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Preface

Kikoskia You may be asking, "Kiko, what is this all about? I thought you said you didn't want to reveal any information about your story!"

Well, allow me to clarify some things:

kav2k It's kav2k here, allow me to chime in for a second.



The Threnody of Dustledom

A Story of Kolvan

Chapter One

"It was not through the actions of Idra that the Great War erupted forth, but rather our inaction. A foul air festered in the kingdoms and the lords and monarchs of Kolvan did not step forth to fan it away before it fuelled the fires of conflict. It is my humble opinion – one that many a scholar and historian has sought to silence in the short time that I have been compiling this record, I might add – that the chronicles of our world have been marred with easily avoidable calamity if only those with courage enough had acted instead of waiting for others to act. It is as if they think the Great Hero himself will rise from his tomb and solve all our problems beyond death, so sure some are that things will right themselves in due time.

That is not how he became a legend, nor how this new war we fight will be won if it can be won at all."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.
Portrait of Kaden
Kaden, by @amaruana

For the first time since the new year, it was a truly beautiful day. The sun shone brightly over the fields and there was not a cloud in the sky. A warm breeze from the east kept the chill away, making the morning all the more pleasant. The weather so glorious, Kaden had felt it was time to go for a walk before nature changed its mind and returned to the chilly gloom more typical for the month. Farmers too were taking full advantage, checking on their crops and livestock while he strolled along the dusty path. He'd taken that route a hundred times before, to and through the vast forests that bordered the neighbouring kingdom of Corgaca. He much preferred Letani, finding that the knights of Corgaca had a proud streak he couldn't get along with, a remnant from their glory days where their empire spanned across the sea to numerous colonies. Stopping at the crossroads like he always did, Kaden removed his helmet and rested it upon the stone wall to his left as he considered just where he'd go today. One of the farmers waved in greeting to him and he returned the gesture, though he knew not who the man was. His walk would've been nicer were he not armed and armoured for conflict but he felt somewhat naked without the tools of his trade; in truth, his daily walks were an attempt to distract himself from the lull in adventuring he'd been in for nearly two months. Barring the occasional bandit and wild animals poaching livestock, Kant's Rest had been at peace and the surrounding lands were just as quiet. The town guard had assured him that he'd be the first to know if there was a problem they couldn't deal with but they'd not spoken of a word of anything since that time.

Deciding to bring it up with them again on his return, Kaden's thoughts drifted once more to which path he'd take as the sun's rays grew warmer. Temptations of the town flitted into his mind, remembering the smell of the freshly baked pies that had just been put on sale as he began his little excursion. The river further ahead promised a more immediate meal, provided the fishermen had been fortunate. Mouthwatering at the prospect of a fire-roasted meal, he put on his helmet once more and took the path directly ahead as a pair of chirpies flew above him, the small blue feathered birds flitting through the air in an elegant dance. Their melodic whistling made him wince in discomfort, having never liked their incessant twittering which often woke him too early in the day. He quickly spotted two people sat on the nearest bank of the river by the weathered stone bridge that had stood there for centuries, built from stone mined in the nearby area. He could just about see the fish that'd been originally carved into the sides as decoration though, like the bridge, they'd seen better days. Kaden approached, hoping to barter for a small meal with the coins on the pouch at his waist. Seeing neither a basket or net filled with their prize, he looked to the river and spotted his reflection. He couldn't see his short black hair but his eyes matched the dirt he stood in, face cleanly shaven and without blemish save a scar on his right cheek he'd gained from an assailants dagger a year before. His shadow made one of them look up from under his straw hat to see him. Kaden guessed the man was in his early twenties, nearly a decade younger than him.

"A fine day for it." Kaden greeted. The man looked to the steel breastplate and buckler he wore, then to his blue jerkin and trousers. He wasn't surprised at the latter, for it was an expensive colour to be wearing so close to the mud and grime of the riverbank. The fisherman quickly turned back to his rod whose string was still as a stone.

"Guess so." Came the reply. His fellow hadn't looked from the net he was repairing.

"Fish not biting?"

"Not a nibble. What's it to you?"

"Just curious. I saw you by the bridge and thought you might like some conversation," The silence he got said otherwise. His stomach remained silent, not yet betraying the true reason for approaching as he looked further along the river. No-one else was to be fishing which he found unusual, "Is it just you two this morning?"

"Seems it," The fisherman looked to Kaden again, this time quizzically, "A little far from your post, aren't you?"

"Oh, I'm not a guard. I'm an adventurer," Kaden then smiled and offered his hand to shake, "Kaden Mallas De'Dustledom, at your service."

Kaden could never be sure how anyone would react when he introduced himself for several reasons. People had widely different opinions of adventurers. On more than one occasion he'd been rudely dismissed as a glorified mercenary or worse. Within the kingdom of Letani at least the town guards tended to recognise him, by name if not appearance. Their welcome was warmer, though it was often sprinkled with concern at his sudden arrival, that something was afoot for him to appear. Beyond the kingdom, it varied from person-to-person, but his name often provoked curious questions more than his attire; De'Dustledom was an exceptionally rare name those days. His father Malkan being the other person he knew that possessed it. The fisherman glanced over Kaden's armour once more, then to the large sword slung sheathed on his back before returning to watching his fishing. Kaden's hand was ignored. He lowered it.

"So you say," Muttered the fisherman. Still, the other one said nothing, almost done with patching the hole, "Why aren't you fighting the monsters over the sea, then?"

"If everyone went off to fight them, who'd protect here?" Kaden asked him.

"The guard is good enough at doing it."

"But were they able to stop the bandit king from raiding Owl's Point? Or deal with the Afran spies that had hidden out in the forests by Corgaca?" Kaden could still remember the many traps he barely avoided in his pursuit of the agents of Afran, each one no doubt laced with poison more deadly than the last. He'd been lucky to escape unharmed.

"There's the rangers." The fisherman muttered with a shrug.

"And I was helping them. They can't be everywhere at once after all."

"So you say." Kaden got the feeling that even if they had fish, he wasn't going to be offered any and so stepped back with a polite smile.

"Well, I'd probably better get back to town. Perhaps we'll meet again." He told them.

"The next boat to the Ulhad is in a week, In case you want to do some proper fighting." The fisherman called to him as he walked back to the crossroads. Only when he was out of sight of them did Kaden sigh deeply. The conflict in the Wounded Lands had had enough people funnelled into it in the many years since its beginning fifteen years ago. He reflected on how the war had been a travelling companion his entire life, born as he was midway through the Great War, a terrible thing he was only glad ended before he'd come of age to be conscripted. His gurgling stomach drew him from those sad thoughts, deciding to end his foray abroad and return to town. He pondered on asking one of the farmers if they had anything to sell along the way but decided against it; they were busy enough without him prying into their business. It would only be an hour before he'd crest the hill where he could gaze upon Kant's Rest in all their splendour, the seat of power in Letani.

Few dared to smuggle illicit goods into Letani for fear of imprisonment and those who did didn't bring it through the gatehouses. The guards patrolling the sturdy stone walls were attentively watching the surrounding countryside though they rarely needed to fire their crossbows. One of the guards by the east gate spied Kaden approaching and waved him over past the queue, an invitation he gladly accepted. A few waiting in line with their wagons of goods grumbled but voice no real objection.

"Back already?" The guard was two inches taller than his six-foot height and strongly built. He held a two-handed war hammer where the others had halberds.

"Afraid so, Adam. Anything happen while I was gone?" Kaden joked as the other guards resumed his inspection of a carpenter's sack.

"The usual. A couple of pickpockets, dispersing a few doomsayers. Nothing to concern yourself with." Adam answered casually.

"Doomsayers? Again? I thought the queen forbade them months ago."

"It's not many who'd spit in the face of the laws of the queen right on her front door, but they're stubborn buggers. We kick one out, another's taken their place somewhere else in the city," The guard paused, looking to the long line ahead of him, "Still, it's not like they don't have something to talk about, what with the Cataclysm. Idra's little more than scorched earth and the monsters that come out of there now? They say they're ten times worse than the ones we fought in the war itself."

"It's nothing we can't handle. The line has held against them so far and not one has escaped off that continent," Kaden did his best to sound reassuring, though he'd never encountered one of the creatures himself nor witnessed the bleak terrain of the former nation. Adam nodded weakly, "Whatever dark powers Levta used to try and win that war us must have been the cause of that inferno, surely."

"Just as mad as the rest of his line, Levta. Crazy enough to try and invade Ulhad, not to mention Dustl-" Adam stopped himself too late, "Sorry."

"It was a long time ago. I was barely a child."

"Not for your father," A pause lingered, awkward and stilted. Then the guard remembered something, "He's been waiting for you to get back, you know."

"You're kidding," Adam shook his head, "I told him to go home."

"We all did. Won't listen, bless him. Wanted to wait right there for you to get back. He's a spirited one, that kid. Still saving up for his first sword, so he told me."

"No smith would sell him one, he's far too young," Kaden remarked.

"He admires you, you and your sword. Your fault for telling him about its magic."

"I know, I know." Grumbled the adventurer, wondering just what he was going to do about the child this time.

"You're a local legend, you keep forgetting that. People look up to you."

"Not everyone does." Kaden was thinking back to the fishermen at the bridge.

"And they're not worth your time," Adam smiled jokingly, "Don't suppose you want to help us clear through this backlog of people?" Kaden chuckled in response.

"Would that I could, but I've got a young child to send on his way. Perhaps I'll see you in the tavern later tonight."

"If nobody plays truant, you might. Have a good day sir- I mean, Kaden."

The warrior stepped through the gatehouse and immediately spotted the one who'd become his second shadow of late through the bustling crowds of people going about their morning routines. Leaning on a nearby wall was the boy, his long brown hair messy and unkempt and his clothes not much better. His blue eyes lit up upon spotting him, smiling widely like he had dozens of times before. He was over a foot shorter than the warrior but carried himself with the confidence of one twice his age and half again the height, deftly weaving through the crowd that barely noticed him till he was in front of Kaden. The smile had shifted to a grin.

"What you been up to?" Asked the boy enthusiastically, just as he always had.

"How long have you been there, Evan?" Kaden enquired, knowing full well the answer.

"Only just got here." The lie was convincingly said.

"Won't your mother wonder where you've got to?" Kaden began to walk, his shadow keeping pace with ease. The sounds of the city were both chaotic and ordered all at once, the days running just like any other. Stall owners hawked their wares, messengers darted from street to street and the guards observed the peace as best one could in the maelstrom of persons going to and fro.

"Done all my morning chores already, before the sun got up," Evan told him proudly. His eyes were admiring the weapon on Kaden's back, "Been monster hunting?"

"Just for a walk. There are no monsters around here."

"Sure there are! Billy tells me of them all the time, big furry things as big as a house with a hundred-hundred teeth like swords! You killed one of them?"

"Even if that did exist, I wouldn't be able to take it on," Kaden told him, focusing more on finding a path through the crowds then the one following him, "You shouldn't believe everything you're told about the world outside, you know."

"He said you slew fifty bandits single-handedly, then killed the bandit king with a lightning bolt from your magic sword!" Evan was attracting a few gazes from the adults that walked past, fleeting but curious.

"There were twelve bandits and I had three rangers with me." Kaden was working his way towards the bakery where the pies had been, hoping at least one was left. He was specifically avoiding the street where his home was; the last thing he wanted was Evan to linger across the street from it the rest of the day.

"And the lightning?" On that Kaden was quiet, as no answer was going to end well. Evan grinned even more, "What was it like? What colour was it? Did it make the bandit king's hair stand on end? Was there only ash and his smoking boots left after?"

Kaden let the questions roll over him like a tide of distraction, hoping to outlast the boy's boundless curiosity, "Did the queen give you a medal, like all the other knights?"

"I'm not a knight." He finally answered, sterner then he wanted to. He didn't appreciate that title being applied to him, though Evan was far from the first person to use it that day.

"But your dad's a knight, he told me himself!"

"He's a knight of Dustledom, I'm not," Kaden told him, taking a left down a narrow alleyway. Barrels lined the right of it, each giving off a different unsavoury smell.

"The queen would knight you if you asked, she thinks you're great. Then I could be your squire and we could go on adventures!" That made Kaden stop and look down to Evan, who hadn't noticed his unimpressed stare.

"You're a little too young to be going on adventures. It's not the place for a ten-year-old, you know." That wiped the smile off Evan's face, replaced with an annoyed frown and folded arms.

"I'm not young, I'm eleven! Everyone thinks I'm young, but I'm not! I'm the oldest of all my brothers and sisters!" The child complained, matching Kaden's stare, "Billy said you went on your first adventure when you were eleven!"

"I was twenty-three and it wasn't by choice," Kaden answered honestly, starting to walk again. Evan followed along this time right next to him.

"I'll go on an adventure and the queen will give me a medal, you'll see!" The boy declared, hoping to get a reaction from his idol.

They emerged into the larger street and it was there that Kaden spotted his salvation storming towards them with anger aimed exclusively at the boy with him, "...Uh oh."

"Where have you been?" Evan's mother was a force to be reckoned with on a good day and this morning was not such an occasion. Kaden had walked to the street where Evan lived and, so distracted was his shadow, the boy hadn't noticed where he was being led, "The clothes haven't been washed and you didn't go the bakers for bread! What have you been up to?" Evan's confidence dissolved, trying in vain to hide behind Kaden. Her eyes were piercing, staring right through the warrior at her son while she waited impatiently for an answer.

"I saw him loitering around the main gatehouse after my morning walk and thought I'd return him to you. He told me he'd done all of his morning chores, he was quite proud of it too." Kaden explained, smiling still lingering. The mother's stare turned into a glare.

"Oh did he?" She enquired, furious.

"Well, I-"

"You will go home, do your chores and be glad I don't clip you round the ears! Now!" Without a word or a look to Kaden, Evan rushed down the street to the small building where he and his seven siblings lived. His mother watched him run off sternly, then her expression softened to one of weary gratitude upon looking once more to Kaden, "I swear, one of these days he's going to get into some real trouble and I won't be there to stop it."

"He's enthusiastic, I'll give him that," Kaden said to her.

"Takes after his father he does, right down to the eyes. bless him, he still thinks his father's alive out there somehow, fighting monsters and being a hero," Both knew the truth and neither wished to say it. Instead, he reached into his pouch for some coins, something she noticed, "I don't need your charity, but thank you all the same. I manage just fine, somehow." Her smile was weak.

"As you wish. The bakery will soon run out of bread, so I won't keep you." They'd run out of pies sooner. She nodded, looking the opposite way that her son had gone.

"Yes, yes they will. I hope your day goes well Kaden." And with that, she stepped away and headed off to continue her morning. He sighed, thankful to be alone again and also not, for it allowed thoughts of the conflict across the sea and those who'd been lost in it to linger. Focusing again on his hunger to push them away, he picked up the pace to reach the bakery only to find that the delicious smelling pies had sold out not minutes before his arrival. The other goods were fine enough but cake didn't feel like breakfast food and he had bread at home. He resigned himself to returning home and having that instead, then checking with the town guard for anything he could do. He had money enough to last him many months if needed, but there was only so much time he could spend training and taking walks in the countryside before the urge to adventure hit him again. His father had it worse or so he was told, barely able to stay in one place. Rare was it when he returned to the home they shared and when he did appear, it was with a handful of Dustledom artefacts or some curio that he didn't explain, along with a purse of coin for Kaden to spend on taxes and his pursuits. Sometimes it wasn't even the end of the day before he was off again without so much as a note telling of where he'd gone or how long he'd be. Kaden was glad not to be so driven but right then, he wouldn't have minded a quest to pop out of nowhere and give him something to do. A short one ideally, without much risk and not too far from home, but adventures rarely bothered to conform to anyone's preferences.

Chapter Two

"Of all the refugee people of the Great War, only those of Dustledom were welcomed openly and without hesitation, for their woe was at the hands of Idra and the inhuman monsters they commanded at that dark time. The survivors of Holnar not of high station were tolerated by some, shunned by others which, with the benefit of hindsight, was cruelty beyond what they had already suffered at the hands of the Kaalvaer military. The scattered accounts of the short and bloody reprisal are grim reading and are provided overleaf.

Though the Idran refugees were initially looked upon with scorn, this attitude shifted when the madness of Levta came to light to one of sympathy. Those that had wisely fled and distanced themselves from the views of their liege are the only ones to have survived the Cataclysm and, like the Holnar and Dustledom refugees, are without a homeland of their own, one that can reasonably house them.

Efforts to repopulate the now-desolate kingdoms are, in my humble opinion, futile. The strong blizzards and near-permanent snowfall of Holnar make me question how they rose to prominence there in the first place. Dustledom teems with monsters and beasts to this day and those that remain from there are scattered across all the lands. Idra is naturally impossible to reclaim, held still by the horrific creatures Levta brought into his service."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Kaden found himself staring at the untouched tankard of ale he'd order half an hour ago, trying to enjoy the evening merriment of the Pig's Lament and somehow failing. He sat at a table that was all-but reserved for him; it was always empty upon his arrival no matter how full the tavern was. Nothing had happened that day which needed his attention and Adam had yet to show. Still, the fire in the hearth was warm and the current patrons not too raucous. On the rare occasions a fight began to brew, all it took was him standing for the atmosphere to simmer down, not rating their chances against a combat-ready – and sober – warrior. He leaned back in his chair and observed the commotion about him as his food order was brought to the table by the ever-friendly and approachable owner of the establishment, Balthas. Even though he'd retired from the guard ten years ago and had grown a lengthy white beard, he was every bit as fit and healthy as the day he'd left. He'd long ago stopped wearing his armour but a keen hand axe was tucked into his belt, the notches in its edge betraying the age of the weapon. Kaden's meal consisted of bread and cheese was along with slices of meat thicker than the usual serving.

"Bad day?" Balthas asked. The sixty-year old's voice was deep and welcoming but twinged with concern.

"I have no complaints," Kaden responded, tearing off a piece of bread and taking a bite. It was fresh and delicious.

"And yet your tankard's fuller then it should be. The entertainment tonight should cheer you up, we've got quite the show."

"Oh?" Kaden was cutting the cheese into smaller wedges.

"A troupe of bards is doing a tour of the taverns, they'll be on in a few minutes. Can't imagine why they'd want to play here first. There are far bigger taverns that'll tip better but they insisted, so I didn't object."

"It's the one place there won't be any trouble at least, not with you around." That made Balthas laugh loud and heartily, slapping Kaden hard on the back. Even though his breastplate he felt the strength behind it.

"You mean with you around, no?" The tavern keeper glanced back to the bar which was being manned by one of his staff, "You know I wouldn't ask you to do it, kid. I'm more than capable of kicking out a few rowdy drunks. You're here to enjoy yourself, so I don't want to see that sword of yours being drawn for anything short of a disaster, okay?"

"That's no change from normal these days." Kaden murmured, noticing then that people were starting to set up on the small stage. Balthas returned to the bar as the performers assembled, relieving the one who'd manned it in his absence. Each of the performers wore a long and thick black cloak that hid everything about them barring their instruments. One had a flute, another a small drum while the third was checking over a lute. The fourth and final member arrived on stage a little after the others and the instrument they held made Kaden take notice. It was a finely crafted hand harp, finely crafted and one that he thought he recognised. He dismissed the recollection to finally sit from his ale, only to freeze when the performers removed their cloaks.

He looked to the one who held the harp, remembering now all too clearly who it belonged to as he swallowed his ale very slowly. The troupe tuned their instruments and prepared their sheet music, all while the patrons muttered and whispered to one another about but Kaden was paying attention only to Calista. Only her trousers matched the simple black clothing of the other performers. Her tunic and boots were a rich purple yet practical in design, making her stand out even more on the stage. clothing for one whose kindness shone beyond the beautiful music she played with the troupe. Her brown hair had grown a little longer since they'd last met, now halfway down her back, but her eyes were exactly as he remembered them, a soft emerald green. She was half a foot shorter than him while being the second tallest person on stage, only just beaten by the flute player. Calista looked his way as the preparations for the performance ended and despite his best efforts to remain composed, he looked away from her stare nervously. He'd never been able to match that particular look in the four years he'd known her. His mind began racing with questions; Had she known he'd be there? Was this why they'd wanted to perform here first? Balthas rang a bell that hung behind the bar which caught everyone's attention and brought him back to the there and then.

"Ladies and gentleman," His voice carried itself to every corner of the room, "May I present to you tonight your entertainment. They've come all the way from Corgaca, so give a warm welcome!" The applause was loud, raucous, only silencing when the eldest of the troupe cleared his throat.

"Thank you, thank you," His was a quiet, fragile tone yet it still reached Kaden's ear, "We shall be performing only one tune tonight but I assure you, it will be like none other you have ever heard. We will, however, require absolute silence once our performance has begun." He looked to his fellows who nodded in turn, then to Calista to readied her harp to play. After a moments pause, they began and immediately the melody caught Kaden's attention. The tune was very unlike the normal fare of tavern entertaining for it was a mournful piece, slow and pained. Even so, the normally talkative patrons listened in absolute quiet, enraptured by the melody in minor which drew Kaden in also. Each note had a presence about it, stirring emotions and conjuring crystal clear images in his mind. They were of a battle being lost, the defenders routing from shadowy figures without definite form who ran them through with lances of darkness. In place of the cries of pain and falling bodies were sharp chords and loud drum beats, as if the score dictated the victor. Kaden lost track of time, the music enrapturing him until suddenly there was only one instrument playing. Now Calista strummed her harp alone, carrying the entire weight of the composition with grace and expertise.

Her eyes were closed in absolute focus, so familiar with the instrument she had dedicated over thirty years of her life to mastering that it was as much an extension of her being as his sword was to him. It had been so long since Kaden had heard it; the last time had been a year ago and far from an ideal moment, at the campfire when she thought no-one was listening. They'd been in pursuit of poachers that'd stolen billowargs from a hamlet at the border of Corgaca, only stopping when exhaustion threatened to fell them. She was adept with a blade and better with a hand crossbow, but music was her passion and it drew her to never remain in one place long, much as adventuring did to him. She always said that travelling with him gave her inspiration for her music and it made Kaden wonder if what she played now came to be because of that. Too soon was her playing drowned out by the rest of the troupe who added their instrumentals on top of it, blending harmoniously into a score that, while beautiful, no longer spellbound the audience so. They were still quiet however, most eager to continue listening while they nursed their ales. A few had tears in their eyes that they did nothing to still. Kaden leaned back in his chair, his food and drink forgotten as the tune finally came to an abrupt end.

The other members of the troupe took deep breaths after the last note, their faces lined with fatigue that hadn't been there before but none of the audience cared. Their adulation was thunderous, cheers and cries sounding out as money was thrown onto the stage in volumes Kaden had never seen before for a single piece. The applause continued far longer than he'd expected too, loud enough that he hadn't noticed someone sitting beside him at the table.

"You going to eat that?" It was Adam, still wearing his armour. His weapon was propped against the table. Kaden continued to watch as the troupe took their curtain call amid a chant for a repeat performance.

"Didn't think you'd make it," Kaden replied. He got Balthus's attention with a wave and pointed to Adam. The tavern keeper nodded and began pouring an ale, "Good shift?"

"Boring, tiring, the usual," Adam nodded thankfully to the one who brought his drink to him, passing over a kal in payment before Kaden could, "They're really good."

"Hm?"

"The troupe. Don't hear people of that skill often." After one final bow, the performers left the stage one after another. Calista was last to go, passing Kaden one final look before she departed behind the curtain. He looked back and couldn't help but smile despite himself, watching her leave sight, "Do you know her?"

"What?" Kaden snapped back to reality and shook his head a little too quickly, "No- I mean, yes. Yes, I do. We... we've met before." He focused on his food, hoping that would make the conversation go away. The atmosphere of the tavern had returned to normal quite quickly, though the background chatter was focused on what they'd just heard rather than more ordinary topics.

"Go talk to her then," Adam suggest. The very thought of that filled Kaden with apprehension stronger then he felt before any combat.

"...She's probably busy, too busy to talk to me."

"She's looking at you now, you know," Kaden's eyes darted up from the plate to check, only to see that the stage was empty. Adam chuckled and at that moment, Kaden wished he could sink back into his chair enough that he faded from existence. He was only glad his helmet hid his cheeks which blushed from embarrassment, "Go talk to her. She won't bite."

"They're be going to another tavern in a bit. She won't have time." Adam refused to let the topic drop.

"All the more reason to go talk to her, eh?" The guard was met with silence. He drunk the last of his ale and placed the tankard down, "If you're going to be stubborn, I won't press the matter. You can order me another drink if the like, I'll watch your food." Balthas was inundated with orders, no hand signal would work this time.

"Of course," Kaden stood quickly, "Feel free to have some of it if you like. I'm not so hungry anymore."

"Will do." Adam shifted the plate in front of him, his tankard nearly empty already.

Even as Kaden worked his way towards the crowded bar, he was trying to come up with what to say to Calista despite having no plans on asking to see her... and yet he wanted to. He cursed his indecisiveness, something that all but vanished while on the road. While on an adventure it was entirely different; he could talk to anyone, do anything. He had to, else the day wouldn't be saved. But he wasn't on an adventure and did he have the courage there? Of course not. It was probably for the better that she'd be gone soon even if that made him sad. At least he wouldn't have to try and fail to make small talk this way, he mused. People parted by the bar so he could approach it, catching Balthas's attention easily.

"Another ale, please." He said, reaching into his coin pouch.

"Can you make that two, please?" A familiar voice said next to him. He blinked; she was right next to him, wasn't she? How had he not noticed? She'd somehow managed to blend in perfectly to the crowd despite the astounding performance just minutes before, or had he not been paying enough attention? Two drinks were placed in front of him and she paid for both, taking her ale in hand. He had to turn to her eventually and so with a deep breath he did, looking to her with what he hoped was a welcoming smile. They looked to one another for a moment before she spoke to him, "Hello, Kaden. It's been quite a while, hasn't it?"

"Y-yes, it has." He stammered, kicking himself mentally. Why was he stammering? She smiled despite that, or perhaps because of it.

"You alright?" He nodded, taking the other ale in hand and entirely forgetting it was meant for Adam.

"I'm well, yes. I just... didn't expect to see you here, that's all. Quite a surprise."

"A pleasant one, I hope." He nodded, again a little too quickly.

"Of course, why wouldn't it be?" He'd already run out of things to say and they hadn't even started talking. He scrambled for a topic and settled on the first and most obvious thing to discuss, "What brings you here?"

"I was invited to join the troupe after they heard me playing in Seldeston. They've been doing pretty well, as you could see. Always capture the crowd."

"That's putting it mildly. It's like you put a spell over them. I've never heard that tune before, where's it from?"

"I don't know but from how weathered the score is, it's got to be old."

"Does it have a name?" She thought on the question between sips of her drink.

"Dawn's Defeat, I think."

"Is the ending meant to be so sudden?" He didn't know why that question took hold above all the others.

"I only get to see the parts I play. They're quite minor compared to the others."

You're better than all of them though." She shook her head with another smile.

"Always the charmer, I see."

"Not if it's the truth. Are you staying long?" He'd all but forgotten about his nerves with the conversation in full swing.

"Sadly not. We've got more performances here tonight, then we'll be heading south to Gandsvale," She spoke with a twinge of regret, "We'll be leaving at first light."

"Oh," Kaden paused, "Such is the life of a bard, no?"

"Little different to your life of adventure." She remarked.

"There's not much been much adventuring going on of late, been near my wits end for a week," He admitted, "No bandits, no wolves after livestock, not even a pickpocket ring to oust. It's like the whole kingdom decided evildoing isn't in style and went off to something else."

"I wouldn't speak ill of it if I were you, Kaden. Adventures have a horrible habit of being full of peril, or have you forgotten that?" She smiled a knowing smile, one he'd seen many times before.

"It's my line of work, I couldn't forget even if I tried. You've been on a couple of them yourself."

"Not nearly enough," One of the troupe members got her attention from by the stage, a box of coins in hand and gesturing for her to come. Calista sighed quietly, "I'd better go. Will you be home this evening?"

"I Should be. Why?"

"If I get time-" The gesturing from the troupe member grew more urgent, throwing Calista off her trail of thought, "It doesn't matter. Take care of yourself, alright?"

"You as well." And just like that she was gone, past the curtains and out of sight.

A weak wave of relief washed over him, quickly followed by regret which lingered; countless things he could've said when she was in front of him came to mind only to be silenced once more. Remembering then that he still held Adam's ale – and happy that he hadn't drunk from it – Kaden returned to his table to find that the guard had eaten most of his meal, watching him with a barely concealed smirk, "Your drink."

"Thanks," Adam took the drink from the warrior as he sat, "So?"

"...So?" Kaden glanced to the stage. It was empty now. He turned back to his own mostly untouched tankard.

"Looks like that went well," His friend took a deep drink of his new tankard, "Could always follow them to the next tavern, you know."

"I wouldn't be in a fit state to after the third. I can't let drink get the better of me, no matter what the occasion."

"Just in case you're needed?" Kaden nodded. "You really think something's going to happen tonight?"

"Stranger things have."

"I don't envy your job, Kaden. They don't pay you enough for it."

"I manage just fine."

"They still don't pay you enough." Kaden looked behind him to the window as a glow passed. The troupe of performers were indeed off to their next venue, Calista among them as the leader led them down the dark street with a lantern in hand. He'd been about to turn back his drink when out of the corner of his eye he spotted movement. A trio of people he hadn't seen before stood from their table closest to the door, each of them dressed very similarly. Unlike the performers, however, these people wore brown suits of gambeson and grey capes. Their faces were concealed by hoods, further adding to Kaden's suspicion. He watched them depart, noting that their gaze didn't deviate from the door out. As the last one stepped through the open door into the dark street, the breeze made his cape flutter up. A flash of steel strapped to the man's back made Kaden's eyes widen in surprise before instinct that cleared his mind, connecting dots faster then he could act. Worry rose along with his curiosity, standing up as soon the figures were out of sight. Adam looked up from his drink,

"Something up?" He asked conversationally.

"...I don't know." Kaden admitted. His tone told Adam all he needed to know, the guard standing up as well and taking his warhammer in hand. The silhouettes of the mysterious trio moved past the window quickly, too fast for them to be walking.

"We'd better go then," Kaden said nothing, not wanting to waste vital moments answering or stopping to say his farewells to Balthas as they exited the Pig's Lament in pursuit.

Chapter Three

"The huge loss of life during the Great War was only deepened with the Cataclysm, leaving a generation of people substantially thinned in number. The veterans that live today were those fortunate enough to be stationed in Ulhad or on shore leave when it occurred. The exceptional circumstances around the survival of Lord Avitus of Lodonia are worthy of note, for he was at the epicentre of the Cataclysm and yet was not reduced to ash like the other rulers who helped deal the final blow to Levta's ambition. It is said that his life was saved not only by his extensive magics but due to the intervention of an unnamed magician. This is unlikely, as such a powerful caster would be able to subjugate a kingdom of their own through sheer might (unlike Avitus who rules with the blessing of his people, I hasten to note.) Further rumours that the unknown magician is the same one that worked with the Great Hero are not worth entertaining, as that would put their age at over 800 years old, four times the age of Avitus with decades to spare. It is, in my humble opinion, more likely he survived due to a combination of his inner power, sheer force of will and chance.

The loss within the royal circles of the Three Kingdoms was especially heavy during the Cataclysm; King Bennet and Prince Andran of Corgaca, as well as King Jalen of Letani who perished earlier in the conflict, leaving his queen to rule alone. The last king of Ulhad also perished during the war, the throne left empty and command of the nation falling to the leader of the nation's military. With no known living heir, I wonder if their monarchy will ever be restored. The Idran and Holnar royal lines are also no more, at least to our knowledge. Thus the world in whole mourned the loss of life in the Great War and the Cataclysm. I believe it still does."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Few people travelled the streets at night, making any attempts at remaining hidden while travelling the main streets difficult. That tonight was a full moon made it all but impossible but Kaden was thankful it shed pale its light, for it meant he didn't need to strike up a torch to see those they followed. He'd yet to draw his blade, hoping despite everything that he wouldn't need to use its edge. Adam wasn't so restrained, his weapon ready as he matched the warrior's brisk pace, prepared for almost anything. Kaden's heart was beating despite efforts to calm his apprehension. He went through every other possibility for what he'd seen even then; perhaps their exit was mere coincidence, a group of mercenaries off to another tavern or heading to work guarding the warehouse farmers placed their produce ready for market day. Such considerations dissipated when one of the caped figures glanced back and noticed the pair tailing them. He got the attention of his fellows who all stopped and turned as one. None of them brandished the weapons Kaden knew they had.

"That's close enough." The middle one warned, gruffly and firm. He was tallest and heaviest built of the three. Kaden stopped, as did Adam. Something about the man's voice was faintly familiar, what he couldn't pinpoint.

"What's your business out here this evening?" Kaden enquired. The leftmost figure was looking about them a little too quickly for it to be natural. Though no-one else was visible, many were the gloomy alleyways that splintered off the road, each a possible thoroughfare for an ambush.

"I could ask you the same question." Came the answer. Adam took a step forward, prompting a shift in posture from the trio ahead. Kaden couldn't tell from that distance if they were readying to bolt or charge

"You will answer his question, citizen." Adam's voice took on an authoritarian tone.

"Says who?"

"Says a member of the queen's guard. Explaining your comings and goings at this late hour is the law. You'd be wise to heed it." There was a long pause.

"We're just heading home. Is that a crime?" Still, only the middle one spoke. Kaden took a step forward then, his armour catching the warm glow coming through a window beside him.

"No, but a concealed weapon always makes me curious," Kaden told them, "Why hide your steel?" A voice in the back of Kaden's head urged him to arm himself, that things would end messily. He ignored it. The rightmost and shortest of the trio looked down to her feet.

"A blade at the side always alarms, even when locked in the scabbard," That phrase was also familiar. Kaden furrowed his brow.

"Have we met before?"

"No." The reply was quick and blunt.

"Are you sure?"

"Are you done with your questions? We have places to be."

"Where?" Adam inquired. He didn't get a response, "I'd rather not haul you all in for questioning, but I'm not yet convinced that your intent isn't ill."

"Intent of what?"

"Where are you headed? I won't ask again." The leftmost figured glanced behind him before very slowly trying to reach behind his back. Kaden locked eyes with him, shaking his head slowly.

"Don't." He warned, his suspicions confirmed. He felt adrenaline build up, his breaths growing lighter. They'd been after the troupe, after Calista, but why? The leader of the trio stared beyond them now.

"Or what?" He threatened. Kaden heard footsteps behind them and turned too late to see that two figures had blocked their way back to the tavern. Though they didn't yet have their blades to hand, it was only a matter of time now. He took a deep lungful of air to steady his nerves as Adam slowly reached for something that hung around his neck, "It's five or us against two of you. I'd think carefully about your next move if you want to see the sun tomorrow." It was then that Adam smiled.

"Two?" He blew hard on his signal whistle, the piercing sound carried through the air and above the buildings around, "Try twenty."

Kaden drew Skyrazor in a single, fluid motion even as he wheeled around on face the two that had tried to flank them. The sapphire in its pommel shone with energy the moment his hands gripped the handle of the hand-and-a-half sword, its edge quietly humming with power. Sometimes that was enough to stop a battle before it started but neither foe backed down. Brandishing a pair of long daggers apiece, Kaden barely sidestepped the firsts lunging stab. He answered in kind, cleaving through the man's armour with ease and beyond into flesh and bone. The assailant's scream was blood-curling and momentary, dead before he hit the ground. His fellow joined him moments later, his ribs pulverised by Adam's warhammer. Kaden had no time to think of the fallen, turning back to the trio that were fleeing away down the street.

"Stop in the name of the law!" Adam bellowed as the pair gave chase. One of their quarry threw something behind them, likely caltrops, but Kaden had nothing to fear from them. They crunched under his steel-shod boots ineffectively, allowing him and Adam to gain ground. Then the trio stopped suddenly; it was their turn to be surrounded. Two guards had moved out from an alleyway ahead of them. One readied their halberd while the other held a short bow in one hand and a whistle in another, blowing a shrill note to alert other guards to their location.

"Drop your weapons!" The trio ignored the order, barrelling past them. Another three guards emerged further ahead however, notching arrows and taking aim. Each of the three assailants reacted differently to the ultimatum. One of them surrendered, coming to a stop and letting her blades clatter to the pavement. Another charged onward with intent to kill while their leader darted towards a narrow passage to the left which ran between two shops. The guards split their fire between the two still moving, loosing their shots without hesitation. The foolish one paid for his bravado with two arrows to the chest but the third missed their leader, the man disappearing into the shadows. Adam barely stopped to address the marksman.

"We're going after the other one!" He shouted. They got a nod of approval but Kaden would've continued after him without it. No way was he going to let a dangerous criminal escape into the night so he could endanger the lives of others. The way through was impeded by turned over barrels that Kaden carefully worked his way around, spying the final assailant at the opening to another street looking back to them before taking off out of sight.

"He's a fast one," Kaden remarked before jumping over a barrel too wide to weave by.

"Maybe he'll get tired before we do and give up." Adam hoped. A pair of figures moved to block their way and Adam reached them first, using the momentum of his charge for a powerful overhead swing. The first of them crumpled to the ground, startling their companion whom Kaden punched in the face. She dropped one of her daggers and staggered back, clutching her bleeding nose. Kaden moved past her, emerging in a square that contained one of the cities fountains. It was one that Kaden recognised immediately as one that had been built during the war to provide the people with fresh water. A statue of the former stood in its middle, facing defiantly in the direction of the now ruined nation of Idra. He turned back to the wounded assailant only to find that Adam had dispatched her with another mighty blow. The coast momentarily clear, his eyes quickly darted to the other exits, spying him on the opposite side of the square.

"You should have heeded my warning and left well enough alone," The man called to them moments before more dagger wielding-assailants pouring in from behind him to face them. There were at least seven, more likely ten and they were closing in fast, "Both of you would have benefited from what we seek to achieve, but now you won't live to witness it."

"And what is it you're planning? How does it involve the troupe?" Kaden called back. The leader chuckled to himself.

"Nice try, but I think not." Looking back the way they came, Kaden spied two more people navigating the obstacles towards them. Neither were guards, a quiet fear beginning to creep under his skin. He stubbornly refused to let it take hold but a few questions surfaced that he couldn't shake: How had they all converged on them before the guard could and what had happened to the ones they'd left with the captive? The leader looked once last time at them as Adam again blew his whistle. Kaden knew that any help would arrive too late to bail them out but did their foes know this? That they didn't scatter upon hearing the tone answered the question.

"Don't think you'll get away. Every gatehouse will be locked down tight!" Adam did his best to sound confident but his voice wavered slightly. The leader turned his back to them then.

"Kill them." It was a predictable order that the leader delivered coldly; Kaden had heard it from the lips of a dozen villains as they made a hasty retreat or sought a precious few more seconds for whatever ritual they were enacting. This one did the former, running off to let his lackeys finish the job. The underlings had yet to strike, none brave enough to commit first to battling the pair of them who now stood back-to-back. That indecisiveness gave Kaden vital seconds to think, come up with a plan. He'd been in worse situations though never within the walls of a city.

"Got any of that magic lightning left?" Adam muttered hopefully.

"Probably not enough."

"You got any better ideas?" Try as Kaden might, nothing had come to mind. He gripped the handle of his blade tightly and focused his will upon the glistening gem which started to shine brilliantly. The hairs on his arms stood on end through his arms as he pointed the tip of his blade at the assailants who'd finally found their courage and were rushing towards them.

"Skyrazor, answer my call!"

From the tip of his sword came a flash of light immediately followed by a bolt of lightning. It arced forward seeking a target and finding one in the man unfortunate enough to be closest. His body tensed up for a moment, face a visage of twisted agony before he collapsed. In that instant, the morale of the charge faltered, most staring aghast at the spectacle before the magic lightning jumped indiscriminately to the next closest person. Their fate was little better than the first, crying out in pain which triggered a near-total rout. Only a few dared remain, hoping a desperate assault would make the spell cease to be. One of them was fried by the lightning before he could reach closer quarters but the other two were upon Kaden a moment later. He parried away the first attack but the second found their mark, dagger biting into his right arm and drawing blood. Gritting his teeth at the sharp and intense pain, he tightened the grip on his sword and paid them back in kind, smashing the no longer glowing pommel of Skyrazor into their neck. He seized the reprieve and kicked the other in the chest just as Adam came to his aid, grabbing the one who'd wounded Kaden by the arm and pulling them away, all the while the bolt of lightning continued to leap from one enemy to another. Kaden squared off against the final one close to him who had recovered from the kick, narrowing his eyes and holding his weapon in both hands ready to defend himself.

"Give yourself up," Kaden demanded quietly, hopefully. To his surprise the man let go of his blades, holding his hands up. Satisfied that he had nothing to fear from them, he turned to render aid to his friend only to find that he didn't need any; the guard had his opponent against the pavement, one arm pressed to his neck while the other brandished his warhammer. Adam smiled up to him but that expression quickly shifted to panic.

"Look out!" He cried. Kaden swung as he turned about, a trick his father had taught him. Skyrazor gutted the one who'd feigned surrender, the stiletto which had been poised to stab slipping from their fingers. The life in the man's eye faltered and died in a pool of blood as the bolt of lightning finally fizzled into nothing, its work done.

As soon as it had begun, it was all over. Kaden took a deep and shaky breath, lowering his blade and looking about at the devastation he and Adam had wrought. A quick count told him that one of the assailants had managed to escape, perhaps rushing to catch up to the leader who'd ordered them to sacrifice themselves for his getaway. Throughout the square windows began to open, people staring out at the hideous spectacle in shock and fright. From an alley to the left emerged one guard, then four. Two went to check the scattered remains about while another went to assist Adam with his captive. The eldest of them approached Kaden.

"Are you two alright?" She asked. She spied Kaden's injury then and winced, reaching into a pouch at his waist to retrieve a bandage. Kaden held out his arm to ease in its application. The sting of the magically enhanced ginseng smeared on the cloth was momentary, "What happened, Kaden?"

"They refused to answer our questions when confronted about their hidden weapons. I think they were after the troupe that performed in the Pig's Lament just now, but why I couldn't tell you. Three became many, their leader darted away and, well... this was the result. I'm sorry."

"You were just doing what's right, no-one can fault you for that."

"Have you found the troupe? There might be more of these out and about, not to mention the one in charge of them."

"They'll surely have taken shelter once the first whistle went off. Do you have a description of them and the one that got away?"

"Most of them wore thick black cloaks. One of them is a Corgacan, Calista is her name. She has a harp, purple tunic. You can't miss her." The guard nodded.

"We'll look out for them."

"The only thing I can tell you about the leader is that his accent was familiar to me for some reason. I still don't know why, though."

"An old enemy that got away?" Kaden thoughts skimmed each of his adventures for someone, anyone whose voiced had sounded like that. He drew a blank.

"If it was, they never spoke to me."

"It was a long shot. As for the brigands," The guard's expression hardened, "They won't get far. Thanks to the ones that reported in earlier with a prisoner of their own, we know what to look for. If they think they can evade the queen's finest, they're in for a rude awakening."

"We still don't know why they're after the troupe," Kaden mentioned, his thoughts flitting to them in worry despite assurances otherwise.

"We'll get to the 'why' soon enough." Adam was speaking to their captive that was now on his feet, albeit with a guard's halberd at his neck and Adam gripping the neck of his gambeson.

"Make sure to report to the captain after you've dropped him off."

"I was already planning on it," Adam smiled to his prisoner, "You get the honour of a night in our cells, free of charge. How's that sound?" The man didn't reply, gaze fixed firmly on his feet. Adam nodded to Kaden and, with a parting look, left with the square with the captive. The two guards checking the fallen returned then.

"All dead." One told the older guard.

"Nothing incriminating on any of them, either," The other added, "Not even a coin pouch." That prompted a curious look from their superior.

"Check their armour for inner pockets," She ordered. The two guards glanced back to the bodies hesitantly, "That wasn't a request."

"Yes, ma'am." They replied before heading off once more. Their superior sighed to herself.

"They get greener by the month, I swear," She muttered before addressing Kaden again, "We'll take care of things here, Kaden. Go get some rest."

"If it's all the same to you, I'd rather help track down any of them that are still out there."

"And we appreciate the offer, but you've done more than enough for us as it is. Besides, we might need your help with questioning if they insist on stilling their tongues."

"Criminals of the night face judgement in the day, so their misdeeds cannot hide in the shadows." Kaden recited the queen's decree as fresh in his memory like all the others.

"Exactly." The guard nodded to him, "Letani once again owes you their thanks for your service. Now off you go, the night isn't getting any younger."

Kaden thought of arguing but decided against it, though he did cast one final look back at the square before leaving. Most of the windows were shut but a few people continued to watch the aftermath of his conflict. The look of adoration he got from one child did little to make him feel better, cleaning the blood from his sword with a piece of cloth he kept for such grisly occasions. Now that his life was no longer in immediate peril – there was always the chance of another of the assailants striking out from the shadows in vengeance for their fallen comrades, after all – his mind filled with thoughts of the troupe and Calista. He worried for their safety but even if he went against the suggestions of the guard and set off down the alleys in search of them, how much could he possibly achieve? Many were the streets of Kant's Rest and in the night hours most looked alike, a maze of civilisation worse than any foreboding forest. His reluctant acceptance of that fact didn't mean that he'd get any sleep that night, however, not while there were so many unanswered questions and evil that had to be stopped. It would not wait till morning like had to.

Chapter Four

"Of all the schools of magic, enchanting remains the rarest. In ages past the secrets of imbuing items with magical properties was known only by the royal family of Letani, a dominion which was broken in 399 A.E by prince Leandro. He was far from the line of succession and was promised no holdings of his own upon the king's death and so he set forth to carve a niche of his own. His parents disowning him for divulging what were then secrets of the kingdom was of little consequence to him, for he lived the rest of his days teaching a handful of students from the safety of Polena. In my humble opinion, Leandro did the world a great service by ensuring that the practice survived to the present day.

Enchantment is also the hardest arcane discipline to master, taking many decades to become proficient. The pay-off is well worth it, however, its practitioners are always busy with one commission or another. So unique are the individual demands of their customers that no two items are the same, though the most common creations are weapons and armour to help warriors gain an edge over their foes, no pun intended of course. These wondrous items end up amassing as much acclaim as their owners, if not more, becoming the stuff of local legend and the prized possession of many an armoury.

Every once in a while a magical artefact will surface that has no prior history attached to it. These are often things of great power uncovered in long-forgotten ruins if you believe the accounts of those who possess them – they are prone to exaggerate such things, the better to boost their fame – but their existence prompts an important question: who forged these mighty creations and why was there a need for such powerful tools of death?"

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Kaden found himself waking on top of the covers as a ray of sunshine smothered his face. He didn't even remember settling down on the bed nor removing his armour, which he hadn't. His body ached in protest but still, he rose, rubbing his eyes and stretching. For a brief moment, he considered whether it had all been a dream, a theory which fell to pieces upon spying the bandage on his arm. He undid it carefully to check that the wound was healing and was relieved to see it had closed. In another day there'd be no evidence left save his memories of it. Hunger spoke up before he could get distracted by the many unanswered questions from the night before, heading out of his room to the main room to raid the bread box. Along the way, he glanced to the many relics of Dustledom scattered about, the most prominent of which was a banner of the kingdom in remarkable condition. Its heraldry was rather plain – a white and grey chequered shield on a blue background – but all who saw it recognised the hero of legend it had once belonged to. Small knick-knacks lined the mantelpiece and others items were dotted about on various tables, each with a story to tell. Kaden had once joked with his father that they should charge an admission fee to look at their museum. The look he got back ensured he'd never repeated the remark. Reaching the bread bin, Kaden tore off a chunk of bread that'd been there two days and made his way out the door, making sure to lock all three locks. Turning back to the street, Kaden was startled by a guard who had approached while his back was turned. She nodded respectfully to him, halberd in hand.

"Good morning, Kaden." She greeted.

"What's happened?" He quickly inquired, "Did the survivor talk? What did she say?"

"The captain can answer your questions if you'll come with me."

"Of course." The guard took off down the street and he followed close behind. He quickly realised she was taking the most direct route to the garrison.

"I heard about what you did last night. Makes me wish I was there to see it."

"It wasn't a pretty sight." He assured her. As they passed some people stopped to point and muttered to those next to them. Word had indeed spread quickly of his deeds. The truthfulness of those rumours was something he didn't have time or inclination to discover at that time; nothing he'd tried in the past had worked to set rumours straight and so he'd given up trying. They briefly passed through the square where Skyrazor had set about its terrible work. There was no sign of the previous night's battle, the blood scrubbed from the cobbles and the bodies gone, but he knew those who'd seen it wouldn't forget it for a long time.

The garrison was in the centre of the city, surrounded by walls as thick as the ones that encircled the city. The portcullis was opened without so much as a word from either of them and in front of the keep stood the captain. Nothing remained of the blonde hair she'd one had, the last vestiges of which had fled a month ago on her fortieth birthday. The silvery grey which remained was cut short, the better to fit into a helmet in times of conflict. Clad in a pristine chain mail tunic, brown gambeson and steel-shod boots just like his own, she wasn't one for smiling and didn't break the habit upon seeing him. A sword hung from her belt, one which had seen much use during the latter years of the war. Her stare was commanding, reminding him of his father on the rare occasions he was angry. The green eye not under an eyepatch quickly looked to his healing wound than his sword before matching his gaze.

"She won't talk, Kaden." Lizzy wasn't one to mince words.

"Strong will?" He asked.

"No tongue." Kaden paused; had he heard that right?

"...What?"

"Neither of them did. Cut out a long time ago, so the healer says," Lizzy looked to the guard who'd escorted Kaden who then returned to her duty. Kaden stepped closer, the portcullis closing behind him as she lowered her voice, "They refuse to answer questions in writing and they've nothing on them to betray who their employer is."

"One of them did talk to me," Kaden mentioned.

"I know. Adam filled me in on all the details last night. Good job, by the way. You two likely saved a lot of lives." her praise made him shrug.

"I just did what I felt was right," He told her before returning to the topic at hand, "How did they get into the city?"

"Nothing says they all arrived at once, but no inn has had anyone matching their description rent a room all this week, or so they say. There's always the sewers but you'd have smelt the fact they used it to get in."

"Do you think the innkeepers are lying?" She folded her arms at that.

"I know every one of them personally. It would have been all over their faces," Lizzy spoke with certainly that Kaden didn't doubt. A pair of guards walked past them quickly, heading towards the stairs which led up onto the walls, "Then there are the gatehouses. No-one posted there let anyone in or out all night, which leaves only one possibility."

"That someone let them in," He guessed. Silence answered him, "Are you questioning them?"

"I won't tolerate turncoats in my garrison," Lizzy's eye narrowed, "If there are traitors in our midst, they'll wish they never betrayed queen and country once I uncover them."

"If they're still in town." There was another pause.

"There was one development that I feel you should know about," The captain turned to the keep and the guards by the entrance opened the heavy oak doors without needing to be asked, "This way." Kaden obeyed without question. Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw upon entering, however.

"...Calista?" He blinked, unsure whether his eyes deceived him. Sure enough, the bard was sat on a bench not far into the entrance hall. Beside her stood an aged figure in white robes which identified him as one of the cathedral monks. It wasn't one he recognised but that didn't surprise him; rare was the occasion which prompted him to visit there. She looked up to Kaden and gave him a weak smile. His was far wider, "You're alright!"

"Hello, Kaden." She spoke quietly but was happy to see him. He wanted to run over and hug her but stopped himself far too easily, in part due to Lizzy's ever-vigilant gaze. He seized upon the first and most obvious question before the others drowned it out.

"What are doing here? Are the rest of the troupe with you?" He asked.

"It's just me, I'm afraid." She answered, shaking her head. The monk took a half step forward and began to speak, his voice a raspy whisper.

"She arrived on our doorstep far into the night seeking sanctuary," He told them quietly, "We made sure that she was well cared for till the morning light, whereupon I escorted her here at her request."

"You have my gratitude," Kaden said in thanks.

"It is Yem'Da who should receive your gratitude, for it is They who protects."

"Of course." The monk slowly turned to Lizzy then.

"I must now return to my duties and you to your penitence." His declaration didn't impress the captain.

"Wars aren't won with admonishment, old man," With that, the monk left, though he passed both her and Kaden a disappointed look that lingered a touch too long due to his lack of haste. Once he was out of earshot Lizzy tutted, then addressed Calista, "What happened last night?" Calista shifted on the bench, then began to speak.

"No sooner had we walked past the windows of the tavern, the head of the troupe told us to split up, make own way to the next place," She explained, "It didn't take a genius to realise he thought someone was following us but I didn't have time to argue the point. They darted off like they'd done it a hundred times before, leaving me by myself."

"So you headed to the cathedral?" Kaden guessed.

"I probably should've gone right back to the Pig's Lament but if someone was following us I didn't want to walk right into them, so I tried to get to the next place on our tour," She paused, "That was when they found me."

"How many?" Lizzy's attention was focused entirely on Calista, scrutinising her every move.

"Two. They took me by surprise but weren't expecting a fight," From her tunic, the bard pulled out a dagger. The blade was covered in dried blood, "I ran to the cathedral after that and didn't look back." Her story made perfect sense to Kaden, knowing full well her skill with a blade. Lizzy was quiet, pondering all she'd heard before asking another question.

"I don't suppose you can shed any light on why they'd want to... kill you? Capture you? Mug you?"

