Disclaimer: I do not own the Magnificent Seven or Realms of Chaos. No profit was made. This bit of fiction was written purely for personal satisfaction.
Thanks: I would like to thank Deb and Kris for their beta work, Grey Bard for her input on Chapter One, and my husband, Chris for repeatedly asking, "So when are you going to write a fan fiction?"
Notes: This story is a fantasy set in Michael A. Stackpole's Realms of Chaos books, which includes magic and demons. It is technically a crossover, but the vast majority of the story focuses on the Seven, with Stackpole's characters playing only a support role.
Size: Approx. 400K
Chapter 1-6 | Chapter 7-11 | Chapter 12-14 | Chapter 15-17 | Chapter 18-22
Silence dominated the barren, red rock range at the edge of Chaos. The arid cliffs and valley decorated only by the occasional brown plateau. It refused to nurture even a blade of grass, and the creatures of foot and flight all seemed wise enough to avoid it. The rising dust at the north end of the valley, however, spoke of some fool's desperation.
Three riders were pushing their mounts hard, forcing the beasts well beyond the endurance of any normal horse. Fortunately for their riders, these creatures had long since been mutated beyond the capabilities of ordinary mounts. The black, in the lead, set a ground-eating pace with every strike of its hooves. Its master, a man clothed in black cloth and armor, spared a quick glance over his shoulder at his two companions. Both men were managing to keep up, if only barely. They were one-forth of the way through the valley with no sign of pursuit, which gave the riders some encouragement. No one suggested taking a break or even slowing. There had been an army on their heels when they had begun their race to the Ward Walls a couple of days ago. With their goal so close it would be too easy to relax and let down their guard, but they were still a mile from the Wall. The Storm demons were sure to make at least one more attempt to slay the three men.
More than fifteen years had passed since Chris entered Chaos for the first time. It had taken the arrogant young man only a few hours to learn one of the harsher realities of the realm. In Chaos, everything is your enemy. Even if you managed to escape the notice of the various demon tribes, you still had to fight animals of hoof, wing and wave. The rock beneath you and the air you breathed frequently turned antagonistic. Survival in Chaos required a constant vigilance that few were capable of.
A feral grin lit Chris's face when he saw the red-gold lightening of a Storm demon mage. While they were still out of its spell casting range, it was clear the demons were preparing for their final thrust. Outnumbered and exhausted, Chris and his companions were at a definite disadvantage. Still, if he was going to end up demon stew, Chris vowed to take a large chunk of Chaos down with him.
Seeing Chris's wicked smile left no doubt in Buck's mind that the worst was yet to come. Usually, Buck would be the first to step up for a fight, no matter what the odds. Hell, as far as Buck was concerned, stomping on demons was about as much fun as a body could have without silk sheets and a willing partner, but today was about reconnaissance.
There had been twelve in Chris's party when his scouts spotted the tracks of some Tsvortu, better known as Storm demons and Homboli or Hob demons, apparently traveling together. The scouts were at a loss to explain this, since it was well known that demon tribes hated each other as much if not more than they hated Imperials. Yet neither tribe was likely to take prisoners or slaves. In a realm of continuous warfare, the idea of demon tribes traveling together was almost incomprehensible, and it was far too extraordinary for Chris to ignore. So they followed the tracks, finding evidence of more and more demons joining the first. All of them were moving towards the Ward Wall.
The Ward Wall was a magical boundary between Chaos and the Empire. It had been created hundreds of years ago and was maintained, even today, by Imperial mages. Only those born in the Empire could safely pass through, which made it a strange goal for Chaos demons.
Few would do more than snicker at Hob demon stupidity, but Storms were smart enough to know that even touching the Ward Wall equaled death. The magics of the barrier would tear them apart from the inside out. So why would any demon choose the path of painful demise?
The further Chris's party investigated, the more numerous the questions became. Chris realized that eventually one demon tribe or another would come across the path of his people. Deciding that no more information could be safely gathered, he split the group in two and ordered Lydia to take half and head west, then south to the Ward Walls. Chris led the remaining riders southeast. Every rider agreed that the Empire needed to be warned about the demon army. Chris's six were within sight of the Ward Walls when a demon ambush killed three and drove Chris, Buck and Nathan deeper into Chaos. The alternate route that Buck found around the demons and back to the wall took more than a day, and it had left all three men teetering on the brink of exhaustion.
Once again they were within sight of the Ward Walls, and once again the demons were going to attack. Buck knew that detouring through Chaos again was impossible. Their only chance for survival lay in the speed of their mounts.
"No matter what happens don't stop!" shouted Chris. "At least one of us must warn the Empire." Drawing his sword and releasing a battle roar, Chris crouched low and kicked his horse's sides hoping this last sprint would be enough to carry him through the wall.
The third member of the party, Nathan, tried once again to focus all of his attention on the situation at hand. The grunts and screams of their now dead companions still echoed in his head. Two of the lost had been fairly new to Chaos travel, boasting perhaps a dozen Chaos campaigns between them. The remaining rider had no less than a decade of experience. What tore at Nathan the most was that their departed allies could have survived their initial wounds. If only he had had the chance to spell their injuries. A few minutes were all he'd needed. Indeed, if he were a better healer, it could have been done in a few seconds.
Storm demons, with their canine snouts, long shaggy hair and three glowing eyes, allowed no such mercy. The female warriors charged against them with wicked sabers, while the males stood back to provide the magic lightening attacks. As if that were not enough, several dozen Hobs jumped into the fray, swinging their clubs and wailing. There had been no time.
It was Bella, the veteran, who had leapt headfirst into the largest concentration of warriors after losing her steed. The suicidal move distracted most of the demons enough to buy Chris, Buck and Nathan an escape. Leaving three riders to the not so tender care of demons ate at Nathan's gut. He could still feel the resulting ebb of their life energies as first Bella and then Silva died. He hadn't felt Jon's passing, but he was still sure Jon was dead. Jon's wounds had been mortal and the Hobs were known to torture the dying.
Now the lightening of a Storm mage shook the ground from only twenty yards. Nathan's horned mount needed no urging from Nathan to increase its speed just a tiny bit more. Nathan resolutely pushed his dismal thoughts aside. They could not ease his guilt, nor bring his fallen friends back. Right now the only atonement he could make was to ensure their lives were not sacrificed vainly. Nathan would alert the Empire to the murderous demon army, and then try to find a way to bear his grief and guilt.
Storm warriors were cresting the ridge to the west. They had clearly cut cross-country while the riders circled around. The creatures leapt feet first down the valley face using gravity to speed their decent. It was a necessary tactic since Storms were often a bit slower than a man on foot, and no match for even a tired mount. Still, the Chaos Riders lead was small and a single misplaced hoof equaled disaster. The magical lightening hadn't hit them yet, but the ear aching thunder and ground tremors it created were more than enough to agitate the horses. Chris's Pony seemed the least affected. In fact, the black appeared more angered than spooked by the attempts to stop it. Nathan whispered promises of oats and apples on the other side of the Ward Wall to his mount, Unicorn. Buck, on the other hand, threaded his fingers through Saint's mane and tossed out derogatory comments about, "Ugly, hairy-nosed sissy boys who couldn't hit the broad side of a barn even if it had a lightening rod stuck in the middle of it."
The warrior females continued to close in. Clan markings were now visible and Larabee could recognize the symbols for at least three separate clans. Storm demon clans were based around the warriors. All of the warriors were sisters, mothers, daughters or cousins, and all of them were blood oathed to avenge a clan member's death. Males were rare and the only members capable of working magics. Thus, they were fiercely protected and engaged in battle only from a distance.
Knowing he could ask no more speed of his horse, Chris did his best to guide it towards the easiest terrain while staying out of the reach of Storm sabers. A numbing impact to his left shoulder blade told Chris that one of the mages had decided that lime-sized hail might succeed where lightening had not. Not that the lightening stopped. Nathan was fairly certain that they would all have some temporary hearing loss to deal with. Assuming they survived, of course.
