Chapter 1- A Spark of Red

In Solis 460, Swordsdei, the 25th of Marxa:

Dear Diary,

I don't know why I even write this thing. It's not as if I'm a good writer, nor do I ever hope to publish any memoirs. Heck, sometimes I wonder if I'm going to live long enough to worry about memoirs. Do I even want to live so long? I could always put down my sword and stop. And do what? I don't have any other skills and besides, I made a promise on my sword so-

Well, this is depressing, but I guess that's just my mood. The war is winding down, and I'm thinking about the future again. It's horrible to consider, but I'm actually happier during battle, when the future doesn't press so close. So, if thinking about the future depresses me, should I not think at all? Ha! I can hear Viktor through the floorboards even now; he's down there working on his fifth or sixth drunken ballad without a care in the world.

How I envy him.

But I am not Viktor. I can't brush things aside so easily. No, that's unfair. He's gone through more than any person should in one lifetime, and if he's figured out how best to numb himself from it, I shouldn't complain.


And then his quill snapped. With a sigh, Flik set it aside and stared down into the scrawl he called his diary. Besides, I will just end up following him into a new adventure, probably. Flik was in his room, on the second floor of the fort, a modest structure of planking and logs. The room was not large: a simple bed in one corner, a small table and chair, and a bookcase with a few books in it. A fire burned in a small hearth at the back wall, and there was a lamp on the table, supplying a rather pitiful amount of light. Now that he had mentally finished the sentence, he closed the diary and set it among the books. Then he walked over to the window.

He studied his reflection in the pale light as it appeared out of the shroud of night. His eyes appeared first; they were startlingly blue, but blazed when he was angered. He was staring at those reflected eyes- as they stared right back- when he suddenly blinked. A fleeting spectre broke the dark monotony; a spark of red, far off in the distance, almost totally obscured by the distant forest and mountains. It winked away, long enough that Flik almost thought he had only imagined it, but then it was back. He tried to locate it in his mind. It was north, well north, perhaps even beyond Toto Village.

Flik stood there for many moments silent, almost not breathing. Everything was silent- well, save for the fact that emanating out of the floorboards was the muffled sound of the men now running chorus for Viktor as he continued with his singing. Flik ignored this, was not even aware of it, as he considered an idea, spinning it over and over in his mind. He could not put that sudden flame out of his head, though his bed -and with it sleep- were tantalizingly close. Suddenly, his whole body went rigid; a decision had been made!

Stepping back to the table, he picked up his blue bandanna, tying it around his slightly disordered, dirty blond hair. Next he pulled on the similarly colored cape that was hanging off the chair. That cape was well-worn, full of patches and mended rents, but Flik ignored them, letting the garment drape back over his yellow shirt, blue leather armor, and black pants. He reached down to pat the sheathed sword at his hip, seeking reassurance in its presence. That he wore always, save when he slept, and even then it was always within arm's reach. Finally, he swept up the lamp in one arm, pulled the door open, and stepped from the room.

The corridor outside was dark, save for two shafts of light streaming up from stairs at either end. Shadows of people danced eagerly in that light. The singing was louder out here, but Flik still ignored it. Instead he turned down the hall and walked towards the planning room, between the two bedrooms- his and Viktor's- that shared the upper level. He opened the door to the planning room and strode in.

This room was larger than either of the two adjacent bedrooms. In the far right corner was a cabinet stuffed full of important documents: payment rolls, procurement forms, readiness reports- basically all the paperwork necessary to run a small mercenary operation. On the back wall was a large window, through which the night sky poured. A table and desk stood close to each other in the center of the room.

It was towards this table that Flik now walked. A parchment map had been spread over it, showing the region of Muse east of Lake Dunan, the North Sparrow Pass, and the Kyaro Province of Highland. Placed on the map were little lead figurines representing the various units deployed in the region. Carefully, Flik brought the lamp close so that he could examine the units and written notes that had been placed at each critical location.

