The girl's fear was a palpable thing, a deep gray shadow in her mind that drove out any semblance of coherent thought. The urge to escape pounded through her, not even a word but a thunderous instinct screaming in her blood, and so she ran, hurtling down the woodland path as if the hounds of the Pit pursued her. Her breath burned in her throat with every step she took, and tree branches seemed to reach for her, clawing at her face and arms, tearing her clothing. The sun filtering through the trees cast shifting patterns of light all around her; the girl's speed meant that the angles were constantly changing, shadows and glowing rays swirling in a crazy kaleidoscope pattern as she fled. Her heart pounded in her chest, legs and belly aching from the unaccustomed exertion.
The cry from behind her was shrill and high-pitched, as if it had been torn from some monstrous throat. The girl risked a glance over her shoulder to see if her pursuers were crying her name in exultation at catching her or frustration at her escape. It was a mistake; her foot caught on a knobby root protruding from the ground and she fell sprawling right at the point where the path widened into a broad clearing.
Elia cursed as she pushed herself to her feet, trying to ignore the pain throbbing from her shoulder. In the woods she'd at least had the chance to escape; the twists of the path might have given her an opportunity to slip off into the trees once she was out of sight. Her pursuers weren't experienced trackers, so it wouldn't have been too hard to get away once she'd hid. Out in the open, though, there was no way to avoid them.
The two men burst out of the woods only moments after she had. They wore white leather vests and breeches, the vests ornately tooled with gold in abstract patterns. Their bare arms were circled at the wrists by heavy brass cuffs, and they held six-foot staves of clear crystal in their powerful hands. Elia knew their kind; she had encountered men like them before. They were cold and remorseless, fanatical tools that worshipped their master with more intensity than they did any Goddess or God. Mercy was beyond their comprehension.
One of the men raised his staff and leveled it at the girl. She tried to scamper away, but the man spoke a word of command and a surge of power leapt from the tip of the crystal rod. An explosive shock roared through Elia's body, knocking her head over heels, bruising and bloodying her. The staff shattered into a thousand glittering fragments as its force was released. The men had no magic of their own, Elia realized, just a bit of power lent to them by their master. Of course, that was but slight consolation; if the second man's staff didn't kill her, it would certainly leave her too helpless to resist the men and the sturdy cudgels that hung from their belts.
Not that she had much chance as it was. The two men might possess only the blurred thoughts of fanatics, but they were obviously competent in their primary area of skill: brute violence. That was why Elia had chosen to run in the first place.
The man who'd fired the blast unhooked his club and moved in on the prone girl. The second remained back, his staff at the ready if things went wrong. Elia had no weapon, not even a belt knife, but no doubt the man's master had told them all sorts of stories about her to insure they would be cautious. She gritted her teeth, hoping to make at least some of those stories true. Elia dug her fingers into the soft, loamy soil, and when the man came close, she hurled the handful of dirt full into his face. He staggered, clawing at his eyes, and Elia grabbed his legs, pulling him forward onto her. It could have been a foolish thing to do under normal circumstances, but it worked. The second man's reactions were just slow enough that when he unleashed his bolt, it struck his companion full in the back, slamming him down onto the girl.
For a moment Elia was terrified that the man was still conscious, in which case he'd have her at a horrible disadvantage, but his body on hers was all dead weight. Knowing the second man was coming, she struggled to push out from under the unconscious soldier. She got to her feet at last, but her knees wavered as she stood. The bolt she'd absorbed had hurt her more than she'd realized, and having a burly fighter land on her hadn't helped. A glance back showed the second pursuer charging at her, club raised and bloodlust in his eyes.
Elia was out of tricks. She could try to flee, and be caught from behind, or she could stand and face her enemy and so see death as it came. Neither option appealed very much. Elia cast her gaze about desperately, looking for something, anything that might help.