The distance to the Ward Wall could now be measured in yards. The barrier seemed to curve up over the riders in a veil of shimmering opal flecked with dancing highlights of purple and red, blue, green and gold.
"Damned she-devils!" came from Buck. Chris forced himself not to turn around. He had to trust that Buck would make the last few feet through the Wall. A familiar warm tingle overtook his body as Chris finally passed out of Chaos. The blue skies, green grass and yellow sun were food for Chris's weary soul. He let Pony slow at his own pace before turning to check the others. Nathan was already at Buck's side; spelling closed a nasty slice in his leg. The occasional arrow sailed through the Wall, but its opal essence made the arrows all blind shots. They were far enough away not to be concerned. When Nathan signaled that the healing spell had taken hold, Chris turned his horse about and headed for the nearest town of Corners. This time at a slower pace, much to the relief of all.
Corners was a town that could barely carry the weight of its title. The land nearby had yet to recover from its centuries under Chaos. The first settlers to the area had brought a type of sturdy longhorn that adapted well despite the minimal vegetation. But the small numbers of farmers, who had moved into the area in the decades since, had managed to grow only the hardiest food and grain crops. The ranchers despised the farmer's fences and irrigation ditches that hemmed in the cattle and depleted their water supply. The ranchers took action by having their cattlemen rip down fences and dams. Outnumbered and isolated, the farmers could seldom stop them. Within the town itself, rowdy ranch hands often harassed citizens and destroyed property while issuing numerous challenges, especially after a visit to one of the town's four main bars. Only its fifth saloon, the Refuge, was safe. Chaos Riders had claimed it as a stopping point when traveling both to and from Chaos. Not even the wildest cattleman had the nerve to cross a Rider.
Chris pulled Pony to a stop in front of the constable's office. Swinging off his mount, he handed the reins to Buck.
"Meet you at the Refuge, Pard," Buck spoke with a nod and a grin. "I'm sure Inez has been pining away for her knight in shining armor."
"Is that supposed to be you?" asked Nathan. "'Cause I think I remember Inez's last word to you being NEVER."
"I'm wearing her down," Buck insisted. "It's only a matter of time." The rest of their discussion was lost in the street noise as they moved to the stables.
Chris shook his head at Buck's ascertains. He wondered idly if Buck's armor would have a wet coat of ale, complements of Inez, by the time he arrived. He rapped on the door a couple of times before he turned the knob to the Constable's combination office and jailhouse. Inside was a person unknown to Chris. The boy-man looked too young to be even seventeen, with dark brown hair that fell past his ears on the side and touched his collar in the back. The boy was bent over the desk, holding a needle and a thread, apparently trying to sew a new badge onto his sash. The top of the sash held the badge for Jask, the providence between the Great Forest and the mountains of Besdan. The next badge showed the image of a horseman leaping a fence, marking the boy as a third level horse trainer. It was an impressive achievement for such a young person. The third badge was a green bow and arrow, which labeled the boy as a journeyman archer. Chris couldn't see all of the newest badge, but a glimpse of gold thread brought him to the realization that this child before him was probably Constable Tynan's new deputy. Chris forced himself to swallow the disgust he felt for Tynan at conning an obviously inexperienced youth into taking on such a dangerous job. When Chris stepped in, the teenager rose to his full height, all of 5'7", and extended his hand asking, "How can I help you, Sir?"
"Where's Constable Tynan?" returned Chris, preferring to take his needs to the person in charge. The other shrugged.
"Don't know for sure. Last I heard he was riding as fast as he could for the Menal border. Got scared off by some drunk ranch hands." The boy puffed up importantly. "Warlord Travis picked me to be Tynan's replacement." Chris's eyes narrowed in assessment.
"More likely, Travis asked for volunteers and you were the only one foolish enough to step forward." The bright red that stole across the boy's face confirmed his guess. Kids were always so eager to grow up and become legends, most having no clue of the danger they were getting into. "Playing hero will only get you killed. You should go home to your family, Kid. You're not the type."
The boy's embarrassment quickly turned to anger. He stepped forward so that he was toe-to-toe with Larabee, something few dared to do. "You think you've got me all figured out?" demanded the boy. "The only family I had died with my mother. I may not be an experienced Chaos Rider like you, but I can ride and I can shoot. I'm not looking for glory, I just want to do the best job I can." He paused for a moment to take a breath. "Since you walked in the door I've been nothing but respectful, even though I don't know you from Fialchar. The least you could do is return the courtesy." As his speech wound down, the boy's face paled when he realized that yelling at the dark man in front of him was probably one of the dumbest things he had ever done. But his pride decided it was too late to back down.
Chris's granite face didn't so much as twitch during the boy's entire tirade. Yet his opalescent eyes seemed to bore into the boy's soul. He noted when the boy started to regret his outspokenness. He was, in fact, somewhat pleased when the boy stood his ground despite his obvious intimidation. And Chris knew he was intimidating. More than one demon had backed down after meeting the 'Larabee glare' he'd inherited from his father. Chris could count the number of Imperials who stood up to him on one hand. After several tense seconds he decided the boy had earned a reprieve.
"You got a name, Kid?" asked Chris.
"Um, my name's JD. That's short for Jon-Dun," the kid replied.
"You happen to know where Tynan left the communication crystals, JD?" asked Chris. The topic change caught JD off guard, but he recovered quickly.
"Well, yeah, I've got them right over here," JD motioned to a set of drawers along the wall. "They were all jumbled up so I tried to organize them a bit." Apparently JD had a gift for underestimation. The drawer had been divided into sections, each labeled with the name of a province. The crystals themselves were further identified with tags that named the city/town and official they could reach.
The last time Chris had demanded the use of the magic crystals from Tynan it had taken over 20 minutes, and much complaining, just to find the chest they had been buried in. It then took another hour of trial and error to figure out which crystal would reach the capital city. At the time Chris had made sure to memorize which crystal it was so he could avoid a repeat of the situation.
A quick glance around the room showed a clear absence of the dirt and clutter that usually proliferated around Tynan. The wall to the left was papered with the wanted posters of several murderers, a suspected Black Church member and two fugitives charged with badge fraud. An oak box hung on the wall to hold the posters of other, less dangerous, criminals. The wall on the right now held a variety of blades and bows all hung from new weapon racks. Chris again adjusted his judgment of JD. At least he wasn't afraid of elbow grease.
Selecting the amethyst crystal labeled 'Colonel Torrance', Chris paused and stared pointedly at JD.
"Oh, you probably want to make your report in private. I'll be just outside if you need any thing else." JD grabbed his sash and sewing materials and hurried out the door. Chris waited until the door closed and then activated the crystal with a triple tap. Having used the crystal before he was expecting the slight tingle as the crystal leeched the small amount of energy needed to work its magic. Chris's hand would ache for a few minutes, but it was better than riding for days to get their news to the capital. When the amethyst began to glow from within, Chris spoke.
"Chaos Rider Christopher reporting on scouting mission Storm Front."
"It is good to hear your voice, Chris. You were so delayed that we were prepared for the worst. Did any of the others make it back with you?" Torrance's voice held the tiredness of an Elf that had written too many letters to grieving families.
"Buck and Nathan, Sir. We lost Jon, Bella and Silva to one of the demon ambushes." Chris could almost hear Torrance's weary nod.
"I'll make sure that their families are notified."
"If you don't mind, Sir, I would prefer to write the letters to their families." It was a small act but one that Chris felt he owed his warriors. A dry chuckle echoed through the crystal.
"Lydia made the same request for her group. You'll be pleased to know that she and Annie made it through. Annie took a heavy dose of poison but the healer believes she'll eventually make a full recovery."
