No complaints on the length of time between updates, please. I have a life now, that's all. Much thanks to the few who still review, and to those who don't, SHAME ON YOU!! Oh well, your loss. Here, my friends, is Chapter 22:

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Brenna sat there with a closed mouth as Kaitlin pestered her about Libby's illness, shaking her head mutely when the younger girl refused to give up.

"Come on, just a few details? Please please please???"

"No!"

Kaitlin backed off a bit when she saw the dead look in her friend's eyes, pausing for a moment before she reached out hesitantly. "Brenna, I…"

"I won't tell you," said the older girl as she rose, straightening her work robes automatically as she did and giving the rest of them a masked look. "Libby's fine, I'm fine, that's all that matters, ok?!"

"Ok, ok, no need to go postal on us already," replied Cheeks with a shrug. "Leave her alone, Kaitlin, you can go bug Libby about it later if you want."

"She won't remember nothing, though," complained the younger woman with a shrug. "I wanna know what it's like to die…"

"No you don't!" Brenna turned away, crossing her arms as she did. "Look, when are the twins supposed to be back?"

"You mean our mage friends or the two that live across the way?" replied Rupal quickly. "The two across the way are staying at their house until their parents are sure that the sickness is gone for good."

"I meant the mage twins."

"Oh, we're not so sure about them." Rupal flipped open one of her account books, going over the numbers thoroughly for this that month's work. "They went off to Summer sea once word reached us that there was a plague there to see if there was anything they could do. They should be back soon, if not today, actually…"

"And thankfully, we're just in time for dinner," said Carrie brightly as she popped into the room, dragging her twin brother reluctantly behind her as usual.

"How's things in Summer sea?" asked Brenna instantly. "Where they hit hard there?"

"Well…" Carrie's face fell, and Carlton put a comforting hand on her shoulder and came forwards to take over from there.

"It still stands," he started slowly with a shrug. "Though it will be far less crowded next time you visit it, if ever. So many died they devoted an entire outer island just off the coast to burning the dead, and the stench of charred flesh will float over the fair city for weeks, perhaps even months. The resident temple, Winding Circle, came up with a cure after several weeks and many have been saved who would've otherwise died, but…" He paused, rubbing a hand over his eyes as if to rid himself of an image that he alone could see. "There are many who were lost that will be grieved. Some say the plague is a good thing, for it destroyed at least half of those living in the poorest section of the town, most of them vagrants and thieves. With no way to buy treatment for themselves, and Urda's House only able to accommodate so many of them such was inevitable but still… Life is precious and none one has the right to take it needlessly or say that it should be taken without reason." There he stopped, sitting beside his sister who hugged him tightly, hiding her face in his shoulder for a moment as she composed herself.

The rest of the farmers waited in silence, shocked for they had first of all never heard the young man speak so much in all they time they had known him and also in mourning for the beautiful town of the beloved Duke Verdis.

"As Carl said, it's awful there," said Carrie at long last, breaking the silence with a soft voice. "But it will recover as it always does. The Duke is a good man, he will take care of his people."

"Yeah…" Brenna nodded, heading towards the back door as she did. "I'll be out working if you guys need me, ok?"

"What's wrong with her?" asked Carrier as everyone else began to leave as well, heading for their respective posts.

Cheeks paused with a frown. "Well…death."

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Kristen sat nervously on her mount as they waited to go through the gate past the guard inspections, fidgeting with the reins so much that it was a good thing she rode a steady mare. Cam watched her, frowning as he did.

"You should take it easy before Tasha decides she's had enough and dumps you," he advised as they finally made it to the front of the line, passing through quickly with their proof of residence and heading in. "It especially wouldn't be good with all these people around."

"Aren't you a little worried about what we might find?" she asked roughly, setting her jaw as she began to push her way through the crowded streets.

"Other than the minute possibility of little Jon's and Manda's, not really," he replied with a shrug. " And there's truly more of a chance of Matt and Mike giving up drinking and fencing than it actually happening, so I'm not worried. I'll be happy to see my cousin again, yeah, and I'll be happy to be home again. But I'm not all scared like you are at what we might find. They'll be alive, because they said they would be."

"You're unquestioning trust gets a little old sometimes," she muttered back, continuing to press on and leaving the boys to deal with the wagon they'd rented through the slower traffic. "Admirable, but old."

"Hey, wait up!" Cam left the elder boys to take care of it, riding after her on his prancing gelding. Catching up to her, he pushed through at her side as they quickly made their way to their home and place of business. Several minutes of tense silence brought them within sight of the structure and mere moments more to the front gate.

Unlocking it and letting themselves in, Kristen felt her heart freeze up and the sight of everything being so still and silent. The dojo was dark as was the front windows of the house, and they quickly tied up the two horses at the front post before heading inside through the main entrance.

"Hey…anyone home?" Kristen's voice echoed back at herself, almost mockingly as they made their way into the deserted kitchen. The fireplace, usually a sure sign of occupancy with its fresh coals, was cold and dead. Plates were put away, the blankets her sister usually slept on folded and put away, everything neatly arranged and perfectly set to welcome them home…without a Jon or Amanda in sight. "What the heck…?"

"Something wrong?" asked Cam as he slid out of his light cape, setting it on its hook and removing his boots by the door.

"They're not here," replied Kristen as she hurried up the ladder, checking the rooms on the upper level and finding them deserted as well. "Cam, they're not here!"

"What? Are you sure?" He came to the bottom of the latter, looking up with a frown as the first signs of doubt began to creep across his face. "They said they'd be here…"

"See? I told you we'd beat them back!"

The pair frozen, listening as two sets of footsteps came in the house.

"There wouldn't be a problem if you hadn't haggled for so long with the meat vendors," grumbled a second voice. "What the freaking heck difference does three cents make?!"

"That man was not going to cheat me out of a fair price, my momma didn't raise no fool!"

"WHERE HAVE YOU TWO BEEN?!"

Briteyes froze in mid-stride in the entrance to the kitchen, Jon just a few steps ahead of her. A pissed off Kristen glared at her from the top of the ladder, Cam just watching with a relieved and amused grin on his face at the bottom.

"Yeah, we're gonna beat them back alright," drawled Brite dryly as she moved to the counter, resisting the urge to give the apologetic Jon a kick on her way past him. "I told you they'd be back today!"

"How was I supposed to know you were right?!" he grouched, putting the food on the counter and with a snort. "You're not always right, you know…"

"Close enough."

"Oh, shut up-"

WHUMP

Kristen slowly straightened herself, having jumped from the top of the ladder and now standing before them with a gleam of rage in her eyes.

"Scare me like that again," she growled. "And you will both wake to find yourselves with some new scars. Remember, you're immortal, so I can kill you as many time as I want and you'll always come back for more!"

"You know," muttered Brite out of the side of her mouth as Kristen moved away, heading back outside to grab her gear. "Suddenly the ability to survive anything is not so appealing, if you know what I mean."

"Yeah, I do…"

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"Ahoy, there!"

Jenny stood at the railing of her ship, nodding respectfully to the man who hailed them from the deck of one of the patrol ships. Most everyone was else busy bringing in the sale or preparing to unload at the dock so she was the only one paying attention. Wondering if it had anything to do with the pillar of smoke from one of the islands, she replied politely. "Good morn, sir! What is it you require of me?"

"Just some information you need to know! There was plague in Summersea, were you aware of that?"

"Plague? No! Is the port closed off?"

"Not any longer, the mages at Winding Circle have found a cure and most have been administered with the antidote. Just the same you might want to stay aboard for a good couple of days before unloading your goods just to be sure, especially in replenishing your water supply. If one of your crew contracts the disease, the dedicates will gladly help in curing him or her as well but you have been fairly warned as to the estate of things here, as per order of Duke Verdis!"

"Yes, thank you sir!"

"Fair winds to your sails, Trader!" He gave her a salute as they moved off to another ship entering the port.

She saluted back, watching as he disappeared in the distance. "And the same to you!"

"Trevor!" she called, the young man hurrying over to her side quickly. "Tell the crew to call off preparations for unloading and call Nicole, Ami, Gwen, Jack, Talia and Tanner to my office. You're to come as well, so make it quick."

He nodded, frowning in concern. "Yes ma'am! Bad news?"

Jenny shrugged. "Maybe, we'll have to see."

