to join the military for a term of no less than 4 years. Wizards must have an air of mystery about them, and this little charm will make your life easier if you use it judiciously.”

Jaque leaned forward and snatched up the bone, instantly growing menacing and powerful. “Ladies!” he boomed, facing the rest of the class. “Arrange yourselves for me in order of height!” The class along with O’tambwe fell about the field laughing. The bone made its way through every student’s hands. Each made a demand, proclamation or insult before passing it to the next.

Ezyk looked to O’tambwe, who was wiping tears from his eyes. “Is this wizard training too?” he asked.

O’tambwe looked back at him, still chuckling a bit. “Indeed it is,” he said, glancing at his students. “A wizard must know a trick when he sees one. Imagine if they had run into something similar without having made a game of it.” he said. “Take the mystery away from something, and it loses its power over you.”

As the class wound down everyone had the opportunity to make an attempt at what O'tambwe claimed to be the simplest and safest spell. A simple three stroke rune summoned a small point of light.

"We'll take this opportunity to introduce you to the wizard's trance," O'tambwe said, orating from beneath the shade of the tree. "When you write a spell, you will feel as if everything has become sluggish. After a while you will start to feel nauseous, until your eyes begin to spin, and your sense of balance is lost."

"This is the sensation of reality stretching, and trying to correct itself," O'tambwe said. "And the longer you can soldier through these uncomfortable sensations, the more powerful the effect you will evoke when you finish the spell and the accumulated energy settles into the runes you have laid." A simple three stroke rune summoned a small point of light, hovering above the paper that O'tambwe  held.

It turned out a little different for each student, some brighter, some dimmer, or strangely colored. None of them turned out as steady as O'tambwe's. Ezyk supposed that was to be expected. When Ezyk's turn had come, his heart wouldn't slow down, the thrill of working his first spell combined with the fear of self-immolation kept his pulse quick and fingers shaky.

As Ezyk drew the symbol, his arm quickly grew tired, then he realized his hand was moving slower than when he had started. Ezyk tried to make it move faster, but nothing happened. Instead his hand seemed to crawl across the blank paper with the speed of a slug.  Ezyk tried to look up, and was hit with a rush of vertigo as his eyes took several seconds to move. His whole body was mired in a swamp, but everyone else was perfectly still. Ezyk panicked. Did I do something to the world!? he thought, pulling away.

Ezyk's concentration snapped, and the feeling went away, leaving his surroundings once again moving. He found his own hand finishing the last stroke, and he felt something leave him, as if Ezyk had taken a large breath and blown it all out at once. In front of him, a flickering mote of light rose from the paper. O'tambwe laid a firm hand on his shoulder. "Congratulations on your first spell, child." O'tambwe said, his wrinkled face beaming.

Ezyk was walking back to his dorm, mind buzzing with all the possibilities that had been set before him and making plans for his own spells when he passed in front of an empty storage room.  Ezyk only heard a few quick footsteps before someone slammed into him from the side, knocking him into the room. Instead of falling onto the cold floor he felt hands catch him and pull him further into the room.

The room was dark, the only light coming from the open doorway leading into the courtyard. In a moment his eyes adjusted, but not before a fist struck his jaw and addled his senses. There were five people in the room with Ezyk, and the two behind him hauled him to his feet. Two more stood in front of him, while the last closed the door. With the door closed, only the thin light of the evening sun slid through a small crack in the door to illuminate the room.

The boy in front of Ezyk was Staffon Heager. Beside him was his younger brother, Fenris Heager. Fenris was named after the Legendary Wolf, but he would have been more appropriately named after the Legendary Opossum, had there been such a thing. He was small, with a hunched stance, furtive eyes, and a rather large nose, which dominated his face and made his quick glances from side to side almost comical.

Steffon had a delicate bearing, although taller and straighter than his brother, with a protruding forehead and thin lips that barely covered his mess of teeth. Ezyk found himself thankful that the older brother wasn't the most robust of nobles, else that punch might have hurt him more than it did Steffon.

"This is a school for the nobility," Steffon said, cradling the fist he had punched Ezyk with. "You don't belong here. Your very presence diminishes the prestige of this academy. If the wizard wanted a pet, he would have been better off with a dog."

Steffon leaned in closely. "if you think I'm going to share this school with a monkey who spent the first six years of his life not wearing pants, you're dead wrong," he said, punctuating his words with another punch to the face.

Damn it Neya, Ezyk thought as he felt the fire burning inside him, but it was still in check.

Ezyk considered the most appropriate response to deescalate the conflict as quickly as possible, trying to deal with the situation as O'tambwe had taught him. Ezyk took a breath to begin a well-argued case against assaulting him, then he spat a mouthful of blood in Steffon's face. Maybe it wasn't as in check as he had thought.

A lot of things happened at once. Steffon shoved away from Ezyk, wiping at his face like he had discovered a nest of spiders on his forehead as a shadow fell from the ceiling, hitting Fenris in the back of his hunched neck. The two boys holding Ezyk dropped him in surprise as the lookout by the door watched in shock.

Steffon was still wiping his face when the shadow set upon him. It was a lithe figure that seemed to swim through the air towards him, accelerating unnaturally. All of a sudden he didn't have time to be afraid of common blood tainting him as small fists struck with bruising precision. Neya hit Steffon everywhere it hurt, first his nose, then his stomach, then she kicked him in the groin. Steffon's eyes bulged and he dropped to the ground, folding around his manhood.

The room went silent, with Neya standing in the middle. Ezyk's mouth was filling with blood again, Fenris was unconscious, and Steffon couldn't breathe. Their three lackeys looked on in stunned silence.

"Who's next?" Neya demanded, planting her foot on Steffon's ribcage like a hero in an epic painting. She faced Ezyk and the two lackeys next to him. The only sound that penetrated the silence was a thin wheeze from Steffon's lungs as they asserted the need to breathe as only slightly more important than his need to reproduce.

"You idiots aren't good for anything but ganging up on weaklings for sport!" Neya said, tossing her head back and crossing her arms.

Ezyk bristled at being labeled a weakling, but Neya wasn't going to change her mind about him now.

"Where I come from, men fight with honor!" she said. "If you worms represents the next generation of nobility, I'll be a chicken's aunt!"  She pointed at each of the boys next to Ezyk "stand away from him!" The two lackeys shuffled a few steps away from Ezyk.

A wave of relief swept through Ezyk.  He was pulling himself to his feet when he heard a meaty smack and the thud of a body hitting the floor. When he looked up, Neya lay sprawled out on the floor, head lolling to the side. The boy who had been beside the door stood behind her, with a chair in his hands. His face was ashen, as if he was as shocked as everyone else at what he had done.

Steffon slowly uncurled himself to begin standing, and at his motion, the two boys beside Ezyk approached Neya. "We caught ourselves quite the prize. Forget the pet, what better way to send the wizard a message than his daughter?" he leaned down and ran his hand up her leg. "Bring her and my brother. We're going to salvage some fun out of this night yet." Steffon said, a lecherous smile revealing his mouthful of crooked teeth.

The hope that had been dashed was replaced with white hot anger, so strong that Ezyk coughed out a mouthful of blood as his insides writhed like a pit of snakes. Then it was gone. Ezyk was left with nothing but terrible purpose as the world lost it's color.

"Hey inbred fuckface," Ezyk said, putting a finger to a drop of his own blood on the floor. Steffon and his lackeys glanced at him.

Steffon's brows knitted together with anger. "what do you.." he began, then the air grew heavy and Steffon's movements slowed as Ezyk began the first stroke of O'tambwe's light spell.

End them. Break them. Ezyk stared down Steffon for what felt like days as his anger wound about itself, fueling his concentration on the spell. Ezyk began to feel nauseous as his finger crawled along the floor so slowly it appeared to be standing still.

Eventually, the nausea was too much for Ezyk to bear, and he lost his concentration with a sick groan. Ezyk lifted his finger from the last stroke of the light rune as he clapped a hand over his eyes. A bead of light shone through the meat of Ezyk's palm, dazzling his sight. Ezyk heard screaming, and then the light was gone.

End them. Break them. Ezyk took his hand away, and found his sight swimming with small motes of light, but otherwise unharmed. Steffon had not come to his feet, so Ezyk walked up and kicked him in the face with all his weight behind it.

Not stopping to look at the result, he found the two who had held him. One was doubled over, holding his eyes, the other had his eyelids squeezed shut and hands held in front of him. Ezyk took both of the boy's middle fingers and wrenched them with everything he had. Bone slid over bone before the fingers broke, causing the boy to collapse with a wail. Ezyk ran to the other and slammed a toe into his throat. Steffon's lackey went down, choking on blood.

The one who had hit Neya had been furthest from the light, and had been partly shaded by the others. At the wailing of his friends, he turned to flee, fumbling toward the door. Ezyk leapt over Neya, grabbing the chair on the way by, and dispensed a bit of justice, hitting him in the back of the head with the heavy wooden furniture.

End them. Break them. Ezyk turned back to the boy scrambling on the ground with broken fingers and delivered a blow across his temple, knocking him to the stone floor.

It wasn't until O'tambwe burst into the room, that Ezyk realized that he had not stopped hitting them with the chair. None of Steffon's crew were moving, the room was spattered with blood, and the chair was varnished with a gruesome lacquer.

Ezyk looked at O'tambwe, then back to the slaughter in the room in a daze. "O'tambwe, what-" Ezyk's question was cut off when the wizard threw a small white clay ball which shattered in the center of Ezyk's chest. Ezyk's sight went black, followed shortly by the sensation of his shoulder hitting the ground.

Ezyk woke up in his own bed, wondering if the brawl in the storage room had been a dream. Ezyk raised his hand to touch his face, and winced in pain. His split lip and black eye, along with strained muscles across his entire body disputed that notion.

"Good evening child" O'tambwe said from his seat beside Ezyk's bed. His fingers were laced under his chin as he watched his adoptive son.

"What happened? Is Neya ok?" Ezyk asked.

"Neya is fine, but the other students in the room with you..." O'tambwe said, and Ezyk had a sudden flash of dread.

"They're dead, aren't they?" Ezyk asked.

"They should be," O'tambwe said with a sigh. "It was a close thing. There's going to be a meeting with the dean about this incident."

Ezyk didn't see anything he could do. "When?" He asked, feeling his stomach sinking helplessly.

"Right now." O'tambwe said, standing up.

Ezyk rolled of the bed slowly, as it seemed every muscle in his body had been replaced with wet noodles. Aching wet noodles. He got to his feet in short order, gradually growing accustomed to the weakness.

"Lean on me on the way there," O'tambwe said. "And try to appear as pathetic as possible." There was no trace of humor in O'tambwe's voice, but it still made Ezyk smile a little.

They arrived at the dean's office, O'tambwe's elbow hooked under Ezyk's shoulder. The first thing he saw through the door was the dean at his desk, but as he stepped through the door, the peripheries of his sight widened, and he was stunned to find Steffon and his crew there, completely unharmed.

"What did.." Ezyk stopped as he looked at O'tambwe, who winked. Better not incriminate myself. Ezyk thought before closing his mouth and focusing on looking as badly beaten as possible.

"What I see here is an obvious case of bullying," Dean Richmond said. "What boggles my mind is your audacity to claim that this boy," The dean's fingers jabbed toward where Ezyk rested on the couch. " Assaulted the five of you in a dark storage room and beat you savagely." The dean took off his cap, scratching his scalp through his thinning hair. "Which is obviously untrue."

"Dean Richmond, he-" Steffon said.

"SHUT UP!" The dean roared, slamming his fist on the table. An ink bottle almost overturned, and several pens jumped in place.

"You think who your father is gives you the right to run my school?" The dean said, pointing at Steffon as his face was dyed red with anger. "I've personally spoken to your father, he told me you are a little shit, and a caning at the end of every week might just be exactly what you need. Don't think he will intercede on your behalf."

Here, your ass is mine," Dean Richmond said, his voice low. "With your father's full support. Do you understand?"

Steffon's jaw had been hanging since Dean Richmond interrupted him. He swallowed. "Yes sir." Steffon said in a small voice.

"Good, now GET OUT!" the dean pointed at the door. Steffon and his lackeys quickly filed through the door. Once they were gone, the dean sighed, locked the door, and pulled a chair out to sit in front of O'tambwe and Ezyk.

"O'tambwe, your little experiment has gone too far," the dean said. "That boy is too dangerous." Dean Richmond took out a pipe from his pocket, and began filling it. "We came within a hair's breadth of having the sons of no less than 5 noble supporters of the academy meet untimely deaths. Honestly I don't care a whit if those boys die, just not in my school."

"I don't feel dangerous," Ezyk said, wincing in pain as he tried to sit up.  Dean Richmond gave him a look that spoke volumes about whether he gave a damn about Ezyk's opinion.

"Your school is famous for producing great military men yes? I think you can see the benefit in keeping Ezyk on for one more term. He'll be a great asset to the country." O'tambwe said.

