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The Third Stone

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

Fifteen leagues outside of Corath the forest dwindled to saplings and brush. Eventually to flat plainland that produced nothing more vital than sharp bladed grasses and an abundance of dandelions in the last stages of shedding their airborne seed. The slave route widened considerably, dirt track melting into crudely paved road broad enough to allow two wagons to pass side by side. A dozen or more horses were no strain on it at all and they and their grim faced, solemn riders gained no more notice than any other traveler heading towards the Slave Carnival.

For two days running the road had boasted more travelers than Theo had seen on the entire journey from Vahnatu. Some were the trudging bands of chained slaves herded by either men on foot or guardians on horse back; dead eyed, hopeless men with depressing futures to look forward too. Others were merchants leading wagons of goods to sell, or riding in fancy carriages to buy what was offered in Corath. Some were merely men traveling afoot, going for the festivals or hoping to gain employment. Lhoki said that slaving caravans were always hiring new guards. It seemed a risky profession to be in.

The city of Corath sat in the middle of a vast plain, protected by tall, gray walls. Smoke rose from a hundred sources within, hazy plumes that merged high above the city before they dissipated. Not much of Corath could be seen behind its formidable walls, only glimpses of the tallest buildings peeking forth. There were a sea of tents and temporary dwellings sat up outside the stone perimeter, peopled by wild looking men whom Lhoki identified as nomads from the interior of Danar come to sell or buy at the carnival.

A hundred wary, predatory eyes followed their passage through the city of tents and past the main gates of Corath. Directly inside the gates was a bazaar crawling with people. Mostly men, a few women who scurried among the booths in groups with covered faces and baskets clutched to their persons. The women that did not go veiled were clearly the lowest of the outcasts, withered and starving and in no danger of being accosted by any man. The men could have originated from any one of a dozen ports, so varied were their faces and dress. Dark skinned southern Khellians mixed with the pale complexioned northerners. Fine, rich robes brushed against the shaggy fur vests of nomadic hunters.

No one paid any heed to the group of travelers that slowly guided their horses through the crowded streets. Among them, they had coin enough to restock their supplies and buy a hot dinner at a Corath inn. Lhoki had advised against stopping at all, but Theo and his men were sorely tired of never ending wilderness and yearned for the chatter of civilization. They welcomed the chance to savor the fruits of a foreign city, even if it was only a brief visit.

Lhoki sullenly admitted to knowing little of Corath's geography, so Theo inquired of a wine merchant where an inn might be that boasted quality cooking. Four streets down and three across was a fine establishment, though he was warned that the proprietor did not serve nomads. Not aware that any of his men looked enough like nomads to warrant the warning, Theo nodded his thanks.

They found the inn with little trouble and picketed their weary horses at the side of the squat stone building. It was the largest of inns and the party took up a good amount of the table space available. The food was, true to the wine merchant's word, excellent. That and the addition of a mellow brewed ale served to lighten the spirits of the crew considerably.

Theo left them there, under the watchful eye of Wing, with enough coin to last them several more rounds of ale, while he and Collin went to see about the gathering of supplies. It was late in the afternoon, the sun casting long shadows on the narrow, paved streets. They walked, with one of the pack horses in tow, towards the produce market one of the serving wenches had told them of. There were few beggars in the streets here, and those they saw were in appalling condition, usually so physically handicapped that even a desperate slaver would have no use for them.

As they walked they passed a street down which a crowd had gathered. The angry cries of dozens of folk clamored in the evening air and the russet livery of the city garrison mixed with the civilian clothing. Curious, Theo drifted that way, when Collin would have passed by.

A small square opened at the street's end, and in the center was a platform upon which two city guards held a man in the barest of rags between them. Cries of Thief and Slave, rose on the air.

"Who accused this man?" Another guard stepped forward, his uniform a bit more crisp and a bit more decorated than the others. A plump, richly robed man pushed out of the crowd.

"I do. I brought the wretch two weeks ago. Paid good silver and come to find he's stealing food from me. I feed my slaves good gruel, no more or no less than any of you, and yet he thinks he deserves more."