"Then you already have a report of the demon movements?" Chris needed to know they were taking this seriously. Seven Riders had died trying to get this information to the Empire.
"We have a report, but to be totally honest, many in my chain of command are having a hard time believing it. Lydia is an experienced Rider but most of that experience was with Shadow and Mist demons. There are questions as to whether she could have misinterpreted what she saw, especially since she's unfamiliar with these demon tribes."
Chris nodded. He didn't like his people's statements being questioned, but what they were reporting was rather fantastical. "Well, Sir, we were scouting out the borders to the newly claimed Storm demon territory, as ordered. We discovered the tracks of Hob and Storm demons. Their tracks indicated that they were traveling together, and there was no sign of fighting or even duress. The further we scouted the more tracks we encountered. When we reached the limit of our intelligence gathering capabilities, I split the group and ordered everyone back to the Empire. On our return trip we encountered two ambushes, one of which involved Storm and Hob demons attacking in concert. The Storm bitches cut off our exit while the Hobs engaged us directly and the Storm mages pounded us with lightening and hail from afar. Bella's suicide attack and Jon's considerable magic ability were the only reasons any of us made it out alive." Chris hesitated over his last bit of information. "While circling away from a demon patrol we spotted Flame demon markings. But there was no way to tell if they were also allied to the Storms or merely watching them as we were."
"May I ask who was involved in the other ambush?" The voice that spoke was no longer Torrance's. It was male and carried the tone of command that, for some reason, whispered to Chris's memories, but despite that sounded quite young.
"Who is this?" demanded Chris.
"My apologies. I'm Lachlan. When Lydia's report first reached the capital it caused quite a stir. But some of us were willing to take it at face value. My cousin and I already have our Valiant Lancers en route and should reach Corners by daybreak."
Chris was momentarily surprised to hear the name Valiant Lancers used so casually. He'd still been new to the horrors of Chaos when the entire legion had been wiped out by Shadow demons. In the nearly two decades since, they had become more legend than fact. Now the sons of two of the Empire's most revered Chaos Riders had, with the Emperor's encouragement, reformed the Lancers. Still, legend or not, practical matters had to be considered. "The second ambush involved only Storm demons." Chris answered Lachlan's earlier question, and then asked one of his own. "How strong of a force are your Lancers?"
"We have fifty Chaos Riders with us right now including a dozen magic users. And we expect at least a couple more when Lydia joins us near Kasha. I realize that it's not much against a combined demon army, but I'm sure your support of Lydia's earlier report as well as your new information will be enough to get the army moving. Our goal will be to find out why they are massing so close to the Ward Wall, and if necessary delay them until the Imperial army arrives. Colonel Torrance was fairly confident in your escape, so I had a mage friend link our crystals to ensure that I'd get all the new information that he did. In fact, I was hoping that you would keep your crystal with you until we arrive. Something tells me that we are only seeing a corner of the portrait and I'd like to keep a lane of communication available. Do you think your people will be ready to ride after only a night's rest?"
"We'll be ready," Chris assured. "Refuge is at the north side of town. That's were you'll find us."
"Until morning then," Lachlan said and the connection broke.
Chris released a deep breath. Then fingered the crystal for a few seconds before tucking it into a vest pocket. As he walked out of the constable's office he saw JD leaning against one of the posts, proudly wearing his sash with its new badge. The deep blue imperial star was flanked with a sword and bow to its sides and a chain of manacles below. A thick gold stitching that bordered the badge made his claim of Constable all very proper, even if the badge did seem out of place on one so young. "I'm keeping the crystal with me until reinforcements arrive in the morning," Chris announced.
"Okay, just let me know if you need any help on your mission," JD insisted eagerly.
Chris didn't bother to reply. He just nodded once and turned towards the Refuge. Whiskey, that's what he needed, a strong bottle of whiskey.
The saloon known as Refuge was housed in a nondescript, somewhat run down building. The walls and roof were sturdy enough, but there was an utter lack of paint or decoration. The hinges on all of the shutters and doors wailed piteously with every gust of wind. The smoked windows gave only the barest hint of a flickering glow from within. The sign above the door bore the saloon's name in purple, accompanied by an overflowing mug of ale stamped in the middle with an oval eye of Chaos fire. Just outside the door, sitting on a bench next to a checkerboard, was a shriveled, white haired old man who tended to jerk or twitch at every sudden noise. Most might have taken him to be both toothless and harmless. But rumor claimed that the last cowhand to harass the old geezer had been left crying for his Mama after soiling his own pants. Now, few would even walk by on the same side of the street as Whitey.
Chris paused beside Whitey's game. He contemplated the board for a few seconds before he moved one of the red pieces, jumping two of the black in the process.
"Not bad," cackled Whitey, his wrinkles doubling as he grinned. "Of course, if you'd moved that other piece you could have jumped three of mine."
"And then you would have jumped two of mine for your turn," Chris replied.
"I must be getting predictable in my old age," Whitey harrumphed. "Still, you never know. One of those other three might have been a Storm demon War Queen. Then it would have been worth it."
"Could have and might have are statements I prefer to avoid when engaging in battle," said Chris.
Whitey let loose a bark of laughter. Then turned back to his game, moving another piece. "Rumor has it that the Storm demons are up to all sorts of mischief now that the Shadows can't stand in their way," Whitey's comment was half gossip, half question.
"They've mounted a substantial army," Chris confirmed. "The Lancers will be coming through in the morning to better assess the threat." He knew the old coot wanted more information, but Chris wasn't a conversationalist under the best of circumstances. And, he couldn't see any way to mention a demon alliance without starting a panic. Usually he wouldn't say anything at all, but many Riders passed Chaos news through Whitey. Whitey would now warn all Riders that passed by of the Storm army. When Lachlan and his Lancers arrived in the morning every Chaos Rider in the town would be ready to join them.
"How's it been here in Corners?" Chris asked, hoping to gather a different sort of information.
"You seen the young pup they got as Constable?" Whitey asked. Chris nodded silently. "Well, about a week back, I was visiting my sister, Eloise. I guess some of the cowboys from the James ranch figured it would be a good time to harass the girls. Inez and Blossom had just closed up for the night, when they forced their way in. I'm sure the girls put up quite a fuss, but it was the Constable that made them cowboys back down. To hear Blossom tell it, that boy had fired one arrow, feathered another and already picked his second target, before the first fella even knowed he'd been hit. JD's been by at least once every night since then just to check on the girls. Inez has made it real clear that anyone who gives JD a hard time can look elsewhere for a drink."
Chris accepted the information, glad that Inez hadn't witnessed the confrontation earlier. "What's your take on JD?" asked Chris. He usually agreed with Inez's assessments of others, but she was bound to be biased towards a person she was indebted to.
"That boy is about as green as you can be without turning into a peapod," Whitey claimed. "Still, he's got a lot of nerve. And he ain't stupid, just," Whitey shrugged before choosing the right word, "inexperienced. I figure; if he survives the next six months, he'll make a right useful Constable."
Chris thought Whitey's comments sounded reasonably accurate. The only real question was whether the kid would live long enough to prove himself. Looking back at the checkerboard, Chris saw an opening. Moving a piece he declared, "Crown me."
"Dang nabbit!" shouted Whitey, stomping his foot. "I was winning until you came along."
Chris chuckled, and decided not to point out that until he came along, Whitey had been playing against himself. The scent of grilled steak wafted out the doorway, reminding Chris that he had eaten nothing but jerky for far too long. With a final nod to the still grumbling Whitey, Chris moved inside.
Refuge's interior was gloomy despite the daylight outside. The few isolated lamps seemed to be better at lengthening shadows than dispelling them. The dozen or so patrons were scattered about a large room that could easily hold five times their number. Across from Chris a bar stretched out the length of the room.
