Nathan grinned and stretched his arms to the sky as the noon sun glinted through the multi-colored leaves. "Bysha's Blessing! It sure feels good to be completely dry again."

The other four men nodded and smiled in agreement as they hiked through the forest. Even Ezra was in good-spirits after having spent the better part of the morning bemoaning the loss of the horses.

When they had left the road to once again follow the narrow, woodland trails, it had been necessary to set the mares free. The minstrel had done his best to convince the others that his ankle was not quite healed but neither Chris nor Nathan had bought into his act. In fact, Chris had gone so far as to tell him that he needed to take lessons from Vin.

The one drawback to the departure of the clouds and rain, was the drop in temperature. Even with the sun shining directly overhead, there was a nip in the air that warned of colder nights ahead. Briar Cliff was still a couple of days away and the only thing worse than sleeping on wet ground, was sleeping on cold wet ground.

The men kept up a steady pace, trying to insure that they did in fact, reach the small town as soon as possible. Chris was in the lead when he suddenly came to a halt and held up his hand for silence.

"Buck, listen up. You hear something?"

"Pits. Sounds like a small army heading this way." Buck cocked his head to listen and then grinned at the others. "Must be Jaydee coming back. Doesn't sound like those lessons with Vin are doing much good."

"Hard to be quiet when you're running flat-out." Chris jerked his head to Nathan and Josiah and motioned for them to leave the trail. He gestured for Ezra to take the opposite side leaving only Buck in the open to stand guard at his back. Both men drew their weapons and waited tensely as the pounding footsteps drew closer.

They were both relieved and alarmed to see Jaydee suddenly appear on the trail ahead of them. They were relieved that he seemed to be unharmed but were concerned that he was obviously panicked and very much alone.

"Chris...Buck...where...the rest...?" Jaydee skidded to a halt on the leaf-covered ground and tried to speak while gasping for air. " warn..."

"Pits, boy, catch your wind and then tell us." Buck kept his axe ready in one hand while he grabbed Jaydee by an arm and guided him to a fallen trunk. "Here, sit down and take deep breaths."

Chris walked a few paces down the trail and strained to hear or see any sign of Vin. His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword, as the only sound was Jaydee's strained breathing.

"Vin' worry." Jaydee knew Chris was worried and did his best to reassure him. "Said...he'd be...careful."

"Careful of what? Damn it boy, what have you two done now?" Buck rubbed his mustache in irritation as he squatted down in front of his young friend.

The other three men stepped back onto the trail and they all gathered around to hear Jaydee's explanation.

"Orcs. We found...a whole bunch...of orcs."


"Now, when you're walking on dry leaves, you can't help but make some noise. If you watch and pick out the spots where the leaves are rotted, you can walk quiet as a deer."

Jaydee nodded his head and then tried to follow in the tracker's footsteps. Vin had been giving him scouting lessons all morning and they had ranged out well ahead of the others. Determined to succeed, the young man kept his eyes glued to the ground, looking for the best places to put his feet. So focused was he on picking out the moist patches of leaves, he failed to see the low tree limb directly in his path. Vin had carefully avoided the obstacle and was standing off to one side with an expectant grin on his face.

"Oww!" Jaydee didn't disappoint his friend. He stood rubbing his head and scowled at the laughing tracker. "You could have said something."

"You learn best by doing and that includes making mistakes." Vin moved forward again and kept talking as he walked. "Don't worry, Jaydee. It took me turns to learn how to move through the woods without scaring off every animal with ears."

"Yeah, but I bet I can drive off even the deaf ones."

The two young men laughed and continued to move further into the forest but still parallel to the trail. Vin would occasionally point out the signs that indicated the passage of a certain animal and then tell how old or fresh the trace was. Jaydee was a quick learner and Vin was sure that by the end of the journey, he would have a new and useful set of skills to go with the fighting techniques that Buck was teaching him.

Vin brought them to a halt in the afternoon and indicated a brighter patch of woods directly ahead of them. "See the sunlight? That means there's a break in the trees. Probably a clearing or even a small meadow."