He was obviously puzzled by this but nodded regardless, heading for the hatch. "Alright, I'll be back in a moment."

"Thanks." Making her way to her berth, the Captain quickly put together a plan of action as a few who had heard the odd orders gave her curious looks on her way past. Finding half those requested waiting for her inside and the other half arriving shortly thereafter they all took as seat as she related the news the patrolman had given her.

"I want to go to Winding Circle!" said Nicole quickly. "For all we know there could be people we know who caught it and are recovering there!"

"No," replied Jenny quickly. "That's too dangerous. The plague is still around, and even if it's been cured and supposedly 'under control' we're not going anywhere near where it is most likely in concentration. Here's your orders. Ami, go with Tanner on shore and find out what places are currently considered 'safe' as far as water and supplies go. Jack and Tyler, keep the crew busy any way you can think. Thoroughly cleaning, lists repairs, listings of inventory, supply checks, etc…be creative if you have to be. Nicole, I want you to listen to the winds and tell me what you hear, ok? If we get any sort of word that the plague is out of control again we're out of here, sickness taking out half the crew is the last thing we need."

"No kidding," replied Jack as he rose with a smirk. "C'mon, Tyler, time to whip the doggies into work…"

"And Jack," added Jenny as he started out the door. "If you nearly cause an overthrow from unfair order I'll call you down in front of the crew, strip you of your rank, and leave you at their mercy."

He turned and glared at her, blushing faintly at her automatic warning. "….fine."

"Glad to know you've got things in hand," chuckled Tanner under his breath as he pulled on one boot tighter. "C'mon Ami, we've got work to do."

"Coming…"

"I'll make sure Jack doesn't disobey," said Tyler as he headed out the door, leaving Nicole alone with their Captain.

"Are you sure I can't go?" asked the small nymph, almost pleadingly.

"Yes," replied Nicole with a nod. "I know, I'd like to see if we could find some of the others too and figure out what our purpose is here…but that's not an option right now, ok?"

"Yeah, ok…" Nicole flew off, pouting as she went up to the top of the highest mast, settling herself there grumpily. "Doesn't mean I have to like though…"

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Alyse and Landon opened the letter carefully, knowing the seal was of that of their 'home base' and yet cautious in case it was a trap. They were so rarely contacted in this way that it seemed a bit odd that a message would arrive in this form. That combined, with the odd occurrence just a few nights before and they were more on their guard than usual.

Alyse melted away the seal, stirring it carefully to mess up any spell that might have been engrained in it before opening the flap itself. Pulling out a folded piece of paper with one gloved hand, she looked at it in her magical vision before opening it and reading it aloud to an expectant Landon.

"Seer and Cleaser,

I hope we find you well. Unfortunately, we require your presence so return at once as quickly as possible. The Cat is elsewhere, do not concern yourself with her.

The Council."

"I'm not so sure I trust this," said Landon as he sat back, running a hand through his hair. "What if it's not from them and some group of unmagic mages have found our position?"

"If they have surely we would've felt their presence nearby, or heard of it," replied Alyse skeptically. "Besides the fact that there'd be residual unmagic on the letter from being in their presence and the replication of the council's seal."

"It still seems odd," he pointed out slowly. "They've never sent it in a letter form just leaving it somewhere we would find it like by our campfire in the morning."

"We would know who brought it if you'd stayed awake during your watch," she replied with a wry look.

"Yeah, yeah…"

"Let's head on back," she offered as she stood slowly, straightening her skirts as she did. "And do a double check on the way, ok? If it is a trap, we won't get a reply message if we send one to one of the side sources, right?"

"Ok, yeah."

"Alright, then, let's go."

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Ben scrubbed away at the crusted pots as a few of the day maids sat by the fire, gossiping quietly over some ale they'd coaxed the cook into letting them have as a sort of solace after a day of hard work. The footman were out until late, so there'd be no comfort waiting for them tonight and with that in mind they all drained their tankards willingly and let their tongues become a bit looser than usual.

"Tony has been stingy as of late," complained one as she leaned over the table, the others giving her curious looks. "Never more than once a week, though he used to be coming nearly every month a mere moon ago."

"I know, I could hear you almost every night," commented another dryly. "I'm finally getting some decent sleep at night."

"And that's only because she prefers a cold bed to a warmed one," snorted a third.

The rest laughed, used to such talk amongst themselves. Ben felt his cheeks heat slightly, knowing what they were referring too and a little embarrassed by it. A few of the other servant boys had 'explored' in that respect, but he himself still slept alone. Sure, he'd been invited once or twice, but it seemed like a cheap way to get something like that.

"Careful there," said one of those facing him who caught his odd look with a grin. "You might be giving the young one here something his virgin ears have not yet heard of!"

"Little Ben, not popular with the other young girls? Last I checked, he was well spoken of by most of them," someone laughed. "Have you been keeping any of them company as of late, young Ben?"

"No," he replied, flushing even more as they giggled lightly.

"Hoping to find one to bed permanently?" she asked. "Good luck, the Master doesn't condone those types of relationships among his servants."

"Not that it might matter for long," said one who happened to serve the Master personally on a regular basis. "The doctor came a calling today."

"That's nothing unusual, the doctor's been calling regularly for years since the Baron got paranoid about his health," commented someone else.

"Yes, but now he's come down with something," she said in hushed tones. "We were given orders to administer medicine and other things to him regularly and to keep him in bed for the time being."

"That bad, hm?"

"He also suggested the boy's next of kin is called in…that's never a good sign."

"Calling in another to take care of the estates? Of course it's not!"

"Still, do you think…"

"Wagging tongues are devil's work!" said the cook as he came in, giving them all heavy looks as he positioned himself between Ben and them. "And you never know whose ears might catch careless words. Get on to bed now, it's early enough to warrant a decent night's sleep for once."

Silently they rose and filed out, some giving Ben an odd look which he returned with equal puzzlement. What was he being singled out for?

"I don't think the Baron's got your ear," commented the man as he left the room, leaving Ben alone to finish on the last pot. "But you are a favorite of his son, and that makes you a bit dangerous for the rest of us, boy. G'night."

"Yes, sir. Good night." Letting those final words through his head, the young one finished up his task and made his way to his pallet for the night. If the Baron was sick, and died, maybe his son would let him go free…

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"Sleep well last night?"

Olivia didn't reply as Bryanna smirked knowingly, continuing to pack her things while the healer watched her leaning against the door post.

"You looked pretty comfortable to me," she added teasingly.

Olivia's eye twitch ever so slightly.

"Very warm, too, did anything happen before you fell asleep? I never thought an ice mage would let things get heated up…"

"You guys ready to go yet?" asked Randy as he came barging in, his saddle bags already over his shoulder as usual. "Sheesh, you guys are slow."

"I'm ready," said Bryanna as she picked up her bags, heading towards the door. "Olivia's the one that's slow today, ice tends to be a big sluggish when it gets melted…"

Randy blinked in confusion as she swept past him out the door, looking from Olivia to her and back again. "Huh?? Did I miss something?"

"No more than usual," replied Olivia, rolling her eyes with a slight smile. Tossing her packed bag at him she walked past him, heading for the stables downstairs. "Let's get going or we won't make our next stop before dark."

"Um…ok."

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Brenna sat with her legs crossed in the middle of one of the fields, meditating as her new 'teacher' had taught her silently as he had instructed her to. Time passed, and once she felt things around her were growing as vibrantly as ever she moved on to the next field.

Meditating in the fields brings you into the same focus as the plants are his voice reverberated through her head. The more familiar you are with them, as individuals and not as just 'a stalk of corn' or 'a pumpkin vine' the better you will be able to communicate with them and tend to their needs as those needs are presented.

Wondering if Rosethorn had had to do this in her early years as an apprentice, the young woman settled herself down in another field after giving Cheeks who was plowing in a distant field a wave and began the exercise all over again. It wasn't difficult, simply time-consuming, and once again she waited endlessly in that comfortable communion with the growing beings around her until she was sure they were 'in tune' together and she could move on safely. Her teacher had already assured her he'd send her right back out there to do it again if he found even a hint of 'cheating' and it was so easy and relaxing Brenna had to wonder why anyone would want to.

Letting a small chuckled escape her lips, her thoughts turned to her teacher in his younger years. That straight-shirted young man, did he ever 'cheat' during his meditations? It was doubtful, she decided, he'd probably been that serious and obedient since the day he was born to make up for his twin's mischievous nature.