"I've no idea," The bard answered, "I don't have enemies, not any I know of anyway. We've crossed swords with people in the past, me and Kaden, and it wouldn't have been hard to know we were in the city. Word spread quickly of our tour after the performances in Corgaca," Calista thought for a moment, "The best guess I can come up with is to hold us for ransom, see if Corgaca pays." Her suggestion made Kaden chuckle.

"Unless you've suddenly been knighted, I don't think they'd care." He told her, prompting a look, "It's true."

"If not for ransom, then what? We only had the money from the Pig's Lament on us and my coin pouch but neither are worth all that trouble. The guards say you killed a dozen of them, Kaden." He wasn't too pleased to be reminded of it but it did bring something else back to mind.

"There was something about the leader's voice," That ever-familiar accent returned into his head and once more Kaden tried to piece together the incomplete puzzle, "It wasn't one I've heard before but I have if that makes sense."

"Not even a little." Lizzy was blunt, as always.

It was then that the main door was hastily opened, allowing an out of breath guard to stumble in. Everyone turned their attention to him.

"Captain!" He gasped for breath, "The western gate!"

"A sighting?" Lizzy asked quickly.

"Deserters. Three of them. There's no record of the gates being opened since sundown," Kaden was half ready to rush there right away but waited for more information. Forewarned was forearmed, after all, "There were also tracks beyond the gatehouse, too many to just be them."

"Has the western gate been re-garrisoned?"

"Yes, captain."

"Good job," The captain congratulated, "Notify the rangers."

"Already done, captain. Tobias is hot on the trail." Kaden recognised the name. He was a good shot and a skilled woodsman, but that didn't set his mind at ease. He glanced to Calista, immediately recognising her look of determination.

"Good. Get to the mess hall and take a breather." Lizzy ordered.

"I've still got an hour of guard duty left, captain. If it's all the same, I'd like to finish it." The guard requested politely.

"Then go, but return here when you're done. I reward diligence," The guard left without another word, the door closing once more. Lizzy looked to Calista and Kaden in turn, reading their faces like open books, "Don't let me keep you if you want to give chase. We could surely use the help. I'd come with you myself if I didn't have my duties here."

"I don't think they'd stand a chance if you went after them," Kaden said. The comment didn't provoke a smile.

"Age has a nasty habit of slowing your swing. No-one fights forever."

"Except Kandas," Calista remarked.

"Even he had to give up eventually and he was in a league of his own."

"He's what got me into adventuring, that and my father," Kaden added, thinking back to the bedtime stories of heroics and valour that Malkan told him, back when his main focus was raising his son.

"I'll require some weapons," Calista mentioned then. The captain nodded.

"And you'll have them, as well as provisions enough for a week's travel. Just tell the guards at the western gate what you need and they'll give it to you." The thought of questioning her coming with him didn't cross Kaden's mind; she was as much involved in this as he was, if not more, "You discover anything that might be a threat to queen, country or anyone else, you send a message back to me. As for the deserters, question them if you can." Lizzy's words didn't sound like a request and Kaden expected nothing less. Calista stood from the bench.

"Thank you. We'll do our best."She assured Lizzy.

"That's all anyone can ask. Now get going." The captain left before Kaden could thank her, heading down the corridor and disappearing around a corner. Kaden looked to his friend who gave him a weak smile.

"Are you ready?" She beat him to the question.

"Are you?" He asked back. He didn't need to know the answer and she didn't give one, the pair stepping out of the keep and heading to the western gatehouse together.

Kaden's mind had already switched over to thoughts of the journey ahead by the time they reached the western gatehouse. The guards had expected them – Lizzy had likely ordered a signal be sent from the watchtowers to tell of their need – and waited with two backpacks. Each was laden with dry rations, water skins and other useful adventuring gear. Calista requested her weapons of choice, a short blade and a hand crossbow, and was provided with both They had no mudrunners to offer and while it would've made their pursuit much faster, Kaden was quietly glad of it, having never been good at riding them despite Malkan's best efforts to teach him.

"Good hunting out there." Was the parting words of the guard as the portcullis was raised for them. Kaden and Calista wasted no time in leaving the city and searching for the trail. Gone were the thoughts of idleness that had haunted him the last few weeks, replaced by the adventuring mindset that felt so comfortable. The tracks were easy to find and follow for they were many; Kaden estimated there were at least fifteen different sets of footprints, most of them from sturdy boots. It didn't take long before Kaden started to wonder why their pursuit was so straightforward. Why hadn't they split up into smaller groups, made efforts to conceal their footprints? His first idea was that they wanted to be followed but that was foolish when the rangers of Letani were involved. Thoughts of a carefully laid trap also came to mind but were quickly dispelled, for there was nowhere for such a large group to hide amongst the fields and plains. Neither of them said anything after their departure, both equally as focused on the task at hand. He had glanced behind them a few times, thinking that he'd heard someone else on the road but saw nobody. It was likely the wind rustling through the occasional tree they passed or his mind playing tricks. After an hour of travel, the tracks veered off into the grass and headed into the river Leta. Not wanting to get soaked, they carried on down the road towards the bridge over it only to see a figure waiting for them with an enthusiastic smile that Kaden knew all too well.

"Now you notice me. I thought you were never going to stop!" It was Evan. A small sack slung over half full. Kaden was surprised, stopping with Calista just a few metres from the boy.

"What are you doing here? Your mother will be worried sick!" He asked.

"You know this kid, Kaden?" Calisa enquired.

"I'm not a kid, I'm eleven!" Protested the child.

"Why are you out here?" She asked, echoing Kaden's concern.

"The guards said you were going on an adventure, so I decided to come along and help!" Oh no. That was bad, really bad. Alarm bells rang in his head at the very thought. Evan talking with them then was bad enough for, every moment of delay furthering the gap between them and their quarry.

"Go home Evan, now," He ordered the boy, glaring down at him, "Your mother will be looking for you."

"She's working right now, won't be home till dark. You'll be back before dark, won't you?"

"We're going to be a lot longer than that. We'll be gone done days, maybe weeks."

"Wow, weeks? That's awesome!" Evan stepped up to Calista, ignoring Kaden's stare, "Are you an adventurer like Kaden?"

"I'm a bard but I've been on a few adventures with Kaden."She answered.

"Are you his friend?" The questions were getting on Kaden's nerves. He looked back to the city, hoping by some miracle that a guard patrol would pass by and escort Evan home. Unfortunately, no-one came.

"Yes, he is." At her confirmation, Evan's smile widened.

"Are you his girlfriend?"

Neither Calista nor Kaden had been expecting the question, but they reacted differently; she smiled faintly, tucking a wayward loose strand of hair. Kaden, however, was embarrassed beyond all belief, glad that his helmet hid his reddening cheeks. Nervousness blossomed only to be squelched by a wave of anger that he could barely contain.

"Go. Home." Kaden's order was louder and sterner this time.

"But I want to help! I can help!" Protested Evan.

"You can help by going home."

"Our journey will be dangerous, Evan," Calista tried to reason, "It's not that Kaden doesn't want your help, rather that he doesn't want to see you get hurt." That did nothing to persuade the boy, instead further galvanising him.

"I can handle myself just fine! I'm the toughest kind of my street!" Even stood as straight as possible, "I'm going with you and that's that!"

"I'll take you home myself if I have to," Kaden warned.

"No, you won't."

"Says who?"

"Me. You take me home and the baddies will get even further away."

"Evan-"

"So let's go! We need to teach them a lesson, that they can't do bad things and get away with it!" He'd already started walking over the bridge and as try as Kaden might to come up with a retort, none surfaced.

"Evan! Evan!" The boy ignored him. He gritted his teeth, "This is a bad, bad idea."

"We can send him back with the first caravan we come across," Calista looked on as the child waited for them on the other side of the river impatiently, "He'll be fed up by then."

"His mother's going to kill me," Kaden sighed, "I should just take him back. It's not far."

"Kaden," Her tone drew his eyes to her own, "We can think about this as we move, can't we?"

"Yes, but..." She raised an eyebrow at him, ready to take it to the next stage of frowning if he objected again. He sighed deeply, "Okay. The first chance we get, he's going back. Children and adventures do not mix."

"You don't need to tell me that. Come on." She followed Evan and reluctantly so did Kaden, but not before taking one last look at Kant's Rest. Was this Evan's idea of revenge for ratting him out to his mother, or would he have come along anyway? How had he even found out what he and Calista were doing? Had he tracked them down in town and followed them to the gate? Why had the guard let him out? No matter what the answers were, the child was his responsibility now and it was far from the best time to babysit. Reaching the other side of the bridge, the warrior looked ahead, trying to figure out just where their quarry was going. Many were the villages and hamlets that dotted the countryside but it was the large forests that Kaden was afraid of losing them in. In the far distance, he could vaguely make out the snow-capped peaks of the mountains from which Letani mined most of its mineral wealth. Of the many mining settlements, only Glimmershade came to mind, the largest exporter of silver in the Three Kingdoms. The ones they pursued wouldn't head that far west, however; there was no way through the mountains to the sea beyond and only the most skilled mountaineers could climb them and return alive. It was more likely that the tracks would lead to the nearest forest where they'd try and throw them off the scent before either heading to the Southern Kingdoms or east to the sea. Evan followed a few paces behind as they searched for the tracks on the other side of the river, eagerly watching them and their surroundings with wide-eyed wonder and the satisfied smile of a child that'd got exactly what he wanted. Kaden didn't share his enthusiasm but found himself smiling when he thought of the long cross-country trek they were about to embark on, a journey that was anything but the high adventure of which childlike fantasies were made.

Chapter Five

"There have been many heroes throughout Kolvan's long history but none are as revered as Kandas Tavald, commonly referred to as 'The Great Hero'. Born on the first day of the third month of 350 A.E in Constan, Kandas began training as a paladin of Ulhad at the unbelievably young age of 7 and went out into the world at 17. Skilled both in swordplay and magic, some believe that his mastery of healing has only recently been surpassed by Avitus of Lodonia. His accomplishments are many, though the fineries of said deeds are often-times muddled with exaggeration and falsehood. He was rarely seen without his stalwart travelling companion – and hero in his own right – Leal. Accounts of his early life prior to adventuring with Kandas are almost non-existent, however, in part due to his humility.

Among their many achievements was averting a war between the Southern Kingdoms in 371, defeating an Earthgert that threatened Haldoshern in 377, assisting in the Third Ethanian rebellion in 384 and helping Aefun and Takken repel the invading Corgacan fleets during the Aefun war of independence in 435. It is worthy of note that at that time Kandas was eighty-five years of age, only finally retiring from active adventuring in his ninety-eighth year. Had he been physically able to do so, it is my humble opinion that Kandas would've happily strived to better the lives of others until his death in 457. That his tomb is impossible to visit due to the fall of Dusltedom is a tragedy, though it is at least safe from would-be grave robbers for obvious reasons.

While Kandas' exploits are talked of in great detail, little is known of his home life save that he married Annette Gerunval of Letani in 399, their son Thomas being born the same year. For our adoration of the Great Hero – save for in Corgaca where he is still viewed as a criminal – we know very little about the man himself. Fewer details still are available about Thomas but I have been conducting some research and believe I am approaching a rather astounding conclusion. If I am right, Corgaca's opinion of Kandas is a humorously ironic one."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

"My feet hurt," They'd only been travelling a few hours before Evan had begun complaining. Kaden was trying not to listen, his attention on the tracks they continued to use to follow their quarry through the countryside which had grown wilder the further they got from Kant's Rest. The footprints remained numerous and poorly hidden, though they had spread out, "Can we stop? Please?"

"No, we can't," Kaden couldn't help but smile as he answered.

"Why not?" Came the inevitable question. Calista looked back to the child who trailed a few steps behind them.

"We need to catch up. We're going to be travelling all day." Answered the warrior. Kaden was beginning to feel the strain of their extended travel himself but was keeping quiet about it, hoping to sway Evan against his little adventure and head back home to his mother who was no doubt at her wits end looking for him. Time was running out for that though; Kaden wasn't comfortable with sending the boy home if it meant travelling through the night and there wasn't long till that was a possibility. The lands around the capital were peaceful enough but there were always reports of brigands and wolves that prowled in the dark hours, neither of which he wanted Evan to come across.

"All day?" Evan was mortified, "But the bad guys won't be travelling all day. We can take a small break, right?"

"Not till past sundown," Kaden glanced back to him, "It's going to be like this every day, you know. Lots and lots of travelling."

"To their hideout?"

"Possibly," Calista answered the boy, "We might reach them sooner than that." She was faring a little better than Kaden due to not wearing as much armour. She'd kept glancing behind them during their hunt, in part to keep an eye on Evan and also to check for anyone following them, but so far they remained alone.

"Billy says that all the bad guys in Letani hideout in the old ruins up by Gantsbridge," The boy explained with absolutely confident, "Nobody goes there because it's haunted by the ghosts of those who died when the castle fell to Corgacan knights a long time ago."

"Corgaca have never been at war with Letani." Calista corrected him gently.

"Yes, they have! They've been at war with everyone!" Evan bent down to pick up a small rock, tossing it aside, "That's why lots of people don't like them." That made the bard frown.

"Does that mean they don't like me?" She asked. The boy's eyes widened.

"N-no," He answered quickly, looking down at his feet, "You're not like the knights. They're mean."

"Have you actually met a knight of Corgaca?" For a moment, Evan was lost in thought. Then he looked back to Calista with a wide smile.

"No, but I've seen wizards! They're awesome!" Enthusiasm had returned to his voice, "Sometimes the young ones come and show us magic, the sparkly kind. One made orbs of fire and juggled them like balls! Can you use magic?"

"I've never taken the time to learn." She told him.

"You'd be a cool wizard, I know it! You could use your harp in your magic or something," Evan's smile faltered, "Not like that creepy guy from Afran."

"You've met a wizard from Afran?" Her curiosity was piqued.

"Feval Canda-something." Evan spoke the name warily.

"Candaran," Kaden corrected, looking ahead. He spied a large woodland a little to their left which he hoped the tracks wouldn't head to, "He's the newest emissary from The Ringed City, arrived two months ago. He's a necromancer-"

Evan gasped loudly, stopping still.

"A necromancer?" Evan was afraid, "Does that mean he has skeletons and zombies? Is he raising an army to conquer the world? Why haven't you stopped him, Kaden?"

"Because there's nothing to stop. He's just a diplomat."

"But he has evil magic! He could be doing evil things right now!" Kaden finally stopped, turning to face the child. His face was one of fear which rooted him to the spot. They weren't going to make any more headway with him like this, not unless he was willing to carry the boy over his shoulder. At least then he'd be able to return him to Kant's Rest without much difficulty, he mused idly. Calista approached Evan then, her expression a reassuring one.

"Necromancy isn't what you think it is. Most of the time it's used to communicate with the spirits of those who have passed on," Calista told him. Evan wasn't convinced.

"Most of the time." He murmured.

"It's the wizard who makes their magic good or evil in what they use it for, not the magic itself."

"Necromancy is outlawed in Letani anyway," Kaden added, "He'll be under oath to obey the laws of this land while he's our guest, something I'm sure he'll take seriously."

"But... But Afran has slaves," Evan's fear only grew with his own words, "Is... Is he here to kidnap people to be his slaves?"

"Any slave that steps foot in Letani is forever freed of their servitude and given the same rights and protections afforded to any of the nation's people," Kaden recited the ancient law, "Feval isn't here to do anything wrong."

"You don't know that!" Came the protest, "He's up to something!" Kaden folded his arms, his impatience growing.

"So says Billy, the font of all knowledge?" The warrior bit back most of his sarcasm, "What proof do you have that he's up to no good?" Evan looked down to his hands them which had begun to fidget. voiding eye contact.

"...He stares at you funny." The boy's voice had gone quiet. Kaden and Calista shared a puzzled look.

"What do you mean?" She asked.

"I saw him last week in the market. Wasn't looking where I was going and bumped into him. Said sorry but he barely looked down at me before he was gone," Evan paused, "His eyes were creepy though, real weird."

"Weird?

"Yeah. He looked at me, but not at me. It was like I wasn't there, like no-one else was there. The fun wizards don't stare like that," Kaden recognised the stare from the description alone; he'd seen it on the faces of those who'd gone toe-to-toe with the Idran forces in the latter parts of the Great War but mostly from his father. Malkan would sometimes stare at the banner over the fireplace when he didn't think Kaden was paying attention, his eyes taking on a distance when he did. "You're not going to be fighting a necromancer, are you?"

"I can't promise anything, Evan," Kaden said honestly, his thoughts returning to there and then, "We'll probably have to fight at some point, however. If you'd rather head back home-"

"No," Evan interrupted quickly, shooting down the glimmer of hope Kaden had begun to build up, "You need my help. I can't go back, anyway."

"Why not?"

"If I go back home, Billy and the other kids will call me a scaredy-cat." Kaden sighed; so that was the reason he'd come along.

"Isn't Billy your friend?" Calista inquired, curious. Evan nodded, "Friends don't say things like that, Evan."

"Children do," Kaden muttered to himself. He ignored Calista's sideways glance, remembering well the incessant teasing he'd endured growing up as the only Dustledom refugee in the class. He decided one last time to appeal to reason, "Please go home, Evan." The boy looked back the way they'd came, perhaps entertaining the idea. His doubt didn't last, however, turning back and impetuously starting to move forward again.

"...No," Evan's voice wavered a little even as he tried to look decisive, "We can deal with the necromancer when we get back from this adventure. He'll be sorry he came here to do evil!" Kaden watched as the child walked past them and onward, eyes now glued to the tracks they followed. Both surprise and disappointment welled up in his chest which culminated in a groan.

"He reminds me a little of you, you know," Calista said to him quietly. Kaden was incredulous.

"I wouldn't have dared to do something so reckless at his age." He denied, moving to catch up with Evan. Calista kept pace, remaining by his side.

"Isn't your father proud that you followed in his footsteps?"

"When I was old enough to know the risks, but it doesn't seem like Evan will take no for an answer. He's a stubborn one."

"So are you, when the mood strikes you." He furrowed his brow at her.

"That's very different, Calista."

"Is it?" Kaden said nothing; both of them knew the answer to that. Instead, his attention returned to the trail they relentlessly pursued, continuing to hope that it wouldn't end up where it was angling towards with every step they took.

They'd stopped not far from the edge of the treeline, Kaden's eyes scanning about for the tell-tale signs of people lying in wait. It had taken another hour to confirm that the tracks indeed headed to the woodland and within. The undergrowth dense which would make both following the trail difficult. While he imagined that some of the residents of Kant's Edge and the surrounding farms would make the long trek there to get some firewood, they would only skirt the very edges of the place, making the likelihood of clearings and pathways slim.

"Did they go in there?" Evan asked.

"They did," Kaden replied quietly. He hadn't caught sight of anything out of the ordinary but that meant little when in unfamiliar territory. He drew Skyrazor slowly, something Evan watched with great interest. Calista readied a bolt in her hand crossbow at the same time, the bard also keeping her eyes open.

"Then what are we waiting for? Let's go!" Evan started towards the wood. For Kaden, that was the last straw.

"Stop," The warrior ordered firmly. The child obeyed. Calista noticed his shift in tone, "We are going to go into the wood and look about. You are going to go home while there's still light to do so."

"But you said there were bad people in there," Evan turned to him and matched Kaden's stern look with a scowl of his own, "I'm not going back."

"It's too dangerous."

"I've got good eyes! I can-"

"No." He objected once again.

"But-"

"As much as I don't want to agree with Evan, he's safest now with us," Calista interjected, prompting both Kaden and Evan to look to her. Both were surprised but for quite different reasons, "Our quarry might be waiting for us to get far enough in the wood that we won't notice them leave another way. They might then make their way back east," She left Kaden to realise the implication of that. It didn't take long at all, "We'll send him back once we clear the forest."

"It'll be too dark for Evan to go back by then," Even as Kaden began to press his point, he realised just how little water it held. Every alternative he could come up with was worse than the last and none of them kept Evan out of harm's way. Then Calista reached for her dagger which set off a belfry of alarm bells in his head, "No way."

"He's going to need something, Kaden." She argued.

"We are not arming a child!" Evan watched the exchange silently as one would when their parents bickered about them in the other room, "It's bad enough that he's still here!" Calista's look hardened, something Kaden only seen once before.

"And we can't leave him defenceless! If someone gets behind us in that wood-" She pointed at him before he could interrupt, raising her voice, "And don't say it won't happen because you don't know that! The only way to keep him safe is to give him this and that's exactly what I'm going to do." Kaden had a thousand objections he wanted to voice but, deep in his heart, he knew that she was right about that too.

"...Fine." He agreed with great reluctance. Calista's anger faded in moments, passing him a fleeting smile of thanks as finished drawing her dagger. It did nothing to make him feel better about the situation, however. The bard walked over to Evan before presenting the weapon it to him, handle first. He looked upon it with excitement dusted lightly with wariness.

"Don't touch the edges or the point. They're both very sharp," She explained calmly, "If something happens in there, run and hide if you can. If you can't and someone tries to hurt you, use this and try to stab anywhere there isn't armour, then run to us. Do you understand?" Evan's eyes lingered on the dagger for a few seconds before glancing to the woods that seemed that much more foreboding now. Evan took the dagger in hand without another word, gripping it clumsily but tight.

"If you see something, act and speak at the same time. If you can only do one, focus on saving yourself," Kaden told him then. He hoped the boy was listening, "Stay close, stay together and don't do anything foolish. Understand?" Evan nodded silently, truthfully. Satisfied, Kaden turned his attention once more to the wood and the tracks which had led them to it and together, the three stepped over the threshold.

The tracks quickly split into several smaller ones that snaked off, each taking different routes through the thick undergrowth of the wood. Kaden and Calista ignored all of them bar the one they'd followed in, splitting their attention between that and watching out for even the slightest hint of movement about them. The forest was a quiet one, though Kaden could hear the grunts of a group of mole boars somewhere to the left. Evan turned his gaze towards the noise with interest but one look from Kaden stunted that curiosity; the last thing they wanted was the head of the sounder trying to drive them out of their territory with its distinctive high-pitched whine, warning anyone there their arrival. Evan walked right behind them, holding the dagger he'd been loaned close to his chest. Kaden wasn't under any illusion that they had the element of surprise; there was no way to avoid crunching twigs underfoot and disturbing the long-bladed grass as they ploughed ever forward. The trees were far enough apart that they weren't squeezing past them but not enough to make a marksman job easy, one small thing he could be thankful for. He stopped before stepping over a large log to look above them at the tops of the trees but there were no assailants in wait.

"Perhaps they went right through." Calista was whispering, hand crossbow ready.

"Possibly." Though the canopy above them wasn't too dense, branches heavily overlapped in some places, leaving shadier spots which Kaden watched intently as they passed, just in case. He spied an especially dense patch of foliage ahead of them which the tracks led through and stopped, holding his left hand up to the others. Both Calista and Evan paused, the latter confused as to why. Kaden sheathed his sword and then scanned the ground about him. He found a sturdy stick half a mete long which he took it to hand, taking a breath to steady his nerves before inching towards the suspect grass. Cautiously he moved the stick to prod the ground ahead of him until he went into the concealing greenery. He heard a screech of metal against metal and let go reflexively, watching as a rusty mantrap snapped the branch in two. It clamped shut loudly, the noise travelling through the forest. Calista flinched while Evan yelped in fright, covering his mouth immediately after. Kaden drew his sword again quickly and looked about with Calista at the surroundings, his heart beating fast but no-one came. A few tense seconds passed before Kaden considered the implications of the lethal contraption no doubt set for them to stumble into.

"I-I want to go back now..." Evan's voice was still muffled by his hand but his worry was crystal clear. Kaden shook his head slowly.

"It's too late for that, Evan. We have to keep moving," He told the boy firmly, looking ahead of the triggered device just in case a second had been laid down to catch those too confident in their abilities. Only once he was sure the way was clear did the warrior step around the patch of grass, waiting for Calista and Evan to follow.

"I'll be right behind you," Calista assured Evan, passing him a smile. Evan stared intently at the mantrap as if it was about to come to life and pounce at him before darting past it with speed Kaden hadn't expected. True to her word, the bard followed on after him, checking behind them before they began moving once more. Evan's attention was now devoted exclusively to checking the ground ahead of them for more tricks, stopping at the slightest rustling of the grass. Kaden remembered being that afraid on his very first adventure to stop a group of poachers who'd turned to banditry. Memories of the cave network they'd set up as their base flashed through his mind, vivid enough that he could hear the dripping of water from the ceiling and the way each of his footsteps had echoed all about.

Evan stopped suddenly, pointing to the right.

"There." His voice was just loud enough or Kaden to hear, turning quickly with Calista. Both caught sight of a figure slumped against the base of a tree alone. Kaden had been about to burst into action but his gut instinct held him back; the man was too still, his stare unfocused, leading him to the horrifying realisation he'd unfortunately encountered so many times before.

"I'm going to check him." Kaden purposefully left his wording vague, hoping that Evan wouldn't piece together what Calista also knew. She nodded to him and with that, he approached the figure respectfully. In stark contrast to the earthy tones of clothing, the young man's skin was pale, drained. A machete lay in his left hand that was free of grime, unlike his brown jerkin which had three crossbow bolts embedded in it and his chest. Then Kaden spied the blood which had seeped from those wounds and since dried, then the bow slung over the man's shoulder. A sinking feeling took hold when his eyes finally settled on the clasp which kept the man's dark grey cloak fastened, a silver pendant adorned with a small green emerald. The workmanship was exquisite and distinctive, the identifying emblem of a ranger of Letani. Kaden hung his head in silence, eyes closed as he exhaled deeply, sadly; he'd likely been caught by surprise, overwhelmed and brutally dispatched before he could even think of firing an arrow. He hadn't bothered to check for a coin pouch, it torn from the ranger's belt even as he was dying. A myriad of what-ifs flashed through his head at that moment; Perhaps if Evan hadn't held them up or if they'd moved faster, things might've been different, but no. It was as it was and ever shall the past be, as his father had told him time and time again. He'd been speaking of Dustledom but the wise words rang true in the silence of the forest. Kaden could do nothing for him now save avenge his passing and hope that he would be welcomed in the Beyond. He looked one last time at the man's face before closing his eyes gently, removing the pendant and pocketing it so it could be returned to his family once he could send a message to Kant's Rest. He returned to the others slowly, unable to avoid glancing back at the fallen. Evan was staring at the body silently, filling Kaden with guilt that the boy had seen something none his age should despite all his attempts to save him the sight by sending him home.

"Tobias?" Calista mouthed the words. Kaden nodded faintly, for there was no-one else it could have been. Calista eyes shifted, looking to where he'd stepped from. She moved with a flourish, aiming her crossbow at whatever she was staring at behind him. Kaden dropped to the ground instinctively and she fired immediately afterwards.

Chapter Six

"Corgaca was, at one point in history, the largest kingdom in the world. Blocked off from the rest of the central continent by Letani – a kingdom that in ancient times they had some enmity with – they sought new territories overseas. Ethania was the first, a land which yielded no valuable resources. Ilara was second and possessed a wealth of silver and lumber. The final colony, Aefun, was the only one taken by force, territory stolen from the Great Takken Empire long ago with brutal efficiency. All were forced to send most of their resources over to Corgaca along with taxes, the colonies seeing little of what they worked so hard to collect. The situation was a disaster waiting to happen, which is why I said that Corgaca was the largest kingdom, specifically in 382 A.E.

The Ethanian rebellion ended that accolade. It had not been the first – two had previously been crushed – but the Ethanians were assisted in the third by none other than Kandas. The defeat of the Corgacans at the hands of the peasantry was a shame that some noble families still remember bitterly. Corgaca's later imprisonment of the Great Gero for his efforts to seek peace between them and Aefun – they had just declared peace with the Great Takken Empire against Corgaca's orders – shocked the powers of the world. In an unprecedented and bold move, Letani, Polena and Aefun conspired to break him and Leal out of prison, an exploit I would love to know the full details of. His assistance later in repelling the Corgacan fleet assured Aefun's independence. Their pride wounded, Corgaca did not even content Ilara's move for freedom in 604 A.E.

Corgaca was not the only power in the world to have colonies, though only they had such difficulty with them. Letani founded Lodonia, though their treatment of them was fair and proper from the start. When they sought independence, Letani gave it given freely, paving the way for an alliance agreed upon shortly afterwards. One could argue that Kaalvaer was a colony of Holnar but that is a complicated matter that would need a section all its own, for it was one of three conflicts fought during the Great War.

Though the times of the colonies have since been confined to ancient history, they have not forgotten how they were treated by the older kingdoms, nor have Corgaca forgotten what they once were all those years ago."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Evan only reacted to Calista's shot after the event, hiding behind her in fright. Kaden's face was in the dirt and his heart pounded in his ears but he took still being alive as a good sign.

"What did you see?" He asked while quickly rising to his feet.

"Whoever it was had something aimed at you, I don't know what," Calista was quickly reloading her weapon, "Better to be safe than sorry."

"Good call." He turned himself to face the way she'd fired but only saw trees and greenery.

"I-is it safe?" Evan's voice quivered, not daring to look out from the supposed safety he'd found.

"Not in the least," Kaden replied honestly. It was times like this that he wished he'd learned better how to use a bow. He searched about them for anywhere they could take cover but where was save when their enemy was an enigma? "Whoever's here knows this wood better than we do."

"Maybe they're friendly." The boy suggested hopefully. Kaden simply shook his head, Skyrazor ready to strike on the off-chance their foe was foolish enough to go toe-to-toe with them. Its magic would've made short work of whoever was after them but he'd used the last of it in Kant's Rest and there'd need no hint of a storm on the horizon to rekindle its power. The three of them remained where they were, Calista training her now loaded weapon in the rough direction she'd fired before. The shifting light from the canopy did nothing to settle Kaden's nerves, relying solely on controlling his breathing and focusing on the immediate to keep calm. The more moments that passed, however, the more he wondered why their foe hadn't struck again; had they fled deeper into the wood hoping they'd run into another trap? He darted behind a tree upon spotting movement in the distance, narrowly avoiding an arrow that whistled by where he'd been, embedding itself within the bark of another tree further back. Calista also took cover, Evan following her like a second shadow behind an older, larger tree. Finally, they heard the voice of their opponent and he was angry.

"You're a fool to follow!" It came from ahead of them, where specifically Kaden couldn't pinpoint. It wasn't the man he'd met the night before, his accent stronger and even more familiar for some reason, "This is not your fight, nor anyone's!"

"It was the moment you decided to endanger the lives of the people of Letani!" Kaden shouted back. He scanned the forest behind them, making sure that no-one was circling to flank before he dared to peek out once more. No arrow came, the enemy marksman hiding as they were.

"Ever noble, ever the fool," The man retorted with disdain, "Turn back and I might forget I saw you here."

"He'd never do that! He's not like you, you... You horrid man!" Evan shouted at the top of his voice. Kaden sighed. There was a pause.

"...A child?" Their foe had not expected that, "You would bring a child with you?"

"Not by choice," Kaden muttered to himself, shaking his head.

"Tell us where you're taking the troupe and why! We know you're working for the people that kidnapped them." Calista demanded. Her words prompted an immediate response.

"Well well," Satisfaction seeped into the man's tone, "We were wondering where you'd got to, the one who escaped us. Now we need not send people back to Kant's Rest for you."

"What do you need the troupe for?"

"If you think I'm going to divulge our plans, you are sorely mistaken," Came the inevitable answer, "Now, would you be ever so kind as to give yourself up and save us all this tedium?"

"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" She peeked out from her cover only, to quickly hide back when an arrow flew past where her head had been moments before. This guy was good, Kaden thought, very good. It spoke of military training; hunters and poachers rarely were that fine a shot.

"It'd make things less messy. My master told me to return you to him, but only specified that your hands and harp be whole. There's a merry world of misery I can inflict with that ambiguity."

"Hands and harp?" Kaden murmured in confusion. What did he mean by that? At least they knew that this man wasn't the leader of the group they chased, as unlikely as that would've been.

"Last chance," The assailant warned, "Come peacefully or mercy shall be forfeit."

Something clicked in Kaden's head. He'd heard that turn of phrase before from one man: his father. It made him think again on the accents of both the archer they faced now and the shadowy warrior from Kant's Rest. The dots connected, bestowing a revelation that struck at memories of the home he'd never had.

"...You're from Dustledom." Kaden doubted the words even as they came from his lips. There was another pause, longer this time.

"Indeed I am," The assailant answered proudly, "The abominations of Levta had their chance at me and squandered it."

"And now you serve as a mercenary for these-" The response Kaden got was sudden, sharp and furious.

"I am a servant of Dustledom, now and forever!" The man bellowed, "I swore an oath to serve my people until my last breath and beyond! A common warrior such as yourself cannot understand the glory of pledging one's life to a higher purpose!" Kaden noticed a flicker of movement from a tree behind him and to the right. He couldn't discount that it was his mind playing tricks on him and so caught Calista's attention with a hand gesture, pointing in the direction he'd spied it. She nodded and trained her hand crossbow that way, shifting so that Evan was between her and the tree shielding them from their original foe. There surely wasn't just one person moving to trap them, Kaden mused, but there was little they could do about it pinned as they were. Their only chance was to try and provoke another angry outburst and use that to relocate, assess their situation better.

"If you claim to be so loyal-" Kaden was cut off once again.

"No more words, warrior! Speak only your name so I know who I, Andrei Orlov, am to kill!" The man declared loudly. A smile crept across Kaden's lips.

"Then know that you face Kaden Mallas De'Dustledom," He answered simply while watching out for more movement about them, "You will know of my father if what you claim of yourself is true. He is-"

"How dare you speak lies of him!" Andrei's accusation was laced with surprise.

"Why would I lie?"

"You speak as one from Letani! Malkan would not allow that!"

"Dustledom fell before I turned three, Andrei! I have no memories of our home, nor do I need them to know that your actions here spit in the face of all that my father fights for!" Andrei's cry of indignant rage was just what Kaden wanted to hear, emerging from his cover to move further forward. Calista fired a shot at the place she'd been watching to cover their approach, grabbing Evan's wrist and pulling him along with her. Andrei emerged from a tree twenty metres ahead of them, a tall and broad man mostly hidden under a long green cloak who was aiming his bow right at Kaden. With only a moment to react, he changed course a new piece of cover and ran for it. The tree was barely thick enough to hide behind but it did the job, the arrow lodging itself in the wood with a thunk. He took a moment to breathe then looked about for Calista and Evan. The boy was crouched in a tangle of wild bushes, shaking and doing all he could to keep silent while his protector loaded another crossbow bolt ready from behind a large stone. They shared a look that told him they'd both lost track of the one who'd got behind them if someone had been there.

"It is I that has the advantage, son of Malkan!" Andrei bestowed the title with no lack of mockery, "Surrender the bard and I will ensure you die quickly for the slandering of your people!" Kaden didn't even consider agreeing to the demand, a sentiment he knew Calista shared. They wouldn't be able to try that trick again, however, leaving them trapped once again. Another far more risky idea came to mind then. He knew they were the worst ones to go with, but at that point, there were few options left.

"Then you leave me no choice but to use the mighty power of Skyrazor against you!" Kaden called out. Calista gave him a concerned look and he shrugged; hopefully, Andrei had heard of his weapon and what it could do, "It's killed many of your number already. You don't want to be the sole recipient of its might. It would blast the tree you're hiding behind to splinters and reduce you to ash."

"I've seen magic blades before, son of Malkan, wielded by so-called champions stronger than you. They died easily." Kaden paused; he couldn't tell if Andrei was bluffing or not which worried him, but their only other option was to wait to be surrounded and killed. Calista noticed his determined look shook her head at him but he ignored it, taking a deep breath to stifle his fear and quickly stepped out into view, pointing the weapon forward as he did. Andrei was stood in the open.

"Skyrazor, answer my-" Too late did Kaden notice that the man was ready for him.

Andrei fired without hesitation, the arrow puncturing Kaden's left thigh. His balance faltered immediately, falling to one knee while gritting his teeth to try and internalise the screaming pain that shot through his leg. He failed, crying out and only managing to keep hold of Skyrazor out of trained reflex. Calista was alarmed at the rapid development but acted quickly, moving out herself and firing back at the marksman. He had already fallen back however, the bolt whistling into the distance.

"Kaden!" Evan exclaimed in horror, emerging from the bushes.

"Stay there!" Calista ordered, eyes glued on the much larger tree which now shielded their opponent from view. The boy was torn between listening to his fright and watching his idol falter, but did as he was told. Kaden had managed to shuffle back behind to the tree he'd emerged from behind, each movement an ordeal. He sat up against it and clutched his bleeding wound, trying to steady his breathing and keep calm. Then he saw Calista's stare full of scolding anger, "The heck were you thinking, Kaden?!"

"It... was a long shot..." Kaden groaned. He didn't try to stand, knowing full well that his leg couldn't take the weight. Evan was trying to hold back tears.

"It was idiotic, that's what it was!" She shouted at him, reloading once more.

"Now's not the time!" Andrei's laughter was loud and cathartic, hammering home his folly.

"You are not half the warrior your father is, son of Malkan! Soldiers of Dustledom never falter!" The marksman reprimanded, "You should have given her up when you had the chance! At least now I get to have some fun killing you!" Kaden heard movement from Andrei's direction even as the one who'd gotten behind them emerged from her hiding place. Calista shot at her, forcing the young adult back behind the tree but not before Kaden caught sight of her eyes. Her stare was cold and unsettling, making him more concerned about her then the older marksman who drew ever closer to finish what he'd begun. Calista fumbled quickly to load another bolt but she couldn't fend off two people at once, leaving him no choice but to try and get up. Even as he started to shift weight to his wounded leg the agony overwhelmed him, slumping back to the ground with a choked whimper. He was about to try again when Evan emerged from his hiding place once more.

"Get back!" Calista hissed to him but the boy ignored her, rushing towards Kaden with his dagger in hand. A hundred terrible things flashed before Kaden's eyes at that moment, each worse than the other but he was in no fit state to stop such reckless behaviour. No sooner had Andrei stepped into view, sword in hand, was he confronted by the young child. Evan held the dagger ready to strike but his hand shook, now understanding just what he'd done. Andrei snarled down at him through his brown beard.

"Out of my way, runt." He ordered. Kaden caught the glimmer of chain mail beneath the man's cloak as well as a sheathed dagger. Evan stood firm despite his terror even as Calista moved to protect him.

"I w-won't let you hurt Kaden!" The boy stammered. Calista was now in front of the boy, standing sideways so she could train her crossbow on where the young girl had been while pointing her sword ready to fight Andrei alone.

Kaden tried once more to stand but failed even more miserably that time, knowing that all his was his fault. He should've been more firm right at the start, he knew, forced Evan back to the city and he definitely shouldn't have been so stupid as to think his bluff would work. Now Calista and Evan were to pay the price for his folly. He hated feeling powerless but that was exactly how he was now, watching. The air was still and tense, neither side acting in the momentary stalemate.

"You dare do anything to him-" Kaden began through gritted teeth, gripping Skyrazor tightly. Andrei simply smiled.

"The boy's no threat to anyone, unlike you," The marksman assured him darkly, followed by a chuckle aimed at Calista, "I commend your courage, bard, but I'd think very carefully before you decide to make this more difficult for yourself."

"You said yourself that you need me alive." Calista reminded the marksman. She hid her fear well but Kaden knew it bubbled in the pit of her stomach as it was for him.

"You don't want to end up like him. Come quietly," Andrei warned, referring to Kaden. Calista narrowed her eyes, "Don't do anything stupid."

"You've left no other choice."

Calista quickly turned to face the opposite direction and fired upon Andrei. The bolt punched through his mail, but though he staggered back, the marksman did not fall. Fury took hold as he swung wildly, a savage blow that Calista wasn't positioned correctly to parry. The sheer force pushed her to the ground, wrenching her weapon from her grip. For a moment it looked like Andrei had forgotten his orders to keep her alive as he raised his sword to strike again but before Calista or Kaden could react, Evan made his move. He darted forward, stabbing his dagger into the man's calf as hard as he could. Andrei howled, dropping his weapon as Evan stared amazement and terror at what he'd done. Kaden spotted then that the young woman had emerged from cover once more, aiming a shot surely intended for Calista who was too focused on taking advantage of Andrei's pain, scrambling for her blade.

"Watch out!" Kaden barely got his warning out before the arrow was loose. It hurtled through the air, its path unerring until an intense and sudden gust of wind blew past them. It shifted the projectile, it missing Calista's head by inches and instead impaling itself into Andrei's stomach.

"No!" Cried the young archer, as surprised as everyone else was. Andrei grew pale, looking down weakly to his many bleeding wounds before choking out a tortured chuckle.

"...My life... for Dustle... dom..." The words escaped with his final breaths, staring up to the canopy before collapsing with a sickening thud, his body still and far from peace. Evan stared at the fallen warrior without a word, eyes wide but Calista had no time to think on how close they'd all come to death, for there was the other archer who screamed at them now.

"No! I will avenge you!" She cried, another arrow ready to do what she'd somehow failed to the first time, "For Dustledom!" Before she could let it loose, however, a gout of flame hurtled down from the canopy at her. She noticed it but failed to dodge, it landing on her cloak and setting it alight with alarming speed. She pulled it off quickly and cast it before her but even as she readied to fire the winds picked up once more. This time howled through the trees, a moaning dirge of anger that seemed only directed at the flames and the one who'd been momentarily caught up in them. The former was snuffed out while the latter was struggling to keep her footing. Calista was ready to fire again and but the archer decided to fall back, her weapon of choice useless against the wall of wind. She cast one last baleful and tear-ridden glare at them before vanishing in the treeline. Calista fired anyway but the woman was already out of range, her bolt lost in the foliage. The winds left then, seemingly in pursuit after the archer, leaving the air quiet and calm as if nothing had happened but it had. It all had and it hurt so much.

Chapter Seven

"There are three main currencies and the oldest and most widespread of these originally hails from Letani, the kal. An unassuming silver coin, the kal is also the currency of Corgaca, the Three Kingdoms, Aefun, Lodonia, Ilara, Afran and the frozen realms of Kaalvaer on top of serving as the de-facto trade currency of Kolvan. As such, it is often accepted everywhere on top of being used to value all other coins. The second oldest is the lemma, a paper token signed by the treasury of Polena and stamped with the kingdom's seal, worth ten kal. That it has not been forged successfully is a curious enigma, making me believe that magic is involved somewhere in its creation. Then there is the gold coin of Ulhad – imaginatively named for the material it's minted from – which is worth five kal. The date these three currencies first came to be is a mystery I intend to one day solve, perhaps for a revived edition of this illustrious tome.

The other two currencies of note are far easier to pinpoint the beginnings of. The punt was created by Ethania in 387 after their successful independence rebellion against Corgaca with the assistance of the Great Hero. Made of copper, it is the only currency worth less than a Kal, each half its value which makes forging it unprofitable. The Takken Empire's currency rarely leaves its borders and is made of neither metal nor paper. Cut from a unique species of tree grown only by the servants of the emperor under intense scrutiny, the tak is a stick four inches long and coloured to denote its value. I cannot say what it is worth compared to the kal; when the empire needs to look beyond its borders for resources, it barters in precious metals and other trade goods.

Though not currencies in their own right, two nations have coins unique to them that exist alongside the kal. The mant of Afran was first minted in 355 A.E, intended to be the most desirable coin to ever exist. Its value of thirteen kal is bested only by the silver tear of Kaalvaer which was created in 944 and is worth exactly one hundred kal. I have had the pleasure of seeing one with my own eyes and I must declare, in my humble opinion, the detailing of the coin almost makes it a work of art. That the platinum which lines its edges was the cause of one of the second most brutal conflict in living memory outside of the Great War sours its beauty somewhat but that, like the origins of the kal, may also one day be lost to time."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Calista quickly put her weapons away, working frantically to remove her backpack. Kaden already knew he was in deep trouble, recognising the angry focus the bard directed at rummaging through the pack's supplies, an ire that was sure to be aimed his way soon enough. His mouth barely opened to talk before she snapped at him.

"Don't," Came her only warning, one he heeded. Evan stared silently at Andrei's still form with an unreadable expression, unable or unwilling to look away. Calista eventually found what she was looking for, retrieving a pair of treated bandages and moving to kneel beside him. She handed the first to him which he used to apply pressure to the wound. This made it hurt all the more but the alternative wasn't worth thinking about, "In what world was your plan a good idea, Kaden?" He took a shaky breath, unable to meet her eyes.

"I-" Was all he got out.

"You weren't thinking, that's what you were doing! What if he'd aimed for your head? You knew he was a good shot, he could've done it!" He had no reply to that that wouldn't anger her further but he spoke anyway.

"I'm sorry." He murmured as she examined the wound.

"Sorry isn't going to make your leg better." A worrying thought came to mind then that Kaden quickly voiced.

"We... need to know if it was barbed," He told her, "The arrow in the tree-"

"Alright, alright. Stay put."

"It's not like I can go anywhere." She stood reluctantly, turning to Evan who still watched the body. "I won't be gone long. If that woman comes back, shout for me and whatever you do, make sure Kaden doesn't move from that spot." Evan nodded vaguely and with that, she left to go find the errant projectile but not before passing Kaden a look of deep concern. He let a pained sigh slip past his lips after she left his sight, leaning back against the tree while trying to go over their next move in his head. Even if they could get him moving using a makeshift crutch, they hadn't a hope of keeping pace with their quarry until the bandages performed their subtle work. That of course presumed that they could remove the arrowhead without causing too much damage, the consequences of which lingered in his thoughts no matter how hard he tried to push it aside. They'd have to find somewhere else to rest either way but where was safe from the archer who'd escaped? That brought forth questions he had about their encounter, all of them troubling: How many of the kidnappers were from Dustledom and why did they need Calista and the troupe? How much were they being paid for them to be so skilled? Evan had now turned his attention to his wounded idol, specifically the injured leg. The boy had seen things Kaden had desperately hoped they'd avoid but even this was just one of the brutal realities of adventuring. The warrior had no words to mollify him just as Malkan had had none when he returned from his first adventure, battered and bruised. He tried not to think about just how much trouble he'd be in after Evan's mother found out all that had happened; one battle at a time, as his father liked to say. A sharp jolt of pain made Kaden close his eyes and wince, silently hoping that Calista returned soon.

"Kaden!" It was Evan's startled cry which made him open his eyes with a start. A stranger stood before them clad from head to toe in brown robes and Evan had moved between them and him, armed only with his fear. The figure, whose hood was raised to conceal their features, stood a few inches shorter than Calista and appeared unarmed but Kaden knew better than to trust that, ready to fight even though he knew his leg made it impossible. The stranger made no effort to move, however, not even when Calista returned quickly, hand crossbow aimed at the stranger.

"Hands where I can see them!" The bard ordered firmly. The figure didn't so much as shift, "Now!"

"Y-you stay away from him!" Evan's words quivered weakly but still, he stood ready to defend Kaden all over again. The figure looked down to the boy and finally spoke.

"I cannot heal him if you do not stand aside, young master," Her voice was soft as a summer breeze. Kaden couldn't place her age or accent but the woman's tone brimmed with empathy which confused Evan. The boy looked to Kaden and Calista questioningly, unsure what to do. Kaden remained wary despite the promise of treatment, knowing well that some of the greatest warriors wielded words as capably as swords. Calista didn't let her aim falter, eyes narrowing with well-justified suspicion.

"Don't move," She demanded. The stranger obliged, "Who are you? Why are you here?"

"Why are you here?" Asked the stranger gently.

"We're not the ones who appeared out of nowhere after a fight. You could be a distraction while the other archer repositions."

"She has left the wood." The stranger's answer did nothing to satisfy Calista.

"Like I'll believe that, now answer my questions." She reminded the stranger.

"I will answer your questions if you answer mine, one for one." Evan's confusion deepened in tandem with Calista's annoyance.

"You're in no position to make demands!" The robed figure turned her head to stare at Calista for a moment. Kaden said nothing for the wound was growing more painful with each passing minute, the bandage stained with blood. The stranger was unconcerned by the loaded crossbow pointed right at her, her speech remaining tranquil.

"If you insist," The stranger conceded at last, "I am Azalea and you are trespassing in my forest."

"Your forest?" Calista was dubious, "What right do you have to these woods?"

"I watch over this wood and all the creatures within it, as all should," Azalea answered simply, motioning to the trees all about them. Calista's trigger finger twitched at that, "As mighty as the trees are, they cannot defend themselves from the malicious intent of those who seek to take more than is their need, so I keep watch and act when I must." Her gaze lowered to look upon the body of Andrei. A spark flickered in Kaden's head, a wild theory that managed to fit the sequence of events leading to that moment.

"...That wind..." He mentioned in a groan. Azalea turned her attention to him now, "Was that you..?" She nodded slowly. The same realisation he'd just reached hit Calista then, her eyes widening in surprise.

"I want to aid you but only if you let will me," The robed newcomer told them. Kaden wanted to dig deeper but another intense spike of agony killed that. He looked to Calista. She saw his suffering and him, her concern. If he was right about this person, however, they had little chance of stopping whatever she had planned. He nodded in agreement quickly, eager to be rid of his ailment and Calista lowered her weapon very slowly, "Thank you." She moved to approach Kaden but Evan didn't move, stubbornly holding his ground against the mysterious figure that he didn't understand.

"It's... it's alright, Evan. She wants to help." He told the boy.

"But she could be one of the bad guys!" He protested.

"Evan, please. Let her do what she needs to." The boy looked to him then to the stranger before reluctantly standing down and stepping aside. Azalea approached and knelt beside Kaden, the warrior now able to see beneath her hood. Her face was pale and dotted with many freckles, all of which made her hazel eyes stand out. He spied strands of grey hair alongside those of chocolate brown which told him that she was likely older than him, though by how much he couldn't say. She took hold of the bandage against his wound and moved it aside before pressing her left hand against his leg. The right took hold of the arrow.

"The pain will be brief." She assured him, waiting for the go-ahead. He nodded and gritted his teeth, as ready as he'd ever been for the grisly work.

Azalea pulled at the arrow with more force than he'd expected, wrenching it from his leg and tearing at the skin as she did. The pain was far worse than when it went in him but it only lasted a moment, subdued before he could cry out. The palm of her left hand was pressed firmly against the open wound, eyes closed as she mumbled alien syllables under his breath. A throbbing pain lingered, broken by a few stinging moments of discomfort as he began to relax, breathe more steadily. A few seconds later and she withdrew her now bloodstained hands from where his wound had been, a nasty looking scar left in its place. He didn't move his leg at first, scared that the pain would return but Azalea's small smile reassured him. He wiggled his toes cautiously and was relieved to feel nothing out of the ordinary. Azalea stood and offered him a hand which he took to help him get to his feet. Her grip was strong, letting go and taking a step back once he was standing once more.

"Thank you," Kaden said to her. Calista smiled to her in quiet gratitude, all hint of suspicion having washed away. She glanced about the wood quickly but there was no-one else there that they could see. Evan eyed where the arrow had once been and gasped in surprise.

"...You're a wizard!" His excitement was a little more muted than before, but hearing it relieved Kaden far more than he thought it would when the boy first tagged along.

"I am a student of nature, as are we all," Azalea answered, "Some simply take a more active role in preserving the Cycle."

"The Cycle? What's that?"

"It is that which we are all a part of, but we can talk at length about that another time, young master, for I believe you are on the hunt." Calista raised a curious eyebrow at that.

"What's a druid doing this far north?" The bard inquired, "The nearest druid circle is in the Three Kingdoms."

"Though we are all united in our pursuit of balance, some of us choose not to be constrained by the rigid laws of the circles. I am one of those people and I choose to reside here."

"And just how long were you watching us for?"

"From the moment you stepped foot over the threshold into my wood. It did not take long to judge the intent of those you pursued, unlike you and the man they slew before your arrival."

"Which is why you didn't intervene until you did." Calista guessed, the druid nodding silently in reply. Kaden's thoughts returned to Tobias.

"What happened to Tobias?" He asked despite himself.

"He has returned to the Cycle," She told him simply.

"Why didn't you intervene to save him?"

"Do you think they would have let me had I tried?" Kaden's sigh was all the answer she needed, "His return to the Cycle was swift."

"Did the people that killed him say anything about us, like who they worked for?" Kaden enquired hopefully, "Anything you can recall would be greatly appreciated."

"Before I answer that question, I must know the reason why you pursue them."

"They kidnapped a troupe of performers that Calista was performing with," He answered honestly. The bard nodded in agreement, "We're trying to free them and figure out what drove them to do this." Azalea stared intently into his eyes for a moment, a look he matched. It wasn't the first time someone had sought falsehood there but rarely was there any to be found. Azalea smiled again, seemingly satisfied.

"I do not know what they plan but I believe I know where they are headed," She told them before pointing past them, "They spoke mostly of their plans to dispatch you, but the man you felled did mention a town nestled in the mountains, far to the west."

"Glimmershade?" Calista guessed. The druid nodded.

"That was the place."

"That's hundreds of miles away, why are they going there? Surely they don't think they can escape past the mountains."

"There are far easier ways to get out of Letani if that's what they were planning to do," Kaden added, "Did they say anything else?"

"They talked of music."

"Music?" Calista checked. Again the druid nodded.

"The woman argued that they should find another to perform rather than return for the one that was lost. He insisted that they all had to be there, to make sure it was played perfectly."

"That what is played perfectly?"