Jaydee nodded his understanding and started to move forward again but Vin suddenly grabbed his arm and held him back. There was a look of concentration on the half-elf's face that sent a faint thrill of alarm up the young man's spine.

"What's wrong, Vin?"

"Listen. It's too quiet. There should be birds." Vin crouched down low pulling Jaydee with him. Dropping his voice to a whisper, he handed his bow and quiver to his friend. "Wait here. Don't move."

"Wait, Vin!" Jaydee's soft cry went unanswered as Vin vanished silently into the forest. Mentally swearing to the Pits, Jaydee pounded his fist on his thigh as he waited helplessly for his friend's return.

It seemed like forever but finally the half-elf reappeared as silently as he had left. Jaydee was shocked and alarmed to see how pale the tracker's face looked. He opened his mouth but Vin quickly gestured for him to remain silent. Grabbing his bow and arrows, he began leading them back in the direction they had come. Knowing that something was horribly wrong, Jaydee concentrated and managed to move almost as silently as Vin.

After they had traveled for a good distance, Vin finally halted and pulled Jaydee down behind a fallen log. Putting his head close to his friend's and keeping his sentences short, he began a whispered explanation.

"Orcs. Lots of 'em. Circled 'round the clearing. Looks like their waiting. Probably for us. Got to warn Chris and the others. The trail heads straight for them. You go warn 'em, I'll get a count on how many are waiting."


"Chris has got to know and I can count 'em without being seen. It's what I did during the war against human troops. You've got to make sure the others don't walk into a trap."

Jaydee chewed his bottom lip in frustration but had to nod his head in agreement. Everything Vin said was true but that didn't make it any easier to leave him behind.

"You'll be careful?"

Vin grinned and held his hand out for Jaydee to grasp. "Promise. Don't want Chris being mad at me. Be sure and tell him not to worry."

Jaydee returned his grin then both young men stood and headed off to complete their chosen missions.


"Pits!" Chris paced along the trail as his mind raced to solve the new crisis. Buck gave Jaydee a flask of water and encouraged him to take small sips while the others watched Chris in silence and waited for his decision.

"Josiah," Chris beckoned the wizard forward as he began questioning him. "Those crystals we found in the orcs, you thought they might be guiding them to the scroll?"

"That did seem like their purpose, yes."

"So, the ones up ahead might know that someone is carrying the scroll closer to them?"

"Yes, that is possible."

Pacing again, Chris voiced his thoughts out loud for the others. "They might be able to tell if the scroll is moving closer or further away from them. If we try to avoid them, they may wind up following us. Orcs can see well at night and don't need as much sleep as we do. It would be too dangerous to try and avoid them."

Reaching a decision, the mercenary motioned for the men to resume walking along the trail. The new pace he set was much slower and he continued to explain his reasoning.

"Right now, we have the advantage. They don't know that they've been spotted. They've lost the element of surprise and we've gained it. If they are planning an ambush in the clearing, there are probably enough of them to completely encircle it. They'll wait until we're out in the middle, then close in from all sides."

Chris slowed his steps even further until he was walking beside Buck. "It would be too dangerous to split up. We're stronger if we fight together. This time, I want you on my right and Jaydee will cover my left."

Buck didn't like that idea. He didn't mind fighting on Chris' right side but he wanted the kid near him so he could keep an eye on him. Before he could say a word, Chris was explaining his decision.

"Jaydee has never fought beside you when you fall into a battle-rage. Going against orcs, it might happen." Chris' tone of voice wasn't accusing; he was stating a known fact. "Kid's going to have enough to do just watching out for the orcs, he doesn't need to be worrying about dodging a blow from a friend."