Heading over to the final field as the sun was sinking in the west, she was surprised to find her 'mentor' already there sitting in his usual lotus position with eyes closed and (surprisingly enough) a small smile on his face.

"Carlton…?"

He opened his eyes slowly, the smile immediately leaving his face as he assumed his usual serious demeanor and motioned for him to join her. "Did you finish the meditating as I instructed you?" he asked simply as she sat across from him carefully.

"All but this field," she replied dutifully. "Do you want me to start on it now or wait until after dinner?"

"It can wait for tomorrow, let's go eat." He rose, walking towards the house and leaving a surprised Brenna in his wake.

"Wait…what?!"

He turned back around, giving her an annoyed look as he hated repeating himself. "I said…"

"I heard what you said," she cut in, ignoring the incensed look she was given for her abrupt actions. "Why? You never let me off early even when it's getting late."

"Meditating is a very relaxing, and sometimes even tiring task," he replied, going into lecture mode as she sighed impatiently. "For those who have done it for years, it is a way to commune with your abilities in a peaceful manner while exerting little of your own strength. It can help heal wounds, speed up the rate of recovering in the case of illness, and even…soften the disposition of those who drive their students to become masters at what they do for one evening." There he paused, giving her a wry grin. "Try not to take advantage of it, it shall not happen very often."

"Oh…" She watched him turn and walk back to the house. "Do I have to meet you after dinner to do the bookwork, then?"

He turned to look at her over his shoulder, this time his eyes flashing angrily. "Do I need to spell it out for you on paper?! No, we're done for the night!"

"Ok, ok, don't need to yell…" She grumbled under her breath as she headed in after him. "Better be glad I need to learn this stuff from him or I'd beat him within an inch of his life….bloody mage…"

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"C'mon, is there a bright light at least? Could you tell me that much?"

Jon shrugged Cam off as he headed for the door, the young man hurrying after him down the hall. "Just leave me alone, ok? If you're that curious, go bug your cousin about it."

"She won't tell me anything about it either," replied Cam bluntly. "Besides, I feel a little bad about asking her…"

"And you don't mind prying details like that out of me at all," snorted Jon, clearly annoyed. "Nice to know you respect my privacy."

"I don't go digging around in your room, that would really be invading your privacy," pointed out the younger on quickly. "Then again, it's kind of like Kristen's room where there's so much crap thrown all over the place most of the time that even Manda's afraid to go poking around in there by herself, but still!"

"Look, it's not as big a deal as you're making it out to be," he snapped, dumping the bucket of dishwater out in the gutter. The drain in the kitchen was clogged again he'd have to go back and check out the pipe work later on. "It didn't even feel like I was dead, just sorta sleeping-ish…"

"They say death is an eternal slumber," Cam pointed out quickly. "Did you just stay asleep until you woke back up again? I mean…um…did your mind stay in your body or did you go somewhere else? Did you see heaven and hell?"

Jon turned around and glared at him, the empty bucket still hanging from his hands. "Why do you care so much?!"

"I just wanna know!!"

"Whiney brat…" Slamming the door in the face of his new shadow, Jon went back to the kitchen and continued to clean up things a bit from breakfast. Kristen had an early class that day and as Briteyes had taken off for her own form of work for the moment, he was left with the chores for the moment. Mike and Matt were still asleep after having visited the local tavern again the night before, but that wasn't too odd.

"Hey, that wasn't appreciated!"

Jon sighed, turning around to find Cam standing behind him with his arms crossed over his narrow chest. "Neither is you bugging me!"

"I have the excuse that the knowledge could be useful in the future."

"And that's all it is, an excuse!"

"You don't have one."

"How about to rid myself of this annoyance named Cam?"

"That's just being rude!"

"It's still an excuse according to you."

"Knock it off you two!" Chris looked down at them from the top of the ladder, standing there with a hammer in one hand and his arms crossed. "I can hear you all the back from Cam's room!"

"Tell him to bugger off!" growled Jon, turning his back on the younger boy.

"He's being rude!" protested Cam quickly.

"Hey, I don't care who's doing what!" yelled Chris, getting silence again effectively enough. "Just keep it down so I can concentrate! Hanging shelves isn't easy without a level available, and unless you both want your new shelves crooked you'll leave me alone!"

"Alright, alright…"

"You still coulda been nicer about it," muttered Cam as he made his way over to the dojo to check on Kristen. "It would've saved us all a lot of trouble…"

"Oh, shut up!"

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Jenny was just on her way to board her ship when she found herself with an unusually polite Jack and a happy Ami on either side.

"Did I miss something?" she asked as she paused at the end of the gangplank, both of them exchanging hopeful looks as Ami presented the case. "What is it?"

"Tonight there's going to a festival in one of the open parts of town, a small traveling caravan came into Summersea for the week and the Duke has authorized it to perform within the city limits and declared an impromptu for the night!"

"What's his excuse?" asked their Captain, her interest perked for the moment.

"Something about his niece's birthday," replied Jack with a shrug. "Who cares? We haven't seen some good entertainment for awhile, Jen, don't you think you could let most of us off for one night? Technically the only one you'd have to leave behind is the little brat because she couldn't really enjoy the party there and she's more than enough to guard this old tub."

"First of all, don't call my ship an 'old tub'," said Jenny as she gave him a scathing look before going on. "It's what gets us from one port to another without dying and it deserves a little more of your respect than that. Second, I want reports of what's been accomplished today. If progress has been made, I don't see any harm in taking a night off, but only if we're getting things accomplished. I'm not going to give us a break if we can't afford it, the last thing we need is to go bankrupt at the moment."

"A lot's been done," jumped in Jack quickly. "The repairs have been started, and several side projects completed in just the last two days alone…"

"I said bring me the reports," cut in Jenny, rolling her eyes. "I want the actual reports, not some vague crap…"

"Ok, ok, I'm going."

"I'll have everyone else know they need to come talk to you," said Ami as she disappeared down into the hold, heading for the kitchen from which the news would spread the fasted. Their cook could whip up a pie nearly as quick as she could spread a tale, and that was pretty impressive indeed.

"I don't like it," said Nicole when she was informed a little while later, sitting on the window sill of Jenny's office as everyone else came and went with their reports.

"It doesn't matter if you like it or not," replied Jenny as she went over the papers handed to her. "The fact is no matter you can't go, you'd have to stay hidden the whole time and with the amount of people likely to be there you peaking your head out now and again would be a very bad idea indeed."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah….still, why do I have to be the only one to stay?" The small nymph pouted, pulling her knees up to her chest as she stared out the thick, glass window set in the porthole.

"I never said you'd be the only one," replied Jenny in a distracted manner. "I just haven't found anyone else who wants to stay with you…"

"I'll stay if no one else will," offered Trevor from where he stood in the doorway, smiling at Nicole kindly. "It's not safe to leave her by herself, you know, especially if a stronger mage than she were to try and board the ship while she's protecting it."

"Then what good would you be?" poked Jenny teasingly.

"I could at least provide a distraction long enough for her to blast them from behind or something," pointed out their crewman cheerfully. "I don't mind being the bait, I'm pretty good at it too. The defenseless, easily preyed upon male, that's me!"

"The fact that you seem so proud of it is what disturbs me the most," coughed Nicole in her hand.

"We're well ahead of where I thought we would be on some things," put in Jenny, bringing that little bunny trail in a quick end. "So everyone except you and Nicole have the night off tonight, and you two will keep watch until tomorrow morning. Think you can handle that Trevor?"

"Absolutely," he said with a smart salute. "An empty ship besides a six-inch tall nymph…how hard could it be?"

Nicole felt an evil smile grow on her face as he left to go take a nap before nightfall. "Oh…you should never underestimate the powers of the nymph, for we are strange and scary creatures to those who know us not…hehehe…."

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Alyse and Landon, after going through the laborious process of sending a message ahead and getting the reply at the check point while waiting on pins and needles, had arrived back at their home base once again and were quickly admitted behind it's thick doors and into its shadowy depths.

Getting a little while to freshen up in clean clothes that were laid out and waiting for them, the pair washed away what dirk they could from the miles and miles of traveling they'd done. Combing her hair out, Alyse sat on the bottom bunk barefoot and with her legs crossed as she tried to rid herself of as many knots and tangles as possible. Taking up the leather ties that had been left with her dress and tunic she tied it back out of her face at long last, standing and stretching slowly.