Dean Richmond lit his pipe, drawing the first smoke into his mouth, tasting it. "No, I don't think so," he said, exhaling a cloud of smoke as he spoke. "He's going to lose control again, and there's no guarantee he wouldn't kill a student."

"With respect dean, I didn't lose control," Ezyk said. "I knew exactly what I was doing."

The dean raised his eyebrows. "So you attempted to beat five people to death with a chair. on purpose?" he asked.

Ezyk met the dean's eyes. "Yes. I didn't lose control, I... somehow knew exactly how to hurt them," Ezyk said, casting his gaze down as he recalled the scene. "It felt like nothing else mattered. I used a light spell to blind them, broke Sam's fingers, kicked John's throat, stomped on.."

"Enough," The dean said, waving dismissively. "That sounds plenty like losing control to me. My decision stands. Ezyk, you are expelled. Be out of this school by tomorrow." Dean Richmond reached into his desk and began pulling out papers to formalize his decision.

Ezyk couldn't muster the strength to be outraged. He had, after all, tried to kill five people. Four, he corrected himself. Fenris had already been unconscious, and had been spared from being beaten with a chair. Ezyk stood, left the office and began walking to his room.

The thing Ezyk found strange was the complete lack of remorse. He had hurt people by accident before, he knew he could feel sympathy and guilt, but it seemed as though the entire event had been painted an emotional grey.

If anything, Ezyk was a little disappointed that they were still alive. Ezyk stopped walking in the center of the marble hallway. Was that my own thought? He asked himself. Unsettled, he made his way to his room and flopped down on his bed, calming his mind and turning it inward, as O'tambwe had taught him.

"How goes it?" O'tambwe asked from directly above him.

Ezyk's eyes snapped open, and he wiped a bit of drool form his mouth. "Meditating, contemplating the universe and all that." Ezyk said with a smirk he didn't feel. Evening was coming on fast, and he had nowhere to go. He didn't even own any property to take with him. Unless Ezyk walked out the door naked, he could be accused of stealing from the academy.

"Indeed, it seemed peaceful," O'tambwe said. "I am here to give you your graduation test."

Ezyk looked at O'tambwe, his eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?" He asked.

"I have haggled the dean down from an expulsion to a... sort of involuntary early graduation," O'tambwe said, sitting on the chair in front of Ezyk's desk. "Provided you pass your graduation test."

"What is the test, and how could I pass it without any idea what I need to do?" Ezyk asked.

"You will "pass" because it is not a test. Not like the ones you're used to," O'tambwe said. "Wizards are manipulators of fate and the natural order. A very long time ago, a brilliant wizard made a device which showed him the moment of his death. This wizard gained great power from that experience, and used it to try to avoid his own death. He raised an army of such power that he believed himself untouchable. He defied fate, and in the end, caused his own destruction."

"What is the test?" Ezyk asked. O'tambwe reached into his robes and removed a length of gold chain, each link seemed to change like water as he looked at them, until his eyes began to hurt. The chain was about fifteen feet long, the links the size of a thumbnail. Then he noticed there was no end to it, the whole thing was one circle.

"I am going to show you the day you die. If you are strong enough, you will make your own fate. But I warn you, actions motivated by fear will only steer you closer." Ezyk looked at the chain again for a moment, but had to look away as the shifting patterns inside it made his eyes water.

"I don't think I want to do this," Ezyk said. "I'm not strong enough to face that."

"That is exactly the appropriate feeling," O'tambwe said. "Tomorrow you are going to leave this academy. You will then be assigned a job as a minor wizard in a company of the Empire's army. You are then going to face four years of constant war. Summon the courage to take this test, and you will be a true wizard, and your chances of living will be substantially improved." O'tambwe said.

"How does it help me become a wizard? That doesn't make any sense." Ezyk said.

"It has been proven that experiencing your own death attunes your consciousness more closely with the Weave of Fate and makes magic flow easier," O'tambwe said, pooling the fine gold chain into his hands. "Assuming it doesn't break your mind. Since it was created thousands of years ago, this has been one of the most closely guarded secrets of wizardry. You must do this, as I have."

Ezyk looked up into his father's eyes and saw the truth in them. "Alright." He said, swallowing his fear.

O'tambwe instructed Ezyk to lie in the center of the room as he laid the golden chain in an oval around Ezyk on the floor. O'tambwe  sat crosslegged outside the chain. "Close your eyes." He said, his fingers descending to touch the chain. Ezyk closed his eyes.

Ezyk opened his eyes and saw a strange symbol carved into the ceiling, converging in a spiral directly above him. To his right and left, four golden sconces burned with green flame. I can't move. A spike of panic ran through him. Ezyk looked and saw his wrists and ankles secured to the floor by manacles embedded in the stone floor.

His palms throbbed with pain, and Ezyk saw the white of bone from his unresponsive hands. On the walls around him was a pattern, similar to the one on the ceiling, going onto the floor and converging about the center of his chest. He tested the restraints, but he couldn't even make them shift. Ezyk heard footsteps approaching in the distance.

The first to duck their head into the dimly lit stone room was and old man, wrinkled and bald, thin as a twig, yet with absolutely no sign of frailty. He moved with an easy grace, standing straight, and walking smoothly. Following him, Ezyk's breath caught as the most beautiful woman he had ever seen stepped in.

It was her shoes that he had heard first. She wore fantastical silk clothes that made him realize that Steffon was just a threadbare country noble. They covered every inch of her but her face, and flowed around her feet as if they were alive. The curve of her body showed through as she moved, drawing his attention. His eyes flitted back to her face, and Ezyk saw that she watched him with a smile. The woman winked, and a flash of pain went through his head.

The pain allowed him to stop looking at her, in time to notice the third had not entered. No, the man was already at his sconce, having silently moved through the darkness, drawing none of Ezyk's attention until he had come to stand at his position.

Strangely, the third man did not seem to belong, he looked like he ran an inn at night and babysat his grandkids during the day. He was a modest height, his face so unremarkable, it was remarkable. But Ezyk hadn't seen him enter, causing a small shiver ran through Ezyk's spine.

A fourth entered the room, stooping his head deeply to enter. The man was seven feet tall, his features seemed carved from rough stone. He wore armor laced with enchantments, fit for a general of the ancient world. At his waist hung a sword nearly five feet long, lending to his presence that dominated the room. It felt as if the floor itself had begun to slope in his direction. Ezyk could feel his footsteps in his chest as the giant came to stand at the last sconce.

The four arranged themselves in front of the sconces and held their hands up, beginning to chant. Meanwhile, Ezyk's struggles grew more and more frantic. He thrashed and pulled at the restraints to no avail, only bloodying his wrists in the process.

The four paid him no attention, and continued chanting. As one, they took up daggers, and cut their palms, holding them above the sconce. As he watched, their blood pooled out from beneath the sconces. They must be hollow. He thought idly, his mind unable to fully come to grips with what was happening to him.

The blood entered the pattern on the floor beneath him, and began to swiftly run along it. Ezyk knew that when the pattern was filled, the spell would be complete, and whatever happened wouldn't be something he wanted to be here for. He resumed thrashing, the pain in his wrists reaching a crescendo.

Ezyk's wrists began to form drops of blood oozing through his broken skin, giving him an idea. If I add my blood, can I render this spell harmless? One way to find out. Ezyk summoned his grey trance, and calm flowed through him. He began to saw his wrists against the manacles, ignoring the pain. Eventually, a single drop of blood dripped from his wrist into the spell beneath him, just as the pattern was completed.

Ezyk's consciousness split. He felt as if he were somehow present and not present. Below him was his body, still sawing away at his own wrist, and above him was what looked like a small mote of light, similar to the first spell he had ever done. It was filled with such power and familiarity, he knew it was his soul.

He watched the man with the plain face walk towards him, dagger in hand. He watched as he knelt with his hand on Ezyk's shoulder, before he planted the dagger in Ezyk's heart. The split ended, and Ezyk looked down at the hilt protruding from his chest. Ezyk was unable to speak, unable to breathe. The world swam, and then went white as Ezyk's tongue fumbled on the foreign object in his mouth.

Ezyk sat up, screaming. The pain in his chest hadn't gone away completely yet, and he clenched his hand over his heart.

"Easy boy, easy," O'tambwe said, putting his hand on Ezyk's back. "Take deep breaths." He handed Ezyk a mug filled with a syrupy beverage that smelled faintly of cinnamon. Ezyk took three deep, shuddering breaths before he could drink.

"I guess you didn't go in your sleep, then?" Otambwe asked. Ezyk looked at him, then back to his drink, shaking his head.

"No, I was murdered." Ezyk said.

"Murdered? Killed in battle?" O'tambwe asked.

"No, I was strapped down in the center of a stone room with some kind of magic spell on the ceiling and floor," Ezyk said. "Four people came in and filled the spell with their blood, and then one of them.." Ezyk glanced at O'tambwe and trailed off seeing the expression on his face. He'd never seen O'tambwe look so grim.

O'tambwe took his hand away from Ezyk and stood. "Four people? Can you describe them?" he asked. Ezyk went about describing them. The most detail he could remember was about the woman and the giant man.

He remembered an old man, and one more... whose face seemed to blur, becoming first the man who ran the cafeteria, then one of Ezyk's more boring teachers. He said as much to O'tambwe, who sat down beside Ezyk.

"Listen to me, Ezyk," O'tambwe said, his voice grave. You mustn't try to avoid that place. Fear cannot change fate. You must try to overcome that place rather than run from it. That is the only advice I can give you."

O'tambwe began to say something more, then stopped. Finally he spoke again, a pained expression on his face. "I leave it to you to pack for your departure tomorrow. This letter recommends you as a wizard graduate from this school. Good luck." O'tambwe pulled a gold-trimmed letter from his robe, placed it on Ezyk's desk.

"This backpack has a change of clothes and enough money to get you to your station," O'tambwe said, pointing at a backpack he'd deposited in the corner of the room. "Naturally it has your spellbook in the back. Make sure you record your spells carefully, there's a few dozen blank pages in the back and... good luck." O'tambwe turned and left the room, leaving Ezyk alone.

Ezyk swung his feet out of bed, began standing. Pain shot through his heart and he fell back to the bed, the air forced from his lungs. As soon as the pain came it was gone, one final reminder of his vision. Ezyk tentatively took a few breaths, but the stabbing pain didn't return. Tentatively, Ezyk tried to stand, and this time made it to his feet.

A nagging nervousness plagued him as he moved about his room, squaring away his living space for the exodus from the academy. He would be alone now. O'tambwe would stay in the here, teaching magic, and Ezyk would be adrift.

Somehow he would wind up stabbed in the heart. Ezyk had known O'tambwe for over ten years, and he'd only rarely been wrong, but Ezyk couldn't imagine a way to overcome that.

After the room had been stripped of all signs of his occupancy, Ezyk laid down on the bed above the sheets so he wouldn't have to make the bed again. He tried to sleep, but couldn't bring himself to feel tired. Fear swirled around inside him as he tried to picture his future.

O'tambwe had told him that most of our fears about the future are our own insecurities manifesting themselves, not likely events. But what he had seen... that was going to haunt him.

Ezyk woke to the sound of running boots. His eyes shot open just before a pounding on his door. "Ezyk! Wake up!" Jaque said, continuing to bang on the door. Ezyk leapt into his pants and opened the door, blinking gummy eyes.

"What is it?" Ezyk asked, not terribly happy to be woken up after hardly getting any sleep the night before.

"You have to come right now, something's wrong," Jaque said breathlessly. "The dean wants you in his office, right now."

Ezyk blinked at him. "You said 'right now' twice." He said.

"That means get your ass over there now!" Jaque said before running off towards whatever class he had been playing around in before he got stuck with messenger duty.

Ezyk looked up at the sky, his brows furrowing. The stars shone brightly down upon him, with no sign of dawn to the east. It sank in that he had places to be, so Ezyk threw his uniform on, and sprinted to the Dean's office. No one else was awake yet, so what was Jaque doing up? When he arrived at the Deans office, Ezyk slowed to a jog, reaching the door just as his breath was beginning to come back. At Ezyk's knock, the door opened.

The man who opened the door was of average height and average build, totally unremarkable. He was also the man who had plunged a dagger into his heart in his vision. An echo of the pain caused Ezyk to have a short coughing fit, forcing him to stoop down and clutch his chest.

"Are you alright young man?" the murderer asked. Ezyk wanted to run, but he knew that would only make the man spring upon him, like a predator in the wild. "I'm alright. I just ran all the way here." Ezyk said as soon as the pain had diminished. He took a deep breath. "The dean wanted me?" he asked. "Yes, come in." the murderer stepped aside, to allow Ezyk to enter the room. It was the hardest thing he had ever done, to take the three steps into that room, instead of running, giving the man a reason to chase him. Ezyk imagined this was what it felt like to walk to your own execution.

Inside the Dean's office were the dean himself, and most of his senior staff. Neya was crying in a chair, attended to by one of the more matronly teachers who had very little in common with her. Dean Richmond stepped forward and took Ezyk's hand. "Ezyk, your father is dead. I'm sorry."