He stared at the map for a long moment.

Below, Viktor was in fine form, his deep baritone rattling the glass of the windows.

Flik blinked, and realized that he didn't recognize any of the troop positions on the map. Everything was entirely wrong. After a moment, he saw that the troops on the map had been rearranged to represent an entirely fictitious invasion of the Kyaro Province, spearheaded by none other than fine men of this mercenary fort. Gently, Flik reached out and picked up one of the little lead men as he pondered the question; who could've done such a thing?

Below, Viktor's singing was cut off suddenly by the sound of a chair collapsing and a large man hitting the floor unexpectedly.

Anger coursed through Flik suddenly, raging fire burning in his veins, reflected eyes glittering fiercely in the window, a sharp pain blossoming in his right hand.

A sharp pain blossoming in his right hand?

Flik looked down at that hand, opening to reveal the crushed remains of the figurine he had so carefully grabbed a moment ago. In that moment, his anger departed, replaced only by a bitter disgust. He placed the remains back down onto the map and took only a moment in finding the place he was looking for- Tenzan Pass. Then, puffing annoyance out through his mouth, Flik turned and stalked from the room. Behind, the little crushed figurine representing the Highland Unicorn Brigade stood at attention, patiently waiting for orders that would never come.

Stepping down the stairs, Flik found his senses coming under immediate assault. Every candle, lantern, and fireplace appeared to be lit, filling the entirety of the ground level with a bright, smoky light. It was also sickly hot, sweat springing to his forehead almost instantly. The noise was oppressive, voices babbling incoherently into a pause in the singing. Mercenary soldiers were jammed into the area, perhaps a hundred or more in the mess hall and entranceway, the two areas together not much bigger than the three rooms upstairs. Flik had a sudden longing to just rub his temples and go right back upstairs to bed.

No, he must persevere! Scanning the crowd, he caught sight of two women, Leona and Barbara, standing behind the counter of the bar, talking to one another and looking generally pleased. Besides Viktor and Flik, they were probably the two most important people in the whole fort. Leona, in charge of the food and drinks, was tall and slender, with dark eyes that were always watching everything, like a bird of prey. Barbara, on the other hand, was shorter and large. Her domain was the storeroom, and keeping on her good side was essential for getting anything done.

Flik waved, trying to get their attention; they did not seem to notice him. Boldly, Flik stepped forward into the crowd, generously throwing elbows to clear the way as he shoved towards the two women. Leaving a train of curses and upended drinks in his wake, Flik finally managed to force his way to the bar.

"Hello there, Flik," Leona said cheerfully as he approached. Her dark hair was bound up with a red flower clip, and she was wearing a long red kimono that was slit on the right side up almost to her hip. This little party seemed to be making her very happy, but then she was almost certainly charging for the drinks, despite her position in the mercenary force. She suddenly swiveled, pulling up another tray of drinks. The little blue gems dangling from her ears and the long white scarf around her neck mimicked her motion. After setting out the tray, she took a puff from her long pencil pipe, and indolently blew a smoke cloud at Flik.

"Sir," Barbara said, in a voice that was suddenly all formality, though she had a moment ago been happily chatting with Leona. She was wearing an orange blouse that hung all the way down to her knees, with a square cut neck that showed just the top of her décolletage. She was also wearing a green skirt that fell below the knees, and a yellow and brown apron around her waist. Her brown and red-tinted hair was done up in a long braid and bound with a green bandana on her head.

They were both Viktor's friends. Barbara scowled at Flik, while Leona pulled up a used mug and started wiping it down.

"Can I offer you a drink?" Leona asked, pleasantly.

"No thank you," Flik began, feeling suddenly out of sorts, but then continued with, "where is Viktor?"

