DargonZine 22, Issue 3

You Can’t Go Home Again

Yule 3, 1018


The pain in Kiev’s shoulder woke him gradually from his concussion. Trying to open his eyes he found that only one was compliant. The other was plastered shut from the mud his face was resting in. He wasn’t averse to the mud, the dirt was one thing, but he wasn’t entirely sure what liquid made up the other half of the mud equation.

Prompted by his new apprehension about what he was marinating in, the battle magus shifted his weight around trying to stand and found his legs surrounded by air. Regaining more consciousness, he became aware that he was pitched over a stack of crates, feet in the air and face down in the mud; so much for decorum and grace.

He pulled himself forward, rolling to his back with a grunt, finding new pains when his body slammed violently. There was a pain in his right knee and a few more in his left ribcage. He looked closer at his left shoulder, which was covered in scorch marks and blood from where the wizard’s bolt hit him. He removed the leather straps of the cluster maces from his wrists and set them gingerly in the hooks on his belt so his hands would be free to mend with.

Kiev thought back to the fight he had with Mon-Hyden. Flashes of the fight replayed in his mind, recalling every single mistake he made during the battle, like choosing ironwood over hematite and choosing missiles over … well, over anything that could get through the layered shield. Turning his mind away from the pain, he thought more about that; what type of attack could he use to break through the ward?

He pulled himself to the stone wall of the nearest building and into the shade from the heat of the mid-day sun. Leaning against it he produced his health kit. With his good hand he fished around until fingers grasped the envelope he was looking for. He fiddled around with the brown paper. Fighting back his eagerness, he was careful not to spill the precious contents. The blood-scarlet paste was nearing its end. That thought sent a wave of remorse through the injured battle magus. It was going to be a rough barter to get the ingredients for more.

He removed a pinky-nail size piece and broke it in two, resting one piece on his tongue and putting the other into the biggest of the lacerations on his shoulder. Slowly the wound started to heal while the pains throughout his body subsided. It would still take about eight bells to be fully recovered, longer if he didn’t get some water to assist the remedy along.

He moved his right arm within the brass and iron plate pauldron testing the armor to see if it needed any mending. It moved okay, just a little stiff. Some light maintenance would be needed but it was in working order. His hands moved instinctively to his hips, double-checking to see that the maces were there. The man stood, wiping the mud from his tanned face, taking a brief smell before he threw it away in disgust. It wasn’t water in that mud. Taking further inventory, he found that his black, leather-armored pants needed mending and his main pack was missing. With the pack gone he was out of food. On a positive note all the samples on the inside of his belt remained intact; there was the silver lining on his gong-storm cloud. He ran his fingers through his cropped brown hair, dislodging more dirt and mud. No need to look a mess.

Now to find out where he was. The last desperate attempt by the wizard was curious at the time, but now saw the objective; get Kiev as far away as possible. But where did the wizard feel was far enough? The battle magus limped to the mouth of the alley and saw the same buildings one would see anywhere in Cherisk. The smell of the sea air and the heat of day, not the cool mountain air he had come from, let him know he was somewhere on the coast, but again not really helpful in pinning down exactly where.

“Does that hurt?”

Kiev turned to see a little girl dressed in rags sitting on a log at the mouth of the alley.

“What?”

“That,” she said pointing at his shoulder, “does it hurt?”

“A little.”

“How did you do that?” she asked.

“Do what?”

“Poof,” she said, popping open her fingers in front of her face, eyes opening wide. “Scared me half to tears. I almost peed.”

Kiev laughed. “I’m not too sure how I got here. Where is ‘here’?”

“Dargon.”

Dargon? That damnable wizard had a sick sense of humor. He was wanted in Dargon and looking closer at the street he found a few features he recognized.

“Piss,” he cursed. It wasn’t a random coincidence that he was sent here and that meant the crusty old man wasn’t through with him yet. It was time to change alleys. Kiev took off through the streets southward, hoping that he could find a quick way out of town before the guard found him. Failing that, a hiding place would do until nightfall.

Little padding steps kept pace with his. Still a little delirious from his wounds, it took a moment to realize he was being followed.

“Go home,” he snipped at her.

“Okay, let’s go,” she said, reaching for his hand.

“I don’t know where you live.”

“You have to come with me,” she scolded.

“Go away.” Kiev rolled his eyes.

“Hey! You’re mine. You have to do what I say!”

“What?”

“I asked Nehru for you and he gave you to me. You’re mine! Nehru said so.”

Kiev took pause for a moment. Why would a little girl need to ask Nehru, the god of war for anything?

“What did you say?”

“In the alley, before you came, I prayed to Nehru and then he gave me you.”

“What did you pray to Nehru for?”

“My mum, she’s real hurt cause my dad hurt her. He always hurts her and I don’t want him to hurt us anymore. Nobody cares about it and none of the other gods listened to me, but Nehru did. I asked Nehru for help and he gave you to me. You’re mine. I prayed for you.”

The battle magus could have ignored anything else, but the resolve of the hurting child he could not. He knelt at her feet, wiped away a tear from her cheek and smiled. Moreover, her home could provide the perfect cover until dark.

“What’s your name then?”

“Rynn,” she replied.

“Rynn. If Nehru sent me, then I must be here to help you. Lead the way.”

The less crowded back alleys of Dargon were muffled in an almost reverent silence, unbroken save for the whispered steps of Rynn. They detoured once or twice through a few shops when the alleys ran out and eventually made it back to the cramped residential quarter of Dargon without incident.

Rynn led him through the door into a cramped apartment. A small kitchen area was the first thing people walked into before heading to a communal room that was utilized for sleeping, eating and, on rare occasions, entertaining. Space was cramped and cluttered, there was maybe fifteen feet to the back of the hovel and every inch was covered with junk.

On the counters in the kitchen makeshift dishes sat in piles covered by rotting fish, discarded bones and various other spoiled foods. The whole of it was crawling with flies and roaches; two militant forces fighting for control over the prime rotting smorgasbord.

There was a stench that permeated everything. The streets were bad, but in here in the sweltering heat and lack of proper airflow it felt like walking through a stagnant cesspool. More than the attacks to the senses there was an aura of deep-seated misery that Kiev did his best to shed from his own state of mind.