Nothing Ezyk had imagined could have come close to the dread he felt now. Reality was much worse than his fears. "What happened?" Ezyk asked, feeling numb to the core.

"His heart gave out while he slept." The murderer offered. Ezyk had been careful not to put his back to the man, but was startled to discover the plain faced man had shifted to an entirely different place than Ezyk had thought he was.

"If it gave out while he slept, why do you..." Ezyk's voice trailed off as he lost the will to speak.

"Why do we already know?" Dean Richmond asked. Ezyk nodded mutely, staring at the wood grain in the dean's overpriced desk.

"Lord Tanwood here," Dean Richmond said, nodding to the plain-faced man. "Came in this evening with another option for you other than expulsion. I went to O'tambwe's room to discuss it and well..." he shrugged.

"If you need to sit, you're welcome to." Dean Richmond said, motioning to the seats where Neya was venting her grief.

"Thank you." Ezyk mumbled. He sat down. His mind began repeating the last few moments, like a dog chasing its tail. The murderer had something to do with it. O'tambwe was the healthiest 60 year old man Ezyk had ever seen, damn near indestructible.

Why was the plain faced man here? Was he after Ezyk already, or was he after O'tambwe and Ezyk was an afterthought? Ezyk shook his head. You don't strap people to the center of magic spells, bleed yourself in some arcane ritual and stab them in the chest as an afterthought. Still, what had Ezyk done to warrant this?

After a few minutes discussing amongst themselves, the dean and the man who would stab Ezyk in the chest reached a decision, Dean Richmond approached Ezyk.

"Lord Tanwood here," Richmond said, motioning to the murderer, "Is a colleague of O'tambwe's, and would like to return the many favors O'tambwe has done for him. He has offered to provide an apprenticeship for both you and Neya.

Alarms trumpeted through Ezyk's mind. Entering the dean's office with Tanwood had been brave, but going with Tanwood to such an obvious slaughter was stupid. Tell them what they want to hear, Ezyk's mind whispered to him. Ezyk forced a smile. "O'tambwe would want to see us well cared for, what more could I ask for? I'm already packed to go. Before we leave, though, could I see O'tambwe once?" Tanwood nodded to the dean, who gave Ezyk permission.

Ezyk walked down the hall, his palms sweating against his clenched fingers as the dean and Tanwood followed close behind him. The entire amrch to O'tambwe's room, Ezyk's mind spun in circles between expecting O'tambwe to be waiting behind the door, and waiting for Tanwood to simply knife Ezyk in the back.

The dean stepped forward when they arrived and use his master key to unlock O'tambwe's room, while Ezyk watched the plain man standing impassively in the hall, every muscle tight.

O'tambwe's body was still in his bed. The room was exactly as Ezyk remembered it from his occasional visits. Wizarding paraphernalia lined the walls. Chisels, wires, compasses, crucibles and other devices littered the desks O'tambwe kept for his various projects. Some went so far as to spill out onto the floor.

O'tambwe lay on his bed with his eyes closed, as though he were merely asleep. His chest didn't move though, and his skin was a pallid pale color for the black skinned old man. Ezyk had held a small hope until now, but even that left him.

The dean stepped in behind Ezyk, and placed a hand on his shoulder. "He's gone to rejoin the Weave. At least that's what his people believed." He said. That was small comfort to Ezyk.

Ezyk felt tears brimming up, prayed for forgiveness for a moment, and then he did what he had to do. Ezyk began to bawl, outright sobbing. He threw himself on O'tambwe and began weeping into his robes, which the old man never wore to bed. At this point, Ezyk was absolutely sure that O'tambwe had been murdered.

The Dean uncomfortably stepped outside, closing the door behind him. As soon as the door closed, Ezyk took out a handkerchief, covered his hand, and began searching O'tambwe's pockets, wailing all the while for the benefit of those standing outside the door.

As quickly as he could, Ezyk stripped O'tambwe of anything he knew how to operate. After a brief check of O'tambwe's cabinets, he looked at the tools at his disposal. Three clay balls dipped in white ink, one dipped in red. The Alpha Wolf, the gold necklace O'tambwe used to heal, and a smooth lodestone ring O'tambwe had used to fetch things for him. There were many more things on O'tambwe's person, but without knowing what did what, even touching them them was a fool's notion, and most likely why no one had dared to rummage through his pockets yet.

The lodestone ring, its interior etched with intricate runes, reminded Ezyk of the conversation he had had with his mentor just yesterday, and for an instant, grief threatened to paralyze him. Tanwood is going to kill me. I do not have time.

Ezyk swallowed the heartache and pocketed the white clay balls on his right, the red one on his left, deliberately making the killing spell harder to get to. He didn't want to kill anyone in the heat of the moment. The necklace went into his breast pocket, and he slipped the fetching ring on his toe.  The Alpha Wolf went in his left pocket above the killing spell.

Ezyk looked at O'tambwe one more time, winding down his sobs. He let his tears flow, knowing that that's what the dean and Tanwood would expect. Ezyk turned and faced the door, knowing that there were many things here that could have aided him greatly, were he not so ignorant. It felt as though all the things he left behind represented all the time he should have had with O'tambwe. Time he would now have to turn his back on and close the door. Ezyk breathed deeply, and opened the door, stepping outside into the hallway with the murderer.

Dean Richmond was politely waiting on the other side of the hall, discreetly facing away. Tanwood, on the other hand, watched him intently. "I've said my goodbyes. What now?" Ezyk asked.

"Lord Tanwood will wait for you in front of the academy gates," Dean Richmond said. "Neya is in her room, packing.  I don't think I have to say this, but you should consider yourself lucky. The only other option you had amounted to getting killed by the Xenshai."

Ezyk fixed the dean with a flat stare. "I've considered myself lucky from the day my father saved me from a burning village," he said.

Ezyk excused himself, and started toward the gate. As soon as he was out of sight, he began sprinting for the dean's office. There was a teleportation circle in the back of his office, and there would be no way for Tanwood to track Ezyk if he used that to make his escape. In seconds, Ezyk made it to the office, wrenching the door open only to come to a stumbling halt.

In the center of the room, sitting on the Dean's desk was Tanwood, kicking his heels against the hardwood. "So," he said. "The question is, are you who I think you are?" Tanwood was poised to jump off the desk.

"Who do you think I am?" Ezyk asked, shifting his feet backward.

"There are only two Gifts left," Tanwood said, smiling. "I've been searching for a very long time for someone who... beats people to death with chairs." Tanwood hopped off the desk, moving toward Ezyk like a stalking cat.

"I don't know what you heard, but that was exaggerated," Ezyk said.

"Don't insult me with-" Tanwood began to say.

Ezyk surreptitiously pointed the toe with the fetching ring on it toward the dean's desk and summoned it toward him with all his focus. The desk gave an ear splitting screech as it dragged across the floor. Tanwood glanced back, startled, as the desk gave him a light shove, before once more becoming inert.

Ezyk snaked his right hand into his pocket. Tanwood looked back at Ezyk, off balance as a white clay ball burst on his stomach, revealing an iron rune. When the rune hit Tanwood, his eyes rolled back into his head, and he collapsed.

Ezyk pulled out his handkerchief and delicately wrapped it around the iron charm. He put it back in his pocket, nestled next to the other two, still safely covered in clay. He let out a sigh, and headed towards the back of the dean's office. There was the Teleportation Circle, meant for sending and receiving important packages, guests, and missives from the Empire.

The circle was a gigantic array of nested steel circles. Each circle was composed of complex runes, with a line marked at the bottom that showed where the runes would need to be aligned. The circles could each spin independently, and each alignment would send someone to a completely different place than any other.  All Ezyk needed to do was spin the outer ring, then jump on. No one would have any way of knowing where he went. Well, Ezyk wouldn't either, but that was a price Ezyk was willing to pay as long as he wasn't dropped in the middle of the ocean.

Pain burst from Ezyk's right ear, causing his body lock up, and slowly sink to its knees. "You think you're the only one with a trick or two?" Tanwood asked, wielding a blackjack behind him. Ezyk rolled to one elbow, unable to do more than turn his body in its slow decent to the ground. The fingers of Ezyk's right hand tremblingly sought out his breast pocket, and the healing charm within.

Tanwood kicked Ezyk's hand away, and placed his knee over Ezyk's wrist. His right hand holding down Ezyk's left wrist, Tanwood pulled a small gem out of his sleeve. The gem was a smooth white quartz crystal that seemed to have been grown around an intricate rune.

As Tanwood held it up to Ezyk, it began glowing, slowly at first, then emitting light that hurt to look at. "Found you." Tanwood said.

Through the glare, Ezyk saw a shadow move outside the door, prompting Ezyk to take one more chance. "Did you kill O'tambwe?" he asked.

"Oh, the wizard," Tanwood said without looking up at him from the stone. "Yeah, he was unreasonable in regards to you."

Neya swept through the door. Metal flashed, and a sword lanced through Tanwood's armpit, skewering his heart and lungs. Tanwood's eyes widened, and he slumped over like a marionette with its strings cut. Ezyk climbed out from underneath Tanwood, His head still felt foggy, his ear burning, and his vision swimming.

"Caught drunk under an older man," Neya said, with a bitter smile on her face. "Another Friday night for you, Ezyk? Seems like you're always getting caught with your pants down, in need of rescuing."

Ezyk groaned, bringing himself to his knees. "I didn't get knocked out by a lookout I forgot existed." He said.

"We'll call that one a draw then," Neya said."Still puts me up by three." Neya crossed her arms, glancing at Tanwood's corpse.

Neya had saved him more times he could count, and he was sure the number was higher than three, but he wasn't the official scorekeeper. She was. Neya teased him, but he could see the pain in her eyes.

"Why did he kill papa?" Neya asked, her voice almost breaking.

"I think it was my fault," Ezyk said, holding his head. "He said he was looking for me." Ezyk felt like saying it was making it real. The whirlwind of activity tonight had kept him numb, but it was starting to hit him.

Neya's gaze locked on Ezyk. "Did you make him kill my father?" she asked. "No, he did it himself. You did not make that man's decisions for him."

Ezyk felt a weight lift from him. He still felt responsible, but he knew that Neya wouldn't hate him. It made all the difference between hopelessness and determination. Ezyk reached into his breast pocket, and touched the golden charm. Immediately his head cleared, and ear stopped ringing. Pain washed away in moments, and when he took his had away, his body felt fresh and energized.

"I'm leaving the academy tonight," Ezyk said. "O'tambwe gave me a vision last night, and I saw more people like him coming for me." He said.

"Where you gonna go?" she asked, her head cocked.

"I'm going to spin that teleportation circle and jump on," Ezyk said. "No one will know where I've gone. I won't even know." Neya raised an eyebrow.

"That sounds incredibly stupid," she said. "But you're right. No one will be able to track you."

"What about you? What will you do now?" Ezyk asked.

Neya considered for a moment. "I'm going to visit the capital." She said, turning to leave.

"Wait," Ezyk said, stopping Neya. "This belongs to you!" Ezyk fumbled out the gold chain attached to the healing charm, holding it out to his sister.

Neya glanced back and gave him a grin over her shoulder, "You'll need it more than me." She said before leaving Ezyk alone in the dean's office.  Ezyk sighed and walked over to the teleportation circle, pocketing the charm and contemplating where he might find himself in the next few moments.

"That was touching." Ezyk whirled around and saw Tanwood leaning against the wall. The sword had gone through him just under his armpit. His lungs and heart should be stopped. Ezyk thought to himself.

Grimacing, Tanwood gingerly reached over and began to tug on the handle of the sword. No blood was on either side of the blade, no blood anywhere. "I don't suppose you'll sit and... wait... while I... take this thing... out..." Tanwood said, his face strained.

Ezyk turned back to the circle, grabbed the outer ring, and spun with everything he had. The heavy steel inlaid with gold clicked quietly as it began spinning on its well-oiled bearings

"I guess not." Tanwood grunted, sliding the blade a bit further out. The tip of the blade no longer exited his other side. Ezyk glanced back one more time and witnessed Tanwood pull the last foot of the blade from his side as casually as a sheath, then jumped onto the circle.

Ezyk’s hands flung out wide as his feet were greeted by air.

An instant later, Ezyk was submerged in freezing water that stole his breath away. Ezyk clamped his mouth closed before he could inhale any of the silty water. Ezyk spun aimlessly under the cloudy water, blind and incapable of telling up from down.

  Ezyk’s fingertips brushed against a rock, and a second later, he pushed off of the riverbank, swimming in the opposite direction with everything he had. Agonizing seconds crawled by as he struggled to breach the surface. 

Finally, Ezyk’s head broke the surface, and he gasped in a lungful of air. For a moment, he feared he would see endless ocean in either direction, but to his relief, there was a bank was roughly twenty feet away.  In the opposite direction was a bank sixty yards or more away. The current wasn’t particularly swift, but it was bone-chillingly cold. Fine silt clouded the water that Ezyk treaded, irritating his eyes and turning the river opaque.