"Ahh…it feels good to be back here, doesn't it?" she asked as she looked over at her partner, who was sitting at the table trying to lace up the cuffs of the shirt they'd left him and failing miserably.

"At least we'll eat and sleep well for a few days," he replied flatly, more concerned with the cuffs that what she was saying. "Argh, come on, go in the hole…" A pair of hands shooed his away, the young man looking up to see Alyse sit beside him and take his arm into her lap.

"Let me, you're hopeless when it comes to things one-handed," she told him with a half-grin, getting a sheepish smile in return.

"Yeah, I am pretty pathetic on my own," he agreed with a slow nod. "I've always been that way, though."

"Then it's probably a good thing you didn't get sucked in here alone," she said teasingly as she tied off the cords neatly. "Give me your other one."

He obeyed, confused. "Sucked in…?"

"…this isn't our world, remember?" She met his eyes, him blushing furiously as he realized his mistake and her just chuckling to herself. "I know, it's easy to forget sometimes when you get so wrapped up in what's going on around you, but you have to remember at all times, we're going home some day."

"Yeah, I know…"

"Excuse me, they are ready to see you now."

The pair looked up to see one of the messengers peaking in their doorway, immediately standing and putting on their shoes.

"Lead the way," said Alyse as she stuck both fans in her belt out of habit. "Let's get this giving report thing over with so we can get going again. Sound good to you, Landon?"

"It sounds very good to me," he replied with a smile.

"Then let's go!"

::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::

Ben sidled up beside the old woman while they were being fed, smiling as she patted his head fondly.

"You've been busy, I haven't seen you much these days," she said slowly as she sat herself down at one of the tables, getting her own seat from the deference her age got her.

"Yes, grandmother, they've been keeping me running from first light until well after dark," he replied obediently, standing beside her as he was too young to warrant a seat of his own or even share with some of the younger adults. In a few years perhaps he could boss others out of their places but not quite yet.

"You don't bother to come and speak to me anymore unless you're in need of something," she went on with a knowing smile, no malice or disappointment visible in her eyes or audible in her town. "What is it this time, my youngling?"

"I was just wondering…they say the Master is sick," he started carefully, making sure to keep his tone even and uninteresting so none of the usual snoops would listen in on their conversation. "Very, very sick, and that they've had to call in special doctor's and all to treat him. Does that he might die soon?"

"And the underlying question to that is, what happens to us if he dies, right?" put in the old woman with a low laugh. "My boy, do not get your hopes up, even if were to die we will simply be inherited by his son and even as his current favorite he is more likely to keep you around for his own amusement than to let you go if such a think were to happen."

"I see…"

"And that is assuming the man will die in the first place," she went on, shaking her head. "That man is the most stubborn creature I have ever met in my life, and as it is he will likely live with a horrible disease in pain and misery for another hundred years just to spite the rest of us! He'd rather suffer and force the rest of us to suffer with him than to pass peacefully onto his next life, such is the way of his kind. Do not worry, youngling, you will likely be kept here for many years yet even long after my old bones have laid themselves down for the last time along with many others here."

"Ok." Ben hung his head in disappointment. "Oh well…one can hope, though, right?"

"One can always hope," replied the old woman with a nod. "Just do not become obsessed with your hopes, because otherwise they will be horribly disappointing."

"I understand." The young man finished his food and moved off, taking up his flute and escaping to the back corner of his small room to play himself to sleep. So that hope was now dashed, but there had to be another way. He couldn't be stuck here his whole life, just scrubbing floors and running errands for people. He'd find a way out, eventually. He hoped.

::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::

Randy and Bryanna sat together in the outer room of the Master mage's workshop, both absorbed in their own 'projects' of sorts as Olivia stayed outside with the said mage working on her skills. There, that far north, the ice lay around the building a good six inches deep at the shallow parts and as much as two feet deep in the drifts.

"Our objective today is to build a sculpture for the town here for the ice festival tonight," he said as they walked around the area, trying to find the best place within which to build the sculpture. "The air is a little dryer than normal, and it will be difficult to even use moisture from our own bodies to create the ice as cold as it is out here, but there is plenty on the ground just waiting for us to make use of it and the dry air will insure that even if we make something they can walk inside, the structure will hold firm for even the moisture from their breath will not be enough to melt the ice."

"What about doing it over one of the drifts?" offered Olivia. "That would ensure that we have plenty to work with without moving it from other areas."

"In this case, that is a bad idea," he replied with a shake of his head. "Where the ice is the deepest the land is the least frozen beneath it, and thus a poor choice. We need to find a wide, shallow area near the road."

"Such as this one right in front of your home," she said, feeling like an idiot. Of course he would already have a place he would use every year, he was just trying to make her think through it herself. "Now what?"

"We decide what we're doing," he replied with a shrug. "These last few years I've done a dragon with a slide coming down its tail, a mountain for which to climb, a giant tree which they could climb as well…what would you suggest?"

"A castle," said Olivia immediately. "Which they could walk into and explore to their hearts content."

"The problem with that is that such things must be lit on the inside," he pointed out slowly. "And things such as candles or oil lamps are not exactly wise choices to use inside a castle of ice…"

"We could use Randy, then," she said quickly, turning back towards the house. "He's a light mage, and he's finally learned how to create lights without melting or burning things. Will that do?"

He smiled, already turning around to being his work. "Perfectly."

It took several hours, but the final product was well worth the effort put into it (though Randy complained the whole time he was forced to be outside). It was two stories tall, with ten strong pillars that supported the octagonal structure with one at each corner and two in the center. In the middle of the pillars was a small pocket on each level, and there Randy concocted his witch lights which would burn endlessly until the ice around it was removed or melted away by another force. On the second floor they constructed the roof to be dome shaped, leaving pockets of it open in a stylized fashion to the stars or sun shining through it would created a pattern. With two slides from the top to the ground for the kids and several artistic bits added here and there to entertain the adults, the mages felt their time had been well-spent indeed and the final result was most satisfying to look upon.

::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::

Brenna was pleased to be supervising instead of doing the work herself for once, going from one place of work to the next as she watched over the others who completed the tasks necessary for her. Libby and Cheeks worked the horses, the plows easily furrowing through the fine loam in their fields and leaving it prepared for the seed that Kaitlin and the twins scattered along in their trails. Trading out their beasts every hour or so, they worked quickly and kept well ahead of the three on their tail.

Prancing and dancing about, the trio had put garlands of early spring flowers around their necks and in the hair, giving them the look of field pixies coming out to play at the first sight of spring. Though much was done in jest, the work was completed slowly but surely and as such no one could complain or wanted to for they provided much needed humor in such a time of work.

Rupal and the mage twins followed behind them, spreading around the fertilizer Carlton and Brenna had prepared the day before to intermingle with the seeds. Their job too the longest, and by the time Cheeks and Libby had finished with all three fields that they'd worked through that day the last three were only halfway through their task. Coming back to help them, the work went doubly as fast with twice as many people helping and they too were caught up in no time.

Lunch came and went, it being cold cuts of meat that Brenna prepared with slices of fresh bread and cheese with clear well water to drink. And yet before they knew it the sun was setting and it was time for dinner, the devilish trio of field sprites taking over the kitchen while the rest cleaned up and finished the final tasks of the day like feeding and watering their beasts and putting their planting materials up for the night.

Gathering around the dinner table, tired but pleased with the work completed, they broke bread together and gave thanks for the bountiful feast that was spread before them. Well fed, well clothed, and well worked, there was little else they could ask for in this near-perfect life that had been handed to them that seemed like heaven compared to the life they'd been scrounging for mere months before. Things were looking up, and for that they were grateful.

::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::

Chris carried a bundle over his shoulder as he came in from work for once, setting it down in the corner by the fire before removing his boots and light cloak and sat himself down with the rest to eat dinner.

"You're late," said Mike, trying to 'crack down' on the bigger black guy.

"And you don't work half as much as he does, therefore you have no room to talk," cut in Kristen flatly, putting an end to that discussion. Her face was set in a frown as she cut the bread for the evening with an unusual ferocity, and all of the guys seemed to back away from her instinctively.

"Brite slipped off again," explained Matt in a low voice when Chris sent him a questioning look, the bigger man nodding understandingly when he put it together in his mind. "She left a note like last time, but no one knows where she headed towards."