“My dad isn’t home yet, he’s still at the docks. But my mum is in here.” She led him to the communal room where her mother was lying still, uncovered and half naked on the sod floor. Her breathing was shallow carrying a ticking sound with it, her face was broken and her body was covered in lacerations and bruises.

“I need you to get me some fresh water. Clean fresh water,” he said to the girl. “What’s your mother’s name?”

“Allandra,” she said running out the back door.

“Allandra, can you hear me?”

The woman moaned. He reached down and pried an eyelid open. Her pupil was dilated fully, encompassing the color ring; not a good sign.

The daughter came back with a gourd of water, spilling some while she tripped her way to Kiev.

“Is she going to be okay?”

“How long has she been like this?”

“Maybe three days.”

“Has she had anything to eat or drink?”

“No, she won’t. I’ve asked her to, but she tells me no.”

Kiev knew that her life was down to the bells now; even the healing paste he had wouldn’t give her a fighting chance on death’s door. How was he going to tell Rynn that her mother was about to die? That after she had done all she could — even turning to gods in their supposed glory — she was still going to fail?

“Where are your siblings?”

“My what?”

“Your brothers and sisters. Do you have any?”

Rynn shook her head.

“Okay. Look at me and listen,” he started quietly. “I need you to spend some time with your mother, talk to her and let her know how you feel about her. She may not be able to talk but she can hear you and she needs to hear your voice right now. Okay?”

“Is she going to get better?”

Kiev held her stare in his, fighting back the rage, hoping that she would catch on so he didn’t have to tell her the stark truth. But she didn’t; she couldn’t comprehend what she was about to face.

“No,” he whispered at last.

“But Nehru gave you to me,” she explained. “He’s supposed to make it all better. You are supposed to make it all better. You said.”

“Nehru is not the god of healing. He is the god of war. Let me show you what Nehru had in mind when he sent me. Until then, spend this time with your mother.”

***

Sven stepped up to the entrance of the Inn of the Serpent, taking a long stretch with a big yawn. Working the graveyard shift for the city guard was definitely starting to take its toll. He was tired and here it was only mid-day. A long bath at the Serpent and he’d be feeling right as rain.

Ever vigilant, he scanned the area to see if he had been followed. Satisfied, he made to enter the inn when a man caught his eye. The man was following a little girl and was trying his best not to be seen, which, Sven thought, was a wasted effort since his two large maces were screaming trouble at anyone apt enough to pay attention.

Why do they try? The harder they try the more they stick out. Sven rolled his eyes, knowing his bath would be put on hold and then started toward the man.

The guard closed the distance unnoticed, eager to put his suspicions to rest and get to his hot bath. He caught the full front of the man’s face; a name rang in his ears.

Kiev.

Sven saw a group of young boys passing by, recognizing a couple as shadow boys. It wasn’t ideal, but desperation created the strangest of bedfellows. He slowed his pace and tried to limit his intimidating countenance, then stopped a safe distance away. Shadow boys were like feral dogs. They were used to humans, and at their core wanted the connection, but their fears often outweighed trust in humanity.

“Hey, who’s interested in making a Royal?”

Skeptical of the guard but enticed by the prospect of money, they made a few steps toward Sven.

“What we gotta do?” the dominant boy asked.

“That man, there,” he pointed out Kiev, “follow him, I’ll be back here in less than a bell and I expect you to know where he is.”

“Why, what’s he done?” he asked.

“Don’t worry yourself about it. You want the Royal?”

“Mebbe,” he replied.

“No skin off my back. I can find someone else more eager for easy money,” Sven bluffed.

“Alright, you got us straight, but is that a Royal for everyone or one Royal to split?”

Sven glared at the boy who returned his glare with a smirk. “A Royal to split. Get moving.”

Losing the negotiation, the boys ran off after Kiev.

***

Mon-Hyden was annoyed with how expensive the battle magus had become, reagent-ly speaking. Chasing him down was neither easy nor as cost effective as the others had been. He stood over the disturbed mud puddle where he was certain Kiev had landed, tapping a finger on his forehead.

The wizard grabbed his left hand with his right, trying in vain to rub life and feeling back into the appendage that died from over exerting his talents. He had come really close to losing the duel atop the Beinison mountains. A few more moments and it would have been more than his forearm that was dead.

At least in Dargon he wouldn’t be outnumbered.

Mon-Hyden pulled an oak twig from inside his dark purple robe and knelt down. After a few designed sigils in the dirt he scoured the alley for anything useful. Moments later revealed the location of an ash trap just outside a door, which he dumped atop the newly drawn sigils then sat a barrel near it, completing his makeshift altar. Now it was time for the hard part.

Ceremony was everything to the wizard as it was to the others in his order. Everything done needed to be done with a purpose, with a careful thought and with the right tool. The majority of it was all inside Mon-Hyden’s head. Looking south while chanting certain spells wasn’t exactly necessary, but it made him feel more connected to the powers he was manipulating. Carrying around a carefully packed satchel of ceremonial blades could be considered to be extravagant by some or even borderline insane by others — even by others in his own order — but Mon-Hyden preferred to be prepared.

He removed the satchel from within his robes, untied the satin ribbon and rolled it out, splaying the various blades. It was easy to find the one he was looking for; it was the biggest one there. The blacksmith told him it was a simple butcher’s cleaver. Mon-Hyden claimed there was nothing simple about it. The handle was chiseled from alabaster and jet and polished to a shine. Six rings were connected to holes that ran the length of the spine, which tinkled as the wizard removed the cleaver from the canvas satchel. He sat it gently atop the barrel then removed a thick hemp rope from another pocket amongst the knives along with a stick and some ebony powder. A black candle was next. Lighting it with his flint proved difficult, but after a few tries managed to get it lit.

With dexterity and a little sweat he was able to get the rope secured enough around his forearm to hold the stick for the tourniquet. He twisted the rope around until his fingernails turned blue then a few more times just to be sure it was tight and secured the peg so it wouldn’t unravel. Mon-Hyden caressed the alabaster side of the handle gently before he palmed it. He felt a slight tinge of anxiety looking at his arm then, without a second thought he raised the cleaver high slicing it powerfully through his arm just above the tourniquet.