Behind the bar stood a beautiful, brown-eyed brunette that bore just a hint of Chaos fire in her eyes. When she noticed Chris's entrance, she smiled in welcome. "Nathan said you would be arriving soon so I'm preparing a plate with steak, potatoes, beans and biscuits."
"If you add a bottle of whiskey to that order, Inez, I can die a happy man," Chris said as he approached the bar.
"Don't you dare," Inez admonished. "I will have no dying in my saloon. It is bad for business." Inez slid a whiskey bottle and a tall shot glass over to Chris. "If you would take these to your table, I can have your steak out to you in three more minutes."
"I appreciate it." Chris picked up the bottle and glass, and then headed to the far end of the room where several tables sat on a raised stage. Buck and Nathan had staked a claim on the table nearest the wall. Nathan appeared to be finishing off a hearty bowl of stew, while the thrust of Buck's attention was centered on the lovely Blossom. Blossom easily returned his attention from her perch on his lap. She cuddled into his loose embrace, giggling at his whispered confidences as she fed him bits of beef. Chris slid a chair over with his foot, settling himself with his back to the wall. Seeing Chris's tense posture Buck murmured in Blossom's ear then leaned back to give her an easy exit. Rising to her feet, Blossom turned to Chris.
"I was truly relieved to hear you'd made it back, Mr. Chris," said Blossom earnestly. Her looks were a strong contrast to Inez. She was blonde and fair skinned; a bit more plump then her boss, but in a way that accentuated all of her curves. Many men might have found her to be ideal, at least, until they met her solid opalescent eyes. The irony was that for all the Chaos fire her eyes held, Blossom had never once set foot in Chaos. It was Blossom's parents who were Chaos Riders. During their last mission, what was supposed to be a simple foray, Blossom's father was slain. Her mother was lost for nearly a month before she was discovered weak and delirious just outside the Ward Wall. Taken to a healer, it was several days before she recovered enough to understand she was with child. Yet the healer insisted the babe was developing healthy and normal, so the new mother decided to carry her lover's only child to term. And in truth, Blossom's birth was much celebrated as she was found to be normal in almost every way. The Chaos eyes that made her an outcast amongst other children did not erase her open, gentle nature. In some ways Blossom and Buck were a matched set. Both were fun-loving, affectionate, and eager to share themselves with others. But, unlike Buck, Blossom radiated an innocence that served to remind more than one Chaos Rider of what it was they were fighting for. It was an innocence that Chris had no desire to see vanish. Chris grabbed Blossom's hand to halt her retreat.
"Blossom, if you or Inez have any more trouble with the cowboys I want to know about it," Chris demanded. Buck immediately straightened at the obviously new information.
Blossom just smiled. "No need to worry, Mr. Chris. We haven't had a lick of trouble since Constable JD set those fellows straight," she assured. Seeing the lack of effect her words had she conceded, "If any thing changes, you'll be the first I come to." Satisfied with her promise, Chris released her. She moved several steps away before Buck leaned forward with a query.
"Constable JD?" asked Buck.
"The new man Warlord Travis appointed. Apparently Tynan ran off," said Chris.
"The coward," snarled Buck, who was never a fan of Tynan. "Still, I don't think it's the constable situation or even the cowboys that have got you wound so tight. How did the capital react to your report?" he asked. Nathan pushed aside his empty bowl and listened intently.
"Torrance seemed to take me seriously. He'd already heard from Lydia. She and Annie made it through. He mentioned others not believing her report, but he seemed to think that my corroboration would be enough to raise an army," said Chris.
"That sounds real good," said Buck. "But it will take weeks maybe even a month to gather an army. What are we suppose to do until then?"
"Join up with reinforcements and investigate a bit more . . . aggressively," smiled Chris. "A party at least fifty strong will be here by mid-morning. In fact, Lydia will be with them."
"What about Annie?" asked Nathan. She was more of an acquaintance than friend, but Nathan did know that Annie seldom passed up the chance to battle in Chaos.
"She's still recovering from some poison. Torrance wasn't specific about what caused it, but considering the direction I sent them, it was probably a Viper demon." Grimacing at a dark thought Chris added, "Let's hope they aren't Storm allies too."
"You sure do know how to wreck a man's appetite," said Buck, tossing down his fork in disgust. There wasn't a demon tribe he hated more than the Vipers. Hoping to change the subject he asked, "Do these reinforcements we're waiting on have a name?"
"The Valiant Lancers," said Chris as a small grin crept back to his face.
Buck choked on his beer, then coughed away his shock. "And you didn't think to mention this earlier?" he demanded.
"You didn't ask." Chris replied.
"The Valiant Lancers," repeated Nathan with a tone of wonder. "I used to have dreams about riding with them through Chaos just like in all the legends."
"Ain't that the truth," agreed Buck recalling his own childhood fantasies.
"Fancy names don't change the fact that they're just as mortal as we are," insisted Chris, deciding it was past time to rein in their awe. "Their commander, Lachlan, seemed intelligent, and his near annihilation of the Shadow demons was a significant victory. But it will take more than legends to counter this threat. We would do well to remember that the Lancers were always sent on the deadliest missions. And from one of those missions no one returned."
Nathan remained at their table in Refuge long after Buck had allowed himself to be led away by Blossom at the end of her shift. No doubt there would be a visit to the Church of Pleasure before the night was through. Chris, after finishing his steak dinner, had paid for a room. Then with his whiskey and some writing materials, he had gone to begin the grim task of family-death notification, in the relative quiet of the upper level.
Nathan couldn't help but dwell on the warriors they had lost. Bella was the mother of three girls. Jon had been telling the others how he planned to surprise his lady with an engagement ring. Silva...well she at least would be leaving no one behind. In fact, her mate was probably waiting for her on the other side. But Nathan would miss her songs. The way she played the flute always seemed to make the nights in Chaos somehow less horrific. And then there were the others. Sure Lydia and Annie had survived, but Calum, Donia, Hank and Cutter were all dead. Cutter wasn't even the man's name. It was just a nickname Annie had tagged him with for his first Ride. Try as he might, Nathan couldn't recall Cutter's real name. His head told him that riding a single mission wasn't enough time to get to know someone. But Nathan's heart insisted he was letting Chaos harden him too much.
He was a trained Healer. Most of his adult life had been dedicated to helping others. But the last couple of months had Nathan spending more time killing his enemies than healing his allies. Nathan knew in his soul that the struggles of Chaos Riders were vital to the continued existence of the Empire. He just wasn't sure if he, personally, was strong enough to remain a Rider. Any career choices would have to wait though. Tomorrow they would ride to Chaos with the Lancers, and if Nathan wanted to make it back alive he would have to put his doubts aside for at least a few more days. Lost in thought, Nathan was oblivious to the large form moving towards his table.
"Are these seats reserved, or can anyone sit here?" boomed a deep voice. Nathan jerked his head up. Then let his mouth split into a wide grin.
"Brother Josiah, what are you doing here?" asked Nathan as he motioned for Josiah to sit. "I thought you had been recalled to the chapter house in Herkoplis."
"Well, my friend, it appears that either I am too needed for this newest mission or my superiors have grown weary of my questions and seek to have me away from their presence." Josiah heaved a long-suffering sigh. "Bishop McNally acted especially frustrated about my most recent theological struggles. He claimed that the Sunbird himself was certain to bake me alive if I were to dare utter another question of Church Dogma."
"And what did you say to that?" wondered Nathan with a knowing grin.
"I asked why the Sunbird would bake me for asking questions that it must surely ask itself when first emerging from its rebirth. I was given my current assignment a few hours later." explained Josiah in an intent tone. He then broke into a sudden and somewhat maniacal grin. "Do you think it was something I said?"