In answer to that question, a knot of men in the back of the room suddenly broke up and Viktor appeared, sitting in a chair that was being hefted up by a group of ten or so men. Not that they were hefting it very well, for the chair swayed back and forth and threatened to deposit its bulky occupant into the crowd. Not that said bulky occupant seemed to notice the swaying. Actually, bulky was the wrong word; Viktor was huge. He was so wide, in fact, that it tended to disguise the fact that he was nearly as tall as Flik, and all, or at least most, of that bulk was muscle, especially his two, powerful arms. He was showing no ill effects from his previous tumble and instead had just started a rather ribald song about a king and a dancing girl.

Singing, he began to wave his huge arms around to keep the tempo. Those arms were shown off to great effect by his sleeveless yellow tunic, which he habitually wore with the collar turned up. Over the tunic he wore a leather chest guard and the leather strap for his hilt, which was bouncing in time to the beat on his back. He also wore a pair of black pants with a simple leather belt and on his feet he wore short leather boots. His face was framed by a mane of unruly black hair that fell to his neck in the back and close to the eyes on the front.

It was his face, though, that made people love him. He was expressive, smiling broadly when happy or nearly breaking down when sad. His brown eyes were almost always sparkling with happiness, though at the moment they seemed a little clouded with drunkenness.

"Viktor. Viktor!" Flik shouted, waving to try and get his attention.

Incredibly enough, Viktor heard, or at least he heard Flik's voice. He waved merrily back and broke off singing long enough to shout, "I thought you were asleep, but hey, let's have a party! Leona, get him sumthin' to drink!"

Leona, dutifully enough, pressed a mug full of "sumthin'" into Flik's hand. He looked momentarily at the mug full of yellowish liquid and then banged it down onto the counter, slopping the contents onto the wood and the brown leather of his gloves.

"Viktor, I need to talk to you." Flik shouted towards his friend and co-commander. Viktor, though, had taken up his song again and had reached the point where the dancing girl had just begun to undress a thoroughly drunk king, gold and jewels first.

Flik listened for a moment and then did the only reasonable thing remaining. He extended his right hand and -feeling the power coursing through the rune embedded there- cast a lightning spell into the morass. Oh, not a high powered lightening spell, just enough to catch everyone's attention. As the spark of electricity jumped from person to person, the party came to a sudden and shocking conclusion. Especially when Viktor was pitched out of his chair and, in the effort to catch himself, tossed his mug of beer against one of the wooden support pillars, where it exploded in a shower of golden shards. For a moment, silence reigned supreme.

Flik did not waste that moment. Blue cape trailing behind him, he stepped forward towards one of the chair holders, Rossgard, the senior sergeant in charge of the horses.

"Rossgard, wake up!" Flik shouted, waving his hand in front of Rossgard's face in an effort to catch the drunk- and now electrocuted- man's attention. When, after a moment, Flik was satisfied that he had at least partial comprehension out of this man, he continued with, "Saddle up the horses, we're doing a night patrol."

"Night patrol?" slurred Rossgard, and then he stumbled off to attempt to do his duty. It didn't help that he then smashed face first into the same pillar that Viktor's mug had crashed into a moment ago.

"Yo, Flik, what's going on?" Viktor rumbled, as he pulled himself unsteadily into a standing position.

Flik knew that he had only this one chance to keep Viktor off his guard, so he walked over and replied, "I'm taking the scouts out on a night patrol. I think they could use the exercise."

The men, particularly the scouts in question, now looked from Flik to Viktor, awaiting his response. Though they were known as "Viktor's Mercenaries", in reality the two of them split duties and were co-commanders. Unfortunately, this sometimes led to situations where the men could get one commander to countermand the orders of the other. It was not unlike a situation where children know to go to one parent to get what they want.

Of course, Flik understood this as well. "You're invited along, too, if you want, Viktor. Though, if you think you're getting too flabby to keep up, I'd understand." As if to underscore this point, Flik vigorously jabbed Viktor in the gut. It was akin to jabbing a brick wall, but Flik managed not to grimace. It also worked brilliantly.