The man couldn't argue with that kind of logic. Truth was, there were a lot of fights that he had no memory of because he had fallen into a frenzied state that men called 'battle-rage'. It usually happened when a fight lasted too long or if he became wounded. Where a normal man might succumb to exhaustion or pain, Buck would suddenly become stronger and even more deadly. There was one drawback, though. When he fell into a battle-rage, he could no longer tell the difference between friend or foe. Anything that moved became a target for his axe and he usually didn't stop swinging until his body collapsed from total and absolute exhaustion or someone was lucky enough and brave enough, to sneak up on him and knock him out. More often than not, that person had been Chris.

Reluctantly, Buck agreed. "You're right. Just make sure whoever you do put near me knows to keep their distance. The raiders and bandits we've been fighting were never enough to send me over." He motioned over his shoulder towards the other men. "They've probably never seen a man lost in the rage, let alone fought along side one."

Chris clapped him on the shoulder and reassured his friend. "Don't worry. I intend to put Ezra near you. Remember how he dealt with Kerel and Barty? Even if he does get too close, I figure he's quick enough that he can take care of himself."

Buck chuckled and nodded his head in agreement. "Yeah, I guess you got a point." Sobering a little, he jerked his thumb back toward Jaydee. "You think he can handle it? He's never fought orcs before."

The mercenary seriously considered the question before answering. "I think he's got good friends that he can rely on to watch his back. If we make it out of this alive, then he should too."

"Yeah, and I guess there's really not much choice." Buck suddenly gave a snort of laughter and nudged Chris in the ribs. "Remember the first time we fought orcs?"

Chris rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Bysha, I don't know why I let you talk me into that."

"Oh, c'mon. You were as bored as I was that summer."

"I was a lot younger and a lot dumber."

Buck solemnly nodded his head in agreement. "Yeah, well at least now your older."

Chris gave his friend a withering glare. Buck wasn't alarmed but he did get serious once more. Casting a quick look back at the young man in question, he asked, "You want to send the kid up to me for a few pointers on dealing with orcs?"

"Yeah, just as soon as I get through talking to him. Keep to this pace. I don't want to reach that clearing before Vin rejoins us."

Slowing his steps once more, Chris matched his stride to Jaydee's. He glanced over to see how the young man was handling the situation and could see the worry and doubt in his face. There was also a hint of fear but that was only to be expected. Jaydee was young enough to still crave excitement and adventure but mature enough to know the value of his own life.

"Jaydee, you'll be fighting on my left. Now, I want you to walk with Buck the rest of the way. Fighting orcs is a little different than fighting men and there are some tricks you need to know. Brute strength, sharp nails and long swords are about all that these creatures have going for them. Any man with common sense is a better fighter. Buck's killed more than his share, so listen close to what he tells you."

Jaydee remained silent but nodded his head in agreement. He began to stride forward but Chris caught his arm and held him back. When he caught the young man's eyes, he smiled reassuringly.

"You're going to do fine, Jaydee. You've pretty much learned everything that Buck and I can teach you. I think that by the time we reach the capitol, you'll be ready for the king's guard."

Jaydee's brown eyes widened in surprise as his lips curved into a tentative smile. "You mean it?"

Chris patted him on the back then gave him a small shove forward. "Without a doubt, Jaydee. Without a doubt."

The next person in line on the trail was Josiah. Chris fell in step beside him and outlined his plan. The tall wizard listened in silence then nodded his head in agreement.

"I will do my best to keep an eye on the boy. And I have been practicing, so I should be able to toss my stones fairly accurately even while standing behind you and the others."

"That's good but I think it will work best if you stay out of the fight as much as possible. Right before we reach the clearing, I'm going to give you the scroll." Chris held up his hand to silence the protest that he could see Josiah was about to make. "If the fight goes against us, if it looks like the orcs are going to win, you'll be the only one that can get the scroll to safety."

"Chris..." Josiah knew exactly what the mercenary was asking of him. If his friends began to fall to the blades of the orcs, he was to use his crystal to teleport back to Four Winds. Both he and the scroll would be safe but the others...

"Josiah, you wouldn't be running away. After getting back to town you would still be responsible for getting the scroll to the king and warning him about Wartolin and Cardimal. You might survive this fight but there's no guarantee you would live much longer."