The wretch in question merely hung his head between the guards holding him, body bruised and striped from prior beatings. The crowd of merchants cried out their outrage at such expectations from a mere slave and called out for retribution.

"Lash him." Someone cried.

"Cut off his hands."

"Break his bones. Let him beg in the streets for food and see how well he fares."

"Death." Another fair minded soul demanded.

Theo looked to Collin in horror. "They can't be serious. Kill a man for taking food?"

The uniformed official held up his hand for silence. "A handless slave is worth nothing. A dead one even less. Fifty lashes. If he lives through that, he'll never steal from his master again."

The crowd swelled in anticipation as the hapless slave was strapped to a sturdy pole in the center of the platform. A large guard came forward with a coiled leather whip. The crowd sighed in awe as he shook out it's length.

"C'mon." Collin urged quietly. "We don't need to stay and watch this."

The first lash struck and the slave convulsed, muscles tightening reflexively. The crowd of fat merchants cried out in glee. Theo sucked in a breath of outrage and would have pushed forward had Collin not caught his arm.

"Don't even think it, Theo. There's nothing to be done. It's their justice."

"Justice? How can you even use that word regarding this?"

A man at the back of the crowd, overhearing Theo's disgust turned cold eyes his way.

"He deserves worse. When a slave falls to stealing what's next? Raping his master's women? Killing his betters?"

"Betters? I wasn't aware that men who kept other men as animals were better than animals themselves." Theo sneered back and Collin pulled more adamantly on his arm when others shifted attention their way.

Collin got him walking, but he winced with every fading crack of the whip. He thought dark and dire things about Corath and it's major source of trade after that. At the produce market he spared little attention for the proffered goods, letting Collin choose their stock. A sick desire to see the great slave market of Corath picked at his thoughts. It was a deranged, unhealthy need that he could not shake. If such a small injustice could disturb him so, he wanted to see just how bad the center of Corath would be.

He let Collin finish with the purchases before he announced his intention.

"I'm going to the slave market."

Collin stopped and stared at him a moment before tightening his lips and snapping. "Oh, spirits be damned, Theo, what good's that going to do? You're just going to make yourself miserable."

"Whatever. Just wanted to let you know is all."

Collin ground his teeth and muttered incoherent and impotent curses. "Damnit, Theo. Why doesn't this surprise me?"

Theo didn't bother to reply. He would not be swayed by Collin's complaints. He knew where the great slave market was, had heard a dozen times already that the city of Corath sprawled out from the central hub of the markets. Every road eventually lead to the hub. With Collin on his heels muttering lament over this dismal course, Theo walked towards the cities heart.

It was full evening by the time they got there. Torches and oil lanterns had already been lit so that buyers and sellers alike might not have to curb their activities for even the onslaught of night. The market itself was a great open square crammed with wagons and tents, booths and paddocks. The paddocks were of a most unusual kind, constructed to hold human animals. There were hundreds of these cages displaying wares for all to see. Slaves squatted in these cages, men mostly, but some women. Most were listless, but a few raged at the free men walking outside their prisons, screaming curses and threats, pulling ineffectually at the bars holding them in. Fodder, Theo overheard someone say, for the mines or the slave galleys.

Theo felt sick. He would have rebelled at seeing animals treated so callously, to see men handled so was appalling. Little wonder that slavery had been outlawed in Khell decades ago.

"All right. You've seen it. It's depressing and will probably stick with me for life. Can we go?" Collin complained.

There were various small auction blocks around the square and one large, official looking one at the center. Behind that at the far end of the square was a large and impressive building fronted by a tall, barbed gate. The wings of that structure folded around melding into other buildings that formed an enclosure about the square. Many of those were open fronted, allowing free access from the square to the interiors. Theo and Collin walked along the side of one, peering in.