"You think I'm getting flabby?" Viktor roared, in a voice that, except for the fact that Flik knew Viktor well enough, threatened menace. "Just you wait, Flik. I'll ride you, and your horse, and my horse as well, into the ground just to keep up with you."

"Good for you." Flik smiled, and then turned to the mass of men milling around in the room. "Form lines!" he commanded.

After some confusion, the men managed to form a couple of ragged lines. Viktor, after brushing himself off, lounged against a pillar, oblivious to the fact that the beer splattered on it had now run down and was staining his tunic, and watched.

"I need to pick someone to leave in charge while we're away and- what is this?" Flik asked, as he had begun his inspection of the assembled men. He was standing in front of a little dark haired boy, who couldn't have been more than ten or so years old, who was dressed in a kid sized uniform.

"My name is Sen." he piped in a little kid's voice.

"Viktor," Flik despaired, "you didn't hire this kid on, did you?"

"Absolutely." Viktor grinned. "He's my number one spy man."

"That's right." Sen chimed in.

"We're not running an orphanage, Viktor. You shouldn't be endangering this child with you're silly schemes."

"My schemes are not silly." Viktor protested, gesturing with his hands as if to emphasize the point.

"I'm not gonna let any Highland soldiers catch me." Sen added. "I'm much too fast for them anyway."

"Where are your parents, Sen?" Flik asked gently. "Aren't they worried about you?"

Momentarily, the little boy looked as if he were going to break into tears, but then, with a little boy's courage, he smiled and said, "Don't have no parents. Highland killed them last year. Besides, Miss Leona and Miss Barbara look after me." Flik looked up and saw the two women in question smiling at him.

"Fine," Flik conceded, "he stays." Cheering broke out throughout the room at this ruling. "But, I will want to hear and approve of any missions that he undertakes. Understand, Viktor?"

"No problem." Viktor smiled.

"Yay! Thank you, sir!" Sen cried happily, and rushed forward to hug Flik's stomach.

After disengaging himself from Sen, Flik moved on to the next person in line.

"No, Viktor…absolutely not!" He said, after seeing said worthy.

"Oh come on, Flik," Viktor pleaded. "Every mercenary squad needs one."

"Absolutely!" added the high-pitched voice of the person in question. Then he barked emphatically.

The person in question was a kobold. He was short of stature, coming up only to Flik's chest, with brown fur and a white muzzle and a little tuft of white fur at the top of his head, between his upturned ears. He was wearing a collared green shirt with leather boards for rank ensignia and leather cuffs at the ends of the sleeves. He was also wearing a pair of green shorts, modified so that his tail, brown fading to white at the tip, was free.

"I'm Gengen, sir." He saluted enthusiastically, managing to click together the heels of his black and white shoes. "Ready to ride." Though he probably couldn't mount a horse, let alone ride one.

Flik tried his best not to groan, especially after noting the kobold's orange socks. "Viktor." Flik said, ignoring Gengen. "Everybody knows that kobolds work best in kobold only units. Kobolds don't train to work with human units."

"No problem, sir." Gengen replied. "Gengen has studied humans extensively and can train to human tactics with no problems."

Viktor shrugged expressively.

"Fine, you can stay, too." He turned to Viktor. "However, one of these days I'm going to test one of your new recruits, got that."

Viktor shrugged again, and smiled.

Suddenly, Flik did not have the patience to run down the entire line and inspect every soldier. Instead, he turned to Leona and said, "You are in charge while we are away."

"Me?" Leona asked, almost laughing.

"Yes, you. I figure the men will probably listen to you more than anyone else in this fort. Just don't let them burn it down, and we'll be back in a day, or possibly two."

Then, without waiting to see if anyone would follow him, Flik swept about and walked towards the doors.

The ride started slowly. It took nearly half an hour to find enough men sober enough to make up the thirty that would accompany Viktor and Flik. It turned out that sober enough was still not terribly sober. In the first forty minutes of the ride, at least half the men leaned over the side of their horses to puke loudly. One man fell right out of his saddle and broke his arm. His ride, plus that of two escorts to see him back to the fort, was over very quickly.