Oddly enough, Chris' words served to comfort the wizard, as they were meant to. It wouldn't be easy leaving the others behind and hopefully it would not come to that. If it did prove necessary, he would make sure their deaths had not been in vain.

Sensing his agreement, Chris went on to warn him about Buck before dropping back to walk beside Nathan. Of all the men, the healer was the one he was really most concerned about.



"You don't have to worry about me. Tell me where to stand and I'll hold that position."

Chris considered the man's words carefully. He knew that Nathan was fairly good with a long knife. He had watched the man in action against the raiders and been suitably impressed, but those fights had been against humans, not orcs. And even though Vin had managed to kill two orcs with only his dagger, Chris wasn't sure that Nathan would have the same success.

Nathan could read the hesitation and doubt in Chris' expression and drew his lips back in a savage grin. "I wasn't always a healer, Chris. Even though I was born with the power, I didn't know how to use it until my twentieth turn. Before then, I was a dock-worker in Bay Town."

The healer smiled at the shocked look on the mercenary's face. Obviously the man had either heard of the town's violent, dockside populace or had experienced it for himself. The town proper was peaceful enough. Most of the time it was well patrolled by guards. The docks however, were a different story. There, men took the law into their own hands and everyday was a fight for survival. And Nathan hadn't just worked there; he had grown up there.

"Now, I will admit, we never had orcs to deal with, but I figure they bleed like any other animal. So, you tell me what to look out for and where they're most vulnerable and I'll take care of my share."

Even though Chris felt a new respect for the man's fighting ability, he couldn't help the small, doubtful shake of his head. Nathan's grin got even bigger as he drew his cape back to reveal his most recent acquisitions.

"Did Ezra tell you about Garrit's knives?" The healer pulled a pair of leather gloves out of his belt and tugged them onto his hands. As he was doing so, Chris noticed the two new blades also hanging at the man's waist.

Once he had the gloves securely in place, Nathan slowly unsheathed one of the daggers that had been taken from the would-be assassin. He held it up for the mercenary to examine and the first thing Chris noticed was the bluish tinge to the sharpened edge. Chris raised an inquisitive eyebrow and Nathan quickly explained.

"You know about dream flowers?"

"You mean death blossoms*?"

"The same. Well, Garrit took the nectar from those flowers and boiled it down until it was a concentrated paste, then he smeared it on the edges of his blades."

Chris drew back slightly from the evil looking knife. "Does it have the same effect as the flower?"

"More like a hundred flowers. This stuff doesn't just put a person to sleep, it relaxes them so much they forget to breathe."

Now, Chris was impressed. "Are you sure it will work on orcs?"

"Colorflies are the only things I know of not affected by the nectar and they live off the stuff. Orcs are bigger than men, it may take a little longer to work, but I think it will have the same effect."

Nathan carefully re-sheathed the knife and then removed the protective gloves. "So, you tell me the best places to aim for and trust me to get past their guard."

After quickly briefing Nathan on likely hit points and the possible danger of standing too close to Buck, Chris slowed his steps for the final time and allowed Ezra to draw even with him. The two men walked in silence for a few moments before Ezra roughly cleared his throat.

"I know what you are thinking."

"Do you?"

"You were recalling Buck's comment at our first gathering in Nathan's home." Ezra casually adjusted the hang of his cape as he spoke but it was obviously a self-conscious gesture.

Chris didn't lie to him. "Yes, I was. And I was also remembering how you handled him and those two back at the inn. I also recall the times you stepped in to help with the raiders at Four Winds."

Chris finally turned his head to look directly at the smaller man as he spoke. "You're not just a minstrel, are you Ezra?" The mercenary's cold stare quelled the inevitable protest before it was even started. "No, don't bother. I'm not trying to accuse you of anything. Whatever your past, it's only what you've done these last two turns and what you're going to do today, that really matters."

Ezra considered these words and found himself wishing that he could confide in Chris. Ever since that last morning at the inn, he had found himself longing for a closer, more open relationship with the blond mercenary. Pits. He was just damned tired of being alone even in a town full of people.