It seemed nothing more than an exceptionally large stable, save that the stalls were covered top and bottom with iron bars and housed not horses but humans. The slaves here were of a different quality than those dredges outside. Sellers advertised the skills of their merchandise. This one practiced in scribing, that one in animal husbandry, yet another learned in fine woodcraft and glass blowing. There were women here. A fair number of females who were young and fair seeming. There was little doubt what fate they would have.

A childish screech rose over the hum of a hundred conversations. A disturbance in the crowd from within the building and a small figure burst through the taller press of adults. A boy no more than eight plowed past Theo, cried out when a man made a grab at him from another direction and changed course only to collide with Collin and the horse. The horse tossed its head indignantly and shifted, throwing it's shoulder into the child. Theo caught one skinny shoulder to keep the boy from falling and the child looked up at him, horrified.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry." the child sobbed. "I didn't mean it. I'll be good, really I will."

"It's okay." Theo said, bemused. "No hard done."

"I think maybe there has been." Collin advised, nodding towards the crowd the boy had escaped from. Two liveried men stalked towards them, very foreboding looks on their faces. The child shivered and pulled a little closer to Theo, trying desperately to squirm behind him.

The men stopped before Theo and Collin, one of them holding out his hand. "Come here."

The boy whimpered, clutching Theo's sleeve. "I did bad. I know it. Don't whip me."

The man made a grab for the child and Theo pushed the boy behind him. The liveried man lifted his eyes to gaze coldly at Theo. Theo matched the glare grimly, not about to see a helpless child share the same fate as the slave caught stealing.

"Don't you think you have him outnumbered? I can't imagine it would take more than one of you to handle so small a boy - unless he's just that good - or you're terribly inept?" He tilted his head questioningly, vaguely hearing Collin groan behind him.

"This ain't none of your affair. Step aside." The one that had gotten the barb right away ordered while the other one was still thinking it over, deciding weather to be offended or not.

"Are you going to whip this child?"

"That ain't none of your affair, either." The man stepped in, using his weight to shoulder Theo aside. Theo slammed the heel of his foot down upon the man's instep, pushing back into his comrade as he jerked the injured foot up in pain.

It was about that time that the second, larger and slower man got Theo's first insult regarding their ineptness and cried out in rage, pushing his fellow aside and plunging after his insulter. A merchant, who had sidled closer to overhear the debate got kicked by the horse who rapidly backed up to avoid human foolishness, and happened to flail into another merchant who took unkindly to the impact. After that things dissolved rapidly into a little brewing section of chaos.

Theo was very happily pounding a sense of morality into the two guards when reinforcements arrived. City guards waded into the fight, separating men by bodily force. An arm went around Theo's neck and jerked him backwards where he was held in an uncompromising, mailed grip. The guard he'd been conversing with stumbled over and got in one good swing while Theo was incapacitated. All the air left his lungs the hard way and he bent double trying to gain it back. The fight was pretty much subdued now, bloody nosed merchants wondering away casting bleak glares at other bloody nosed merchants. The man holding Theo let him go and he dropped to one knee, wheezing.

A fair number of guards were wondering about, light armor clinking, faces registering the power they held over the ordinary people in the crowd. Someone else made a grab for his arm, and Theo swung an angry glare at the perpetrator. It was only Collin who was urging with a hoarse whisper that they make good their escape now with the rest of the dispersing crowd. The child had apparently disappeared in the press of people.

He got up with Collin's help, absently looking at his bloody hands. He'd torn his knuckles in his outrage and hadn't even felt it.

A step and someone called out. "Hey, you. Wait."

Collin kept pulling him away until several guards trotted around them to block their way.

"They say you started this." They were accused. Collin had an excuse on this lips. Theo merely lifted his chin and sneered.

"They were ready enough to whip a child and yet aren't men enough to take the same?"

"That child is a runaway slave."

"You sell children barely out of diapers as slaves?" He cried, aghast. "How do any of you sleep?"

"How do you?" A curious voice asked from behind them. "When you're slavers yourselves. Or am I mistaken?"

A finely dressed, black bearded man had joined the company of guards. An elegant tattoo marked the side of his face. He was disturbingly familiar. Collin tensed at his side, fingers digging deep into Theo's arm.