They rode northeast, through the gap in the forest, towards the village of Ryube and the East Road. At least it was a bright night, with the Scarlet Moon near full and the Blue Moon waning gibbous. It was also chilly, as befitted an early spring night, and this helped clear the clouded heads of the riders.

They traveled carefully until they reached Ryube and the East Road, but then Flik increased the pace as the path became more regular. They passed the sleeping village on their right, nestled between two forested ridges. They continued this way for hours, riding north with the ridges of the Aramayan Range on the right and the sparsely forested plains of East Muse of the left. Those plains were lightly inhabited, and the riders passed only a few scattered homesteads as they rode on.

Four hours later and now north of the entrance to North Sparrow Pass, as the Blue Moon was setting, they paused to change to the remounts.

"You alright there?" Flik asked, as he noted Viktor doubled over and rubbing his thighs.

"Just fine," he gritted back. "Nothing better than a four hour trot to work out the kinks."

"Good, because I intend to press harder over the next four hours."

Viktor clenched his teeth, and then tried to smile broadly.

True to his word, Flik did press harder over the next four hours. The pace began to tell, as men and horses pulled out of the formation, and the line became spread out and ragged. Viktor, true to his word, ran his horse hard in an attempt to keep up with Flik. At one point, Flik looked back, watching Viktor's travails. Viktor was not a good rider, and they did not really have any horse large enough to properly handle his bulk. Still, what he lacked in skill, he made up for in sheer willpower. He would keep going until the horse literally collapsed under him, and then he might be able to coax a few steps more out of the horse. Viktor, noting Flik's gaze, smiled even more broadly and let out a hearty cheer. The other men in the line took it up for good measure.

Flik looked away and smiled. He loved riding, for it took him back to his youth in the Warrior's Village. The feel of the horse's muscles working in tandem with his own, and the breeze on his face were things that had been trained into him as a youth. He had been thinking about the Warrior's Village recently, wondering if he ought to go back and be judged worthy. But no, then they would want him to marry, and that would be betraying the one he still loved.

The road turned towards the west and the riders could now gaze at the Scarlet Moon as it finished it's nightly journey. In the east, the sky began to fill with pale light, anticipating the dawn. The chill in the air was now very sharp, and the horses' breaths came in smoky bursts. Cresting a little ridge, Flik looked down on the Village of Toto in the distance, sitting on the right bank of the River Dorthai. Dunan Lake, further to the south, was still hidden in the mists of early morning.

Flik had heard it said, usually when people thought he wasn't listening, that people from the Warrior's Village had an instinctual need to find battles, that they could literally smell war on the wind. Whether or not this was true, Flik certainly thought he smelled something as the wind picked up out of the north.

He paused at the top of this ridge to gather in his riders, or as many as were still with him. Their little force was now down to sixteen riders, and they didn't have enough remounts for everyone. The loss of the men didn't concern Flik, they would either return to the fort or not get paid, but the loss of horses was distressing. He could only hope that the straggling men were also keeping track of the extra horses.

"So…uh…what now?" Viktor asked between deep breaths.

"We ride along this bank of the river, north of Toto." Flik replied, gesturing with a sweep of his arm. The Scarlet Moon was just slipping below the distant horizon.

"That's a little out of our normal patrol area, don't you think?"


Viktor put up his hands defensively. "Hey, hey, I'm just saying that it takes us pretty close to Highland territory. I'm not one to chicken out from a fight, but I'd like to know what you're taking us into. Besides, Flik, you've got that look in your eyes."

"What look?" Flik asked, turning to face his friend.

"Like you're expecting trouble…like you're itching for a fight. Have you been thinking about Odessa recently?"

"I most certainly have not," Flik lied and then wheeled his horse around and started down the hill. Instinctively, his hand sought out his sword.

Only about every day.