And then I thought to myself, who was in charge of the Rithmere Games? Mother Brightly. And who mysteriously showed up at the same time? Dain. And could that really be a coincidence? I think NOT!

I have a few fan theories about Mother Brightly—who she was, how she might have come into the Shadow Lord's service, and what may have happened with her later. I may elaborate on all that on another day. (When you review, which I know you will, feel free to ask about things that interest you.) But for now, I really wanted to do this thing. Because at CrazyTwin Productions, we are all about background characters and exposition.

So enjoy, friends!

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Secret Rendezvous

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The Games weren't set to start for another few days, but Rithmere was already full of people eager to enter them. The streets had filled to bursting over the past week, as hopeful contestants had begun flooding the town. And most of the rooms at the Champion Inn were already full.

Tilda Brightly was pleased with this, of course. It was going to be another good year for her. And, if all went well, she was due a handsome reward for her ten years of loyal, crafty service. She liked to think of it as a promotion. Perhaps she would finally be granted a little magic. Such powers had been granted already to servants far less successful than she was, after all.

It was about time, she thought. She was always excited when it was time for the Games. The prospect of gaining real power made her just little more excited than normal.

Nothing was going to go wrong this year. Not that anything ever did go wrong, but this year, everything had to be perfect. She refused to let herself be tripped at the finish line.

As she stood at the reception desk, filling out a few official-looking forms, the front door swung open and she looked up. She was extremely impressed by the specimen striding across the floor. The dark, scar-faced man look ferocious, and his vividly green eyes had the look of one who had stared death in the face. There was determination and menace about him. He would make a promising champion, indeed.

He stopped before her, unsmiling, and braced his hands on the edge of the desk.

"Is this the place to enter the Games?" he asked simply.

Even though he hadn't offered a smile, she gave him a welcoming grin. "Indeed, it is," she answered. "I am Mother Brightly, the lady of this fine inn, and official of the Rithmere Games. You wish to enter, then?"

The man stared back flatly, offering no response. Plainly, he didn't have the patience for her warm, cheery mask. Seeing this, she pulled out a form and began to fill it out.

"You name, sir?"

"Doom of the Hills."

Tilda thought that to be an exceptionally odd name, almost certainly made up, but she didn't stop to question him. Asking questions wasn't her job.

"Your special talent?"

"Strength."

She smiled and laughed softly. "I thought it might be. You have that look about you."

Doom maintained his silence. He was too commanding for her taste.

"Before we continue, I must ask that you hand over your weapons. I'll have no shady business in my inn."

Doom was not pleased, but he unbuckled a dagger from his belt, and then bent to pull another from his boot. As he did so, a shadow by the door caught her eye. Standing just outside the inn, a dark-haired slip of a boy was watching her intently, as if waiting for her to notice him.

And notice him, she did. The boy nodded gravely, his face like stone. She nodded back, understanding. Then Doom stood up again, and she resumed her smile as he placed his spare dagger beside the first.

"I see you've brought a friend," she commented, gathering up the daggers to store away.

"He will not be competing," Doom said right away. "All the same, he needs a place to stay while I'm here. Would it be possible for him to stay with me?"

Tilda clicked her tongue as she locked the two blades in the cabinet where other weapons were stores. "It is a bit irregular, but I suppose it is possible," she answered slowly, trying to think of a believable, normal-sounding excuse that would separate them. "Your friend may be more comfortable in our stable, however. It would be a shame for such a fine looking young man to fall into any… Trouble, while he was here."

"That will be fine, then." He looked over his shoulder, and said, "Take your things to the stable, Dain. I'll be along shortly."

The boy looked slightly nervous, but nodded quickly in agreement. "Take your time, sir. I'll be alright."

It was a clever disguise. Tilda was immediately impressed.

But all she did was continue to smile, looking pleased that their dilemma had been resolved so easily. In truth, she was also pleased—though for a very different reason.

"That being settled, I'll ask you to come with me, sir," she said, gesturing to a side room. "I'll just take your measurements, and get you to your room. You must have traveled quite a distance, and we want all our competitors fresh for the Games."

Looking begrudged, Doom strode with purpose toward the side room, and Tilda followed at a respectful distance. The man clearly liked his space. It would be best to indulge him, if she wanted to keep him off her scent.

Before going into the room after him, Tilda glanced at the door. The boy was still hovering in the doorway, pretending to be unsure and nervous to be so far from his guardian. Anyone else would have passed him by, thinking him to be a handsome if not scrawny and inexperienced youth. But she already knew better. His worried face suddenly became quite serious, and his dark eyes seemed to pierce her.