She might have missed the tiny firefly spark of silver flame floating at about waist height if she hadn't been looking, but no one could have missed what it blossomed into. The spark expanded, swelling in an instant to a disk of whirling flames, silver and white and brilliant blues that captured the eye almost hypnotically. No heat came from the fiery disk, which might have helped Elia make up her mind. Choosing the devil she didn't know over the one she did, she dove into the fire.
All at once she was surrounded by a cold, gray emptiness. There was no ground beneath her feet, yet no sense that she was falling. Elia felt like she was floating in a cool, silver sea that bathed her, soothing her aching body, replacing pain with a gentle weariness. Her senses swam, but the girl felt no worry; she was enclosed by an overwhelming feeling of calm and serenity. Slowly, her eyes drifted shut, and Elia allowed her mind to flow away into dreamless slumber.
-X X X-
Three hundred years ago, the world of Lunar was shaken to its foundations. The hero Ghaleon, once a loyal servant of the Goddess Althena, was consumed with frustration and despair at the course the Goddess sought to chart for Lunar. He found allies for his pain in the outcast Vile Tribe, descendants of those who had been banished by Althena to the wastelands of the Frontier. Claiming the long-forgotten mantle of the Magic Emperor, Ghaleon enslaved the magic of the Four Dragons of Althena to his will and was even able to command the Goddess herself.
Ghaleon's dreams were broken only by the heroism of the last Dragonmaster, Alex of Burg, and his companions. They destroyed the Magic Emperor and rescued Althena from the darkness he had trapped her within.
But victory is not without consequences. The Goddess chose to abandon her divinity for life as Luna, mortal wife of Alex, trusting humanity with its own future. While the magic of the Four Dragons was eternal, the physical vessels of that magic were not, and only the new White Dragon, Nall, survived in more than spirit. And while the majority of the Vile Tribe's remnants came to realize their own errors and sought a new life within the light under their leader, Phacia, there were always those who were caught forever by the cycle of hate.
A vacuum always seeks to be filled, and Lunar would soon find Althena's dream for the future to be tested far sooner than anyone could imagine.
-X X X-
The lakefront town of Kyre was not particularly hag-ridden with criminals. That wasn't abnormal, since the Madoria Plains weren't Lunar's most settled area and organized crime requires civilization to organize in. Still, it was a harbor town, and the combination of trade money with the drinking, gambling, and wenching that were the favorite shoreland pastimes of seamen invariably produced a certain rowdy lawlessness. Tabren knew this, having grown up in his aunt's inn, the Laughing Dolphin, since the age of six. That was nine years of seeing sailors, smugglers, cutthroats, and other unsavory types wander in and out of the tavern. He was familiar with most varieties of waterfront scum, and knew better than to fall foul of them. That was why he caught on soon that two men were watching him.
Tabren's Aunt Lil had sent him to Harbor Market to arrange purchases of several supplies from the inn--meat, fish, ale, and the like. He'd first noticed the two men when he was at Hallena the fishmonger's stall, watching him from two stalls down. They followed him to Lorkis the vintner, and from there to Peldon the brewer. The two stood out like a sore thumb, their loose-fitting shirts and woolen hose were ragged, their hair was greasy and unkempt, and their beards were scraggly. Those features weren't all that uncommon in Kyre's lakefront quarter, but the fact that they didn't buy anything, didn't even look over the wares, marked them. Even thieves and pickpockets made a pretense of shopping just to distract their victims from their real activities.
Tabren was a rangy lad and good enough with his hands that he sometimes assisted Lakus, the Dolphin's bouncer, when a brawl broke out that was too big for one man to handle, but he didn't fancy his chances against the two men. Both were big, with the kind of short swords favored by bandits and seamen fastened at their waists. The hard glint in their eyes spoke of a complete lack of sympathy for the pain of others. Tabren couldn't believe they were after his money; the purse Aunt Lil had given him hadn't exactly been overflowing with silver and the men had seen it dwindle as Tabren went from stall to stall. A press gang was more likely, but they usually traveled in larger packs, and invariably carried clubs. The point of a press gang was to kidnap men to fill out a crew, and sticking victims with swords tended to defeat the purpose.