"Chris, as I've said before, I can make no guarantees about the future." Ezra's lips quirked into a sardonic smile as he spoke, "After today, I may not have a future." Suddenly it was his turn to hold up a hand begging for silence. "I do promise you this. While there is breath in my body and blood in my veins, I will stand with you and the others and face whatever dangers may loom in our path, whether they be cut-throats, orcs or raging rivers. Now, if you will be so kind as to impart a few of the finer orc fighting techniques, I will endeavor to demonstrate to friend Buck how a 'pampered ass' goes about dispatching the foul creatures."

Chris smiled and clapped Ezra firmly on the shoulder. "You'll do all right, minstrel."


Working his way back up the line, Chris was in time to hear Buck finish telling the story of the first time he and Chris had fought orcs. As he stepped past the wide-eyed Jaydee, the mercenary casually asked him, "Did he happen to mention that all six of them were drunker than rats swimming in a wine barrel?"


Jaydee laughed at Buck's indignant cry and gave the man a punch on the shoulder. Buck playfully cuffed the boy in return and the two began a mock-wrestling match as they walked. Chris ignored them as he moved further ahead. He knew the little bit of rough housing would help calm Jaydee and relax the muscles that he had been unconsciously tensing.

Hoping to spot Vin making his way back, the mercenary scanned the forest to either side of the path as he walked. Chris considered himself to be a fairly observant man and not a bad tracker himself. He studied the woods to the left side of the trail and then turned his gaze to the right. Seeing nothing in either direction, he looked ahead once more and nearly stumbled in surprise.

Standing quietly on the trail, as if he had been there for a candle mark or more, Vin waited for his friends to approach. Chris shook his head as mixed feelings of exasperation and relief warred in his mind. Lengthening his stride, he quickly reached the half-elf and then found himself at a loss for what to do. Part of him wanted to throw his arms around his partner's narrow shoulders and pull him close in a firm and reassuring embrace. That was the feeling of relief. His other instinct was to grab the man by his arms and shake him until his teeth rattled; so much for the exasperation.

He did neither. Instead, he studied Vin closely and was dismayed at what he saw. Even though it was a cool day, there was a fine sheen of sweat on Vin's face and his eyes were constantly in motion though his body remained rigidly still. His fingers were clenched so tight around his bow, the knuckles were bone white. His tensed jaw and pale cheeks gave the half-elf a haunted, on the verge of bolting, look. Like a man that had seen his worse nightmare suddenly come true. Which in a sense, Vin had. Because of his wounds and the poison, Vin's memory of his first encounter with orcs was, as he put it, 'dark and flickery.' Now he was seeing the creatures in the brightness of day and from what Jaydee had said, a whole lot more than two.

Chris knew the young man was in trouble. He heard the others approaching and motioned for Buck to hold everyone back. Looking into Vin's wide blue eyes, he kept hoping that the man would say something, anything but his lips remained tightly pressed together.

Glancing back toward Buck, the mercenary suddenly remembered that Vin had once served with Captain Andercush as a scout. And Ol' Ander 'cuss' had been a no-nonsense type of soldier. Taking a deep breath, Chris pulled himself stiffly erect and barked out the command, "King's scout, report on the enemy's position!"

The results were exactly what Chris had hoped for. Vin's head snapped back like he had been physically slapped. His eyes finally focused on the mercenary and he blinked as if waking up from a dream. Quickly licking his lips, he began speaking in clipped, terse sentences that contained only the necessary facts.

"They number six and thirty. The clearing lies less than a mark straight-ahead. The orcs are currently positioned around the field and armed with swords. No long-range weapons that I could see. Leather armor, no shields or helmets. Their attention is focused inward to the clearing. No scouts, no patrols. No signs of a camp. They look to have been in place for no more than a day."

At the conclusion of his report, Vin closed his eyes and a visible shudder coursed through his slight frame. His clenched hands finally relaxed and his bow dropped unnoticed to the ground. Judging the time to be right, Chris stepped forward and put one arm across the young man's shoulders.