"I cannot say for he did not say," Azalea paused, "If we are to catch up to them before they Glimmershade, we will need to move quickly."

Evan caught on to what she'd said before anyone else.

"You're coming with us?" The boy was happy to hear that but that was soon replaced by worry, "But what about the trees? Who will watch them while you're gone?"

"The trees will manage without me for a time. The people you pursue have ill intent and though my duty is to watch over here, I cannot stand by and let you face them alone when my abilities and affinity with the wild places of the world could be of use," She motioned beyond Andrei to the thick grass ahead, "The tracks of those you follow are easy for me to find, for they are as unnatural as the shell of metal you protect yourself with, Kaden." Kaden found himself glancing down at his breastplate without thinking about it, then realised something.

"How do you know my name?" He asked of her, "Surely my reputation doesn't precede me that much."

"I overheard it during your battle," Her reply made sense to him, "There are some servants of the Cycle who would be aghast that the earth was torn open and its treasures wrenched from the soil to be twisted and warped into the tools of war you all use. I do not share that sentiment. In time, what you wield will rust and return to the Cycle, as will we all."

"I have no objection to you coming with us," Kaden glanced to Calista only to find that she was deep in thought about something. He made a note to ask her about it later, then mentioned something he'd hoped not to have to do on this adventure, "We'll need to bury Tobias before we go. It's only right."

"You need not act. Nature is well equipped for this eventually. His flesh shall feed the creatures of the forest and the soil where he lay, thus the Cycle continues." Kaden didn't feel comfortable with that but he wasn't going to argue with the one who'd saved his life. There was also the fact that they didn't have time to spend doing it, reminded once more that every second they delayed was another that allowed their foes to draw closer to their goal. Whether that was Glimmershade or not remained to be seen – Andrei could easily have mentioned it for any number of other reasons – but at that time it was the best lead they had.

"If you need to grab anything then, now's the time." Azalea shook her head at his words.

"I have need for nothing but what I wear. All else I require I will loan from nature, for it is bountiful when you know where to search." Calista had turned her attention to searching Andrei's body for clues while they had spoken. She'd turned up two half-full coin pouches and the dagger Kaden had spied during their fight, the former of which she'd handed to Evan. The boy opened one of the bags and stared in wonder at the glistening kal within. It was likely more money than he'd ever seen in his life and Kaden knew who half of it belonged to. He took the heavier looking pouch without a word and placed it in his backpack along with Tobias's emerald clasp.

"Is this one mine?" Evan asked them.

"We'll split anything that's left once this is all over," Calista told him, her search concluded.

"We're not going to spend all of it, are we?" Calista took the other pouch of silver off him, offering Andrei's dagger in return. All at once, Evan's expression changed to a fearful one, stepping back, "I don't want it."

"I'm afraid you might need it now." She said to him sadly. He stared at it silently then looked to Kaden, hoping he'd speak up against the idea. He wished he could but now the situation was very different; the woman with Andrei had seen Evan attack the man, knew he was capable of doing it. She'd surely pass that on to the others she worked with, adding Evan to the list of dangerous people that needed to be dealt with. He stopped pondering it before he reached the end of that trail of thought, looking firmly to Evan and speaking simply.

"She's right, Evan. You should have it." Defeated, the boy took the weapon and secured the scabbard loosely around his waist without a word.

Azalea was already some distance ahead of them, waiting patiently for them to catch up. Kaden looked about one last time for anything they might've missed and motioned for them to move. Evan pushed past them quickly, walking more quickly than normal. It was then that Kaden felt a finger poke into his right arm, turning to see Calista looking to him with a warning stare.

"Don't think I've forgiven you for what you did back there, Kaden," She told him, "If you try anything like that again-"

"I won't," He assured her. Her eyes narrowed, "I promise. When have I ever broken a promise?" She thought about that. Tiny hints of a smile crept to her lips then.

"You did promise to bake me a cake when we next met." He blinked.

"I did?" He rushed through the memories of their last encounter and quickly stumbled across their last exchange which ended with that. Confusion set in, "I've no idea why I said that. I can't bake to save my life."

"You've to plenty of time to practice."

"I was quite busy up until a few months ago," He motioned to the way before them, "We should probably catch up."

"You're right, but you still owe me a cake, one way or another." Kaden's smile at that lasted only a few moments.

"You were deep in thought a while ago. Was it about the music Andrei was speaking of?" Calista nodded as they began to move, the emergent smile fading. Kaden glanced at Andrei's body as they passed it.

"I'm trying to think of what piece of music would be difficult enough to need me and the troupe specifically." She told him.

"What about the thing you played back in the Pig's Lament?" He suggested, "That was pretty extraordinary."

"But why would they need us for that? Why not just take the music and give that to another group?" He didn't have an answer to that, "We're missing something, Kaden, and that bothers me."

"Me too." Of all the things that they'd learned, what kept circling back in his head was that Andrei and the man in Kant's Rest were from Dustledom but he had no idea why that was so important. His father would've known the significance, he mused, knowledgable as he was in the ways of his old kingdom. He wondered what far-flung part of the world Malkan was in now, fighting for what was right no matter the odds and despite his advancing years. All Kaden could do was hope that he was well and that they'd see each other again soon. Perhaps he could persuade his father to bake a cake when they got home, skilled as he was in both the kitchen and the battlefield.

Chapter Eight

"My father had been keen for me to follow in his footsteps into the world of the arcane, but my passion is with words more mundane than he'd hoped. Still, I am envious of those for who magic flows easily, practitioners who spend much of their lives delving into ancient teachings to learn how to bend magic to their whim through use of incantations, sigils and force of will. Many are the schools of magic scattered around the world, though their halls are far emptier with the great losses sustained during the Great War. Their numbers will grow, I am sure, but at the time of writing, wizards are more scarce than ever.

So many are the aspects of magic that most choose to specialise in some manner. I would be here an eternity were I to try and catalogue every individual wizard's tastes, so I shall instead mention some in brief. First, there are the healers, a specialisation associated most with Polenan casters. Their direct opposite is the war magician, a group heavily utilised in the Great War and all-but wiped out by it. Some like the druids let their philosophical beliefs dictate their focus while others seek to questions society at large frowns upon, the necromancers of Afran being but one such group. Elementalists focus on one of the four elemental forces to an extreme and enchanters weave their magic into physical objects, as I stated earlier in this text.

Last but not least, there are the generalist wizards. Their magic lacks focus and some specialists are inclined to mock them as undecided and weak of will. In my humble opinion, however, I believe it is the generalist who is the greatest of all spellcasters, for they have the open-mindedness and vision to learn whatever magic they deem useful from all facets of study. It is oft the generalist who comes up with new and interesting applications of magic through thanks to the widely varied knowledge they possess which is mixed and matched into something new and sometimes, frighteningly effective.

Mayhap once this record is published and achieves the success and adulation it deserves, I will turn to examine the history of the studies of the arcane. It may go some way to mollifying my father, may he rest well."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

The forest was far in the distance and the sun setting by the time they stopped to camp by a small thicket of trees. Kaden had hoped to keep travelling into the night hours but it became clear not long after Azalea had led them out of the wood that Evan wasn't going to last that long, the boy yawning and struggling to keep up. Kaden and Calista checked their surroundings thoroughly before starting a campfire out of assembled branches and dead vegetation. Evan fell asleep mere minutes after laying down, his expression one of exhaustion. No sooner had his eyes closed, Azalea declared that she was heading off to forage and left without a thought for the ever-fading light and ever-encroaching chill. Kaden had little doubt that she'd be fine, for the wilderness was her domain. Now alone with Calista, he went through his backpack to see just what would be his evening meal. The rations handed to them by the guards of Kant's Rest were wrapped in bundles of rough cloth and every bit what he'd expected them to be, hardtack and pemmican. Both were foodstuffs Kaden had much experience with if little fondness, eating the bland fare day in and day out in many an adventure far from civilisation and a proper supper. Kaden and Calista sat next to one another as they ate in silence. He looked up the canopy of stars above them and the countryside all around, the serenity a stark contrast to the cacophony going on in his head as he tried to make some kind of sense of everything that had happened. He sighed without realising it which caught Calista's attention.

"You too?" She asked quietly. He nodded, turning his eyes then to the crackling fire, "I've only realised now how little I know about the troupe I was travelling with." Kaden set aside his hardtack, hoping in vain that it would taste better once he was hungrier.

"From what you've told me about your life, it's a pretty busy one. I'm surprised you had time to talk to me after your performance." He said to her.

"I don't even know their names, Kaden. I didn't notice it when I was on the road, but I barely spoke to them after they hired me. When we weren't performing they were practising, always practising that same song."

"The one you played at the Pig's Lament?" It was her turn to nod now, "I can see why they were so focused on getting it right, it was..."

For the first time since he'd heard it, Kaden tried to recollect the song, relive its beauty and magnificence but something stopped him. The memories of it however were... gone. Glimmers of moments came and flitted away as if wisps dancing through a thick fog but he could never capture any of them. He could remember everything before the troupe had played just fine; the long, boring hours at home, the rowdiness of the tavern, his conversation with Balthus. The same was true for his conversation with Calista after the troupe had played and the combat on the streets but the minutes in between were lost and yet not and that troubled him.

"What is it?" Calista asked, concerned.

"...I don't remember."

"Don't remember what?"

"The performance. I don't remember it any more. I could all last night but not now."

"Memories don't just 'go' like that, Kaden." She told him. Her words brought forth an old memory of his early adventures alongside his father. One, in particular, took hold and brought with it an epiphany.

"Not naturally," His answer made her eyes widen in both surprise and realisation, "Magic is involved somewhere in this, Calista."

"It would certainly explain why every tavern we went to was enraptured by our performance and why they tipped so well," The bard glanced to the harp which rested by her feet, "But where did the magic come from? Was it the performers or the music?"

"Azalea might have the answer to that," He looked back to the way the druid had gone. The sun had almost vanished under the horizon and with it went the light. Kaden couldn't see her amongst the murky gloom, "It hadn't crossed my mind that people would use magic for things like music."

"Would you believe me if I told you there's a wizard who bakes magic bread in Hazengate?" Kaden couldn't hide his bewilderment which prompted a smile from Calista, "It's true. My mother would buy our rolls from him. No other bakery compares."

"I doubt any wizard in Corgaca would be willing to teach their pupils arcane bakery."

"Rumour has it he was one of the greatest pupils of Feradan, former head mage of the Corgaca Royal Academy," She began. Kaden knew of the man but nothing else, "He served for ten years during the Great War alongside his teacher fighting Idra until one day he... snapped. Blasted a huge crater in the Idran front line and nearly did the same to his side before Feradan restrained him." Kaden nodded understandingly.

"It was a terrible war."

"Is a terrible war," She corrected, "They haven't stopped coming from what's left of there."

"I know."

"Some say they're the last remnants that survived the Cataclysm but I don't buy it. There can't of been that many for them to still be showing up seventeen years later."

"The only one who'd know for sure is long dead."

A quiet took hold, the pair staring together at the campfire. Normally when they were out adventuring he'd spend the evening going over his equipment and doing a spot of training while she tended to her harp, followed by them going over the plan of action for the next day. This was far from an ordinary adventure – that he found any adventure ordinary went a long way to showing how odd his life was – least of all because of the company they kept. Kaden looked over to Evan, seeing that his sleep had become troubled. He was tempted to wake the boy from whatever nightmare he was going through but it would do him little good; The next day would be even more arduous and Evan would need all the energy he could muster. Kaden knew he was the last person to try and console him when it came to bad dreams. He'd had his fair share of them over the years, almost all of which were about his previous exploits. He couldn't handle the nightmares as well as his father, often waking at an unseemly hour with a start and covered in sweat. Even after he got back to sleep awfulness often lingered, only finally retreating after the morning hours had faded. Kaden felt a reassuring hand on his arm.

"Are you alright?" Calista asked him. He nodded a little too quickly and she noticed, "You sure?"

"Yeah," He tried and failed to sound sincere but knew she'd understand. Azalea returned at that moment, sitting by the fire and placing a small brown sack in front of her. From it, she pulled out some red berries and root vegetables that Kaden didn't recognise. He'd never been good at knowing which wild foods were safe to eat or not, relying on the disappointing but dependable trail rations that he'd almost forgot about. Almost.

"I went well, I take it." Calista enquired.

"Very much so, but I am only halfway done," Azalea answered before effortlessly plucking the seed from one of the berries, "One must return what is taken from the Cycle."

"Can we help in any way?" The druid smiled at her offer, handing over the root vegetables.

"Return to me the top and bottom of each." Azalea requested. Kaden and Calista reached for their daggers in sync and went to work. The warrior looked closer at the thin, dark blue plant but was no closer to figuring out what it was, "You would know it as the Frost's Teeth."

"Because it looks like an icicle." Calista guessed.

"They were brought over by refugees from Holnar to be farmed but were discarded for local produce," The druid was intently focused on retrieving each seed, placing them back in the brown sack along with the ends of the vegetables that were passed to her, "The crops were left to the wilds and have since begun to spread throughout the land. In time they will become as much a part of these fields as everything else, just as we became a part of this world."

"How much do you know about magic, Azalea?" Calista asked cautiously.

"What is it you wish to know?" The druid spoke simply, not looking up from the berries.

"Kaden and I think that the troupe we seek to rescue – that I was a part of – used magic in their performances. We wondered if that's something you know about." Azalea stopped at that, looking up to them with a warm smile.

"Everything has its music," She told them, "The song of Kolvan is a wondrous hymn but only those in tune with the Cycle have the ears to hear its whisperings."

"And what does it sound like?" Azalea's smile grew.

"To describe it would be to destroy it," The druid said to her, "The song of Kolvan is its breath, its life. It is as its most pure far from civilisation where the Cycle still holds dominion."

"You could argue that those places have a cycle of their own," Kaden said to her then, "There's a routine to life and the comings and goings of people, one that's as natural to them and this is to you." The druid was quiet for a moment, her smile fading. She placed the final of the berry seeds into the sack.

"Others of my ilk look to the towns and cities as open wounds on the face of Kolvan, scars which make the world weep and distort its song into a cry of anguish," She told them plainly, "I see them much as you do, however, the next step in Kolvan's journey. Whether our stay here is long or brief, we and all we do are as much a part of the Cycle as anything else."

"And if people take too much without giving anything back?" Calista then asked.

"The Cycle is often passive and benign," A quite different smile slowly crept on to Azalea's face then that lasted only until Kaden blinked, "But I do believe we have digressed from your original question concerning magic and the nature of your foe. I shall tell you what I know after I have returned these seeds and roots to the land. I shall not be long. Feel free to take what you wish of what I have foraged in the meantime." With that, the druid stood and once more stepped away into the darkness.

Kaden leaned over and took a few of the black berries and tried one. Immediately his tongue was hit by an intense fruity flavour that was unlike any he'd tasted before and wonderfully so.

"Mmm, those are good!" He told Calista while taking another one. She ate one herself and it was immediately clear that she agreed with him. Kaden spied two of the berry seeds which had someone eluded the druid and placed them carefully in one of his spare pouches. He hardly had a green thumb but the soil in his garden had never failed his father's garlic crop. The root vegetables were just as much a delight, not too crunchy and possessing a subtle herby taste.

"Do you think your father knew Andrei?" Calista managed to ask with her mouth half full of berries. Kaden shrugged.

"Depends on if Andrei was a knight. That's not likely though." Came his answer. He took the last few berries which he relished.

"Why not?"

"Because they all gave their lives to buy the citizens time to evacuate, all except my father," Kaden could only imagine what Dustle had looked like during its brief and absolute invasion, "The king held him back to guard the throne room in case they breached the castle walls but he never got the chance to fight. The enemy got to the keep faster than anyone had thought they could and he was ordered to take me and head to the boat waiting past the secret way out while the king gathered up his children. And so the royal line of Dustledom failed." His eyes were glued to the dancing flames just as Malkan's had been when he'd told the story to him all those years ago.

"Do you think he resents being told not to stand with the other knights?" She enquired carefully. Kaden blinked, took in the sounds of the night.

"I've never asked him. He kept it to himself most of the time. It was only when I came of age that he told me about it, right before he began searching for the lost treasures of the kingdom. Perhaps he thinks that if he can find enough of what's been looted since Dustle's fall, locate the king's crown and use it to spur a call for action, they'll..." Kaden went silent again, shaking his head at the thought of it all, "It wouldn't work. The remnants of Dustledom can't muster a force strong enough to liberate the island and no kingdom has a spare army lying around. Even if they did, he'd refuse whatever price they set for their swords."

"Letani might help. Aren't the queen and he good friends?"

"If sympathy could fight battles, Dustledom would have been liberated long ago. There's no-one left to rule anyway. The king's dead, as are his sons and daughters. Anyone who would've known the line of succession likely died when Dustle fell. There haven't even been any pretenders to the throne. I guess none of them wants to go to all that trouble just to rule what little is left."

"It sounds like Malkan would."

"I wouldn't be so sure of that."

Azalea emerged once again from the dark sans the brown sack or food for herself. She passed a smile to each of them before sitting next to Evan, glanced to him. Gently she placed her hand upon his head and muttered something under her breath. Slowly the boy's frown faded into peace.

"He is of strong will to have remained with you after your battle." Azalea's words were quiet and measured.

"I'd rather he was anywhere else but here right now." Kaden's replied frankly.

"Of all people, you would know well that life does not bend to our whims so readily, just as the power within does not answer everyone."

"You talk of magic." Calista checked. She got a faint nod.

"Many are the names it goes by, many more are the ways to invoke it. I call upon the Cycle to lend me its bounty whereas the troupe you performed with weaved their enchantments within the notes they play, beguiling those that listen."

"Do you think they could do this accidentally?" Kaden enquired. He doubted it was possible but he hardly was an expert on the matter.

"If the instruments they use or the music they play harbour power, it is possible. I could not say without seeing either but it is unlikely they would not know of its effects after witnessing them," Calista looked to her harp, "Your instrument does not have such power, beautiful as it is."

"It was a parting gift from my mother," The bard's voice chimed a bittersweet note, "My father told me after she died that she'd put away a little bit of money every day for months to be able to afford it. I would've been happy with any old harp they gave me."

"Be that as it may, it is likely the troupe you joined were using their magic, one way or another, for personal gain and without subtlety. Had they performed in front of someone who recognised what they were doing..."

"They'd talk about it." Kaden finished the sentence for her as the pieces of the puzzle they knew of fell into place.

"We still don't know why these people would want the troupe's magic," Calista mentioned, brow furrowed in thought, "If it's purpose is to enthral people, who do they seek to do that to? Why go to Glimmershade when they were at the seat of power in Letani?"

"We're not entirely sure they're going to Glimmershade yet and there are the mine owners. Some of them must be wealthy."

"It can't be just about money, Kaden. It's rarely just about money."

"It's right up there with revenge and power for bad guy motives and the latter it walks hand-in-hand with. What we need is to capture one of them alive, one that actually has their tongue," Kaden sighed, wrapping up the rations he hadn't eaten and placing them back in his backpack, "It's never simple, is it?"

"Life is very simple. Most people simply choose not to notice," Azalea said to them with a smile before standing, "I shall keep watch while you rest."

"What about you?" Calista asked with concern.

"You must be ready for the morning, for the weather will be fair and the path clear."

"But-"

"Rest well."

For the third time that night, Azalea wandered into the dark. Kaden was just as puzzled as Calista but he wasn't going to press the issue, knowing soon that he'd be too tired to argue. The day's activities were fast catching up to him now that they'd settle in once place, removing his breastplate and unfurling his bedroll. It looked inviting and though it wasn't the most comfortable bed he'd slept on it was a world better than the hard ground.

"Don't stay up too late, alright?" He said to her, eyelids heavy.

"I'm just going to practice a little." She told him, harp already in hand. He nodded and closed his eyes just as she began to play. It was a piece he recognised, one of many sad songs concerning the unrequited love between a knight and a fair maiden that came out of Corgaca. She said something as she played but he barely heard it, the beautiful melody ushering him into a deep, dreamless sleep. Efforts to fight against it, to mull over the motive of their quarry and the thousand other little things that worried him were in vain, his thoughts only on the tune and memories of better times.

Chapter Nine

"Succession crises are often messy affairs that rarely end well for the royal line or the nation they rule. It is fortunate then that they are quite rare save in Afran. Until recent times, a monarch's reign in that country ended either in exile or assassination by an upstart noble who thought themselves better to rule and better able to avoid the knives of all the other would-be kings and queens.

The Great War wholly eradicated the bloodlines of three kingdoms – Dustledom, Idra and Holnar – and forced the youngest prince of Corgaca, Darcy, to the throne after the deaths of his father and elder brother in the Cataclysm. King Jalen of Letani had no children when he was slain by a stray arrow on the field of battle in 1129, leaving the kingdom at risk of being torn apart by a conflict between the throne's inheritor, Count Azael of Lodonia and Stephanie Heldan, a young girl of seven whose claim that she was the child of the late king and one of his servants. She was supported by the powerful Duke Henry Falkirk of Gantsbridge who claimed to hold evidence proving her claim.

Imagine their surprise then when the queen consort Maren took it upon herself to assume regency of the throne, to ensure stability in a time of war. Her actions were entirely unconstitutional of course but the people did not care; the charismatic twenty-three-year-old was much beloved for her kindness and desire to better the lives of the poor. Her promise to continue the just and fair reign of her husband, as well as carry on supporting the alliance against Idra, was widely supported by both the common folk and most of the nobility. That she quickly assembled a council of wise and trusted figures to aid in decision making while she acclimatised to her new role is a testament to her great wisdom.

Her 'ascension' did not go unopposed, of course. Duke Henry was especially vocal in this, claiming that she had planned to 'steal the throne for herself as she had the king's heart', citing her humble beginnings as a grocer's daughter as motivation. He scrutinised every law Maren passed throughout the war for clauses that would legitimise her ascent, always coming away empty-handed and humiliated. His hope that she would be outed as wholly unsuitable for the task of leadership did not come to be, for Maren ruled justly and with authority – more-so than her husband did, in my humble opinion – throughout the conflict and in the years after. His objections went quiet after that.

For all of her many great achievements, however, advancing years drew her closer to a constitutional ultimatum none could ignore. A ruler of Letani that reaches sixty years of age without a direct heir – regent or no – is required to abdicate to ensure the line continues. Queen Maren had turned away many suitors over the years and as her fiftieth birthday came and went, whisperings of who would succeed her began to resurface. Stephanie had since married Duke Henry's son Harold and now had a daughter – something I'm sure those with an astute mind had seen coming long before it occurred – and while Count Azael had succumbed to old age, his son Julius stood to inherit should Maren not have a child of her own. Julius, much like his father, had said nothing of the impending crisis, sitting back and waiting for the crown to come to him as it should have done from the very start had things gone as they should. Few things go as they should, however, such is the nature of humanity and I for one believe that Letani is all the better for it."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Breakfast had been a rushed affair with Kaden and Calista working to eliminate all trace of their presence while Evan enjoyed a handful of berries that Azalea had likely picked while they slept, the druid no worse for wear despite staying up all night keeping watch. They would have eaten on the road had Kaden had his way but Evan was somewhat happier than he'd been the night before, a mood he was eager not to displace after all that had happened. The remnants of the campfire were scattered in the thicket but there was little they could do about where it had burned; they had neither the tools nor the time to move a patch of grass over the spot and their quarry was ahead rather than behind them, at least that was the hope. The pace Kaden and Calista set was brisk but necessary if they were to have any hope of catching up and it wasn't long before Evan began to speak up. Instead of complaining, however, the boy asked Azalea a myriad of questions, all while taking great efforts to keep in pace with them. Kaden missed most of the details of their conversation, focused as he was on the way before them but the final one caught his ear.

"But why can't you use your magic whenever you want?" Evan asked, disappointed that his request for 'a flashy show' had been turned down, "Other wizards can."

"My gift is not for anyone's amusement, young master," She told him sagely, "It is for me to use only when needed, the better to preserve the Cycle." This prompted a frown.

"Like when you healed Kaden?" Azalea nodded at that, "And when you blasted fire at that archer lady?"

"That was not my doing." Her answer made Kaden pause; how had that managed to slip his mind?

"If it wasn't you, then who? Was there another of them we didn't notice?" The warrior asked, still moving but also glancing behind them reflexively just in case.

"Three entered the wood before you, the two of Dustledom and the one of Letani."

"Could it have been a trap?" Calista suggested, Azalea shook her head which only deepened Kaden's concern, "Another druid, then?"

"Only I tend to that forest and though I am likely capable of such... destructive applications, I have never sought nor will ever seek to learn how to do so. Fire is by its very nature unpredictable, causing more harm than good."

"Just like the weather!" Evan chimed in before turning his gaze to the blanket of clouds overhead. Kaden had noticed it too, "Could you stop it from raining?"

"Even if I were capable, I would not."

"But we'll get wet."

"That we shall, young master."

"But I don't want to get wet!"

"On that, you are in the minority, for the plants that surround you desire it. Would you deny them the water which sustains them?" Azalea indicated to a beautiful patch of white windflowers off to their right, "They would wilt and die."

"It's just one day," Evan grumbled.

"And what of the next day?" The druid didn't get an answer, "We will manage as we can, young master."

"Rain will wash away the tracks we're following." Kaden mentioned, "And then there's the matter of that fire. Fire doesn't naturally appear in forests." Azalea simply smiled.

"We will manage as we can." She repeated confidently. He wasn't so sure now.

The sky darkened as the hours rolled by which soured Evan's mood. The tracks began to veer southward, leading them to an old dirt path which they continued parallel to. That the grass hadn't begun encroaching upon it told Kaden that it was well used but there were no farms of hamlets in sight to cause such traffic. The only reasonable explanation left was that it was frequented by trading caravans, reminding him of his desire to see Evan away from their company and back to Kant's Rest, something he wasn't prepared to risk doing with the mystery of the fire in the forest unsolved. Kaden wondered briefly if one of those trading caravans would confront the kidnappers themselves but quickly dismissed the thought; the wagon guards would have no reason to think the group were anything other than a mercenary force travelling on foot. He also knew that an encounter on the road wouldn't end well for there was nowhere for them to hide their approach nor take cover from the archer he knew their quarry had with them.

"They could have met up with a wagon to move the troupe further ahead," Calista suggested as she scanned the path for wheel tracks.

"I imagine they'd of used it to flee Kant's Rest if they had one." Kaden's attention was focused ahead of them on the horizon just as it began to rain. Evan looked sadly as his clothes started to get wet.

"Can't we stop?" He pleaded quietly.

"There's nowhere to take shelter even if we did, Evan," Calista told him, unclasping her cloak for him to wear. Even pulled it tightly around him with a grumpy scowl. All but Azalea moved to the better ground of the path, the druid staying with the tracks and the mud that she walked through without difficulty. The weather continued to worsen to a downpour as the hours rolled by that soaked their clothes through but still, they moved on. It was only when thunder boomed overhead that Kaden stopped. He'd reached for the handle of Skyrazor without realising it and when Calista noticed she motioned for Evan to move away from him.

"Why have we stopped here? It's still raining." The boy asked sulkily.

"Kaden needs to do something. He won't be long," Her answer was cryptic and rightly so; the last thing Kaden wanted was anyone near him now that it was storming. She looked to Kaden then, "Be careful." He nodded at the advice he was about to ignore completely and made more distance between them, taking a deep breath to push back his steadily amassing fear. Slowly he raised his blade to the sky point first, holding it aloft in his right hand. He tried his best to tried to keep it steady as the heavens boomed once more, this time louder.

"What's he doing?" Evan's voice managed to reach him through the deluge. Kaden closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, knowing what was to come and that he wasn't ready no matter how much he prepared himself, no matter how many times it happened.

"Come on..." He muttered to himself as the rain grew heavier still, "Come on..!" He dug his feet into the fresh mud, doubling down on his foolishness while counting the seconds that dragged on.

The hairs on his sword arm stood at attention suddenly, the only warning he got before a deafening crack and a bright flash of white. This was followed immediately by a searing pain through his hand and wrist that, while ever-so-brief, was enough to make him drop the sword and fall to the ground, dazed and dazzled. His right hand was closed so tightly that it hurt his knuckles and his head swam but he knew from that and his heavy, laboured breaths that he was still alive. He heard someone rushing to his side, Evan's panic.

"Why did he do that?!" The boy cried. Kaden could feel someone shaking his shoulders, "Is he going to die? Don't die, Kaden!"

"I'm not... going to die..." Kaden groaned, trying and failing to open his eyes.

"But you got struck by lightning! Nobody survives getting struck by lightning!"

"Is that something else Billy told you?" He tried to sit up but to no avail; his head was still too light and hazy, "The sword took most of it." Another person had moved up beside him, grabbing his wrist to pull him up. He managed to stand only with their support, his footing shaky and weak.

"Are you alright?" Calista asked him quietly, unable to mask her worry.

"What do you think?" He answered bluntly, fighting against his being to unfurl his clenched fist. He felt her hand on his which eased the tension a little but he knew it would be a while before he could move his fingers properly again. He finally managed to open his eyes, his vision taking longer than normal to adjust to his surroundings. He now stood within a circle of scorched earth and dead grass, a sight that he'd never thought would be so familiar and yet so alien to him. His armour and clothes were fine, something that surprised him every time. A nervous glance at his right arm revealed no burns or scars, much to his relief. He then looked to Evan, the boy's fright having been overtaken by curiosity at the pommel gem of Skyrazor. It now glowed with an intense radiance that made Kaden sigh with relief, "At least it worked."

"I wish there was a better way to charge its power than putting yourself at such risk," Calista lamented, picking up the blade carefully," Did you try sticking it on the roof of your house like I suggested?"

"I did."

"And?"

"I got some very funny looks from my neighbours and that's about it. I told you, it only works if I'm holding it."

"That's stupid," Evan remarked as Azalea approached, "Why would anyone make it like that?"

"I wish I could tell you. I found it hidden away in an ancient temple on an island far away from here," Kaden's right hand twitched uncomfortably, "It was pure luck that enough of the inscriptions on the altar it was stashed away in had survived for me to figure out its name and what it could do."

"Did it tell you how to get magic back in?"

"...That part I learned the hard way." Azalea looked to his hand then the sword. Her smile was warmer than normal.

"The Cycle has deemed you worthy of a boon," She told him, "Be sure to use it only when the need is dire."

"You don't have to worry about that. The last thing I want is to go through that again any time soon," Kaden told her, his head now clear enough to look about them for anyone whose attention had been drawn to the strange occurrence that he'd been the cause of. Finding that they were still alone, he moved his hand from Calista and took a cautious step forward to make sure he could still walk then turned his attention to the way ahead and their goal, "We'd best get a move on. They'll have got even further ahead."

"Only if you are sure." Azalea cautioned.

"I'll be fine," He didn't need to turn to Calista to sense her doubt, "Really. My hand will be fine within the hour."

"Last time it was two." She reminded him.

"This time it'll just be one."

"It had better be." She warned before returning Skyrazor to him. He took one last look at the magic trapped within it before sheathing it with care.

"What's important is that I have that magic for when we need it." Azalea had already moved to relocate the tracks they followed.

"Then we should make haste." She said before continuing to move forward. Kaden's footing improved with each step until he was walking as fast as before. Calista was beside him, glancing at his right hand every once in a while.

"Let's just hope we don't need its power." She muttered quietly to him. He liked the thought of that, unlikely as it was.

It took nearly all of the hour Kaden had allotted himself to regain full usage of his right hand, slowly working feeling and sensation back into it by trying to wiggle his fingers while the rain continued. Calista had watched his efforts with suspicion, mollified only when he could open and close his fist multiple times with relative ease. His thoughts had drifted back to the first time lighting had been drawn to Skyrazor as it often did after re-experiencing it. It had been during his battle with a group of raids from the Southern Kingdoms that had been launching daring raids on farming communities close to the border. His sword – a relatively new acquisition not long after his twenty-sixth birthday – had run out of power long before confronting their leader, a mountain of a man clad head to toe in plate mail and riding a magnificent steed. The hedge knight had been a combatant unlike any he'd faced up to that point, matching his strikes blow for blow in the torrential rain without breaking a sweat, all the while mocking him for his ineptitude. A desperate overhead swing from Kaden ended with him waking up the next morning in bed, tended to by the farmer who'd found him. The story the man told of him being struck by lightning that arced to his foe and the bundles of hay they'd fought amongst had sounded absurd but the evidence left at the scene of the conflict had been grisly and undeniable. His father hadn't doubted as he had and the advice he gave was brief.

'Do not lean too heavily on its power, son, lest you fall when the crutch is kicked from beneath you.' He'd said with a stern look. Kaden had made sure never to forget that and all the other pieces of wisdom that Malkan had imparted to him, some of which he hadn't realised the importance of until well into adulthood. His distracted mind wandered through memories of his childhood and the loving, attentive parent who had grown so distant after he'd come of age, only to snap back to reality when something flitted in the corner of his vision at great speed. He turned his head quickly and looked about for the animal that likely caused it but there was nothing. He sighed, shaking his head at his paranoia and was about to keep walking when he noticed more movement, this time from a tall patch of grass. He drew his sword and held his hand up to draw everyone's attention but while Calista and Evan stopped, Azalea did not. The druid continued to walk forward, unconcerned at the potential threat. Calista gave him a questioning look which he answered with a point to the grass. She shrugged.

"It's probably just a rabbit." She guessed.

"In this weather?" Slowly and carefully he approached the spot, hoping the rain would mask his approach. Nothing was there, however, "I could have sworn..."

"Just a rabbit," Calista repeated.

"It moved too fast to be a rabbit. It was... something else," He looked once more time at the ground around the spot before finally stepping away. Azalea was looking back to them, now a fair distance away, "Maybe she'll know what it was."

"It can't hurt to ask," The bard looked ahead, squinting at the horizon, "I think I see an outcrop."

"What's one of them?" Evan asked with great curiosity.

"It's a rock formation. We may be able to use it to shelter from the rain." The child's eyes lit up at that.

"Then what are we waiting for?" Before Kaden could say anything the boy was hustling to catch up with Azalea, nearly tripping as he did. Kaden and Calista chuckled at that but as they stepped from the grassy spot, so too was light-hearted moment left behind, for he'd started to think on how damp their clothing was.

"They packed a blanket each for us," Calista told him without hesitation. He paused.

"How did you-" She cut him off with another chuckle.

"You're a one-track mind when you're the road, Kaden. It's all adventure," All attempts to come up with a retort floundered, much to the bard's continued amusement, "I take it you'll want me to omit this part from the song about our adventure?"

"You sing about my adventures?"

"I've been putting some thought into it. You have done a lot of heroic things."

"We." He corrected.

"You've done more."

"You can sing about my deed only if you promise to sing about your own too. Does that found fair?" She hadn't expected that, a somewhat different smile flitting across her lips before she turned her eyes to look ahead.

He'd been about to ask what was wrong when Azalea said something out of the blue.

"It means us no harm." She told them. It took Kaden a moment to realise what she was talking about, frowning when he did.

"The thing in the grass?" He checked. The druid nodded, "A beast?"

"What's important is that it means us no harm." Her wording was too specific for Kaden to let it be, keeping pace with her as she went back to following what he imagined was the trail; there certainly wouldn't have been any way for him to pick it up again after the storm abated, the footprints lost to the sodden mud.

"And what is this 'it'?" His enquiry was met with silence, "Well?"

"If it wanted our notice, it would present itself to us," Answered the druid simply, "Be content that it bears no malice towards us."

"How do you know that?" He checked behind them then. Once more there was nothing, "If it's a secret taught you to by the other druids, just say so."

"I bet it's a rabbit," Evan interjected then, his spirits lifted by the promise of refuge from the elements, "Rabbits are scared of people."

"Yes, but-" The boy continued.

"Billy had two rabbits but one of them ran away. He told me that it probably lives in the park now with all the other rabbits."

"It wished to be free, as do all creatures of the Cycle," Azalea explained.

"Cows don't want to be free. They just stand and fields and moo." Kaden was about to speak when he felt Calista tap him on the arm and pass him a look that told him to drop it.

"Am I being too-" He began to ask.

"Yes, you are," She told him gently, "Whatever you saw is gone." He couldn't help but look one last time which only made him feel like they were being watched, but by who and why?

Chapter Ten

"Faith has been a part of life on Kolvan since the oldest known records though it is neither universally adhered nor overshadowing in its scope and power. Nearly all settlements throughout the world have some small place dedicated to worship, from the humble roadside shrine to the majestic and gigantic cathedral of Gantsbridge. The most widespread of the faiths is that of Yem'Da, the Bright One. Yem'Da teaches that you should treat others with kindness and compassion, working together to better society and the place of all within it, especially those less fortunate than yourself. The faith has no unified church hierarchy by design, for it also teaches that no one person is better than another in the eyes of Yem'Da.

Many other faiths and philosophies are revered, most notably the Cycle. Farmers and those who live off the land are oft to pass a short prayer for good weather, hoping to be rewarded with bountiful harvests and forgiving cold seasons. Of those who directly worship the Cycle, the most prominent group are the druids of the Southern Kingdoms, some of them powerful magicians capable of wielding the elements as potent and terrifying weapons. Then there those who perceive the Great Hero as a figure whose deeds are worthy of emulating, striving to be as good and just as he. Many dismiss the hero cult as merely an extension of the teachings of Yem'Da - Indeed, Kandas was a firm believer in that faith – or worse, a thin veil to hide mercenary avarice. None have yet achieved anything remotely on par with the deeds of the Great Hero but their valiance is duly noted.

I must, unfortunately, note that since the Cataclysm, numerous doomsday cults have surfaced proclaiming the end times are at hand. They are not a new occurrence but rarely did these groups endure long before that conflict, quickly devolving into criminality or destroying themselves through infighting. These new groups are larger in size and more organised, possessing resources that make driving them out of settlements more difficult. A watchful eye is kept on their activities but I do not think this goes far enough. It is my humble opinion that these groups are not worshippers of different but equally farcical false idols but acolytes of the same one idol who each perceive in a different light. I doubt that what they revere is real but the tiny chance that it might be is the seed of doubt they seek to plant in our minds. We must not let them erode the hope we have for the future and instead work to reveal the falsehoods at the heart of these cabals then crush them into dust before their influence can spread."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Kaden watched the cascade of rain from the shelter of a precariously protruding rocky ledge, thankful for the thick wool blanket he'd used to dry himself off. He'd made sure to let Evan use it first, the boy huddled close to the small fire they'd managed to get going with the kindling that had Azalea produced from her robes, most likely from an interior pocket. No sooner had the druid finished with getting the sticks burning, she announced that she would seek more fuel and something to eat, departing before anyone could object to her plan. She hadn't returned as quickly as the night before, however, leaving Kaden to wonder if she'd been waylaid by the storm or worse. He and Calista stood just shy of the rain, the latter checking that the contents of her pack hadn't been damaged during their trek through the downpour. Her harp had been wrapped in the blanket and so was no worse for the wear but the paper for the dry rations was quite damp.

"She's going to catch her death out there if she's not careful," Kaden uttered to himself, using a corner of his blanket to try and deal with his hair.

"I'm sure she knows what she's doing," Calista told him. She opened one of the ration packs and looked disappointed at the contents, "Sometimes I wonder what they put in hardtack to make it so resilient."

"Flour, water salt and plenty of love," A flash of lightning in the far distance made him tense up reflexively, "Let's hope our quarry is just as held up as we are."

"We were lucky enough to find this place," Calista glanced back to Evan, lowering her voice, "You should go talk to him." Kaden looked back himself and caught the boy's eye. The smile he received was fleeting, his attention directed towards poking the fire idly with a sturdy stick. His dagger rested on the ground just out of reach, a stark reminder of the many hardships they'd endured in just a few days.

"I'm not sure I can say anything that'll cheer him up," Kaden spoke honestly.

"He'll appreciate a little company either way and we don't both need to be here waiting for Azalea."

"That's true."

"I'll let you know if she turns up." Decision made, Kaden carefully stepped over to the delicate campfire and sat down opposite Evan in the dirt. There he waited for the inevitable deluge of questions to be fired at him but the warrior was met with silence instead. Left to fill the void himself, he tried to come up with a conversation starter but every topic ended up being about their quest in one form or another. Eventually, he found something only tangentially related and seized upon it.

"Is this the furthest you've been away from home?" He asked Evan quietly. The boy shook his head, "Where is?"

"Haldoshern." Came the reply. This intrigued Kaden.

"You have family in the Southern Kingdoms?"

"My uncle lived there when I was little. He had a big farm outside the city with lots of pigs and cows."

"Why doesn't he live there now?"

"Mum says he sold up and moved to Lodonia with the rest of his family when I turned six. He didn't tell us why." Kaden knew the reason why but decided not to say it just in case Evan's mother had kept it from him. He instead cast his mind back to the one time he'd stepped foot in that nation a year before.

"It's a nice place," He told Evan, "A lot like here in many respects but also not. It's the little things that make you realise that you're somewhere else like the uniforms of the guards and the subtle difference in how their bread tastes."

"Billy told me it's where people go to train if they want to defend Ulhad," Evan declared out of the blue He watched as the boy's spirits sank further, "He said my uncle was going off to die."

"Not everyone goes there to learn to fight."

"But that's what my uncle did, didn't he? That's why we never go to visit or get letters from him." Kaden took a moment to make sure his words were in order before answering. The boy watched him hesitate.

"People can get wrapped up in their own lives so much that they ignore other important things without realising it," He answered truthfully. Evan continued to stare at him, wariness lingering in his eyes that made Kaden nervous, "The important thing is that your uncle is doing what he wants to do, what he feels is right."

"Like you do."

"It's not always easy doing the right thing, Evan, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't," Kaden found himself sighing, "Like when you helped us against Andrei. That was a very brave thing to do." Evan shifted his stare to the ground, his voice a choked whisper.

"It was stupid." He managed to get out.

"Your actions weren't that of a fool. You were willing to put yourself in danger to protect me and Calista," Kaden smiled, "I never did get around to thanking you for that." Evan was trying not to cry and failing, tears running down his cheeks and dripping into the mud.

"I want to go home." He sobbed. For a moment Kaden didn't know what to do, afraid that whatever he said would make things worse. He looked to Calista for help but her attention was fixed on the lands beyond their shelter. He quickly thought back to what his father would've said to console him but the only time he remembered crying like Evan was when he'd asked about his mother. The weather had been nothing like the storm they hid from, a beautifully warm day with not a cloud in the sky that he'd of wiled away playing in the garden were it not for a group of children in the street trying to tease him. Their jeers had led him to the question that upset him so – it still brought about a twinge of sadness when he recalled it – and that helped him come up with something to say. Whether that something would help was another matter but he had to do something.

"I know you do but it's just not possible right now, Evan. I'm sorry you've had to go through all this, see all you've seen, but this is the reality of the adventuring life. It's hard, it's painful and I wouldn't wish it upon anyone but until we can see you safely on a caravan home, we'll do all we can to keep you safe. That's a promise."

Evan lifted his head slowly and looked to him, eyes red and lip quivering. Then he looked beyond for a second in shock. Kaden grabbed his sword with one hand and pushed himself to his feet with the other, turning as he rose, fully expecting a shadowy assailant poised to strike at him. His sudden movement alerted Calista, drawing her attention to where he now faced but what he saw was so unbelievable that it left him stunned.

"What the..." He managed to gasp. Perched just within their shelter was a reptilian beast just over half a foot in length that was covered in scales of shimmering black. That a lizard was active in the cold was strange enough but this one had a pair of leathery wings and three white horns atop its crested head which rested at the end of a long neck. Its eyes were two bright red dots that stared straight at him, its tiny mouth open and baring pin-like teeth. Miniscule spikes jutted out from the base of its chin and ran down the length of its tensed up spine, ending at the tip of its tail. Kaden spotted its four clawed feet that it stood upon and only then did he manage to piece together just what he was looking at, "You're a-"

"Don't panic." It spoke quickly and with a soft, voice whose pitch was higher than his but unlike anyone he'd ever heard before. It was so quiet that it should've been drowned out by the rain and yet he'd heard it just fine. Kaden's confusion surged into alarm; It could talk. It could talk and he could understand it. Was this really happening? Had he somehow fallen asleep and dived headlong into a vivid dream? Perhaps the berries Azalea had given them had been bad after all, now suffering from delirium. He bit his lip just enough to pain and confirm that he indeed was awake but was what was before him actually there? He wanted to check if Calista saw it too but what if it vanished when he turned away or darted into hiding? Then he remembered that Evan was the one who'd alerted him to it, throwing all his doubts into a completely different kind of disarray. The thing was there, it had to be and yet...

"You... you're..!" Was all he managed to sputter out. Skyrazor was still in hand but he was so puzzled that the will to draw it had ebbed into nothing.

"...I can explain..?" The creature assured them cautiously, trying to keep everyone in its vision at the same time.

Kaden found himself feeling afraid despite the size of the interloper – was it truly that? Was it truly anything? - unsure of so many things.

"It's a dragon!" Evan stated in amazement, his tears forgotten as he said what Kaden had failed to, "A tiny dragon! Are you a baby one? Are you lost? Where does your mother live?"

"It can't be a dragon, Evan. Dragons don't exist." Kaden objected.

"That's news to me," The little one declared with what bemusement before eyeing the direction in which Calista stood, "I would appreciate it if you could tell your musically inclined friend to lower her crossbow. I mean you no harm."

"We have only your word on that," Calista told it warily. Kaden realised something then, narrowing his eyes upon the creature.

"...You followed us here, didn't you?" He asked it then. The dragon looked to him but said nothing, "You were what I noticed darting through the grass, the one that-"

"That Azalea said wasn't a threat," Calista finished the sentence, now stood next to him, "Is that true?"

"It is." Came the answer. Evan was watching the creature with wide, amazed eyes.

"And you were the one that set the archer's cloak on fire in the woodland," Kaden continued, "Just how long have you been following us?"

"I haven't been following you until recently."

"Then who have you been following? And just what are you?" The creature shifted at the barrage of questions, watching as Calista maintained her aim. Kaden thought he heard it sigh ever-so-softly before muttering something in a voice so quiet that he barely noticed words were being said. Then it cleared its throat.

"I will tell you what you wish to know only if you lower your weapons," It told them simply. Kaden was about to object when it continued, "You have every reason not to trust me, just as I had every reason not to reveal myself to you but I have not eaten since yesterday, the sky is crying and your travelling companion said I could take shelter provided I didn't bring attention to myself."

"You spoke with her?" Calista asked. She got a nod, "Where is she?"

"Out there somewhere," Kaden and Calista looked upon it with synchronised suspicion, "Even if I'd wanted to attack her, the weather would have stopped me. I can't fly when it's this heavy and she's more than capable of dealing with me. Now, do we have a deal or not?" Curiosity slowly got the better of Kaden despite all his reservations and doubts about the situation. He removed his hand from Skyrazor very slowly, watching the creature intently as he did so for even the slightest hint of aggression but there was none. Calista unloaded her crossbow shortly afterwards and the dragon exhaled a deep – for it – breath of relief. Kaden's fear didn't abate, however, still on edge.

The dragon relaxed somewhat, tail curling about its body as it looked to its captive audience.

"My name is Vae and your eyes do not deceive you, for I am of dragonkind-" Evan interrupted the dragon's explanation almost immediately.

"But you're so small!" He exclaimed, "Dragons are meant to be huge, as big as a castle! They can breathe fire and hoard gold and kidnap princesses and lots of other evil stuff! You're..."

"Yes?" Vae tilted its head, watching as the boy thought hard.

"You're... so small!"

"Are you not small compared to your friends?" It countered.

"I'm not small!" Evan protested, "Mum says I've still got more growing to do. I'm going to be bigger than Kaden one day, you'll see!"

"The ones your legends speak of died out far in the past of this world, long before..." It paused, "Long before your kingdoms came to be. We, the Kelvanians, have existed since the early days of Kovalaan-"

"Kovalaan?" Kaden questioned.

"Kovalaan has been our name for this world since as far back as our history goes. Our legends claim that it was one of our more inquisitive and fearless ancestors that spoke our word for this place to you. In time, this word became your Kolvan."

"How far back does your history go?" Calista enquired, her curiosity taking hold, "There's much we don't know about our ancient past that your kind might be able to tell us."

"It is not my place to do so, nor would I be capable of such even if it was. Our history is oral and I am not one of its designated retainers," Vae turned its gaze to Calista now. Its eye glowed a little brighter or was it simply the light of the fire reflecting in them? "I am not even meant to be here talking to you. We have endured where our larger cousins did not by being as the wind, unseen. Many are the reasons we have to avoid your notice, reasons I am sure I need not detail." Kaden nodded, able to picture the hunting parties that would sprout as weeds were knowledge of them to come to light.

"And this is where you make us promise to never reveal that you or your kind exist." Calista guessed. Vae nodded gently.

"Indeed," The dragon was about to speak when it turned its attention to Calista's backpack which rested on the ground, staring intently at it for a moment, "...You wouldn't happen to have anything to eat in there, would you?"

"That depends on whether you like hardtack and pemmican," She answered. It tilted its head once more, "One's a biscuit, the other is made of dried meat and berries-"

"Does it taste good?" Vae's question was quick and eager. She retrieved some of it and unwrapped it, holding it in her hand for the dragon to look it. Kaden couldn't read its expression but the way it continued to tilt its head one way then the other reminded him of a young child being given a new vegetable to try. Vae unfurled its wings and took to the air with great elegance, flying over to Calista and perching on her arm. The bard, startled by the sudden action did her best to remain still as it moved its head close to the lump of pemmican. Evan was mesmerised by the spectacle, his previous woes pushed to the side while he watched the wondrously strange creature take a cautious bite out of the food before burying its head deep into it with a happy, high-pitched squeak. Kaden couldn't help but look on in bemusement as it consumed its meal at a voracious pace, something that he never thought was possible when pemmican was concerned. He still hadn't gotten over the fact that dragons existed in any fashion, let alone were small enough to be mistaken for a bird. Within half a minute the ration was gone, Vae letting out a deep and contented sigh.

"You weren't joking when you said you were hungry," Calista remarked with a smirk.

"Do you have any more?" The dragon inquired hopefully.

"We need most of it for our journey," She told it, watching as the dragon drooped its head glumly. She then brought up something that was on Kaden's mind also, "If you've been keeping close to us since the woodland battle, you must know something of what we're up against."

"Are you chasing the bad guys too?" Evan moved up to look at Vae more closely, reaching to pet the dragon's head. It responded in an instant, baring its teeth threateningly, a warning the boy heeded.

"I am not one of your pets, human," Vae spoke sternly, "You would not do that to one of your own."

"You clearly haven't been around any children, then," Kaden muttered. Only when Evan stepped back did Vae continue, no worse for wear from its veritable feast.

"Before I tell you my reasons for being away from my kind, I must get assurances from you all," Kaden wondered what the consequences of refusing were but didn't voice that thought; things had already started on the wrong footing and asking that would only make things worse. He looked to Calista for her opinion and she answered him with an indifferent shrug. It wasn't her silence he was concerned about though, looking to Evan who was on the verge of exploding into a flurry of questions about the newcomer. Vae noticed this and addressed the boy directly, "You know what happens to people who break promises with dragons, I presume."

"The dragons get mad?" Evan guessed. Vae shook his head.

"No. They get even," This prompted a worried frown from the boy and Kaden but the warrior quickly realised what was going on, "Do we have an understanding?"

"You wouldn't do anything mean. You're not mean!" Evan folded his arms but fear played on his tone.

"No. I'm delightful, provided you do not cross me," It shifted posture to stand as tall as it could, staring Evan down intensely. The boy couldn't keep eye contact for long, "Now, do we have an understanding?"

"...Yes." The answer was quiet.

"I don't think your friends heard you."

"I won't tell anyone. I promise." Vae smiled or at least Kaden thought it did.

"There, that wasn't so hard, was it?" The dragon walked up Calista's arm to her shoulder where it curled up comfortably. She didn't get a say in the matter and Kaden doubted it would listen to her objection anyway, "Now, where to begin..."

Chapter Eleven

"Many are the tall tales of beasts and monsters that supposedly reside in the dark and forgotten corners of the world. They are oft-spoken by drunkards, penniless bards and parents as bedtime stories to their children, but the adage that all myths contain a grain of truth is something I have found to be validated in my research. Some 'monsters' are exceptionally rare beasts driven from their habitats by humans settlement while others lived once but have gone extinct; there are early records of a beast of burden called a 'horse', the last of whom died from mysterious circumstances many centuries ago. Perhaps the mud-runner is the replacement of that ancient animal, but I digress as a scholar of history tends to do.

The most curious creature that resides in our legends is the dragon. In all the years of written record, there have been no confirmed sightings of such a creature in any part of the world. If such a creature were alive now, we all would know of and fear the huge, flying monsters capable of expelling balls of flames from their mouths and possessing scaled hides thicker then metal plates. With only myths that mostly contradict one another in some fashion, many historians need no persuading to dismiss their existence at any point in time as a foolish notion. I am not so quick to disregard the mountain of ancient evidence that those stories contain, however. In my humble opinion, it is hard to believe that a creature entirely fictitious would remain ingrained in our culture for so long, even if it is only within the bounds of storytelling.

If even a slither of what is spoke of dragons is true, facing such a beast would be a terrifying prospect. I wonder if there is any magic or weapon we possess that could slay such a thing, though their absence in the present day would suggest that something could kill them if of course they ever existed."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

"I am here away from my kind because something was stolen from us," Vae shifted its gaze between Kaden and Calista as it spoke, "We Kelvanians have little need for possessions but those we have are treasured relics from when we and our larger cousins were as widespread as you."