They stopped following him after he left Krennia the butcher. Tabren would have preferred they'd kept on doing it because they'd switched to active pursuit, stalking purposefully through the crowd. He turned and bolted towards the edge of the market, hoping to lose himself in the throng of shoppers and merchants before ducking out of the marketplace. They saw his game, though, and split up, one moving to cut him off from the exit into Sail Street while the other came at him directly.
Where are all the cityguards when you need them? Tabren thought. He turned to his left, hoping to make his pursuers believe that he was trying to double back and get to the west end of the market where most of the exits were. The man following him directly fell for it, moving to cut him off. Instead, Tabren turned and headed right for the southeast corner of the square. There was an alley there that was hard to see unless you were right on top of it, and he hoped that the two men didn't know about it, or had at least forgotten for a while.
Tabren's plan seemed to work. A glance behind him showed his pursuers to be stalking him slowly and cautiously, closing in as if they thought they had him pinned and wanted to make sure he couldn't duck between them. Exactly what I wanted. At once Tabren stopped, spun on his heel, and bolted towards the alley mouth at full speed. His move caught the two cutthroats off guard, and they took a few seconds to react and come running after him.
A laugh of triumph died in Tabren's throat, though, as he got about halfway down the alley. Three men stepped into view, blocking the far end. Two were ruffians like the ones he'd been running from, but the one in the middle definitely was not. Tabren didn't stop to study details; he turned to run back towards Harbor Market but found that end of the alley blocked by the two original thugs, both now grinning broadly. He looked from side to side for a way of escape, but there were no doors or windows, just bare brick walls. A skilled climber might have scampered up to a roof, but Tabren had no experience in burglary, which was really the trade that gave a functional education in wall-crawling. So much for the benefits of a law-abiding life.
"I'd suggest that you give up," said the man who was obviously the leader of the little band. "All we really want is to talk to you."
"You could have done that without hounding me into a back alley," Tabren noted. He had been trapped, he realized. The two men had let themselves be seen and had carefully herded him into the alley.
"I dislike public conversations," the leader said coolly. "There are all sorts of things I can't do in public that keep a conversation going in the direction I want it to."
He really looked nothing like a waterfront thug, Tabren decided. His blond hair was worn long and pulled back in a queue, his cheeks were clean-shaven, and there was intelligence, even humor in his brown eyes. He wore a green doublet and dull brown hose, with utilitarian low boots. More ominous were the way his doublet bulged slightly to indicate that he was wearing a mail shirt, the heavy broadsword buckled at his waist, and the cruel twist to his lips.
All five men advanced steadily on Tabren, narrowing the amount of space he had to work with.
"It might reassure you to know," the man in green said, "that I'm not really interested in you at all."
"You've got a funny way of showing it," Tabren muttered. His attempt at wit went ignored.
"The fact is, there may be an old friend of mine staying at the inn where you work. I'd go there and see for myself, but my friend and I aren't really on the best of terms these days. Our conversations tend to revolve around hangings, throat-cuttings, and similar topics. So, I thought I'd verify that it really was him and learn what I could about his travel plans and the like before paying a social call."
One of the thugs dropped a heavy hand on Tabren's shoulder, spinning him up against the hard rock wall. The blond man faced the boy, but stood back out of range of a desperate kick. It was the kind of thing someone with a lot of experience questioning hostile captives did.
"Now, my friend is built something like me. He has black hair and blue eyes, and is really too handsome for his own good."
Tabren had hoped it was all a mistake up until that point, but unfortunately there was a guest fitting that description at the Dolphin who'd arrived two days past. The blond man's eyes lit up as he saw the flash of recognition.
"Ah, good, now we're getting somewhere. He's a relatively famous fellow, in fact. Ten years ago he was one of the Lion Knights, but they decided that they could do without his company. Perhaps you've heard of him? Minstrels call him Morhault the Fallen."