He was even more commanding than Doom was, and all of it was meant for her. She felt a thrill of fear run down her spine. Maintaining her mask was suddenly a little difficult. She urgently nodded back, and disappeared into the side room, leaving the piercing stare behind her.

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Doom had stood perfectly still while he was weighed and measured, and uttered not a sound. He was being totally compliant, which made Tilda suspicious. He clearly wasn't in this for the chance to win a little money, or even glory. Perhaps he wanted people to think that he was entering the Games just for the sake of beating others with a staff or a mallet.

But Tilda couldn't bring herself to believe that. Doom of the Hills was up to something. He had seemed a promising champion at first glance, perhaps just the champion she needed to be sure of her coveted, long awaited promotion. Now, he felt like a nuisance. Now, she was certain that he was already on to her, and was determined to foil her.

Something would have to be done about him, somehow. She couldn't let him get in her way. Not now, of all times.

Once the measurements were all taken, and the form was completed, and Doom had been given his blue armband and become an official competitor, the first thing he had wanted was to check on his small friend in the stables. For all his dark mood and aloofness, he seemed to genuinely care about the boy. Tilda had insisted that Doom needed to settle himself into his room first, and have something to eat.

"Your travels have left you nothing but skin and bone," she had insisted crisply. "Luckily, I have just the thing for that. We'll have you strong and fit for battle in no time."

"My friend needs to eat, too."

"Oh, but of course he does! Why, I don't think I've seen such a thin, frail child in all my life! He may not be a competitor, but I take care of all my guests. You just take care of yourself, Doom of the Hills. I shall see to your small friend personally."

Doom hadn't liked it, but had finally done as she had insisted. Once he had gone, Tilda had bustled off to the kitchen to prepare a plate of food. She had piled it neatly with roasted meats, steamed vegetables, and fresh, warm bread, then filled a mug with hot Queen Bee cider.

It was a generous-looking feast, and she made certain that many people watched her carry it all out of the inn, towards the stable.

Of course, none of it was for the boy. She knew by now that though he could eat it, he wouldn't want to. In truth, the platter was for herself. It was long past the lunch hour, but she had been too busy to eat yet. And she had a feeling that she might be in the stable for a while, yet.

The stable door was slightly open, a clear sign that she was expected. Another thrill of fear came over her, and her hands began to shake slightly. She wasn't sure why this meeting, which she expected every year, always filled her with dread. She was such a good and careful servant. She only ever had good tiding to report to the master. There was no reason for her to be afraid.

But perhaps, a healthy fear of the master and his inner circle was wise, she decided. It would please them far more to see her humble, and trembling before them. She was only human, after all.

It was deeply shadowed inside the stable, but there was enough light to see the shape of the boy leaning casually against the wall, waiting for her.

"You've taken your time, Brightly," he commented.

"I came as quickly as I could, my lord," she answered, bowing her head respectfully. "That man is difficult to shake."

The boy snorted with laughter. "Yes, I know. Doom is quite the pest, but he is useful enough. He is serving our purposes well. And the best part is that he hasn't got a clue."

Tilda wondered if it would be impertinent to share in his laughter, and decided that it was. Suddenly, the boy looked up at her and made a face.

"Put that plate down somewhere else, where I don't have to look at it," he ordered. "You know that I hate having to eat human food."

"It was merely for show, my lord," she said tamely, placing the plate and mug on the dusty floor. "If it's no trouble, though, I haven't eaten all day, and wouldn't mind eating it myself."

The boy groaned and rolled his eyes. "Very well," he growled. "I suppose, if you are going to keep being of use, you need your strength. Just don't make me watch. It's sickening to me."

"That is no trouble at all, my lord," she answered graciously. "I would never think of causing you discomfort, when you already work so hard."

The boy gave her a sly smile, and knelt to join her on the stable floor.

"You are a puzzle, Tilda Brightly," he said coolly. "You play your part so expertly, and then give your real graces to us. Even I must admit, for a human, it is rather brilliant. Admirable, even. The master continues to be pleased with your work."

Fear ebbed away slightly, and Tilda allowed herself to relax a bit. She reached for the mug of cider and held it out to him.

"I did bring this, though I know you hate to eat. I know you have a soft spot for Queen Bee cider."

The boy accepted the mug with a greedy grin. "It does have its uses," he agreed, sipping with relish.

"So," Tilda commented, "it's Dain this year, is it?"

"Dain the orphan, in the company of Doom, leader of the Resistance."