"Is it Sibeth?" The man inquired of Collin.

Collin took a breath and nodded. "It is. We meet again, master Sinnah."

"Hummm. You may call me Lord here, in the province of my own city."

"Your city?" Theo said dubiously.

Sinnah's eyes flicked disdainfully to him, looked him up and down thoroughly before remarking. "I remember you. You seemed to have a death wish the first time we met. I see it hasn't dissipated. I find it hard to believe that master Inuba employees such disrespectful louts."

"Disrespectful? Isn't that a contradiction in terms when applied to slavers?"

"Are you saying you're not one?"

"No no no." Collin held up his hands desperately. "He's drunk. He can't hold his liquor worth a damn, my lord and all sorts of vile things spill from his mouth. Ignore him. Please, please forgive this trouble."

Theo cast Collin a venomous stare, but realized beneath the surface of anger that still urged him to rashness that Collin was the rational one here. That they were in no means in a good situation and he was not helping matters. He had felt it the first time he'd laid eyes upon this slaver lord and he felt it now. Intense dislike. The man made his skin crawl.

"The boy was mine." Sinnah said. "He was to be a gift to a friend who has a taste for young, pretty things." He smiled at Theo, as though taunting a reaction from him.

"And he's fled." Theo said softly, with just the hint of apology in his tone and none at all in his eyes. "What a tragic shame. Accept my apologies, my lord."

"Don't worry. He'll be found. He is a runaway slave and the good folk of this city are well aware of propriety."

"I'm relieved." Collin said politically, but Sinnah's gaze was locked with Theo's. Somewhere along the way it had gotten personal. The air had gone cold with the onslaught of a chill northern wind, and the hair on Theo's arms stood up. He was vividly aware of how close the hilt of his blade was to his loosely dangling fingers. This man, this Lord Sinnah had power here, every guard in the clearing stood waiting for his signal and it seemed likely that he might order them detained. Theo was determined to draw steel and slice him ear to groin before he let that happen and damn the consequences. He would not allow this man the upper hand.

"Sir, it's because of this one here that the boy got away." One of the guards, holding a broken nose and bleeding profusely from it and a split lip, accused. Theo glanced past Sinnah to flash the man a perfect smile, having received little injury himself. That man's blubbering accusation was enough to set the finer aspects of Theo's wit into motion.

"Only because the boy ran between me and those two blundering oxen. I took offense at being brutalized in their attempts to push past, as no doubt you yourself would have, my lord. It was merely a matter of defending my honor."

Sinnah lifted a brow at him, stared at Theo's compliant expression for a moment, then inclined his head. "Of course. All a misunderstanding. Don't let it happen again, or I'll have to think you find some aggrievance with my city. Aggrievances with Corath offend me greatly. Please, go about your business and do enjoy your stay."

Collin didn't hesitate at the dismissal, pushing Theo ahead of him in a rapid retreat. Collin veered slightly off course to retrieve the pack horse, at which time Theo stopped turned and stared back at Sinnah and the guards. Sinnah lifted a causal hand in farewell. Theo was glowering sourly when Collin rejoined him with the horse.

"I dislike that person. Profoundly."

"I'm going to kill you." Collin said between clenched teeth. "I know by now that you are completely indifferent about your own life, but I'm rather fond of mine and you came this close to getting us both arrested. Do you want to hazard a guess what they do to people who commit crimes in this city? I'll give it a go. They throw them in shackles and sell them as slaves is what!"

Theo sniffed disdainfully, pushing his way past merchants and slavers alike, keeping an eye out for the small, scampering form of a boy. But no boy was to be seen. This torrid world ate up innocents and left no trace they'd ever existed. It occurred to him that this was why Lhoki, who put on such a face of bravado about everything else, hated this city. That little boy who's fate he'd only delayed might have been Lhoki ten years past. They sold children here and then harped about propriety.