"You're not really in a position to criticize anyone else's reputation, Krasek," that same Morhault stated coldly. The hawk-profiled renegade had entered the alley quietly, and unlike the other men he had his sword drawn. It was an unusual weapon, with a long, heavy blade like an ordinary broadsword but a hilt twice as long as normal, more suited to a two-handed blade. The hand-and-a-half sword was paired with an equally unusual shield, a kind of gauntlet for his left forearm whose outer side was thickly built up and had curving projections to protect wrist and elbow. He wore his chainmail shirt openly, not bothering to hide it.
The former knight's eyes swept across the alley, assessing the opposition. "Is this the best you could do? I saw these two sniffing around the inn almost as soon as they showed up. You used to be able to afford decent spies."
The thugs were already drawing their swords. Three rushed at Morhault, while the fourth hung back by Krasek. Morhault crushed his gauntlet into one's face, knocking him over, then cut down a second with a quick sweep of his blade. The third cut at the fallen knight but had his stroke blocked. As the fight went on, Tabren began to see why Morhault used the bastard sword as his weapon. Unlike a normal shield, Morhault's gauntlet left his hand free, and he would shift back and forth between a one-handed and two-handed grip as the situation demanded.
Seeing how badly his men were doing, Krasek turned to the last of his thugs.
"Now would be good, Veylhan."
The thug didn't reach for his sword; instead, he took out a foot-long wooden rod from beneath his tunic. The rod was carved with ornate runic symbols, and the way Veylhan started chanting and waving it around particularly reeked of magic. After a couple of seconds a shimmering pinpoint of red light appeared in the air before him. While magicians were not common in Kyre, nine years of minstrel's songs at the inn hearth suggested that this was conjury, the art of summoning monsters or elementals to do the magician's will. It wasn't as direct as throwing lightning bolts or tornadoes, but Tabren had the idea it would be adequate here.
Krasek eyed the magician, then the fight, and drew his sword, probably figuring he'd have to intervene to give Veylhan the time necessary to conjure and bind whatever he was calling up. He launched a vicious attack on Morhault, saving the life of his last thug when the renegade had to break off a strike to parry the blow. The two enemies began to battle furiously, their swordsmanship better than anything Tabren had ever seen on the docks. They were trained warriors, the kind who had spent long years learning how to fight and more years coupling that knowledge with practical battle experience, unlike most seamen who learned by brawling and survival.
Meanwhile, the red light began to swell, expanding into an orb a foot across, then two, then three, striped with shades of crimson that pulsed in time with Veylhan's chanting. The question was whether or not he'd have the time to complete the binding.
It looked like he'd get the time, because as best as Tabren could see the fight was something like a stalemate. Morhault's edge in equipment--Krasek lacked a shield--was offset by the extra fighter on the blond soldier's side. Morhault couldn't divert enough attention from Krasek to cut down the dockyard brawler. Veylhan continued his chanting, sweat from the effort standing out on his face. The orb continued to grow, its outline rippling as it began to take on characteristics.
Suddenly, everything changed. The ruddy light cast by the conjuring was replaced by blinding silver-blue flames. The fighting men squinted against the light and disengaged.
"Veylhan, you pox-ridden idiot, what are you doing?" screamed Krasek.
The magician was gesturing frantically with his want, trying to bring the spell back under his control.
"It's not me!" he pleaded. "Something's gone completely wrong!"
The thug abandoned the fight entirely, scampering for the end of the alley. Krasek wasn't far behind, though his retreat had more dignity.
"Another time, Morhault," he promised.
"I'll be looking forward to it," the renegade knight ground out through clenched teeth.
Veylhan gave up on any further attempts at magic and bolted. A moment later, any semblance of remaining control vanished, and in a thunderous yet somehow quiet and self-contained explosion, the flaming sphere tore itself apart. Veylhan was launched about ten feet through the air to land sprawling, yet Tabren, who was just as close, was somehow untouched. Krasek yanked his man to his feet by the collar and hauled him off.
It seemed, though, that the conjuring had not been a complete failure. At least, it had managed to come up with something. Tabren couldn't think of any other explanation for how the unconscious form of a young woman could have appeared in the middle of the alley.