"Did you have cities like our own?" Calista asked quietly, not needing to raise her voice with the dragon on her shoulder.

"That is not important. Recovering that which was taken from us before it can do any lasting harm is. You know what it is I'm talking about."

"The sheet music," Kaden got a nod, "We think that it's magical."

"You would be right."

"What does it do?"

"I cannot tell you."

"We're going to have to fight the people who have it-" The dragon cut Kaden off quickly, shifting to get more comfortable.

"I cannot tell you because I do not know," That puzzled Kaden and Calista in equal measure. Evan was watching the exchange in silence as another boom of thunder rolled outside, his wonderment tempered with caution, "Only the elders were aware of its existence and thus its theft."

"You speak as if you're not one of the elders."

"I am much too young to have that honour."

"Then how do you know about the theft?" Calista asked. Vae paused, "Are you meant to know about it?" The pause lingered. A sinking feeling arose in Kaden's stomach.

"You're not meant to be out here searching for it, are you? That's why you were trying to be secretive, avoid our notice." His question was answered not with words but with more silence. Eventually, Vae lowered its head and exhaled heavily.

"The elders refuse to act while it was in the hands of the thief," The dragon answered with a hint of disdain, "They fear that someone who knew of its location would also know how to use it, turn it against us should we try to reclaim."

"And so you decided to hunt them down against the wishes of your elders," Kaden glanced to Evan while he said that, reminded then of the boy's stubbornness, "How long have you been doing this for?"

"A couple of your months. I quickly gave up on searching for the thief, for it was likely they had been paid to steal it for another."

The leader of the troupe." Vae nodded once more.

"I instead sought information that would lead me to the sheet music, a task easier said than done when you are of my size."

"But you can fly," Evan pointed out, "Why didn't you just fly to where they were?" Vae sat up and spread its wings once more, taking to the air and flitting about the boy's head with great speed. Eventually, it landed on his head which made Evan stand rigid in Fear. Vae moved its head to the boy's ear and whispered into it.

"For the same reason I sought to avoid your notice, young child," Evan scowled at the term. It flew then to Kaden's right shoulder, setting down quickly and speaking louder, "I sheltered in the dark, forgotten corners of trading wagons and carts of farmers laden with produce and let them take me to where I needed to be, to places where I had heard of unimaginable performances taking place. That brought me to Kant's Rest and eventually, to you." Kaden took a moment to glance out to the rain for Azalea but found only dreariness.

"Did you see the troupe getting kidnapped?" Calista enquired then.

"I would not use that word to describe what happened," Vae told her cryptically.

"But they tried to kidnap me."

"Did they?"

"They had weapons drawn and so I defended myself-"

Calista stopped mid-sentence. Within moments her expression had changed to one of both clarity and confusion.

"Wait. You're saying that the troupe went with them... willingly?" She barely believed the words even as they spilt from her lips, "But they split up no sooner we left the tavern. I thought it was to evade notice."

"The leader of the performing minstrels, the one with the sheet music, spoke with someone behind the curtain of the tavern you performed in while you were speaking with your friend," Kaden didn't remember seeing anything as strange as a dragon in the tavern, though he hadn't looked up at the rafters and he'd been distracted when talking to Calista. It could have flown right past his face during the performance and he wouldn't have recalled it, however, so fragmented and broken were his memories of it, "I could not hear their words over the din but I believe that your so-called kidnappers struck a deal with them."

"But not with me." Calista realised.

"You said yourself that you didn't talk to them much," Kaden pointed out, "Perhaps the troupe didn't think you'd come with them if they asked."

"But why go straight to that? Why not spin a lie about being promised a huge sum of money to play somewhere else, that we'd be escorted there by mercenaries paid to protect us?"

"Would you have believed that?" Kaden watched her think. Doubt flickered across her face, "Exactly."

"Did you get a good look at the bad guy?" Evan then asked the dragon, "Was he big and scary? Did he have skulls on his armour?" This made the dragon look to the boy curiously.

"He kept out of my view most of the time and when I could see him, his form was concealed with a long grey cloak," Vae answered simply. Evan looked disappointed.

"The man I chased down had a black cloak, they all did," Kaden remarked, noticing then that the rain was finally starting to abate. A question jumped into his head that he was surprised he hadn't asked sooner, turning his head to address the dragon quietly, "You were there in the tavern during the performance.

"I was."

"What was it like for you?"

"Beautiful and abrupt." The dragon said simply.

"I can't remember it at all."

"An after-effect of the magic within the music." It theorised.

"That's what we thought. Did you notice anything else?"

"Only that it ensnared the attention of everyone but myself. Whether that application of the music is unable to affect dragonkind or that I was expecting something to occur and thus was better prepared to resist it, I cannot say." Kaden took a moment to ponder all that they'd learned, sort out the jumble into something that made sense.

"We can't rule out that the leader of the troupe was subject to some kind of enchantment that persuaded him to go without a fight but that doesn't matter, not if what your elders say about the music is true," He concluded.

Only then did it occur to Kaden that the diminutive creature might have been lying, spinning an elaborate and believable tale for potentially sinister ends. He caught the dragon's eyes with his own and stared, trying to discern any falsehood from a face entirely alien to him.

"You doubt," Vae stated bluntly.

"It would be foolish of me not to," He replied frankly, "You're something I've never seen before and that wonderment can easily be used to make anything believable, more so when you say exactly what we want to hear." Calista eyed the exchange warily but Vae simply smiled, an expression that looked far more intimidating than it should have.

"I ask for a lot to be accepted on blind faith, yes, but the risk I put myself in to tell you all I have must count for something," Vae argued calmly, confidently.

"We only have your word on if you're in any actual danger," Calista remarked. Vae glanced briefly to her still lowered weapon, "You could even be working for the ones we pursue, trying to lead us into a trap."

"Were that the case, I would not have sought to rescue you from the archers in the woodland."

"You would if not doing so meant I fell to her anger." The quiet that settled about them was broken only by the rain outside.

"A valid point well made," Conceded the dragon. It sat up then, ready to take to the air at a moment's notice. Kaden had reached for his sword instinctively but the upfront manner in which Vae accepted their concerns had stopped him from taking hold of the weapon, "The question you must then ask yourselves is how much you trust the faith your druidic friend places in me. I will not impose upon you if I am not welcome but from what I have seen of you all, we share the same desire to see things set right. We can achieve more working together than apart. The decision, however, is ultimately yours." Kaden and Calista looked to one another, each seeking the other's guidance on what to do. He could see her concern and she doubtless had noticed his but within a few seconds, something shone in her eyes that he recognised: trust. Rarely had Kaden been betrayed but the few times his supposed allies had turned on him had cut deeper than any blade. He'd doubted Azalea also but her empathy had shone through his suspicion, just as Vae's honesty had. He smiled and nodded to her which was the signal Vae had been waiting for, the dragon relaxing once more.

A familiar figure then stepped from the wet into their presence, her spirit no worse for wear and hands laden with the fruits of her work. The dragon eyed them hungrily, huffing when they were placed within the same brown sack she'd used for the foraged feast from the night before.

"I see you have become acquainted with one another," Azalea stated gently.

"How long have you known about Vae?" Kaden asked her.

"I know of all who enter my forest," She reiterated without hesitation, "Vae crossed the threshold shortly before you did, observing those you pursue and later you also."

"Did you know Vae was after our quarry as well?"

"One reveals their true self through that which they're willing to risk their lives to achieve. I saw the same selfless conviction in both your group and it, so I saw no reason to doubt its intentions,"

"I just do what I need to do," Kaden told her, "We all do." She simply smiled at his words before glancing back to the countryside beyond.

"The rain will soon abate. We should continue once it does," She said then, I made sure to memorise where the tracks led before they could be damaged. It will be no problem for me to follow them"

"But aren't you cold?" Evan asked, grabbing her waterlogged robes, "You'll get sick if you don't dry off."

"Your concern is appreciated, young master, but I will endure."

"You should at least get out of those robes until it's time to go." Calista's suggestion was shrugged off by the druid.

"I have lived unsheltered from the Cycle for many a year. To me, the rain is as natural and soothing as the fire you have sheltered by, a reminder that we are all a part of," Azalea held her hand out into the wet, letting the droplets pitter-patter against into her open hand, "You will need the warmth of flame more than I for the journey ahead."

They set off the moment after the final drops of rain had fallen and a light lunch had been eaten, returning to the dirt road as fast as they were able to in the sloshy mud. Azalea quickly outpaced them, walking unimpeded and unafraid through the grass in stark contrast to Evan who was trying to follow in Calista's footsteps exactly with much success. Vae had taken to the skies shortly after their emergence from the outcrop, shooting straight up in a manner unlike any chirpie Kaden had ever seen, prompting a burst of excited applause from Evan. Kaden watched the spectacle for a moment before returning his attention to reaching the road, reasoning that it was scouting the horizon from its lofty vantage point for anything of note. His hunch was proven right when it swooped back down to curl up on Azalea's shoulder once they made it to the firmer ground of the country road. The two spoke briefly, on what Kaden couldn't discern from that distance but he doubted it was anything of note, focusing then on making back the time they'd lost to the weather and to resting early the previous night. Calista glanced up every once in a while at the blanket of clouds that was being carried away by a gentle but persistent wind blowing at their backs, glad as he was to be moving once again. Kaden found himself gripping Skyrazor's handle on more than one occasion, looking about them every time he did so; a tiny and familiar voice in the back of his mind was warning him that everything was too quiet. It reminded him of the archer that they'd let live, chastised him for not chasing her down and ending the threat she posed to them on top of a plethora of other things that could go wrong. So much had happened in just a few days and the time he'd of normally spent sorting through it had been full of questions he was only just starting to get half-answers for. Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath helped him banish those thoughts into oblivion but he knew they'd always resurface, always resurface so long as he had no idea where their quarry was, what their goals were. They might have been halfway to Gantsbridge for all they knew, resting in a guarded caravan that had easily weathered the storm. He opened his eyes after the third such instance to find that Calista was watching him with an expression he couldn't quite decipher.

"It's nothing," He told her. That earned him a look of scepticism which he immediately recognised.

"Are you sure?" Her eyebrow raised.

"It's nothing I can do anything about." He corrected, moving to walk beside her, their footsteps almost in sync. Evan trailed a few paces behind him, watching the weather far more warily than Calista had been.

"I've been thinking about Vae," Calista told him then, speaking quieter than before, "Where they live, how they live and how they've kept themselves secret for so long. We can't be the only people who know of their existence, after all."

"We could be. I know it's not likely but someone has to be the first," Kaden looked ahead to Azalea and Vae who stood at the top of a slope he hadn't noticed they'd been scaling, "From what it told us, we can presume their kind travel light. It wouldn't be difficult for them to pick up and move if a farmer decided to set up near one of their homes."

"But would they? We certainly wouldn't if the situation was reversed."

"We might if the threat was big enough."

"Ulhad says otherwise."

They arrived at the top of the shallow hill and looked upon the land before them. Small pockets of woodland were hemmed in by fields, the road winding between them like a river of erosion. Kaden counted three farms, two of which were dedicated to livestock and one which had a small amount of produce and many empty fields that caught his attention.

"It might be worth asking if they saw anything," Kaden suggested.

"We could also ask when the next caravan heading to Kant's Rest comes by," Calista added. Evan didn't react to the prospect of going home which surprised Kaden but his attention was quickly drawn to Azalea's attentive stare. Her eyes were on the farm whose fields were mostly fallow. He looked that way himself but couldn't see anything that warranted such intense focus.

"What's wrong?" Kaden asked.

"Something is not right," Azalea declared in a whisper. Calista joined Kaden in observing the place, a small stone building with a thatched roof and an outlying barn of wood, "It is too still."

"They're probably just indoors," Calista said. Then she paused, narrowing her eyes on something Kaden struggled to spot himself, "...There's no smoke coming from the chimney." Kaden looked to the other two houses, immediately spotting the columns of grey that quickly dispersed in the wind.

"Maybe they're on holiday," Evan's suggestion was far cheerier than Kaden had been expecting, "My mum's been saving a kal here and there to take us all to see the sea one day. She told me the sea is so big that you can't see the edge of it but that's silly. It'd have to rain all year round to fill a lake that big!" Kaden had grabbed his sword once more and this time he drew it.

"It can't hurt to check up on them either way," He said. Calista nodded in agreement while loading a bolt. Evan noticed everyone getting ready for combat and was confused.

"You don't think something happened to them... do you?" The boy asked. Vae lifted its head lazily.

"Hope for the best, expect the worst," The dragon stated wisely before stretching, "I can scout ahead if you need me to."

"If there's trouble, I'd rather we gave them as little warning as possible," Kaden was already coming up with a plan of action for a dozen different instances of awful, half of which dealt with the many ways they could be ambushed, "We might need you to watch the perimeter while we check the place, though."

"I can do that."

"You're going to scare the farmers," Evan warned. Kaden checked the farmhouse one last time, just in case smoke had begun to billow from its chimney. It had not.

"We'll deal with that if it happens," Kaden remarked off-hand. He glanced to the others who were all battle-ready and together they began to descend the hill towards the farm in question. While he hoped that their suspicion was just that, Azalea's judgement had yet to be wrong and so he steeled himself, for what he didn't know and hoped he wouldn't find out.

Chapter Twelve

"Kolvan has a wide range of holidays and festivals, so much so that it would be entirely possible to spend much of the year celebrating them were one able to afford to zigzag across and between the continents. These celebrations are typically declared days of rest, a time to reflect and be thankful for what one has in life.

A few holidays are observed globally, most notable of which is War's End. Always falling on the sixth day of the eighth month and marking the time the Great War came to its fiery, terrible conclusion, it is a sombre affair where people remember those lost and the sacrifices made during the lengthy conflict. Many believe that fighting on that day will bring terrible misfortune to those who instigate it, making it an armistice day in most conflicts (and there is oft one of them going on in the Southern Kingdoms). Another widely celebrated holiday is Dustleday, celebrating Kandas and Leal's victory in their ever-mysterious conflict on the isle that would late become Dustledom. Naturally, Corgaca does not recognise that holiday nor acknowledge that Kandas is worthy of any special attention. The loss of Dustledom has marred the celebration of late, but in general, it is a time of merriment, the telling of tall tales and over-dramatic re-enactments of Kandas and Leal's greatest adventures.

Every nation has their smattering of celebrations specific to them, some almost routine in their appearance; a day commemorating the birth of the current monarch, festivals for the end of the harvest and random ones for ancient figures of significance. The former colonies have days where they celebrate their independence, with Ethania's being an archery contest that attracts competitors from all over the world. Of note is Polena who, in my humble opinion, have enough holidays that they occur with alarming frequency. (I must mention that they have at least two holidays that revolve entirely around cheese, a most revolting food that does not deserve such attention).One wonders how they manage to achieve such a thriving economy with so many days bereft of work.

Letani has the Day of the Hunt, where hopefuls seeking to become Rangers compete in a competition to test their tracking and hunting. Corgaca have a slew of knightly jousting and melee tournaments and I must mention that Ilara dedicates the first day of every year to artists of all kinds.

War's End is the only day of the year that the slaves of Afran are by law free from the tasks of their masters, though as few have money of their own or lives beyond their work, it is little more than a reprieve from their duties. Attempts to enshrine other celebrations as holidays for all in that kingdom have never gained much traction but they have been surfacing with more frequency in recent years. Unfortunately, I do not see the status quo changing there without an event so radical that it itself would later become the subject of a holiday itself. One can but hope."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

The gate leading to the farm courtyard had been left ajar, a telltale sign of unwanted access that set Kaden on high alert. Much of the house itself was obscured by the tall barn which stood as still as the rest of the place. He tried to spy evidence of traffic but the ground was too worn, leaving him with no alternative but to presume the worst. The only places he could see where an ambush was possible, however, were in the buildings themselves and a few large bales of hay intended for animals that they hadn't seen yet. Evan walked up to the gate to call out a greeting but was stopped by Azalea who covering his mouth with her hand. The boy looked up in surprise as the druid gently shook her head in warning. Her smile was a little different to normal.

"We will wait for you two to return," Azalea told Kaden and Calista quietly. Evan frowned, his covered mouth the only thing stopping him from voicing his objections, "I will join you if there is a need." Kaden didn't need to ask how she'd know; combat was anything but quiet. Vae took the air then, flying up to the roof of the barn with speed and quiet. Kaden looked to Calista then, taking a breath to keep his apprehension at bay.

"Let's go." He got a nod and together they stepped past the gate. They both kept a watchful eye on their surroundings with every step they took, ready for anything and yet not all at once. No assassin sprung from the hay to slay them, nor did an arrow fly from one of the windows of the farmhouse that he could only see all of once they drew level with the barn. It was a single-story building and from what Kaden knew of farmhouse interiors, the front door likely led to the main living area. Kaden indicated that he intended to check out the house by pointing his left hand that way, knowing that she'd clear the barn while he did so; it was far from the first time they'd communicated in hand gestures, a skill his father had taught him during childhood under the guise of a game and that he'd taught her on their first adventure together.

"Be careful." She mouthed to him as they parted ways. He walked on, glancing back to see his friend beginning her check around the perimeter of the barn just to be sure. Kaden heard none of the sounds he expected upon drawing closer to the house, the eerie quiet playing on his nerves as he reached the wall next to the front door. There he waited and listened for anything out of the ordinary but all he heard was the rustling of the wind and the creaking wood of the door being shifted by it. Kaden gripped Skyrazor tightly as he drew it from its scabbard, looking to the blade's sharp edge before stepping ever-so cautiously over the threshold. He found himself alone in a sparsely furnished room, staring at a table set for a meal which hadn't been served. An old plate display rack hung ajar on the wall by the stove atop which sat a kettle of water. Three chairs were set but there was no sign of the ones meant to occupy them, nor was there any commotion prompted by his arrival. Something had drawn the residents away but there were no signs of a struggle to explain what had happened to them. Then he remembered the entrancing music the troupe could play and wondered whether that had enticed them from their home but even if it had, why would they use it here? He looked about for where the doors to other rooms were, spotting one opposite him and a trapdoor in the corner. Deciding that it was best to check below before moving further in, Kaden stepped slowly to the trapdoor, wincing at the creaking floorboards beneath. It was next to a fireplace full of unburned logs and in front of that rested a comfortable looking chair. His sword and nerves ready, Kaden pulled the trapdoor open only to find a small larder which was well stocked with dried meats, jars of preserves and even a small rack of wine bottles. He closed it gently and turned his attention to the other door, moving towards it and putting his ear against it to listen. He heard only silence, however, which made him apprehensive once more. His instincts told him not to go in, that he'd see something horrible or worse, be lunged at by another assailant but he had to and so he pushed the door open.

The double bed had been made and was unoccupied. On one side of it was a closed wardrobe and on the other stood a small side table. The mirror atop of it was as clean and orderly as everywhere else within which both relieved and worried Kaden in equal measure; There was no blood, no bodies but also no answers. He turned to leave and that was when he heard something, something low to the ground. He turned back quickly, Skyrazor in hand and listened once more, standing perfectly still. He heard it again, a quiet meow followed by a shuffling that came from under the bed. No assassin could fit under there, he knew, and so he sheathed his sword in preparation to go and take a closer look. That prompted another noise, a stifled gasp.

"...Hello? Is anyone there?" He asked, not moving from the doorway. He didn't get a reply. He decided to try a different approach, "I'm not going to hurt you, whoever you are. We just wanted to see if everyone here was alright, that's all." He heard the cat meowing again and what he thought were tears.

"Shhh!" It was so soft that he barely heard it, but he did. Someone was definitely under the bed, a child. His mind began to mull over what this could mean, all the terrible possibilities but he pushed that pondering aside to focus on the there and now.

"I'm going to come over to the bed now, okay?" He stated before taking a step closer.

"Go away." The child choked out between sobs. She sounded even younger than Evan.

"Where are your parents?" The only answer he got was more tears. He took another step, now standing next to the bed. He heard a shuffling from under it, the child trying to move away from him. Then he heard sounds from the main which made him turn, ready for combat in a heartbeat.

"Kaden?" Calista's voice put him at ease. She entered the room and gave him a look that told him all he needed to know of the girl's parents: they were dead. A pang of great sadness hit him, knowing now why the child hid from them, why she cried. He motioned with his head to the bed just as the child beneath it shuffled again, likely to the side farthest from them. Calista hid her sadness better than he did but he knew it had hit her hard too, the bard stepping over to the other side of the bed slowly. The child beneath shuffled frantically.

"Hello there," She said to the child, "It's alright to come out now. No-one is going to hurt you." Kaden said nothing, watching the door just in case that wasn't true.

"Go away!" Came the fear-ridden answer.

"Did your parents tell you to wait here?" Calista got no reply but more tears and another meow from the cat, "Does anyone else live here?"

"...Go away." The words were whisper quiet and panicked. Calista crouched down and looked under the bed then, her smile forced but convincing. She offered forth a hand.

"My name is Calista. The man with me is my friend, Kaden. We're not here to hurt you, we're here to help. We've got some food if you're hungry," After a few seconds, the child emerged from her hiding place, one hand in Calista's and her free arm holding a tiny white kitten who meowed once more, trying to wriggle free from the girl's grip. She looked no older than five, wearing a plain brown dress and muddy shoes. Her blonde hair was long and tangled, face dirty with grime that'd run further down her face from her crying. She looked exhausted, distraught and terrified, barely holding back a well of even stronger emotions. Whatever had happened, she knew. The girl turned her head to Kaden, looking at his left arm for some reason before she erupted into uncontrollable tears. Calista held her without hesitation, trying to comfort the girl as best she could, "It's alright, you're safe. No-one can hurt you now." The girl's tears kept flowing. Calista stroked her hair reassuringly, letting the child cry all she needed to.

"The barn?" Kaden mouthed to Calista. He got a soft nod in return and knew where next he needed to go and so headed there.

Upon leaving the house, Kaden noticed Evan lingering by the barn door with a nervous look about him that persisted as the warrior drew closer.

"I was told to stay out here." The boy told him quietly. He didn't sound keen to enter and Kaden was glad to hear it, "Were there any bad guys in the house?"

"Just a young girl and her cat," Kaden answered, "Why don't you go talk to her? I think she'll appreciate a friendly face." Evan thought about the idea then started to make his way to the farmhouse. He stopped after a few paces.

"Azalea is in the barn. I think she's waiting for you."

"Thank you," Evan thought on something for a moment, about to speak. Kaden beat him to it, "We'll get them, Evan."

"I know. You're a hero and heroes always save the day." The boy didn't sound as convinced as he would've been a few days before but the smile he passed Kaden's way was real enough. Only once he'd moved out of sight did Kaden turn back to the barn, trying to brace himself for whatever waited for him. No sooner had he opened the door was Kaden hit by the overpowering stench of death. He took a step back, covering his mouth while gagging. The walls were lined with stacks of hay and in one of them lay two bodies, a man and a woman in their forties, their expressions frozen in looks of fear and suffering. Three arrows were lodged in the woman's chest while the man had been run through with a blade. He knew that against their quarry the farmers wouldn't have stood a chance but why had they been killed? An effort had been made to hide them but it had been hasty and ill-thought-out; trails of blood led to their final resting place, telling him that they'd been dragged from the other side of the barn. Azalea was observing the grisly spectacle a little further in. Her expression was at it always was, calm and gentle despite the tragedy before them. The druid was holding something in her right hand, something small. His instincts told him not to step closer to a scene of death but he knew he had to take a closer look, search for clues that might help them unravel more of the mysterious purpose of those they pursued. The stench grew worse as he stepped in but he was better prepared for it now, endeavouring not to breathe through his nose as his gaze settled on Azalea.

"There's a girl in the farmhouse," Kaden said to her, "She'll of heard the struggle."

"There are two more bodies," Azalea opened her hand revealing a silver ring. He immediately identified it as a signet ring due to its similarity to the one his father wore at all times. Kaden examined the designed engraved upon it and drew more similarities to that and Malkan's ring; both had an eagle in the centre of the signet but while his father's bird was surrounded by a wreath of lilies, this one had the eagle clutching an axe in its talons while holding a rose in its beak. He then noticed fine lettering on the inside of the ring.

"My life for Dustledom," He spoke it out loud, recognising it as the final words of Andrei, the man who'd tried to stop them in the thicket, "They were definitely here then."

"The other bodies are two of the ones we pursue," She told him before stepping to the other side of the barn and looking to an area concealed from view by a low wall. Kaden followed her and looked upon the pair of bodies which were lying face down on the floor. They were dressed exactly like the ones he'd fought in Kant's Rest right down to the cloaks which hid most of their bodies from sight though they didn't appear to be armed. There was also no blood on or around them, making him question just what happened. Curious, Kaden knelt and turned over the closest body only to recoil in horror.

The man's face and chest had been burned to a blackened husk but even then he could see the agony that had been inflicted what little remained of their face. A new wave of nausea hid Kaden hard; in all his years of adventuring, he'd never seen something so awful.

"...What happened here?" Kaden managed to say through his disgust, "Did the farmers do this?"

"What does your experience tell you?" Azalea asked him, seemingly unaffected by what was before them. A moment's thought answered her question.

"Experience tells me that only magic could do this and if they had magic, they wouldn't be dead."

"Surprise is a weapon unlike any other, capable of felling even the mightiest creature." Countered the druid.

"They weren't taken by surprise, at least not right away. There were no signs of struggle in the farmhouse," Kaden looked back to Azalea even as he tried to piece together what they knew, "That means they must have talked, the farmers and them, but what about?"

"Many are the reasons for conversations, Kaden, but few are the needs of the group we pursue," Kaden remembered then the empty fields around the farm and came upon a theory.

"If the farmers reared mudrunners..." He began, using the cloak of the burned corpse to hide its charred visage. He considered examining the other body for a moment but thought better of it, "If that's the case, they likely stole them to make better time to Glimmershade. It's not like the farmers were in any position to stop them."

"And yet two warriors lay dead."

"Not by the hands of the farmers, but if they didn't kill them and they weren't slain by some random wizard then that just leaves..." He sighed, shaking his head at the very thought, "But it's absurd."

"Is it?" The druid waited. He looked again at the signet ring, then to the bodies. It all pointed to one thing but it didn't make any sense.

"The only thing that makes sense is that the ones we're chasing killed these two, but why? Why would they kill their own? More to the point, why did they leave them here for us to find?" Kaden stood up and stepped away from the bodies, trying to clear his head and get to the bottom of the conundrum. His brow furrowed, "Perhaps they did something to upset their leader, something unforgivable."

"Like killing the farmers," Azalea suggested. Kaden was bemused.

"Why slay their own over something they were going to do-" It was then that his mind looked at the situation from a different angle, one which made him think even harder, pacing up and down the barn slowly, "...They weren't out for blood. They were looking to make a trade and something went wrong."

"And the leader killed the ones responsible for the wrongdoing to show the others the price of foolishness," Azalea spoke as if stealing the very words from his head, "The beasts of the wild do not tolerate those individuals whose actions endanger the pack."

"So we're dealing with kidnappers who didn't kidnap anybody that also go out of their way to avoid killing whenever possible," Kaden let the revelation sink in, "The more we learn about these people, the more puzzled I become." He spied movement by the door and turned to see Vae flying at eye level. He reached for his sword even as the dragon spoke.

"There is someone approaching the farm," Vae told them, "They are armed and travelling by foot."

"Just one person?" Kaden checked. He got a nod, "Did they come from the other farms?"

"No."

"What weapons?"

"A crossbow and a small melee weapon. He will be here in less than a minute," The dragon looped back on itself with a flourish, "Shall I intercept them?" Kaden's gut told him that it wasn't someone from those they chased; their time was better spent making distance towards Glimmershade and their enigmatic goals. Still, his gut also told him not to be complacent, Skyrazor now drawn.

"No," The warrior said, "We'll deal with whoever it is when they get here. Go warn Calista."

"As you wish." The dragon flew out of the barn gracefully and Kaden followed it out on foot, knowing that Azalea would not be far behind. He breathed deeply to try and still his thumping heart but he knew no matter who it was, they had a lot of explaining to do. He only hoped they were given the chance to do so.

Chapter Thirteen

"Of the many wars in Kolvan's history, the Lodonian War of Succession is one of the more notable. The lord of the nation, Angelo, passed away unexpectedly in 884 A.E. without an heir, leading many to think he had been assassinated. Efforts by Letani to ease tensions failed and so the nation was plunging into a brutal civil war, with various nobles and powerful figures vying for control. The names of most of these have been lost to time save two: Count Arcadnus and Avitus.

Outwardly, Arcadnus was a noble and upstanding person who ruled over his lands fairly but that was a ruse. In truth, Arcadnus was ambitious and devious, always scheming, always plotting. Some suspected that it was he who arranged the assassination of Lord Angelo and several of his more powerful opponents over the many years the war dragged on. The loyalty of his allies he paid for with gold, blood and fear and those who would not serve were dispatched as an example to the others.

Avitus was six years old when his father set out in 887 to fight in the war, never to return. His mother was killed in 903 by forces loyal to Arcadnus during a raid, spurring the young man into action. With the assistance of Yorrik, a long time friend of the family, he spurred the remaining free lords to unite in secret against Arcadnus on the condition that Avitus was able to secure the assistance of Ilara in the conflict. Arcandus caught wind of this scheme, however, and sent a contingent of galleons in pursuit which succeeded in scuttling their vessel. Shortly afterwards, Arcadnus declared himself king of Lodonia, confident that his last true enemy was dead.

While we know that Avitus and Yorrik managed to survive the sinking of their ship, history is hazy on their actions between 904 when it occurred and their mysterious emergence in 909. During that time, Avitus had somehow learned to use magic at a level of competence which put the teachers at arcane colleges to shame, a feat not even Kandas had achieved that quickly. Furthermore, he was easily able to secure the assistance of not only Ilara but Polena and Letani as well, heading a mighty force to oust Arcadnus in 910. Then there is the fact that Avitus was, by popular demand, elected to be the next of lord of Lodonia, a title he still holds today. This would make him 279 years old and yet he looks not a day over thirty. Finally, there is the fact that he and he alone survived at the epicentre of the Cataclysm which ended the great war. It is my humble opinion that Avtius's magical prowess and affinity for healing – one which has vastly eclipsed Kandas' mastery – is what keeps the lord youthful and helped him survive the Cataclysm, but that does not explain where that prowess came from and why it is unmatched by any magician in Kolvan. The answers lie in that five-year gap but of the two that know what happened, Avitus has said nothing and Yorrik passed away in 931. It is my hope that the fame I will gain from the publishing of this tome will allow me an interview with the lord where I can finally get the answers I seek so that they can be recorded for posterity and the betterment of all."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Kaden and Azalea managed to get beyond the farm gate before the figure came into view, though at that distance little could be discerned about them. Vae's warning made Kaden even more cautious than normal, not sure if his breastplate would be able to withstand a well-aimed crossbow bolt. Azalea didn't appear to have any of the worries he harboured, however, watching the stranger approach with her ever-present smile.

"Get ready," Kaden told her.

"They do not wish to harm us." She answered simply.

"How can you know that from this far away?"

"One who wished us ill would not approach in such an obvious manner." Kaden could see her logic but couldn't afford to be as trusting as she was. It was then that the figure stopped.

"Stay where you are!" Called the stranger. It was a man's voice and an old one at that. There was a presence to his words that reminded Kaden of his father, "What business do you have here?" Kaden cleared his throat and beckoned back the only thing he rightly could: the truth.

"I am Kaden Mallas De'Dustledom and I mean you no harm unless you align yourself with those we give chase to!" He wasn't answered right away which made Kaden even more nervous.

"...Kaden?" The man repeated. Kaden nodded without thinking, "You'd best not be lying, boy. That name belongs to a hero of these parts. Should you be besmirching it, you will see your end."

"I'm not worthy of such praise, I just do what is needed," Kaden answered back, quick to play down his actions. Had Calista been there, he'd of earned a frown from her for that, "Let us continue this conversation face-to-face, if you wish it. There are things I wish to know."

"Kind words have led many a warrior to their deaths," The old man warned sternly, loudly, "Can you vouch for your friend, also?"

"I speak for all that travel with me when I say that we act now for the good of the kingdom and its people. If you would prefer that we approach you instead-"

"No. I'll come to you," The man interrupted, "Stay there." Kaden did as was told, not wanting to give the stranger any reason to suspect he was up to something. He didn't like being at the newcomer's mercy but he knew better than to argue with someone who had the ranged advantage. Eventually, the figure stopped ten metres away from them, allowing Kaden to get a good look at him. He was indeed very old, perhaps in his seventh decade, his thin white hair dotted with the occasional streak of grey. Wrinkles and scars mottled his face in equal measure, painting the picture of a man whose youth was spent in conflict. His beard was the same colour and unkempt like the long dark green coat that flowed down his back. He wore a black gambeson tunic which had a yellow crescent moon emblazoned upon it. Kaden knew that Letani military units used such things to quickly identify friendly fighters during battle but he didn't know what unit that symbol was attached to if it was at all. The figure's dark grey trousers and black boots were worn with age while remaining serviceable, much like the crossbow he held, its crank was rusted in spots. Kaden knew better than to underestimate its stopping power, however, especially one that was loaded and pointed at him. A quiver hung from the man's belt and next to it in a loop was one of a pair of nasty looking hand axes, the other hanging from the opposite hip. Azalea's smile of greeting was ignored by the stranger who was focused on looking Kaden up and down appraisingly. He did so for a few seconds before exhaling deeply.

"What are you doing here?" The man spoke softer but his tone was still wary.

"We're in pursuit of a group who kidnapped a performing troupe in Kant's Rest," Kaden explained simply, maintaining eye contact with the armed stranger, "Their tracks led us this way, whereupon we spied this farm. The lack of chimney smoke or livestock prompted us to investigate."

"Lack of livestock?" The man's brow furrowed. Then he muttered to himself quietly before raising his voice, "That would explain the mudrunners I saw..."

"What did you see?" Kaden asked quickly, "Anything you know could help us." The man's eyes narrowed on him then with suspicion.

"...What did you find in the farmhouse?" The way the man spoke told Kaden that he already knew the answer. Kaden said nothing; no words were needed to convey his sadness. Finally, the old man lowered his crossbow, "...Damn it. How many bodies?"

"Two, in the barn," Azalea replied simply, "There is also a girl-"

"Elzebeth!" The old man's voice was panicked, "Is she..?"

"She's alive," Kaden answered, "She hid under the bed in the farmhouse." Kaden watched as the old man looked to the sky with a weary smile, muttering something else lost to the wind.

"There is some small mercy in this world, after all, even if it is cruelly edged," At that, the posture of the stranger relaxed which made Kaden do the same, "...Forgive the paranoia of an old man, Kaden. The countryside is not as safe as it once was. When I saw a large group of mudrunners come from this way, I feared the worst."

"Why?" Azalea enquired.

"It's not uncommon for people to quickly ride through here but the plumage of one of the mudrunners caught my eye," The man answered, "Red is a very uncommon colour for them and I knew that the people here had one just like that. I had been keen to buy it once, hoping to breed more, but they refused to sell time and time again. One doesn't stop being that stubborn on a whim, so I came to see what had happened and... well, here we are. What do you know about who did it?"

"Not much save that they have at least a few people from Dustledom in their party. We also suspect there's a wizard among their number, but we can't be sure."

Kaden heard footsteps to his left and turned to see the others approaching the gate. Elzebeth walked alongside Calista, holding the bard's hand with her eyes fixed on the ground. Evan held the kitten as if it were a fragile vase, trying to keep up with its efforts to squirm from his grip. The old man offered his crossbow to Azalea who held it awkwardly while he walked up to the gate. This caught the young girl's attention, her eyes following the shadow until they reached the man's boots. Gone was the sternness from his face and in its place was kindness.

"Hello, Elzebeth. It's me, Harlethorne, the farmer from the hamlet over the hill. Do you remember me?" Her answer came in a very faint nod and her gaze moving up to meet his soft, brown eyes, "We're going to take you to stay with your aunt and uncle. Is that okay?"

"Will mummy and daddy come later?" A twinge of hope sparked in Elzebeth's voice, one that Kaden knew would be snuffed out instantly. Harlethorne stepped closer and went down on one knee.

"I'm afraid not, young one. They have passed on, but will always be with you, in your heart and dreams," Elzebeth started to cry once more and that was when Calista let go of her hand so Harlethorne could embrace her warmly and with such gentleness, "It'll be alright, my dear. It may not feel it right now, but everything will be alright. My friends have a few loose ends to tie up here, then we'll head to my home for the night. In the morning we'll begin our ride to Glimmershade to see your aunt and uncle. I have stew at home if you're hungry."

"I want my mummy and daddy..." Elzebeth whimpered into his shoulder.

"If I could bring them to you, I would, but some things simply cannot be," Eventually Harlethorne let go of the child, "Is there anything you need from your room before we go, Elzebeth?"

"No." She murmured back. That was when Azalea approached, handing Harlethorne back his crossbow before looking to the child with her ever-gentle smile.

"Come, child. We shall wait for them away from this place." Elzebeth didn't object, though her tears continued to run down her cheeks even as she followed the druid out of the courtyard and away. Evan rushed to catch up, the small bundle of fluff in his hands meowing in protest at its predicament.

Harlethorne made sure that they were out of earshot before addressing Kaden and Calista.

"Our paths intertwine about one another," He said to them, "You need to head to Glimmershade to pursue the bastards that did this, while I need to bring Elzebeth to her next of kin."

"If you're asking to come with us, I see no reason to object," Calista told him, "There's safety in numbers, after all."

"There's also the small matter of the string of mudrunners I planned to bring to market next month," Kaden caught the implication quickly as well as the old man's knowing look, "The only way you're going to keep up with them is if you can match their pace, so I'm pushing my sale of them forward to now."

"That's very kind of you." Kaden thanked.

"I'm not offering this entirely out of charity. A part of me hopes we catch up to them so I can plant a bolt between the eyes of the ones who killed her parents, get some payback," Harlethorne looked down to his crossbow, "It's been a while since this old thing saw any real action, but I haven't spent every day since the war keeping my aim sharp for nothing."

"I'm afraid you're not going to get that opportunity," Calista told him. That confused Harlethorne, "They're already dead."

"...What? How?"

"Magic is our guess," Kaden answered. "I think it was because the original plan wasn't to kill them but to buy the mudrunners, but something went wrong."

"Bastards," Harlethorne muttered angrily. A thought came to Kaden then, one he had to voice.

"Did Elzebeth's parents know magic?" The warrior asked.

"If they knew magic, they wouldn't be here in the middle of nowhere eking out a living as farmers, would they?" Harlethorne looked past them to the barn, "Do you mind if I take a look?"

"By all means." Kaden watched as the man walked up to the barn and went in without hesitation. He heard no exclamations of horror or disgust either. Calista's was watching Azalea and the children as they waited down the path a fair distance away from them. The cat had broken free of Evan's grip and was now brushing up against Elzebeth's legs in a bid for attention. Kaden could see the sadness his friend was barely containing and wanted to say something. Nothing he could think of sounded right, however, for nothing could undo the terribleness they'd seen.

"We've been through some difficult ordeals, but this..." Calista kept her voice down, as if afraid that it would be carried upon the wind to the children's ears, "They didn't deserve this. She didn't deserve this."

"I know." He found himself speaking just as gently.

"If those murderers weren't already dead, I'd of killed them myself."

"I know."

"If we'd of been here a little sooner-"

"Calista, stop," He said then. She looked to him, him to her, "It is what it is. All you'll do thinking like that is make yourself miserable." Calista's face flushed with anger.

"But what if we hadn't come this way, Kaden? What if Harlethorne hadn't come here to see if everyone was alright? Elzebeth-"

"That's not what happened though, is it?"

"No, but-"

"Calista." He raised his voice just a little. She glared at him but the look didn't last, melting as she sighed wearily.

"...I know. I know you're right. It's just... this isn't right." Kaden wanted to say something reassuring but once again, no words came to mind. Instead, he placed a hand on her shoulder which she glanced back to briefly. Her smile was fragile but he was just glad to see one at all.

It was then that Kaden's shoulder felt heavier. The warrior shifting his gaze to see that Vae had landed there.

"We'll be travelling by mudrunner from tomorrow." He told the dragon.

"With the stranger?" Vae enquired.

"He's a friend of the farmers that lived here."

"...Ah," Vae looked about nervously, "Then I had best keep myself hidden until you and he part ways." Vae climbed up Kaden's arm towards his backpack.

"Why?" Calista asked, "Is there something about him we're missing?" The dragon paused, eyes fixed on the backpack flap which it had pulled up.

"It is..." Vae paused a second, "I shouldn't present an opportunity for confusion to arise, for your sake and mine." The tiny creature disappeared into the backpack without another word, leaving Kaden to wonder just what confusion it could be talking about beyond the revelation that a mythical creature once confined to fairy tales existed. Harlethorne emerged from the barn furiously. Kaden removed his hand from Calista's shoulder but then noticed that the old man was no longer holding his crossbow. Instead, he gripped the handles of his hand axes tightly, the heads of which dripped with blood. Too late did Kaden try to divert his eyes, Harlethorne catching him staring at his weapons. No words were spoken but the look Kaden got was one of both righteous fury and quiet shame, the first of which he understood to some degree. The second he decided not to ask about as the old man approached them, putting his axes away as he did.

"We should bury Elzebeth's parents before we go." Harlethorne's tone made it clear that it wasn't a request. Kaden nodded understandingly.

"And the other two?" Calista asked. The old man's stare was steely and cold.

"Let them rot."

Chapter Fourteen

"The Southern Kingdoms – referred to as the Free Realms by those who live there – is an area south of Letani which encompasses five independent nations: Gandsvale, Orstport, Eldos, Zantarock and Haldoshern, each named after its capital. Were they a single nation, it would be of similar size to its northern neighbour, but they remain a curious relic of Kolvan's distant past. The central continent, the first where civilisation arose according to most historians (myself included), was once dotted with countless petty kings and warlords who fought to expand their holdings while protecting their independence from neighbours seeking to do the same. Most of these were absorbed into what became the kingdoms we know of today – peacefully in the case of Letani and not-so with Corgaca – but no one ruler rose to conquer the others in the south, nor did Letani attempt to bring them under its rule.

The northernmost and largest of the five is Gandsvale, a nation always on its guard for a surprise attack from its southern neighbours. You would be forgiven for thinking it was a part of Letani due to the cultural influence the much larger nation has had upon it. One need only look at its large standing army, however, to know that its current leader, Lady Valfesta, takes the sovereignty of her lands seriously. South of there is Orstport, famous for its beautiful beaches, thriving fishing industry and bitter hatred of its neighbour Eldos. Eldos is the smallest of the five but has managed to hold onto its land thanks to the wealth of metal in its mountain holdings, something Orstport bitterly lacks. Zantarock is south of them and is notable for its vast woodland and the druidic circles that call them home. Finally, there is Haldoshern, the southernmost and the only one that is ruled by a monarch, King Haldos XII. He is not in the least concerned with the squabbles of the others realms and is focused entirely on bettering the lives of his people, making his kingdom the most stable of the five.

Conflict within the Southern Kingdoms is a near-constant and while one occasionally seizes land from another, these gains are never held for long enough to warrant a cartographers attention. Past efforts made by Letani and even the Great Hero to create peace have only ever been temporary, with all but Haldoshern too focused on battling one another to contribute forces to assist in the Great War. Some believe that the Southern Kingdoms will one day find common ground and unite, forming a powerful nation that can stand shoulder to shoulder with its neighbour, but I doubt this will ever come to pass. It is my humble opinion that the divisions between the realms are too great to ever be bridged, their cultures too distinct to ever mesh. Only one thing has a chance of uniting them and that is an external threat powerful enough to require their combined efforts to repel but such a threat would pose a danger not just to the Southern Kingdoms, but the rest of the world as well."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

The decision to inter Elzebeth's parents in the courtyard had been an arbitrary one, for no place was better than any other. Harlethorne fashioned a pair of crude wooden crosses to mark where they lay and dug the graves with assistance from Kaden. Though the endeavour was gruelling and miserable, Kaden didn't complain; it was the least Elzebeth's parents deserved.

"I'll get proper headstones commissioned in Glimmershade." The old man assured them midway through the work. Kaden had been glad that Azalea wasn't with them, for the druid would have surely argued for them to leave the bodies for the Cycle to do with as it saw fit, a sentiment Harlethorne and he would have argued bitterly against. This situation was far different to that of Tobias in the thicket; he had known full well the risk he put himself in giving chase while the farmer's deaths had been a senseless waste of innocent life which he'd never forget. Harlethorne said a few quiet words for the spirits of the fallen, hoping that they were already in the presence of Yem'Da. The last task before they left was to search the farmhouse for coin and things of significant value to help Elzebeth's aunt and uncle take the child under their wing. Kaden had been prepared to use his own money if they didn't find anything but fortune smiled upon them for the first time that day, the glisten of silver catching his eye in a dark corner of the larder. There he found a pouch containing a significant amount of kal, likely the farmer's life savings squirrelled away in case of a bad harvest. There would be no more harvests there, however, nor would there be a habitable home after a few years; nature was surprisingly adept at reclaiming that which was stolen from them by civilisation and the farm would be no exception. After that, they regrouped outside the farm then travelled in silence down the well-trodden path that snaked between the fields, all while Harlethorne kept a watchful eye on their surroundings. He held his crossbow with steady hands and walked with purpose, head held high. It reminded Kaden of a precession of soldiers he'd witnessed marching past Kant's Rest two years before that were heading to one of the many port towns that dotted the east coast. Their final destination would be Ulhad, standing shoulder to shoulder with the defenders of the wall that now ran along its border with Idra. Kaden had gotten several disapproving looks from the people of Kant's Rest that day but he'd ignored them, remembering all the good he'd done stopping evil closer to home.

Harlethorne's farm was an hour's walk from Elzebeth's, a modest dwelling with a small field of root vegetables and a far larger one where mudrunners roamed freely. The large three-legged lizards looked content in their spacious enclosure, occasionally digging at the dirt with their larger front claw for one reason or another. The plumage on their necks was mostly black save for one which had green feathers, both relatively common colours. Though Kaden was no expert on the matter they looked healthy, sporting no discolouration of the scales that was often an early sign of sickness. The interior of Harlethorne's abode was modestly furnished and full of a delicious smell which turned out to be a stew the old man had left to cook while he'd been gone. They gladly accepted the meal, sitting around a table not intended for so many people and on chairs which hadn't seen use in years. Kaden ended up sandwiched between Calista and Azalea as they all ate their fill, the stew consisting primarily of vegetables and lumps of tender meat he quickly identified as beef. It was full of flavour as well as filling but his mind was still stated on the terribleness they'd witnessed which cast a dour feeling into the air. The watered-down red wine they'd been served did little to alleviate that, Harlethorne already on his third tankard. The cat had been left a bowl of the stew to eat at its leisure but the feline had decided instead that sleep was better, curled up by the warm fire. Eventually, a conversation began, Harlethrone addressing Calista quietly.

"You're from Corgaca, aren't you?" He enquired.

"I am," She answered back, "Why do you ask?"

"Curiosity is all. I bare no ill will to those from Corgaca. They were amongst the most ferocious and brave of all that fought in the Great War, those that were of station anyway."

"They tell tales of their exploits in the taverns of my homeland even now. I imagine they're embellished somewhat."

"Perhaps not as much as you think. The war was..." The old man leaned back in his chair, lost deep in thought for a few moments before continuing, "The war was how I could afford this plot of land, this house. I was rarely away from the front lines and even then, Ulhad was not the best place to spend one's coin so I sent most of it home to my father for safekeeping."

"That was very forward-thinking of you." Kaden complimented. Evan was staring at Harlethorne with great interest that the warrior recognised.

"That's not to say I didn't spend the odd evening in a tavern with a tankard of ale and a good song, I just didn't blow my wages on expensive wines like all the others. Darn fools spent like there was no tomorrow! I'll tell you who benefited most from the war, the innkeepers and brewers of Ulhad!" He laughed but there was a hollowness to the old man's amusement and it died quickly, "I'm sorry, I got a bit side-tracked there."

"It's quite alright," Calista said understandingly, "Let's change the subject." Harlethorne's smile was just as empty.

"Yes, that would be nice." The old warrior remarked. Evan had other ideas, however.

"How long did you fight in the war?" The boy asked with all the subtlety of a pebble through a window. Harlethorne exhaled slowly.

"The whole thing." He answered, looking over to Elzebeth as she slept in a comfy looking chair, wrapped in blankets. She'd cried most of the way to his home, only stopping when she ran out of tears. Evan's eyes widened in amazement.

"Woah! That's awesome!" Evan shuffled his chair closer to the old man, "You must have got lots of medals off the queen for your heroics!"

"I may have got a medal-"

"Can I see it?" Evan's excitement was barely contained.

"No, you can't," Harlethorne answered firmly and sternly, hoping to end the line of questioning before it developed further, but Evan would not be deterred.

"Did you get your scars in the war?" The young child pointed to a prominent one on the man's neck, "Where did you get that one?"

"It's rude to ask about things like that, Evan." Calista's tone caught the boy's attention but it didn't curb his curiosity.

"It was just one question..." Evan continued to stare at Harlethorne's neck scar. Kaden was about to suggest Evan to go play with the cat when the old warrior sharply turned his head to lock eyes with the child.

The suddenness of it caught everyone by surprise save Azalea, who watched the exchange with her ever-present smile. Evan was the most shocked out of all of them, however, having now earned the absolute attention of Harlethorne and not liking it one bit. He found it difficult to maintain eye contact, shifting uncomfortably in his chair as he was stared down.

"I make no secret of my service of king, queen and country, but the ugliness of my scars runs far deeper than what you see here," Harlethone spoke quietly and with a sternness that even Kaden found unsettling, "Be lucky that you did not live through that war, young child."

"I-I'm not young, I'm eleven!" Evan stammered back, trying his best to look brave, "My dad fought in the war, h-he's the bravest soldier there ever was!" Harlethorne didn't so much as blink. Kaden froze; he knew exactly what was to come.

"I think he's learned his lesson, Harlethorne," Kaden interjected, only to earn a momentary glare from the old warrior. It sent a chill down his spine but he found the words to continue, "I can't begin to know what you went through-"

"You're right, you can't," Harlethorne snapped, turning back to Evan with narrowed eyes. Calista was just as worried as Kaden, her stew forgotten, "What's your name, child?"

"E-Evan."

"I'm no hero, Evan. I was just unlucky."

"Unlucky?" Evan repeated, confused, "But you lived."

"Yes, I did," Elzebeth's cat had leapt onto Azalea lap, the druid attention elsewhere as she gently stroking the kitten's fur, "Who filled your head with this nonsense about the war?"

"My friend Billy," Evan's eyes drifted to look at the floor, "H-he said-"

"Did Billy fight in the war?" Harlethorne's question cut through the air like an arrow that struck Evan squarely in the chest, causing the boy to hesitate even more, "Well?"

"That's enough," Calista barely got the words out before Harlethorne glared at her. It was the look of a man barely holding back a roiling rage, one which Calista weathered with a glare of her own, "You're scaring him."

"Oh, am I?" Harlethorne scowled at her, "Is the truth too harsh on the ears of the young, softened by tales of daring-do and high fantasy?"

"Did you not fight to protect the very innocence you now seek to shatter?" Azalea spoke up then, her shattered silence drawing everyone's eye. Harlethorne's scowl shifted to her but it did nothing to faze the druid who smiled back with compassion, "Your anger is better aimed at those who truly deserve it, warrior." The two stared at one another for what seemed like an eternity, Kaden hoping that the situation didn't explode into something none of them could handle.

Eventually, Harlethorne let out a deep, shaky sigh, slouching in his chair.

"...I'm sorry," He muttered to no-one in particular before taking a deep drink from his tankard, "You're my guests, I... I shouldn't have..."

"It is not I you should be apologising to." Azalea indicated with the hand not stroking the kitten towards Evan who was on the verge of tears. Harlethorne closed his eyes and exhaled deeply a second time. Kaden then noticed something beyond Evan, movement in the corner of the room from something far too small to be a person. The kitten was still happily curled up in Azalea's lap, leaving only one possibility he had to check. He carefully looked down to his backpack only to see that it open and its most enigmatic content gone. The sound of pottery shattering startled him and everyone else, the group looking quickly to where the noise had come from, the same direction where he's seen movement. Harlethorne's eyes opened with a start, reaching instinctively for one of his hand axes hanging as he turned to see Vae halfway through eating a delicious looking sponge cake. The remnants of a plate were scattered about the floor but the dragon, lost in its feasting, had entirely ignored its clumsy action, sating its hunger right up until Harlethorne stood from his chair quickly. Kaden panicked, frantically searching for an explanation that would calm things down in that instant; the dragon certainly wasn't going to provide one, its mouth full of food as it was.

"...We can explain-" Calista managed to get out before Harlethorne hurled his hand axe. She gasped as the dragon took to the air, abandoning its sweet prize just in time to avoid the weapon which destroyed what remained of the dessert and the plate it had sat on.

"Monster!" Harlethorne beckoned with hatred, moving to grab his crossbow even as Kaden rushed to stop him.

"It's not a monster!" He tried to argue, "It's-"

"An agent of Idra, come to finish what it couldn't before!" The old warrior frantically loaded a bolt while Vae frantically flew about in search of a hiding place, "You won't have me or any of us, beast!" Kaden grabbed the man's arm despite the danger to himself.