"What's in the bundle?" asked Cam, pointing to the bulky package in the corner.

"Just something I'm working on," replied Chris, reaching for the bread and tearing off a hunk for himself.

"I thought you didn't bring work home," said Kristen, passing him the plate with roasted pieces of turkey before taking one for herself. "Is this some sort of rush project that can't wait?"

"No, it's not really work, I'm not getting paid to do it."

"Then why are you doing it at all?" the distain in Mike's voice was obvious, as was the sneer on his face. "Charity work don't get you crap, man, so why even bother, right?"

"It's not for charity, either," he replied with a shrug. "I guess you could say it's for me, but that's not really true either…let's just say I'm trying to make something that I've never made before."

"Experimenting?" put in Cam helpfully.

"Yeah, to put it simply." Chris stuffed his mouth with a bite of turkey wrapped in bread and dipped in the sauce they had out on the table. "How did classes go today?"

Immediately jumping upon that chance, Cam bragged about how he'd beaten some older kid in one of Jon's classes up on the beams before Kristen shut him down with a stern glare and a firm declaration that he would not be fighting up there. Matt picked up the slack from there, going on about two of his students who kept going off on fights of their own during class no matter what the current exercise was. The package was forgotten through the rest of the meal, everyone helping clean up in their own way before scattering to different parts of the house for their different nightly routines.

Chris stayed in the kitchen, though, opening the package and setting it on the table as he pulled out the set of tools that he left at the house for emergency situations. Inside the leather wrapping was a long piece of ash and another a darker, heavy wood in the shape of a block.

The ash he took and began to carve away, shaping it so it was flat on one side and rounded on the other with small ridges put in it at different intervals along the neck that he measured from some marks on a paper he had with him. At one end he flared it out slightly, leaving it solid as it was and adding in four holes where pegs would go later on. Then he added small strips of the darker wood between the four holes and the rest of the shaft as well as inlaying them in the grooves at the interval marks so they stood up out of the ash just ever so slightly.

Kristen came in then, coming to stand beside him as he inspected his handy work and made some adjustments to it.

"What is it?" she asked as he handed it to her, running her fingers along it curiously.

"If I do it right, a 'bass lute', if not just a piece of wasted junk," he replied with a shrug.

"It's for Amanda, isn't it?"

"She hates to be called that, you know."

"I know, but I don't care. She's Amanda, and someday she'll let us call her that again whether or not she wants us to."

"As stubborn as you are, I believe it." He took the piece of ash back from her, placing it in the leather wrapping and picking up the block of darker wood and his chisel. "I want this to be done for the next time she visits, though."

"Not that any of us knows when that'll be," snorted Kristen, turning to head back up to her room and probably to bed.

"So she left again?" Chris asked the question carefully, not wishing to provoke Kristen's wrath at this point at time.

"Yeah…" The young woman paused at the bottom of the ladder with her back to him. "One of these days…not that I could ever do any harm to her, it's always been like that, but still…I wish she trusted us enough to at least tell us when she wanted to leave."

"Would you let her if she told you?"

The question hung in the air for a moment before Kristen turned around slightly with a half-hearted smile on her face. "No, I probably wouldn't. She always returns, though, even if she never lets on until the day she arrives when that'll be. Night." And with that she slipped up the ladder and out of sight.

"Very true, which is why I should probably get working. Sleep well." He sat himself down, making himself comfortable by the fire and picking up a hammer as well. "Let's see if I have what it takes…"

::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::

Nicole sat on Trevor's shoulder in the shadow of his collar, pleased with the fact that she got another chance to be close to him and that for once it was just the two of them. After their night on board the ship together keeping watch, he'd promised to take her out for a day if she'd behave and as she kept her end of the bargain very admirably he had to do the same in return.

"Where do you want to eat?" he asked, disguising it as a cough as him talking to himself would be a bit odd to anyone who was watching him.

"Some place inside," she replied, using the winds to bring her voice to his ear more easily as she was seated directly below it. "Where I can get out of here…"

"You're not comfortable?" He reached up with one hand to adjust the collar, and she quickly patted him on the neck to let him know it was ok.

"I am," she assured him quickly with a pat on the neck. "I just want out. It's too nice a day to be cooped up in someone's hood, right?"

Trevor laughed softly, hiding the movement behind his curled hand so as to not drawn unwanted attention to himself. "I suppose so."

"That tavern right there has good ale," she suggested with a nudge to a small place off to the right, looked over for the most part by the majority of the townsfolk but well-known to the few patrons who'd inhabited it.

He looked over it dubiously, for places like that often times brewed trouble. "Have you been in there before?"

Nicole snorted in annoyance that he would dare distrust her choice. "With Jenny and Gwen, its clean and safe enough as Tavern's go."

"Ok, ok, we're going…" He gave in with a slight shrug, biting back the desire to stick his tongue out at her as, number one, she couldn't really see it, and two, it would look incredibly odd to anyone who was walking around him right then. Taking a back corner seat, it only took a few coins, a word with the barmaid who was on duty right then, and a couple of minutes to have a fresh plate of stew and bread, a mug of ale, and total privacy for just the two of them. The way the room was arranged he'd have little trouble hearing someone if they approached his small 'booth' area in the back in time to hide Nicole, and that suited him just fine.

The small nymph soon sat on the edge of the table, a bit of bread soaked in the stew's broth in one hand and her personal mug with ale from Trevor's larger cup in the other. Quietly munching away (for once in her life) she studied her surroundings in silence as well as her gigantic-compared-to-her companion.

He was probably the nicest of the brothers to her, and honestly she didn't mind any of them in particular (especially when compared to Jack, may he one day roast in the farthest, most tortured pits of hell) but Trevor was steadily gaining a special place in her heart and she wished for once she could talk to him face to face instead of at a distance. Sure, he'd bend down sometimes so they were eye level but it wasn't the same. To him, she could never be more than his 'small friend' and it was really starting to get to her.

Trevor, who was absorbed in filling his empty stomach paused when he realized there was a pair of eyes on him and turned to find the resident nymph studying intently.

"Um…something wrong?"

Nicole blinked and blushed as she quickly looked away. "No, sorry, I just…I got lost in my thoughts, that's all."

"Oh, ok. Well, if you're done…" He wiped his mouth, pushing back the empty plate and mug slightly. "I'm ready to go when you are."

Nicole looked down at the bread she still had and tossed it back on the plate, she could always get more out of the cook later if she wanted, and drained her mug before clipping it back on her belt. "I guess that'd be now."

"Let's go, then."

She was up his sleeve and into his hood again in a heartbeat, and mere moments later saw them back out on the streets wandering around some more in the market place. Time passed much too quickly for the small nymph for she enjoyed the time she spent alone with Trevor and as the sun set they began the trek back to the ship. Taking a shortcut through alley, though, their way was blocked by an old man all swathed in dark scraps of ragged cloth.

"A present for ye," he rumbled in a rough voice, holding out a circular medallion that was black on a twisted cord.

"Hm?" Trevor looked at in curiously. "What is it?"

"A present, as I said, or are ye too daft to understand that?" His words were practically forced from his raw throat, and it grated on Nicole's nerves almost as much as what she felt from the pendant was.

"Well, no, I just…"

"Don't take it!" she whispered urgently into his ear, tugging on the lobe urgently. "Just ignore him and keep walking!"

"But…sir, why give it to me?"

"Because, lad, I wish to. Now take it!"

"Don't do it!" Nicole was practically pleading now, on the verge of revealing herself to simply get them away from whatever impending doom she felt coming upon them faster. "C'mon, just keep walking!"

"Sir, I can't just…!"

"Daft, ye are! Take it!" The old man shoved it into Trevor's chest, immediately whisking himself away down another alley and disappearing from sight.

"But I…hm." Trevor held it in his hands, holding it up to the light as Nicole felt herself relax immensely. "I wonder who that old guy was."

"I've never seen him before," replied Nicole, staying hidden as she observed the medallion as well. Something about it still irked her, but not nearly as much as before. "I still think you shouldn't have taken it…"

"It's just a medallion," he argued with a shrug as he stuck it in his pocket and continued his walk back to the ship. "C'mon, I have first watch tonight and I'd rather not be late."

"Yeah, ok."