Tilda's face lit up with delight. "You've finally found him," she said, clasping her hands. "You've been searching for quite a time. You must be pleased."

"I've always known there was a Resistance somewhere in the north. They hide themselves cleverly. Of course, it's impossible to hide completely when there are Grade 3 Olds lurking about. If Doom were really clever, he would guard himself better. He knows we exist—you would think he would be suspicious by now."

"Not so clever, after all, then."

The Ol chuckled cruelly. "Not at all."

"Your disguises grow cleverer and cleverer every year," she praised. "I must admit, it has been difficult to spot you some years. Raike the thief gave me quite a turn, just last year. Quite impressive."

"And this year is my best yet. I've never been so pleased, in all the years I've been at this. And the master is pleased, also." He paused and regarded his smooth, pale hand with disdain. "All I need is a little more time in this wretched guise, and I will have all that I need. Very soon, I will have everything I wish for."

"Ah. You still wish to sit at the master's right hand, of course."

The Ol scoffed. "That oaf in the palace is as witless an old fool as he pretends to be. He never had the guts to believe that this Resistance could be a problem. They've festered like an illness in his folly, and now they've spread into the west. If it wasn't for me, we would know nothing of this. Fallow's many failures have cost us dearly, and its unacceptable. Soon, the master will see this as I do, and he will reward my troubles. He has promised me so."

"That is good. You deserve it. Fallow has hardly been present. I don't think I've ever even seen him. You would think, being the master's favorite, that he would take more care."

"I don't want to talk about that fool anymore," the Ol said flatly, setting the empty mug aside. "We have important matter to discuss, you and I, beginning with Doom."

"Ah, yes. I've had a very bad feeling about him. What is he doing here?"

"He knows that the Games are a trap, set by the master. He has decided that he must get inside, and figure out how it works. If you wish to succeed this year, he must not be allowed to win. He's already escaped from the Shadow Arena once. Escaping the Games will be no feat for him."

"The Shadow Arena?" she demanded. "But no one escapes from the Shadow Arena!"

"Well, this man did. The master had never imagined it possible, either. That issue has been dealt with soundly. Nothing that comes in can get out unless the master wills it. That has nothing to do with the time and space between here and there, however. Doom will escape with his bare hands, long before he reaches the mountains. If he becomes champion, the Games will be ruined. Whatever else happens this year, Doom cannot be allowed to win."

Tilda was grave at this news. "I understand completely. Is there anyone in particular to keep an eye on, then?"

"Perhaps…."

The Ol looked positively thunderous, all of a sudden. "I'm afraid there is trouble afoot, Brightly. It brings me no pleasure to explain this, but we've received very bad news. Someone is trying to undo nearly 17 years of hard work, and they are succeeding."

"How on earth could that be?"

"We received intelligence three days ago that trouble was brewing in Hira. The Ak-Baba sent to investigate returned to say that the city was burning to the ground. Reeah is no more, and the opal is gone."

"But that is impossible!"

"It gets worse. A report was also sent from Noradz, saying that the city had been invaded and that Reese is dead. Intelligence has also reported that the town of D'Or is in bloom, and that Ralad people have been seen speaking. Speaking, Brightly! That can mean only one thing—Theagan has also been destroyed, and the ruby has been taken."

Tilda was shaking again, this time with fury. "Who could be doing such a thing?" she demanded. "The Resistance—"

"Has nothing to do with any of it," the Ol said, his voice remarkably even. "Doom is as puzzled as we are. However, though they are in a panic, the eight remaining Ra-Katcharz have an interesting story to tell. Saraiah, who was eighth of the nine, reported that three strangers appeared in Noradz and caused quite a deal of trouble while they were there. They were condemned to death, but escaped somehow; and she is certain that they are the reason Reese was killed. Just days later, the opal was taken from Hira. Of course, Fallow can't see how the two events could be related; but I can't believe that it was coincidence."

"And the ruby? And Theagan? Could it be the same three people?"

"If Ichabod's frenzied babbling is to be believed—which I think it is. He also described three people who killed his mother, and not before killing his brother and sister. He and the remainder of his family tracked them down, intent on revenge, which they were too easily distracted to fulfill. The exact details of Ichabod's story are difficult to piece together, but the three match Saraiah's description. As you can imagine, this bothers the master intensely."

"What do you plan to do about them?"

"If my guess is correct, the three will be heading west. And, of course, what is in the west?"

Tilda paused, processing this.

"…The Games."

"More importantly, the Shifting Sands, and the heavenly stone. If that is their next goal, they will have little choice but to pass through this town. And if that is the case, they will be passing through in the next day or two. If they end up entering the Games, we could ensnare and stop them easily."