Ezyk began swimming to the closer shore. His breathing became labored as he came near. Ezyk could swim, but in his academy uniform it took most of his effort to keep his head above water. His fingers scratched against the riverbed under the muddy water as he came closer to the shore. Grabbing handholds and pulling himself up, Ezyk managed to get most of his body out of the river when his right leg snagged something.

Ezyk gave his leg a few experimental tugs and twists, hoping to get it unstuck quickly. He was no longer in danger of drowning, but if he stayed in the river long enough he’d die of cold.

Pain flared from Ezyk’s calf as it began thrashing of its own accord, pulling him back into the river. Adrenaline surged, and Ezyk’s other three limbs thrashed and scrambled, throwing up a spray of grey-brown water and pulling him further up onto the bank. 

Ezyk only barely managed to pull harder than the thing attached to his leg, reaching a tree growing near the bank.  Ezyk hooked his elbow around the tree trunk and finally looked down at what had him, and wished he hadn’t. A purple, veiny tentacle with a mouth had bitten into his calf.

The thing was a narlock, and specialized in preying on large animals trying to cross rivers. His calf was shredded and bleeding where the teeth had slid through the meat during the tug-of-war. A rhythmic pull began stretching his body, filling him with pain. The tentacle pulled at his leg with a merciless rhythm. Pull. Tighten. Rest. Pull. tighten…  the veins travelling the length of the purple tentacle pulsed in time with the tugs.

Ezyk’s knife was on his belt. He was sure he could cut the offending limb, but he couldn’t reach it without letting go of the tree. The world slowed as Ezyk drew his knife.  He had a moment to consider that the feeling was very similar to what writing a rune felt like, before he let go of the tree and lunged at the narlock’s tentacle, snarling.

The struggle may have been brief, but it felt like it had taken minutes. With his strange sense of time recently, it could have been seconds. Ezyk hacked the norlock’s tentacle free even as more burst out of the water, aiming to immobilize his limbs.

Ezyk was dragged back toward the opaque water now that he’d lost his anchor, and it wasn’t long until the blood from his calf created a red-brown eddy that disappeared into the river. Ezyk caught the first tentacle aiming for his arm on the point of his knife, and dragged it to pin another against the ground. It wasn’t until Ezyk had nearly severed a third tentacle with his teeth before at last they retreated below the surface.

Ezyk dragged himself away from the bank, as far from the river as he could manage. Lightheaded, he searched his pocket for Otambwe’s healing charm, but he came up with nothing. Must have lost it in the river. Neya’s gonna be mad, he thought to himself.

Ezyk began looking for a place to lie down and sleep. The boulder butting against a moss-covered tree felt warm under his hands. Ezyk lay down on top of it, as comfortable as he had been in his cozy bed back at the academy…

Through a comfortable haze, Ezyk suddenly realized that he was hypothermic and bleeding, simply lying here would kill him. Ezyk tried to push himself up, his arm was numb, but he could control it. However he tried though, he couldn’t quite muster the strength to push himself off the rock. “Damn it to every hell in sequence.” He said, one of O’tambwe’s favorite curses. Ezyk mustered all his strength and pulled a bit of charcoal from his waistband.

The rune for fire… Ezyk couldn’t remember it. the rune was similar to the one for Digestion, and he didn’t want the rock to eat him. Heat. Ezyk remembered the rune for heat was a triangle made from double lines radiating from a circle. Simple enough.

Ezyk forced his numb arm up with a grunt. As he began the circle, he felt the wizard’s trance begin, slowing time and draining even more of his precious energy.  Hopefully I’m not killing myself. He thought as the trance gave him plenty of time to consider the consequences of failure.

Ezyke finished the last stroke, breaking his concentration, and the rock began to heat up. As heat returned to his body, Ezyk began shivering, suddenly aware of how cold he actually was. The rock felt like fire against his skin, but Ezyk held on stubbornly.

The shivering was the last straw, and Ezyk lost consciousness curled around a warm rock a dozen paces away from a river filled with man-eating monsters. The last thing that crossed Ezyk’s mind was wondering where the hell he was.

“Wake up!”  Ezyk’s eyes snapped open just as a rough hand slapped him across his face. Ezyk began flailing his arms, and was dropped onto his ass by the two men supporting his arms. Standing above him was a man dressed in poorly tanned leathers, and Ezyk could smell him so severely he wondered why that hadn’t woken him first.

Taking position behind him were three more men in equally rough attire and lacking in hygiene. The one in front of him gave him an appraising look. “Now, tell me if you’re worth more dead or alive.” He said.

“what?”  Ezyk asked.

The man leaned down and gave Ezyk another slap. “Tell us your name, rank and division, you little glip.” He said, anger coloring his face as he loomed over Ezyk

“I’m not-” Ezyk started to speak.

“Just kill ‘im, Greg,” one of the men chimed in. “The boy can’t be more than sixteen, no chance there’s any bounty for returning him. He couldn’t be higher than a Lanceman”

The man called Greg turned back to the others. “Pay attention dipshit,” he said, pointing a calloused finger at Ezyk’s chest. “The boy’s not wearing standard gear, and that means either a specialist, unlikely, or an officer, even more unlikely, or a godsdamned noble’s son who managed to swim upriver 120 miles south of anything resembling a city through norlock infested waters. Not too damned likely!” Greg said.

These men are headhunters, they track down deserters and return them for the bounty.  Ezyk’s hairs raised on his neck when he realized was disturbed that a typical runaway soldier was worth less returned alive than the value of his gear.

“I’m a wizard!” Ezyk shouted over Greg, who had begun a tirade about some bounty they had killed prematurely. The men stood still for a moment. Each man began laughing until one of them began hacking and wheezing in between guffaws. Then they laughed some more.

Ezyk waited for the laughter to die down. “In my right pocket are three charms that will render a man unconscious.” Greg and the others began laughing again, one of them sauntered up to Ezyk, chuckling.

“I better be careful, don’t want to offend the powerful wizard!” he roughly shoved a hand in Ezyk’s left pocket. His face registered the briefest glimpse of confusion before he slumped over, dead.

“ And In my left pocket are two charms,” Ezyk said. “One will kill anything that touches it. It used to be covered in a protective layer of clay, but since I just went for a swim, I guess it’s sloughed off.”

Greg’s men stared at Ezyk with a mixture of anger and fear, but Greg himself kept giggling. “‘Istra, that boy was dumb.” He said, still chuckling to himself. “We’re in luck boys. Young Sam volunteered to make this haul a three way split.”

Greg’s expression sobered, and he cast an appraising eye over Ezyk.“So how does a wizard your age find himself all the way out here?” greg asked.

“Teleportation accident with my teacher,” Ezyk said.

Greg put a hand to his beard thoughtfully.”Anyone could guess you aren’t the most seasoned wizard, boy, but the Reclamation Army needs all the magic it can get. You’ll be coming with us.” Greg said.

“Are you kidding?” Ezyk said, motioning toward his wounded leg. “Of course I’m coming with you. If I don’t get this dealt with I’m liable to get gangrene.”

“Glad we have an understanding. Come on then.” Greg motioned one of his men to strip the dead man’s possessions.

“hold a moment, if you would.” Ezyk said, affecting his best wizard voice. “I would be very upset if the killing charm in my pocket wore a hole and touched my leg. I need to remove it from my person immediately. Ezyk then sat down, removed both his socks, and put both of them over one hand like a sock puppet. Greg’s men watched in fascination as Ezyk took his sock-puppeted hand and gingerly reached in to his left pocket.

He felt the Cock’s Strut first. Ezyk withdrew the finger bone and placed it on the ground beside him. “Is that it?” Greg asked, watching over him curiously.

“No. That does something different to you.” Ezyk said. His power lay in them not understanding what his charms did. The less they knew, the better. Ezyk reached back into his left pocket, and felt an oblong lump. He very carefully withdrew it. The claw ball had squished and softened in his pocket, and a sliver of iron lay revealed on its surface.

“Get me a cloth of some kind,” Ezyk said, being exceptionally mindful of his bare skin as he handled the deadly charm. At his word, one of the men brought him the dead man’s shirt. Ezyk used his knife to cut a neat package for the charm, and double wrapped it. Ezyk repeated the process with his right pocket, albeit with substantially less tension.

After Ezyk finished securing the most dangerous things he had, he tucked the bone charm into his sleeve, then slid the lodestone ring from his toe to his right middle finger. It was a strange feeling to wear his master’s ring. It was a smooth, cold, rigid lump between his fingers, almost uncomfortable.

“Ready, boy?” Greg asked, still watching Ezyk’s actions with interest.

“Yes,” Ezyk said, carefully standing. One wrong shift in weight caused pain to scream through his shredded calf. “Although I don’t think I’ll be walking the whole way.” Greg straightened and sighed. He looked at Ezyk, and swung his fingertips from Ezyk’s armpit to his own rib. Greg hefted his axe and smoothly swept it through a small tree, then the tree’s base. He wrapped the base with cloth, then handed Ezyk a makeshift crutch.

“You’re going to keep up, or I’ll split your skull and sell your goodies to the army, yeah?” Greg said, his fingers tight around the crutch.

Ezyk met his eyes. “Understood,” he said, pulling the crutch out of Greg’s grip.They headed out, heading southeast, away from the river and further away from supposed civilization. Ezyk walked in the middle between Greg’s remaining men, Cas, and Joker. Greg led the way, his eyes sharp and wary. Several times Greg stopped them, pulling them off the trail until he deemed the danger passed.

Ezyk didn’t see much of anything, but he assumed that Greg probably knew what he was doing better than Ezyk at least. His suspicions where confirmed when Greg motioned them silently to hide. Ezyk clumsily made it behind a gigantic spruce when a distant noise became a thunderous crashing. The noise grew louder, and Ezyk looked at Greg and his men, all tense with weapons drawn. They remained motionless, and the crashing continued past them. The headhunters let out sigh, and relaxed.

“The stuff you can’t hear. That’s what you really have to watch out for,” Greg whispered as they got back underway. “Those bugs’ll kill ya before you know yer dead.”

“What bugs?” Ezyk asked, desperate for a distraction from the crutch painfully chafing his armpit.

“That thing that passed us was an Orn, a territorial, surly beast, but nowhere near as deadly as a Yenner,” Greg said quietly as they trekked through the woods. “A Yenner is an insect about the size of a horse. It has a teardrop shape and six flat legs. It lies motionless until someone walks by, then jumps.” Greg fell silent, a surly frown on his face.

“Jumps?” Ezyk prompted.

“Yeah, it jumps. Hits a man hard enough to snap his neck, then starts eating him before the dust settles.” Greg said. “I’ve seen it happen once. I don’t think the boy even felt it.” Ezyk shuddered at the image. “if you want to make yourself useful, keep your eyes open, they have small black spines along the side of their bodies, try to spot a repeated black line against a hill or tree, you might save your life, or somebody else’s” Greg said.

The trek carried on uneventfully, and soon the sun went down. “Oy, wizard-cripple, think you can light us a bonfire?” Greg asked.

“I might be able to, or the pile of wood might try to eat us. I can try if you want.” Ezyk said, smirking as he leaned against his crutch. His leg was throbbing painfully, and making it hard to be agreeable. “I can gather firewood, though.” He added.  “how the hell can you not light a fire and yet be able to gather wood with that leg?” Greg asked.

“Like so.” Ezyk focused his mind on the lodestone ring and pulled fallen logs to him. One by one, they rolled then floated to him, before he cut off his focus on the ring, dropping them in front of his feet.

“I’ll be damned.” Greg said as he knelt down with flint and began building his kindling.

“Neat, huh? Ezyk said. “I’ve had an idea for making a charm based on this that wards away attacks rattling around in my head for a few years now, and since we were just introduced to the runes, I asked my teacher about it, and he said it could work if I took two lodestones and paired them…”

Ezyk stopped. Mentioning O’tambwe made him think about what he had done to O’tambwe. Stolen from him, after he was dead. In O’tambwe’s culture, stealing from the dead was worse than killing them in the first place.

“I had my doubts, but I reckon you may actually be a wizard.” Greg said, adding larger branches to his fire. “I figured you could have stolen all your gear, but it sounds like you’re one of them.”

Ezyk’s chest ached at Greg’s comment. He had stolen everything. Ezyk carefully slumped down against a tree, the heat of the fire aching against his injured leg. Ezyk took out his belt-knife and began removing the bark on his walking stick. Ezyk pulled a burnt stick from the fire and carefully began lightly tracing runes around the bottom of his crutch, spending much of the night in and out of the Wizard’s Trance.

  Joker and Cas set up camp, unloading an oilskin tarp and making a large tent between two trees. The two men talked to each other, shared jokes and stories while they worked, but aside from Greg, no one talked to Ezyk. Through the night, the burning of his leg kept Ezyk from sleeping deeply, although each time he opened his eyes, the fire had died down further. The three headhunters took turns on watch, thankfully Ezyk didn’t have to.