Nathan didn't bother trying to hold back his chuckle. There were times when he was certain that Josiah went out of his way to irritate his superiors. Josiah had claimed once that he only questioned things to find personal enlightenment. But the Church of the Sunbird was a faith of warriors not theologians. If he had wanted to search for answers he should have joined the Seeker's Faithhood.
While Josiah ordered a drink, Nathan took a moment to examine his friend. Both tall and broad, Josiah was quite fit for a man entering his fifth decade. His hair was salt and pepper gray, while his facial features were more memorable than traditionally handsome. He had vibrant blue eyes that belied his many journeys to Chaos. In fact, none of the mutations associated with Riders appeared to afflict him. Such was the protection of the Sunbird. Any man or woman who pledged their loyalty to the Sunbird and dedicated their lives to the eradication of Chaos was granted immunity to its mutating affects. If it were not for the social stigma still attached to being a member of the Church of the Sunbird, there would probably be many more of their number amongst the Riders.
Lacking such protections had certainly changed Nathan's own appearance. He didn't have wicked bone spurs like Chris, or even Buck's continuous growth. (According to Buck, he averaged about 2 inches a year. But Nathan still had a hard time believing that when Buck had made his first ride into Chaos twelve years ago, it had been as a Dwarf.) Nathan's changes were relatively harmless as these things went. His once brown eyes had long since turned the milky white of an opal flecked with red, blue, gold and purple Chaos fire. But it was his skin that bore the brunt of change. His formally deep brown skin tone was now a patchwork of brown, tan, red and black. Nathan refused to be ashamed of his work as a Chaos Rider, or the mutation it caused, but there were still times he was tempted to take the easy way by wearing a cloak and hiding his appearance from normal folk.
Noticing that Josiah had stopped drinking after finishing only half of his glass, Nathan realized that whatever the reason he was sent on his mission he still planned to take it seriously.
"Are you here about the Storm Demons?" asked Nathan, thinking that it wouldn't be unheard of for those in the Sunbird hierarchy to know almost as much, and sometimes even more than, the Imperial armed forces.
"Actually, no," replied Josiah. "Though I did hear about a surprise party for them involving the Valiant Lancers. I'm assuming that you, too, planned to be involved." Nathan nodded. "I have a hard time believing that the Emperor would send out the Lancers over a few cantankerous Storm tribes." Josiah's piercing gaze made his question clear.
"The Storm demons have formed an alliance with the Hobs, and maybe even other tribes," Nathan said in a hushed tone.
Josiah's head reared back as his expression shifted to one of denial. "Impossible," he hissed. "For five hundred years we've been battling in Chaos, and not once in all of that time have the demon tribes stopped fighting each other long enough to unite against us."
"I'm not getting this from gossip or hearsay, Josiah," Nathan whispered back. "I was there. I watched half of our number fall to a combined Storm/Hob attack. And they weren't just fighting us while they fought each other. They were working together to kill us." Nathan shook his head in sudden despair. "They're gathering an army and massing at the Glass Cliffs near the Ward Wall."
"The Glass Cliffs? Those are what, eight miles from here?" asked Josiah.
"Yeah, about that as the crow flies." answered Nathan. "Why? Does your mission maybe have something to do with this after all?"
"I'm not sure, Nathan," Josiah rubbed his stubbled chin in thought. "You heard about what happened at last New Year's, Bear's Eve Ball, right?"
"Well, I heard a lot. But I never knew how much of it was fact. I figured at least some of it had to be though, because the next thing I heard, the Valiant Lancers had been reformed."
"Fialchar, himself, teleported to the middle of the Ball issuing threats against the Emperor and attempting to bespell the crowds. At the same time a Shadow Demon sorcerer, with the help of at least a dozen Black Churchers, broke into the palace treasury and stole the Fistfire Scepter, a magical weapon powerful enough to punch a significant hole in the Ward Walls. That's why Thetys V reformed the Valiant Lancers. Their first mission was to reclaim the Scepter and kill the Shadow sorcerer."
"But how did the demon pass through the Ward Wall to get to the Palace?" asked Nathan.
"Well, according to the interrogations of the Black Churchers, getting the demon across involved hundreds of Shadows building a giant ramp and catapult. Then they built a hollow sphere out of the hide and bone of Imperial cattle, provided by Black Churchers. They filled the sphere with a soup of blood and gore, again, all Imperial in origin. The demon sealed itself inside and was catapulted through the wall. Because the magic of the Ward Wall seeks to attack only Chaos born, the nature of the sphere created a sort of insulation against its magic," explained Josiah. "Apparently it worked well enough that the demon sorcerer was merely weakened. Though, I have been assured that the City of Sorcerers have already woven new spells into the Ward Wall, preventing any similar attempts in the future."
"Is that how Fialchar got through the Ward Wall, too?" asked Nathan.
"No. I'm afraid that it was our own arrogance that let us think the Ward Walls would keep Fialchar out. Remember, the Walls were created to separate the chaotic from the natural, and to keep Chaos born from our lands. But Fialchar, he is older than Chaos. In fact, by breaking the Seal of Reality some might call him the creator of Chaos. I doubt the Wards Walls were ever any serious impediment to his travel," reasoned Josiah. "Regardless, it will take a better mage than I to deal with 'Old Lord Disaster'. The leaders of my order have decided to leave the City of Sorcerers to fight Fialchar. The Church of the Sunbird will be focusing its flaming eyes on the traitors of the Black Church. My mission, my friend, is to meet with an informant who claims to know of a wizard working to advance the Churchers creed."
Nathan shuddered in spite of himself. The Black Church, more formally known as the Church of Chaos Encroaching, was dedicated to tearing down the Ward Walls. Their creed stated that, "only through the struggles of Chaos could man reach his full potential". Ironically, the Black Churchers used Chaos Riders as examples of the 'good' Chaos could mold. They apparently chose to ignore the fact that half of those who traveled to Chaos never returned. And that many of those that did, come back crippled and broken not only in body, but also in mind and soul.
"Wait a minute," insisted Nathan when he realized where Josiah was leading. "You're telling me that the Sunbirds learned of a wizard working with the Black Church, and they sent you out to deal with it alone?"
Josiah chuckled. "Don't be too hard on them, Brother. Since the Bear's Eve Ball, there have been literally a thousand different leads on various Black Church plots. To be totally honest, our manpower has been stretched thin. This particular intelligence report was deemed important enough for further investigation, but too unreliable to send a large party. I had wondered on more than one occasion if I was actually on some wild goose chase."
"Then why are you suddenly looking like your ready to spit fireballs?" demanded Nathan.
"Because I'm supposed to meet with my Black Church informant at the bottom of Elders Canyon. Which, if I'm not mistaken, is directly across the Ward Wall from . . ."
" . . . The Glass Cliffs!" finished Nathan.
"Indeed," said Josiah. "It's quite a coincidence that you saw an army of demons massing, and then I'm sent to investigate Black Church activity in almost the same location. Or it would be, if I hadn't stopped believing in coincidences about three or four decades ago."
"You're not going alone, Josiah. I'm going with you," said Nathan.
"Why, Nathan, I can't think of anyone I'd rather ride to my doom with," said Josiah with a wide smile.
The sun had nearly finished its descent, leaving night to creep its way across the town. The Refuge was much more crowded than it had been at midday. Every tongue seemed to carry the names of the Valiant Lancers, Storm demons and even Christopher. Chris, for his part, ignored the hushed tones that carried his name. He had finished writing his sad missives perhaps an hour back, but had been reluctant to brood over his soldier's deaths with only some whiskey for company. Chris sometimes felt as though his only purpose in life was to mourn the loss of those around him. Recognizing his depression for the useless thing it was, he forced himself downstairs and into the company of others.
Nathan had made a quick introduction for Josiah, and then shared that the two would be leaving in about an hour for a meeting of some sort. Soon after, Buck returned with sly grin and a relaxed movement that made it all too clear what he had been doing.