It was this moment that he realized that the flesh of his arm was dead yet the bone was very much alive. He tried to remain conscious as he sliced through the remaining flesh to sever the arm. With great strain of will he poured the pouch of ebony powder over the exposed stump then stuck it over the candle. Fire met powder releasing a bright burst of flame and light, cauterizing the wound.

It took Mon-Hyden a few moments to regain his focus on the task before him; he still wasn’t done. From another pocket inside his robe he took out a small oak box emanating a muted scraping sound and a pair of small wooden tongs. He opened the box onto the ground a few feet away from him. He didn’t want to risk getting stung. A twitching scorpion tail fell, snapping angrily, looking for anything it could connect with. The wizard quickly grabbed it with the tongs and brought it to the dismembered arm on the barrel. After a few stings the tail went limp. The arm started to bloat and turn black, dark tar-like blood trailed out and pooled.

Still working with haste, Mon-Hyden took the appendage by the hand and held the open end over the pile of ash, putrid bile drizzling over the ashen sacrifice. When he felt the arm gave all it had he tossed it aside then gathered up all his tools and secured them back where they went.

An image came to Mon-Hyden an image the wizard felt would instill fear into the heart of the battle magus. He focused hard for a clarified image of the mythical creature. Any fault in the image and all the preparations would be for naught. A few arcane phrases and words played through his head trying to get them in the right order. Feeling confident with his image and spell, he spoke the words as an inhaled whisper under his breath, his hand stretched out toward the ash.

The ash started to shift, mixing with the blood and glowing from the sigils beneath it. A black-scaled claw took shape and dug into the earth, then another. A tail formed next, long and thin, with two rows of short black spikes running its length. The spikes grew larger as they continued up along the spine of the creature that started to form. Finally a wide head, complete with a short, narrowed snout full of violent fangs, took shape. His dragon golem was complete.

The creature bore his spiteful eyes into Mon-Hyden, waiting for its master’s instruction.

“There was a man who landed here,” he pointed. “Find him, kill him.” The dragon sniffed around hungrily then bolted through the mouth of the alley.

Yes, Kiev had become expensive indeed.

***

Kiev took the water to the corner of the room to give the girl as much privacy as he could in the tight quarters. Sipping down the cool water he could feel his countenance revive, the paste going to work on his broken body. Being on edge the past months, he allowed himself a moment of peace, knowing that stress could destroy him easily as any wizard.

A scratching sound came from the front door, lightly at first followed by a rapid sniffing sound. Kiev kept his eyes closed, meditating, finding the rhythm of his body. He followed his skeletal frame to his ribs envisioning the small fractures mending, thin beads of bone mass filling in the small gaps. The yunin biyow, the paste he had taken, accelerated the body’s natural healing abilities and with the direction of meditation and life giving water it could work more efficiently. Nearly half a bell had passed so far and he was already starting to feel better.

Another, eager scratching came from the front door.

“What is that?” the girl asked, walking to the door.

“Your dog?”

She scoffed, “I don’t own a dog.”

Kiev looked at the door and listened closer to the scratching. The beast growled, sending chills down the back of his neck.

“Get away from the door!” he shouted. Rynn turned a confused look at him and stood there. In a shower of splinters the beast broke through the door. Roughly the size of a large wolf, the black ashen nether dragon charged in. Kiev was up the moment he shouted at her and met the dragon head-on, bringing both maces to the side of its face. The child had the good sense to dive out of the way when the two went to tearing each other apart.

Unfazed by the hit to the face the dragon rose up on his hind legs and raked down at Kiev’s chest. The battle magus turned his armored arm into the attack and brought his free mace to the beast’s ribs, knocking it off balance. It rolled to the side and was quick to its feet, coming back for him.

Black oily scales rocked over its back before it leapt again at Kiev’s face but the battle magus proved the quicker, rolled to his back and used the dragon’s momentum to kick it to the back of the apartment. His first instinct was to run, but the wizard might be outside. Even if he wasn’t, the confined space definitely gave the battle magus the upper hand against the wizard’s construct. He wondered just how many people saw it before it found him; he had, after all, traveled halfway across the small port city.

A particular dish caught his eye during the tango with the vicious dragon. A small pile of blackberries lay rotting in the summer heat. Blackberry brambles, the leviathan of the flora world, were more than a nuisance, they could be downright dangerous if not respected and kept in check. And with a little arcane coaxing they could be deadly.

While the beast was looking for his footing, Kiev grabbed the berries sending flies and roaches scurrying and shoved them in his mouth, needing to give of himself for the spell he had in mind. He fought back the urge to gag on the fermenting mold. The dragon was up stalking toward the battle magus with a new found respect. Kiev put his back to the door and held his hand out for Rynn and ushered her behind him.

***

Sven barreled into the Old Guard House, through the halls he stomped with haste toward Kalen Darklen’s office. A few neophyte guards followed in his wake, sensing action. They were dying for something a little more exciting than barroom brawls.

The veteran stormed into his superior’s office without so much as a knock, interrupting his current meeting with Dargon’s preeminent mage, Dyann Taishent and Vable, the newly appointed head of the Esoterics. The fury on Lt. Darklen’s face was plain to see.

“Sergeant, you better explain yourself.” Darklen was not amused.

“Sorry sir, but I have no time for formalities. The news is urgent.”

“Then speak it!”

“Kiev is back. I’ve seen him. I knew you would want to know.”

Kalen looked to Dyann who nodded. “That would coincide with what I’ve told you. If anyone could ring the arcane bell like that, he could.”

Kalen turned the news over in his head, the motivation of his rage shifting from Sven to Kiev.

“Where is he?”

“I saw him at the Serpent and I have some shadow boys tailing him for me.”

“Grab everyone not applied to pressing matters and suit up. We leave now.”

“Might I suggest you take the Esoterics along with you. Some arcane support against Kiev may prove beneficial.” Dyann was now on his feet nex to Vable.

Kalen agreed, “Vable, get your men.”