In the morning, Ezyk’s leg ached all the way to his ribs. His face felt flushed, and he was dizzy.

Greg looked at his leg that morning. “How you feel like, kid?” He asked.

“Like limping as far as it takes for you not to kill me.” Ezyk said.

“That’s a good attitude.” Greg said, getting to his feet with a grin. Cas and Joker broke down the camp while Ezyk leaned against a tree, trying to control his breathing.

The day wore on much as the one before, but Ezyk tripped and fell twice. Greg stood over him each time, his hand on his axe, while Ezyk desperately pushed himself to stand on his good leg. His good leg, was hurting almost as badly as his injured one. He had never gone hiking as long as two days, and certainly not on one leg. At sundown, Ezyk collapsed to the ground, sending searing pain up his right side. He was too tired to care. Ezyk weakly performed the firewood gathering trick from the night before, although with significantly less enthusiasm.

The next morning Ezyk was surprised he woke at all.  He struggled to his feet, leg sending pain he hadn’t believed could be felt throbbing through his body with every beat of his heart. The scenery seemed to swim around him. Greg looked at his wound, and gave Ezyk the most calculating look Ezyk had ever seen on a human. “Can you walk another eight hours, boy?” he asked.

“If that’s what I gotta do.” Ezyk said. His voice was ragged and weary.

Walking was agony, but only slightly worse than everything else. Greg and his men, on the other hand, seemed more chipper than ever, Greg stopped them less often, and they even began talking to each other at more than a whisper now that they had left the heart of the forest.

Ezyk knew he was slowing them down. They were often standing behind him, waiting for him to climb over a root, or some small hill while Ezyk was waiting for the axe to fall on him from behind.

Then it happened, Ezyk slipped on a root, and went down for good. When he tried to catch himself, he must have hit his leg, as his world went white with pain.”Aaagh,” Ezyk screamed through clenched teeth. Ezyk tried to raise himself up, but his arms were weak, feebly pushing against the mossy ground without effect.

As he was struggling to right himself, Greg walked up to him, pulling his axe from his belt. “Sorry kid. You may be valuable, but not enough to carry all the way.” Ezyk desperately changed tactics from trying to stand. He reached for his crutch, but Greg stepped on the staff, crushing Ezyk’s fingers to the ground as he raised his axe.

Then Ezyk heard Joker scream. Ezyk could only see a vague flurry of motion from the ground as Greg whipped around, running back towards Joker and Cas. Ezyk heard scrabbling on the forest floor, one more scream, then something large and dark flew towards him, landing on top of him. The last thing Ezyk saw was Joker’s body.

Ezyk opened his eyes to a strange crunching noise. A heavy weight lay over his chest, the pain in his leg was as intense as ever, but his fever had broken, and his eyes were no longer swimming. Ezyk swirled his gaze about, trying to figure out where he was. Ezyk was laying where he had fallen, braced uncomfortably against the tree root that’d tripped him. The sun was further east than he remembered, which meant Ezyk had laid here the whole night. The crunching noise interrupted his musing, and Ezyk looked down.

On top of his chest lay Joker, pale and motionless. Ezyk struggled to raise his head, then very slowly laid it back down. A Yenner was buried between Joker’s ribs, too preoccupied to notice Ezyk’s movement.

Its mandibles sawed at the headhunter’s bones and stripping away flesh, bringing it to the horrific maw of finger-like teeth that even then pulled a strand of Joker into its gullet.  Ezyk now felt the body shifting above him as the monster tugged on the poor man’s guts. Ezyk’s adrenaline surged, and he looked for his crutch. It lay ten feet away, on his left side.

Ezyk closed his eyes and tried to calm down. He focused his mind on the lodestone ring. Behind the Yenner, the branch he had pulled with the ring snapped off, echoing through the silent forest. The Yenner started and turned toward the noise. As fast as he could, Ezyk slipped out from underneath Joker and tried to jump for his staff. Ezyk’s legs gave out, and he simply collapsed in the direction of his crutch.

Almost as soon as he began moving, the Yenner whipped its huge frame back towards Ezyk. As he collapsed, the Yenner hissed, dropping low to the ground. With its body crouched so low, its insect jointed knees rose far above its body, looking for all intents, like a stand of young trees. Then it launched itself into the air, its tear-drop shape sailing above Ezyk, and then it began to fall back downward, legs folded behind it, descending upon him with bone-shattering force.

Ezyk put everything into calling the staff to him, his hand thrust forward as he focused on the lodestone ring. The crutch leapt from the ground, sailing into his hand. Ezyk spun onto his back, holding the staff between him and the Yenner. Ezyk was shocked to see the Yenner descending at him from the height of the treetops. He interposed his crutch, and put all his focus on the runes scratched in charcoal. They lit with an orange glow, and the world slowed.

The Yenner dropped on the staff and instead of snapping it off, was drawn into the wood in a blaze of light. There were awful cracking sounds as the insect’s carapace was crushed and pulled into the  gleaming base of Ezyk’s walking stick. If he hadn’t been in his wizard’s trance he might have missed it, the whole thing took less than a second.

The staff heated up instantly, glowing cherry red in Ezyk’s hands. Ezyk threw it away from him with a scream. The staff fell into a wet pile of leaves where it smoldered, releasing a thin trail of smoke.

Ezyk fell back down, his breath coming fast. He had tried to write the fire runes in a manner similar to his ring, able to use it at will to light things on fire. He meant it to be a weapon to protect himself from Greg and his men. I guess I did get the rune for fire wrong. Ezyk shuddered, thinking what would have happened if he had tried to use the fire rune while he lay exhausted on the rock.

After a moment, Ezyk got his breathing under control. He sat up, and limped to his crutch, which had stopped smoking. He leaned down, and picked it up. The wood seemed smoother, and it was harder for Ezyk to see the grain. The runes he had traced onto it had burned themselves deeply into the wooden staff.  It used to measure to his armpit, but was now roughly three inches longer. The new sleekness of the staff somehow gave off a predatory feeling.

Ezyk used it to limp around, looking for the rest of the group. Cas lay a dozen yards away, also partially eaten. Greg was gone. Ezyk looked for the bag that had held O’tambwe’s charms. Cas had carried them around tied to his backpack, keeping them away from Ezyk. They were gone, evidence that Greg was probably still alive. Seems like Greg tried to salvage something from this, Ezyk thought to himself.  Ezyk took Cas’s waterskin, and the dried fruit from his backpack. He faced the direction they had been going and set out, leaning against the staff as he walked. 

As the sun was setting, Ezyk finally reached the top of the mountain he’d been laboriously climbing the last 3 hours. At the base of the mountain, a camp lay on the other side of a river. White tents dotted the gentle rise of a hill, with a large command tent at its apex.  Around the camp, a stockade had been erected, along with large poles that had been thrust into the ground, with large bells atop them.

As Ezyk made his way slowly down the mountain, he must have been spotted, because before long a boat set out across the river with seven men. They met him just as the slope of the mountain was beginning to ease into a more comfortable walking angle.

Only five came to meet him, the other two stayed with the boat. All five men were wearing boiled leather armor and well-used weapons. The one in the lead wore a captain’s helm, immaculate clothes, shoes and armor that shone in the sun. He stood immobile as Ezyk slowly approached, silently studying him.

As Ezyk came closer, he noticed small details. A scuff here, tear there, bloodshot eyes, and a face that hadn’t been shaved since the night before.

“State your name and unit,” the captain said stiffly.

“Ezyk Jaraad. I’m an apprentice wizard. I was caught in a teleportation ring as my master was fixing it.” Ezyk lied smoothly.

The captain’s men raised eyebrows incredulously, but said nothing. The captain himself was unreadable. “I see,” he said. “You wouldn’t fault me for asking for a demonstration, would you?”

“Of course not,” Ezyk said, shifting the weight from his staff, he reached out his right hand and focused his will through the ring, pulling one of the soldier’s swords across the ten feet separating them into his waiting hand.

The ring of steel filled the air as all the men drew their swords with the exception of the captain. Ezyk blanched, not having considered the effect brandishing a weapon might have. He considered himself already armed with a stick capable of swallowing men whole, and hadn’t thought of the sword as much more than a sharp length of metal. The image of using his staff again didn’t suit his stomach well, though. Hastily, Ezyk turned the blade around and offered the handle to the soldiers.

The captain came forward, and deliberately took the sword from him. “you’ve proven that you are a wizard’s apprentice,” he said, looking down at Ezyk with a stone face. “I’ll give you that, but let me warn you now, it is a punishable offence to steal a soldier’s weapon.” Ezyk smiled nervously. “Come with us, the commander will want to see you personally, and we can get your leg seen to afterwards. My name is Captain Corrus. You may address me as Captain, or if it is necessary to distinguish me from another captain, Captain Corrus.

Captain Corrus turned and his men parted before him as he lead the way back to the boat, not looking back a single time to see if Ezyk was keeping up. Ezyk did his best to follow, but the relief of returning to some semblance of safety sapped the desperate rigidity from his arms and legs. When they stepped through the long grass and Ezyk saw the boat shored up on the bank, his limbs finally gave out on him, dropping him to the sandy shore.

Muttering and cursing, the soldiers loaded Ezyk onyo the boat like a sack of potatoes. As the boat began its crossing of the river the things poking Ezyk in the back and the awkward angle of his neck ceased to matter, and he slept.

Ezyk woke up in a bed. The cot was canvas stretched tight over a wooden frame. A warm sheepskin blanket had been pulled over him. Ezyk glanced around, and saw several other cots in the large green tent. A few had other people resting on them, all of them wounded in some way. A few of them seeped blood through their bandages. Ezyk checked himself for his gear, but his staff and  ring were nowhere to be found. He was still in his old clothes, though. They hadn’t found Cock’s Strut in his sleeve. Ezyk sat up, glancing over the side of the bed, hoping that the rest of his things were in a neat stack by his bed. No such luck

As Ezyk was becoming increasingly alarmed, a motherly voice called out to him. “Take it easy, dear. You won’t come to any harm under my care” Ezyk twisted to see who had spoken to him, and saw a woman with long gray hair attending a soldier with a broken leg. “I’m glad to see you awake. Your leg should heal in three weeks. Give or take” She said, bracing herself before giving the broken leg a wrench. The leg straightened with the soldier howling in pain. His eyes rolled back into his head, and he collapsed back onto his cot.

“His leg or mine?” Ezyk asked.

The old woman sighed, and began wrapping the soldier’s leg, and fitting a brace around it. “Yours. My name is Melia, I am the medical officer in charge of this tent. Anyone in this camp who is injured falls under my command. I don’t care if it was the Eternal Empress Herself, I’d dictate exactly how much bedrest to take, and what she would be allowed to do. Understood?”

Ezyk looked at her, then back to the bandages on his own leg, and nodded. “Good, Corrus told me you were an apprentice wizard, which means you may be valuable, dear. A runner was sent to notify the commander as soon as you opened your eyes, but don’t expect him immediately. He’s a busy man, you see.” 

Melia looked back at the man with a broken leg, hauled her thin arm back and slapped him full in the face with her weathered hand. The soldier jolted up with a gasp. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, sleeping on the job?! You’re on duty!” Melia’s shouted, her voice surprisingly shrill now. Ezyk’s ears hurt from this distance, and he could only pity the hapless man.”Your leg is going to take months to heal, fool! Report to the kitchens! I hope you like peeling potatoes and gutting rabbits, because that’s what a fair share of your soldiering career is going to amount to! Maybe you could write home about it if you weren’t such an illiterate, inbred sack of dung that thinks he can..” The soldier quickly hopped away on crutches as Melia chased him along with a whip of verbal abuse.

Stunned, Ezyk watched as she came back to him, her entire demeanor once again shifted to a doting grandmother. “My dear, you must be parched after that trek through the woods with that wound. Would you care for some tea?” She said. Ezyk nodded quietly, not knowing quite what would set her off. He had some idea it was because the man could not be allowed to waste space in wartime, when he could at least peel potatoes.  Still, Ezyk’s situation wasn’t terribly different. He wondered if it was because he was younger, a wizard, or not part of the military yet. Perhaps all of the above. Ezyk thought to himself as he sipped his tea.

Melia was telling him about her granddaughter who was coincidentally his age and unmarried, when Commander U’ren entered the tent, followed by two bodyguards. He immediately dominated the room with his presence. Even the eyes of the sick and wounded followed him as the heavy man strode to Ezyk’s bedside. While Captain Corrus looked highly presentable, the Commander seemed as though he favored dependability. His face was tired, with a large streak of grey at his temples and chin. He had a beard that was tightly groomed, not one hair longer than another. His armor was polished steel covered in small dents. It had to weigh over a hundred pounds, but he bore it as naturally as if he had been born in a suit of armor.