"Clever thinking, my lord. You said there was a description?"

"It is vague and unhelpful, at best; but between eight panicking rat catchers and a grief-stricken abomination, it's the most we have. It speaks of a man—large, most likely a warrior—traveling with a boy and a wild-looking girl with long black hair. We also understand something about a black bird following them, but that is Ichabod's word alone."

Tilda made a face. "There are plenty of all four in this area, alone. They may be difficult to spot, if they do come my way. All the same, I will do what I can. Oh, if they did come into my inn, think of the opportunities…"

"I know," the Ol agreed, leaning a little closer. "Imagine how pleased the master will be, if your trap is the one the three fall into. The master is pleased with you already; you have never once let him down. You are not so bad, as humans go. I must confess, I'd like to see you succeed. With your skillset, we could do many, many things besides win a bit of entertainment. Last year's champion provided weeks of fun for us all. She was impressive, you know; I had the pleasure of watching her, right before she escaped."

Tilda frowned furiously. "I still can't stand that she got away so easily."

"The master hardly holds that against you. It wasn't your fault. You did all that was asked of you, and more. Those responsible have been dealt with. And, in a way, it's just as much fun to imagine her so thrilled to have escaped, only to perish hopelessly in the wastelands. I swear, you Deltorans just don't know when to give up. Watching you people squirm in the master's vice grip is amusing. It's one of the only things you humans are good for."

Tilda shrugged. "People of character don't know how to give up, I think. But I cast my lot long ago, and I stand by it. People of character are also loyal to what they believe in. And I believe in power."

"That is wise. And as we all know, the master rewards wisdom."

"Oh, yes, I know it."

The Ol stood up, brushing dust from his leggings. "Can I trust you to keep Doom out of my hair for a few hours? I haven't had a moment to myself in days, and being away from him is refreshing. He pretends to be cold, but he has an annoyingly noble heart. In some ways, that serves my purpose—how could he refuse to shelter a weak, orphaned child who needed his help? In other ways, it's nothing but a bother. He cares entirely too much, and he trusts me too well for a boy he only just met last winter."

Tilda game him a sly smile of her own. "I could do more than just keep him occupied, if you'd like, my lord."

"No, no, there is still too much I can learn from him. I need him alive, for the time being. I will deal with him in my own way, when I have exhausted his use. It will be a tremendous joy, believe you me. I look forward to making him watch his work crumble around him. For now, though, I need him to leave me in peace. I intend to look around, survey this year's fresh meat; and if he comes looking for me, only to find me gone, he will raise a fuss when we meet again. If he scolds me one more time, I may not be able to keep from strangling him."

Tilda also stood up to face the Ol squarely. "Oh, I hope I can be there when the time comes to dispose of him. The sooner we are rid of vermin like him, the better off we will all be. I assume you plan to be another fly on the wall, as always?"

"Naturally. No one notices a simple fly buzzing around. It has always been one of the best ways to gather information."

"Then I suggest you avoid room 23. A brother and sister from the Plains are staying there, and they jump at the slightest sign of insects. I suspect they are descended from the people of Hira, and are nervous of creatures that could carry disease. They will notice a simple fly buzzing around, and will go out of their way to crush it with anything they can find."

"Thank you for the advice. I shall heed it."

"My pleasure is to serve you, my lord."

"We shall speak again, in the days to come. You will know where and when. And remember this: if the three are intent on retrieving, they must be stopped at all costs. The one who ca do that will be rewarded beyond their wildest dreams. The one who fails will be punished just as richly. If they stumble into the games, you must catch them. If they escape, you will not be given a second chance."

As terrifying as that was, Tilda was confident and unafraid. She had never failed before, after all. She nodded politely. "They won't escape from me," she promised.

The Ol smiled faintly. "They escaped Theagan. They escaped Reese. They had better not escape from you, favored servant."

With that, the creature's shape wavered, collapsing on itself, shrinking into the shape of a housefly. The dark, plain shape buzzed past her face and out the stable door, towards the inn. The Ol who was now calling himself Dain was gone, and the stable suddenly seemed dark and empty.

The few horses in the stalls were swaying and whickering with nerves at what they had just seen and felt, but Tilda made no move to calm them. She had never cared much for animals.

As it was, she had a lot to think about now. She sat back down, picked up the plate, and began to eat slowly. If what the Ol had to say was true, she would be needing all her strength, and all her resolve.

The tenth year of the Rithmere Games was going to be interesting, indeed.