::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::

Alyse and Landon stood still obediently as a white ring of magical energy formed around them, the elders performing a test that had never been done on them before but was required none the less. Apparently there was the occasional problem with unmagic hunters actually being 'poisoned' from how much unmagic they destroyed and had to be decontaminated of the taint before it destroyed them much in the same fashion that it did others.

"Hehe…it tickles," said Landon as the ring raised itself, the energy visibly passing through their bodies time and time again in different angles and fashions. Their clothes rippled from an unseen wind, hair whisked back and forth by the same force as they stood still through the whole process.

"It does, a little," admitted Alyse, giving him a quick grin. Personally, she likened the feel to being in the ocean with the waves lapping up against her body and the immense power it suggested in its movements but he was right in that it occasionally tickled in its passage through her.

Eventually the ring of power and light died, leaving them intact in the center of the room no worse for the experience besides their eyes being a bit dazzled and a feeling of overwhelming peace.

"You're clean," declared one of the elders before rising from his spot along the wall, rising to shuffle out and the rest following leaving them standing there unsure of what to do next.

"You're to come with me," said a runner who stepped up just as they'd decided between the two of them to head back to their quarters. "The council wishes to see you."

Alyse exchanged looks with Landon before nodding for the runner to lead the way. "Go on, we'll follow."

And so they did, winding their way through the many, many twisted hallways before ending up in front of the main room facing the council who was seated along the far wall as usual. "Thank you."

"They are awaiting you now." The runner disappeared to whatever other duties awaited him, leaving the pair to find their way from there and so they did as quickly as possible.

"I see you made it through the test alive," commented one of those seated before them with a satisfied nod. "That is most excellent, we were a little worried when we realized the test had not been presented before now and that such a mistake may have proven to be fatal to one or both of you."

"It's alright, we survived well enough as usual," replied Landon with a shrug as Alyse just kept her comments to herself for once. It would be unwise to anger the council, and that is all her traitorous tongue would likely do at this time.

"Very good indeed. Here is your next assignment…" It only took a bit of time to finish the paper work part and the two were turned loose on the road once more.

"Come on, let's get moving," said Alyse with a grin as she pushed her horse into a swift gallop. "Our little kitty friend is waiting for us somewhere out there, and I for one am quite glad to be out of that stuffy hole once more."

Landon just smiled and raced after her, used to her occasional moods by now. And so off they galloped to the next leg of their many journeys.

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"How about south this time, my little fuzzy friend?"

Briteyes and Silvan stood at a crossroads, behind them Summersea and their most recent visit there.

South is one way we haven't been, isn't it?

"Not that far, anyways, and going down the cost a ways might be interesting," replied Briteyes carefully. "My map doesn't go that far, but the land is supposed to be pretty fertile so we could probably scrounge for food if we had to and sleep under the stars when we can't find a place to sleep."

We haven't done that for awhile.

"No we certainly haven't."

Briteyes leaned her staff up against a tree, sitting down for a moment to adjust her sandals. The sun was high overhead, leaving her plenty of time to keep walking and find a town for the night. True it wasn't like she even knew that there was one, but that was half the fun of traveling alone. Seeing that which you'd never seen before and enjoying the freedom of answering to no one but yourself.

Do you think Kristen's forgiven you yet? asked Silven as she jumped down and wandered about a bit, finding a nut and prying it open with her powerful jaws to get at the juicy meat inside.

"Probably not," replied Briteyes with a short laugh. "But she will when we get back, she always does. Yeah, I know, it's not nice, but…you know how Cam would look at him and I can't say no to his puppy dog eyes…"

You and your boys snorted Silven as she jumped up her friend's shoulder, holding on carefully as she stood again and grabbed her staff. I swear…

"It really is too bad that Ben could never come to see such a wonderful place as this," commented Briteyes sadly. "He would've loved it here, right?"

What are you…oh…yeah…right… Silven twitched her tail as she settled herself down, remembering that fateful day when they'd locked Briteyes memories away. To her, it was a betrayal of her best friend's trust but whatever it took to keep her sane…and alive.

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Randy huddled over his horse grumpily, just barely managing to keep up with Bryanna and Olivia in front of him. "Why do we have to keep heading north?" he whined as his breath came out in clouds of white frost. "It's so cold up here…"

"It doesn't bother me at all," said Olivia from her saddle, perfectly home in the evening chill. Truthfully, it made it easier for her to work her magic in this sort of environment and she was having fun experimenting when they stopped at night.

"I'm alright," added Bryanna with a grin, wrapped up in a layer of warm furs she'd purchased at the last town. "If you'd spent on your extra change on some warmer clothes instead of a bottle of wine you might not be so cold."

"It seemed like a good investment at the time!" retorted Randy with a growl. "How was I supposed to know we were gonna keep going?"

"Perhaps by the fact that we haven't stopped as of yet?" suggested Olivia lightly, in rare form as she enjoyed the ride into the town up ahead. "Relax, it'll start to warm up here soon, and it won't get any colder during the day than it does in late spring. Once summer's here in full swing, you won't even realize how far north we really are."

"I hope so…"

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Cheeks stood at the edge of the fields, a content look on his face as he surveyed their work over the last few months. The air of doom and gloom of just half a year ago was gone, replaced by a hope for a brighter future that felt strangely cliché and yet ever so right for the present regardless. Granted, it hadn't been easy, but somehow the fact that it just hadn't been handed to them on a silver platter made it that much better.

A presence appeared at his side, and he turned to see Kaitlin standing there looking out at the field too.

"See something?" he asked, turning back towards it.

"No, just the fields, you?"

"Just the fields."

"Then why the crap are you staring out at it like there's gold hidden under there or something?" Her words were teasing though, and he just shrugged as she put her hands behind her back and rocked back on her heals lightly.

"Because I can…and because it looks so much different from just a little while ago," he replied slowly, shielding his eyes from the setting sun as he did. "It's almost exactly like life was before. The fields green, enough food in the pantry…almost exactly the same…"

"Except we lost Jem," finished Kaitlin for him quietly, her head bowed when he glanced back at her.

He agreed with a nod, swallowing past the hard lump in his throat. "Yeah, except for that. He was good kid, you know, I miss him sometimes."

"We all miss him," she replied softly. "A lot."

"Do you think he's happy right now?"

"Wherever he is, I do hope so." She looked up with a slight smile. "You know, he used to run in the fields…he loved it out there for some reason. He'd come back in all dirty, and Brenna would yell at him for making a mess by the door, but he'd just duck his head with a smile and wash the layers of dirt off by the well as happy as ever. The last thing I remember before he disappeared, he could barely stand let alone run. He was so sick and tired…" She trailed off and left it there, neither one of them voicing the thought that crossed their minds.

"I'm sure he's ok," said Cheeks after several moment of silence, turning back towards the house abruptly. "Let's go, you still have to get dinner on the table."

"Yeah…" Kaitlin gave the fields one last look, hoping in the deepest parts of the house he was right before running after him in the dimming twilight.

::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::&::

Kristen was just breaking up another class when the head of the Acalon house, Gran'ther Edoar, came walking in with one of his younger relatives at his side. The young boy was no more than ten, perhaps eleven years of age. A long face and amber skinned much as his grandfather was, the two were clearly of the same blood and she guessed by the way the lad was pushed forward the elder had a favor regarding the boy.

"What can I do for you, Gran'ther Edoar?" she asked with a polite bow, giving him enough respect without catering to him unnecessarily. If there was one thing she didn't do it was groveling, and thankfully this old man was smart enough to realize that.

"Just a bit of a favor," he said, jerking his head at the boy at his side. "Pasco has been having some…trouble learning with the rest of the kids in his physical workouts. If it is not too trouble I would appreciate it greatly if you would take over his training for a time, teach him a bit about what it truly means to fight for your living." He raised his brows significantly at that. "He's been taking such training too lightly so far, would rather tip toe around like some feathered beast in flight."

"Taking it lightly, eh?" She gave him a once over, immediately remembering all that she had read about him in the books. The grandfather wanted him to become a fighter, did he? Well, that certainly wouldn't do… She nodded suddenly, breaking into a diplomatic smile. "Yes, I think I can fit that into my schedule. Right now, actually, it's my one free point in the day, currently."

"Really? Thank you very kindly, Mistress, we will of course pay for your services."

"There's no need," she assured him with a wave of her hand. "Just leave him here, and I'll return him by the next bell's time."