The image of a baby bursting from its mother in full battle gear, sword held high, screaming defiance, almost made Ezyk smile. Commander U’ren stopped, and nodded to Melia. She scooped up her tea set, which had been slowly encroaching on Ezyk’s foot space. He turned back to Ezyk, “Can you walk?” He asked.

“With crutches, yes.” Ezyk said. One of his grizzled bodyguards had fetched a pair from the corner of the tent before the Commander spoke. He held it to Ezyk as soon as the words left his mouth.

“Come.” Commander U’ren said before he turned and began walking out of the tent. Ezyk snatched up the crutches and began hobbling along behind as fast as he could. Ezyk almost lost the commander several times, his pace was so swift. Each time Ezyk was about to lose him, U’ren stopped to talk to a soldier, offer advice, check gear, or give encouragement. He knew each of them by name, addressing them each differently. It was these moments of morale boosting that allowed Ezyk to desperately crutch his way after him.

Eventually, they came to a large blue tent. Attached to the tent were a jewelers workshop, a smithy, a tinker, and further down the path was the carpenter’s yard, safely removed from the smithy. U’ren entered the blue tent, and Ezyk followed. Inside, the odor of incense assaulted his throat, almost making him gag.  The dim light and smoke hid the inside of the tent. From deep inside, a voice echoed. “Welcome”

U’ren walked to the back of the tent unerringly, his feet picking his way through the cluttered tent, a scowl on his lips. Ezyk tried to keep pace, but his crutches kept knocking over objects he couldn’t quite see in the miasma. He heard clattering as his crutches bumped against various objects, even a splash. As he was working his way to the back of the smoky tent, he heard the voice again, addressing U’ren. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?” sarcasm dripped from the faceless voice.

“Spare me Jeill, I’m here on business that concerns you directly.” U’ren said.

“What could possibly be important enough to bother me in the middle of important arcane matters?” Jeill said with a yawn.

“You have a new assistant.” U’ren said. Ezyk got close enough to dimly see U’ren motion towards him. 

“What!?” Jeill’s voice became shrill. “You think you can send another spy to steal my secrets and keep tabs on me? I told you if you dare send another layman into my domain, they’ll end up the same as the last meathead you assigned to spy on me!”

U’ren held up his hand, “Enough. your new assistant is a genuine wizard’s apprentice from the Richmond Academy.”

Ezyk looked down at the laundered uniform he was wearing. He supposed someone had recognized it. Thankfully it added credibility to his story.

“What the hell is he doing here?” Jeill said in an accusatory tone, jabbing a finger through the smoke into Ezyk’s field of view.

“Teleportation accident,” U’ren said. “Plus a three day journey through the most dangerous wild country we have.”  A moment of silence passed.

“I don’t believe it. Send him away!” Jeill shrieked.

“Listen to me right now,” U’ren said. “You’re going to work with this boy, or you’re going to work for him, understand?” Jeill made a strangled noise as his eyes boggled. “Your chickenshit assignment to my division has yielded no tangible benefits for a quarter of a year now. I’m not going to tolerate your suckling at the government teat any longer. We are at war! Your inaction is allowing my men to die!”

Ezyk saw U’ren lift Jeill into the air. “No more!” he boomed into the wizard’s face. “You’re going to produce proper enchantments for my army! This boy made a wooden stick with runes on it with a piece of charcoal! I refuse to believe you need rare oils, tinctures, or phases of the moon to do your work! My men are going to have the benefit of your support or you’re going to wind up in an unmarked grave!” U’ren shook Jeill a little for emphasis, then dropped him to the floor.  He turned and swept past Ezyk, kicking the clutter out of the way as he passed.

Ezyk watched him head out into the brightness of day. He turned back to the wizard Jeill, and moved forward, allowing the man to come into full view in the hazy tent. Jeill was a thin, balding man with a slouch and a hook nose who would have looked quite wizardly had it not been for the various food stains adorning his greasy robe.

“Sir?” Ezyk ventured. U’ren had assured enmity between them, but Ezyk felt as though he should make an attempt to keep things civil. After all, what had happened to the last man that had been sent to keep an eye on Jeill?

Jeill moved to a nearby censer, and as he closed the lid all the smoke in the room rushed back into it. In a second, the tent was once again clear to the eye, brightly lit with the open front letting in sunlight. Jeill glared at him. “What can you do?” he asked tersely.

“What do you mean?” Ezyk asked.

“What spells do you know?!” Jeill demanded.

“Oh, we didn’t get very far into that at the academy. We just finished months of prep work. We learned metallurgy, carving, math…” Ezyk said with a shrug as he ticked off the classes on his fingers.

“Oh gods. We’re going to die.” Jeill said, his skin becoming even more pallid.

“What do you mean?” Ezyk asked again.

“U’ren only accepts results!” Jeill said, pacing. “He’s gotten useless people killed before, but imperial law dictates that there be at least one wizard under every commander. As soon as you arrived, we both became disposable.” Jeill met Ezyk’s eyes. Holding his gaze, he continued. “He’s not satisified with anything I have to offer, so if you have nothing up your sleeve, he’s going to kill me, then when you don’t give him what he wants, he’s going to find someone to replace you.”

Ezyk blinked, taking in the information. U’ren had threatened to put Jeill into an unmarked grave… “before the accident that dropped me here, we were given books to read with a few thousand symbols. I’m only confident that I can remember some of the simplest ones. On the trail here, I used the rune for heat to warm a rock and keep myself from dying of hypothermia. Does that help?” Ezyk said.

Jeill goggled at him. He swept up to Ezyk, and grabbed him by the front of his shirt “thousands? Did you say thousands of spells? In a book?” Jeill demanded, his acrid breath wafting to Ezyk’s nose.

Ezyk was confused for a moment before understanding dawned on him. “No, spells are composed of runes written together with a specific message that describes a change in the natural order that you wish to take effect. There were no spells in the book, just the ingredients for the students to make their own.”

Jeills eyes widened, he released Ezyk’s shirt, took a step back and collapsed onto the floor, and began a choking laugh that sounded half-sob.

“Sir? Are you alright?” Ezyk asked.

“Have you ever worked at something your entire life, to have it made meaningless in the end?” Jeill asked, looking at his hands. “I apprenticed to a wizard for fifteen years, and only learned a few parlor tricks. Enough to, as U’ren said, suckle off the government teat.” Jeill gave a self-deprecating grin. 

“but freely giving a whole class access to the secret of magic… who would give so many children so much power?” Jeill asked.

“Richmond academy hired a wizard from the country of  A’ktala. He made a copy of the book for each student.”Ezyk said, not mentioning O’tambwe’s relationship with him. 

Jeill sighed. “I’m going to be a relic of a bygone age. I expect your classmates would have replaced me in a few short years even if you hadn’t come along.” He slowly came to his feet. His posture more slumped than ever before, his bald spot pointed almost exactly toward Ezyk. “You said you made a heat spell?” he asked.

“yes sir.” Ezyk said. 

“Maybe we can work with that,” Jeill said, thumbing his chin. “U’ren spurns the finer things, anyway.”

Jeill scuttled through the cluttered tent, and picked up ingredients here and there. When he came back to Ezyk, he offered him a variety of inks, gold powder, and a small stack of vellum. “do I have the right materials for it?” he asked.

“Materials?” Ezyk asked.

“Yes, you’re making a heat spell, so you’d probably want to use charcoal as your base, or perhaps wool…” Jeill got up and scrounged up the ingredients he had mentioned. Before long, a small mountain of ingredients had formed in front of him.

Ezyk was confused. “why does what we make it out of matter?” he asked.

Jeill stood from the pile he was currently rummaging through, and stared at Ezyk. “you really are an apprentice, aren’t you?” he asked,  diving back through the trash scattered around the floor. “the material a spell is crafted in directly affects the spell itself. For example, my master enchanted a sword with the webs of a spider lacquered to the hilt, the damned thing literally sucked blood out of people. I’ve heard stories of a famous battle wizard who raised a loyal bloodhound, and used small amounts of its blood to give his spells the ability to track a person by his very scent.”

As Jeill was giving him the rundown , he remembered O’tambwe’s  lessons. “My master said that using your own blood would stop the spell from harming you directly.” Ezyk said. Jeill glanced back over his shoulder, “exactly. I hadn’t heard that one, but it fits the pattern, no wonder those Ak’talan bastards lose so few wizards.” Jeill said, then stroked his patchy beard. “anyway, if we can create something that produces heat for extended periods of time, we could give it to U’ren’s scouts, as part of their survival gear. It’s not much but… I think it would buy us some breathing room.”

Jeill came back to Ezyk, and sat in front of him, and motioned for him to sit too. Ezyk set his crutches aside, and gingerly sat down, making sure not to disturb his injured leg. “okay, show me this spell that saved you from hypothermia.” Jeill said. Ezyk took a small piece of charcoal, set a piece of the vellum in front of him, and entered his Wizards Trance. Ezyk felt as though it took several minutes. He didn’t push the boundaries as hard as he might had he been desperate. As soon as the trance made his stomach feel as though it was unsettled, he broke it. Intangible energy flowed out from Ezyk, and the vellum became hot to the touch.

It was the strangest sensation. Something as thin as parchment should have lost any heat it had when touched, but the vellum kept radiating heat, almost uncomfortably. Ezyk picked it up and handed it to Jeill. “yes, this will do what we need it to do,” Jeill said. “We’re going to embroider these into scout’s vests, and U’ren is going to keep us both alive. I think this can work.” He glanced back to Ezyk. “I hope you have more than this, but this will buy us time.”

Ezyk ended the day with sore fingertips, exhausted after spending the entire afternoon in the wizards trance. Ezyk wouldn’t have thought it was possible to be in trance while sewing. It was a strange sensation, the trance was shallower, but embroidery takes a long time. It felt as though he had been hunched over a leather vest, making that first prototype for days, rather than an afternoon bleeding into evening. Jeill inspected the final product, and put his hand to the inside of the vest. “It’s too hot, this will cook someone,” Jeill said, pulling his hand out and shaking it in the cool air. “We’ll have to pick this up tomorrow. The good news is that if it’s this easy to make something too hot, it should be even easier to make something that’s only warm. I’ll hold onto this, you go get some rest.”

Ezyk picked up his crutches and began hopping away from the wizard’s tent. Ezyk made his way down the dirt path quite a ways before he realized that he didn’t know where he was going to spend the night. The sun had long since sunk below the horizon. The only light provided were sconces kept fueled by children whose only job, it seemed, was to keep the oil in them from running out.

The shadows cast by the tent city he limped through were deep, but not necessarily quiet. Soldiers were everywhere. Outside the tents, by the fires were men talking, laughing, drinking, and gambling away their meager rewards for their terms of service. From inside the tents he heard snoring, and even moans of pleasure. Ezyk felt this was an excellent time to poke around, maybe find out where he had found himself.

Ezyk found a group of men seated around a fire, they all showed signs of aging. They sat passing a wineskin between them, talking quietly amongst themselves. “I tell you, I saw him coming in the same direction Greg went. The boy probably has something to do with it. He should have checked in already.” One of them said.

“You think a boy like him would get the better of Greg? Not likely. He might know what happened, though.” Another offered.

“I saw the commander bring him to Jeill’s tent,” a man said, spitting. “Also heard from one of Corrus’s ladies in waiting that the kid’s a wizard. Summoned the man’s sword right out of its sheath.” He glowered into the fire. “I say he knows what happened. We should beat it out of him.”

“Apprentice wizard.” Ezyk said, having limped over to them with the help of his crutches. Ezyk had decided to face this situation before it had time to turn any worse for him. “And I do have an idea what happened to Greg” He continued. The men facing away from him jerked around, and the one across from the fire squinted at him through the glaring light.

Ezyk approached the fire and the veterans scooted aside, Perhaps not make room, but to avoid getting close to him. Either way, Ezyk lay down his crutches and carefully sat by the fire, favoring his bandaged leg.

“So, fill us in.” said the largest of them.

Ezyk met his eye “Greg was a headhunter with a team of three sent out to the west to search for deserters?” he asked.

“yeah that’d be him, the man responded.

“He found me by the river, and guided me most of the way to camp. We were attacked by a Yenner, and two of his men were killed. That was the last time I saw him.” Ezyk said.

“That’s it?” The leader of their little group demanded “Greg is a fifteen year veteran of these woods! Are you telling me a little thing like having half of his group killed by a yenner would stop him from coming back? You probably did something to him, you little shit!” The large man stood, a little unsteady on his feet.

“I didn’t say he was dead, I said I didn’t see what happened after that.” Ezyk said, very calmly.

The man snorted. “So how the hell did you get away from it?” he demanded.

Ezyk carefully sank his hand into his sleeve, discreetly wrapping his pinky around the Cock’s Strut. From their perspective, space itself seemed to warp around Ezyk and his voice became chilling. “I ate it,” Ezyk said, with his most evil smirk. “I practice Voromancy, an ancient system of magic that allows me to consume things to gain their power.”