"Enjoy your visit to the Pleasure Temple?" asked Chris. "You usually don't resurface this soon. What's the matter, having trouble sustaining the moment?" Buck took the bait just as Chris had known he would.
"Now, Chris, I've done told you a hundred times there is nothing wrong with my staying power. Heck, half the time I have to tone it down because those ladies can't handle all my natural skill. The only reason I'm back so soon is I figured we'd be up before dawn and I heard that sleep is a good thing before a battle." Buck took a swig of ale before adding, "besides, Blossom mentioned that the new Constable was likely to pass through here. I figure if he's the one protecting Blossom and Inez when we're not around we ought to at least look him over. You know, see what sort of man he is." Chris looked away to hide the mirth in his eyes. Buck's reaction to JD was sure to be quite entertaining.
"New Constable?" asked Josiah. "I was told to filter my reports through Constable Tynan. What happened to him?"
"He ran off, like the yellow-bellied pit viper that he is," proclaimed Buck. "And good riddance I say!"
"JD has already rescued the ladies from a spot of trouble, and he's certainly done a good job of cleaning up Tynan's sty of an office," said Chris, subtly adding fuel to the fire that was Buck's emotions.
"Now, Chris, a maid could clean up an office. That don't mean she'd make a good law officer," countered Buck.
"True," agreed Chris solemnly. He spotted JD crossing the saloon towards Inez. It looked like the fire works were about to begin.
"Tynan was supposed to get papers verifying my identity and providing for my monetary needs," said Josiah. "I hope they didn't get lost in the shuffle."
"Only one way to find out," insisted Chris. He rose to his feet and in a clear voice said, "Constable JD, would you join us for a minute?"
JD, who had been in the midst of a conversation with Inez, looked over, clearly recognizing Chris from earlier in the day. His frame stiffened, but his excused himself from Inez with a smile and worked his way toward their table.
Buck, who had his back to JD, noticed Josiah and Nathan's surprised faces. Wondering what could startle experienced veterans; Buck stood and scanned the room, looking right over the head of the young man standing perhaps a foot and a half away.
"So where is this new Constable?" asked Buck.
"I'm Constable JD," answered a voice to his right.
Buck zeroed in on the boy, focusing on his sash of badges. Disbelief flickered across his face. He looked at his old friend, then at the boy. His shock turned to humor as his gaze settled back on Chris. "You had me going for a moment there, Pard. I almost fell for it," admitted Buck. Then he spoke to JD. "You better get those badges off before the real Constable sees you."
"Buck, he is the real Constable," insisted Chris.
"Come on, now. This ain't funny any more," said Buck, as disbelief returned to his face.
"You're right. There's nothing funny about Tynan abandoning this town. Or the fact that JD was the only one with the nerve to step up when Warlord Travis asked for a replacement," said Chris in an even voice.
"Some replacement," countered Buck derisively, "a coward for a kid." Buck circled around JD sizing him up. "I'm guessing you got yourself all wound up after reading some tall tale, like the Legends of Cardew and Driscoll. Decided that you'd become a warrior and tame the frontier. Well, you might as well turn that badge in, because it takes more then dreams and a badge to be a constable."
JD set his stance with the same stubborn determination that Chris had seen in his office. "I am not going to take these badges off. I have earned every one of them. And, I'm certainly not going to quit my job just because some windbag like you says I should."
There were several chuckles at the 'windbag' comment. Buck realized he was having more success amusing his friends then cowing this boy. Using his size to back the boy up a step, Buck raised his voice, "Now you listen here, Boy."
"Is there a problem?" interrupted Inez.
"Don't worry, Darling," said Buck. "I'm just explaining some facts of life to the young one here."
"Well, let me explain some facts," countered Inez. "Constable JD is quite capable of doing his job without any advice from you. He has protected the people of this town for several weeks now. And, he has been very helpful to many of us when we needed it. What would you teach him?" demanded Inez. "How to entertain a priestess of the pleasure temple?"
"Now, Inez, this isn't about me," soothed Buck, "It's about whether you should trust your safety to some inexperienced child."
"JD has already kept us safe," answered Inez.
"He probably just got lucky," scoffed Buck.
"He saved our lives!" shouted Inez, her temper now well and truly lost.
"I think you're being a bit overdramatic, Honey," Buck said.
"Overdramatic," repeated Inez, her fingers curling around a mug. "Well, how's this for dramatic, Honey?" The ale hit Buck's face with a splash, followed by laughter from their audience. "If you won't be considerate to my friends you can find your ale elsewhere."
"Hold on a minute," said Buck, his hands up in a placating gesture. He was a little confused as to how his harmless teasing of the kid had turned into a fight with Inez.
"I said out," yelled Inez. Her hand snatched Chris's half finished whiskey bottle and waved it threateningly at Buck. "If you don't leave, you'll be the one in need of protection." The entire saloon laughed at the sight of broad shouldered, six foot six Buck scurrying away from the much smaller Inez. Once Buck escaped out the doors, Inez calmly, if somewhat smugly, returned Chris's bottle and went back to tending the bar.
JD continued to stand where he was, still surprised by what just occurred. JD was used to others telling him, he was in the way or didn't belong. It was rare for someone else to take his side. He wasn't entirely sure if he should be happy or embarrassed by Inez's display.
"Sit down, Kid," said Chris, motioning to the chair that Buck had vacated.
"Don't mind those two," added Nathan. "Buck and Inez always fight. It's not a true stay at the Refuge until Inez has tossed at least one mug of ale in his face." Glad that none of the others seemed to share Buck's opinion of JD's inadequacies, he accepted the invitation.
"Josiah Sanchez, here, is a priest of the Sunbird," introduced Chris. "He has some questions he needs you to answer in an official capacity." JD leaned forward, always eager to begin a new aspect of his job.
"First off," started Josiah, "Constable Tynan was supposed to have received confirmation papers and some gold to cover my expenses. According to my superiors he also had the name of my contact." Josiah's voice dropped to a whisper. "Someone within the Black Church claiming to have vital information."
"Vital isn't the half of it," said JD. "I was beginning to wonder if anyone was going to come. I know that Tynan was supposed to have sent word to the capital, but I couldn't see any proof of it. Then again, if your confirmation papers were in the same package as the gold, Tynan probably took it with him. All of the money for paying bounties and running the jail disappeared when he left. Ezra thought we could wait until the end of the month before sending for aid again. But the Black Churchers have gotten real tense the last couple of days, like something big is about to happen."
Though Josiah heard everything JD said, it was the familiar name he instinctively focused on. Surely it's a coincidence. "Ezra?" asked Josiah.
"Yeah, he's the," JD leaned forward, and then reached for a chain around his neck, fingering the pendant it held. Josiah and Nathan both felt the swirl of magic around them. And Josiah recognized the communication spell that would ensure that anyone listening beyond the circle of their table would only hear a garbled mumble. "He's the shadow agent that infiltrated the local Black Church coven. Not that I knew that at first. Warlord Travis and I were still trying to sort through Tynan's office when I got a drunk and disorderly complaint. We went to investigate, and, well, after some of the things he shouted at Travis I had to arrest him. Of course, once we got to my office, he was as sober as a deacon of the Unified Order. Started tossing out passwords and security clearance, wanting to know what happen to the backup he'd requested. That's when we figured Tynan might never have passed on any of Ezra's reports. From what Ezra said they didn't like each other much. Still, I don't remember him mentioning the Sunbirds as back up." JD's eyes narrowed in on Josiah's Sunbird priest badge. "Anyway, Ezra conned his way into a Black Church meeting months ago under the name Erik. And he's been working his way up the hierarchy ever since. He's got the names and descriptions of several dozen Black Churchers working here, in Menal, even some in the Capital."