"It's not what you think it is!" Kaden shouted, "It's on our side!" The look he got from Harlethrone was one of utter betrayal.

"You brought this thing here? You fool! Don't you know what that is?!" Exclaimed the old man venomously.

"If you'll just calm down-" Harlethorne shoved Kaden aside with far more strength than he'd expected, aiming with his crossbow at the creature while Kaden barely avoided crashing into Evan's chair. Vae first looked to Calista for sanctuary but changed course mid-dive to land in front of the sleeping form Elzebeth.

Everyone stopped. Harlethorne was a whisker away from pulling the trigger, glaring with fury at the creature. The dragon swallowed what cake remained in its mouth before addressing him carefully.

"They speak the truth, old one, if you would but let them explain it," Vae told him. Harlethorne was having none of it, keeping his weapon trained on the creature, "You and I both know you will not fire."

"You've got to sleep at some point!" Harlethrone spat out the words.

"On the contrary, I napped on the way here," Vae countered with a twinge of smugness, "I am neither one of the beasts you battled in Idra nor your enemy." Kaden didn't dare move or even speak, not with Harlethorne so close to loosing that bolt.

"It's after the same people we are," Calista spoke up, "The kidnappers stole something precious to them, something that must be returned." The old man stared at Vae, expression flitting between confusion, anger and something Kaden couldn't decipher, a conflict raging with no clear winner.

"But... but if that's true, then..." Harlethorne finally shook his heads, eyes narrowing, "...No. No! It can't be true. You're just... more cunning than the others, more devious! I've killed many of your kind before, you're no different!"

"I vouched for all my companions, Harlethorne," Kaden reminded him, "Vae included. It is exactly as you see it to be, a dragon."

"And how would you know that, you who's never looked into the eyes of a beast that has no right to live?" Came Harlethorne's furious retort, "This... 'thing' deserves only death!" Vae's body tensed up then.

"This 'thing' could have killed you before you got within a hundred steps of the farm and Elzebeth," The dragon informed the aged man then. Its claws dug into the blanket Elzebeth slept under, ready to pounce, "What would killing you, a man whose days of conflict have long since past, achieve?" Harlethorne's steely stare endured but something about the creature's words made his aim falter just a little, made him hesitate.

"Your kind does one thing and one thing only: kill," The old warrior muttered bitterly, "You won't be happy until all of Kolvan is a bloodbath of death."

"And yet here I am, doing anything but the only thing you say I am apparently capable of doing," Elzebeth stirred, mumbling something in her sleep as turned. Her face was one of troubled rest, of pain, "Look beyond your blind hatred for but a moment and you will see the reality before you."

"I know exactly what I see, monster."

"Then shoot and be done with it."

For a split second, Kaden feared that Harlethorne would do just that but the commotion had awoken Elzebeth. She wearily half-opened her eyes and that was when the old man finally lowered his crossbow, not wanting her to see him pointing it at her. The young girl caught sight of the dragon before her.

"...Pretty dragon..." Her voice was soft and distant, struggling even then with the rest she'd been dragged from. Vae turned its head to the girl and nuzzled against her cheek gently.

"Rest, child. Return to the land of dreams, where none may harm you." It whispered. The words made her eyes close and once more she fell back to sleep. Harlethorne watched the exchange and though his scowl persisted, the crossbow remained lowered. The worry which had flooded Kaden slowly vanished but with it went his feeling of welcome.

"You do not belong in my house, creature," Halethorne stated with finality and disgust. Vae looked to him briefly and nodded, taking to the air.

"As you wish," With that, the dragon flew to the ajar window next to the dinner table. There it lingered for a moment, "I apologise for the distress I have caused you. I made efforts to prevent it, but my hunger-"

"Leave." The dragon did so. Kaden was then the recipient of Harlehthorne's angry stare but he stood firm against it.

"If you want us to leave too, just say." He told the man, moving to grab his backpack. Surprisingly, Harlethorne shook his head.

"I promised you a ride to Glimmershade and I'm a man of my word."

"As am I. Vae is-"

"I don't want to hear it," Harlethorne turned his back to them then, "There are blankets in the barn for you to sleep on once you've finished your food." Evan slowly pushed his bowl into the middle of the table.

"...I'm not hungry any more, thank you," Evan said before standing from the table and stepping out into the cold night. Calista followed but not before passing Harlethorne a look of both understanding and disappointment. Azalea was the last to stand, setting the kitten on the ground as she did. Her look to the old warrior was an empathetic one.

"We will wish to leave at first light, if possible." She told him simply. She didn't get a reply and so exited as well, leaving just Kaden and him in the silence of the room. He sought words of apology but found nothing and so said nothing, turning to follow the others.

"If that thing so much as looks at me funny, I'll kill it," Harlethorne warned. Kaden stopped mid-step.

"I won't let you do that." Kaden's voice wavered despite himself.

"Because it spun a tale of woe to pluck at your heartstrings? Do you honestly believe what it's told you?"

"I admit I was wary at first, but that was because I was staring at a dragon. Since then, Vae has given me no reason to doubt its sincerity."

"It will."

"I'll deal with that if it happens and only then," Kaden walked to the door and looked back to the forgotten meal and the man who'd prepared it, the one who refused to face him, "We'll see you in the morning, Harlethorne." The door closed behind him with a loud thud and Kaden knew then that he wouldn't sleep well at all.

Chapter Fifteen

"Though the Great War has long since ended, the land that was once Idra remains a great threat to this very day. Not long after the Cataclysm, there were sightings at the newly formed mountains along Ulhad's border that fitted some of the monstrous beasts that had previously fought for the mad king Levta. These were initially dismissed as stragglers that had somehow survived the fiery inferno, though I question how any creature – Avtius notwithstanding – was capable of withstanding the great destructive force that had taken so many lives. It was not until a knightly retinue from Corgaca rode into the ashen wastes in 1133 – less than a year after the war's end- to recover the remains of their lost king and prince that people began to ask just how many of the creatures remained, for the force was unable to descend far into Levta's Cry, the large crater the Cataclysm had bored into the earth.

By the year's end, the first attempt by the monsters to breach the border of Ulhad occurred. Though the creatures numbered few, the force was organised enough that it made Ulhad's military commanders question whether remnants of Idra's military hierarchy had survived and now sought vengeance for their now-dead kingdom. As the attacks increased in regularity and size, support from the nations that had first come to Ulhad's aid during the Great War began to trickle in. This consisted initially of weapons and training from those veterans who had been on shore leave at the war's end but as the years wore on and the casualties started to mount among the valiant defenders, that assistance shifted once more to military might.

The mood amongst the world's leaders concerning the attacks is optimistic; they believe that, in time, the creatures that assault Ulhad's defensive line will wane in number enough that one decisive strike will eradicate them. The general population's attitude to this new conflict is more mixed; though there presently is no draft, murmurs of such have been heard from the advisors of King Bennet of Corgaca. He is under pressure to announce a full-fledged war against the creatures and though the knights and nobles are keen for another conflict that would bring great honour to their houses, the peasantry fears being dragged from the fields to fight and die with predictable trepidation. It is my humble opinion that it will not come to that, however, for the simple reason that the nations of Kolvan would struggle to endure a second worldwide conflict and so refuse to commit to war as they had in the past. Whether their hands will be forced one day by an attack that breaches the borders of Ulhad remains to be seen."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Though the barn kept them sheltered from the wind and warm blankets warded off the cold, sleep eluded Kaden. He stared blankly at the ceiling, trying to blot out the many thoughts and fears that echoed within his mind but every attempt failed. The others had been carried to slumber almost immediately save Evan who set up his blanket far away from the others, only getting to sleep after a long fit of tears that not even Calista was able to help deal with. Azalea needed no blankets or hay to cushion her rest, settling down on the hard ground and nodding off within minutes, much to Kaden's amazement. He made a note to ask her in the morning how she avoided aches and pains but that only added to the chorus of musings that was keeping him awake. In time he gave up on rest completely, leaving the barn to instead look up at the canopy of stars. He'd been fascinated by the night sky from a young age, a passion encouraged by his father who had spent many a cloudless evening teaching him the constellations. He quickly found Kandas' Light, a star only matched in brightness by its twin, Yem'Da's Hope. Together they formed the jewels of the Ring of Kolvan, the first constellation that most children were taught by their parents. From there he traced the outline of The Oracle and skipped across to Three Daggers which appeared even more prominent than usual. Only then did he notice that he wasn't alone, spotting movement out of the corner of his eye. He began to reach for Skyrazor but the voice he heard stopped him.

"It's me," Harlethorne spoke with none of the rage and venom he'd thrown at him mere hours before, standing a couple of metres to Kaden's right. His eyes were also on the stars which he looked at wistfully, "Can't sleep?"

"I've got a lot to think about," Kaden spoke honestly and without hostility, not in the mood for an argument. Quiet lingered amongst the two of them broken only by Harlethorne weakly clearing his throat and mumbling to himself too softly to be heard. Eventually, the old man said something loud enough to reach him.

"...How's the boy?" He asked. Kaden's eyes returned to the night sky.

"How do you think?"

"He had to learn, you all do. If we don't, history could repeat itself and... and..." Harlethorne left another long pause, "I won't apologise for telling the truth to the boy, Kaden, nor for what I said about your... companion."

"Do you still think it's a monster?"

"I've no idea what it is and I still don't trust it, but..." The second pause tore Kaden's eyes from the view above to the old man. He was finding it difficult to take hold of the words he wanted to say, fists clenched tightly, "You gave your word as a warrior. If even a fraction of the tales I have heard of your deeds are true, it's worth far more than I valued it at. I'm... sorry."

"It's not me you should be apologising to, but you know that already."

Kaden looked again to the old warrior whose eyes were fixated on the ground.

"I don't know what these kidnappers want with the troupe or the enchanted music score they possess-" That made Harlethorne frowned.

"Music?" The old man repeated, puzzled, "Why would someone enchant music?"

"I don't know, but since their goal justifies the murder of a Letani ranger, I doubt it's anything good. We intend to stop whatever they've got planned, provided we can catch up with them," A gust of cold air rushed past them then, a possible herald for the day to come. A curious thought came to mind then, one that he was sure a couple of his travelling companions would object to but he had to voice it, "I know you were hoping to catch them on the way to Glimmershade, but if we don't find them before the town and you want to help us further-"

"No," Harlethorne answered quickly, with finality. Before Kaden could speak, the old man continued, "You'd have no use for someone like me. I'm far past my prime."

"The way you threw that axe tells me otherwise."

"I got lucky."

"You got angry and yet you still hit your mark."

"If I had, your dragon would be dead," Harlethorne sighed, "I appreciate the offer, really I do. I haven't felt this useful to anyone in a long time, but I'd only be a liability if I fought alongside you, Kaden. Trust me on this."

"As you wish. The offer remains open," Kaden turned his attention once more to the skies but keeping his eyes open was beginning to become difficult. He heard Harlethorne step away followed by the sound of his front door closing with some force. Kaden took a moment to try and imagine just how terrible it had been to fight in that war, the horrors which had driven the man to feel such anger but despite all he'd experienced, he couldn't even begin to comprehend all the awfulness. His father might've known the right words to say but whether he would've said them was another matter. Either way, those thoughts weren't going to help him sleep any better, blanketing them as best he could with nothingness as he returned to the barn to try rest once more.

All but Evan awoke with the rising sun, the boy gently shook awake by Azalea. Harlethorne was applying the finishing touches to a large cheese board when Kaden, still a little weary from his troubled sleep, knocked on Harlethrone's door. The bags around the old man's eyes betrayed his lack of sleep but fatigue had done nothing to dampen his culinary skills, the spread of food on the table far beyond anything Kaden could conjure up in a kitchen. There was more than enough for everyone, a half dozen cheeses alongside a pile of cruste rolle and fresh fruit that made for a mouthwatering and hearty meal which tasted as delicious as it looked.

"No point seeing it go to waste." Harlethorne's justification was flimsy but appreciated, Kaden accepting the apology which masqueraded as breakfast. He and Calista both spied a small dish of leftovers by the stove which they at first presumed was Harlethorne's share but he joined them at the main table, making sure to sit as far from Evan as possible. The boy didn't make eye contact with anyone, eating slowly and without a word. Vae didn't venture out of Kaden's backpack this time, doubtless working its way through his morning allocation of rations and then some. After everyone had eaten their fill, Harlethorne awoke Elzebeth and made sure she had everything – the kitten was fast asleep in her arms – before quickly washing the dishes and guiding them to the mudrunner enclosure. There they picked their steeds, with Harlethorne taking the green plumed mount and lifting Elzebeth to travel with him. Evan stuck close to Azalea, the druid voicing no objections to having him along on the long journey, leaving Kaden and Calista one steed apiece. It was only after Kaden checked the reigns that he thought to make sure that Vae was still with them, his question answered when the dragon flitted out of a barely open window to join them. Harlethorne stared silently but said nothing as the creature settled on Kaden's shoulder, making no effort to hide that it was chewing on something.

"I apologise if I kept you all waiting," Vae said with a bow of the head before returning to his backpack, "I was simply making sure nothing was left for the vermin to dine upon, you understand."

"Of course." Kaden thought back to the small dish of leftovers but if Harlethorne had left it out intentionally, he certainly wasn't going to admit it.

Kaden hadn't fully mastered riding the scaled beasts but his father had been eager for him to learn 'while he was still young enough to soak up the know-how like a clean rag' as Malkan had put it. The fineries of the lessons had faded over the years but he quickly picked them up every time he settled atop one of the beasts, able to ride them competently under normal circumstances. The saddles he and the others sat on were old and weathered but perfectly serviceable and, after a quick rundown from Harlethorne on the commands he'd taught them, Kaden found his mudrunner lived up to its namesake admirably, galloping out of the field and along the westward path with speed and grace. Any hope of picking up the trail again had been abandoned but the fact that their journey would take days rather than weeks made up for that provided they didn't stop too often to rest. The countryside around them was picturesque and peaceful, a landscape he'd of happily spent many a day exploring but, as always, they were needed elsewhere. Elzebeth stared at their surroundings much like he did, watching unfamiliar sights pass by with sadness. Little was said during the many hours of riding, words lost to the gallop of their steeds. The conversation around the evening campfire didn't veer far beyond Harlethorne plotting and discussing the next day's ride using an old and faded map of Letani and general musings over their meal. Azalea used that time to forage and Harlethorne to hunt, though he was far less successful than she. Evan dawdled by the mudrunners on the first evening of travel, saying little and thinking much. Kaden made sure to check the skies often for signs of the weather worsening and though there were spells of heavy cloud cover, the threat of rain never came to pass. It was during the second day of travel that Kaden noticed Harlethorne glancing behind them as they travelled. Kaden couldn't see anything the way they'd travelled that warranted such attention. When they stopped in the late afternoon by a small river instead of the evening and in cover, Kaden knew that something was amiss, his mounting suspicion confirmed when Harlethorne approached him with crossbow in hand.

"I need your help with this hunt," The old man told him bluntly before addressing Calista, "You're on guard duty until we return."

"Is something wrong?" Calista enquired as she tuned her hand harp in preparation for a performance she'd promised Elzebeth that morning.

"The game tends to be bigger around here, too much for one person to drag back to camp," Harlethorne gave Kaden a look after those words which spoke of half-truths, "More vicious, too."

"Perhaps we should move."

"We can't while Azalea is out foraging," Kaden pointed out, not yet reaching for Skyrazor; for how quickly his hunch about what was happening grew, it was still just that, "I doubt we'll be long."

"I'll come find you when Azalea returns." She suggested. Harlethorne simply shrugged.

"It'll be all done by then, but suit yourself," The man told her, loading a bolt as he stepped from the campfire, "Let's go, Kaden." Kaden glanced back to the others as he began to follow the look Calista was giving them, one that told him she also knew that something was up.

He didn't have to wait long before Harlethorne voiced his concerns quietly.

"We're being followed." He said, triggering lurching fear in Kaden which grew as the moments passed.

"I didn't see anyone on our ride here."

"That's because they're good. Kept just beyond the horizon, something that's near impossible to do by accident." Kaden glanced about them, instinctively trying to spot any sign of odd movement in the tall grass but his nourished nerves made every part of the unevenly swaying mass a cause for concern.

"It could be a ranger." Kaden doubted it even as he said it, his hand now on the handle of Skyrazor.

"They've no reason to hide unless they're on the hunt and I doubt they're hunting you," Harlethorne nodded his head in the direction they'd come from, "They slipped up just before noon, got a little too close when I happened to be looking back. Didn't see them again after that but if I were a gambling man, I'd say they're back in the ruined tower we passed five minutes ago." Kaden cast his mind to what remained of the crumbling structure, one of many hastily constructed fortifications that had fallen into disuse as the threat of the Great War spreading beyond the shores of Idra and Ulhad had lessened. He doubted any of the interiors had survived the years of weather and neglect but they hadn't stopped to check.

"How many?"

"Just one."

"Do you think they know we know of them?"

"Doubtful. At that distance, people are just moving blobs," Harlethorne double-checked his crossbow, eyes scanning over every bit of intently, "Did you tell anyone where you were going when you left on the hunt?"

"Only that we were heading west," Kaden considered his next question carefully, "...Do you intend to-"

"The last thing they'll expect is for us to take the fight to them," Kaden could think of a myriad of ways it could go wrong, concern that Harlethorne recognised on his face immediately, "This is probably the only chance we'll get to interrogate one of them before Glimmershade."

"The only chance we'll get?" Kaden repeated, intrigued and confused, "I thought you didn't want to get involved in all of this." Harlethrone scowled at him.

"I do what I do to protect Elzebeth, nothing more," He muttered quickly, looking in the direction of the tower. It was then that Kaden felt movement from within his backpack, quickly followed Vae settling on his right shoulder. The old man looked to see what caused the noise and stared warily, making Kaden worry that another fight was going to break out. Much to his relief, the old man left it at staring, something which the dragon ignored with ease.

"Perhaps I can be of assistance." Vae offered a little too politely.

"We'll be fine without your help," Harlethorne remarked with a grumble but the dragon continued.

"Is that so? Your foe either has a vantage point high enough to see your approach well in advance or a solid fortification with only one entrance they can guard. I take it you have a plan to circumvent these problems?"

"You presume they're awake. The sun's starting to set." Harlethorne retorted.

"If they're as good as you say they are, why would they not be? Then there is the minor matter of your presumption that there is only one of them."

"Vae's got a point," Kaden agreed, "Any information we can get on what we're dealing with would be good."

"Then I shall move ahead of you. We will rendezvous once you are closer to the structure." The dragon took to the air then, flitting about Harlethrone's head gracefully. It managed to avoid his swatting hand with ease, smirking down at them before taking off towards the ruin. Harlethorne said something under his breath that sounded unsavoury but his weapon remained lowered. They started towards the tower then, taking turns to look about them in case they were heading into an ambush but their only company was the quiet sounds of the wild, none of which made Kaden feel any better. Skyrazor was now drawn and he could almost feel the magic within the blade dancing across his fingers.

"How accurate can you be with that thing?" Harlethorne asked then, eyes fixed on the way ahead.

"More than you'd think but not as much as I'd like," Kaden answered frankly, "The tower's interior will be too small for me to use it safely within."

"Does it do anything else?"

"Not that I know of."

"A pity," Movement ahead made them both stop but the mystery creature quickly revealed itself to be a red chirpy that quickly flew away. Kaden took a breath to steady his now-rattled nerves – yet another thing to justify his dislike of the pesky little animals - and noted that Harlethorne hadn't so much as flinched, "I saw my fair share of magic stuff in my tour of duty but none of it was as impressive as your sword. That thing is worth its weight in gold."

"It's worth far more than that to me."

"Good." Kaden checked the skies for signs of Vae but there was only clouds and the sun which had begun to set. Efforts to keep his apprehension under control proved difficult, knowing well that they potentially advanced to their doom. The arrival of the night would shroud their advance but he was presuming that they'd get that close, that the one who hunted them wasn't already on the lookout for their obvious ploy. He took solace in the one, ever-present constant of combat, that even the best-laid plans of either side never survived contact with the enemy. Whether the one that followed them was an enemy remained to be seen and while Kaden hoped it was all just a big misunderstanding, he knew in his heart that such merry coincidences rarely ventured beyond works of fiction.

Chapter Sixteen

"While the Great War was a terrible conflict, it served as the catalyst for intense research and experimentation into both the methods and tools of battle. This rush increased in intensity when Levta began to field the strange and horrifying beasts that we still know so little about; none were captured alive during the war or since and their corpses disintegrate mere minutes after their death, leaving nothing to be examined. And so the generals and inventors of the world's nations worked at a frantic pace to find any edge, no matter how small, which could be brought to bear against this new threat.

Many would-be innovations didn't venture far from the studies of those that came up with them, rejected and long since forgotten, but a few are worthy of note. Polena, having decided to focus their efforts on treating the injured rather than committing troops, discovered and researched a wide array of medicinal herbs that saved many lives. Their archmages also created powerful restorative magic which could affect all persons in a large area, allowing whole chunks of an army to be healed at a distance. This was only utilised rarely, however, for it requires multiple casters to work in tandem and was found to greatly tax the stamina of those who cast it.

The greatest innovation of the war came from the most unlikely of sources: Afran. An alchemist by the name of Martina Gollino was experimenting with various chemical compositions in 1123 A.E. when one resulted in a sudden and violent explosion. Her workshop was consumed by the flames and only the quick actions of her neighbours saved her life long enough for her to write down the steps which led to the accident. This record was quickly copied and circulated, allowing others to further improve upon the formula. The military applications were obvious; the force of the explosions generated by lighting the powdery concoction – named Gollinos after its creator – had the potential to launch things with deadly speed and power. Various smithies competed to be the first to create a working weapon and the most successful of these was the Gollin's Tube.

The Gollins Tube, created in 1128, was little more than a large metal cylinder sealed at one end which was loaded with gollinos and a metal sphere. The gollinos within was lit via a fuse – a thin piece of rope laced with gollinos to provide a slow burn – which was slotted into a vent hole at the rear of the tube. Misfires were an ever-present and dangerous threat to the user and the weapons were grossly inaccurate, but so loud and thunderous were the volleys of fire from the Afran lines that their first deployment in battle in 1129 sent the Idran forces into a panic. The war ended before newer, more refined versions of the Gollins Tube could be deployed and Corgaca was quick to ridicule the 'thunder tubes' for being more dangerous to the Afran forces than the enemy but I believe they said this out of fear rather than jest. Not even plate mail protects against the shot of a Gollins Tube that finds its mark, something that occurs far more often now the technology is continually being improved upon. It is my humble opinion that Corgaca is afraid their knights would stand little chance against this weapon, crippling their military and spelling the end of centuries of tradition, a fear I believe they are right to have. Rumours that research into a larger sized variant aimed at destroying fortifications have neither been confirmed nor denied by Afran but, if true, it would change the face of war as we know it forever."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Kaden and Harlethorne had observed the tower from the patch of especially long grass they hid in for over five minutes but the crumbling structure had relinquished none of its secrets. The fact that they hadn't been attacked was no indicator that they remained undetected and the more time passed, the more concerned Kaden became for the safety of Vae. The dragon would have surely finished its flyby of the tower by the time they'd arrived and yet there'd been no sign of the little creature.

"Perhaps it went back to the camp rather than risk waiting here for us to arrive," Kaden suggested in a whisper.

"Shhh," Harlethorne had his crossbow aimed at the entrance to the tower, a wide opening which would have once contained an iron banded door. No light came from beyond nor noise from anywhere, the air still and the place bereft of animals. Pale moonlight gave the structure an eerie quality that Kaden couldn't entirely shake. It wasn't the first time he'd felt that way, having explored many old and forgotten places in his years of adventuring, but this was the first time that he'd waited outside one for his foe to emerge if there even was one. Still, he remained as quiet as possible, covering the pommel of Skyrazor with his hand to prevent anyone seeing the sparkling light that radiated from it, "We get only one shot at this, Kaden."

"We can hardly run if we mess it up." Kaden tried to speak even quieter. That he didn't get a response told him exactly what his companion intended to do if things went wrong. An errant gust of wind disturbed the grass all about them and Kaden fought against the urge to turn to observe the movement; he couldn't let his focus deviate to phantoms that lurked just beyond his vision, daggers poised to strike at his paranoia and leave them vulnerable. He tried deep breaths to steady himself but the more he took, the more he started to think that something didn't feel right about the situation. His imagination took that thread and ran with it, asking him if Calista alone could defend against an attack timed precisely for when everyone was away. She was a skilled combatant – far more than she gave herself credit for – but right then she was alone with the children. If a group of people attacked, managed to take one of the children hostage, what chance did she stand?

"Stop." Harlethorne's stern words wrenched him back to the there and then. The old man was glaring at him.

"Stop what?"

"I know damn well what you're doing, Kaden."

"How-"

"I fought for over thirty-one years, Kaden. I've seen that look a thousand times on the faces of people staring down far worse than what we are now," Harlethorne returned his attention to the tower, realigned his aim, "The only thing that matters right now is getting whoever is in here to tell us what's going on before we dispose of them." Kaden was surprised to hear the man talk of it so bluntly. He'd always tried to prevent bloodshed whenever possible but few agreed to be brought to justice and fewer still were the opportunities to show mercy when combat began.

A voice called out from the direction of the tower then, something Kaden hadn't expected at all.

"If it's answers you want, you need only ask for them," Kaden recognised it as belonging to the man who'd eluded him in Kant's Rest which made him all-the-more worried about the grass about them. Harlethorne didn't react, still waiting for his chance to take a shot, "I would advise against any reckless actions, lest I dispatch the small spy you sent ahead of you." Kaden's eyes widened, his fears confirmed.

"Don't say anything." Harlethorne murmured, eyes now narrowed.

"I must commend you for your slow and careful approach but we were well prepared for it." The man told them.

"We?" Kaden repeated loudly without thinking. He cursed his folly and as if on cue, half a dozen of the cloaked figures he'd fought on the city streets mere days before stood emerged from their hiding spots within the foliage. There formed a loose circle around Kaden and Harlethorne's position and this time they were armed with bows. They were too spread out for him to engage them, not that he'd reach one of them by the time he was riddled with arrows.

"Though we tried our best to keep out of your sight, there was always the chance that you would spot us. Then I had the brilliant idea of letting you see us so we could ready this trap," A sinking feeling took hold in Kaden's stomach, one he couldn't shake, "As you can see, you are quite surrounded and this time, we are ready of the little parlour trick your sword can unleash. You are welcome to continue your charade, but we know exactly where you are, son of Malkan." The way the man said the last part made him nervous for some reason. Moments became seconds and still, the warriors did not attack, though each stood ready to do so at the slightest provocation.

"I can take out the one closest to us on our right," Harlethorne told Kaden in an urgent, hushed tone, "If you use the sword's magic to get the ones on our left-"

"There's no fighting our way out of this one, Harlethorne," Kaden conceded regretfully, "There's too many of them."

"That's quitting talk."

"They outnumber us-"

"And that didn't stop us winning against Levta's monsters, did it?" Harlethorne snapped while still keeping his voice whisper quiet, "So what, you're going to give up and let them kill us?"

"If they'd of wanted us dead, they'd of already killed us. They want something." Kaden moved to stand but Harlethorne prevented him by grabbing his arm forcefully.

"What are you doing?!" He hissed, "That's precisely what they want!"

"It's not like we've got much choice right now," Kaden answered, wrenching his arm free of the man's grip, "Besides, we may yet learn something."

"It's no good to us if we're dead!"

"Then think of it as buying you some time to come up with a plan. Either way, we've no choice but to try," The scowl he got was all the answer he needed, sighing before he stood to his full height, weapon in hand and ready to unleash Skyrazor's full power as he called to the stranger within the fortification, "What do you want?"

"We want what was taken from us." The man answered simply. The man was referring to Calista, more specifically the 'hands and harp' that Andrei had died for.

"And why should we give you what you want?"

"Because doing so will benefit you greatly, son of Malkan," Again the man used that turn of phrase, again it felt odd to hear. A shadow moved past the entrance to the tower and Harlethorne fired without hesitation. A shrill and agonised cry told everyone he'd hit his mark but the one who fell out into the open was too young and too short to be the leader. He emerged a second later, holding the still form of Vae in his left hand while staring down at the now still body of his underling. He sighed quietly at the corpse, "I had hoped your friend would return the favour and hold his fire but clearly the man is too far gone." Kaden couldn't tell if the little dragon was alive or not from that distance but it made him even more reluctant to battle. Harlethorne had no such reservations, beginning to load another bolt. Kaden had to say something to stop the man from firing again and throwing away any chance they had of saving Vae and so he latched onto the one thing that puzzled him the most.

"You say helping you will benefit me," Kaden began. The man nodded, "I imagine you mean beyond you sparing our lives now, provided I trust your word, which I don't." The stranger took a step forward and from the tower emerged another three figures, two of which were clad in chain mail and wielding sturdy wooden pavise shields emblazoned with the heraldic badge of Dustledom. They stood in front of their leader, prompting Harlethorne to curse under his breath as yet another slim avenue of hope was cut off.

"You are one of the people who benefit most from our plan, son of Malkan." The stranger told him.

"My name is Kaden."

"I am well aware."

"Then why call me that?"

"Because it is that which saved your life," Harlethorne finally stood then, stubbornly refusing to move his crossbow's aim from the pavise wall he had little chance of penetrating. A gust of wind blew past them, sending the grass about them into a quivering, fearful dance, "Our actions must seem very suspect but I assure you, what we do is for the betterment of all the peoples of Kolvan." Kaden's heart was filled with doubt.

"Then why the secrecy? Why the kidnapping?" The warrior's expression hardened, "Why the murder?"

"There are those who would wish our plans to fail, agents acting on behalf of powerful forces," The man was speaking about the other kingdoms, which he couldn't deduce, "As for the supposed kidnapping, I assure you there has been no such thing. We negotiated for the services of the troupe you claim are with us under duress and they agreed eagerly."

"And yet you demand that we hand over the one performer you're missing as if she were property." Kaden watched for the slightest of hesitations, any indicator that he was being spun a yarn but the stranger replied quickly and with confidence as another gust of wind blew by, a cold one.

"Once our goals are explained to both you and her, I have no doubt you'll come to see what we're doing as both noble and just." Harlethorne couldn't help but chuckle.

"You know who else thought his goals were 'noble and just'?" The old man remarked bitterly, "Levta." Upon the utterance of the mad king's name, some of the warriors about them pulled back their bowstrings.

"That tyrant took our home from us, our families!" Spat the stranger with vile that was both furious and contained, "We are nothing like him."

"Then prove it. Tell us what you're up to." Another couple of seconds passed, time as tense as the bowstrings that were ready to loose death upon them.

Kaden's breathing was shallow, furtively looking about for any weak point in the surrounding web of troops that they could take advantage of, all which he listened out for the fragmented clues that he hoped the leader would unwitting give out.

"She would like nothing more than for me to bring you to her, son of Malkan, so that you may stand by her side as we right a terrible wrong. She believes you can be persuaded to see sense," The way the stranger spoke told Kaden all he needed to know; they weren't going to get out of this without a fight. The smile of the man who was one word away from ending their lives was then illuminated by a small globe of flame, conjured forth from nothing. It floated in the palm of his hand and burned up any fragmented ideas Kaden had come up with when – not if – combat happened, "She was insistent I bring you in alive, despite my objections that you could not be made to see reason, but I know the look you're giving me, son of Malkan. We both know that you will not come peacefully."

"Indeed," Kaden replied without hesitation despite how it made his heart lurch, despite how lying would buy them more time. The rest of the warriors around them readied their shots.

"You're not going to hand her over to us, nor are you going to stop until you see all that we have struggled to set in motion undone," Kaden took a deep breath, hoping that it wouldn't be his last, "Still, it was worth checking on the off-chance my liege was correct about you." Kaden paused.

"...My liege?" He repeated under his breath before addressing the man one last time, "Who is the woman you serve, a duchess seeking to cast Maren off the throne?"

"Now is not the time for questions, at least for you," The man told them with finality, "We will interrogate your little Idran 'pet' after we have disposed of you."

"You're welcome to try." Kaden's words were hollow but he had to say them, standing defiant in the face of doom.

"It truly is a pity you will not see that you are on the wrong side of history, but I did warn her of such. At least you are willing to die a noble death, as is befitting one of your line-"

"Sir!" One of the archers called, pointing out into the darkness. Before anyone could react, a powerful gust was upon them. Kaden braced against it but quickly realised he did not need to; It howled about and past them, knocking the archers off their feet and snuffing out the fire in the leader's palm. He only remained on his feet thanks to the pavise shields that buffeted by wind that didn't so much as graze Kaden nor Harlethorne. The old man was rightly confused.

"What the..?" He uttered, for once hesitant to shoot. Kaden himself was tempted to take advantage of their foe's vulnerability and attack but curiosity overpowered him to look in the direction the errant weather front had come from. There he saw a familiar robed figure approaching the tower without concern for the danger she stepped towards.

"Forgive my intrusion. I could not help but notice that something was amiss here," Azalea's soft words were carried to Kaden by a lingering breeze, "What have these two done to warrant your ire?" Kaden grew afraid, both for Azalea and the assailants. The leader didn't move from the safety from the pavise wall, gazing upon her with great suspicion as his underlings recovered from the buffeting strike. Some turned from Kaden and Harlethorne to aim at her, no longer sure who was more dangerous.

"This is none of your concern, stranger." The leader told her firmly. The druid stopped.

"On the contrary, good sir, the goings-on here are entirely my concern," She answered, "If they have wronged you, you should bring them before a judge so that proper justice can be dispensed." The leader's eyes narrowed before giving a nod to one of his underlings.

"You had your chance." The archer fired but the arrow never reached her, blown wildly off-target by another gust of wind. It disappeared into the night, leaving the one who'd fired it befuddled. The other archers looked amongst themselves with hesitation but the leader knew exactly what had just happened.

"Release the one in your captivity and leave this place," The druid's demand was louder than it should have been, booming as if it were thunder. Gone too was the gentleness in her voice, "I will not ask again." The leader glared at her but she matched his look without hesitation.

"This isn't your concern, hedge wizard," He called to her, once more calling forth a ball of flame in his free hand, "Leave, lest you wish to share their fate."

"It is entirely my intention to share their fate," She answered, watching as almost all the archers turned their attention to her now. Their leader nodded once more and a volley was unleashed upon her, all of which was scattered to the winds that rushed to her aid. At that, the druid shifted her posture, standing tall and holding her hands out ritualistically. Her voice was as sharp and sudden as lighting, "Yours, however, is to return to the Cycle!"

With a deafening crack, the tower exploded outwards, sending rocks hurtling in all directions. Again Kaden couldn't help but brace himself and again, none of the stones got anywhere near them, nor did the blast of air. Around them, the air was still, the pair nestled within the eye of a storm they could do nothing but watch unleash its havoc. The powerful winds sent their assailants crashing to the ground once more with screams of pain and panic, some of which were cut short by the crushing force of the rocks which hit them. Then the wind pulled inward, dragging with it everything it could grab. The efforts of those who fought against it lasted fleeting moments, one man clinging desperately to a clump of grass. His cries of fright were robbed by the overwhelming gusts and for a moment, he and Kaden's eyes met. In them, Kaden saw horror absolute and the realisation that death was near. He'd seen that look far more than any person should have and each one had been as different as the people he'd fought; in some he'd seen regret, others fury and most terror, but this one's eyes were filled with acceptance alongside dread. Then he was gone, the grass ripped from the ground and him along with it. Kaden looked up to try and find the person only to see the grisly remnants of those who'd been minced by the rocks that flew about them. A powerful wave of nausea hit him but he couldn't look away. Harlethorne had his crossbow ready but no targets to shoot, also watching the horrific spectacle, eyes wide.

"Yem'Da save us." His utterance was all-but lost in the gusting storm that raged about them for a second more before dying as abruptly as it had come to be. A rain of blood and gore stained rocks fell about them, the pair left standing in the sole patch untouched by the grisly downpour. The leader of the assailants and one of his guards were the only of their foes to have been spared death, splattered with blood and looking about with a dazed expression. This quickly shifted to furious fright upon seeing Azalea slowly walk towards him with purpose, the leader dropping Vae into the grass to call forth another orb of fire.

"...Y-you are formidable indeed," The man commended with quivering words. He threw his spell at her but she deflected it easily to the ground where it set the grass alight, "Very formidable." The remaining guard slammed their shield at the ground, the spike at the bottom lodging it in place as he reached for the bow on his back but Harlethorne shot him in the head before he could get hold of it. Kaden realised what was about to happen and fought back his revulsion at the field of death he stood within to speak up.

"Azalea, we need him alive! He knows what's going on!" He called to her. To Kaden's surprise, the leader laughed. It was loud, uncontrolled and brimming with pride.

"I swore to serve and keep her secrets till death and beyond and that is precisely what I will do!" The man had reached for a dagger and now turned his attention to the still form of Vae that lay in the grass, lifting his foot ready to stamp on the helpless creature. Alarm surged in Kaden's body and he charged forward but he knew he wouldn't get there in time. Launching a bolt of lightning was also out of the question in case it arced from the man to Vae, "Death to the enemies of Dustledom!" All at once, an overwhelming blast of wind unlike any of the others rushed past them, one so powerful that it sent Kaden and Harlethorne tumbling to the ground but they were not its target. The sole survivor of the assailants was hit with the full force of Azalea's spell and he was sent hurtling up and away into the dark. His scream of agony lingered for but an instant and was no more.

Chapter Seventeen

"While most of the known world was populated in some fashion by 500 A.E., a few frontiers remained. Two of these were the frozen landmasses at opposite ends of the world, aptly named the Blizzard Plains and the Realm of Frost for their inhospitable weather and climate. The Realm of Frost was eventually colonised in 610 by a group of brave and foolhardy settlers from Letani seeking lands of their own. Life was arduous but the people stubbornly endured and, over time, others were drawn from about Kolvan to the frozen land by the promise of a new life. By 701, mining operations in the northern mountains had begun in earnest and the proprietor of those mines, a woman who funnelled her profits into bettering the lives of the people, was voted to be the ruler of their fledgeling nation which she named Holnar after her father.

Far to the south of the world was another of the unsettled lands which were ringed by seemingly impassible mountains. Many would-be pathfinders lost their lives trying to discover a route past them until 450 where an expedition led by the Polenan explorer Francis Del Martinas found what would later be called the Martinas Pass, a relatively safe route through a vast cave system that led to a lush and verdant land ripe for colonisation. The land was named Salharia by Del Martinas and though it was poor in mineral wealth, its beauty, fertile soil and wide range of exotic fruits meant that the people who settled there lived prosperous lives, protected from potential conquest by the ring of mountains. The people of Salharia mostly kept to themselves until 1030 when one of the mountains erupted violently and unexpectedly. What followed has baffled the great minds of the world to this day, for the climate of the nation shifted rapidly, the temperatures rising and decreasing rainfall with each passing year. Efforts made by the people of Salharia and experts from beyond to stop or slow the process failed and within five years, almost all the populace had moved away to other nations before the emerging desert consumed all the land, preserving what they could of the unique plants and foodstuffs the land possessed. It has been since been renamed the Salharian Wastes and is a place even more hostile to life than what remains of Idra. Many suspect that magic is to blame for the destruction of Salharia but such a devastating spell was beyond the means of even the most powerful magicians of the time.

The final frontier, the Blizzard Plains, differs from the other in that it has never been successfully colonised. Lying in the far south of Kolvaan, it is a land of constant snowstorms and temperatures even colder than those of the Realm of Frost. So aggressive is the weather that no-one has succeeded in mapping more than a few miles inland; for every exploratory team that returns, many more are lost with no hope of rescue. A few outspoken persons – more often than not those who make their living writing works of fantasy – theorise that the eternal blizzard is a magical countermeasure used to protect the paradise within ruled by an isolationist utopian society but that is, of course, nonsense. In my humble opinion, the Blizzard Plains are exactly as they appear to be: a desolate land where nothing lives and those who venture within do so not in the name of discovering the unknown but to die. I for one will never step foot in that land and you, as a person of great wisdom – one who has purchased this tome must be, for it is undoubtedly the best of its kind – shall surely do the same."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Kaden had to take a moment to comprehend what had just happened before picking himself up from the bloodied ground. The air was still once more and with the death of the wind returned the quiet that set him on edge, only this time he knew no foes hid in the grass about them. He almost doubted what he'd just witnessed but the man and the other warriors were gone, little more than the red mist that he was covered in. This guided his thoughts to the worry which had triggered his desperate charge, reigniting his panic. He dropped his sword and rushed over to Vae, picking up the dragon with frantic care.

"Vae?" He whispered urgently, looking for a sign of life, anything at all. He went to turn the dragon onto its back to check for injuries only for it to squirm and groan, "It's me. Are you hurt?" The dragon weakly opened its eyes and looked up to him both with annoyance and surprise.

"...I would appreciate it if you loosened your grip some so that I may check," The dragon requested. Kaden opened his palm without a second thought, allowing the creature to unfurl its wings and examine them intently. Kaden couldn't see any damage to them but he was no expert on their kind. Eventually, the dragon appeared satisfied and turned its attention Kaden once more, now more relaxed, "I expect you have some questions as to why I ended up in their captivity."

"I can't imagine you flew too close to the tower," Kaden reasoned.

"Indeed not. It was magic that metaphorically clipped my wings. The caster was very skilled for a young man."

"Young?" Kaden checked. He got a small nod of confirmation, "The wizard we fought wasn't young. Are you sure you got a good look at him?"

"He did not linger but yes, I did. I would guess he is barely into adulthood but that is not what is important right now," Vae's attention was on something behind him which drew Kaden's eye to Harlethorne. The old man's crossbow was resting on the grass as he knelt beside the collapsed form of Azalea. Guilt took hold; in his rush to check on the dragon, Kaden had forgotten about the druid. Vae took to the air from his hand, answering Kaden's concerns about his ability to fly and letting him move even faster to Harlethorne's side. Azalea's hood was down, allowing him to see the pained expression on her face. The old man looked at him sternly.

"Get your sword." He ordered.

"But Azalea-"

"She's fine for now, but she won't be if more of them come and you're not ready." Kaden wanted to stay at her side but Harlethorne looked set to snap and so he did as was told, retrieving Skyrazor from the dirt, a task made easy by the glistening pommel.

Vae settled on his shoulder while he went about quickly cleaning the blood off his blade. There was less than he'd anticipated and so he was done after a few wipes, sheathing his weapon and returning to look at the druid with worry. He now noticed her breathing, though it was more shallow than he'd of liked.

"What happened?" He asked.

"Backlash of the spell knocked her clean out," Harlethorne told him. He went into more detail before Kaden could ask for it, "Saw it all the time in the war. Everyone was pushed too hard and too long and for the wizards, it took a deeper toll than the rest of us. The more experienced ones better knew their limits but as it went on and they brought in fresher faces, we'd end up carrying them back to camp over our shoulders. They couldn't handle wielding all that power for long periods."

"I'm amazed she could do all the stuff she did. It was..."

"Amazing? Terrifying?" Harlethrone second-guessed him, "Now imagine spells like that being exchanged across a battlefield and you'll be one step closer to understanding what fighting in the war was like." Kaden decided not to think on that scene; he was afraid his mind could visualise it better than he thought.

"There can't have been that many people with power like that. Not even the teachers at the college in Kant's Rest could match what she did."

"The older ones could, not that there are many old wizards about these days. I'd of been damn pleased to have someone like her fighting by my side, that's for sure. She'd of saved a lot of lives," Harlethorne conceded before stroking his beard for a moment, "You take one arm, I'll take the other." Kaden nodded and together they lifted her off the ground and began to move in the direction of the camp. Vae had moved to the shoulder furthest from Harlethorne in the hopes of avoiding his ire but Kaden knew better; the old man would wait until they were out of harms way before scrutinising the dragon, something that was bound to end badly.

"The man who immobilised me spoke with his subordinate about their liege," Vae explained then in a voice loud enough for them both to hear, "He believed I had been rendered unconscious by the fall and I made no effort to dissuade him of that notion."

"What did they say about her?" Kaden enquired, "Did they mention a name?"

"Unfortunately not, though I am to believe that the young magician is her son. His accent was very similar to that of the others you have just fought, however." That revelation surprised Kaden.

"You're sure of that?" He checked.

"It was not as strong as that of the group's leader but it was definitely similar." Kaden racked his memory for any noble of Dustledom descent but the only one he could think of was his father. He didn't doubt that a couple of barons and counts had managed to escape amongst the refugees but what power they'd held had disintegrated with the kingdom's destruction... or had it? It wasn't unheard of for the nobility to have holdings in other nations but if that was the case here, how had this person managed to remain out of the spotlight for so long and why?

So lost was he in his thoughts that Kaden didn't realise that Harlethorne was watching him until the man spoke up about it.

"So the lady's someone big in Dustledom, so what? What does she hope to achieve by kidnapping people and dragging them off to Glimmershade?" The old man asked dismissively.

"Material wealth?" Vae suggested offhand, "A lucrative mine can be the fuel for all kinds of future endeavours."

"She's got the cash to hire a small army already, what does she need more for?"

"You presume that these people have already been paid." That made Harlethorne chuckle.

"Only a fool would risk life and limb on an IOU."

"Loyalty to ones own is a powerful motivator. It is why I am out here instead of amongst my kin where they claim they are safe," Vae looked to the east at nothing, in particular, making Kaden wonder whether the dragon's home was roughly in that direction, "To fight for a better future for all is surely a worthy cause, one that you would know well." Harlethorne glared at the creature sharply, a look it barely reacted to.

"And where were your kind during the war, hmm?" Asked the old man accusingly, "Whose side were you on?" Kaden was ready to break up the argument if the need arose. He hoped it didn't as he'd already fallen out with Harlethorne once but the longer he listened, the more it became apparent that it was inevitable.

"We were on the side of Kovalaan." The dragon answered simply. The old man frowned.

"Of what?"

"It is our word for Kolvan."

"That's an awfully vague answer."

"I do not think it is."

"Do you enjoy being obtuse?" Harlethrone's question was abrupt and angry. In turn, Vae raised its voice just a little.

"Do you enjoy finding a reason to lose your temper?"

"I asked a simple question."

"And I answered it. Whether my answer would be any use to you is not something I could not anticipate, though I doubt you would have believed me if I'd of said that we made our mark upon your conflict, however slight."

"Which side?"

"You won, did you not?"

"That doesn't answer the question."

"I think it-"

Kaden had had enough, stopping dead in his tracks which forced Harlethorne to do the same.

"Stop it, both of you!" He chastised, glancing at each of them in turn with a stern look, "If you're going to squabble, can it wait until after we've got Azalea back to camp?" For an instant, Harlethorne was furious but that immediately shifted to guilt, casting his gaze downward.

"...Sorry." He muttered, prompting Kaden to stare at the dragon next.

"Apology accepted," It remarked before curling up to rest. Kaden's stare only deepened, however.

"Now it's your turn." He told it.

"I have nothing to apologise for," The dragon objected, eyes closed, "It was not I who started the quarrel."

"It was you who carried it on, though." Try as the dragon might, it knew that he was still looking at him and eventually sighed with resignation before speaking quietly into Kaden's ear.

"You know it will not make any difference," The dragon argued. Kaden's sideways look was enough for the dragon to concede defeat, moving over to his shoulder so it could address Harlethorne directly. The old warrior pretended not to notice but the way his posture shifted gave it away, "I am sorry if I have offended you in any way. It was not my intention."

"Humph." Was all the response Harlethorne deigned to give. Vae curled up once more but Kaden was far from happy with what they'd learned, for all it had done was bring up even more questions. For the first time, however, the boundaries of what they didn't know were starting to become clear, though much remained in the dark gloom of mystery.

Their arrival back to camp was first met with shock and alarm from Calista and Evan, for they did so covered in blood and carrying one of their friends. Kaden quickly reassured them that they were fine – it took a lot longer to convince Calista of this – and that Azalea needed rest but no sooner had he and Harlethorne made the druid comfortable, Calista insisted that they wash. Harlthorne volunteered the go first but the bard told them in no uncertain terms that they both needed to clean themselves up immediately to prevent Elzebeth seeing the grisly spectacle. Kaden didn't argue, he and the old warrior taking a blanket apiece and heading off to the river while Vae settled by the campfire to rest. Once they reached its bank, however, he found himself hesitating. He knew they were alone but still, a voice played in his head that told him they might not be; perhaps there had been more assailants out scouting the surrounding countryside who'd returned to the remnants of the tower and followed their tracks back, now lying in wait to strike at the perfect moment. Wolves too were a threat, for they would have little difficulty smelling the blood upon them, the pair easy to track and easier to attack in the waters. If Harlethorne was afraid of any of that he didn't show it, stripping down to his underwear and plunging into the water before Kaden could get a look at the many scars which covered his body. Kaden slowly followed suit, removing his armour and clothes more slowly and entering the river step by step to try and better acclimatise to the cold. Soon enough he was up to his waist in it, taking a moment to listen to the sounds of the slow-flowing water which carried away some of his concerns. He started cleaning himself by washing his face and hands. Most of the blood was in their clothing but it wouldn't take long for them to wring most of it out.

"How long have you known her?" Harlethorne suddenly asked, catching Kaden without an answer.

"Who, Calista?" He took a moment to think through the question again; obviously, he was referring to her. In the calm of the river, his nerves began to play up for some reason, "Quite a few years now. We've been on a couple of adventures together, most of them by accident." Harlethrone wrung his hands out in the water, working out the final spots of red.

"It takes a special kind of someone to follow someone into trouble like that." Kaden's nerves deepened.

"I'm lucky to have her as a friend." He admitted.

"Yes, you are," Harlethorne agreed before catching his eyes with his own. The stare was different to the others Kaden had received from the old man and it lingered longer than he expected before returning to a more normal look, "Did you always want to be an adventurer?" That line of questioning put Kaden more at ease.

"I wanted to be like my father when I was young, a warrior that helped people and fought evil," Kaden answered. He'd finished washing everything but the thought of leaving the river didn't occur to him, "What about you?"

"My family were hunters. We were responsible for keeping wild animal populations under control in the area. My true passion was animal husbandry but it didn't matter what life I wanted. Hunting was the life I was always going to get and so I grew to accept it."

"You're pretty good at rearing mudrunners." Harlethorne smiled weakly at that.

"I'd of been a lot better at it had I of gone with my heart instead of my head but I'd of also stood no chance on the front lines. Probably would've stayed home and bred steeds for the war instead of enlisting to fight," The old man sighed deeply before shrugging, "But that's something that never was. I can only work to make what's left to my life the best it can be."

"That's a good way of thinking of things. I wish my father thought the same."

Kaden didn't know where those words had come from. They'd certainly caught Harlethorne's attention but now that he'd said them, a hundred more tried to rush out of his mouth at once. He bit his tongue before he said something stupid and made a solid attempt to sort through them. They remained a jumbled mess on the tip of his tongue, however, so he resigned himself to letting them unravel as he spoke.

"A part of me... worries that he's stuck in the past," Kaden tried to explain, "He does a lot of good for a lot of people but... he could probably do more if he gave up on Dustledom." Harlethorne frowned.

"Give up Dustledom?"

"I'm of Dustledom blood just like him but I've made my life here in Letani. This is my home and these are my people and if someone asked me where my loyalties stand, it would be to Kolvan first and Letani second."

"A good answer."

"If they asked my father..."

"You think your father doesn't think of Letani as his home." The old man guessed. Kaden once more tried to unwind the knot of thoughts within him but failed even more spectacularly than before.

"Well it is but it isn't and-" He stopped himself before things degenerated further, took a breath.

"You didn't have to go through losing your kingdom, Kaden."

"I know, but..." His gaze was on the glistening waters about them as he tried to voice his thoughts again, "The kidnappers are from Dustledom and clearly have some big plans. I wonder whose side my father would be on if he knew about all this. We don't even know for sure that these people are actually up to anything malicious-"

"Really, Kaden?"

"Not absolutely but that's beside the point."

"It's entirely the point," Harlethorne emerged from the water then, quickly wrapping himself up in the blanket to dry off. Kaden noticed a few scars on the man's feet, making him question just how much he'd suffered for Letani, "I need only look at you to know that he'd never side with evil, no matter what it meant for the future of Dustledom." Kaden decided to emerge out of the river himself then and immediately regretted it, the chill air making him shiver even when wrapped up in his blanket.

"What makes you so sure?"

"Would you side with them?" Asked the old man.

"Never."

"And that's why I'm sure," Harlethorne let the blanket drop to the ground and began donning his clothes and armour, "I can't help you sort out the trauma your father went through, I've barely come to grips with my own. That's a conversation you two will have to have in the future but when it comes to choosing between kingdom and conscience, he'll choose the latter."

"I hope you're right, Harlethorne," Kaden was dressed once more, fastening the straps that secured his breastplate in place, "Thank you." That was something the old man hadn't expected.

"For what?"

"For talking to me about all this. You didn't have to but-"

"Not much else we were going to talk about, was there?" Harlethorne remarked dismissively, returning to his normal blunt self. His hand axes again hung at his side and his sodden blanket in hand, "I doubt we'll have anyone else following us now but we'll take tomorrow slower just in case. Azalea might not be up to a fast pace anyway." Kaden nodded and looked towards the campfire, noticing that Calista was watching them. He couldn't see her expression but he got the feeling that the pair of them had a lot more explaining to do before the night was over.