"Very well. Pasco." The old man held his younger relative's eyes carefully. "You will obey Mistress Kristen and that which she wishes to teach to you, do you understand?"

"Yessir."

"Good."

And with that he left, leaving the two alone. Sizing each other up, Kristen suddenly cracked a smile.

"I remember you very well indeed," she said to herself, surprised when the boy heard her and replied.

"Remember me? From what?"

"Ah…just the dinners your family has been kind enough to invite me and my companion's too," she replied quickly with a shrug.

"May I ask you a question, Mistress?" he said, feeling braver with the relaxed way in which she was working with him.

"Go ahead," she replied with a nod.

"Are you mated to any of the men you live with? My cousins wanted to know, said it was odd for a female to live with so many males unattended by at least one of them."

Kristen turned an interesting shade of red at that and gave him a look that near frightened the soul out of the boy right there and then. "No," she said tightly. "I most definitely am NOT. You may say that one of them is my brother, and another my cousin…my sister has been known to live with us for periods of time as well. But no, I am not 'mated' to any of them, as you so tactfully put it."

Pasco turned red from the top of his head to the tips of his toes, clearly embarrassed and now looking like he wishes he'd never opened his mouth at all. Kristen silently echoed that sentiment, but there was nothing she could do about it now and turned the conversation instead towards the work that she needed to do.

"Why is it exactly that your grandfather sent you to me?" she asked pointedly, now fully down to business. "Something about being 'tippy toes'…?"

"My family are Harrier's ma'am," he explained slowly, obviously reluctant to finish the rest of the statement. "And…"

"And…?" she prodded him slowly.

"And…I'd rather dance."

Kristen had to hide her grin as he hung his head shame-facedly. "Well, well, well…a dancer, eh? That takes just about as much work as fighting, actually, even those who have a knack for it have to work for years to become the best. If you wanted to do so I imagine you could, but it would involve just as much work as your family tries to put you through now." Pasco peaked up at her, surprised at her positive words regarding his dream. "In fact, from the look of you, you'd make a better dancer than a fighter any day. A bit on the scrawny side, a good bit more lithe than anything else…and you have more grace than most boys your age do. Yes, definitely more of a dancer than a fighter, I'd say."

"Do you dance?" he asked tentatively.

"Ha! No." His face fell again at that. She sighed, with a shrug. "But I suppose I could teach you a thing or two about flexibility…that's pretty important for a dancer, right?"

"Yes, it is," he agreed quickly.

"Alright then, come on…" She led the way towards the back, where it would be easier to work in the light of the afternoon sun. "First we'll go through a lot of the stretches we use to keep ourselves limbered up."

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Trevor rolled around in his bunk, finding himself to have a great deal more room than usual, and having no idea how that was possible. His blanket seemed to stretch forever, and no matter how much he moved around he had yet to hit the edges or the wall. It was wonderful and so very strange and the same time. He heard someone calling his name in the distance, though it seemed to boom in his ears as if projected from something much, much larger than himself.

"TREVOR! TREVOR, IT'S YOUR…WHERE DID HE GO?? TREVOR'S NOT DOWN HERE!"

Trevor sat up in his bunk at that, finding himself in a sea of rough cloth that seemed to envelope him endlessly. Someone turned over his bunk in a fit of annoyance and the Trader found himself suddenly falling through the air and landing rather painfully a long ways down from where he'd started onto the floor. That definitely confused the crap out of him, he shouldn't have that much a difference between the height of his hammock and the floor…not to mention the floor seemed to be a lot rougher than before and the space it covered a great deal larger as well…

"Oww…what the crap?" He sat up rubbing his head slowly, finally standing to realize something large was coming pounding towards him and at a quick rate. Scrambling off to one side, he let his instincts take over his motor controls for a couple of moments as it passed by and the vibrations as it landed near him shook him off his feet. Watching it wordlessly as he had no idea what to say as of right now, he realized it was a boot and he barely came up to ankle at best.

"Shurri defend me…"

"Trevor?"

The young man looked up at the familiar voice, seeing something hovering up in the air far above that looked fairly similar to Nicole but was far too large to be her. In fact…he'd wager she was just a couple of inches shorter than him. Except for that wasn't possible, he reasoned as his mind quickly pieced it all together. She was a miniature human…no taller than his ankle…except that he had just been…oh crap…

"I'm…no but that's not…what the hell is going on?!?!"

Nicole heard his cry and immediately angled herself upwards, as it was high in the air that she normally found him compared to herself. "Trevor, is that you? Where are you?"

"On the floor."

"What? Where, I can't see you anywhere!"

"Try under my hammock…" replied the young man as he sat down hard. "I think…" He looked up at her as she came into view, complete and utter confusion in his eyes with shock and surprise in hers. "I think I shrunk."

She blinked, then came a bit closer as she landed gently on her feet. "Trevor…? You look different when you're not so big…" She blushed as she finished just how different in the back of her mind and firmly left it there. "Um…why are you my size?"

"I don't know!" he replied as he scrambled to his feet, hearing others call for them above their heads and attempting to ignore it as best as he could. "Last night I went to sleep as normal as ever and this morning I woke up, POOF, a fraction of my usual size!"

"Well, that's not normal…"

"YOU THINK?!!" Trevor took a deep, shuddering breath after that outburst, a little ashamed of himself but more concerned with the concept of restoring himself to his normal size. "Look…you're a mage, right? How do I undo this? I don't wanna be small!"

"Hey, being small isn't exactly a bad thing!" retorted Nicole shortly, giving him a disgruntled look as she did. "And besides that…I honestly have no idea at all. This sort of thing isn't my expertise, the shrinking or the growing of living beings. All I deal with is winds and weather, that's all."

"So you can stop a storm, but have no chance what so ever of returning me to my size?"

"Um…yeah, pretty much."

The young man sighed, putting his head in his hand as he rubbed his forehead gently as it to ward of an oncoming migraine. "This…this is not good."

Nicole smiled, offering him her hand which he'd never even truly seen before since it'd been too small to notice. He'd also not quite grasped what a wicked gleam would appear to be like in her eyes before, and found himself not quite so disappointed as he had been 30 seconds ago. "Welcome to my world."

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Landon was tending the fire while Alyse did her usual meditations and power sweeps, searching as ever for the presence of unmagic. The young man wasn't expecting much, nothing had turned up in the last few days and her range didn't vary that much from one day's worth of travels to the next. And so he was very unprepared when she came awake and immediately rose, reaching for the juice that was always waiting nearby and immediately gulping it down with a sense of urgency.

"Douse the fire and pack your things," she said the moment she could talk, doing exactly that with her own things. "We move tonight."

"But…we've just settled in for the night!" he protested though he obeyed slowly.

"Settled or not, I just felt a flare to the south," she replied with a shrug. "And it's one I can't recognize as a mage or a particular spell, which means it might be something new and we should investigate it as quickly as possible."

"Ok, I guess you're right…"

The horses were saddled and ready to leave within minutes, and as they mounted Landon threw one last regretful look over the neat camp they'd built for the night before turning away and galloping after his partner. They had only traveled for three or four hours when Alyse called for a halt, tossing Landon her reins and falling into another trance. Much time passed, and by the time she opened her eyes Landon was as thoroughly tired as she was ticked off.

"It's gone," she explained roughly as she pushed her horse on, confusion and anger battling for ground in her eyes. "I don't know how or where but it's gone."

"Has it passed into a place we can't follow it?" asked Landon around a yawn.

"I can't tell, but I don't think so," she replied as she took her reins back, distracted slightly by whatever it was she had seen in her mind's eye. "Come on, we're going to keep moving for as long as I've still got the place marked in my mind."

"But I'm…" Landon's complaint died on his lips when she gave him an irritated look, nodding in compliance. "Yes ma'am."

"Good. Let's go."

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Briteyes enjoyed the fruits and warmth of the south, often staying several days instead of just one or two at each place that she found herself welcome as she traded her songs for those that they knew and learned a great many things that she'd never known before. Silven was quite a hit with almost anyone they met, the silver, and quite intelligent, squirrel a rarity that far south. It wasn't until they had reached a large town in the midst of a desert that they had their grandest adventure in the southern regions, though.

It was larger than most, sprawling for a couple of leagues in all directions with large, stone walls built in layers around it. At the gate Briteyes was required to give her name and profession, and as she took a rest at a public fountain a squire from the Baron of the region came calling her name through the streets.