Theo walked without direction, merely wishing to escape the noise and the sights of the central slave market. He had no notion where he was going, and Collin had no more sense of bearing in a city than he did in the midst of a forest.

When full darkness was upon the city, Collin suggested they might be lost. Theo stared at him for a moment through the shadows, then looked about them at the unfamiliar building faces along the street.

"Well, I suppose we are." He agreed. "Why'd you let me wonder this far?"

"I thought you knew where you were going." Collin said simply.

They asked the whereabouts of the inn they had left the rest of the crew at the next drinking establishment they passed and received partly coherent directions. After a few more such attempts they found their way onto a vaguely familiar street upon which sat an inn with a fair number of stocky horses.

Wing was angry. He was practically glowing red with frustration when Theo and Collin happened to cross the threshold. He did not curse or shout, but stood glowering in a most disappointed manner at Theo, which was as bad as cursing, as far as Theo was concerned since that particular look meant Wing was well and truly upset and likely not to forget it for a while.

"I'm sorry." Theo said, while Collin was muttering under his breath behind him. "I got sidetracked, then we got lost."

"Sidetracked." Collin snorted and Theo cast him a sidelong, warning glare. "We had an afternoon full of excitement at the slave market."

"The slave market?" Wing's heavy brows shot up. "Whatever for?"

Morbid curiosity, Theo thought, but did not say. He glanced around the room until he found Lhoki crouched in a chair by the fire, looking bleak and miserable. Theo met his eyes for a moment before Lhoki turned away.

"I'm sorry I did. Where is everybody? I want out of here tonight."

"Out looking for you two." Wing snapped, exasperated. He took a few deep breaths to calm himself and added. "I sent them out to search the farmer's market, but not to go too much further. They'll be back soon."

There was no choice then, but to wait. The inn was a good deal more crowded late in the evening than it had been in early afternoon. They had just enough coin left to draw out several rounds of ale, which kept the landlord off their backs, but did nothing to improve Theo's mood. He found he rather disliked the citizens of Corath and had little pleasure in sharing a crowded taproom with them. He would have preferred to stand outside in the cool darkness with only the horses for company, but Wing cornered him with a map he'd procured of Corath and the surrounding area.

Corath was at the far western tip of the slave route. After the city the road turned sharply eastward, swinging almost to the coast before turning north once more and ending at the port city of Toslith. Toslith, according to rumor heard on both sides of the sea, was the major stopping point for slave ships bringing illicit cargo from and to Khell. Even though the majority of Khell condemned slavery there were isolated places where it was practiced. Under the first map was a second more crudely drawn one that focused on the lands east of Corath. This one clearly indicated the long arm of coast at which the far end of Kathari Point was located. It showed an abundance of thick forest, a few spots of moors and what could have been the spidery traces of trails.

Theo looked up from the map to Wing. His first mate had a smug look on his face.

"Where did you get this?" Theo asked.

"Nomadic trappers in a bar down the street."

"They wanted him to pay for it." Lhoki put in sullenly. "But he won it instead."

Theo waited for explanation. Wing shrugged. "Just a few bouts of Jack o' the hill."

Theo rolled his eyes, looking back at the map. Jack o' the hill was a test of strength played in bars around the known world, involving two men locking hands and basically attempting to force each other backwards into the blades of the opposing side. It could be fatal or merely painful, depending on the demeanor of the crowd. Wing was disgustingly good at it.

"And what other tidbits did you learn."

"Nomads are lousy losers." Lhoki offered.

"But easily impressed." Wing said modestly. "There is fair hunting a good ways east up the coastal arm, but most of them won't go much further than thirty - forty leagues towards the coast. Those that do supposedly don't come back."

"Really? Why is that?"

"They say that there are things living out on the arm that are 'less than human'. Says there are bad spirits."

"Bad spirits?" Wonderful. Theo did not like the sound of bad spirits. He very much had an aversion to them.

"Can't be worse than here." Lhoki said, head on folded arms, looking worse for wear after a night's drinking.

"No, I can't imagine it can." Theo agreed.