The young mage nodded sternly and bolted out the door as Sven started barking orders at everyone in earshot. Kalen stood to follow but was stopped by Dyann.

“There is a higher path here, Kalen,” he offered.

“Higher path? What would that be?”

“We don’t have the luxury of living in a world made simply of black and white, a myriad of solutions are present at any given time.”

“I have no use for your philosophical gong.” He headed out the door.

“Yes, you do, if for no other reason than as a contrast to your anger, something to temper the fires within you. I make no suggestions of forgiveness, or mercy — just that you remove the emotion from the situation and approach it from a rational perspective.”

Kalen took a moment to reflect on it then nodded. “I have to go.”

***

The dragon leapt. Kiev spit. As the berry mash left his mouth, the numerous tiny seeds sprouted instantly, exploding into thorny vines. Branches took root in the floor and walls, reaching out to the dragon. The battle magus dove back, taking the orphan with him to the street, the doorway and house filling with ropes of brambles thicker than his leg. They twisted and wrapped around the dragon tightly, squeezing off the circulation to various parts of its body. Its struggle for freedom ended with a loud, sickening pop as the beast’s neck broke. It hung in the doorway a few moments before it returned to the ash and bile it was created from.

Kiev was quick to his feet. He swept the girl into his arms and bolted through the crowd that had followed the curious beast. Certain the dragon was the wizard’s way of flushing him to the open, he left the apartment behind them. There was also the very new problem that he had announced to Dargon that he was back in town and was certain the guard would be out looking for him. He ran a few blocks before setting the girl on her feet.

“You need to go hide. Someplace safe.”

“What about my dad?”

“I can’t deal with that right now.”

“No! You’re supposed to punish him for what he did. You can’t leave yet,” she whined.

“I have to go. It’s not safe to be around me, you’re going to get hurt. Now, go hide.”

“NO!” She started to punch and kick at him. “You said. Nehru gave you to me, you’re mine. You have to punish my dad. You have to.”

“Stop it!” He grabbed her roughly by the shoulders. “Stop it! Listen, life is hard. It’s a constant uphill battle that is stacked against you at every turn. Your mother died, and although sad, it was exactly the end she had coming. You are on your own and nothing in the world will ever change that. Do you understand? Nothing.

“It’s going to rise up. The whole of creation is going to rise up against you and try to destroy you and the only thing that’s going to stop it is you. You start falling apart now and they’re going to win. The people, your dad, the monarchy. Do you want that? Do you want them to get you?”

Her eyes were wide and she was scared. Of course she didn’t want that. She shook her head emphatically.

“Then you hide. Hide until you are ready to fight. Then keep hiding until you are strong enough to fight. At that moment, after you are ready and after you are strong enough, stop hiding. Come out and face the world and with all the fury of hell you state with a clear voice ‘I will not go quietly. I will not yield to your threats, your money, your power, your authority or your strength.’ You tell them all that you are here to stay and anyone foolish enough to cross you will be hewn down like wheat before the scythe. There will be a time to fight; there will be a time to destroy your father at the hands of true justice, but now is not that time. Get it? Now is the time to hide.”

She nodded.

“Good. Hide.” She ran off down the streets, blending in within the throngs of people at the market.

Then Mon-Hyden said hello with a lightning bolt. The sigils inscribed into Kiev’s pauldron were created to repel magic, like same charged magnets being thrown against each other. The bolt missed, but just by inches, the force absorbed by the pauldron slightly nudged Kiev to the side.

“Kiev,” Mon-Hyden purred. The tip of the iron rod he was holding was glowing red from the expelled bolt. “Still in one piece?”

Kiev replied with an obscene gesture and hefted his maces.

“Vulgarity is the final refuge of a feeble mind,” he retorted.

Kiev slipped a finger behind his belt to find the thin sliver of hematite sewn into the leather. Searching mentally for the wave-like rhythm inherent in the stone, he synced his own rhythm to it. Metallic grey washed over his skin, his flesh rapidly took on the properties of the stone finally becoming a fluid pillar of hematite.

“It doesn’t have to be like this, Kiev. Just give up your toys and submit. Stop being an outlaw, find a young woman, settle down as a nice fisherman, or farmer. I hear that a rancher leads a pretty quiet life. Try that.”

“Your order started this war. We were content to just let you be until you withered bastards picked a fight.”

“You half-breeds have no claim to that magic.”

“I had you on that mountain. I’d say that’s claim enough.” Kiev noted the blood-soaked sleeve hanging loosely at the wizard’s side.

“You caught me off guard. Won’t happen again.”

“Pretty weak sending me back to Dargon, you must have been desperate. What do you think you’ll accomplish by having our fight here?”

“Fight? Nonsense. I sent you here to be arrested. The dragon, the lightning, I’m telling the town guard that Kiev the outlaw battle magus is back in town. They should be ravenous to get their hands on you from the last time you were here. Who did you kill? The Duke’s cousin, wasn’t it?” The wizard smirked trying to goad Kiev with what he thought was a sensitive memory.

Kiev let it slide. “Commoners? You’re going to let commoners take down a battle magus? Wait until word gets out about this. Mighty Mon-Hyden couldn’t handle a mere battle magus. Okay.” He let the maces hang by their leather straps from his wrists. “I can live with that. I’m sure all the little Mons waiting back home can live with it too.” A smile spread across his face.

The wizard thought on that a moment. At first blush his plan seemed sound, until Kiev turned it back on him like he did. He had been dismantling the various battle magus sects for decades and now, with one of the last battle magi in his grasp, was he really willing to let a contingent of local guard do it for him? Was he really that tired and afraid? He furrowed his brow with rage and shot off another bolt from the rod.

Kiev rolled to the side and charged the wizard. Predictably the wizard tossed a few more at the nimble battle magus, his imbued pauldron making it hard to connect a hit as he closed the gap between them. Kiev called down to the packed earth seeking aid. A pillar sprung up at his feet launching him through the air, maces cocked back behind his head ready for a strike.

He bounced off Mon-Hyden’s diamond ward, flying wide to the side like a rag doll. Stunned and embarrassed, he applied his mind to working through the puzzle again.