"You did good, Vin. You did real good." Chris spoke softly and felt Vin relax against him.

"Bysha, they're even nastier looking in the daylight." Vin hoarsely whispered as he shuddered again and rested his head on the mercenary's shoulder.

Seeing the orcs had been a shock; a very nasty and terrifying shock. Never before had the young tracker felt such blood-chilling fear. Seeing the creatures again had re-awakened the memories of his first encounter and made them clearer. Too clear. For a single moment, one heart pounding, breath stealing moment, he had relived that night in the woods.

How was he going to fight them again? He had admitted to Buck that he had been afraid during his first encounter and the man had assured him that fear was natural. The fighter had also warned him that if he was ever so scared that all he wanted to do was run, then he should take up goat herding.

Vin felt his cheeks redden with shame as he considered how close he had come to running. He ducked his head and began to step away from Chris' comforting presence. He was surprised when the man's arm tightened across his shoulders and a second arm pulled him close once more. He didn't resist the embrace although he did keep his head bowed.

"Vin, I know what you're feeling right now and it's nothing to be ashamed of. You fought those first two orcs all by yourself and you survived."


"That's true, but there is one big difference between that time and now."

"The fact that it's daylight or that there are more of them?"

Chris gave a quiet chuckle. "Right then, I guess there are three differences. It's daylight and there are more of them, but Vin, this time, you aren't alone."

Vin considered his friend's words carefully. Most of his adult life had been spent alone and in the forests. He had never given it much thought before that fateful encounter with the orc scouts but there was no denying the loneliness and despair he had felt on that long and painful walk to Chris' home after the fight. The truth finally struck him with all the clarity of one of Josiah's light crystals. It wasn't the possibility of dying that had him so bothered; it was the thought of being alone when it happened. Or worse, surrounded by only enemies. Though the possibility had existed before, he had never come quite so close as on that stormy night.

Those days were finally, thankfully, behind him. He had friends that would stand at his side no matter what the danger. Even more importantly, he now had Chris as a partner. Now, and Bysha willing, for the rest of his life.

Taking a deep breath, Vin raised his head and met Chris' concerned and caring gaze. "You're right, Chris. This time I'm not alone." The sparkle returned to his blue eyes as he grinned mischievously. "You know what was worse than seeing all those orcs in the daylight? Smellin'em. It was really starting to make my eyes water."

Chris laughed as he stepped back to give his friend room to regain his composure. He motioned the others forward and they greeted the young tracker with smiles and nods of approval. Vin stood a little straighter as he felt the welcome security of having good friends surround him once more.

Taking the opportunity presented by Vin's arrival, Chris transferred the scroll from his pack to Josiah's. He also quickly outlined his plan to the tracker and explained his role in the coming battle.

"Your best weapon is the bow and you've got a dozen arrows. I want you to find a place outside the clearing and kill as many of them as you can, but choose your targets carefully. The important thing is to keep the orcs off our backs."

Vin nodded his understanding. "I think I'll have to aim for their necks and heads. My arrows won't make it through their armor. Might be best if I actually climb a tree and get above the fight."

As he listened to Chris and Vin discuss their arrangements; Ezra found himself feeling relieved that the half-elf would not be directly involved in the fight. Even though he had resigned himself to the fact that the two had indeed, formed a pair; he could not give up his desire for the blue-eyed tracker. Mentally slapping himself, Ezra focused once more on the strategy being outlined by Chris.

"We'll enter single file, nice and slow. That will give Vin a chance to find a good spot and get settled. As soon as the orcs break cover, fall into place and take them as they come. Stay close to each other. Their size will force some of them to hold back while the first wave attacks. Whatever you do, don't let them get behind us and cut off our retreat." Chris made eye contact with each man as he spoke. While he had to admit that it was definitely the oddest assortment of warriors he had ever led into a battle, he couldn't help feeling confident of their success. For more turns than he could remember, Buck had been the only man he had ever trusted to guard his back. Meeting the gazes of the men surrounding him, Chris knew that he had found five others he could trust with his life.