Corath was a city alive at all hours of the day and night. Its central streets were illuminated by street lamps and there was as much, if not more traffic during the hours of night than the day. The people of Corath knew well how to relax after a day's commerce. The drinking flowed freely and where women had been scare in the light of day, the streets overflowed with gaudily dressed women of ill repute. Their handlers or owners lurked in darkened alleyways always watching and waiting.

Theo's little troop filed out of the city, leaving by the same gate they'd entered, circling the outer walls of Corath to pick up the road as it led east. The nomadic camps outside the perimeter were quiet and dark, the majority of the nomads more than likely within the city partaking of it's nighttime distractions.

With the city faded the light and darkness soon obscured the trail. Only the keenest eyes could make out the slowly moving forms of horses and men and those eyes stood watch on the eastern walls of Corath until distance and utter darkness consumed all sign of the travelers. The lord of Corath, who stood in darkness himself so that his eyes might be more attuned to the intricacies of the night, descended from his perch, black cloak swirling about him as he walked the steep stairwell to the bottom of the wall. A page stood awaiting his word, and that boy he sent running with a message to his most honored guest, saying that her quarry was once more on the move.

* * * *

Anson sat next to Dharva, having displaced one of Filipe's cronies to ride in a carriage of lesser apprentices. He seemed not to care in the least about Filipe's scathing stares and disparaging comments, only occasionally bothering to notice Filipe enough to respond in kind to some barb veiled in the innocence of a question. One got the feeling that Anson was not at all impressed by the lofty credentials of having studied at the university of Kava. He was impressed by her adventures across the sea.

She told him every detail of the story - almost every detail - certain romantic silliness' on her part never needing to be aired again. He asked her questions and complemented her on her ingeniousness, on her courage. Dharva was undone with the praise, blushing furiously from forehead down. She could not remember when she had felt so proud. Certainly no one, not even master Pyphin, had commended her so.

Filipe and his remaining comrades did their best to ignore her and Anson's conversation, but one got the impression their ears were burning. One doubted, as Anson remarked on one occasion after Filipe had downplayed the difficulty of Dharva's adventure, that an apprentice studying in the safe confines of a university had ever faced anything more dangerous than a pop quiz.

Dharva had beamed at him for that gallant defense, and Anson had smiled back at her, blue eyes sparkling with warmth.

They made such good time that the next traveler's inn was passed hours before the onslaught of dusk. The Kavian lieutenant decided in the interest of time, to travel on and make camp along the road later that night. The lands they passed were still of a highly agricultural nature, flat and treeless and bristling with crops.

The soldiers set up camp most efficiently, having tents erected and supper started before the stiff jointed scholars had even finished relieving themselves in the brush at the far side of the road.

Dharva prepared Pyphin's sleeping roll, since the old man was too wrapped up in an ongoing argument with Malafor to think to do it himself. She sat by the fire and sipped hot tea with Anson, listening to half a dozen conversations concerning magic or the runes, or other scholarly things that she felt stupid not being versed in.

A light drizzle began to fall, so fine that it could hardly be felt against skin. But, she could see it against the orange flare of the fire as the water collided with the flames and was consumed. People began to drift towards the shelter of tents, the rain cutting short conversations that might have lasted long into the night.

A larger droplet hit Dharva's hand, splashing wetness. It was shocking in it's utter cold. At least her mind convinced her that it was cold she felt. What else could it be? Then someone cried out in alarm, and a young soldier jumped up and hopped about in pain, rubbing frantically at his cheek. Dharva stared, along with the others in shock, her own hand throbbing. Another drop hit her arm and this time it wasn't cold she felt but burning pain. Her own cry echoed others as the rain hit and burned its way past skin.

"Spirits!" Anson cried out, catching her under his arm, throwing his cloak over her head to protect her as the acid rain began to fall with more violence. He gasped as he was hit repeatedly. Together they rushed towards the nearest coach, hitting the ground and rolling under it.

Out in the open people ran and horses screamed.