How was he to get through the shield? Being a battle magus he knew what types of elements the wizard would be using to create his wards, but how to get past them?

His brief moment of contemplation was exhausted. He needed to move. The wizard, his rod having run out, changed his own tactics and fired a barrage of molten projectiles at Kiev. A few of the viscous missiles stuck, binding with the hematite. The battle magus felt each hit with agonizing clarity.

Kiev smacked the earth with a mace to loosen some dirt. He palmed it, spoke an arcane word and threw it at the wizard. A wall of mud fell on the old man, clinging briefly to the diamond sphere, giving the battle magus a moment to run.

Kiev made it to the corner of the alley when he saw the city guard coming in force. An arrow zipped by his ear, nearly taking it from his head. They all remembered Kiev. The mage made eye contact with the lead guard recognizing him as Lt. Kalen Darklen. A clear hatred shrouded the lieutenant’s eyes.

Giving his strength to the spell, he slammed both maces into the ground so hard he pulled a muscle in his healing shoulder. A thick wall of earth rose up, sealing off the entrance.

He took cover behind some trash barrels and caught his breath, the traits of the hematite started to recede taking away the magma’s ability to bind. A small explosion sounded as the wizard cleared his defenses of the mud to reveal the newest wall in the alley.

“Like a wall is going to stop me,” the wizard scoffed under his breath. “I’ll find you, battle magus.”

Kiev feared he was dead until that moment. The wizard thought he was trying to block him in, not the guard out. Now, if only he had a plan to exploit that.

He peered around the edge of the barrels, taking a good look at the thinking wizard. He was taking this moment to replenish his own defenses. For all his bluster Kiev knew the wizard feared him. That was leverage enough. There was something about the way the wizard looked that bothered him, something was out of place or odd. He peered closer.

His hair! A wind came over the wall and bristled through the old man’s hair.

So, air can pass through, even when physical attacks can’t. There was one part of the puzzle solved. He sat back trying to curb his excitement and think. The best weapon in his arsenal was his education: think.

In the crack at the base of the wall a tiny sapling of some type of plant was growing. There was a constant water supply moving slowly past it and a good long day’s worth of sun bore down on this spot, so in no amount of time this would become a raging weed. He took a closer look at it, trying to identify it.

Then it came to him, the plant was a popular narcotic, and combined with what he already knew a wicked idea formed in his mind. The battle magus took a small knife from his belt and sliced open a small wound on his thumb. Holding it over the plant he aimed a few drops on the leaves, and then he took a calming breath and reached out to the plant. He kept a clear vision of his goal, a wide-open field of the plant, he spoke to the plant’s inner designs to spread out and populate. And populate it did.

The wizard, who was chanting away his own spell, looked down and saw the hard packed earth give way to rapid-growth foliage. A new green carpet sprang forth and started to grow, reaching about four feet tall, swaying lightly in the wind.

The wizard started to laugh, and only laughed harder when Kiev stepped out from the barrels. Mon-Hyden spoke a brief arcane curse and laughed more when a wave of death spread through the small garden, turning the plants to dried husks.

“What? You can’t even do that right. Your little weeds all died. What can you expect to do now?” He released another wave of molten missiles at Kiev, most of which was repelled by the pauldron and struck the harvest of hemp. Kiev started a specifically designed dance that encompassed his maces to draw a three dimensional sigil that represented wind. The alley harvest quickly caught on fire releasing toxic smoke. The new wind fanned the flames and swirled into a cone around the wizard.

The wizard laughed it off, finding the whole attack futile and amusing. Then, he just started to laugh while his mind went numb. Thick grey smoke billowed around the wizard, boxed in by the swirling vortex, and choking out clean air leaving only the noxious fumes to be inhaled. Coughing and laughter spun out of control. The wizard lost his concentration and the wards failed. A plant had been dislodged in the maelstrom and it was circling around in the smoke, its trajectory aimed to smack the mad man in the face. The wizard didn’t flinch when the missile connected, sending a cloud of dirt into the gale.

Seeing that the dome was down, Kiev seized the moment and charged, closing the distance quickly. The first mace caught the wizard in the groin the second shattered the back of his head. Leaving the corpse in the alley, he quickly scaled the other wall and disappeared into the city as his wall blocking the alley crumbled. He had a little girl he needed to find.

***

The contingent marched in tight formation toward the inn. Sven noticed one of the boys jumping excitedly trying for Sven’s attention.

“This way! We found him!”

Lt. Darklen shifted the direction of his men to follow the boy. A few blocks later they came across the apartment and the excited crowd. It was overgrown by brambles with a patch covered in an ashy film near the center.

“It was huge,” the boy explained to Sven, stretching his arms out wide. A couple other boys hungry for attention spread their arms next to the first forming a chain of spread-eagle children. Other citizens too were talking heatedly about the dragon.

Kalen massaged the frustration from his temple. “What are you talking about?”

“The dragon! There was a dragon!” the smallest boy exclaimed.

“Dragons are a myth,” Sven corrected.

“It’s what I saw,” the boy emphatically defended his experience.

“I tire of your nonsense, where has he gone?” Kalen asked.

“The mage killed it. It went,” he mashed his hands together and made his best vocal impression of what a squished dragon sounded like.

“The mage, where did the mage go,” Kalen corrected.

Just then an explosion sounded off a few blocks over, answering Kalen’s question.

“Double time!” Sven shouted, trying to keep pace with his speeding Lieutenant.

“What about our Royal?” the shadow boy called after Sven.

Kalen and his contingent were met by a stampede of people running for their lives. The panic was electric, carried on their screams and faces as they ran for cover after the initial lightning struck. The subsequent explosions only fueled their fear and speed. The guard arrived in time to see a wave of mud wash down and a metallic figure rushing toward them. A crossbow bolt sounded off just behind Sven and that’s when Kiev sealed the entrance.

“What mud rat fired their weapon?” Those closest to the culprit scooted away making him stand out. Seeing the guilt in the man’s eyes, Sven took the crossbow and backhanded him. “We want a live criminal. And how many times I got to tell you not to discharge your weapon with a man in front of you? A hell of a lot of good it would have been shooting me instead.”