Chapter Eighteen

"As a historian, it is my job – nay, my duty – to look to the past and record it as accurately as possible and there are many like I who chronicle the ages, though I would not suggest you read their inferior works. Many are generalist historians who dedicate far less time on the exact details of events then I – a travesty that has surely contributed to the lack of education amongst the common folk over the years, I am sure – but if one wants to research a particular event, you can do no better than to consult the expansive libraries that reside within most major settlements. Chronicling local, national and world history, these collections of tomes and parchments are repositories of all manner of useful information that is often free to peruse, though donations for their continued upkeep are encouraged. They also contain countless works of fiction, should one wish to lose themselves in fantastically absurd writings that distract you from your day-to-day activities. In my humble opinion, the works of fiction are boring and drab affairs compared to the vibrancy and realness of the world we live in.

The largest and most exhaustive libraries reside within the oldest nations. Of note is the Queen's Library in Kant's Rest, the Vault in Gantsbridge and the Corgacan Record Hall in Hazengate. Vurlo of Lodonia has a fine collection of magical texts in its arcane school but no library exceeds the Royal Library of Polena. Housed in the castle of Cresthaven, the various kings and queens of that nation have dedicated small fortunes to amassing knowledge and scribing copies of it so that other nations may benefit. They also have some of the oldest texts in existence, the most ancient of these being a venerable book that somehow manages not to fall apart by name of 'Codex Veradan Kovalaan'. Unfortunately, its title is the only part of it that we understand - at least, we think we understand it - for it is written in an unknown language. No other examples of it have been uncovered despite a substantial search and the scribes have a keen eye for forgeries.

I hope that one day that tome can be translated as it may answer the most intriguing question of all: how did we get to where we are today? Our recorded history is not long, with the earliest record dating back to 27 A.E. when Gantsbridge wrote the first code of laws that would later be the foundation of the kingdom of Letani. We do not even know what A.E. means, just one example of the gaps in our knowledge. This entry makes references to a copy of this code of laws being stored in something called 'The House of Lore', a place that I imagine stored records that predate even that time. Unfortunately, its location was not noted and it ceased being mentioned in any historical texts beyond 88 A.E., not even in a footnote. Was it destroyed in a conflict, levelled by an earthgert attack, consumed by fire? Or perhaps it resides in a remote location that was known only by a few who failed to pass the information on. Many historians and adventurers have sought the House of Lore and returned empty-handed if they returned at all. What treasures lie within it are the stuff of dreams for one such as I but, like fiction, it is best to focus on what we have and what we know rather than speculate on what might have been without the evidence to support such flights of fancy."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Kaden wasted no time in explaining to Calista exactly what had happened at the tower upon returning from the river. They sat around the fire and though he was careful to gloss over the more grisly details to save Evan from more nightmares, their initial return was likely all the child would need for his imagination to run rampant while he slept. The boy was by Azalea, constantly checking her temperature with a worry that was almost palpable and spoke volumes of the bond which had developed between the two of them in but a few short days. No sooner had they finished talking did Calista have questions.

"Would you have told me of your little adventure had you not returned in the state you were in?" Her words were levelled at Harlethorne along with a critical look.

"I didn't want Evan following us," The old man answered. Evan didn't look up from Azalea but Kaden knew that he was listening, "And don't tell me the boy wouldn't have. His curiosity has brought you this far already."

"And what if you hadn't come back?"

"Then you'd have carried on to Glimmershade without us to bring Elzebeth to her uncle and aunt-"

"People that I don't know," Her interruption was sharp but laden more with disappointment than anger, "Next time you want to do something like that, let me know all the details so I can plan for things going wrong."

"I'm sorry, I didn't-"

"No, you didn't," She glanced to Kaden who passed him an apologetic look but instead of more harsh words, she smiled very weakly, "But enough about that. We have another mystery to ponder, the identity of this group's leader."

"Do you know of anyone in power in Corgaca with connections to Dustledom?" Kaden inquired hopefully while Harlethorne poked the fire with a stick.

"Apart from the king?" Her answer surprised him, prompting the bard to explain further as she passed him and Harlethorne some rations. He began idly picking at the pemmican, hungrier than he'd originally thought but then, it was late in the day, "The last ruler of the Du Beke line died suddenly in 1017 without children. The closest successor was Lady Karine Dubinin of Dustledom and so began the Du Binin royal lineage which has wound its way to King Desmond."

"It wouldn't be very becoming of a Corgacan king to interfere in Letani matters in this way, even if it were in the interests of his ancestral home," Harlethorne remarked after swallowing a mouthful of hardtack, "There'd of been no way for them to take it back during the war, of course, what with the bulk of their forces tied up on the front lines. Now things have settled a little..."

"Desmond wouldn't do something like that." Calista stated with certainty.

"And what makes you so sure?"

"Apart from the fact that he's too busy trying to keep on top of ruling Corgaca? Neither he, his brother nor his father spoke once of their ties to Dustledom. They're Corgacan through and through and subterfuge isn't the Corgacan way," Harlethone wasn't convinced but kept his doubts confined to a look the bard dismissed. Kaden's stomach had been sated by his lacklustre meal, missing the foraged berries that Azalea always offered up at this point, "We're close to figuring this all out but we're still missing an important piece of information: why they're doing this. That'll point us to the one pulling the strings."

"I doubt we'll find that out until we're face-to-face with them, about to cross swords," Kaden said regretfully, "A part of me still hopes we can end this without bloodshed but after that last conflict..."

"Hope for the best, expect the worst," Harlethorne uttered before finishing off the last bit of hardtack in one go.

Kaden rested surprisingly well that night, arising with the sun refreshed and revitalised. The spectacle of the previous night was but a hazy memory, though that gained clarity upon spying Azalea. The druid was awake once more, seemingly no worse for wear from her ordeal holding a bag laden with more foraged food, though she did pass him a thankful nod during breakfast. They set off as soon as they'd eaten and the next few days of travel were thankfully uneventful. The weather remained pleasant and the scenery varied enough that the journey was never dull but even if it had been nothing but plains, Kaden's musings on the unknown would have kept him busy. Every hour brought the mountains that Glimmershade was nestled next to closer, the all-but impassible barrier which bordered the Latanan Sea. He'd only been this far west in the kingdom once while on the hunt for an escaped convict who had proven to be especially elusive, always remaining one step ahead of him as he flitted from hamlet to village. It had been the mountains which had ended the man's lucky streak, his body found by a shepherd tending to his goats.

Early on the fifth day, they came across a small watchtower that was in use, a sign that they were drawing close to Glimmershade. Standing not far from a sparse-looking but large forest, the stone structure was manned by guards who noticed their arrival well in advance. A man clad in plate mail waited for them at its entrance, flanked by two soldiers holding in a relaxed manner. Kaden took it as a sign that the man had something to discuss and so the group brought their mudrunners to a stop not far from the tower, hitching them to a set of posts. Vae making sure to hide within Kaden's backpack before they arrived, not wanting a repeat of the events at Harlethorne's home. Kaden dismounted carefully as the guards approached, not wanting to make a bad impression by falling flat on his face in front of them. Their leader wore an enclosed helmet but removed it upon drawing closer to reveal a face that had weathered the years well. Kaden guessed that he was close to his fifties, well built and possessing a full head of light brown hair. At his waist hung a sword and over his back a heater shield, equipment which reminded him of the knights of Corgaca. The man was the same height as him and examined Kaden and Calista intently before glancing to the others. Evan and Elzebeth – the former standing with Azalea while the latter stuck close to Harlethorne – provoked a curious look from him but when he spied the old warrior amongst them that shifted to a smile. Harlethorne gave a respectful nod all while the glimmers of a grin played on the edges of his lips; did the two know each other?

"Good morning, master Kaden. Welcome to the county of Glimmershade," At first he thought the man's accent was that of a man from Corgaca but then he noticed a heavy streak of Letani influence within it, "My name is Sir Tyral and if I can assist you in any way, I will."

"Thank you, but how do you know who I am?" Kaden had to ask despite himself. The knight motioning for the two guards beside him to go about their duties, one remaining by the door while the other walked off down a well-worn road which led into the woodland ahead, a place that Azalea was watching.

"A messenger from Letani arrived here two days ago. He carried with him an edict from the queen herself stating that you and Calista were abroad the kingdom on a quest of the utmost urgency and should be rendered any assistance you require. You certainly fit the description given, as does your friend, but there's one way to be sure," Tyral was looking at Skyrazor, gazing upon the glowing hilt of Skyrazor with a satisfied smile, "There's only one blade I know of that glows with such a light and that's Skyrazor."

"An edict from queen Maren?" Calista repeated, curious at that development, "I wouldn't think our quest was of such interest to her."Evan was looking at the knight's armour silently with a look of amazement.

"It is not my place to question the wants of my queen, merely to serve her and her kingdom," Tyral answered.

The knight then turned his attention to Harlethorne and smiled warmly, approaching the man and patting him on the shoulder like an old friend.

"I didn't think I'd see you for a few months, old man," Tyral remarked conversationally.

"Nor I you, young one," The old soldier answered with a voice Kaden had never heard him use before. It had little of the weary gruffness decades of conflict had inflicted upon him, instead sounding like that of a content elder, "Kaden needed my help to get here, so I pushed forward my schedule. I hope that's not a problem." Tyral was looking to each of their steeds in turn and was notably impressed.

"Of course not. A fine steed is no finer for arriving unexpectedly. I'm sure the garrison will pay well for them, as usual." Tyral patted the side of Kaden's mudrunner gently.

"So long as the price is fair." Harlethorne checked.

"When has it not been?" Countered the knight. This made Harlethorne chuckle lightly.

"Touché. How's your father doing, by the way?"

"As well as can be. His old wound's playing up again so he's confined to his bed, much as he hates it. He'll be trying to get up and about if I tell him you're here."

"I'm still surprised he made it back home at all. He'd of thrown him himself off the boat to swim back to the front lines, lame leg or no. Tell him to take it easy, not that he'll listen." Tyral smirked at the request.

"You know he'll want to see you, Harlethorne." The knight warned.

"And I'll make time for him once my business with Kaden is concluded." The old man's words once again rung with commitments he'd denied but Kaden knew that now wasn't the time to ask about it. The knight turned his attention once more to Kaden and Calista.

"Now I'm sure you have questions for me, just as I have for you."

"We'll answer any you have, naturally," Calista assured him.

"Like why you have a young boy and an even younger girl in your company." Tyral enquired, looking to both of them. Evan matched the knight's eyes with his ever-confident look.

"I'm helping Kaden on his adventure! I've been very useful." The boy proudly proclaimed. Tyral didn't seem convinced, eyes flitting to Kaden and Calista for an explanation.

"He followed us in secret from Kant's Rant. By the time I found out, it was too late to head back." Kaden didn't mention the terrible things he'd been witness to but did notice the young boy folding his arms grumpily at the apparent dismissal of his deeds. Tyral nodded understandingly.

"So be it. And the other child?"

"I am bringing her to stay with her uncle and aunt. Her parents are pre-occupied at present, else they would have done so themselves." Was all Harlethorne said on the matter. That answer too satisfied the knight and Kaden took the quiet as an opportunity to ask a question which burned on his lips.

"The group we're after, have you seen them?" Kaden asked hopefully.

"You think they're headed to Glimmershade specifically?" Tyral checked. Kaden nodded.

"We're sure of it," Calista answered, "We don't know why they want to go there, though."

"There are no doubt many shady organisations in the kingdom that haven't yet caught our notice, but they'd be fools to come here thinking they would evade notice. I make it a point to question groups as large as that, discover their motives."

"And have you seen such a group pass?" The bard inquired. Tyral stroked his chin in thought,

"I'm sorry, but no. We had a caravan of traders two nights ago and the day after, some farmers. Then that evening..." The knight's pause caught Kaden's attention and when his expression became a confused and familiar one, "...That's odd."

"There's a gap in your memory, isn't there?" Kaden guessed. The knight's eyes widened which only further confirmed his hunch, "The troupe of performers in their company have a powerful magic item, enchanted sheet music."

"Enchanted... music?"

"Those they play the music to have only hazy memories of the performance itself. I know this because I too have a gap in my memory," He looked to Calista and Harlethorne who both knew what that meant, "They've definitely been this way."

"It's a good thing the other magicians they have can't fill those gaps with false memories," Harlthorne remarked. He caught Tyral's attention immediately with that, "They've got at least one wizard with them, a powerful one and that's presuming the troupe aren't capable of magic themselves."

"Then we need to warn Glimmershade immediately," The knight indicated to the guard at the door, "Take one of the mudrunners and go to the message post. You know what to tell them." The young woman saluted.

"Sir!" With that, she rushed off down the path into the forest, quickly disappearing out of sight.

"Are there other ways to town aside from the main road? Another path through the woods they might have taken after passing here?" Calista asked of the knight. Tyral indicated to the direction the guard had rushed off in.

"Likely more than we know. Many are the trails that have winded their way through the forests that surround Gantsbridge throughout the years. Some of them might be wide enough for mudrunners but it's more likely they let them loose and continued on foot through the trees, the better to avoid unwanted attention," The knight looked warily at the woodland, "I wouldn't suggest leaving the road to go after them. It's thin here but it's easy to veer into the more ancient parts where you'll get very lost very quickly. You're better off following the road straight west, then northwest to the town and searching for them there. You'll need a writ if you want to avoid the queue to get in and I can provide you with that."

"That's very generous of you." Kaden thanked.

"Just doing my duty. Wait there." Tyral headed into the tower, making sure to close the door behind him.

"Someone in town is bound to know where the group is headed," Calista reasoned, her eyes drifting to the woodland they would soon be riding through, "They can't entrance everyone."

"I'll be surprised if they stick together after getting through the gates," Harlethorne was watching the tower door and the forest alternately, "Glimmershade is a mess of alleyways, side streets and cramped cul-de-sacs."

"Just like any other town, then."

"Not even close. You can get from one end of that place to the other without seeing another soul and that's sticking to street level. The many abandoned mines beneath Glimmershade are a haven for criminals and smugglers."

"Surely the guard know about those places, though." Kaden reasoned.

"A couple of them, maybe. The rest are either too old to be common knowledge or have been hidden by false walls and 'cave-ins'."

"And yet you're talking about them right now."

"Everyone knows they're there but knowing where they are is another matter, Kaden."

Tyral emerged from the tower then holding a scroll sealed with wax which he handed to Kaden. "This writ will get you into town without any fuss and will guarantee you an audience with the captain of the guard," The knight told him, "He's a good man and will have read the edict himself. He'll listen to you to what you have to tell him."

"Thank you," Kaden nodded, putting away the write as he looked to the mentioned road. It was well-trodden and wide, "Anything of note going on in Glimmershade that we need to know of?"

"Nothing that comes to mind right away," Tyral then thought on the question some more, "A couple of mines are opening, one within the next few days. They say it's the deepest one yet."

"What are they looking for?"

"Precious metals if I were to guess but all the mine owners secretly hope for that. They'll probably find the usual: iron, copper, tin and more stone than anyone knows what to do with. I think they're just heading deeper to try and cut off the competition from going further down and thus starve them of future profits but that's a very expensive way to do it, if you ask me," Tyral was about to turn back to the tower when he thought on something else, "If you ever get the chance to go down one of those mines, you'd do well to accept. Some of them are marvels to behold." Kaden noticed that Calista shivered then despite there being no chill in the air to prompt it.

"...We'll take your word for it." She said quietly, looking down to the ground. Tyral nodded and stepped out of the way.

"Don't let me keep you, then. Get going and good luck, all of you."

Kaden and the others mounted their steeds once more and, with a gentle tug of the reigns, continued on their journey to Glimmershade. The road started to slope upwards but the mudrunners managed the incline just fine, albeit at a slower pace.

"We'll be there by the afternoon, most likely," Harlethorne informed them, then looking to Azalea, "I'm surprised you're coming with us."

"Why the surprise?" The druid enquired gently.

"I'd of thought you would have no love for a place like Glimmershade, what with the mines digging out the earth."

"The cycle will reclaim all in time, mines included. No kingdom rules eternally." She said back.

"Including the kingdom of nature?" Though Azalea didn't react to his question, it was clear to Kaden that the old man had her attention, "Idra is hardly the realm of natural things any more."

"In time, that will change." She sounded certain but Kaden didn't share the sentiment. He slowed his pace to ride beside Calista who looked lost in thought.

"You alright?" He asked her. So focused had he been on reaching Glimmershade that they hadn't spoken much since Azalea's recovery. She looked up at his question and realised she was being talked to.

"Y-yes. I'm fine, thank you." Her stammer was cause for more concern for him and she noticed that, "I'm fine, really."

"You don't sound fine." She paused before replying to him.

"I'm just... thinking about what we might face in Glimmershade if we finally catch up to them. They'd be mad to go against us and the guards but I have a feeling they'll do so. We still don't know why they're coming here, either."

"If we can help the guards apprehend them, we'll have all the time we need to get our answers," Kaden remarked, "Who knows, we might catch them all at once, then we'll be back in Kant's Rest before we know it and then..." His words realised where they were heading and stopped dead.

"And then?" She asked curiously. He sighed lightly without meaning to.

"...Then you'll be heading back out on the road to perform." The two looked to one another for a few moments that lingered far longer than that before she shrugged.

"All this has soured my desire to tour for the time being. I'll probably head back to Corgaca for a while, see my parents. It's been a while since I visited," Calista paused again but when she noticed Kaden still watching her, cracked a fleeting and shy smile, "...You'd be welcome to come if you wish." Something about her suggestion made him apprehensive despite how plain and well-meaning it had been.

"...Oh, I wouldn't want to intrude-"

"Are you coming or not?" Harlethorne shouted from some distance ahead of them. Only then did Kaden realise that he and Calista had come to a stop in the middle of the road. They both took stock of the situation and couldn't help but laugh quietly amongst themselves.

"Sorry! My mudrunner was playing up!" Kaden called back, a lie he doubted the old man would believe but it was the best he could come up. The pair moved quickly to catch up but Calista's offer lingered in Kaden's mind, the first thing to distract him from his circular musings on their quarry's motives and the shadowy leader that pulled their strings. He made a note to ask her about it later, after Glimmershade, after figuring everything out and putting an end to it once and for all.

Chapter Nineteen

"In its prime, the nation of Idra was home to some of the most powerful magicians in the world, most of which were trained in the prestigious Bybliotheca Arcana in Kelmor. Many an acolyte dreamed of being accepted to study there but those few who were quickly realised that the institute accepted nothing short of perfection. Most were kicked before the end of their first year and those who managed to endure were forced to duel their teachers as their final test. While the school claimed that none died during the matches, I find that hard to believe considering the overwhelming destructive might wielded by those who passed and later joined the nation's military. It is my humble opinion that the 'unfortunate accidents' that occurred near the end of the year were their attempt to cover up those fatalities, though any hard evidence to prove this went up in flames during the Cataclysm.

Though the Bybliotheca Arcana taught all its charges to be generalists, most wizards left with an affinity for fire that made them lethal on the battlefield. The early years of the Great War saw Idra utilise these mages brilliantly, obliterating large groups of soldiers in all-consuming infernos. The war also revealed that the nation had been secretly forging magical weapons, all with a fire focus. Halberds capable of wreathing themselves in flame were often in the hands of commanding officers and champions but the most terrifying of their creations was an heirloom of the Idran royal line, the Bow of Infernos. The wood of the weapon was said to be ashen and black yet strong as steel and it lacked a bowstring, for it conjured its ammunition as a part of its enchantment. Mimicking the action of loosing an arrow sent forth a bolt of flame capable of piercing multiple persons but that was the least of its power. If eye witness accounts are to be believed. It is said that the mad king Levta used the bow in the final days of the war, channelling his family's considerable arcane lineage through it to unleash more potent bolts which split into a shower of fireballs.

Though Avitus states that prince Andran of Corgaca landed a mortal blow on Levta in the moments leading up to the Cataclysm, no-one has been able to reach the site of the war's final battle to verify this. Only a few entertain the notion that the mad king was somehow able to survive the blaze which destroyed his nation and they are derided for their folly, but there is one thing which points to it being a possibility: Avitus himself. He survived at its epicentre thanks to his mastery of magic and Levta was almost as capable as he, or so I have been told. Though his injury would have made escape difficult, magic can do many a wondrous and terrifying thing. It is my hope, however, and that of all of Kolvan that Levta and his bow were incinerated into ash on that fateful day, for the alternate is too horrible to consider for long."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

The walls of Glimmershade were not as tall or impressive as those of the capital but appeared no less impregnable, built of stone mined from the very mountains that towered over the settlement. Kaden tried to picture the myriad of tunnels that had barely begun to scratch the surface of the world, each drawing from the land the resources needed to fuel their way of life and riches which, in turn, brought prosperity to those lucky enough to own the mines. The queue of people to enter through the main gatehouse was almost as long as that at Kant's Rest, most of them farmers and labourers from the surrounding countryside arriving to work or sell their produce. The guards were armed with pollaxes and clad in suits of thick chain mail, a fearsome combination he'd been lucky enough to never be on the receiving end of. Armed with the writ, Kaden and the others slowly rode past the queue, ignoring the questioning looks they got while doing so. The closer they got to the formidable gatehouse, the more Kaden could hear the familiar hustle and bustle of town life, though it was different to what he was used to; smoke rose from the many smelting houses beyond the walls and he was sure he could hear the sound of many hammers upon metal, but he conceded that the latter was likely his expectations running hand-in-hand with imagination. One of the guards, a young man with soft brown hair, moved to intercept them when it became clear they intended to enter before the others, motioning for them to stop when they were a few metres away. Kaden obliged even as Harlethorne began to dismount.

"What's your business here, stranger?" The welcome wasn't as warm as Tyral's but held no malice. Kaden held out the writ.

"We're here in pursuit of kidnappers who absconded from Kant's Rest with prisoners in tow. You may have read the edict warning of our potential arrival," Even though Kaden now questioned both facts about their quarry, the edict would've been penned with the scant information they'd had at their journey's beginning, "We need to see the captain of the guard as soon as possible."The guard looked to his face, then the writ before stepping forward and taking it off his hands.

"They might have arrived here on mudrunners," Calista added as the guard's eyes skimmed over the words before him. Kaden heard mumbling from behind them, the others in the queue very curious about the troubling purpose of their visit.

The guard took one last look at the group - Evan and Elzebeth he frowned quizzically at – before returning the writ to Kaden.

"Can't say I've been privy of this edict but Tyral is a good judge of character and this writ vouches for you," The guard told them, much to the disappointment of those that they'd cut in front of. Calista and Azalea took that as their cue to dismount their steeds, the latter assisting Evan in the task. Kaden did so more cautiously than the others after returning the writ to his backpack, again not wanting to fall off in front of everyone and risk revealing Vae, "I'll have one of the guards upstairs take you to the captain. We'll take your mudrunners to the stables for now."

"That won't be necessary," Harlethorne informed the man then, "I'm here to sell them, provided they meet your standards. I know my way to the stable master's home and so won't need a guide." Elzebeth remained atop his mudrunner, holding the reigns tightly and staring silently at the town walls. The other guard, an older woman, looked at Kaden more intently than the first had.

"You may not have read the edict, but I sure did," She remarked to the other guard before staring into Kaden's eyes, "You're Kaden?" He didn't sound convinced.

"I can be no-one else." The warrior answered back simply.

"You're not quite what I thought you'd be," She shrugged, "You're not..."

"Heroic enough?" Calista guessed. The guard shrugged again, "Tavern talk does much to embellish the truth but I can assure you, he is who he says he is."

"So you say. If Tyral says you're alright, that's good enough for us." Came the muttered response before the first guard blew on a soft-sounding whistle, likely a method of getting the attention of the guards within the gatehouse. Kaden noticed then that Evan had moved to stand beside him, the boy presuming that he was coming along. Kaden pondered how to break the news to him and ultimately settled on direct honesty.

"I'll need you to stay with Harlethorne for now, Evan," Kaden told the boy. The look he got was laden of objections, "Just for a while. We'll be back as soon as we've talked to the captain of the guard."

"I don't want to stay with him. I want to stay with you." Evan argued. Kaden's eyes were drawn to the boy's dagger by the sunlight which glistened from its handle, then spotting the hand which rested right next to it. He'd never seen him do that before and it troubled him.

"We won't be long," Calista and Azalea were waiting by the raised portcullis while Harlethorne kept a firm hold of all the reigns of the mudrunners, Elzebeth's in his right hand and the rest his left. Evan was playing up again but this time Kaden had little patience for it, not while they were so close to catching up with their quarry, "I'm not going to lie to you, Evan. Things could get very dangerous very quickly and I don't want you to get hurt."

"I can take care of myself just fine." Evan insisted.

Something flashed in Kaden's memory then but Evan noticed the revelation before he could move away from him to speak to the guards about it. The boy's eyes widened in surprise and betrayal, neither of which Kaden had expected.

"...You're going to send me back home, aren't you?" The boy asked. Kaden stumbled over what to say and how to say it without further upsetting Evan but quickly conceded that nothing could prevent that now.

"I said right from the start that you were going home as soon as I could get you there safely. Now I can." Evan scowled which caught Calista's attention.

"You can't send me home now, not after all this! We're so close to getting the bad guys!" Evan protested. Kaden was confused.

"You told me yourself you wanted to go home." The warrior reminded him. Evan's moment of silence told Kaden that the boy had forgotten that himself but his stubbornness returned with a vengeance.

"I've changed my mind. I want to keep helping!" Kaden had a feeling he knew where this insistence to remain had come from but Azalea gave nothing away when the two looked to one another save a gentle smile. Calista approached, hoping to calm the situation down.

"Evan, we appreciate all that you've done-" She began.

"Then don't send me away!"

"Evan, your mother will be worried sick. She might even think you're..." Calista decided not to finish that sentence, instead shifting the focus of his argument, "The more dangerous this gets, the more likely it is that you'll get hurt."

"I can take care of myself," Evan sounded more sure of that than ever before but Kaden had a thousand reasons to doubt, "You know I can."

"No, I don't," Kaden answered seriously, interrupting the boy before he could protest, "If the one that got away in the forest told the others about what you did, they'll treat you as an enemy just as dangerous as we are," The farmers just behind them took a couple of wary steps back at that, muttering amongst themselves more quietly than before. The more Kaden looked at Evan, the more he could see all that had changed. It was more than how his hand was ready to draw the weapon he'd kept for far too long, more then what he'd experienced on the journey. Though barely a week had passed, Kaden saw something familiar in the way the child looked up to him and while he couldn't quite place what it was, he knew he didn't want it to grow, "Please, stay with Harlethorne until we're done talking with the captain. After that, we're getting you on the first caravan back home."

"I'll meet up with you here when you're done." The old man assured him.

"But-" Evan began to protest.

"No buts, Evan. This is for your own good." Kaden said with finality, turning and walking to join Azalea by the gatehouse. Calista passed an apologetic look to the boy before following. Kaden was tempted to check if Evan was following them despite his order not to but he managed to avoid glancing back, focusing his thoughts instead of what he was going to tell the captain of the guard. Even so, a tiny morsel of guilt lingered that wouldn't go away.

"You did the right thing, Kaden," Calista reassured him as the trio passed under the murder holes of the gatehouse.

"It doesn't feel like I did." Came his answer.

"That which has been experienced cannot be so easily undone," Azalea stated simply, a lesson Kaden had learned all too quickly when he decided to follow in his father's footsteps and become an adventurer.

Just beyond the gatehouse was a market hemmed in by a mishmash of tall buildings which had nothing in common, save that they stood within the town walls. Kaden wondered how they'd make past the dense crowd that perused the stalls when a stern guard emerged from a door leading into the gatehouse. She motioned for them to follow and Kaden watched as the crowds parted for her without a second thought, some doing so out of respect and others fear. Kaden watched as the crowds parted for her without a second thought, some doing so out of respect and others fear. He and Calista kept close behind, the latter eyeing those that drew too close with a suspicion that reminded him to check on his coin pouch. It was still there and while they were given the same berth that the guard was due to how heavily armed he was, he couldn't help but be concerned that someone would try their luck regardless. Sellers hawked their wares with shouts that tried to drown out and undercut one another, creating a cacophony of confusion on top of the general din of people coming and going. Among the expected produce sellers were stores that dealt in a myriad of metal tools, most of which Kaden didn't recognise. There were plenty of merchants trading in ingots as well as weapons and armour and many, many stalls dedicated to silverware of all shapes and sizes. Kaden noted that there was not a single item fashioned from gold in sight but that made sense considering its value; those who could afford to deal in it likely had dedicated shops where they could better keep an eye on their wares. Azalea walked a few paces behind them, observing the people about them with mild curiosity.

"This place is not dissimilar from a colony of ants," The druid's voice was quiet yet Kaden could hear it over the commotion about them just fine, "Everyone has their role, their purpose which they toil tirelessly to achieve." A child no older than Evan approached her in an attempt to sell slices of bread but she shook her head politely. The boy kept trying but she had already turned her attention away to observing the rest of their surroundings, prompting the child to seek customers elsewhere.

"The mines are the lifeblood of this town and they run all day, every day," The guard stated, "If anything, it gets busier in the evening when the night shift takes over. Not the best place to be if you don't like things a little lively." Kaden felt something shuffle in his backpack and glanced over his shoulder to see Vae ever-so-carefully peeking at the bustle about them. He passed the dragon a look warning him to be careful but that didn't stop it from continuing to observe in silence.

"Are there any fights?" Calista asked while glancing behind them briefly as they were led out of the market and down a narrow side street that was somehow just as busy as the place they'd left.

"People know better than to give us something to do," The guard stopped at an unassuming door, unlocking it with a rusty key that hung from a chain on her belt. Opening it revealed a staircase which descended into the earth, lit only by a candle lantern that hung just beyond the door, "After you." Azalea walked in, followed by Kaden. Calista didn't move, staring silently at the darkness beyond.

"Are you coming?" Kaden asked back to her.

"...I-I think I'll stay out here," She'd taken a step back a step into the street nervously, "You won't be long, right?"

"We should stick together, just in case," Kaden told her. The guard watched the exchange while Azalea had no qualms with scaling the stairs into the gloom. The guard waited impatiently for him to follow but Kaden wasn't about to leave Calista behind, not when something was wrong. He stepped back out, "What's the matter, Calista?"

"Nothing, it's just..." She sighed shakily, finally meeting his gaze. She was afraid, "...I don't want to go down there, Kaden."

"Why not?"

"I just don't, okay? Can't they get the captain to come to us up here?" The guard shook her head which only worried Calista further, "Please, I..."

All at once, Kaden knew what was going on, why this fear had suddenly surfaced. He quickly thought back on the adventures they had shared and not one had brought them below ground, a place where space was limited and methods of escape even more-so. While he'd never relished the prospect of delving into the depths, he couldn't even begin to imagine the fight that was running through her mind at that moment, the chorus of cries begging her to get away as quickly as possible from the dark unknown that lay in wait. It was that final thought that called forth an idea. It was crazy and bound to land him in trouble later but he had to try.

"Close your eyes." He told her gently. She gave him a puzzled look.

"...W-what?"

"Just... close your eyes for me, okay?" Though she wondered what he was up to, the bard obliged. Kaden then took her hand into his and slowly began to lead her towards the open door. He got a few odd looks from the people passing but he ignored them. Calista's eyes shot open quickly and looked to their hands in shock.

"...Kaden? What are you-"

"Keep them closed, Calista. It'll all be fine," Her gaze was one full of questions and fear which he tried to dispel with a kind smile, "I promise." It took a few moments of confusion before she finally closed her eyes once more, much to Kaden's relief. The guard had watched the entire exchange with an unreadable expression but was clearly glad that they were finally going in, following behind them as Kaden guided Calista through the door. She followed until it was closed behind, gasping suddenly at the sound of it being locked and stopping dead in her tracks.

"I want to go back." The words were rushed but her eyes remained closed, likely out of fear of what she'd see or not see if she opened them. The guard behind them sighed with annoyance, lantern in hand.

"Just... think about something else, anything else," Kaden suggested at first, but that wasn't going to help; her thoughts would flit between the walls either side of them, echoing her until they became an unbearable terror. Another idea came to mind and he seized upon it, hoping to distract her. The topic wasn't the best one but he had to trust it would be enough, "What's your favourite food?"

"...What?" Calista's voice quivered.

"What's your favourite food?" He asked again, waiting for her to start talking.

"I... I like lots of foods." She answered weakly. He took a step down and found that she followed him, though her footing was shaky. Progress was progress, however.

"What would you eat right now if it was offered to you?" He rephrased the question as, slowly but surely, they were scaling the stairs. Kaden knew the descent would be brief but to her, it must've felt like an endless tumble into oblivion.

"A cheeseboard," Was her answer, one he hadn't expected.

"Like the one Harlethorne offered us?"

"Yes, just like that. What I wouldn't give to eat that breakfast again right now. Best one I had before that was in a tavern on the road to Haldoshern, it was the only food they served. It was... wonderful." She spoke with passion and memory as they continued their descent, Kaden now able to see the bottom where Azalea waited. She watched the spectacle with a calm look which made him feel silly but letting go of Calista's hand didn't even cross his mind, even though the thought of what he was doing made him more nervous than he'd expected. He had to get her to the bottom and if this was what it took then he'd do it every single time, "When this is over do you..."

"Yes?"

"Do you... want to go there with me?"

"As long as you pay for the journey," Kaden was only half-joking, "Let's hope they don't have Kantorian Mild as one of their choices. I've had enough of that to last me a lifetime."

"Me too." Calista almost sounded like her normal self, albeit quieter than normal.

"My father always talked of a speciality fish in Dustledom that they ate all the time, a local fish stuffed with mashed potatoes and garnished with garlic."

"Stuffed with potato?" Now Calista just sounded bewildered.

"He's tried to replicate it many times without success. He keeps blaming it on not having the right fish. I wouldn't be surprised if he came back from one of his adventures with half a dozen of them in a large bucket and plans to dig a pond," Calista laughed, a sound he'd never grow tired of hearing. It ended just as they reached the bottom of the stairs, the pair stepping through the open door Azalea stood by and into the room beyond after achieving a feat far more momentous than any combat they'd overcome.

Chapter Twenty

"Throughout history, there have been many important individuals who, through their actions, have shaped the present we now live in. Mighty rulers, legendary champions and brilliant magicians have left their mark upon Kolvan but, if asked whose deeds had the most impact, few of the common folk would point to the true heroes of the world: scholars. An educated mind may not be glamorous but our societies are built upon a foundation of knowledge constructed by those who devoted their lives to learning. All that we know and understand – agriculture, industry, mathematics, magic, the workings of nature and even our very selves – was worked out over many centuries of theorising, debate and experimentation performed by great thinkers whose names have been lost to the annuls of time. Instead, we have day-to-day accounts of pointless wars between the Southern Kingdoms, the needlessly complicated diplomatic quarrels within Afran and other inane nonsense that are catalogued in excruciating detail.

Some names have survived the trials of time, however, those whose discoveries were too great to be forgotten or were simply lucky enough to have been recorded in a tome detailing other 'more important' events. The oldest of these is Selendral the Wise, a Polenan born around 300 A.E. She tasked herself with cataloguing every species of plant within her kingdom and later the world at large. Each record was accompanied by detailed drawings, their growth cycle, where best they grow and, most importantly, their medicinal properties. The cures for Blood Rot, Moonburns and the deadly Rainbow's Kiss owe their existence to the contents of the seventeen volumes which make up her life's work.

Then there's Annet Van Alabaster, dubbed 'the mother of modern mathematics.' Without her insights into how the world around us functions, precision construction and engineering would be all but impossible. Her discoveries – catalogued in a single large tome she wrote in 423 – are still being worked through to this day, for her brilliance was such that even the greatest mathematicians of the present-day struggle to grasp the concepts she describes in her writing. Another prominent name is that of Faustin Eline, a Dustledom intellectual of the last century who was eager to emulate the chirpies he loved so much and take to the skies without the aid of magic. I will not detail his tragic-yet-predictable demise here but instead, pay tribute to the records he left behind of nearly every avian species that have brought us one step closer to realising his dream.

Last but by no means least, I must mention those who dedicate many years of their lives to disseminating these discoveries to the wider populace. This requires the acumen to be able to convey exceptionally complicated ideas and principles in language that can be read and understood by the common citizen, a task that I would argue is just as taxing as coming upon the initial discovery. In my humble opinion, it is people such as I that ensure that these marvels, be they ancient or recent, are spread throughout the kingdoms of the world so that they can be used to better the lives of all. I would like to think that Selendral, Annet, Faustin and the many thousands of other scholars of old would be proud of all I have done. Perhaps one day my name will stand alongside those greats as an equal, the scholar who dared to tackle the entirety of Kolvan's history and succeeded brilliantly."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

The wall opposite them was concealed by bookcases full to the brim with tatty tomes that had seen much use. Their spines were unadorned and plain, as were the stone walls all about them. Doors to their left and right doubtless led deeper into the subterranean complex, a guard standing vigil by each of them. The room was lit not by torches but a single lantern which hung from the ceiling. That it managed to illuminate the place evenly and with a soft white light told Kaden that magic was the source of its radiance. In front of the bookshelves was a simple yet sturdy desk and sat behind it in a plain chair was a figure that had barely reached adulthood. He was shorter than Kaden and not as heavily built but he knew that one should never judge someone by their appearance. Kaden couldn't see a weapon on his person but quickly noticed a quarterstaff leaning against the bookshelf behind him, each end capped with steel. The young man was looking at each of them in turn with narrowed brown eyes which reminded Kaden that Calista still had hers closed. He gave her hand a gentle, reassuring squeeze.

"We're here." He said softly to her. Slowly and cautiously did the bard open her own eyes to the room about her, slipping her hand from his and stepping back to the door they'd come through nervously, breaths deeper than normal. She passed him a smile that was thankful and fearful all at once as well as something else Kaden couldn't figure out.

"That you are," The man at the desk had a voice weary beyond his years, drawing Kaden's attention back to the matter at hand. He slowly stood from his chair and leaned his hands on the table. A nod to the guard that had followed them down prompted her to return up the stairs, disappearing into the darkness. Calista watched her go and let her stare linger on the passageway to the open air, to freedom. The young man's gaze moved to Kaden, a hard look the warrior managed to match, "Name's Dran. I'm the captain of the guard."

"A pleasure to meet you." Azalea greeted with a smile. Dran gaze didn't shift from Kaden. "Expecting someone older?" The captain's enquiry was sharp, almost accusatory. It threw Kaden off guard; when Tyral had spoken of the captain, this hadn't been the image which had come to mind.

"More curious than anything," Kaden admitted carefully.

"The last captain was found face first in a ditch two nights ago, a dagger in his back. I was his second-in-command, so here I am," The explanation was blunt and tired, "Spare me the trivial details and get to the point. I know it must be urgent if you were brought straight to me."

"My name's Kaden and-"

"That explains why you're here then," Dran cut him off, opening a drawer in his desk and removing from it a piece of parchment, "Any developments since the edict?"

"We believe the kidnappers are somehow linked to Dustledom," Kaden told him. The man didn't react for a moment.

"Dustledom." He said, checking if he'd heard right. Kaden nodded.

"We're quite sure."

"They stole some mudrunners and are headed here now if they aren't already here," Azalea added. Calista remained silent, trying to keep her nerves under control, "We believe-"

"I don't care for your theories, only the facts." Dran cut her off sharply, "Give me the facts."

"They have in their possession a score of enchanted music," Kaden said then. Dran's expression remained stony.

"Music."

"The only power that we know it has is that it clouds the memories of all who hear music played from it," Again, Dran didn't react, "We also know that they've killed a ranger as well as two farmers en-route."

"Murderers as well as kidnappers," Dran uttered with disdain.

"They're planning something big but we don't know why they'd come here."

Dran blinked, the first time Kaden had noticed him do so.

"I won't lie to you, Kaden, if they've got past the walls you'll not likely to find them," The captain stated, continuing before Kaden could speak, "Glimmershade has more forgotten places than the rest of the kingdom put together. This stronghold you're standing in used to be one of countless thieves den before we rooted them out and hung them all."

"A stern punishment for a crime so minor," Azalea noted. Dran's gaze moved on her but the druid didn't so much as flinch. That prompted the briefest of smiles from the guard's otherwise unchanging face.

"The only one thieves deserve," He said back with absolute certainty. Kaden didn't like what he heard; he had always believed that everyone deserved a chance at redemption, so long as they were willing to make amends for their wrongdoings. He was just glad that Vae hadn't decided to voice its opinions on the matter, whatever they were; the last thing they needed was to have to explain the dragon's existence to someone else, "There's more that goes on in this town then people know and than I care to explain, but we do just fine dealing with it ourselves. You're not here to talk about that though, you're after those kidnappers. For what it's worth, I give you full remit to deal with them as you see fit."

"We hope to capture one of them so we can interrogate them about their motives," Kaden told the captain, "We'd appreciate it if we could use your cells to hold them." Dran exhaled a very quiet sigh.

"Suit yourself, but it's no loss to us if you end up killing them. Saves on prison space," Azalea frowned, something Kaden and the captain noticed. Kaden tried to conceal his growing dislike for the man but he was sure the captain had noticed. A quick look back to Calista told Kaden that she felt the same way, the bard finally able to tear her eyes from the door out to look at Dran who was now scowling, "There's a reason Kant's Rest has a problem with crime and that's because the guard there are far too soft. A slap on the wrist and a night in the stocks is no deterrent to those who take the easy road of crime to pay their way. The hangman's noose on the other hand..."

"And those who are falsely accused?" Azalea asked, snatching the words right from Kaden's lips.

"We deal with more criminals a week than you've seen your entire life and each of them has the stench of guilt that's impossible to hide," Kaden watched as Azalea stepped up to the table without fear, a worry creeping into his stomach that she'd say something to sour the already tepid opinion the captain doubtless had of them. The guards at the doors moved to intercept but Dran stopped them with a raised hand, letting the druid advance until only the table separated them, "You can't tell me that every person you've killed in your line of work is innocent."

"All are equal in the eyes of the Cycle, save those who seek to pervert its flow," Azalea countered with a voice that reminded Kaden of her fanatically brutal outburst of power back at the tower, "To needlessly take life is one such perversion." The preciously stoic captain reacted to that by stepping back a tiny bit.

"If you're trying to intimidate me-" He began.

"I present only the truth. If you are intimidated by that which is immutable, what does that say of your deeds?"

The quiet lingered about them, the guards unsure how to react to the druid's statement. Kaden was resisting the urge to reach for Skyrazor, trying to play down the many ways his mind was imagining how the situation could deteriorate terribly while Calista had returned her stare to the way out. Azalea and Dran continued to stare at one another for a couple more seconds before Dran suddenly laughed. It was deep and loud but far from setting Kaden at ease, it only served to confuse him. The guards were also puzzled, unnerved by their superior's mirth but no sooner had it begun, it was over.

"You've got nerves of steel for saying that to my face," The captain told her, a faint smile creeping onto his lips, "Were you not a devotee of nature, I'd throw you in the cells for the night then hire you on the spot."

"I would politely refuse." The druid informed him simply.

"That you would," Dran finally sat down, leaning back in his chair before addressing Kaden and Calista, "If there's anything else you want to know, make it brief. I've got things to do." Kaden went about trying to sort out his thoughts and eventually came up with a question that worked.

"Do you have any information at all that could help us narrow down our search? Have any guards reported in with stories of not being able to remember large chunks of time?" The warrior enquired with diminished hope, "They were a large group, most of them armed."

"Nothing you haven't told me just now," Dran answered him flatly, "As I said, you're welcome to look about for them but until you bring something concrete that we can work with, my guards will focus on their job, keeping the streets safe."

"So long as these people are on the loose, no-one here is safe."

"Until you can prove that, I can't pull my people from watching out for threats we know about and can act on," The captain put the edict back in the draw it came from, slamming it shut with some force, "Now, if that's all-"

A sudden, sharp cry from the stairway drew all eyes to it and sent Calista into a panic. The discordant clattering of metal against stone mixed with the echoes of the scream, growing louder with each passing moment. Fear made Kaden draw his blade quickly and two guards moved to the stairway, readying their pollaxes just in time to see the contorted remains of the guard who'd guided them there tumble down the final few steps. She landed in front of them in a mangled heap, dead. Calista gasped in shock, reaching for a crossbow bolt only to have it slip from her fingers and clattered to the floor from how much her hands were shaking. Her breathing was haphazard, her eyes, her eyes darting all over as she slowly stepped back to the wall. The guards stared in horror at the remains, speechless. Azalea had turned to the stairs but otherwise didn't react to the shocking development, though Kaden knew she would be formulating a plan. Vae shifted in his backpack but before Kaden could tell him to stay hidden, something flashed through his mind that was both absurd and made absolute sense all at once, a conclusion the captain had reached simultaneously.

"You were followed," Dran declared angrily as another guard emerged from one of the side doors. It took only a moment for the new arrival to see the situation, "Crossbows, now!" The guard nodded and shouted the same order into the room behind him.

"We're going to die here," Calista whispered in fright. It was something Kaden had never heard her say before, taken aback by the finality of it.

"No-one's going to die," Kaden doubted his reassurance would help but he said it anyway before addressing the captain, "Is there another way out of here?"

"There's a series of tunnels leading out of here but they're easy to get lost in. The best way is the stairs." Three guards emerged with crossbows loaded and ready, moving wish haste to join their brethren at the stairway and yet nothing happened. His curiosity getting the better of him, Kaden stepped towards the dead body with Skyrazor in hand. The woman's expression was one of great pain which sickened him and drew his eyes up to the darkness, to where she had fallen from. At first. he saw nothing until all at once there was a fiery burst which lit up the silhouette of a figure. Kaden's instincts took control, the warrior diving to the side before he could process what was hurtling towards him. He narrowly avoided the blast of flame intended for him, it instead immolating the remains of the dead guard before him. Kaden's heart was thumping as he scrambled to his feet, thanking his good fortune while cursing their foul luck all at once.

"It's a wizard. We're trapped..." One of the guards remarked, voice quivering.

"What do we do, sir? We can't sound the alarm from here!" Another asked the captain. Calista's weapon had joined the bolt on the ground, the bard wringing her hands over and over in a futile effort to quell her fright. She was muttering the same thing under her breath repeatedly that Kaden was glad he couldn't hear. Her eyes were downcast, muttering something under her breath over and over. Kaden wanted to comfort her but even a moment's distraction could be the death of them all. Dran was on his feet and holding his quarterstaff.

"We take the caves-" Before he could continue, Azalea stepped away from the table, her intent obvious. One of the guards tried to stop her passing.

"Stay back!" She even didn't acknowledge the warning, standing in the mouth of the stairway with her hands ready to cast.

"She knows what's doing," Kaden assured the man to no avail. The guard grabbed Azalea's arm in an attempt to pull her back but she wrenched free of his grip with ease. The guard was about to try again when Dran spoke up.

"Leave her be!" The captain ordered. The guard obeyed without question, "She's our best chance of getting out of here." There was not a hint of doubt in the man's words, a level of trust Kaden found surprising considering their spat just minutes before.

Kaden watched as Azalea started her ascent up the stairs with absolute calm, eyes closed. He could guess her plan and so moved up behind her as she ascended the steps one by one. The figure at the top was once again illuminated by a second gout of fire but they barely had time to come to be before they were snuffed out by an intense blast of wind called forth from the still air about them. So quickly was it extinguished that Kaden couldn't get a good look at their foe before they darted from the doorway to the street above. The winds died immediately, Azalea bounding up the stairs with haste that Kaden struggled to match. He could hear people coming up behind him but didn't look, eyes scanning everywhere once he and Azalea emerged back on the surface, trying to spot the one who'd tried to kill them. A few people took note of how heavily equipped he was and gave them space but none reacted as if they'd seen a villain in retreat.

"At your feet." Vae's whispered warning brought Kaden's eyes to the ground where he spotted the smashed remnants of a slate tile. This made him look to the rooftops opposite them and it was there that he spied two figures looking down at them. One Kaden recognised as the archer who had worked alongside Andrei, an arrow drawn and ready to fire. Beside her was a young man with long black hair and a stare of absolute hatred that he didn't recognise but the grey cloak he wore identified him as being in league with the assailants that they pursued. The archer fired upon him but the arrow was deflected away by another momentary gust called forth by the druid. The other figure pointed the palm of his left hand towards them and it was then that Kaden realised his horrific intent.

"Scatter!" The warrior bellowed at the top of his voice desperately, looking for anywhere he could use to shield himself from the attack but it was too late. The wizard sent forth a roiling ball of flame that reached them before those in the street could even begin to scream in terror.

Chapter Twenty One

"Before starting to write this tome – a work sure to be my magnum opus – I drew up a list of topics that could serve as the opening chapter. Many were my choices but I found myself struggling to decide between them; each was equally critical to understanding Kolvan's past and present but I soon realised that I was looking at things from the wrong angle. Historical facts and cultural curiosities are fine for those who know the workings of the world already but what of those not possessing such? My peers would argue that there are none so ignorant but I must be absolutely thorough and so the beginnings of this tome are dedicated to those most rudimentary of facts.

Kolvan is a world roughly 6,600 miles from end-to-end and mostly covered in water. The majority of the lands have a temperate climate, though there are exceptions: the Blizzard plains in the northwest and the Realm of Frost in the southeast are lands of bitter cold, the Sulharian Wastes is a desert in the south that was once verdant and the ruined lands of Idra is a mystery we have yet to decipher since it's destruction during the Cataclysm. The year is three hundred days long and split into two seasons, warm and cold, though neither reaches great extremes. A day has thirty hours, with more day than night during the warm season and the latter in the cold season. Kolvan has a single moon, Dorv, which goes through its phases every two weeks.

Much of the world is covered in lush forests broken up by plains and countryside, with mountains bordering the edges of most continents. The land is fertile and produces great bounties which feed the people while the ground bears vast mineral wealth, though what mineral depends highly on the kingdom you are in. As for the kingdoms, they can be split into two categories: Major and minor. The major kingdoms – and the oldest, I might add – are Letani, Corgaca, Polena, Afran, Ulhad and the Takken Empire. Ulhad remains a major kingdom despite the huge loss of territory and populace during the Great War only due to popular consensus amongst those writing similar tomes to my own. It is my humble opinion that its diminished power and holdings should be taken into account but I digress. The minor kingdoms are mostly former colonies and consist of Ethania, Lodonia, Ilara, Aefun, Kaalvaer and the oft-disputed Southern Kingdoms. Idra, Holnar and Dustledom are kingdoms that were destroyed during the Great War and while most would add Fort Arca to the list of minor nations, the realm of the 'Lodonian King-in-exile' is so laughably pitiful as to only be worthy of derision.

All the peoples of Kolvan share a single language often referred to as Kolv, though every kingdom has regional dialects that possess words and mannerisms unique to those places. Many are the currencies of the world, though the kal is accepted almost everywhere and serves as the basis upon which all other coins are valued. Bartering with trade goods remains the most common form of transaction outside of large settlements which have managed to bounce back quickly after the losses of the Great War. Only in Ulhad does a draft remain, the nation ever-vigilant of attempts by the remnants of Idra's forces to breach their lands and cause havoc."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Kaden shut his eyes when the fireball was about to impact, shielding his face in a futile effort to avoid death. He'd expected agonizing heat followed by nothing but instead, he heard something far worse: the whoosh of wind followed immediately by the agony of others. Cries of fright, of pain and suffering, rang all about him alongside roaring flame and crackling wood. It took hearing his heart thumping wildly in his ears to finally accept that he was alive and only then did the chilling fact that he'd been so close to oblivion hit him, a terrifying thought which he did his best to bury by opening his eyes to assess the situation about him. He immediately regretted it for all about him was carnage and death. Many of the houses about them were ablaze, people rushing out of them with what possessions they could carry only to look in horror at those in the street who'd taken the full force of the spell. Most were little more than charred husks sprawled on the ground. Those that still lived fared little better, the closest to them being tended to by Azalea. Nausea hit Kaden hard followed immediately by deep guilt; he was the reason these people were dead, lives that could never be returned. He looked up to where the wizard, to look upon the one so evil as to kill without discrimination but he and the archer were gone. Had the man been that confident his spell would work that he'd decided not to wait and be sure? He barely noticed the footsteps of those who'd followed him and Azalea up to street level but the gasp of revulsion he heard with absolute clarity.

"By Yem'Da..." Calista managed to get out, rushing over to the one that Azalea was trying to heal. She had retrieved her hand crossbow before leaving the captain's room, doubtless relieved to be back in the open and yet not all at once.

"I will tend to the dying. You go after them." The druid told her.

"But-"

"Go." The guards who had been guarding the captain emerged into the open and, after a moment to take in what was about them and recoil, went about restoring order. The two with pollaxes reached for and blew upon shrill sounding signal whistles before dropping their weapons and moving to help with a group of citizens who were trying to douse the flames. One of the others addressed Kaden and Calista firmly.

"Did you see where they went?" He asked. Kaden said nothing, lost in his grief and fury. Calista had moved next to him and while the warrior noticed her presence, he didn't react to it.

"Which way?" It was when she spoke softer to him that the words came through, "Kaden." Hearing his name brought his thoughts into clarity and with it a feeling that he rarely let flourish: revenge.

"We need to get on the rooftops." Kaden was looking all about for a stairway, a ladder, anything they could use to ascend even as he said that. It was then that Vae burst forth from his backpack, startling the guards as it unfurled its wings.