"Master Pyphin!" Dharva cried, scanning the campsite for sign of her master. He still sat, cross legged before the fire. Malafor crouched not far from him. Both old men had the glazed eyed looks of men working magic. Neither of them seemed to be affected by the burning rain.

"What is it?" she asked Anson, breathless and stinging from various spots where the stuff had hit her.

"An attack. Some sort of magical attack." he said absently. Then. "What are those fool apprentices doing? They should be protecting the horses, the soldiers, instead of cowering like rabbits."

Which was obviously what he was doing, since the horses had calmed somewhat, and the screams of men in pain had subsided. What master Pyphin, Malafor and the other old masters were up to she could only guess, but a great cluster of spidery spirits conglomerated around them.

The wind was howling in outrage and the sky above the campsite was a gray haze of daunted rain. She could see it pelting the ground just outside the perimeter of their camp. The crops burned. The sizzling of damaged stalks was almost as loud as the harsh rain.

"What can I do to help?" she cried.

She heard him panting beside her, taxing himself to his limits. "Create a fire shield over your head. The fire will burn the rain away when it hits. Run to the tents and kick Filipe and his useless associates into action. The old men are trying to stop the storm at its source, but I can't protect the whole damn camp by myself."

She nodded, not certain she could create such a shield, having never attempted it before, but desperate to help. She crawled out from beneath the coach, summoning spirits and giving them direction in the same thought. They might have complied, or Anson's shield was holding the acid rain back at a higher level, regardless she was unharmed when she darted across the camp and into the tent she'd seen Filipe and several of his school mates take shelter within. She pushed the flap aside and found five pale faces staring at her in shock.

"What are you doing?" she cried. "We're being attacked and you're sitting here while other's fight the battle?"

"What do you know, little girl?" One of them accused, scared into hostility.

"I know that your masters are out there fighting it and Anson is protecting them and this camp and he can't do it alone much longer. Help him. Put shields up over the camp, the horses. Fire shields."

They looked among themselves, not willing to take her at her word and for a moment she thought they would do nothing to spite her, then Filipe crawled to the opening of the tent and crouched there, staring out. He looked back once and snapped.

"Do it. Shields around the camp." The spirits began to gather within the tent, then dispersed to hover in the air over all their heads.

The tents were burned, the wagons were. The horses had open sores on their backs, as did no few humans. If this attack had come an hour later when they all slept peacefully unawares they might have been decimated. As it was the wind gradually stopped and the rain dried up, taking the clouds with it. The soldiers crept out of the hiding places, ineffectual swords in hand, eyes wide and apprehensive. The apprentices peeked out from their tents, the shield they had finally erected wavering over their heads. The old masters, Pyphin, Malafor, Edawin, Orcan all remained where they had sat throughout the entire storm. They seemed winded and pale, and their papery skin was blotched with acid caused sores.

Dharva crouched before them, going from one to the next, seeing if any were seriously hurt.

"Master Pyphin?" Gently she shook at his shoulder. His eyes fluttered open.

"What happened?" She asked.

"It seems as if our poisoner has advanced to magical means to stop our passage. That was a rather nasty little conjuring."

"Little?" Malafor cast Pyphin a wary glance. "That was no small effort. I felt the combined powers of several sorcerers."

"So it was." Pyphin said. "No novices these. I do believe it came from the east."

"Ahead of us!" Dharva said in dismay. "What if they've laid more traps?"

"Then we be more wary." Anson suggested, coming up to stand behind her, shaking out his cloak and inspecting it for holes. It was singed and smelled of burned cloth. Anson frowned at it direly, as if the ruination of the thing were as great a tragedy as the magical attack itself. It was almost funny, how primly concerned with appearance he could be in the aftermath of such a clamor. It was always a trait she'd found endearing.

"I'll patch it." she promised, smiling. He lifted a brow at her, poking a finger through a hole and waggling it.

"My dear, I think it's beyond mending. I'll get a new one in Perth. I know a fine tailor there."

Of course he did. That acquisition depended upon whether they reached Perth alive.

 

 

 

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