"Hold on now," protested Nathan. "If he had that many traitors identified, why haven't there been any arrests?"
"Because he still doesn't know what they're planning. He said there's been a whole bunch of meetings with a lot of talk about 'Chaos is rising' and 'our time is at hand' but those in charge don't seem to want to share details with their underlings. Not that Ezra hasn't learned a lot; he says that the Black Churchers have dug miles of underground mazes and several of them lead right through the Ward Wall. Using the tunnels they can travel back and forth to Chaos without ever being spotted by Imperial patrols or Chaos Riders. And they've worked some sort of deal with one of the demon tribes. Ezra said the bit he heard implied a trade of some sort, but he didn't know of what." Chris and Nathan both turned grim at the mention of the demons. Josiah, however, had another question.
"Could you describe Ezra to me?" he asked.
"Sure," said JD. "He's just a sliver taller than me. He has green eyes, light brown hair and a medium build. Seems to like wearing real bright colors, especially red and purple. And I've never seen him without his deck of cards." JD's description brought a smile to Josiah's face. "You know him," JD guessed.
Josiah nodded. "It's been a good number of years, but yes, I do believe that your Ezra and mine are one and the same. My own orders failed to mention any names, just a time and meeting location. I must admit I feel better knowing it's Ezra I'm going to meet."
As Josiah spoke, JD couldn't help but feel a little hurt that Ezra had never mentioned contacting the Church of the Sunbird for help. He had hoped that Ezra respected his abilities, and Ezra had at least seemed willing to give JD a fair try. But then he remembered Ezra talking about how information was bound to leak if too many people knew it. Ezra probably figured JD didn't need to know until a Sunbird representative arrived. Pulling himself back to the conversation JD heard Chris join in.
"Nathan, are you still planning on going with Josiah to his meeting?" Chris asked.
"Yes, even if this agent if Josiah's friend, I figure he could still use someone to watch his back," decided Nathan.
"When you do get the new information from Ezra, bring it back here as soon as you can." Pulling out the amethyst crystal, he continued, "I've got a direct line of communication to Lachlan and his Lancers. And the way I see it, the more information we have before we go into battle the better."
Nathan nodded immediately. But Josiah hesitated. He assessed Chris for several seconds before he, too, nodded, giving his consent to the younger man's leadership.
"If we plan to make our meeting on time we should probably ready our horses," said Josiah as he rose. Nathan followed suit while JD mentioned finishing his circuit of the town.
Only Chris remained seated, offering a simple, "Good luck," as the group went their separate ways.
The clear, starry night echoed with the sounds of bugs and nocturnal beasts, creatures that paid no mind to the passage of two men and their mounts. Josiah led with his red horse, Phoenix, while Nathan trailed on Unicorn. They moved slowly in deference to the dark, thankful that the road they followed was kept sound enough that leading the horses was, at least so far, unnecessary. They were several miles from town and very near their destination. In fact, they had entered the valley that led to Elders Canyon about a half mile back. The rising canyon walls would soon block what little light they had from the moon. Yet, Josiah was hesitant to light a torch, be it magical or mundane. It would be spotted far too easily by anyone near the ridges.
This was not the sort of meeting place he would have expected from Ezra. He was the sort who, ironically, hid by making himself the center of attention. Clandestine encounters in wild settings hardly seemed his style. In all honesty, Josiah knew he shouldn't be trying to place assumptions on Ezra. After all it had been nearly nine years since Josiah had seen him last, and almost fifteen since the time he had spent as Josiah's ward. A small grin pulled at his lips as Josiah recalled the two years when he had pretended, in his heart, that the boy he cared for was his son. Well, it appeared that fate was bringing them back together. Josiah prayed the Sunbird wouldn't let it be so, only to pull them apart again.
Noticing that it was now nearly impossible to see the ground Josiah pulled up his mount and signaled to Nathan that they should walk the rest of the way. It was better than ending up with a horse with a broken leg.
"Our rendezvous should be on the other side of that outcropping," whispered Josiah, pointing to a group of boulders on the path ahead. "Are you sure you don't want to wait here?"
"You think I'm going to stand around with the horses while you march off into the unknown?" Nathan hissed back incredulously.
"Just offering, my friend," replied Josiah, the whites of his teeth flashing for a second in the gloom. They ground tied their horses. Then paused as Josiah muttered and gestured, creating a communications spell that would dampen the noise made by the movement of their armor. Josiah hoped that he was right and it was the Ezra he had known so well that was meeting them. But until they saw him and confirmed the informant's identity, caution was necessary.
Nathan took the lead now because his Chaos eyes granted him much better night vision. Moving slowly while scanning their surroundings, he spotted the markings of a recent passage. The tracks looked to be from not one, but two riders leading mounts. Signaling the new information to Josiah in hand code, Nathan then readied one of his daggers. After all, better safe than sorry. Nearing the outcrop, Nathan lowered himself to his belly. He knew that potential watchers were far less likely to notice things at ground level than at 'man' height. Nathan peered around the rock and easily spotted the man next to a tiny flickering lamp. The man sat quietly on a fallen log, toying with a pipe in his hand. And perhaps such a scene should not have worried Nathan so. But the man did not match JD's description of average height and medium build. He would be better described as tall and rotund. There was also a notable absence of the person who left the second set of tracks. Nathan slowly slid back under cover. He motioned Josiah close to whisper what he saw. "I don't know who that fella is but he sure don't look like JD's shadow agent. And I can't see any sign of the other person. This feels like a trap, Josiah."
"We don't know that. In fact, right now we don't know anything," said Josiah. "That other set of tracks could have been from a farmer making his way home. And now that I think about it, I probably jumped to conclusions when I assumed that Ezra would be here. According to JD, Ezra was contacting the capital through Tynan. But, I'm quite sure Bishop McNally said that the informant approached the Church of the Sunbird directly. Which isn't something a shadow agent would do. My point is all that we have right now are questions. And the only way to get answers is for me to go through with this meet. Now, I want you to wait here. Don't argue with me. You can watch from cover and rush to my rescue if things go bad. Agreed?"
Nathan nodded, unhappy but accepting.
Josiah stood, straightened his cloak, and walked forward towards the dim light. He strolled into the small clearing calmly and slowly. Giving the stranger an opportunity to assess him and even retreat if he chose. Instead, the man only sat up straighter, giving Josiah a chance to read his meager badges. His sash held only two; the first, a brown crest of a Tarris native, and the second, of a journeyman carpenter. From the man's face, Josiah judged him to be in his mid-thirties, which was rather old to be only one rank above an apprentice. The fact that a mature adult wore no other badges to proclaim skills or even hobbies told Josiah that the man was either pathetically lazy or hopelessly incompetent. Neither quality encouraged him to trust the stranger. Josiah stopped about eight feet from the plain-faced man and waited for him to speak.
"You the Sunbirder mage?" asked the man, before spitting a bit of chew over his shoulder.
Josiah sighed in frustration. Those had not been the words he was hoping to hear. "Tis a dark night for a weary traveler," Josiah intoned the prearranged code phrase.
"Oh, oh yeah," stammered the man, apparently remembering the coded signal only after Josiah's prodding. "But even the darkest nights can be light for the just." He spit again. "So you the Mage?"
Josiah began to pray for both patience and acceptance. It was hard to conceive that this man might hold information vital to the Empire's survival. Perhaps the Sunbird saw something in him that Josiah could not. Aware that his cloak covered his mage badge, Josiah said, "I am Josiah Sanchez of the Church of the Sunbird. And your name is?"
"Call me Wood. You the mage?" he asked again.
"Does it matter if I'm a warrior or a mage?"
"Does it matter!?!" croaked the stranger. "If you ain't a mage, you can just turn around and march back to your Temple in Herkoplis. I ain't gonna cross Marquay without a strong magiker on my side."