"I shall delay them as long as I am able." The dragon uttered with absolute seriousness. With that, it took the skies and headed over the building the wizard had stood upon, vanishing from sight. All about them were flabbergasted but Kaden didn't have the time nor the inclination to explain what they'd just seen and the look he gave the trio conveyed that succinctly. The guards took a moment to ponder before the shortest of them pointed further down the streets.

"This way!" She said before taking off in a run along with her fellows. Kaden was gripping the handle of Skyrazor tight enough for it to hurt and his mind swam with so many questions; how did their quarry know they were down there? Why did they use such overwhelming force when up until now they'd taken pains to avoid it? Now wasn't the time to think, but to act. He passed a brief look to Calista who shared both his anguish and anger and together, they took off after the guard away from the devastation and further into the labyrinth that was Glimmershade, all while a choir of signal whistles sounded in all directions.

Openly brandishing weapons and running through the narrow streets, people gave them and the guards a wide berth and looks of worry. Kaden glanced about them constantly, both for a way up to the rooftops and for anyone trying to stop them but he saw neither. His anger had only continued to grow but rather than let it take hold, he used it to hone his senses and keep him on his toes. It allowed him to spot a trio of figures that moved down the street with concealed intent at them, react before they could strike with the blade they drew from beneath their grey cloak. Kaden felled the first with a single swing while the second was shot in the chest by Calista. The people about them darted back in shock as the third lunged for Calista, only for the bard to punch him on the nose. Staggered, he was easy for Kaden to dispatch with a downward swing that left the man a partially cleaved mess on the floor. Neither Kaden nor Calista lingered to check if they were dead; their real enemy was drawing further away with every moment and so they resumed their run, abandoning the mess for someone else to deal with. The guard leading the way pointed to what looked like a narrow alley on their left.

"Up there!" She shouted, waiting for Kaden and Calista to take the lead. The thin gap between the buildings was filled by wooden planks that had been crudely secured to the walls with nails and rope. Kaden had to trust that it would hold his weight – the guard wouldn't have led him to it otherwise – and so he bounded up it with speed. Every step made the wood underfoot creak and groan but the adrenaline rushing through his body wouldn't let him take it slow. He quickly reached the top and immediately noticed two things: first, the wind had picked up and was bringing with it a blanket of dark clouds fast approaching from the north, something he wanted to stay away as long as possible lest the rain made the slates impossible to traverse. Second and more curiously, the rooftops were far from bare, with ramshackle huts dotted about the place connected by bridges of dubious build quality, creating a web of walkways far above the humdrum of the streets below. He doubted anyone of good repute would rely upon this system of pathways, a fact further reinforced by their quarry being up there. The particular roof he'd emerged atop of was sloped gently enough that he could easily maintain his footing while he and Calista scanned about them.

"To your right!" Came the instruction from above, Vae swooping just low enough for his words to reach their ears. The pair turned and caught sight of the pair three roofs away just in time to see the archer firing upon them. The arrow was aimed not at them but Vae though the dragon had no difficulty evading the missile which flew off into the distance where it was quickly lost. Kaden's first instinct was to unleash his sword's power but the distance was too great. Calista's hand crossbow would fare no better at that range, leaving only one choice. The guard which had led them emerged from the stairway, glaring at the two criminals with determination.

"The others will follow at street level," She told them quickly, looking at the gap between them and the next building which wasn't bridged by a plank and rushing towards it. Kaden's worries for her safety proved to be unfounded, the guard easily making the jump onto the flat rooftop ahead of them. She passed them a glance back and motioned for them to follow, "Come on!" Kaden was glad he wasn't afraid of heights but even so, the leap made him uneasy. No other path would allow them to keep up, however. Calista gave him a look that told him she was ready and so they ran in tandem towards the edge. His uneasiness grew with each bounding step closer but once he'd jumped it was quashed by a momentary rush of excitement that came with having nothing beneath him. Calista landed a little further ahead, not burdened by the metal armour he wore and was ready to leap to the next building when the wizard launched another spell at them. This time it was a trio of intensely focused beams of flame, one apiece. Kaden and Calista both dove to the ground but the guard, her attention having been focused on loading her crossbow, didn't notice it until it was upon her. She did her best to dodge but the blazing spell grazed past her right arm, setting her shirt ablaze. Fright took hold and she dropped her weapon to extinguish it only for the archer to loose another arrow which hit the same arm. Her shrill cry of pain alerted Kaden to what had happened, spotting immediately that she was about to stagger back off the roof to her death.

Without thinking, Kaden scrabbled to his feet and rushed to the guard even as Calista put two and two together to realise what he planned to do. It was fear now that pushed him onward, fear of someone else dying and it brought him within paces of her just as she began to lose her balance. He reached out in desperation and managed to take hold of her wounded arm just as she slipped from the edge.

"Kaden!" Calista called out in surprise but he was too caught up in the fractions of time to react. He remembered that one hand wouldn't be enough and so dropped Skyrazor to grab her arm with his other hand. The guard began to tumble down towards the street level which dragged him down to the ground once more but his hold brought her to a near-immediate stop, the force of which made her arm slip from his grip a moment. Panic erupted in them both that moment but Kaden managed to regain his hold at her wrist, struggling to keep her from plummeting to the street below.

"I've got you!" He promised with a pained groan, trying to pull her up but failing the first time. Calista arrived just as the guard looked up to them, her green eyes terrified and pleading, "You need to reach up!"

"I'll slip and fall!" She protested with tears in her eyes, making the mistake of glancing beneath her which brought about another panicked cry. Every second they spent trying to save her was another their enemies could use to escape or ready another attack but he didn't care; saving her was all that mattered to him in that pocket of time. Calista reached her arm down as far as she could but the guard's attention was on the drop below.

"Look at me!" She shouted at her. The guard did so, her breaths ragged, "You're going to be alright!"

"No, I won't!"

"Yes, you will, now reach!" This time the guard listened, swinging her free arm frantically. Calista managed to grab her wrist with both hands and the pair seized upon the moment, pulling up with all their might to bring the guard back from the brink and to the rooftop. A huge wave of relief washed over Kaden but he quickly remembered that his back was to their enemy, retrieving Skyrazor before the guard could pick herself up and thank them. He turned on the spot to find that Vae had kept their foes busy with fly-by attacks. Every gout of flame forced the pair to reposition, the archer not getting the opportunity to line up a shot upon the tiny creature. The clouds were upon them now, the grey canopy further concealing Vae. Kaden knew that its luck would run out eventually, however, and so prepared to leap to the next build along. A pair of wide planks led from that roof to where their quarry was, though he doubted they'd still be there by the time they'd jumped over. The wizard looked their way and despite Kaden not being able to see his face clearly, he knew the man was furious.

"You do not know what you do, son of Malkan!" He bellowed in fury, "What we do is for Dustledom, your home! How dare you work against us, against your liege?" His liege? Kaden's liege was the queen of Letani, a woman who would never condone the terrible crime the wizard had committed. Calista, now on her feet, looked to the wounded guard that still laid next to them.

"Go get that ass." She implored with a pained whisper. Kaden took a breath and started his run-up. About to jump, Kaden froze when he spotted something hurtling towards him at high speed from the direction of the wizard. It wasn't fire – it lacked the burning intensity – but whatever it was, he couldn't dodge it in time. The object struck his left leg with force, the jolt of pain that scuppered his footing and sent him tumbling forward off the roof.

"Kaden!" He managed to catch Calista's terrified exclamation before she and everyone else vanished from view.

Immediately, Kaden's mind was flooded with many conflicting thoughts and emotions; surprise, fear, anger, regret, all of them deafened by the realisation that he was falling. The ledge was already too far away, unlike the ground which drew rapidly closer. The people below wouldn't notice him until it was far too late. So many things he hadn't said and done threatened to overwhelm what he thought would be his last moments but he knew that so long as he was still alive he could do something, anything. He had time only for one idea and it was prompted by the sound of booming thunder high above him.

"Skyrazor..." Escaped the word from his lips as he wished with all his heart that it would answer his call and do the impossible: return him upward.

All at once, his body felt charged. A sharp, stinging energy jolted through the hand which gripped his blade and then spread to the rest of his arm, robbing him of control of it. It jerked upward, pointing the tip of his sword to the sky. Suddenly the whooshing of air around him... ceased. Instead of a sickening crunch, Kaden heard many startled gasps and cries. Then he noticed that he wasn't touching the ground, wiggling his feet to be doubly sure of that fact. The mutterings about him grew louder and more amazed but still, Kaden was trying for the second time in quick succession to come to terms with his continued existence. He was alive and well but how? He should've been dead and yet he thought and breathed and blinked and was. How?

"What's he doing?" A woman exclaimed in shock.

"He's flying, that's what!" A man next to him declared with equal disbelief.

"Bloody show-off wizards." Kaden's eyes widened; he couldn't have heard that right, could he? But it was true; he looked down and saw that he hovered above the cobbles by a precious few feet, suspended in the air by-

"Skyrazor..." He uttered once more in amazement. His grip around its handle was so tight and yet he couldn't feel it, the weapon glowing with a soft blue light that radiated from within the metal. It had saved him, it had listened and now he defied the ground by flying. The wondrous jubilation was shattered in an instant when he recalled just how he'd got there. His thoughts returned to the battle that raged above him and suddenly he was soaring up and away from the street. He was afraid that his saviour would slip from him and send him plummeting once more but it did not. A second later he was above the rooftops, hovering in the air much to the surprise of everyone there, himself included.

"Impossible! The wizard proclaimed in anger, as another boom of thunder heralded the coming of rain.

"Irrelevant." The archer corrected, already trying to line up a shot against him. Kaden wanted to launch a bolt of lightning at her but he still had no control of his sword arm and thinking on the motion did nothing. Robbed of his only means of defence and unable to spot Vae in his panic, he realised to his chagrin that he'd avoided one horrific death only to soar straight into another one. Before the archer could loose her arrow, a crossbow bolt embedded itself in her shoulder. The yelp of pain carried over the rain but their foe refused to let their weapon drop, trying to aim again at Kaden.

"I'll finish what my father-" Her proclamation was cut short by a second bolt which got her in the forehead, collapsing with a heavy thud. Once more everyone was surprised, Kaden more than most, for he knew Calista couldn't reload that quickly. Sure enough, she'd only just reached for a bolt, turning with Kaden to look further back. There they saw the one who'd fired and neither could believe his eyes.

"Harlethorne!" Sure enough, it was him and Vae as well, the dragon perched on his shoulder for the first time. The old man was stood beside the wounded guard who was still alive, much to Kaden's relief, attention focused on reloading his crossbow.

"Give us one reason why we shouldn't-" The former soldier bellowed as he raised his weapon once more, only to stop mid-sentence, "Where'd he go?" Kaden looked back only to find that the wizard was gone, leaving no trace of his presence save the body of his comrade and those he'd killed without a second thought.

Chapter Twenty Two

"Many are those who wish to leave their mark upon Kolvan but few do so with such splendour as those who construct the buildings that make up the cities in which we live. Even the most humble of structures leaves its mark on those who gaze upon it, the vision of the architect imprinted upon their memory for many years to come. Then there are those that people will travel from all corners of the world to visit, wonders that must be seen to be believed and while I could spend a lifetime chronicling every one of them, I should focus on those I have seen with my own eyes.

Deep in the countryside of southern Polena and not far from my home is a colossal obelisk that can be seen for miles around. Over two hundred metres tall and formed from a single block of white marble – a fact I still find hard to believe considering the rarity of the material - it was erected in 198 A.E., though the reason for its creation has been lost to time; We know only that it was named the Obelisk of Dimula in dedication to the architect who designed it. The people of Polena think of it as a monument to their hope that the world will one day be united in peace, a noble goal that I fear will never come to be. One thing to note is that magic acts peculiarly when cast close to the obelisk, often leading to catastrophe. No arcane scholar has yet to figure out why this is so and most wizards wisely choose to avoid the area entirely.

Though Afran has never been invaded, it's many, MANY rulers have always made sure to be ready for when it happens. The nation has one of the largest standing armies in all of Kolvan and the most fearsome of those stands vigil on the walls of the Ringed City, the nation's capital. Originally named such by its founder Zelob due to the palisade wall which was erected in a single day in 327 to defend the wealth of gems he'd found – a wealth he was murdered for within a week – and the grand visions he had of his future kingdom, the fortification defending the now-massive settlement is nothing short of terrifying. Constructed over two centuries, the wall stands forty metres tall and has a layer of black steel fixed to both of its sides as well as another thicker layer in the middle for extra strength. That some people spend their whole lives never seeing the world beyond the walls of the city is something which goes a long way to explaining the mindset of many of the people who call the place home.

Then there is the Tomb of Kandas. I was fortunate enough to visit in mere months before the fall of Dustledom and initially, I was disappointed. I had been told by many of its splendour and magnificence but I arrived to find a small and humble stone mausoleum only a small ways away from the main cemetery. What puzzled me more was that no guard was stationed to protect it from grave robbers who would surely covet the magical regalia gifted to him by Letani in ages past. Legend says that those not pure of heart that step foot within the tomb fall dead on the spot but that is absurd. In my humble opinion, it is more likely that the final resting place of the great hero is guarded from within or should I say, was guarded from within. Only after I left Dustledom did I come to realise that the mausoleum was as humble as Kandas had been and as such, was perfectly befitting his thoughts and deeds. It is my hope that I can visit it again before I am too old so that I can fully appreciate its wonder."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Kaden was already thinking on where the wizard could've gone and how best to pursue him but every idea was scuppered by his predicament, hanging precariously in the air by his sword while the rain slowly soaked him. Vae lifted off from Harlethorne's shoulder – the man already moving to the other side of the rooftop to search for the wizard – and quickly arrived next to Kaden where it hovered gracefully thanks to the gentle beat of its wings. The dragon looked to Skyrazor and its glow, then to him with a most curious expression.

"It would seem that your weapon is even more remarkable than I thought," Spoke the creature, "Tell me, how did you command it to send you aloft?"

"Command it?" Kaden repeated, "I didn't give it any orders out loud."

"But you thought orders."

"I thought hopes, hopes I didn't think would be answered-" Kaden then stumbled on the conclusion Vae was implying, "If you're suggesting that Skyrazor heard my thoughts and acted upon them-"

"More that your wish to fly activated the ability for it to do so. I will spare you the history lesson on the development and atrophy of magical enchantment throughout the ages and instead tell you that items whose powers are activated by the will of the wielder alone are ancient indeed."

"But I make Skyrazor fire lightning with a phrase." Kaden countered.

"Is it the phrase or the desire behind the phrase with makes it work, Kaden?" Kaden thought carefully on the question, on his discovery of the sword in the abandoned temple. Had he interpreted the inscriptions on the walls too literally? Was thought alone all he needed? He glanced down at the sizeable gap between him and floor, spying Calista looking up to him with justifiable concern. Harlethorne had given up on his search and was now tending to the wound of the guard that they'd saved, carefully applying a bandage around the arrow. Kaden wanted to get down but he was scared of falling and then it hit him; his urge to return to the battle had sent him hurtling into the air but his fear of falling – something that was ever-present and for good reason – had kept him aloft, stranded. By that logic, eliminating that worry and focusing only on returning to the roof would do just that and, no sooner had he finishing theorising, something changed in his sword arm. He regained control and yet still wasn't fully in command, a numbness lingering which made moving the limb difficult but move it did to point Skyrazor downward. For an instant the blade pulled him with the same amount of speed and force as before, prompting panic and for him to be stuck once again. Vae lowered itself gently to match his new altitude.

"...This is going to take some getting used to," Kaden murmured before casting his eyes up to the brooding cloud cover, "Do you think this ability is linked to the storm?"

"Possibly. The method of recharging your weapon is very... direct," The dragon remarked, "Gentle thoughts, Kaden."

Kaden shrugged off his panic once more and directed his mind to a gradual descent. Skyrazor obliged – or did it? He was thinking of it as a blade with its own will, its wants, something impossible for an inanimate object to possess – and slowly he was returned to the rooftop where Calista waited for him. The glow in his sword faded as his feet touched the slate, the strange feeling in his arm vanishing.

"Are you alright?" She wasn't angry this time; it had been bad luck, not folly, which had almost cost him his life.

"I am now, thank you." He answered honestly as Vae joined the pair, choosing to hover rather than land on their shoulders. Calista went to say something but paused, as if unsure whether it was a good idea.

"I was... scared I'd lost you." She admitted quietly. Flashes of the moments before the grisly fate he'd avoided returned, the regrets which he'd had so little time to dwell on individually. Before Kaden could muddle through them, however, Harlethorne had joined the trio, crossbow back in hand.

"Can't see any sign of the other one. It's like he vanished into thin air." The old man grumbled.

"Considering his particular talents, that may not be far from the truth." Explained the dragon, much to Harlethorne's annoyance.

"Could be anywhere by now then," He then addressed Kaden, "I suppose you'll want to know how I found you so quickly."

"I thought you and Evan were with the stable master," Calista said to him before realising the boy was absent, "Is Evan-"

"I left him there. Don't worry, he'll be fine. The stable master promised to get him on the first caravan back to Kant's Rest before I made my sale," A small weight lifted from Kaden then, happy at least that the boy would be returning to his family, to safety, "The moment I heard the signal whistles, I knew you were in the trouble. The stable master's doesn't live far away but I wouldn't have known you were on the roof without..." Harlethorne looked to Vae with a quiet sigh.

"You are most welcome," The dragon told him gently and with only a modicum of smug satisfaction. It was enough to make the former soldier scowl, "It is nice to feel appreciated."

"Don't push it."

"The wizard you fought-" Vae's line of thought quickly died as Kaden and the dragon both spied movement behind Harlethorne. The warrior readied himself to fight without thinking but his caution was unwarranted. It was Dran who had arrived on the scene flanked by five guards, two of which moved to help their injured comrade to her feet while a third started to work their way towards the body of the fallen archer using the many 'bridges' about them. Kaden couldn't tell if the captain was annoyed or impressed with them.

"I won't waste anyone's time asking what happened here," The captain told them bluntly, "All I need to know is if you got them."

"Not the one who cast the spell, no," Kaden admitted with regret. The captain nodded before turning his attention to the wounded guard who was about to be escorted away.

"I'm sorry, sir. I tried to-" She began. The captain cut her off quickly.

"I don't accept apologies for a job well done," Dran informed her, "Get yourself to the healer on the double. We'll talk about this only once you're better, understand?"

"Of course, sir." The guard smiled in gratitude to Kaden and Calista before she left, a second glimmer of light shining through the gloom.

With her gone, Dran moved closer to the group. Kaden still wasn't sure whether they were in trouble or not, for the man gave nothing away with his stare.

"Your friend wasn't able to save any of them," He told them, words which hit Kaden hard. Then a smile crept onto the man's lips which concerned Kaden more than it should have, "She was able to save one of the three you cut down on the way here, though."

"She was?" Calista was as shocked as Kaden at the revelation.

"I'll be damned if I know how. The man looked like a corpse to me but she brought him back. If I didn't know better, I'd of said she used necromancy," Kaden was glad the druid wasn't there to hear the captain slander her magic, "We'll get him to talk."

"In exchange for leniency?" Kaden hoped. The look he got from Dran spoke otherwise, the captain noticing his disapproval and countering with another of his stern glares that looked all the more serious in the rain.

"They killed a half dozen people to get to you without blinking an eye. We've gone well past the time for leniency," Kaden knew then that continuing to try and argue his point would only sour the captain to them and so he kept quiet, much as he didn't want to. Dran's gaze moved to the dragon then, eyes narrowing with deep suspicion. The dragon looked back calmly, remaining where it was in the air, "Your druid friend told me that you were trustworthy I know what you look like but looks can be deceiving little creature."

"She would be quite correct," Vae answered carefully. Dran didn't seem surprised that the dragon could talk, likely told as such by Azalea before his arrival, "I am exactly as I appear to be and my goals align with that of Kaden and his companions. Ergo, they align with yours."

"So you claim."

"We can vouch for its intent," Kaden spoke up. Calista nodded in agreement, "The enchanted music score was stolen from its kind. It seeks only to prevent its misuse." Vae moved to hover directly in front of the captain, speaking in a hushed tone.

"I would ask that you keep knowledge of my existence between you and the guard, but after my actions, I doubt that is possible," Vae paused, "I would have remained hidden but I could not sit idly by whilst calamity occurred about me." Dran stroked his chin in thought until Harlethorne spoke up.

"Dragons? I don't know what you're talking about," The old man said loudly, "All I saw was a bird with odd plumage." Kaden noticed the sly look that played on the old man's face, one that elicited a chuckle from the captain.

"One's imagination can run riot in the wake of such carnage, after all," The captain agreed, "Isn't that right?"

"Yes, sir." The first guard said. The second nodded quickly.

"Excellent. Make sure the rest of the garrison feel the same way." The two guards saluted then left their captain with haste to carry out his order.

"Whatever the group you're after have planned, they've shown that they're a bigger threat to Glimmershade than I first thought," Dran conceded reluctantly, "The moment we know where they're going and what they've planned, I'll order the garrison to-"

"Don't," Kaden interrupted. The captain looked quizzically at him, as did Calista and Harlethorne, "I don't want you to risk any more of your people for our mission."

"We could certainly use the help," Calista argued.

"You can't still believe they'll come quietly after what's just happened." Dran had folded his arms, his disappointment palpable as he watched Kaden intently.

"No, it's not that," Kaden half-lied. He doubted the captain believed that, but the warrior continued his explanation regardless, "A larger group just means more people to be caught in their spells. The best chance we have to stop them is to take them by surprise and we won't be able to do that if you send the garrison."

"They'll have scouts on the lookout for reprisal," Harlethorne added, "They're just as likely to bail upon spotting the guard approach than to fight." It was clear Dran didn't like what he heard but also that he saw the wisdom in their words.

"A lot more people could die if you fail," Dran warned them, "Are you willing to accept responsibility for those deaths?"

"I already feel responsible for the ones that have already happened," Kaden admitted with regret, "I won't let them harm anyone else, Dran, no matter what they're doing." Dran looked him in the eye, then Calista and Harlethorne, trying to suss out any hint of deception, of weakness. Though Kaden was worried that their plan could go wrong in a thousand different ways, his determination to see justice be done shone brighter than any of them. The thunder above boomed louder still and it was after that that Dran spoke.

"The prisoner is being transported to the main jail. It's not far." Without another word, the captain headed towards the stairs. The man expected them to follow and Kaden did so readily, hopeful that they would finally get the last few answers that would make everything make sense.

It had been three hours since their arrival at the prison, a tall and imposing building of dark stone. It was built like a fortress, its battlements patrolled by seasoned guards that took their jobs very seriously. Kaden had noted that there wasn't a single window anywhere, an oddity even for a place so heavily fortified. The only door in was forged of iron and had required four people to open, barred on the inside by stout slabs of oak. They'd been led through many corridors that had low ceilings, the dreary grey broken only by the occasional torch. More common were crevices where guards stood ready to prevent any would-be escape attempt, not that Kaden thought it would even be possible without arcane intervention. The cell doors they'd passed were also of iron and close together, painting a picture in his mind of claustrophobic rooms where it was barely possible to lie down. Calista hadn't needed to be coaxed into the building, likely due to them not descending below ground, but her discomfort had been obvious. Their final destination had been a relatively large and well-lit room that was sparsely furnished with a table and six chairs. Told to wait, Kaden and the others had tried their best to while away time but the quiet had given Kaden's mind more time to mull over the horrible aftermath of the wizard's fireball. He'd tried multiple times to think of things he could've done to save the people about them but even as he mused on it, he knew it was pointless; what could he have done? He wouldn't have had the time to fire off a lightning bolt and no words would have stopped the man from his reckless casting, of that he was sure. Calista had tried to raise their spirits with some music and while lovely, it only reminded Kaden of the thing their quarry possessed. Only Harlethorne and Vae had been at peace, the former leaning back in his chair and tinkering with his crossbow with the latter curled up in the middle of the table for a short nap.

Dran and Azalea joined then at the start of the third hour, the druid passing them her ever-enduring smile before sitting with them at the table. Dran remained in the doorway, his look even harder than usual. Harlethorne placed his crossbow carefully on the table, giving the captain his full attention. Kaden had been about to rouse the dragon only to see that it was already awake, its head lifted lazily as it settled in a relaxed position.

"Did he talk?" Calista asked, setting her harp aside. Dran nodded.

"Not at first. We persuaded him though," The captain noticed Kaden's concern, "He's alive and in one piece if that's what you're worried about."

"Not especially," Harlethorne remarked, "So, what did he say?"

"They arrived yesterday through the sewers, let the mudrunners loose in the woods so they'd be almost impossible to find. He and a dozen others were ordered to keep an eye out for you and ready an ambush if you showed up."

"Are the troupe safe?" Kaden imagined they would be but had to check.

"They were when they arrived here, beyond that the man doesn't know."

"Does he know where the rest were headed?"

"He wasn't keen at all to answer that question, afraid someone would do something terrible to him if they found out he'd talked. He was even less keen on the gibbet, however," Dran leaned in the doorway, "He said they were heading to one of the mines, the newest one to be exact." Calista froze.

"...You're sure he said that?" Her voice faltered briefly. The captain nodded, sending her into quiet contemplation that Kaden knew was heading nowhere good.

"And you believe what this man said?" Harlethorne queried.

"About as much as I'd believe anyone that terrified, but it's the only lead we have," Dran answered, "I've ordered a few guards to go undercover near there and gather some information, see if anyone saw them go in the mine."

"Why a mine, though?" Kaden asked no-one in particular.

"I was hoping you'd be able to answer that, seen as you've been on their tail all this time." Kaden looked among the others and was about to shrug when Vae sat up and spoke.

"Why does one ever delve into the earth but to find something hidden within?" The dragon posited, "The question is what they seek."

"Riches, obviously. Enough to fuel whatever war they have planned." Harlethorne speculated.

"There are far more subtle ways to attain that," Vae slowly walked across the table to Kaden, catching his attention, "Speaking of which, the wizard we fought on the rooftops was the same one that imprisoned me in the tower. They also said you two shared a liege, Kaden." Dran raised an eyebrow at that.

"Which means that whoever is in charge of their operation is either more significant than we thought or a very good liar," Harlethorne concluded, going back to check the string of his crossbow, "All the more reason to stop them as soon as possible and before you ask, yes I'm sticking with you."

"I wasn't going to," Kaden told him. Calista remained silent, eyes downcast.

"Sure you weren't," The old man grumbled, "The king of Dustledom himself could be leading them for all I care. Nothing forgives what they've done today and I can't go back home knowing that they're still at large."

"Exactly," Dran agreed firmly and with no small amount of anger, "You ever considered joining the guard? We'd have great use for your years of experience."

"It's my years of experience that keeps me away from such things as much as possible."

"A pity," The captain turned to leave but, "If they were foolish enough to hole up in that mine, I'll get a guard detail to watch the entrance so they don't just in case they try to sneak away."

"You presume they are not exactly where they wish to be." Vae's parting words to the captain elicited no reaction from the man but they lingered in Kaden's head. Something about how Vae had spoken felt off but he couldn't figure out why. He quickly turned his thoughts from that and toward what he hoped would be thier final confrontation with their quarry. Despite all the death the wizard had unleashed upon the populace, Kaden still clung to the chance that things could end peacefully, though the idea's grip had started to slip ever-so-slightly.

Chapter Twenty Three

"Many are the terms used to describe them – sellswords, mercenaries, soldiers of fortune – but none are more synonymous than that of the adventurer. They live apart from the normal structure of society and rarely remain in one place for long, going wherever the opportunity to employ their particular set of skills presents itself. Theirs is a life of feast or famine, of peril and excitement and, more often than not, death. For every person who gains notoriety for fantastical deeds that are no doubt exaggerated to some degree, there are countless more for whom the call to adventure is a short and brutal journey that leaves them a forgotten corpse in a remote corner of the world to be picked clean by scavengers. Still, people continue to be lured to the profession by the prospects of fame, riches and the legends of heroes past.

How an adventurer is perceived depends mostly on their deeds and the company they keep. Those that are known to be just, compassionate and merciful are generally more welcome than scoundrels who extort every kal they can from those unfortunate enough to require their services. Even the most heroic persons are often met with some small degree of wariness, however, for the superstition that trouble follows in their wake is one that is firmly ingrained in the thoughts of the populace. In my humble opinion, one must judge an adventurer as one judges any person, through their words and actions rather than deeds nebulously attributed to them.

No kingdom has laws forbidding or restricting adventuring as a profession – Idra was the exception before its fall – but they are more favoured in some than others. The Southern Kingdoms is a honeypot of mercenary activity that draws in many, for there's always one conflict or another going on that requires capable sword arms. Letani is very welcoming to adventurers who protect their people and bring wanted criminals to justice, going so far as to honour the most exemplary of those as national heroes. Most adventurers from Polena are explorers rather than warriors and they are heralded as examples of what it is to be a Polenan: curious, daring and free-willed. Corgaca looks upon adventurers with great distrust as they do everyone who refuses to uphold their rigid and narrow codes of honour and chivalry. The many noble houses of Afran hire bodyguards to protect themselves from each other's machinations though one would do well to pay above and beyond to ensure those you hire don't turncoat when a better offer is presented. Finally, there is the Takken Empire, a society so rigid that it is a wonder any dare deviate from their place within it. Still, there are accounts of free agents who pledge their blades to those willing to pay, looked upon by almost all with great scorn for their mercenary ways. It is my hope that I will get the chance to encounter one of these people and learn from them exactly how it is to be free, but I am frankly more likely to take up the adventuring life myself than to meet one."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

It was late afternoon by the time Kaden and the others arrived at the back end of the city, led with haste by a small unit of guards. The people Dran had sent to sleuth by the mines returned with eye-witness accounts describing multiple unusual figures approaching the new mine. Though the descriptions had varied wildly, they'd all shared a few tell-tale signs that it was their quarry: grey cloaks, the flash of concealed steel and, more importantly, a large group of what were described as 'performers', people very much out of place amongst the weary miners and metal traders that frequented the ore quarter. That Dran had already planned a route for their approach – one that relied heavily on the zigzag of back alleys and forgotten side-streets which webbed across the town – spoke of the man's foresight.

"If we hear nothing by sunrise, I'm sending the guard in after you." Kaden didn't doubt the captain's parting words but his thoughts were on Calista. She'd not said a word since the revelation about the mine and the closer they got to it, the more nervous she grew. The bard stuck to the back of the group, perhaps in the hope that a large crowd would appear from nowhere and separate them but Harlethorne made them stop every time she trailed behind too far, forcing her to catch up.

"We're safer together." The old man's assurance did little to comfort her. Azalea's sympathetic smile was just as ineffective.

The ore quarter was even busier than the rest of the town, packed with those who kept Glimmershade's industrial heart beating ponderously. Most of them were covered in dirt and coal dust but none remarked on their haggard appearance. Instead, they talked and laughed amongst one another while always moving within the whirlpool of bodies. Those few that weren't moving were the ore traders busy haggling for the day's bounty and the foreman who stood upon small metal podiums and tried their hardest to direct the flow about them with hoarse shouts. Their voices barely carried over the noise which was even worse than in the other parts of town and yet their orders had some minor impact on altering the movement of the miners. Then there was the smell of smoke and molten metals that had wafted its way from the smelters, something he disliked but doubted any of the miners noticed any more. Even with how busy the place was, Kaden noted that the workers still parted for them, some nodding in respect as the guard passed. As they drew closer to the mountains, Kaden tried to figure out which of the mines they were being led to, for there were many and each was different; some were deep shafts with stairs dug out of the stone for the workers to descend and many different ways to bring the ore up, from intricate pulleys to a lift operated by mudrunners in a huge wheel. Others were what Kaden more associated with mines, a tunnel heading horizontally into the gloom. Some of them had the miners bring out the ore in hemp bags while others utilised carts that were pulled by more mudrunners or pushed by workers. The fruits of the ore quarter's labour were loaded onto guarded wagons that would head to the many smelters scattered throughout the town and likely further afield to other settlements. Those laden with silver were guarded more heavily than the others and that Kaden couldn't see any bearing gold spoke of just how jealously those were protected. He noted that guards for the silver wagons wouldn't have looked out of place in a Corgacan tourney, fully enclosed as they were clad in old suits of plate mail.

Eventually, the group stopped not far from a mine whose unique feature was that the workers ignored it entirely which made Kaden question why a pair of lanterns hung on hooks by the entrance.

"Well, here we are," The lead guard declared before indicating to the entrance, "You'd best move quickly in case they found out we were coming. We'll watch the entrance, stop anyone from following you in."

"Thank you," Kaden said to them before looking to his companions. Calista's eyes were on the mass of people behind them, her breaths quiet and light. Azalea's attention was focused not to the entrance of the mine but the ground in front of it, "Something wrong?"

"I am... not entirely sure," Azalea admitted, "I will know better once I get closer to it."

"That's encouraging," Harlethorne uttered.

"Shall we go then?" Kaden suggested.

"Azalea and I will head in first," The old man declared, his crossbow now loaded, "If they've set a trap, we all shouldn't fall into it at once." Kaden knew the real reason why he'd suggested that and passed the old man a thankful smile which was ignored.

"What signal should I look out for?"

"You'll hear it, don't worry. I doubt they'll give us any quarter anyway," Azalea had called forth a tiny white globe of light in her hands while they'd been talking. It floated up above her head and remained there whereupon the druid approached the mine's entrance. Harlethorne was about to follow when Vae zipped out from Kaden's backpack to fly alongside the warrior, "Got any more words of wisdom for us?" He grumbled.

"Plenty, though I doubt you wish to hear them," The dragon responded, much to Harlethorne's annoyance, "I merely felt like accompanying you and Azalea within, the better to strengthen the vanguard."

"Just remember that where there's a mine-"

"I am well aware of the build-up of harmful airs within subterranean passages," The dragon interrupted as they headed within, "No flames shall I call forth and, should I detect the scent of hostile odours, I will inform you promptly."

"Good."

Now alone with Calista, Kaden was thinking on the monumental task before him. With reaching the captain's office, there'd been a certainty in the descents end but not this time. Then there was the high chance they'd end up in a fight within the narrow passageways, something he was sure had been running through her mind the moment their destination had been mentioned. He tried to give her a reassuring smile but Calista was staring at her feet, not daring to look in the direction of the mountain.

"None of us are safe if we split up, you know that," He told her. She remained silent, "I can't imagine what you're feeling right now-"

"I don't want to go in there," She spoke quickly, the words rushing out between light, rapid breaths.

"You can do it." His tone was gentle, calming.

"I can't! The walls, they... they'll be..." Hers was laden with barely contained fright, "If I go in there, I'll panic, I'll give us all away and then I'll run and I'll get lost and then-"

"If you stay out here they might find you and take you down there anyway." It wasn't what she wanted to hear but Kaden had to say it. Her eyes darted to his, "I can't take you in there with your eyes closed, not this time. We'll all need to keep our wits about us."

"I can't."

"You've always been more observant than me. The sooner we go, the sooner it'll be over. There's no other option, Calista: we need to go in there." He could see Harlethorne and Azalea waiting a little ways in, the pair illuminated by the druid's globe of light. He was just thankful they'd been so understanding, though Harlethorne's patience wasn't likely to last forever.

"We'll get trapped down there." She whispered those words, almost lost to the din not far from them. His heart ached at the sight of her so worried, so troubled but he was struggling to help ease them.

"You won't get trapped, I promise."

"You can't promise that."

"I just did. We're going to go in there," Her body tensed up at his declaration, "We're going to go and save the troupe and deal with the kidnappers and then we'll come right back out. The mine hasn't properly opened so there won't be many different paths."

"But what if there's a cave-in?" Calista asked frantically.

"There won't be-"

"You don't know that!"

"Calista-"

"I can't, Kaden! I... I can't!" She tried to step away from him but he quickly took her hand and held it. Her attempts to tug away from his grip failed, causing her more alarm, "Let me go, Kaden."

"No."

"Kaden, please!" She was pleading now.

"The people of Glimmershade are depending on us."

"They can't; depend on me, not in there!"

"I'll be right here with you, every step of the way," He was speaking softer then he'd ever done with her before and it appeared to calm her down if only a tiny bit. He loosened his grip to see if she'd wrest her hand from his, flee into the mass of miners and away. She didn't, though her deep fear remained along with something else that was being smothered by it. Now it was Kaden's turn to swallow back his fear, "I can't do this without you Calista." There was a pause.

"...Yes, you can." Came her muttered reply.

"Then I don't want to," He reiterated with honesty he hadn't meant to voice.

His words brought her gaze to him at long last, silently staring into his eyes. Nerves settled in his stomach at the realisation at what he'd said. He had no follow-up planned but this time his words flowed freely, uninhibited by doubt.

"That mine terrifies me just as much as it does you but not because it's a mine," He explained, "The evil in there is what scares me, those that we've chased for so long. We need to stop their plan, damned if I know what it is. The mine can't hurt you and even in the one-in-a-million chance that it could, we'd protect you from it without hesitation." He didn't get an answer, so he decided to take a step closer to the mine. She resisted, digging her heels into the dirt though she didn't let go.

"...I must look stupid." She was looking to their hands, her breaths now deep and shaky. He smiled once more, warmer than he'd intended to.

"No more then any of us, so you're in good company," He jested. Kaden entwined their fingers but only realised what he'd done after the fact. A lump developed in his throat, one that was both comfortable and unnerving all at once. Calista's eyes widened, staring at him in disbelief but she didn't pull her hand away. As the shock faded from her face, the look that lingered told him she didn't want to despite all her worries.

"What we're doing is stupid." She mumbled again weakly. Her eyes looked deep into his, ensnaring them, "We're walking right into their hands, Kaden."

"We've done worse." He reminded her.

"Have we?" Her question made him think on the statement, scan back in his mind at all their past adventures. There'd been some prickly situations, sure – sudden attacks, getting caught in bad weather, being outnumbered – but were any as daunting as their current predicament?

"...Okay, you've got me there but if there's anyone I'd want by my side right now it's you, Calista." He felt her hand squeeze his for but a moment, sending a wave of weakness through him which passed before he lost his footing. He tried again to take a step closer to the mine and this time, the resistance from Calista was far less than before. He wasn't thinking about how they looked or what Harlethorne and Azalea would say at the spectacle, only on making sure she got in there with them, with him. Tiny step by tiny step, they drew closer to the entrance until they were right on the threshold. He tried to walk them in only to find that she'd frozen once again. She realised what she'd done, however, glancing back at the ground sheepishly.

"...I'm sorry." He almost didn't hear her apology.

"Don't ever be sorry for being you." That brought her eyes to him again. Her lips moved to say something but whatever words had tried to break free failed. He concluded that it mustn't have been important and so turned his attention to the passageway ahead. It was half a minute before Kaden got them to take a tiny step into the mine, into the dark. Her gaze was not on shadowy walls or the low ceiling but her hand in his. She was tense and her steps were small but, slowly and surely, they inched further into the mine together. Kaden felt only a fleeting sense of accomplishment that he pushed aside, for he couldn't let himself forget that they were tip-toeing ever further into the domain of their enemy, one that likely knew they were on their way.

It took less time than Kaden thought for them to catch up with the others and though Harlethrone gave the pair a curious look, it didn't last. Calista relaxed a tiny bit once within the boundaries of Azalea's light but not enough to let go of his hand. The tunnel ahead was straight, too straight for Kaden to think it a coincidence. There were also no side passages in sight, not even short, exploratory ones checking for veins of ores just off the main tunnel. That revelation drew his attention to another, more troubling one: he hadn't seen any veins of ore at all. This lent weight to Vae's remarks in the prison and made him even warier of what they'd find. They travelled in silence, all mindful that echoes would carry any words they said far ahead of them. Harlethorne had his crossbow ready and aimed to fire at anything that moved but only they stirred in the corridor. By then, the way out was but a pinprick of white far behind them, a fact which played at Kaden's nerves. Each time he glanced back he expected that light to be blocked by the silhouettes of people pursuing them, a fight they could only escape by moving deeper into the clutches of their enemy. The sounds of the mine did little to help, the splash of dripping water from the roof almost making him jump.

"Pull yourself together..." He told himself as quietly as possible, shaking his head. He couldn't let himself get distracted, not even for a moment. Azalea's outstretched arm made him stop, letting go of Calista's hand to instinctively draw his sword. Ahead of them was not a blockade of enemies, however, but the end of the tunnel's forward movement. Before them was a gaping hole that Harlethorne was glancing down.

"They sure knew where they wanted to be," Harlethorne muttered, reaching down to toss a small stone off the edge. They waited for a sound to tell them what was below but all they heard was nothing, "No ladder."

"No reason to leave one." Vae countered. Kaden looked back to Calista to see if she was alright. She didn't look comfortable at all but was managing to keep her worry in check, only just. The dragon had approached the edge, hovering alongside the warrior, "I can scout down there if you wish it."

"Be quick if you do." The old man advised.

"Do I detect a hint of worry in your voice?" The dragon pried, only to earn a narrowed glare.

"I just don't want a repeat of the last time you went scouting."

"On that, you have my word." Vae moved over the hole and lingered for a second before diving into the dark and out of sight. Kaden glanced again at Calista.

"You alright?" Kaden checked. She nodded too quickly for it to be true.

"As much as I'll ever be." She answered with difficulty. He glanced then to Azalea only to find that she looked deep in thought once more.

"I can use my power to help us descend but it will be impossible to do so quietly," The druid was as calm as ever but the softness to her voice was somewhat dulled which told Kaden something else was amiss. Sure enough, she continued, "There is... something down there."

"Like what? A rockslide? Bad air?" She shook her head at each of Kaden's guesses, "Is it the same feeling from before?"

"Yes, though I am little closer to determining what exactly it is," Of all that she'd said, that troubled Kaden the most, "It is not the Cycle I feel down there, more... the lack of it."

"The lack of it?" Calista asked shakily, "How can there be a lack of nature?"

"It is difficult to explain this feeling," Azalea admitted, now stood right next to the gap, "It is not a cry of pain that comes from the despoiling of what is natural, more like... the stillness that follows afterwards."

"You're talking about death," Harlethorne remarked grimly, "I don't see how that's possible unless they lost a bunch of people getting down there."

"What I feel is not death, Harlethorne. Death is a natural part of the Cycle." She told him, prompting confusion from the old man and Kaden alike.

"Now you're just being cryptic."

"I would be clearer if I knew how."

Vae returned then, the dragon no worse for wear. Harlethorne wasted no time in asking questions.

"How many are we dealing with? Where are they stationed? Any in cover?" The old man barely left a pause before frowning, "Well?"

"The hole is deep indeed and when it does open out, it does so into a large cavern," Vae's answer wasn't what Kaden had been expecting, "Its only occupants are a sizeable population of bats, though I did notice a pair of tunnels leading off into the unknown."

"I take it they weren't guarded either." The old man guessed.

"Indeed. Our quarry must be deeper within the cave if they are in fact-" Vae stopped mid-sentence, its draconic eyes on the way they'd come. Kaden looked back for but a moment and noticed something he'd feared would happen; the dot of light far in the distance was gone, "I fear we have company."

"Oh no." Calista gasped even as Harlethorne aimed at the darkness, ready for a fight from which there was only one way to run: further into trouble.

Chapter Twenty Four

"One is often curious about the author of historical chronicles, people who devote themselves to enriching the lives of those through the joy that is learning. Many scholars eagerly indulge this by dedicating a sizeable part of the beginnings of their works to glorifying themselves at the cost of cheapening their work through blatant self-promotion that often contains much exaggeration. While I am not one to boast of my accomplishments – many in fact would speak highly of my humility were they asked of it – I feel I am obligated to explain in brief my life's journey so that you may better understand why it is I choose to pen this, my great work.

I was born on the first day of 1,101 A.E in the small farming community of Jelron's Peace, situated twenty miles from Cresthaven. There I split my childhood years between working on the family farm and being tutored in a wide spectrum of topics by my father Augustine, a man of great intellect and no small amount of magical talent. He prided himself on discovering and honing his arcane power without assistance at the age of seventeen, using it to ensure that we and the other farmers of Jelron's Peace prospered. He, like many not trained in a college, despised the term 'hedge wizard' that was thrown about, though none dared say it to his face. My mother, a forester by trade, was often away from home for long periods tending to the surrounding woodland and the wildlife within. Though life was hard and contained little leisure time – time I often spent reading under a tree – I would say that my youth was a happy one full of the love that one needs.

My father was eager to teach me his magic so that I could better help run the farm in my adult years but his lessons filled me with so many questions of the outside world that he could not answer. I was filled with an insatiable wanderlust that Augustine could not temper which culminated in a disagreement. We failed to see eye-to-eye and so I left home to explore Kolvan's wonders without his blessing or financial support. Bereft of lema and with a head full of facts but few trade skills aside from farming, I made ends meet with what odd jobs I could pick up. All the while I soaked up knowledge like a sponge, asking questions of everyone I met about everything and spending every free moment I had in libraries learning even more. Though I sent correspondences to my parents, the only reply I received was a brief letter informing me of my father's sudden passing at the young age of forty-seven and the funeral that had already taken place.

Demand for my ever-increasing knowledge grew as the years rolled on, leading to people of authority and wealth sponsoring my travels on condition that I spend time chronicling something of importance to them. I took those commissions gladly, saving what money I could so that I could one day take time away from working for others to work for myself. The Great War made travel around much of the world difficult but, as a scholar sponsored by those with wealth and positions of authority, I remained relatively safe. Then out of the blue on my forty-fifth birthday, I received an offer to serve the Polenan royal family as one of the palace historians, a position I still hold to this day. The pay is generous, my accommodation roomy and comfortable but, most important of all, I have unrestricted access to the royal library. Though my daily tasks often leave me tired – work that I cannot go into detail about for obvious reasons – it is a joy to be doing that which I have longed to do my entire life and receive the recognition I deserve for it. That I have time enough for personal pursuits like this book is the cherry atop a cake of knowledge that I hope will nourish you as you read these chapters."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

"We don't want bloodshed, son of Kaden!" Came a voice from further down the tunnel which echoed about them. It belonged to an old man – not as old as Harlethorne but far older than himself, Kaden guessed – and whose Dustledom accent was stronger than those he'd heard of late, "Lower your arms and you will not be harmed."

"Like we'd believe that!" Harlethorne beckoned back before loosing a bolt that quickly vanished into the dark. Kaden doubted that the guards who'd been left to watch the mine's entrance were dead; such reckless bloodshed would have been seen by half the ore quarter and quickly stamped out by the many caravan guards. Knocking them out would have fared their foes no better which led him to the worrying possibility that the guards had let them through. He hadn't the time to ponder further on whether bribery had been involved or not, trapped as they were far from the light of day. Calista was barely managing to keep her panic in check, her eyes closed and breaths very deep. Azalea moved to stand beside Harlethorne who was midway through loading another bolt. She tapped his arm lightly which distracted him.

"Violence will not see us through this day," She told him simply. The old man's scowl loudly voiced his disagreement, "We know not their numbers nor their strength."

"So what, we waltz right into their clutches and let ourselves be crushed? I think not!" Harlethorne went back to loading his weapon.

"Then wait at least until you have a clear target to shoot, lest you waste what ammunition you have left."

"It'll be too late by then!"

"They do not fire, nor do they attack."

"They don't need to, they know we're trapped!"

"Not so. They know of the way down and that I can get us there safely." He tried to come up with a rebuttal but couldn't deny the wisdom of her words, groaning in frustration. Vae settled on Kaden's shoulder then, the dragon looking warily into the darkness.

"I would keep your questions brief and be ready to jump." It warned in a whisper. The last word stole Calista's breath, her face pale. Kaden nodded and cleared his throat, all the while gripping Skyrazor tightly in hand in the likely event there was no delaying the bloodshed.

"Who are you and why should we trust your word?" Kaden asked loudly. The answer came quick and from closer than he'd hoped it would.

"I am a man of honour, as are you," The stranger answered.

"I have only your word on that."

"And I have only your reputation garnered through past deeds of great valour," Kaden wasn't about to let flattery lower his guard, looking on with suspicion, "Are you not the one who dismantled the Black Spear bandits of eastern Letani?"

"Not alone." Kaden was listening out for any sounds of movement that their enemy hoped the conversation would mask but there was only stillness and their echoing voices.

"And was it not you who ended the threat a fiercely territorial bear posed to the farmsteads surrounding Kant's Rest without killing it?" Azalea glanced at Kaden.

"Again, not alone."

"I can continue to list your accomplishments if you wish, son of Malkan. Rest assured, we are very much aware of all you have done for the people of this nation," That brought Kaden little solace, "I had hoped we would meet under better circumstances but the winds of fate are ever masterless and so, here we are."

"Why won't you tell me who you are?" Kaden asked again of the stranger.

"Because my answer would be meaningless without what our liege would tell you. She is very eager to meet you."

"Because we've got the missing member of the troupe?" Harlethorne did nothing to hide his deep distrust.

"Among other things." The stranger answered.

"She's not my liege." Kaden corrected the stranger.

"I would disagree and urge you to come us peacefully so that I may prove it to you."

"You claim to be a man of honour and yet your group have killed so many to get this far," Kaden narrowed his eyes, confident the man could see it, "You killed the ranger who pursued you from Kant's Rest, farmers en-route to Glimmershade and the innocents in the streets-"

"I killed none of those people, son of Malkan," The voice from the dark was louder and laden with distaste, "The death of the farmers was the will not of I or our liege but two of our number who paid the price for their criminality." The man sounded sincere but Kaden couldn't take that at face value.

"What of the ranger? What did Tobias do to earn such a fate?"

"So that was his name," There was a pause, "Andrei was under orders to wound him such that he would be forced to turn back. I had been told that his death was an accident."

"It was no such thing," Azalea spoke up then, addressing the voice, "He was wrenched from the Cycle with malice by those you left to murder him."

"Then I thank you for ending Andrei's life and that of his daughter, for his dishonour deserved no less,"

It was then that Kaden remembered the woman's final words, so full of anger and hate. He felt a wave of regret for the suffering they'd caused her despite everything the archer had done to try and kill them. It didn't last long, however, his thoughts brought back to their precarious situation and the truth which rang in the old man's voice. It made Kaden question if the man truly was their enemy, whether they really had misinterpreted everything but that musing didn't last long either; the stranger spoke from a position of near-absolute strength and so could say what he liked and yet the old man hadn't given the order to attack. Was it fear that they'd hurt Calista or a genuine desire to see them safely to their liege? He looked to his friends for guidance and got a mixed response. Harlethorne's expression and posture screamed of distrust while Alazea's attention was more focused on the strange sensation she felt far below them. Calista's eyes were closed in a vain attempt not to panic but it was Vae's look that rang true with his feelings, a resigned glance towards the hole behind them. Kaden was never one to seek combat, always trying to settle things through discourse wherever possible but the dragon's stare reminded him that there were times when nothing was gained through stalling the inevitable, save allowing your foe more time to prepare. He caught Azalea's attention and she too recognised the look, giving them a quiet nod. Still, Kaden felt obligated to try one last time to get answers.

"If what you're saying is true, why go to these lengths to achieve your goals?" Kaden asked the stranger then, "Why kidnap, why kill? Why here?" A sigh came from the dark, far closer than Kaden had expected it to be.

"All this time you have been chasing us, son of Malkan because you think we are criminals," The stranger said to him, "Allow us to prove to you that we are not, that we have Kolvan's best interests at heart. Come with us, speak to our liege. Let her show you the truth." Harlethorne had had enough. He raised his crossbow in disgust.

"She may have roped you into her schemes with pretty lies and grand promises but we're here to see justice done!" The old man barked. The sudden sound of an armoured footstep right at the edges of the shadow startled Kaden and Calista, the gasping in fright.

"What do you know of justice, old man?" The stranger growled deeply. Harlethorne stood tall as he answered back.

"My body bears the scars of justice from head-to-toe," Answered the former soldier proudly and with a smile, "I gave everything for it and even though I tell myself I'm too old and too broken to do so again, here I am about to shoot you dead for working with a murdering scumbag." More sounds came from the dark, doubtless the companions of the stranger arming themselves.

"How dare you-"

A bright orb of light appeared in Azalea's right hand. For an instant their foes were illuminated, a score of warriors more heavily armed and armoured than those Kaden had fought before. In the middle of them was their leader, a figure clad from head-to-toe in plate mail who held a hefty battleaxe in his left hand and a large ornate shield in the right. Kaden then realised what the druid had planned when Harlethorne turned his head from the light, shielding his eyes just as the magical glow was propelled into the midst of their foes before detonating into a blinding flash. He was still left dazzled by the intensity of it but he knew from the sounds of pain ahead in the now darker gloom that he'd gotten off lightly.

"Down the hole!" Azalea ordered. Harlethorne let off a parting shot with his crossbow before leaping into it without a moment's hesitation, quickly vanishing out of sight. Kaden grabbed Calista's wrist and moved to the hole before she could realise what he was doing. His heart leapt into his throat at the thought of jumping down, his every survival instinct screaming at him to find another way but his head knew that there was only this.

"Kaden-" Calista only got that word out before he stepped off the edge. The first second felt exactly like when he'd fallen off the roof, the whooshing about him and a feeling of utter dread taking hold magnified by Calista's scream of fright and the blackness that enveloped them. Then there was a mighty blast of air that rushed up from beneath them which slowed their descent. It was cold and had the smell of damp about it but it was keeping them safe, though his fear lingered; at any point, the spell could fail and send them crashing down to the cave floor with predictable and horrifying results. Calista was in full panic, breathing raggedly and struggling against his grip but Kaden didn't let go.