The men around the fire scooted away from Ezyk, their faces paling. “Should I ever be attacked in a dark corner of the camp, well, there won’t be any witnesses, will there?” Ezyk asked. “Come to think of it, it’s just you three here, isn’t it?” The men got off their asses and started running, scattering in all directions.

After they were gone, Ezyk sat by the fire a minute, smiling to himself. Otambwe’s advice was coming in handy. Keep an air of mystery around yourself, and you are unapproachable. On the other hand, it was exactly what Jeill did, wasn’t it? Gotta work with what you have, Ezyk thought to himself with a mental shrug.

Ezyk stared at the fire for a moment before he went to spread more rumors and gain information. In a few hours the camp believed he was a cannibal, demigod, possessed, prophetic, and best of all, a product of everyone’s war torn minds. Ezyk also learned that they were in the northern middle of the continent. This particular camp was the vanguard of the Imperial Army, and the single deepest camp into Xenshai territory. Jeill was someone’s nephew who had had connections, until his uncle fell from grace, leaving him exiled to the far reaches of the Empire.

Ezyk also discovered that he hadn’t been assigned a tent yet, so he headed back to the medical tent. He was confident Melia would give him a bed, but he was unsure whether he would be scolded out the door in the morning.

Ezyk looked up at the stars shining down on him, made slightly harder to see on account of the glare of campfires. The night air was truly cold, totally unlike the southern edge of the continent that had housed the Richmond academy.  Ezyk imagined himself a fire-breathing dragon in the cold night air, blowing billowing steam from his pursed lips.

On the way back to the medical tent, he heard large bells begin to ring, all at once, every tent flew open, and soldiers began pouring out onto the muddy ground in controlled chaos. At first Ezyk thought there was no direction to it and stepped out of the way of the jostling crowd. Miraculously, in less than a minute each soldier had found his assigned place and once again the street was empty.

Ezyk heard battle and screams in the distance, to the southeast. The thing that flabbergasted him was that even with the torrent of bodies, about half the soldier in the tents hadn’t even gotten up. They still lay upon their cots, sleeping to the sounds of their tent-mates fighting to the death against what Ezyk could only presume was a skirmish of Xenshai. There must be a signal that alerts them to a full camp wake-up call. Ezyk made the rest of the way back to the medical tent without incident.  That night he too fell asleep to the distant ring of steel and faintest screams.

The next morning, Ezyk crawled out of bed, groggy and aching. The first thing he noticed was his unbelievable hunger. Had he really not eaten in three days? Feeling as though some sadistic bastard was spooning out his organs, Ezyk stepped outside of the medical tent, following the flow of men to breakfast.  As Ezyk waited in line, he saw the man whose leg had been broken the night before, spooning soup into the men’s waiting bowls, His eyes staring off into space. It didn’t look like he had slept since Melia had sent him to the kitchen.  As Ezyk’s turn came and went, the man’s face registered no recognition. On the other hand, the soldiers around Ezyk gave him a wide berth, looking at him from the corner of their eyes, and whispering to each other.

It was incredibly awkward. Apparently his tactic of spreading fear and mystery about himself had worked a little too well. Not a person spoke to him, so Ezyk sat by himself and began eating. The food was good, although Ezyk was suspicious that if left to sit, it would gel into a soft fatty mush.

A small man abruptly sat crosslegged across from Ezyk, mirroring him. “So, you’re the new wizard?” he asked.

“I’m the new assistant.” Ezyk said. The small man put his hand out, and Ezyk shook it.

“Hanner. Quartemaster.” He said.

“Ezyk.” Ezyk said, giving the man his name.

“The word is you’re going to be replacing old Jeill, and that you’re a Venir in disguise.” He said.

Ezyk blinked. He hadn’t told anyone that, but overnight the rumors he had started had taken on a life of their own. “I’m sure there are other theories about what I am, but I assure you, I’m just a man.” Ezyk pointed to his bandaged leg for emphasis.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to call you a man… but I get your point.” Hanner said, smirking.

Ezyk looked around at the men still trying not to stare at him. “Are wizards really so rare?” he asked.

“Yes, and no,” Hanner said, blowing on his spoonful of mush before eating it. “You can find one serving under every commander in the imperial army. But that doesn’t mean that these wizards will often come out of their tents. They tend to guard their secrets pretty jealously.” Hanner said. “You are a bit of an oddity on account of your age, and the fact you were found in the middle of the woods that are infested with yenner and Xenshai. You are unbelievably lucky to still be alive, which led some men to believe that maybe it wasn’t luck at all.”He said.

“How’s that?” Ezyk asked.

“Well, there are two ways of thinking on this,” Hanner said. “Some of the men think you’re older than you look, and are using magic to make people underestimate you. The others think you’re probably a Xenshai wizard here to spy.”

Ezyk nearly dropped his soup bowl. “But, Xenshai are furry rat-people with six arms!” he blurted. Everyone around the mess, Hanner included, began bellowing with laughter. Unbeknownst to him, everyone there had been quietly listening in on their conversation. Every man who heard Ezyk’s outburst was laughing. After a few moments of laughter, the soldiers around them picked themselves up and got back to their own conversations, although much more relaxed than they had been before.

Hanner wiped tears away from his eyes and sighed, chuckling. “They look very much like you and me, kid,” he said. Ezyk noticed that Henner now called him kid instead of the more polite, neutral tone he had had before. “Quite a bit paler, though. Big eyes.” Hanner put his thumb and forefingers into circles and put them over his eyes.  “No one really knows where they come from, but they spread from the Feld Mountain in every direction. They shattered the empire when it was weakest, driving our race to the edges of the continent.” Hanner said.

“I know all that,” Ezyk said. He’d had plenty of time to learn, spending much of his childhood living in a school. “I just didn’t know they were human.”

“Oh no, they aren’t human,” Hanner said. “Some of them can be up to eight feet tall, bent, hulking beasts, while others can be as short as three feet tall,” Hanner motioned with his hand. “And they’re sneaky bastards. They can all see in the dark, and a single xenshai will outfight three of our men any day. The only luck we have is that there seem to be more of us than there are of them. Even so, we’re hard pressed to stop their advance.”

“And you think I might be one of them?” Ezyk asked, incredulously.

“Oh, no I don’t think so, not now that I’ve gotten a good look at you.” Hanner cocked his head to the side as he sized Ezyk up. “From what I can tell, you’re pretty much what you say you are. There’s a little something different about you that bothers me, but it’s nothing major.” Hanner said.

Hanner glanced around the open field they were sitting in, making sure that there was no one watching them. As far as Ezyk could tell, no one was overtly paying them any attention anymore. “Look,” Hanner said, his voice quieter. “I’m fairly confident that you’re a reasonable kid, not like that asshat Jeill. I want to help you get on your feet here. Us foot soldiers would never get a shot at an actual enchantment that could mean the difference between life and death, Command gets first crack at everything you and Jeill make on their behalf, none of it winds up in our hands. I could get you in contact with men looking to pay good money for a little bit of comfort or security.”

Ezyk stared at Hanner a moment, then as comprehension dawned, his eyebrows skyrocketed. “you want me to smuggle magic for you?” Ezyk asked.

“Noooo, don’t say the S-word,” Hanner said, his eyes darting around once again. “look at it this way. You work your nine to five over with Jeill, and when you get off, you can make a week’s pay if you take a commission from the boys.” Hanner made a slight hand motion to indicate the rest of the camp. “Entirely on your own time. Imperial law gives a man the right to 6 hours of rest, you can do whatever you want during that time. From what I see right now, you ain’t got much to your name.”

Ezyk thought for a moment. “I have some conditions.” He said. Hanner broke into a grin and nodded.

“First, I’m only going to make a copy or variation of something Jeill and I are working on for Command. If I get caught making it, and you were lying to me about it being legal, I have some modicum of deniability. In addition, it would be something we’ve already proven works, and doesn’t kill people.” Hanner became more serious as he listened. “About money, I’ve been informed I’ll be earning half Jeill’s wages.” Hanner paled. Apparently Jeill made a lot more than the common soldier, leaving Ezyk with no real impetus to enchant for coin. “I have a counter-offer to your week’s pay. I need friends, people who will watch my back. How much do they cost?”

Hanner stared at him a moment, his mind calculating furiously, then he finally smiled again. “A week’s pay can convince a dozen or more people to keep an eye out for you, but if you want a bodyguard who will save your ass in a messy situation, It’d be about three week’s pay for a week’s friendship.” He said.

“I want both.” Ezyk said. “I want your dozen, plus one good bodyguard I can trust with my back. Be sure to mention he’ll get first pick of my ‘extras’ as long as we have our arrangement.” Ezyk glanced down at his fingers, still a little sore from last night’s embroidering, and rubbed the tips together. “Ask around the camp if anyone wants a blanket or vest that is like an oven on the inside. That’s what we’re making right now.”

Hanner thumbed his chin nodding, “I can think of a few of the older fellas who would probably kill for something like that,” Hanner said. “Yeah, I’ll ask around.” Hanner rose to his feet, offering Ezyk a hand. Ezyk took it, and was hauled upright by the wiry man. Hanner clasped his other hand around Ezyk’s and shook it again. “Thank you very much, you’ve been a hell of a lot more reasonable than Jeill ever was, the lazy git. I’ll find you again tonight, and we can get started.”

Hanner turned away, and smoothly disappeared into the crowded camp. Ezyk looked around and noticed the soldiers had finished breakfast and were filing out to their posts. Ezyk looked down at the cold remains of his soup, downed the rest in one go, and made to report to Jeill’s tent.

That night, Ezyk dragged himself from Jeill’s tent to make his way to his own. All day he had been working on stitching the sign for heat into vests and blankets. Every time Ezyk closed his eyes, he could see his own hands deftly weaving wool through leather and cotton. By the time Ezyk got to the tent, he was savoring the sweet release of his own personal cot that would welcome him like a beautiful dream.

In front of his tent were two men, Hanner the Quartermaster and another, with greying hair, close cropped to his head. His armor was unpolished, but grease peeked out between the seams between the plates, and he moved with an easy weight. The man wore a neutral expression, studying Ezyk’s every move. Hanner come forward through the darkness separating them, and welcomed Ezyk.

“Ezyk, this is Specialist Ford. He made a living protecting noble’s sons and rich merchant’s boys. He has twelve years of experience, and comes highly recommended.”

Ezyk looked at Ford appraisingly. “If he’s highly recommended, why is he available?” he asked.

Ford stepped forward and held out his hand. “The boy I was in charge of was the stupidest son of a bitch I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Got himself decapitated by chasing after the enemy out of formation. The fact that you personally asked for someone to watch your back puts you leagues ahead in my book.”

“Don’t worry about heroics, Ford, that’s not what I’m here for.” Ezyk said, taking Ford’s hand. Ezyk wasn’t weak, but ford’s grip felt like it would crush his finger bones if the man squeezed any tighter.

Ezyk looked back to Hanner. “So how do we do this?” he said. Hanner nodded down a path between tents, it was a narrow, dark path, winding into the night. As they walked, Ezyk could barely see enough to avoid tripping over the nearby tents.

“Two of the older boys have taken an interest in your heated blankets. When we get there, we’ll give you what you need to make it, a brew for appearances, and we’ll all sit and chat around the fire. When you’re done, just stand up and walk away, the men will pick up their blankets on the way back to their tents.” Henner said.

Ezyk stretched his shoulders. It was going to cut into his sleep, but he was totally out of his depth in this camp and he needed help. Why not buy it? “I’ll need a spool of wool, the blanket and a needle.” He said. Even in the dark between the tents, he could see the whites around Hanner’s eyes as he stared at Ezyk. “That’s it?” he said. Ezyk nodded.  Hanner shrugged. “If they ask, that wool is from some kind of magic sheep. If they think it’s easy to do, they’ll demand lower prices.”

“it’s not easy to do,” Ezyk said. “When you are in a wizard’s trance, time seems to slow down, and as you push more magic into the symbol, your vision swims, your stomach feels like you’re going to heave…” Ezyk realized he was telling Hanner more than he strictly needed to know. “It’s not easy, it’s just that wool is the most appropriate material in this case.”

Ahead of them was the glow of a fire with Two men beside it. They were very old for footsoldiers, and they sat close to the flames, looking miserable. Hanner approached them with a hearty greeting. In a few minutes introductions were made, and shortly Ezyk was sitting down, sipping on a brew while stitching on two blankets. Every now and then he laughed at one of the old men’s jokes, but he contributed nothing, his focus mostly taken by his work. Ford sat at a distance, taking in the whole scene impassively. An hour came and went, and as Ezyk put his hand inside the second blanket to check its temperature, he smiled.

“Thank you gentlemen for the beer, I should get to my tent, I’ve got an early morning tomorrow.” The soldiers around the fire waved as Ezyk left. Ford shadowed behind Ezyk during the walk back to his tent. Ezyk stopped in front of it. “Ford, are you working for me, in as official a capacity as you can be?”

Ford glanced away from the surroundings, then back again. “you could say that. This is the first time the person I’ve guarded has been the same one paying.” He said.