“Sergeant! I need through this wall.”

“Sir!” he obeyed. “Corporal, take your men around the other side of this alley. If memory serves it’s blocked off the other side with a trinket shop of some sort.”

“Sir!” he and nine others took off down the street in a full sprint.

“Where are the Esoterics!” Sven barked again.

Vable ran up to Sven with Arvyn and Tanbry in tow, the small group of enchanted practitioners employed by the city guard.

“Here, sir,” Vable shouted back.

“I need that wall down a bell ago, you hear me?”

“Yes sir.” The Esoterics rushed toward the wall.

Arvyn pulled a leather ball from his belt mid stride. “I’ve got this,” he said with a wicked smile on his face. Vable grabbed his arm and took the ball away.

“Idiot. You don’t fight magic with alchemy. Like cures like. Tanbry.”

“I can get it,” Tanbry said, taking the lead.

Kalen was at the wall, hearing maniacal laughter on the other side.

“The man mocks me, Sergeant. I need this wall down, now!”

“With a vengeance, My Lord. Mages, today!”

Tanbry walked up next to Kalen and placed her hand on the wall.

“Excuse me, Lieutenant. This is going to be messy, you may want to –”

Kalen leveled a glare. The mage went to her chanting. The wall crumbled over the two unlucky to be standing too close just in time to see Kiev slip over the far wall.

“Gods be damned!” Kalen rushed through the ash-laden alley and up the handholds Kiev created to scale the wall. Near the top they started to dissipate, dropping the angry lieutenant in a pile of more colorful curses. He stood and kicked up the ash in frustration.

The corporal Sven sent around the back was perched atop the wall looking down at his commanding officer. “Lieutenant, do you have him?”

Kalen spread his arms wide, incredulous. “Does it look like we have him, corporal? Don’t even think about telling me you didn’t see him pass you.”

The guard opened his mouth to speak, embarrassed that he had not seen the suspect.

“He’s an armored mage, lugging around two large maces of death. A big man about six feet tall, brown hair, muscle-bound and tan, sporting a bare chest under his pauldron.” He shook his head. “No? Nobody matching that description?”

The guard didn’t speak; no words existed that wouldn’t pull an angered response from the heated officer.

“Find him! Someone must have seen something. He’s sticking out like a dragon sipping tea. Now!” The guard scrambled back down to his company, barking the same anger at his men and loitering civilians. Kalen marched through the ash to Sven who was giving orders to care for the corpse.

“Sir?” Sven asked as he passed.

“Handle this, find out what happened and give me the report. This is your only priority.”

“Sir. What are you going to do?”

Kalen didn’t reply.

***

Kiev walked the docks searching for the telltale signs leading to the shadow boys. A new king every one to two years, sometimes months, meant that the quaint ‘palace’ would be a new location with every new reign. But the docks contained easy marks with a high turnover rate. Any king worth his wiles would see that. In addition to the potential, Rynn’s father was down here and there was some unfinished business with him.

Kiev saw some random marks etched in coal on the edge of a warehouse. He didn’t know enough to catch their meaning, but knew it to be a code used by the shadow boys. Walking down the dock, it was like coming home again.

A group of older teens stopped him before he got too close.

“Whatever you’re looking for ain’t here,” the foremost boy said.

“I require an audience with your king.” The statement, in all its cliched glory, was important. No matter what the cost to his ego, decorum was vital. “My name is Kiev, battle magus from Tholer’Ram.” It was an embellishment to be sure, but the more distant and mysterious the locale, the more likely awe factor.

“Battle magus?” He tried and failed to mask how impressed he was. Keeping up with the facade, “Let me see if he’s willing to meet with you. Wait here.”

The other boys closed ranks and bore intimidating stares down on the battle magus. Jaxon, a tall, blond, lanky teen, let his curiosity get the better of him.

“Battle magus, huh? What’s the difference?” he asked

“The difference?”

“Yeah.”

Kiev sighed, he had been asked this many times. “A lot of arcane mages, wizards, and the like … most of them, utilize their powers in healing or defensive roles. Some wizards, for example, create a fine balance between offensive and defensive, but are generally support or take up research to occupy their time. A battle magus combines their magical talent with martial discipline to be offensive fighters rather than defensive pacifists.”

Jaxon, along with the other boys, wore a quizzical expression. “What does that mean?”

“It means I bust a lot of heads with these,” he gestured to the maces at his thighs. That they understood. The herald returned then and motioned to the other boys to escort the battle magus in. Jaxon lead the way while the others flanked Kiev. The warehouse had been damaged in the fairly recent invasion, but was intact enough to hold court for the illustrious Shadow King.

The palace was full of children without regard to race, gender or age. All unified under the flag of adversity, they had filled the gaps in their social and familial lives with each other, in a sense creating their own families within a nation.

“What do you want?” The king, a dark skinned boy no more than thirteen sat in a large velvet chair that looked to have been in a captain’s chambers aboard a military vessel. At his feet sat a few smaller children, one of which had a chain wrapped around his neck.

“I come seeking the help of the shadow boys, your grace,” Kiev spoke reverently.

“So. You’re an adult go fix it yourself.”

Wanting to bury a mace in the king’s smug face, he reminded himself that this was his last and only resort.

“Your grace, I didn’t come here as an adult. I came here as a shadow boy, seeking the help of his king.”

Whispers erupted through the palace. Russo laughed.

“You what? You’re not a shadow boy.”

“Not for a long time, my king. A very long time. When I was a shadow boy, we used this place as our palace once. Only back then, it was a fishmonger’s warehouse. In a back closet on the floor boards the kings would carve their name or leave their mark as a record of our reign.”

“We still do that,” Russo said. “But not here. What’s your point?”

“You’ll find a carving of three fangs on the floor in that back room. They are mine.” A few boys standing near the doorway rushed in to see only to return a few moments later, excited. They nodded at their king and the muttering crowd intensified.

“Shut it! This doesn’t mean anything to me. So what?”

Kiev could tell the king felt intimidated, that his throne was under attack. It was unheard of for past kings coming to reclaim the throne; the shadow boys wouldn’t allow that. But it didn’t lessen the king’s fear.