"Any questions?"

"Yes, I have a question." Ezra surprised everyone by stepping forward and taking the center position of the small gathering. "Actually, it's more of a proposition. Would anyone care to place a wager on the outcome of this encounter?"

Buck snorted in response. "Pits, Ezra. We either live or we die. Not much to bet on."

"If one assumes that we all live, we could gamble on who will dispatch the majority of the foul beasts."

Vin actually laughed out loud. "I think I might win a bet like that."

"Well, I'm afraid you would have to be excluded from the tally but you could still place a bet on one of the rest of us."

Chris shook his head in exasperation but the other men seemed to like the idea. Jaydee was the first to place his bet and much to Buck's annoyance, he put his coins on Chris. Buck quickly responded by betting on himself. Josiah also chose Buck while Nathan and Ezra chose Chris.

"That only leaves Chris and Vin. Gentleman, do you care to make a wager?" Ezra and the others grinned encouragingly and the mercenary finally relented.

"Fine. I'll bet on Ezra."


Buck's surprise was no less than the minstrels' own. He stared at Chris dumbfounded and was even more shocked when Vin chimed in as well.

"Yeah, I'll put my silver on Ezra too."

"Why the Pits are you throwing your coins away like that? No offense, Ezra."

"For once, Buck, I believe you. And as much as I despise saying it, I even agree." The minstrel turned a questioning gaze to Vin who merely shrugged his shoulders.

"Just got a feeling."

Chris didn't bother to defend his decision. Swinging his pack up to his shoulder, he signaled the men to take their places on the trail. The seven started forward once more. Walking in silence, they mentally prepared themselves for the coming battle. Prayers were made to Bysha as well as a few solemn vows of things to be accomplished should they all survive.


The orc race as a whole, is not overly imaginative. Waiting in ambush around the clearing was an amazing example of strategy on their part and the limit of their creativity. Once their victims were in position, their attack plan became simple and direct. Run forward and kill.

The smallest of the orcs was a third again the size of Nathan and normally their bulk gave them an advantage over humans. As Chris had predicted in a tight battle with their enemies clustered together, their size was actually a disadvantage as they got in each other's way.

The six men that were the focus of the attack quickly drew their weapons and fell into their pre-arranged formation. The first two orcs fell dead behind them after barely clearing the forest, the arrows protruding from their necks a sure sign that Vin had found his perch.

The remaining orcs tried to surround the men and quickly discovered the futility of that plan. Josiah and Vin made short work of those that attempted a rear assault. Vin's aim was perfect and he did his best to make each arrow count.

Josiah used specially charged gemstones that exploded when they impacted against their targets. The concussions were small but potent enough to stun and even maim, giving himself and the others a decided advantage.

For several long moments, the clearing was filled with the sounds of war. The distinctive clang and thumps of sharpened blades striking, chopping and slicing, accompanied by grunts of pain, snarls of rage and shouts of victory.

Chris blocked another overhand swing from his third orc by using his dagger and continued forward to bring his sword across the creature's throat. He spun to meet his next opponent before the last one hit the ground. Beside him, Jaydee was holding his own against his second and past him, Josiah was dispatching a stunned orc with a blow from his staff.

From the corner of his eye, Chris could see Buck swinging his axe and snapping one orc's sword in half while kicking another one in the groin. The man was grinning maniacally but had not succumbed to the rage. A little beyond him, Ezra's thin blade flashed in the sunlight as it wove a deadly pattern through the air. He did not waste time or energy trying to block the sword thrusts of his opponents. He nimbly avoided the strikes and used the openings left by the wide swings to step in and quickly dispatch the unlucky orcs.

Nathan was true to his word and using the two poisoned daggers, he held his position to the rear of the group. As he had predicted, it did take a little longer, but the orcs were as susceptible to the nectar of the death blossoms as any other creature.