“Then you need to know why I’m really here. The portal accident that landed me here was not an accident. There are four people out to kill me. They don’t know where I am, I jumped through an uncalibrated portal. One of them is named Tanwood.” Ezyk said.

At the mention of Tanwood, Ford visibly recoiled from Ezyk. “Kid, I don’t think Tanwood wants you dead. If Tanwood wanted you dead, you would be.” He said.

“Yes he does, I saw him…” Ezyk paused, collecting his thoughts. “The wizard who taught me showed me a vision. Tanwood was the one who did it.” Ezyk tapped his breastbone “I felt him put a dagger right through my heart. That same day, I met him, and he attacked me. I survived because a friend helped me escape.”

Ford took a moment to process that. “Is Ezyk your real name?” he asked.

“yes?” Ezyk said, confused.

Ford swore quietly before looking Ezyk in the eyes intensely. “When you were retrieved two days ago, a letter was sent with a report,” Ford said. “And your name will be in that report. It will take six months to reach his eyes, but Tanwood is going to see that letter, and he will come here for you that very night, no warning. Hanner has me paid up front for a week, and I’m going to honor that by teaching you how to disappear. Half a year from now, you’d better be gone.”

Ezyk’s mind reeled. He hadn’t thought to change his name. It was such an integral part of who he was that he couldn’t think of himself as anyone else. Now his desperate escape plan that left no trace of where he had gone already had a hole in it. Fear does not change fate. O’tambwe’s advice echoed in his mind, and Ezyk found himself thinking along a different track. “I have a better idea,” Ezyk said. “Teach me how to fight.”

The first week went by in a non-stop blur of exhaustion and aching. Ford took Ezyk very seriously, and every single part of Ezyk’s body was in pain. While Ezyk’s leg was recovering, Ford made Ezyk exercise his upper body every night until he couldn’t lift his arms. Ezyk’s deal with Hanner continued, and as Jeill expanded Ezyk’s work to light emitting poles and bottomless chamber pots, Ezyk made a copy here and there, leaving it with the commissioner. Hanner kept a tally of Ezyk’s earnings, and by the end of the first week, informed him that he could retain Ford’s services for another month. At the end of the second week, Ford began making Ezyk run an hour before he began beating swordsmanship into him. At first, it was difficult on his tender leg, but it gradually loosened up until he could make full strides.

“Gods above, you’ll be able to move faster than an old lady yet,” Ford said, unwinded as he jogged closely behind Ezyk with a switch. Every time Ezyk’s pace lagged behind whatever his unreasonable goal had been set at, the switch whipped across his back, drawing a yelp from Ezyk. Ezyk had tried to convince Hanner to change his bodyguard, but Ford had simply said that he was going to honor his word whether he was paid or not.  Left with no way out, Ezyk had simply buckled down and tried to meet Ford’s standards, which he was sure were constantly being raised.

Ezyk was panting too hard to carry on any kind of conversation as they jogged through the camp, which was day-by-day becoming well-lit after dark, due to Ezyk’s work with Jeill. Ezyk had always pictured a wizard as someone who conjured fire to burn his enemies, flooded plains, rendered assassins invisible, or disarmed an entire army at once. The reality was, a wizard was just a mid-ranking officer who worked closely with the quartermaster, supplying the camp with tools to meet unusual problems with their logistics. Ezyk had never considered A wizard might be more valuable making shit disappear than summoning hellfire, but now he was fairly sure Commander U’ren simply favored practicality over dramatic magical demonstrations.

As Ezyk and Ford rounded a corner, he saw Commander U’ren speaking to one of his officers, as the officer turned away to relay orders to the men, U’ren focused his attention on the wizard apprentice, and his bodyguard.

U’ren had wordlessly expressed his pleasure with the amount of caution Ezyk had shown, hiring a bodyguard.The boy’s enchantments had provided a morale boost, and the inextinguishable lights at night alone saved U’ren a fortune in fuel. U’ren adopted a scowl that approached approval and gave a single wave of his hand before heading out to take care of his own business.

Each day, Ezyk spent a short time in Jeill’s tent working on his own idea, spending long hours deciphering the runes inlayed on the inside of his lodestone ring, until he was able to break them down into their individual parts. Ezyk was able to buy lodestone from Hanner, although all it amounted to were five stones about as big around as an Imperial coin. Ezyk worked on them in the space he had wrested away from the clutter of Jeill’s tent. Between jobs, ezyk visited the artisans who were invaluable for advice and ideas. The jeweler sold him a small vice, and the tools to cut lodestone. The smith made him a spool of wire.

Ezyk carved two lodestones into mirrored images of one another, on opposing sides, the runes for Lodestone and Outer were written to push everything away. As Ezyk wrapped the opposing sides together, His wizard’s trance faded.

As Ezyk came back to real time, the world exploded. Ezyk was flung to the far side of the tent, and the vice holding the lodestones together shattered, sending steel and wood pattering against the tent walls. As Ezyk sat up, he saw the amulet he had just finished floating in the center of the tent, three feet above the ground.

Jeill snorted awake from the bed he had been napping in. “what is it? Xenshai?” Jeill asked,  reaching into his robe as he groggily looked about. His eyes finally focused on Ezyk’s desk, then on where Ezyk was sprawled in the clutter lining the tent. “What in the nine hells, boy?” Jeill said, getting to his feet and stumbling toward Ezyk. Jeill ran into an invisible sphere of force and was pushed backward causing him fell on his ass.

Ezyk got to his feet, his head still ringing. “I’m trying to make a protection spell,” he said. “That’s what came of it.” Ezyk pointed at the two lodestones bound together. Jeill followed Ezyk’s finger and saw the lodestone floating in the air. He reached out his hand and pressed against the field, and marveled as his hand was pushed away.

Jeill looked at Ezyk like a small child with a new toy, with his brows raised and a grin peeking through his thin scholarly veneer. His eyes said “let’s play with this!’ his mouth said. “We need to do some experiments.”

The rest of the day, their normal production was halted so that they could fool around with the sphere of force that now dominated the center of the wizard tent. They threw coins at it, which seemed to recoil with the same amount of force as they were thrown. Jeill tried to place any number to things on top of the sphere, but no matter how careful he was to balance it, it would slide off. It seemed like it could support weight if it was balanced, but they didn’t have the equipment on hand.

The next day, Jeill brought U’ren to see the sphere. “this is what I have been working on in my spare time. This will make moving camp incredibly easy. Imagine how smooth the carts will pull if they weigh nothing. That is what I intend to do with this.” Jeill said. Ezyk’s brows furrowed. U’ren placed his hand atop the invisible sphere after some groping, and pushed down, his scowl lightened a few shades. “Good Work.” He muttered then swiftly tromped back out.

“Sir, you haven’t been working on this, I have” Ezyk said. Jeill’s eyes snapped back to Ezyk.

“Everything you do is my responsibility, you are my assistant. Jeill rolled his eyes “besides, No one’s going to believe you made something like this.” Jeill motioned to the still-hovering lodestone. “Wizards make little niceties for the army to use easing soldier’s lives. This is a novelty that will keep U’ren’s attention for awhile, and that’s it.” He turned his back on Ezyk, and went to study the lodestone, calling in a carpenter to design a wagon for it.

Ezyk’s stomach felt like it was on fire. to calm down, he stepped outside the tent, and began breathing deeply. It didn’t help much, just brought the anger and outrage to a slow simmer.  Ford, who was sitting ouside the tent, oiling his gear, looked up. “what’s the matter kid?” he asked, without stopping his hands.

“Jeill is trying to steal everything I’ve done.” Ezyk said.

Ford snorted and went back to his maintenance. “yeah, he’ll do that,” he said. “That’s how he got where he is today. He’s a son of some distant nobility who had a fascination with magic when he was young. Not much talent for it, though.” Ford paused to spit. “Anyway, his father hired a private tutor, but the old man passed away after just six months. Jeill shows up a week later at a military outpost with just enough stolen magic, and good connections. So he lands a job as a wizard in the military. That’s the way things work.”

Ezyk looked at ford. “So what the hell am I supposed to do?” He asked.

Ford glanced back up at him, then at the tent behind him. “Follow me,” Ford said, standing. Ezyk followed him down the path to the wood lot. As they gained distance from the wizard tent, Ford began speaking. “luckily for you, everyone knows what a little shit Jeill is, U’ren especially. He would believe you in a heartbeat. Hell, he probably already does, I mean, Jeill does nothing for months, then you show up and all of a sudden he’s a real wizard? U’ren isn’t stupid.”

Ezyk’s brows furrowed. “If he doesn’t think Jeill did it, why is he giving him credit?” Ezyk asked.

“Because Jeill is the official wizard assigned to this camp, and technically your boss. Anything you make under his roof is his.” Ford said. They steered down the muddy path to the mess.

As Ford dished Ezyk out a bowl, him mind ran in circles. “So what the hell am I supposed to do?” Ezyk repeated.

Ford sighed and rolled his eyes before sipping a spoonful of the watery soup. “You’ve got two major choices.” he said, making a vulgur gesture with his outstretched fingers. “First, you could make something on your own time, without Jeill’s knowledge, and use it in some spectacular way, such that everyone has to acknowledge it as yours.”

Ezyk’s eyebrows raised. “what’s the other option?” Ezyk asked.

“Bend over and take it.” Ford said with a smirk. As soon as they were done eating, Ford made Ezyk run until he collapsed. That night Ezyk didn’t take any commissions, just went to bed early.

In the morning, after breakfast, Ezyk went to the wizard tent. Inside was a bustle of activity, Craftsmen scrambled here and there with large sheets detailing Jeill’s Floating Carriage. At least, that’s what he heard people calling it. Ezyk flexed his fingers and made a fist until his knuckles were white, then sighed, relaxing his grip.

As he approached Jeill through the crowd, the little man seemed to disappear, staying on the other side of the tent. It took a good five minutes and a fake out to come face-to-face with Jeill. “What’s my work for the day?” Ezyk asked, trying to keep the anger from spilling into his voice.

Jeill leaned away from Ezyk. “Yes, There was an order… for more light poles. I need you to go to the Lumber yard and crank out at least three more of those today. Off with you.” Jeill waved him away, deliberately avoiding his gaze.

Ezyk turned and headed back outside without complaint. Once he was out of the tent, Ezyk allowed himself the smallest smile. Jeill was going to regret not keeping him where he could watch him. Ezyk went to get started. All his gear for working on lodestone had been confiscated, so Ezyk had to get a new set.

At each craftsman, he discovered Jeill had already been there with specific instructions that Ezyk was not allowed to buy anything without Jeill’s consent.

The smug sense of superiority Ezyk felt when Jeill gave him a whole day to himself gradually eroded as he discovered that under Jeill’s instructions, he couldn’t get a damned thing from anyone.

That night, Ezyk went to speak to the Quartermaster. “Hanner, I need your help,” he said without preamble as he stomped into the quartermaster’s office.

Hanner smiled. “Of course, Ezyk.”

Ezyk put a list of things he needed in his hand. “I need these to work on something, and Jeill is trying to screw me.”

Hanner lit up. “So, if I get you this…stuff, you humiliate Jeill?” he said.

“That’s the idea” Ezyk said.

“That’s sounds like a ball,” Hanner said with a wide grin. “I tell you what, I’ll do it at cost. I’ll take it out of your savings.” Hanner’s gaze flickered down the list as Ezyk left his office.

Ezyk sat down in front of the fire and began working on the night’s commission. He had been working on a bottomless chamberpot with a hammer and chisel when he heard a shrill “there he is! I told you this boy had been selling magical devices without permission!”

Ezyk’s blood ran cold. His first instinct was to strangle Hanner. His second was to lie like a rug. Ezyk turned to see two sergeants barreling down on him. “sirs…” he began his brilliant excuse, then a fist hit his jaw and the world exploded with white.

Ezyk opened his eyes again, and got his bearings. He looked around. He was in his own tent. Ezyk’s face throbbed from where the two brutes had beaten it. Ezyk tried to get up, then noticed his leg was chained to his cot. There was a bowl of soup nearby, so Ezyk filled his belly. As he was eating, his tent flapped open, and Jeill crept in.

“You see where trying to conspire against me has gotten you? Making and selling magic without the wizard’s permission is an offense punishable by death.” Jeill said as he reached into his robe and pulled out a ring. Ezyk’s eyes flickered to his hand, and sure enough, O’tambwe’s keepsake was gone. “You’ve given me everything I need, and since you’re an insubordinate little shit, I’m letting you go here.” Jeill turned away, his voice cold, sweeping out of the tent before Ezyk could frame a response.

Ezyk could only sit and wait. At noon, the same two men who had knocked him out entered the tent, and unlocked his chain. They quickly bound his hands together and hauled him to what used to be the mess. Where the pot everyone had been served dinner from was a chopping block. A half dozen seats had been arranged in a semicircle around it. Ezyk was thrown to his knees in front of the chopping block. That was fast. Ezyk thought to himself morosely.


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