Kiev fell to his knees and dropped his maces before him in supplication. “Your grace, I am not here to reclaim a throne. On the contrary, I am here to swear my fealty to the Shadow King and the only kingdom I have ever been loyal to. The only family I have ever known. I have no place here in spite of my commitment and come to you now in my moment of need. Please, help me. From one king to another, from one shadow boy to an old shadow boy I need the only people I can trust.” He choked on every word like putrid bile rising in his throat.

Russo mulled over it for a moment then asked, “What’s in it for me?”

“What do you need?” Kiev smiled back.

***

Sven shook his head, still not convinced. “The shadow boys?”

“Why would I make this up?” Kalen asked.

“Sir …” Sven gave up. “I’ll look for their latest water hole.” He turned on his heel and marched away. The Esoterics had finished cleaning up Kiev’s mess in the residential quarter and revealed Allandra’s corpse. From what the guards could determine from the spectators, she was first in the string of bodies Kiev left behind with his reckless use of magic.

The siblings were in a lively conversation with Dyann about the applications Kiev had plied his skill. Notes were being passed around and theories shouted at one another.

“How is it possible he can do this?” Kalen asked Vable.

“I don’t know. To be fair, we are just now starting to formally document uses and practices of magic. It’s a little difficult to pin down and define a how, exactly.”

Kalen shook his head, “Why?”

“It’s like … fish.”

“Fish?”

“Yeah. Um, see. Magic is like fish. It’s not enough to define something as a fish. Fish is a broad ambiguous term applied to a large diverse family of creatures. Salt water fish and fresh water fish, then down to more specifics like salmon, pike, tuna, trout, bass and so on.”

“And even then we’re just getting started,” Dyann picked up. “From there you get into finer definitions of how to prepare the fish. An array of different meals exist that depend on the many types of fish, the tastes of the locals and the native herbs and spices available to be cooked with it, and who the cook was.”

“Magic is like that,” Vable continued. “Magic is an array of breeds, personalities and abilities. Tanbry’s talents could be taught to anyone with the ability and a general string of theory can be applied, but it won’t be the sole theory that is applied everywhere. And even when different people apply the same theory, slight variations will result depending upon the practitioner. Straight?”

“Sure.” Kalen had a headache. “Let’s move on. What have we found?”

“Sven said they were able to trace, through the spectators’ accounts, the dragon –”

“It wasn’t a dragon,” Arvyn argued. Based on the stories people were telling them and the greasy film, Arvyn postulated that it was a construct of some type. Vable said that if it looked like a dragon, walked like a dragon and destroyed with wanton abandon like a dragon; it was a dragon. Besides, it was the word the popular consensus used in describing the creature, so to make things simpler to communicate he stuck with the word dragon. The argument seemed to continue.

“The *dragon*,” Vable started again, “and this mage originated from the same location.”

“What does that mean? Did this dr–” Kalen caught the exasperated look from Arvyn, “whatever, come with Kiev?”

“I wouldn’t make that assumption,” Tanbry offered. “The brambles seemed a desperate attempt to kill it. One theory is that he created it and lost control over it, but given what we found on the body in the last alley, I’d say that this dragon, or creature, was sent after Kiev.”

Kalen thought about that for a moment. “What about this woman that was in there?”

“She was just in the way when the brambles hit,” Vable offered. “We need some more information so we can put all of this into context. This is really just our best guess. We can’t say for sure what happened or why it happened.”

“For a guy who knows a lot, you sure as hell donĂ­t know much.”

“Kalen,” Dyann scolded.

“I need answers. He’s running loose out there and he’s already done more damage in one day than he did the one sennight he was here last. The mage has disappeared like a piss in the river leaving me two dead bodies for my trouble. I need answers and all I’m getting are theories and fish recipes.”

“There may be a way to find him,” Tanbry offered.

“Is that even possible?”

“Oh yes. Uh, I would need to get some more information on him, do some research into the matter.” Tanbry got animated. “If I recall correctly, there was a mage that had used an oak box and an onyx pebble to create a device that was magically designed to locate a predetermined item or person.”

“Would you be able to create this box?”

“Yeah. I’m sure we can do it. We can have something like that built and running in about a sennight.”

“A sennight?”

“Give or take a few days.” Tanbry nodded.

Kalen turned to Dyann, frustration just under the surface of his patience. “A sennight,” he whispered to him.

Sensing his lack of patience, Vable motioned for the others to gather their things.

“Lieutenant, I know there is a lot of skepticism being dumped on you about us and I appreciate the limb you have climbed out on for us — for Dargon.” Vable took a step toward Kalen. “Don’t give up on us yet.”

Kalen didn’t speak, just stared on.

“We’ll go. I’ll have our findings to you after mid-day tomorrow, lieutenant.”

The lieutenant turned back to the doorway and into his own head searching for his inner peace. Why was Kiev back? Kalen knew he wasn’t stupid, so was it arrogance that motivated him?

“You’re wasting your time here,” Dyann said.

“Clearly. Are you here to state the obvious or help? Some more fish stories would be great.” Kalen went inside the apartment. A large remaining branch sat precariously on the counter. Careful to avoid the thorns he picked it up and hefted it, feeling its weight. He wouldn’t have believed it if it hadn’t been for his own eyes. Kiev had been resourceful in the past and now he was formidable.

“Why are you here? You know where he is, go get him.” Dyann asked.

“I don’t know where he is, why else would I be looking?”

“You can stand there lying to yourself, but nothing will be resolved and more people will die until you stop avoiding this.”

Kalen turned on him. “You think I don’t know? I’m trying, here.”

“You’re stalling,” the mage scolded him. “Have confidence in your knowledge and act. Who else will suffer for your fear?”

Kalen stood in the dark with a briar in his hand wracking his brain for the answer he was certain lay elsewhere. The fog bell rang out at the docks.

***

Rand put the final coil of rope on the pile, thirsty as a fish in the desert. He called up the dock to the bosun.

“It’s done. I’m out of here.” The bosun waved him away, glad to be rid of him. He walked down the dock, eager for the pub before heading home to that drag of a wife.