"I'm her," she said when he came closer, waving him over with a nod though she made no move to rise and continued to eat her meager lunch of bread and cheese. "What is it you require of me?"

"The Baron invites you come and speak with him at his citadel," explained the squire, though he clearly thought little of her when he saw the state of her clothes from their long travels. Sure, she was a great deal worse for the wear than usual, but he needn't sniff so as she mounted the horse he'd brought for her and led the way back to the giant structure in the distance.

Uppity jerk muttered Silven as the man haughtily left them with the servants to lead to the Baron, showing just how little he thought of his employer's current guest.

"Someone will show him his place eventually, I'm sure," replied Briteyes quietly, careful not to unnerve anyone around them as several didn't take people who conversed with squirrels very well. "It just likely won't be us."

I could've beat him within an inch of his life with a sword if I were still a human and this was Tortall complained the squirrel quietly.

"It's not, though, and so you won't."

"The Baron was told you were quite weary from your journeys and has granted you the loan of one of his room's to freshen up," said one of the maids in a no-nonsense manner that let the performer know she wasn't going to get her audience with the Baron (even though she hadn't requested it) until she had bathed and changed clothes. "Do you require any assistance?"

"No thanks. I'll do just fine on my own," Briteyes replied quickly with a shake of her head. She entered the room that she'd been led to and quickly tossed her dusty bag onto the bed in a way that made the maid wince. Knowing she was being cruel, the young woman couldn't help but smirk slightly as she tossed herself into a chair, dirty clothes and all, and began the process of removing her filthy sandals one thong at a time. "How do I reach you when I have finished grooming myself as ordered?"

"Ring the bell here," replied the maid, giving the rope beside the bed a quick tug. "And we will attend you as quickly as possible. Leave your things here when you are through, and they will be washed and mended for you."

Briteyes couldn't help but laugh as the woman eyed her one more time and closed the door, knowing she wished to burn the rags that encased the performer more than anything else in the world at the moment. And had she a spare pair other than her performance set, she would, but she didn't and thus it wasn't an option.

Stripping, a quick soak in the steaming tub that awaited her with a scrub brush and a bar of scented soap easily wiped away the last of the road grime that had clung to her and a thorough washing of her long, tangled hair left it cleaner than it had been in quite some time. Drying herself as quickly as possible, she found a dress waiting for her and scorned it, reaching instead for her dusty bag and pulling out one of the greatest gifts that had ever been given to her. Sandry had made her a pair of performance clothes exactly like her last set with her special fabric that never wrinkled and rarely let stains cling to it in the least.

Donning the fine pants that just barely swept the floor with a clean pair of sandals that were decorated with silver trim especially for times like this, the top was slipped over the top along with the hood and her mask. Earrings were put in place, as well as her one necklace and armband that identified her to other musicians. Her instruments she tucked in various places around herself, and dutifully ringing the bell after applying the bit of theatrical makeup that she allowed herself to wear that would accent her eyes through the mask, she was quickly ushered to a pavilion in the gardens beside a fountain that cooled the air and a rich collection of cushions and chairs.

"Baron Uzkran, announcing the performer Briteyes," said the servant who had led her there, immediately disappearing into the background and leaving them alone.

"Baron," she said politely, falling into the performer's bow as gracefully as she could with a freshly cleaned and dressed Silven balancing precariously on her shoulder. "My deepest respects, sir. I understand you wished to speak with me…?"

"I did," he replied as he rose, his other guest rising as well with an amused smile on her face. "Though…it is a bit disconcerting speaking to one who wears a mask, may I request you to remove it?"

"As you request." Briteyes did as was asked, merely letting her lips twitch into a wry grin when he raised his brow at her scarred visage. "Most find my face even more so."

"Even so, I would prefer it to be removed for our meeting," he said as he sat and motioned for them both to do so as well. "Player, this is Yazmin Hebet, one of the greatest dancers the world over."

"I have heard a great deal about you, and was even given the chance to hear you play at one of your street performances," explained the dancer when Briteyes was not given an introduction in return. "And have heard a great deal about you from one of my friends, a dedicate at Winding Circle."

"Lark," replied the performer immediately, breaking into a smile. "Of course…I apologize for not remembering sooner."

"Oh no, you were not given any warning that I would be here," replied the dancer with a smile. She was very pretty with large brown eyes, a small nose and a pointed chin. Her tumbled mass of brown hair was pinned up from her face, leaving just a few here and there to hang down in a graceful manner. "In fact, it was I that requested the Baron to call you here."

"Is that so?" Briteyes let Silven down from her shoulder, the squirrel settling herself on the elder girl's lap where it was more comfortable. "Can I ask as to why?"

"We are to have a celebration tonight," explained the Baron with a delighted look on his face. "And Yazmin is to dance for us! The performers have been assembled at her request, and when it was announced that another performer had arrived in the city she gave the order to bring you in immediately."

"I was delighted to learn you were truly the Briteyes Lark has told me about in her letters," explained the dancer with a smile. "From what she has told me you will be more than a match to keep up with me."

"Oh, you have trouble finding performers who can last more than a turn or two with you?" laughed the performer with a shake of her head. "I think I can do better than that, though Lark is too kind in her praise."

"She is nothing of the sort, not after living with her dear friend for all these years," replied Yamiz with a mirthful look in her eyes. Briteyes agreed though she said nothing verbally, Rosethorn was quite sharp when she wished to be and she had no doubt Lark had toughed up a bit over the years while working with her. "Then you will play for us tonight?"

"I will, if it pleases the Baron," she replied quickly. "As will Silven, should you wish her to." Silven perked up, prancing on over to the dancer when the woman peered at her curiously. Letting herself be picked up, she inspected her new companion much in the same manner as she was inspected and politely gave a short bow as she was set back down on her feet. "Show off…" muttered the performer under her breath when the squirrel bounced back up onto her shoulder.

"It pleases me greatly if you would both lend us your talents for the evening, the children will be as delighted with your pet as they will with your music and Yazmin's dancing."

I'm NOT a pet!

"Oh, hush you…then we will be there, sir."

"Wonderful! I will leave you in Yazmin's capable hands in preparations for the evening and be off myself to oversee the decorating of things." The Baron rose as the two ladies did as well, bowing as he quickly waddled away and summoned two servants to his side.

"You are exactly as I imagined," commented the dancer as she led Briteyes to another pavilion where her own crew waited, giving out orders as she went.

"Is that a good or a bad thing?" replied the player with a grin.

"Good if you can play half as well as Lark has said."

"Oh, I think I can manage at least that much."

"Then I think we shall get along very well indeed."

And with the success the performance that night presented, they did indeed.

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Olivia looked over the Syth, the huge body of salt water far, far to the north in amazement. Whereas the Pebble sea was very peaceful and calm with the exception of the occasional costal storm, this sea was dark and vibrating with its intense nature. It was if the two were twins, one light and one dark, with such a profound difference that she was simply dumb struck by it all.

"Olivia…?"

She turned at the sound of her name, finding Randy a ways down the dune that she stood at the top of waving his arms.

"Come on back down, Bryanna found us a place to stay!"

"Where?" She called back though she had begun the rough way back down nearly loosing her footing once or twice in the loose sand.

"With a glassmaker's family! They do magic with that sort of thing, more along the academic standpoint of things, and Bryanna wants to see if any of us can pick up on any of it."

"Oh…ok."

Shaking out her skirts as she got to the bottom, she gave him a slight smile as he held her horse steady for her and she mounted it with ease of practice. "Glassmaker's will be something different for a change," she said with a low chuckle as he turned his own horse around and headed back towards the city in the distance.

"I think our whole life in general is different from what most people experience," said Randy with a snort. "Being mages, being wanted forever with no real basis to it, and now being set free and claimed as Masters…"

"At a rather young age as well."

"Yeah…"

"Come on, no use in keeping Bryanna waiting when it will only make her mad at us," said Olivia as she hurried past him, urging her horse to break into a steady gallop. "Race you!"

Randy smiled. "You're on!"

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And there it is, finally, your 23 chapter of Summersea Saga. Thanks to the few of you who review (or bug me incessantly :P) for it is for your sake alone that this story is still going. There's a projected (possibly) 6 or 7 chapters left before the end, so continue to hang on until then! Again, thank you to those who continue to read and review as you do, I truly do appreciate it.

crosseyedbutterfly