The number of orcs dwindled rapidly, their bodies becoming obstacles that had to be stepped around, over and even on by the surviving creatures. The team of humans also found themselves maneuvering around the large corpses and drawing further apart from each other in the process. Chris saw the danger but there was nothing he could do. One of the orcs had gotten clever and had pushed a compatriot directly into the mercenary's way. Chris' sword had struck the creature's neck at a bad angle becoming lodged in its spine. The extra second Chris needed to pull it free had been all the time the 'clever' orc needed. Chris barely managed to deflect its falling sword with his dagger and took a deep slice across his left shoulder and upper arm in the process. Not only extremely painful, it made that arm practically useless and the blood loss quickly increased the mercenary' growing fatigue. He lost track of the other combatants, as he was forced to focus solely on his last orc.

Josiah had exhausted his supply of exploding gems and had resorted to using his stone-covered staff instead. It effectively blocked the swings of the orcs and in the wizard's capable hands it was a very efficient weapon. The stones embedded in the wood were charged with power, which Josiah released with a few, quietly spoken words. Arcs of blue energy leapt from the staff to strike at his unsuspecting opponents. Unfortunately, even the energy of those stones was limited and did little more than temporarily blind his final opponent.

Buck was having a lot of fun even though he was bleeding from more than one sword cut and several scratches. The orcs were proving to be fairly easy kills and though he was tiring, he did not feel himself anywhere near an uncontrollable rage. Dispatching yet another foe with a vicious swing of his axe, he took a moment to glance around the clearing and see how the others were doing. He was surprised to see that there weren't many orcs left. In fact, it looked like just one apiece with none left for him.

Chris was trading blows with a very large and determined looking brute while Josiah's light show had his opponent reeling in confusion. Jaydee and Nathan both looked to be holding their own which left...

"Ezra?" Buck looked around the clearing but saw no sign of the man. He tried to remember the last time he had actually seen the minstrel and couldn't decide if had been before or after his fourth kill. Buck was starting to worry when he spotted Vin entering the clearing with his bow half drawn and an arrow notched and ready. Turning about to scan the battlefield again, Buck suddenly forgot his concern for Ezra as his gut tightened in fear.


Jaydee blinked furiously to rid his eyes of the burning sweat that ran down his face and plastered his hair to his head. Why, in the midst of fighting for his life, did he suddenly become aware of how much the drops of moisture tickled while running down his neck? It was annoying and worse yet, it was breaking his concentration.

When the orcs had first charged across the clearing, Jaydee had felt a brief moment of panic followed by a heart-stopping jolt of fear. The sight of his friends calmly drawing their weapons had bolstered his courage and he had quickly calmed his racing thoughts. When his first orc fell, he knew a moment of wild elation. With his second orc, he felt confident and sure of himself. The collapse of his third had been a great relief. Now, facing his fourth opponent, all he could think about was how tired and sore his arm was and how much he hated the sweat running down his neck.

Jaydee found himself panting for air as he blocked yet another blow from the orc. He felt the shock of the impact all the way to his shoulder and his sword slipped a little in his hand. Stepping back, he tried to adjust his grip but the orc was bringing his sword around again. The young man was forced to attempt another block but his fingers slipped on the metal hilt of his blade. This time, the force of the colliding weapons ripped the sword from Jaydee's fingers and sent it flying through the air.

Time seemed to slow as Jaydee's eyes followed the arc of his sword as it sailed away. With dream-like clarity, he could see the entire clearing and the position of each of his friends. Chris and Josiah were both putting the finishing touches on their last two orcs while Nathan seemed to be having a little trouble with his.

Jaydee spotted Buck and was surprised to see the fighter running in his direction while glancing back over his shoulder toward Vin. The half-elf was standing with his bow drawn but appeared hesitant to shoot. Buck was yelling something as he drew closer but Jaydee couldn't understand him. His ears were suddenly filled with a loud, thumping noise that he guessed was the sound of his own heart. He became lost in the pounding roar. A sudden glint of light brought his eyes back to the orc leering down at him, its sword poised above its head. Bysha, had the sky always been that blue?