“Rand?” a man asked him through the fog.

“Who’s asking?” Rand was no small man; he towered above Kiev as he did most everyone else.

“Nehru,” Kiev stated. In a flash he was through the fog and on Rand. The sailor was familiar with brawls, but this was not a drunken sailor he was fighting.

This was a battle magus.

In tune with the hematite sliver Kiev accepted a fist to his face and delivered an extended knuckle jab to Rand’s ribs while the sailor shouted in pain from his broken wrist. After bringing an elbow to shatter his nose Kiev crushed the back of his exposed knee when the large man turned his back to him, writhing in pain. Kiev had him by the hair in one hand and a mace raised high in the other.

“Do you mean to kill everyone?” Kalen asked from behind, stopping Kiev mid-swing.

“I figured on starting with this waste of flesh and taking the party southward.” He lowered the mace slowly.

Rand made to get up, thinking that he was in the clear. Kiev jerked his head back.

“Where the hell you going? We aren’t done,” Kiev scolded.

“That’s enough, Kiev.”

Kiev brought Kalen just within his periphery over his shoulder and the hematite tune receded from his features.

“Did you bring your little toy soldiers with you?” He looked past the lieutenant seeing some shadows shift within shadows ever so faintly.

“They’re staying back.”

“Like they did at the alley? What did you do, give a kill order? I didn’t think you were that upset.”

“Why are you back?”

“How did you find me?”

“Luck. I figured you might come down here to reminisce.”

“Hardly,” Kiev lied.

“Why are you back?” Kalen asked again.

“No. You don’t get to ask. You don’t get to make things all tidy inside your head. The world is chaos sometimes, Kalen. You have to accept that.”

“You’re here less than a day and already have dropped two bodies at my door. Give me something.”

Kiev laughed, realizing that he would be blamed for Allandra’s death and the irony of having Rand walk away because of it.

“It looks like I was wrong; you do get to have it all fit together in your quaint universe. Good for you. You better just have your little toys kill me now so it can all stay that way.”

“Kiev –”

“I went to the old palace today. Those Beinison invaders did a number on the docks, yeah? I almost didn’t recognize the place.” His eyes drifted off as he spoke. “I felt at peace for the first time today when I walked down that dock, met by the older shadow boys, it was like I had never left. You know?”

Kalen nodded, “Yeah. I know.”

“They’re still there. The king’s marks. After all this time and the invaders my fangs are still there. That means yours would be too.”

“That was a lifetime ago.”

“Doesn’t matter. It does not matter. Our past stands as a monument to the men we are today, continually added to by our present deeds. You can’t deny who you were without denying who you are.”

“I know who I am, I don’t deny that.”

“What is that? What are you, Kalen? A royal puppet? A slave to the strictures of a broken system, or my cousin?”

“Don’t do this.”

“Tell me!”

“I’m a man with a duty to his king and his city who executes that duty with honor and justice! Something you know nothing about.”

“Puppet!” Kiev shouted back. “Here you are choosing this piece of trash over me. I should have expected that.”

“You’ve killed two people, Kiev. Whom am I supposed to choose?”

“You’re right. It’s not like he beat his wife to an inch of her life then left her for dead. I did that,” Kiev mumbled.

“What did you say?”

“Nothing.”

“Whatever motivates you to kill this man, it isn’t worth it.”

“It’s too late for that, cousin.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“I’m afraid that it is.” Kiev let Rand fall to the dock, lifeless.

“No!” Kalen drew his sword and charged Kiev, who was more than ready to defend himself. Kalen sliced and stabbed in at the battle magus only to be blocked. Kiev refused to take any shots, merely keeping on the defensive as Kalen steamed on with his rage.

The magus baited him to the end of the dock with every swing, trying to fan his frustration.

“Come one, Kalen. Do it. Wrap up your life and emotions into little monotonous packages and stow them away. Give your superiors the easy, neat answer they need to keep order. Do it.”

Sven and the rest of the guard pounded down the dock to assist their lieutenant.

Kalen lunged with his sword arm. The magus stepped forward and to the side and locked it under his own then pitched back into the black waters of the Valenfaer Ocean.

The contingent arrived at the edge of the dock just as the combatants hit the surface. The sergeant and two others stripped their armor off quickly then dove in after the lieutenant.

Kiev kicked away from his cousin, sinking further away. Trying to reach out to him, Kalen was accosted by powerful arms and hauled to the open air and on to the dock.

“Go after him,” he ordered.

“Lt. Darklen, we barely saved you. The extra weight he was carrying surely took him to the bottom.” Sven interjected. “We’ll scour the coastlines for him to be sure, but I’m certain the sea has taken him.”

Kalen nodded. “Leave me. Get it done.”

***

Jaxon and Rynn sat in the boat watching the docks intensely, being witnesses to Rand’s death and the drama that unfolded with the magus and the guard. A good half a bell had passed since the guard left their commanding officer on the deck, yet there was still no sign of Kiev.

“Seen enough?” Jaxon asked.

“Yes. I’m cold.”

Jaxon started a meandering direction toward the docks to ensure they wouldn’t be seen.

The water erupted on the port side, rocking the dingy violently. Rynn tried to muffle her scream. Jaxon grabbed her and buried her face in his chest.

“Is that necessary? You’re going to tell the whole of Cherisk we’re out here,” he scolded.

“Excuse me for living,” retorted Kiev, pulling himself into the boat. “I got a little anxious seeing my ride take off without me. Scoot over.” He sat in Jaxon’s seat and took over the oars. Rynn buried him in a bear hug.

“What now?” Jaxon asked.

“It’s up to you, but Rynn goes back to the palace.”

“Why? I want to come with you,” she whined.

“You can’t, Rynn. I need you to stay here. You have to go to Lt. Darklen and tell him what happened to your mother. It’s still not safe with me.”

She nodded.

They skimmed the water in silence back to the palace. They floated to a stop at the dock where a group of the Shadow King’s court waited. Jaxon climbed to the top then helped Rynn up to stand beside him. The group of shadow boys stood quietly watching the battle magus slip back into the darkness.

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