"Marquay?" asked Josiah, taking a step closer.
"Yes, Marquay! He's the crazy warlock who started all this, and he's gonna get us killed if he ain't stopped. Look it ain't no secret that I hate the Rank Laws." Wood's voice became thick with disgust. "How all them know-it-all masters expect me to crawl on my belly begging for the privilege to wear their apprentice badge." Wood shook himself from his tangent. "But even I ain't stupid enough to try and make friends with Chaos Demons."
"Which demons has Marquay been in contact with?" Josiah's mind was already racing through possibilities. If Marquay was responsible for the army massing at the Glass Cliffs, how was he planning to get them past the Ward Wall? Even the tunnels Ezra reported to JD would be useless since the magic of the Wall was known to travel thousands of feet into the ground. Some rumors claimed it continued on to the very core of their world. But only the Wall Warders knew for sure.
"Are you crazy?" demanded Wood, refocusing Josiah's attention. "They were demons! What was I suppose to do, walk up to one and ask him his name?"
"Were you close enough to describe what they looked like?" asked Josiah. He was beginning to wonder why the man had come forward as an informant when he seemed to loath sharing information.
"They were hairy and ugly," said Wood.
Josiah sighed again. He could easily name a dozen different demons that could be described as such.
"And they had three eyes," Wood added. "It weren't natural."
Josiah swallowed his comment about the likelihood of something natural coming from Chaos. And decided to be thankful that the mention of three eyes would positively identify Marquay's allies as Storm demons. Now he needed to assess Marquay's powers as well as his following in the Black Church. "You called Marquay a warlock. Just what sort of spells have you seen him work?"
"Oh, no. You ain't getting anything else from me until you prove you're a mage," insisted the informant. "And flashing your badge ain't good enough. I want to see a spell; something impressive. I ain't risking my neck for some second rate spell caster."
Josiah tried to quell his simmering anger. It was insulting to be ordered to perform tricks like a trained hound. If it wasn't for the fact that he needed Wood's knowledge, he'd show Wood exactly how the Sunbird dealt with laggards and fools. "So you want me to start throwing fireballs, here, out in the open, where anyone could spot us." Josiah's comment was half question.
"Ain't no one gonna see us," insisted Wood. "Marquay's got them Churchers in some meeting. I'd be there too, but I snuck ipecac into my lunch tea. None of them wanted me at their meeting after I hurled on their shoes. Yep, I fooled them good," Wood, crowed with a dingy grin. "So, go on. Show me what you've got."
Unwilling to put too much faith in Wood's tactics, Josiah first cast a detection spell. The wave of magic had no noticeable effects, visual or otherwise, to any but a trained magic user. But for Josiah the invisible pulse signaled the presence of three people in a fifty-yard radius of his location. Counting himself, Wood and Nathan, who was still hiding but had moved a bit closer, Josiah was reasonably reassured. Clairvoyance was far from his strongest magic college. He was much better at working Combat and Communication magic. Still, he was skilled enough in the basics to be fairly certain of his immediate surroundings.
"Well, what's taking so long?" groused Wood. "Where's my lightening bolt?"
Discarding the rather amusing image of Wood on the wrong side of a lightening strike, Josiah said, "Patience is a virtue that few possess and even fewer properly employ."
Wood's face scrunched in confusion. "Does that mean you can't do it?"
"No," snapped Josiah, momentarily loosing control of his temper. Gathering himself he continued, "I believe I can satisfy your concerns without alerting the local populace with lightening and thunder."
"Well, do it already!" demanded Wood gruffly.
Josiah stared at him, taking a moment to decide which form of spell was most likely to make Wood piss his pants. He started with a soft throaty chant that called the magical energies to him. A series of hand gestures brought forth a visual manifestation of the magic. What began as a diffuse cloud of blue mist quickly took the shape of a glowing Drasacor, more commonly known as a Mist demon. The phantom's flowing cloak failed to hide its gaunt eight-foot frame or its insect like limbs and wings. As terrifying as the image was, it was, in truth, inconsequential to the spell Josiah was casting. The basic Combat enchantment would toss several half-ton boulders around while a companion Concealment spell would silence the noise and vibrations such movements would cause. Josiah chose Mist demons because not only were they horrifying in appearance but their favored attack involved tossing boulders. This allowed him to tie the illusionary demon's actions to the spell effect. He needed only to add a few ear-piercing screeches to the deception and Wood was certain to be convinced of Josiah's abilities.
It was not until Josiah had already tossed his second large boulder that he caught Wood's avid gaze, not on the illusionary Mist demon, but on him. At the same time he realized that he was tiring much faster than he should. The explanation, a leech spell, came too late. Josiah felt the energies of the opposing spell grow exponentially, feeding off of Josiah's magic, and then his life force, as exhaustion became debilitation. The last impression to float through Josiah's mind as he lost his grasp on consciousness was Wood's leering grin.
The man who called himself Wood moved to stand over Josiah's crumpled body. "Ain't so high and mighty now, are you, Sunbirder?" Wood spit on his victim. "Thought you were smarter than me, better than me. But I'm the one who's still standing. And you're just demon vittles." He kicked Josiah in the side. When the lack of response failed to satisfy him he pulled his leg back for another swing. But his foot never made its connection, stopped with the last beat of his heart as a razor sharp dagger plunged through the center of it.
Nathan moved forward cautiously, with two more daggers balanced lightly in his hands. He didn't for a second believe that that scum Wood was capable of the complex spell casting required to overpower Josiah. Nor was he willing to dismiss the second set of tracks he had found earlier. There was, or at least had been, someone else here. Someone powerful. But Nathan wasn't about to leave Josiah alone and vulnerable. He continued to scan his surroundings even as he knelt beside his friend to check for signs of life. The relief he felt at the steady rise and fall of Josiah's chest was quickly overrun with various warring questions: Where was the architect of Josiah's ensnarement? How could Nathan heal or even stabilize Josiah's condition without triggering the leech spell himself? Why go to so much trouble to trap a Sunbird priest in the first place?
"Two for the price of one. What a pleasant surprise." The mocking voice came from the left and just a bit behind Nathan's current position. The first dagger was flying before he had confirmed a target. The second following in its wake was more precisely aimed at the man's heart. But both blades were halted inches from their target, apparently trapped in mid-air. "A healer mage who is also a master of the flying edge. How unusual." The man moved closer, letting Nathan see him clearly. His height was perhaps 5'10" and he had fair skin and brown hair that was starting to gray. Perhaps most revealing were his milky white Chaos eyes. The cloak he wore hid all other mutations. "I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised. Chaos Riders are so much more versatile than their Imperial brethren."
"Maybe you should leave before I find a way to use my versatile skills on you." Nathan's threat was 98% bluff, but he had to try.
The wizard chuckled. "I did not go to all of this trouble just to toss aside my prize catch. I'm sure that you're quite good at what you do, but it is clear that your comatose friend is a more powerful spell caster than you. And it is equally clear that I am a more powerful spell caster than he. So why don't you stop the posturing and surrender gracefully."
"I don't know how you hid yourself and your spells from Josiah's detection. But I do know the act of a coward when I spot one. If you want to know what I see clearly, it's that you didn't have the guts to face Josiah in a fair fight," retorted Nathan. Even as he spoke he search desperately for some weakness in his opponent's barriers. But all he found was invulnerability.
"Poor Fool," taunted the man. "Are you suffering under the delusion that life is fair? I would have expected Chaos to destroy such fantasies. No matter, I have more important things to do than quibble with you over morality and tactics. I think it's time for you to go to sleep." Nathan tried to raise a barrier, but his construction magic was sucked away before it even had a chance to fully solidify. He made a final attack at the wizard, but his last dagger didn't even travel half the distance required. Its light 'tink' was followed by a much louder 'thump' as Nathan succumbed to his rival's sorcery.