"Stay calm!" He shouted at her.

"How can I stay calm?! We're falling!" She exclaimed sharply.

"We'll be fine!" He told her and himself, trying to dispel the doubt which had continued to fester. Then as soon as it had begun it was over, the ground arriving unexpectedly. His feet fumbled, causing him to stumble and fall unceremoniously onto the hard rock. Calista's wrist slipped from his grasp then, separating the two in the dark. A familiar voice came from his right.

"That better be you, Kaden." Harlethrone hoped.

"Me and Calista." Kaden answered quickly, carefully rising to his feet, "You didn't have to antagonise them like that."

"They were already antagonised. You just couldn't see it," Harlethrone paused, the quiet punctuated loudly by Calista's shout.

"You could have got me killed!" She exclaimed in anger. Though Kaden couldn't see her, he knew the remarked as aimed at him.

"I'm sorry, but you wouldn't have come otherwise-"

"Just... just warn me next time!"

"I didn't have time!" He let out a weary sigh, shaking his head, "We're away from our enemy, at least."

"Being stuck in the dark isn't a big step up, Kaden." The old soldier muttered.

"That I can alleviate." Spoke Azalea from above.

All at once, the area about them was bathed in soft white light that filled Kaden with relief, looking up to in time to see the winds carry Azalea safely from the hole above and the orb she'd conjured so they could better see their current predicament. Vae, not needing the column of wind to descend, flew by her side. He could also see Calista but a few paces from him, now frantically looking about them for a way out with darting eyes and shaking hands. She moved into the centre of the light quickly but it did nothing to alleviate her fear. The cavern was large enough that Kaden couldn't see the walls or the flock of bats that Vae had warned hung above. Azalea touched down on the cavern floor with more grace than he'd managed, remaining on her feet. And unperturbed by their situation, "I fear they will not be far behind."

"Then we'll need to move deeper, find a more defensible position," Harlethorne's suggestion provoked a horrified look from Calista. He matched it with a frown, "You got any better ideas?"

"N-no, but-" She stammered.

"Then we're going deeper. You can either come willingly or be dragged along but we're not leaving you behind, clear?" Calista looked about to the others, hoping that they'd have another idea that didn't lead them further in but there was silence. She nodded ever-so-subtly, pained to be agreeing to the plan, "You still feeling that sense of death, Azalea?"

"It is stronger no but it is not death alone. It is... something worse."

"Worse?" Kaden repeated, surprised. He didn't get any more detail from her though she was troubled by it. He turned his attention to the dragon then, "What direction is that tunnel you saw, Vae?" The dragon flew to Kaden's right.

"It is this way-" The dragon flew a little further forward, then stopped abruptly. Harlethorne levelled his crossbow in that direction, presuming the worst, "I... believe I now sense what Azalea does down here. We must proceed with great caution."

"Like we weren't going to already."Grumbled the old man, "Can you explain this feeling any better?" Vae didn't reply right away.

"I'm afraid not, save that it is something... terrible."

"Great, just what we wanted to hear," Kaden felt nothing odd about them, no lingering dread that wasn't the mundane kind. He looked to Calista, silently asking with his eyes whether she'd be able to move forward. It was clear she wanted anything but that but still, she nodded, "Let's get a move on, then. Can't wait to come face-to-face with whatever this thing is."

The tunnel was far from natural, hewn from the earth and heading unerringly straight. It was also narrow, forcing them to walk single file. Harlethorne took the lead and Azalea with the light source took the rear, moving as fast as possible while keeping noise to a minimum. They all knew their chances of taking whoever was down there by surprise were slim but every second they could draw closer without being detected was critical. The ambush from behind made Kaden briefly question whether anything was waiting at the end of the tunnel but a dead-end to trap them in but he didn't voice that thought; the last thing he wanted was Calista to panic further, his friend doing an exemplary job of keeping her fright internalised. Combat would be another matter entirely but they'd cross that ravine when they came to it. Azalea grew more troubled the further they went down the tunnel but said nothing of it, leaving him to wonder just how awful the feeling she sensed was becoming. It didn't take long – or had it? He'd lost track of time in their cramped surrounds – before the tunnel began to widen once more, heralding their arrival at another cavern. Kaden immediately noticed unlit braziers at the tunnel's mouth but before he could say anything they roared to life, crackling with eerie white flames. The group paused, expecting anything and everything but what happened.

"Welcome," The voice that called out to them. It was a woman from Dustledom but unlike those that had come before, he sensed no hostility at all in her tone. It was firm but welcoming, confident and calm in a way which commanded respect. That Harlehthrone hadn't fired into the unknown said much, "Long have you travelled to reach this place, my friend. Please, come into the open so that we may talk." The group looked amongst one another and behind, checking for those they'd left further up in the mine.

"What assurances do we have that you won't attack?" Kaden called back much to Harlethorne's disapproval.

"The fact that you are alive now speaks very much of my intent, son of Malkan," Came the answer.

"My name is Kaden."

"I am aware," Kaden glanced behind them again, finding only emptiness, "Had you of accepted the invitation extended to you but minutes ago, you would see that you have nothing to fear here."

"Experience with your group have told us otherwise."

"I must apologise for that, especially the tragedy perpetrated earlier today," Like the man they'd spoken to by the hole, her regret sounded entirely sincere, "It was not my intent to cause such death."

"Then what was your intent?" Harlethorne enquired sceptically.

"Rest assured, he will be punished for his transgressions which brings us to why you're here."

"We're not leaving without the troupe in our custody and you under arrest." Kaden declared without fear. He fully expected vague words of regret followed immediately by combat but what followed was something he could never have expected.

"Perhaps you will think differently once you know what I intend to but before then, I feel a proper introduction is in order," A cloaked figure lit a torch a few paces ahead of them and standing in the flickering light was a woman in her forties with long silvery hair and soft green eyes. Her face was cold and without blemish, as was the grey cloak and dark blue dress that both flowed down to the rock beneath her, elegant and finely embroidered. He didn't fail to notice the thick black belt she wore from which hung a sword whose handle shone in the light. Something on her head caught the light and Kaden followed the glint to see a crown of silver and sapphires, "I am Anastasia Kapralov, queen of Dustledom."

Chapter Twenty Five

"Though many rightly mourn the great loss of life in the Great War and those of Dustledom lament the fall of their kingdom, few dedicate such thoughts to Holnar. Hoping that the eyes of Kolvan were not upon them while the nations of the world battled Idra, they launched a surprise attack against Kaalvaer in 1,119A.E., hoping to quickly return the recently seceded lands into the fold as well as their new-found wealth of platinum. Kaalvaer had anticipated such a reprisal, however, and had built up a small but fantastically well equipped and trained force comprised mostly of veteran mercenary units that had learned their trade in the many conflicts of the Southern Kingdoms. The army was able to slow the advance of Holnar's forces long enough for the lord of Kaalaver to request aid, though most nations were too embroiled in the main conflict of the time to lend assistance, all barring one: Polena.

Polena had spent the Great War up to that point assisting the alliance against Idra in non-military endeavours, focusing mainly on training troops, drawing up battle strategies and tending to the injured. King Rinlo IX, upon receiving the call for aid, knew that his armies were the only ones free to help the beleaguered nation. In a rare act that would come to be known as Rinlo's Answer, he mustered the Dragonwings – the most elite army of Polena tasked with guarding the capital – and set sail in aid of Kaalvaer. Caught off guard by the arrival of the Dragonwings and outnumbered two to one, the Holnar offensive was brought to a grinding halt almost immediately. It took two years for the Dragonwings and the mercenary army to drive Holnar out of Kaalvaer but succeed they did. Holnar expressed desires to negotiate terms of surrender, with acknowledging Kaalvaer's sovereignty one of the terms. Satisfied that they had done their part, the Dragonwings departed back to Polena but little did they know Kaalvaer did not wish to negotiate.

Their lord refused to believe that Holnar would keep their word, for their king was a cruel and jealous man. Kaalvaer had been training up an army during the Polenan intervention and they, along with the mercenaries that remained, launched a retaliatory invasion with one purpose in mind: eradication. They razed every settlement they encountered, crushed every force the Holnarians desperately mustered. Every besieged town was reduced to rubble and the Kaalvaer army spared no-one. Those that managed to flee the carnage spoke of horrors that I will not repeat here, lest your stomach turn and you read no further but let me assure you, they were grim indeed. By the time the other nations got word of what was happening, it was over; the kingdom of Holnar lay in ruins, its monarchy slain and people scattered to the four winds. The desolate carcass of a once-thriving land lay as a chilling warning to all those who would dare to look upon Kaalvaer's wealth with greedy eyes.

Though you may read this passage and believe that what Kaalvaer did was unjustified, it is my humble opinion that the lord of that land was ultimately right in his musings about Holnar's intent. The larger nation would have likely launched a second attack no sooner had Kaalvaer turned its back, eager to see their pride and holdings restored by any means necessary. I do not, however, agree with the lengths they went to, however, nor does anyone with a decent head upon their shoulders. After the Great War was concluded, Rinlo decreed that Polena could not recognise the nation's sovereignty after the atrocities they committed. All other nations followed suit, even Afran. Kaalvaer remains isolated to this day, alone, unrepentant and ready to defend their lands against any who would dare to try and take them."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Kaden blinked. Surely he'd heard that wrong, for what he'd heard was impossible.

"...Of Dustledom?" He checked. He spied more shadows at the edges of the torchlight.

"Yes," Anastasia confirmed simply. Calista and Azalea shared a look, the former dubious of the woman's claim. Harlethorne voiced his doubts more openly.

"Impossible! Anastasia died with the rest of the royal family when the castle fell!" The old man objected. Kaden knew that to be the truth as well; Malkan had been there, watched the monsters overrun the castle, waited till the last moment to flee and yet here stood Anastasia, throwing all that into question.

"...How? How did you do it?" Kaden asked quietly. Harlethorne shot him a glare.

"You can't honestly believe her! She's a liar, a fraud!" He beckoned, raising his crossbow to take her out. Anastasia didn't so much as flinch, gazing at the weapon with steely calm.

"I understand why you would think that none could have survived, so sudden and devastating was the attack, but that you travel with the son of Malkan should tell you that people did survive."

"My father was ordered to wait at a boat while the king collected his children," Kaden told her. That they hadn't been disarmed and apprehended told Kaden that she didn't perceive them as a threat; whether that was because she thought they had the strength of numbers or that she could persuade him and the others not to try and bring them to justice was something he hadn't yet figured out.

"We'd been warned hours before by one of our knights that the kingdom's doom at hand," The queen – if she was indeed that – explained, each word more laden with memory than the last, "He'd fought the monsters on the city walls, seen their insurmountable numbers but my father and my siblings were too proud to acknowledge what was before them. The streets burned and ran red with the blood of our people but still, they thought the defenders could win the day, that our allies would ride in at the last moment to save us."

"And so they died." Azalea stated, "But you lived."

"I alone saw the wisdom in the knight's words and what needed to be done. Amid the chaos, no-one noticed us slip away from the castle and head to the docks. It cost me everything to secure passage on one of the last fishing boats but we survived," Anastasia's stare grew distant, "I remember watching the... things breaking through the castle walls, the screams. Some of them were my family, my servants, my friends." Quiet followed but did not linger.

"A likely story." Spat Harlethorne.

"She speaks the truth," Came a voice from behind them, one Kaden knew. He turned to see the figure that had confronted them at the hole, now fully visible in the light. He was a weathered old man in his sixties, six foot tall and broad-shouldered. The black hair on his head was short and thin, a stark contrast to his thick and neatly maintained moustache. His plate mail was old and tarnished, much like the man who wore it, but still serviceable. The battle axe he wielded, however, was far newer and wickedly sharp but it was his shield that caught Kaden's eye the most. It was almost as large as the man himself, rectangular and curving outward, but the man appeared to heft it with little difficulty and its entire surface was etched with intricate engravings inlaid with a blue material. Emblazoned in its centre was an eagle in front of a blazing sun, a heraldry Kaden didn't recognise, "It was I who spirited her away to the safety of the Southern Kingdoms, away from those who would wish her ill. It has been my honour to protect her and her son all these years, as I did my king before Dustledom's fall."

"Her son?"

More torches were lit then by the many warriors around the queen, though it did little to reveal just how large the cavern was. Many were the warriors who accompanied their queen but Kaden wasn't looking for them, gazing beyond in the hopes of spotting the troupe. He found them a little ways back from the group, unharmed and wholly unconcerned with their situation, instruments in hand ready to play. Next to them were two figures, one of which he recognised as the wizard who'd tried to kill them in Glimmershade, the man staring at him balefully. The other stood just at the edge of the torch's light and was fully concealed by tattered black robes. That one looked to the ground. Kaden didn't need to take a headcount to know that they were outnumbered.

"Awfully convenient that everyone else died but you, so you alone can claim the crown," Harlethorne uttered.

"You will show her the respect she is due!" The young man at the back beckoned, only to earn a glare from the queen.

"You will hold your tongue! A child of royalty should know better than to bring harm to innocents!" She snapped. All at once the fury in the wizard vanished, replaced by quaking fear. When she turned back to Kaden and the others, her cold calm had returned. Kaden decided, against better judgement, to continue his line of questioning.

"If you truly are the rightful queen of Dustledom, why didn't you reveal yourself after the war was over? You could easily have claimed sanctuary in any kingdom." He asked. Anastasia looked at him.

"And become a political pawn, grovelling for handouts from those who are my equal?" She spoke loudly, her words echoing about with the all the power of a ruler, "Our home may be in ruins and my people scattered across the world but the blood in my veins is as blue as any other monarch. It is I alone who will be the one to reclaim what is rightfully mine." Kaden heard the sound of the knight behind them drawing closer, leaving them no choice but to walk into the cavern. Calista did so reluctantly, staying in the middle of the others as they moved further into the jaws of the proverbial lion. Vae's appearance from the tunnel prompted muttering from the shadows but it was quickly silenced by a stare from the knight who emerged after them and moved to stand next to his liege, a head and a half taller but not possessing the awesome presence she did. Anastasia's stoic gaze wavered briefly when she glanced up to the knight, their stare betraying a bond far deeper than knightly oaths and duty.

"There's no weakness in seeking help from others, especially with all you've suffered." Calista managed to say, distracted from her fear of the cavern by the very real threat of harm before them. Azalea and Vae were also lost in thought but their eyes were on the ceiling far above them and obscured from sight by the gloom. Was that where the sense of wrongness they noticed earlier was coming from?

"The only help I need is the strum of your harp, bard," Anastasia said to her. A smile sifted onto her lips, one that Kaden didn't like, "Your music will resurrect the hopes of my kingdom and its subjects." The queen's remarks made Kaden and Harlethorne frown but Calista was instead curious.

"How?" Calista looked beyond to the troupe. They looked back, "How can music do that?"

Without being prompted, the figure in tattered robes approached, hobbling step by step closer. Kaden spied something in his gnarled left hand, rolled-up parchment that looked positively ancient. The figure spotted his interest and for the briefest of moments, they looked to him. In that instant, Kaden felt something he couldn't describe save that it was... wrong, very wrong. Then it was gone, Kaden barely able to recall the sensation despite only just feeling it, lost in futile recollection as the scroll was passed to Calista. Their task done, the figure began the return journey to the shadows.

"You will perform this for my liege with the rest of the troupe." The queen's knight told her. The command brought Kaden's attention back to the then and now, glancing over at the parchment as Calista unfurled it. He'd never learned to read musical notes but he counted a lot of of them on the few lines written. Vae looked to the music score, at first with recognition then puzzlement. Calista rolled it back up.

"...I can't," She told the man, "No-one can. What you've given me is impossible for anyone to play."

"The others spoke as you did once," He indicated to the troupe, "They wait only on you to start their performance."

"Why do you need me to perform this, for what purpose?" She asked then. Kaden wanted to reach for his sword, get hold of the handle when – not if – things got messy, but knew that their situation was tense enough. Harlethorne had no such restraint, eyeing the queen with great wariness, his crossbow still loaded and ready, "How can music resurrect Dustledom?" Anastasia indicated to the cavern about them with a single, elegant gesture.

"Their music will not return life to the kingdom directly, but to that which rests above us in the stone. It is that which will return Dustledom to us." She stated. Azalea's gaze shifted to the queen immediately and it was hard and stern.

"You seek to raise someone from beyond death," The druid declared. A vein of anger had driven away the gentle compassion in her voice and what Kaden thought was disgust, "Twisting the Cycle to your whim with... necromancy." Anastasia smiled wider.

"All magic twists what is natural in some way or another, druid," She told her simply, "It is not natural that people such as you and I can bend the powers of the world to our whim with incantations and force of will." Azalea scowled a look that unnerved Kaden more than how trapped they were.

"To bring someone back from the dead is wrong," Azalea stated absolutely.

"Not someone, something," Anastasia clarified, "A dragon."

Anastasia held her palm up to the ceiling and all at once, the ceiling was illuminated by the glow of a thousand pinpricks of brightness. Kaden immediately saw what he was meant to see, half-buried in the rock and partially hidden by the many stalactites which hung like daggers above them. Its form was unmistakable, Kaden able to make out the long, winged form that had become one with the stone. He found himself staring at the horned skull which protruded out of the rocks, jaw wide open as if to scream. Immediately a hundred questions rushed up to the tip of his tongue; What terrible fate had caused it to be trapped so deep underground? How long ago had it soared through the sky? How many more were entombed about them?

"...By Yem'Da. It's huge." Harlethorne muttered under his breath much to the queen's satisfaction. Azalea was still unimpressed but it was Vae who spoke out in anger.

"You would dare disturb the final rest of one of my ancient kin?" It spat, on the verge of swooping in to attack.

"I thought you would be glad for the opportunity to see it returned, little one." Anastasia countered simply, "Think of the knowledge of ages past it could share with your people."

"That which is dead remains thus, to rest the eternal sleep of peace!" The sound of figures in the dark readying their weapons did nothing to deter Vae's rage, flying straight and true towards the queen.

"Vae!" Kaden's cry was ignored, such was the dragon's fury. Asimov glared at the creature but instead of interposing himself between it and his liege, he fought back with words.

"Shield the innocent!" His words brought into being a spectral replica of the shield he hefted that shimmered with a golden light. Vae crashed claw first into it, struggling to remain airborne even as a multitude more warriors emerged from the dark about them, all wielding cold steel. Kaden drew his weapon, now convinced that combat was upon them but the queen raised her hand from behind the safety of the magical aegis.

"Hold your weapons." Her gentle order was obeyed without pause, the warriors standing but not stepping back. Her knight looked more concerned.

"But my queen, it tried to kill you-" He began with deference.

"It was an act of irrational anger, Asimov. We are all prone to such."

"There is nothing rational about returning that dragon to life!" Vae snarled, managing to return to Kaden's shoulder where it glared at the queen with loathing. Azalea hadn't stopped looking up at the dragon's remains, now pity as well as anger. Kaden was even more confused about Anastasia, for he found himself agreeing with Asimov's stance; Kaden stood there with his friends ready to try and undo everything Anastasia and her group had sought to achieve and still she showed mercy and restraint. The more he learned about her, the more he began to believe she was a queen and the more he noticed the tattered figure in the dark who lurked by the wizard he knew to be Anastasia's son.

"It will be our weapon against the monsters from Indra," Anastasia declared loudly, addressing everyone assembled as the magical shield before her faded into nothing, "It will purge Dustledom of their taint-"

"You don't know that it'll do that," Kaden interrupted, needing to voice the concern which flashed into his mind urgently, "Even if this magical song works, so many things could go wrong with what you're planning. How will you be able to communicate with it, persuade it to help you?" Anastasia didn't so much as pause before replying.

"There will be no need for persuasion, son of Malkan. It will know we have returned it to life and will be indebted to us. It will know the evil that stirs in Dustledom and will rightly seek to eradicate it."

"You presume much about a species that's been dead of so many years," Harlethorne stated.

"Indeed she does," Vae added coldly, "The dragons of yore answered to no-one."

"It will answer to me, its saviour," Anastasia stated with absolute certainty, "Even if it does not, weaved into the magic of the song is not only the power to resurrect the dead but to ensorcel those who hear it."

"And so you'll turn it into your puppet," The tiny dragon hissed. Calista was as horrified at what she'd heard as Kaden was, "Wield it as a weapon of war unlike any Kolvan has ever seen.."

"I have no designs on war, little one. My people have suffered enough at the hands of conflict. All I seek is to reclaim what is my birthright," The queen slowly smiled once more, "...Though if the other nations of the world wished it, I could turn the dragon's might against the monsters of Idra. Think of the lives that would be saved, the bloodshed averted. Surely that alone makes the cause just!"

"It will not obey you," Azalea warned bluntly, eyes still fixed on the skeleton that loomed above them.

"You underestimate the power of the song's magic."

"It is you who overestimates it."

"My liege is confident that-" Asimov was quickly cut off by Kaden who stepped forward. The assailants about them watched warily.

"Think about what you're saying, both of you," Kaden implored desperately, hopefully, "There's so much that could go wrong with returning this dragon to life if you can even do that. What if it turns on you, on the people of this world? Is there anything we have that could stop it? Does your spell of resurrection also allow you to unmake it, return it to bone and ash and if so, think of the terrible power you hold in your hands that you want to use for 'benevolent' purposes! What good comes from ensnaring the soul of a creature long past, hoping for a boon in return? Surely you can see that no matter how much good you want to do, you're going the wrong way about it!"

"So what would you have me do, son of Malkan? Grovel at the feet of Queen Maren seeking the scraps of pity she'd dispense?" Anastasia walked up to him as she shouted, the queen stopping right in front of him. Vae did all it could to hold back, itching to claw her face off. Her stoicism faded and in its wake lay an intimidating stance that he did his best to stand defiant against. She was close enough to strike; one swung of Skyrazor would end all of it but the fact that she was the last queen of Dustledom gave him pause, "You would have me rule as a puppet, a figurehead upon my own throne with no true power, a mockery for all to laugh at!" Kaden didn't need to think on his answer, for it had been floating in his head since the revelation of the dragon's existence had begun.

"I would want you to do what's right, Anastasia," Kaden told her, "This... This is not right." The queen clenched her right hand slowly, eyes narrowing. Calista was slowly loading her hand crossbow, eyeing the pair with fear.

"What we will do here is right, for Dustledom and the world! If you cannot see that, then perhaps I mistook you as someone who seeks to do good and see justice be done!"

"A good brought about by evil is no good at all." He spoke those words from the heart and they brought a frown to the queen's face.

"There is no greater good then returning my kingdom to its past glory. As the queen of my people, I must do all within my power to help my subjects, see them returned to their homes, to the life that was stolen from them. To do anything less would wrong all those who died at the hands of the monsters who murdered at the call of their demon piper, Levta!"

"There are other ways to do what you seek-"

"There is no other way!" The queen bellowed right in his face. Calista flinched, as did Asimov. Kaden had expected it and stood his ground, keeping hidden his fear of what she could do to him and his companions.

"There is, you just refuse to accept it," Kaden spoke those words even though he knew it would make everything worse. Slowly her fist unclenched and breathed deeply, angrily.

"You could not understand, son of Malkan. You have not lived as I have, mourned as I have," She paused, "Your father would have knelt before me."

"At the start of my journey I would have agreed with you, but not now..." Kaden told her, glancing briefly to Harlethorne and Calista. The latter smiled just a little to him, giving him the courage to say what had to be said. He locked eyes with Anastasia, "Yours are not the actions of a queen." Her eyes widened at his final declaration, one he was sure condemned them but he knew it was a sentiment all his companions shared. Harlethorne made no secret of his approval, smirking at the monarch as she stepped back slowly, staring with disbelief and absolute rage. Asimov moved to her side and all at once the barely restrained atmosphere of hostility about them was unleashed. The circle of armed lackeys stepped closer, ready for a fight they were confident they'd win. Anastasia's son was readying to unleash a spell but the other figure was no longer visible. Kaden hadn't the time to scan the darkness in search of him, looking instead at the ring of assailants around them. He was overcome with a momentary feeling of deja vu, sad that Adam wasn't there to fight alongside him. The memories of him and the guard standing back-to-back in the dark streets of Kant's Rest felt so far away, a distant echo memory of peril smothered by the schemes of the queen. He knew their chances of survival were slim but if they were going to die, at least that they would do so fighting for the what was right. That didn't make him any less afraid of the thought of it, Kaden trying to focus instead on his foes, how they stood, how best to counter their strikes.

"The dragon will be raised, whether you wish it or not." Anastasia drew her sword slowly, an intricately engraved blade that looked no less deadly than more mundane examples.

"Over our dead bodies." Vae declared as loud as it could. The dragon and Harlethorne shared a brief look. Kaden thought he saw approval in the old man's eyes.

"If that is what you wish," The queen and her knight protector shifted into fighting stances, "It pains me to kill you, Kaden, but I cannot let you stop us."

"It will be us stopping you," Calista told her then. Her fear of the cavern was gone, replaced instead with the fear of death. The queen locked eyes with her, her cold countenance returning.

"So long as I draw breath, I will never stop fighting for Dustledom," The queen then raised her voice, "The bard lives! Everyone else-"

Chapter Twenty Six

"While all of the major continents of Kolvan were colonised long ago, there are several smaller landmasses that have only gained significance in recent years due to the influx of refugees in the Great War. While many sought to integrate themselves into the nations they fled to, others went in search of lands of their own after the conflict and so began what later became known as the Third Migration. Then there are the kingdoms and independent holdings so minor in size and power that they are rarely mentioned in other historical tomes outside of footnotes and the occasional off-hand reference. I will not shirk my duty as a historian and ignore them as my peers have done so and therefore the next section of this tome is dedicated to those places.

The first of these nations is the Republic of Baldorn, an island situated north of Afran. Being larger than Dustledom, you'd think that the nation would have more weight in the political field, yet this small nation, first discovered by Letani explorers in 352 A.E., is populated by peaceful, hard-working people that have little interest in engaging with the wider world. They forge no alliances, remained steadfastly neutral during the Great War and seemingly have no need for trade with the other nations. I have heard of their great love of art and beautiful woodlands but I have yet to visit Baldorn to verify if these rumours are true, for something always comes up when I begin making plans to voyage there.

Then there is Arae, a fledgeling settlement founded on a landmass just off the south-east coast of Polena by refugees of Holnar. The group are led by Lord Eckhardt, the only authority figure from that nation who'd been against the Holnar war and had fled before it began. Life there is hard but the people share a camaraderie unlike any I've ever seen. They have even minted currency, a square coin of gold with a diamond hole in the middle called a crown. The coinage is an attempt to further their goals of being seen as a nation in their own right and while I don't believe the coin will be used much beyond the island, their dogged determination is beginning to see results. Perhaps I will need to write a tome on the fledgeling nation-to-be and their ruler in due time.

There are also some minor holdings scattered throughout Kolvan on small, remote islands. There is the so-called King-in-exile Arca III who sulks in his dilapidated fortress named after his grandfather on an island also named after his grandfather. Arca's population is small and poor, their only significant export is fish and their army is best described as quaint. Nestled off the North-west coast of Takken is the fortress of Maat. Its resident, a former commander of Ilara by the name of Vesican, lives in seclusion surrounded by a small cadre of people fiercely loyal to him. Some believe he plans to overthrown Nerian and take Ilara for himself but that is merely hearsay. In my humble opinion, he is no more a threat than Arca but one should still be wary if you sail close to his lands, just in case. The Lighthouse of storms, situated deep in the south-east ocean, is the most elite college of the arcane in the world. Few are invited to study there and fewer still to sightsee, so I have little I can tell you about it save its existence.

Finally there are the islands far to the east of Ethania and another just to the west of Ilara, both of which are populated by tribes of uncivilised barbarians. None who travel there return alive, so it is advisable that you avoid those places entirely."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

A shout came from the tunnel behind Kaden, cutting off Anastasia's order.

"My queen! I have caught a spy, and a young one at that!" The woman declared loudly. A terrifying thought came to Kaden, one which seemed so plausible despite all he'd done to prevent it.

"Let me go!" Came the frustrated cry of her captive. It was a voice Kaden knew all too well.

"Oh no." He uttered, turning to see it with his own eyes. It indeed was Evan who struggled in vain against the grip of a cloaked figure. All at once, the fight bled out of him, knowing now that the battle was lost before it had even begun. The others looked back then, Calista startled at the boy being there. Harlethorne, however, was angry.

"What are you doing here? I told you to stay with the caravan!" The old man asked with a glare. Evan shot him a desperate look.

"The bad guys followed you when you left the stables, I... I had to warn you!" He exclaimed.

"You stupid boy!" At that revelation, Asimov smiled. It was his turn to hold up his weapon, keeping his underlings at bay.

"You know this child, Kaden?" His demeanour was calm and rightly so, "You are most fortunate that I ordered my soldiers to capture rather than kill any would-be interlopers." Harlethorne moved to take a shot at the one who held Evan but hesitated when the woman raised her blade to the boy's neck. A jolt of panic shot through Kaden at that but it was nowhere near the fright Evan felt, all at once aware of how close his life was to ending. Tears welled in his eyes, trying not to shake and failing. They had to do something, but what? The moment any of them moved to save him, the woman would... but would she? Even if it was a bluff, he couldn't risk calling it. Kaden looked to the queen he'd insulted but moments before, matching her steely, dispassionate gaze.

"Let him go," Kaden demanded.

"And why should I, traitor?" Her voice was ice cold but the final word was said with hate.

"Because we have the other half of your music. If you harm him-"

"Neither spell nor sword can destroy what the bard holds, so seeped it is in ancient magics. You are of course welcome to try but doing so will merely test my patience." Kaden glanced to Azalea for confirmation and got a look which spoke a thousand words; the queen was telling the truth, as much as he wished it wasn't so.

"He's just a child!" Calista protested then. Anastasia laughed softly and darkly.

"Many were the children who died when Dustledom fell, slain without mercy by inhuman monsters that knew only death. I didn't have the chance to save them, but perhaps you can save him." Calista's eyes widened at the unspoken implication.

"You wouldn't-"

"She would," Harlethorne answered for her. Evan struggled further, forcing the warrior to tighten her grip on him. The queen motioned for Calista to approach.

"Come, bard. It is time for you to perform."

Kaden wanted to tell her not to but it wasn't just their safety that was at stake now. The bard looked to the others, hoping for another option but there was none.

"If I perform this for you, will you let him go?" Calista asked carefully. Kaden knew the answer to her question before she'd even finished. He also knew not to trust it, for it came from one who sought their goal ruthlessly.

"Of course," Anastasia answered.

"Promise me you'll let him go," Calista demanded. Asimov was affronted, as was her son who looked ready to unleash the fire that danced between his fingers upon them.

"A queen's word is her bond!" The knight beckoned. Calista did not back down, however, her fear of the cavern about her all-but-forgotten in the face of Evan's plight.

"I want to hear her say it." She reaffirmed. Anastasia smiled weakly.

"You have my word as the queen of Dustledom that he and the rest of you will be unharmed, so long as you play your part and your companions do nothing to interfere." Came the queen's assurance.

"Like we believe you." Harlethorne let loose.

"The way I see it, you don't have much choice now, do you?" Harlethorne wanted to say something back but held his tongue, instead exhaling a deep sigh as he finally conceded defeat. He lowering his crossbow fully, looking back to Evan mostly in anger but with a twinge of concern that he couldn't hide. It was clear to Kaden that Calista doubted Anastasia's sincerely as much as everyone else but they both knew what had to be done.

"Don't do this," Vae warned. Whether it was aimed at the queen or Calista, Kaden couldn't tell but either way, its words were ignored.

"Your time has come." Came Anastasia's order. Calista took a deep breath and was about to step forward when Kaden put a hand on her shoulder. This made her stop and look to him but what words he'd wanted to tell her had already vanished. All that remained was a single, heartfelt plea.

"...Be careful." He whispered to her. Her look was one of fear but also determination and though she couldn't pass a smile to him, her eyes said more than any words could of her hope things would turn out right. He wished he could share it with her but never before had he been on an adventure where he'd failed to stop the nefarious scheme from coming to fruition. A feeling of powerlessness had begun to creep up on him as she went to join the trouble and it was only trumped by an even stronger sense of guilt; had he put his foot down right at the start, Evan would never have been there to be captured, never witnessed all the horrors no child should see and they'd of been free to do battle with Anastasia and her lackeys. Then again, had he forced Evan to go home, Andrei would surely have killed them all back in Azalea's forest. The circle of warriors about them would likely have done the same, overwhelming them within moments. For his part, the boy looked as apologetic as he was terrified, reminding Kaden that for all he'd gone through, he was still but a child. All they could do now was watch the terrible events unfold before them but he kept his wits about him, hoping an opportunity to scupper things would present itself. The leader of the troupe motioned for Calista to stand to his right and she did so, harp now in hand. The other members assumed their positions, instruments at the ready all while Anastasia watched them intently. Asimov and the queen's son kept their eyes on Kaden and his companions. The figure in tattered robes still didn't reveal themselves.

"Remember the flow of the music," He said to them, sounding no different to when he spoke in the Pig's Lament back in Kant's Rest. Kaden had hoped that the man's voice had the monotone emptiness that was the hallmark of enchantment but it was not so. The old musician took the parchment in Calista's hand and placing it along with the sheet he possessed on a music stand "Do not look at the notes, feel them. Allow them to guide you along the journey that is the tune and all will be." Harlethorne quietly scoffed at the pomposity of it all. Kaden's eyes returned to the ceiling at the remains that loomed above.

He barely heard the countdown of the troupe leader but he certainly heard their music. Just like at the tavern, Kaden could do little but be drawn into the beautiful piece. Once more the images of a hopeless battle played out in his head, clearer than they'd been before. He tried in vain to snap out of it – everyone would be entranced, allowing him the perfect chance to disrupt the song – but the pull of the music was too strong, the melody too hauntingly wondrous to resist. He saw things from a different angle this time, watching as a unit of archers were routed and slain by the unstoppable tide of shadows. Their cries of mercy, each a shrill note, were cut short as they died, forgotten corpses littering an endless battlefield of hopelessness. The performance rapidly approached the point where it had abruptly ended before – the memories of the first time he'd heard it were so clear now, roused from their foggy slumber – but this time the music carried on into new territory and all at once the melody felt... off. The notes were sharp, jarring and out of place, each warring with its fellow for dominance and yet somehow blending into an experience that pained the ears and the head. Calista's harp was integral to the performance though she struggled to play it, strumming notes which clashed violently. The battlefield that Kaden was witnessing began to change, the bodies of those who had been cut down jolting sharply upright. One by one they arose from their eternal slumber, standing rigid with empty stares that went straight through Kaden. The music grew more discordant the more of them defied death and yet the din still managed to retain cohesion somehow. The shadowy assailants struck at the returned warriors once more but no longer could they slay them, each returning to life no sooner were they felled. Then the performance stopped but even that didn't kill the music, it echoing all about the cavern and lingering as if it had a life all its own. For a brief second no instrument played and Kaden felt the hazy fog of forgetfulness begin to roll in but it was banished by a single strum of Calista's harp. The chord was every bit the opposite of the jilted tune they'd been subjected to; it was more beautiful than anything Kaden had ever heard, reaching out to his very soul and nourishing it. What little resistance he'd tried to muster once more melted away in the face of her song, for now, she played alone. Kaden could hear each note perfectly, the sound doubtless amplified by the magic which she brought to be through her instrument alone. He tried to quantify how her music made him feel but he found no words which did the euphoria that filled every part of his being justice. Her song spread throughout the cavern and as it did, the battle Kaden was observing changed once more and even more dramatically. The risen warriors began to radiant an inner light which made the shadows recoil, each illumination signified by a single note of absolute purity. The shadows tried to fall back but found themselves surrounded, hemmed in further and further by brightness and warmth until there was nowhere for them to run. Calista's tune began to mingle with the entropic mess of before and the collision was catastrophic for the beings of darkness. Agonised chords marked their screams as the light pervaded their beings but they did not die. Instead, they became one with the light and Kaden realised then that the two tunes were not battling for supremacy but becoming one, unified chorus. The maelstrom of noise merged with the simple peace of its rival, Calista's song the key with unlocked the hidden order buried deep within all the chaos to reveal... chanting? Kaden could hear words, none of which that he could understand but it grew louder, more rhythmic, consuming more of the song to rise above the whisper it had begun as to become a chant. There was a presence to it, one which set Kaden's hairs on end as he felt its power.

The cavern shaking about them interrupted the music, the fog of forgetfulness once more rolling in to try and cloud Kaden's memories of the vision he'd been witness to. This time he knew what was happening and clung to those thoughts even as he looked about at their situation. Only he, Calista and the troupe weren't disorientated, perhaps that was because it was their first time the others were so spellbound. The magical melody still swam about them but it had already begun to waver and weaken, slowly becoming undone. Evan had used the moment of confusion to slip from the grip of the warrior restraining him, rushing to Kaden's side with tears in his eyes.

"I'm sorry!" He exclaimed in a whimper, "I'm so sorry-"

"Why have you stopped playing?" Anastasia's shout cut through the befuddlement, her ire aimed squarely at Calista. The bard was looking with concern up at a large crack in the ceiling that hadn't been there before. A stalactite plummeted to the ground, nearly hitting one of the queen's warriors and shattering into hundreds of pieces that the others barely reacted to in time.

"If we keep playing, the cavern-" Calista began.

"The song must be completed. Continue." Anastasia ordered coldly.

"But if it collapses-" Asimov took a step closer, shifting the grip of his axe.

"Keep. Playing." His order was laden with threat, one which prompted the warriors about them to again ready to combat. Calista battled briefly between her fear of the cavern collapsing and that of the consequences of defiance. Kaden wanted to tell her to stop but knew she wouldn't; had the roles been reversed, he too would do all in his power to protect his friends, protect Evan. Slowly she began to play once more and Kaden fully expected to be pulled forcibly back into the enchanted haze but this time he wasn't, retaining his wits and sensibilities while also having the clouds about the previous vision burned away to nothing. The chant regained its volume and might, each utterance making more cracks form above them and widening the ones already there until it was almost deafening. Evan covered his ears and Kaden quickly sheathed his sword to follow suit but he soon realised that trying to block out the noise was futile. Asimov kept hold of his weapons despite his discomfort but Anastasia was grinning, staring up at the dragon's remains and throwing her arms out wide in jubilation.

"Yes, yes!" She called out, just managing to be heard about the chanting song, "We give you form so that you may bring hope to all the people of Kolvan! Rise again, ancient being! Rise and live! Light began to emanate from the bones and all at once there was a roar. It was brief and ethereal but Kaden couldn't deny what he'd heard and neither could Vae. The little dragon's gaze darted up, momentarily lost in wonderment before horror set in. Another roar followed, one very different from the last; it was deeper, louder and full of pain, so much pain. There was movement above them but Kaden barely had time to look to before noticing that the cracks in the ceiling had grown too big, sending large chunks of stone hurtling down.

"The ceiling!" He bellowed without thinking, hoping his warning could be heard. Asimov and Calista both managed to notice the peril in time, the former shielding himself and his queen with the magic of his shield while the latter dived away from the troupe. She did so just in time, her fellows crushed by a slab of stone. Anastasia's warriors panicked, some rooted to the spot in terror while others scattered in all directions, seeking any semblance of cover as rocks fell all about them. Kaden noticed a large chunk falling their way and Azalea had noticed it too. The druid called forth a powerful gust of wind which changed its course, forcing it to collide with another rock which sent them both crashing into the darkness with a loud crunch.

We're trapped!" Evan exclaimed, pointing to the cave-in that blocked the passage out of the mine but even as Harlethorne looked to take advantage of the calamity, a final roar silenced the chant immediately and brought everyone to a stop, even in the cave-in. Kaden's heart skipped a beat as he noticed a presence from above that hadn't been there before, heard its deep breathing that sent shivers down his spine. He and Harlethorne looked to one another before daring to stare upward along with the queen, her son and those few of her warriors that had survived. There they found that they were being watched by a pair of shimmering, iridescent eyes that had not seen, not been for thousands of years.

It lived.

Chapter Twenty Seven

"I have devoted much of this tome to the many realms of Kolvan, past and present, cataloguing all aspects of them in great detail, but there is one location I have yet to mention and for good reason. If you were to look at any reputable map of the world, you will quickly notice that there is a sizeable landmass in the north-east that is both unpopulated and unclaimed. Though it has gone by many names throughout the centuries, most cartographers refer to it now as the Isle of Ruin.

The isle is named as such due to the ancient ruins at the foot of the Sky Spire, the world's tallest mountain. The crumbling remains are of a settlement roughly the size of a small town that some scholars believe predate all even the oldest kingdoms of the world. Others disagree with that sentiment, citing that no trace of the architecture of what remains can be seen in the Letani, Corgaca or any of the Southern Kingdoms. Then there is the fact that no nation has any records of the island's existence before its discovery – or rediscovery, dependant on which school of thought you belong to - in 165 A.E. by Corgacan colonists seeking new lands to call their own. In my humble opinion, I believe that the ruins belong to an isolated population, perhaps the survivors of a shipwreck, who made a life for themselves on the island. As to why they never tried to re-establish contact with the wider world, perhaps knowledge of that died over the generations or perhaps they were simply content with their new home.

That you didn't read of a fourth Corgacan colony when I discussed the matter earlier will tell you that the settlement built on the Isle of Ruin did not last, which leads quite neatly to the second reason why the island has its name. In 180 A.E., a Corgacan ship set forth to claim tribute from the new colony only to find that it was completely deserted. There was no evidence of a battle being fought or disease having claimed the populace; the captain of the ship noted in his log that some houses – which had to be broken into, I hasten to add – had meals laid out that had long since gone rotten. More concerning was that the tribute they'd come to collect had been left untouched by the dock. The soldiers on board searched the surrounding wilderness but found nothing, leaving the captain no choice but to return to Corgaca to deliver the tribute and news of the colony's mysterious failure to the king. Corgaca made no effort to repopulate the town and upon hearing of the strange occurrence, Letani followed suit.

Over the centuries, rumours began to emerge of great wealth hidden on the island that was guarded by horrible monsters, each more absurd than the last. Most knew better than to believe such flights of fancy and of those who did, only a few were foolish enough to venture to the isle in search of non-existent riches. Their reckless treasure hunting did end up exposing the existence of the ruins on the island which prompted a wave of renewed curiosity in the land. Many expeditions have been launched since, most of which were focused on studying the ruins, though a few still search for the supposed treasure of those that once lived there. Almost all of them return empty-handed but there have been a few notable exceptions, most prominent of which was the discovery of the legendary blade Skyrazor by Kaden Mallas De'Dustledom in a temple high up the Sky Spire. That he took the weapon as his own rather than submitting to the scholarly world for study is disappointing but not unexpected for one of his vocation and I must concede that the artefact was a great help to him over the years. If you wish to read more about him, please consult chapter seventy-three of this tome."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Already, Kaden was trying to work out how he could defeat the dragon, so sure he was that things would go wrong. Much of its being was still encased within the cavern above but he could see no weak points in what small parts of the creature's hide had broken through the stone. Its body was entirely covered in splendid feathers that shone iridescent in the light, a majestic creature that would've been wondrous to behold were it not looming above them ominously. He had no doubt that scales hid underneath its plumage, each of which had to be at least the size of a buckler and hard as the strongest steel. A deep, lingering sense of dread took hold that he couldn't shake, not while it was still there and they didn't know its intent. Azalea observed the creature with a look of regret, a look mirrored by Vae. Those of Anastasia's warriors who'd survived the partial collapse were frozen in both awe and fear, allowing Calista to scrabble to her feet and rush to Kaden and the others but not before grabbing the magical sheet music.

"I'm sorry." She apologised weakly without even thinking.

"Don't be," Kaden replied. Her guilt was palpable but she'd done it for the right reasons, unlike the queen who stood with her knight protector marvelling at her accomplishment. The dragon tried to shift its head, sending another small tremor through the cavern and dislodging a few more tiny fragments of rock.

"..What can we do?" Harlethrorne asked in a whisper to no-one in particular.

"What we must to right the Cycle." Azalea said firmly, eyes stern. Kaden found himself looking into the dragon's eyes once more. What was the creature thinking? Did it look upon them and see them for what they were or did it see only vermin to be exterminated? Perhaps it did neither, as unsure of them as Kaden was of it, the dragon waiting for them to show their intent. That made him conscious of every little action he made though but what did the dragon know of how humans acted? Did it even think as they did, perceive the world as they did? Asimov tore his attention away from the mythical creature to give a hand gesture to one of the remaining warriors, who in turn repeated it to the others about them and resumed watching over Kaden and the others. Their numbers were greatly diminished, however, presenting an opportunity that Kaden would have leapt at were the dragon not there. Anastasia's son had joined his mother, keeping his eyes on the ground as the queen introduced herself to the creature.

"Hail, ancient dragon!" She beckoned as if addressing a crowd of admiring subjects, "I am Anastasia Kapralov, queen of Dustledom! It is I who have returned you to life in exchange for a boon!" The words echoed about the cavern, surely reaching the ears of the ancient being. Kaden didn't know what to expect, an eloquent response or a belch of deadly flames but her words were ultimately answered with silence.

"...Perhaps it did not understand you." Asimov suggested quietly, prompting her to look to her son with annoyance.

"Make it understand," She ordered sternly as Kaden watched her plan already begin to unravel. He then heard Azalea's quiet muttering, spied her subtle hand gestures. Kaden pretended to turn to Harlethorne, instead trying to spy what the druid was doing. The old man looked to him in confusion, then noticed that the rocks barring the way out of the cavern were moving ever so slowly and quietly. Kaden went still, not wanting to draw attention to their plan of escape. The queen now glared at her son, "Well?"

"I... I do not know how," The wizard fumbled with his words. Then Asimov stared and the young man began to stammer, "P-perhaps your words did not reach it. I can convey them with magic if you wish it." Anastasia sighed and readied to speak again, this time her words amplified through the wizard's magical mutterings.

"I have given you life again dragon, life so you can right a deep wrong that was inflicted upon my people! Will you serve me?"

This time her words provoked a reaction from that which was above. It was a quiet rumbling but Kaden quickly noticed a rhythm to it; specific sounds repeated and subtle pauses all pointed towards the noise having meaning but he had no idea how to deduce a tongue that, until recently, had been many centuries dead.

"...It's not happy." Calista whispered, much to Kaden's surprise.

"How do you know this?" His words were quieter still.

"There is... music in its words, a song." Her answer caught Harlethorne's attention, the old man raising a curious eyebrow.

"A song? You're sure?"

"When you've performed as long as I, you develop an ear for music." Kaden looked about them, double-checking that none of the warriors were listening in before returning his gaze upward to the dragon.

"What is it saying?"

"I don't know the words, but..." She paused, "Its song is one of pain, confusion," Calista paused as the dragon stopped 'talking', "...Anger."

"No wonder," Harlethorne muttered. Anastasia was left both puzzled and annoyed by the strange noise, glaring once more at her son.

"Are you sure it heard me?" She checked snappily, "It should have answered if it heard me!"

"So presumes a queen," Vae remarked in a whispered breath. The wizard recoiled from his mother as if she had struck him.

"I d-do not know. I do not speak its tongue, how can I?" Anastasia's fury lasted only a few moments before she remembered something.

"The little dragon will know what it says," She stated. All at once, many eyes fell upon Vae as the queen addressed it directly, "You will translate for your brethren."

"Were I one of the elders of my people, I could perhaps attempt to," Answered Vae simply, "I am young amongst my kind, however, and thus its words are as lost on me as they are you."

"You lie."

"You would like to think so, but I do not. It does not take a linguist to know that it suffers, however."

"Its suffering does not compare to the suffering of my people, the destruction of my kingdom! It is one creature, many thousands of my subjects died!" Anastasia reached for her blade once more, "You will translate for it." Without thought, Kaden and Calista readied for combat once more, an action that at first prompted bemusement from the queen. Only when she looked about her to see how few of her warriors lived did she realise that the odds were no longer so heavily in her favour and that Evan had escaped from her grasp. Finally, she spied Azalea's handiwork, the druid having but a few large rocks to move before the way out was cleared.

"Vae will do no such thing, not while we live," Calista told her firmly, snatching the words from Kaden's lips, "Your scheme has gone far enough."

"I have barely begun!" The queen declared. Asimov readied himself, his eyes fixed on Kaden. The air about them grew tense as Harlethorne aimed his crossbow squarely at Anastasia. Asimov interposed himself between them, shield ready, "I do this out of love for my people! You would rob them of hope, of a future?"

"The dragon is not a tool to be wielded for your whims!" Vae shouted, its voice louder than Kaden had ever heard it be, "It is a living, breathing thing and it will never serve you!"

"It will serve me or be returned to the bones it once was!" The dragon above let loose a roar unlike the others, raw and harsh. It startled everyone save Azalea who continued to work diligently on her spell. The warriors about them looked up which prompted Kaden to do the same. The dragon's sparkling eyes had narrowed and all at once, he knew they were in deep, deep trouble.

"I think it heard you, your highness," Azalea stated calmly as she moved the final rock needed to create a way out.

The cavern filled with an energy which Kaden recognised, for it was similar to the tingling sensation that came from his sword. Then all at once, a tremendous bolt of lightning lit up the cavern, arcing forth from the now-visible mouth of the dragon. It struck one of Anastasia's warriors and immediately spread amongst them, leaving nothing but ash which threw the remaining lackeys into a panic. Evan's scream of fright was lost in the second blast of lightning which was aimed right at them. Instead of hitting him, however, the lightning struck Skyrazor. The sapphire in its pommel went from sparkling with light to radiating it as if it were another sun, humming loudly. The blade also grew unbearably hot, it scalding Kaden hands through his gloves before he could drop it to the ground, gritting his teeth to try and overcome the pain. The others had barely realised the attack had happened but Harlethone didn't dwell on what could've been, turning to the now open exit.

"Fall back!" He bellowed to the others, wasting no time in moving towards the tunnel. Azalea and Evan moved with him, the druid calling forth a smaller orb of light to guide them through the dark. The boy was terrified, sobbing as he ran. Vae wasn't far behind them. This drew the attention of Anastasia, the queen and her son protected by Asimov's magical barrier while what few of her warriors remained were obliterated by another terrifying blast of lightning. She caught sight of Calista and pointed an accusing finger.

"You!" The queen beckoned furiously at the bard even as Vae darted into the tunnel, "You did this, meddled with the song to turn it against me!" Calista ignored her cries, entirely focused on escaping before the whole place came down about them with the next roar.

"Come on, Kaden!" She called to him. He was about to run himself when he spotted the dazzling glow of Skyrazor at his feet. He reached down to grab it and was relieved to discover that it was no longer hot to the touch, though holding it caused his hands to sting. Now armed once more, he rushed to join his companions in the tunnel without a second thought.

The path ahead was far from clear, the roof cracked and broken from the previous shaking and the floor ahead littered with what had once been above them. He should've been watching his footing but the adrenaline had taken hold, pushing him ever onward in the hopes that he'd survive. Evan tripped over a large stone but barely had time to register it before Harlethorne had grabbed his arm, yanking him to his feet and pulling him along forcibly. Calista was even more frightened than Evan but the prospect of freedom and the surface kept her going. Everything about them shook then, followed by the sound of shattering rock behind them. Kaden glanced back just in time to see the figure in tattered robes beside the queen. Rocks fell about them before they were enveloped in shadow that came from nowhere. When it faded, there was no sign of any of them. He blinked, unable to believe his eyes; they must have turned invisible to escape the dragon's wrath but he couldn't hear Asmiov's armoured feet clanging down the tunnel after them. That meant only one thing but it couldn't be. Then the dragon landed where the queen had stood, dislodging more stone above them as it did and pushing aside thoughts of impossible magic. Kaden could only see a small part of its huge body but that view was quickly blocked by one of the dragon's eyes peering through the tunnel at them, at Skyrazor's pommel gem. Kaden knew what was to come, saw the intent in the creature's stare. So narrow was the tunnel they fled through that there'd be no escaping its attack and it was that which brought about an idea, a terrible idea. Every part of his being screamed at him to just keep running, telling him that his hastily cobbled together plan would never work. He also knew, however, that if any of them were to make it out of the mine, he had to act and quickly. Kaden stopped running and turned to face the dragon, the tip of Skyrazor pointed at it. He tried not to dwell upon what he knew would happen to him, focusing all his attention on the creature so that he wouldn't glance behind him at his friends, his...

"Kaden?" He heard Calista's distant call and his heart lurched. It took all his willpower not to answer. The dragon shifted its head, mouth open wide. Deep in the back of its throat, Kaden could see the crackling lightning begin to take form and at that moment, he seized upon the only chance he'd get.

He willed Skyrazor to unleash its magic and it did so but the spell which came forth was unlike any bolt he'd ever seen, nearly blasting him off his feet and sending a deep shiver through his entire being. It was not one but many tendrils of lightning that spiralled about one another for an instant before coalescing into a single beam of white-hot and intense power. The dragon let off its attack immediately afterwards and they collided halfway between them, creating a burst of light and sound so intense that Kaden barely managed to shield his eyes from it and even then, it shone through his hand. Then the shock wave hit, flinging him backwards and crashing into the ground painfully as the dragon bellowed forth a cry of raw emotion. Everything about him shook violently but Kaden could barely think straight, let alone get to his feet and run. He only hoped that everyone else managed to escape as the ceiling came down around him. He closed his eyes just before a chunk of stone smashed into his breastplate and he lost consciousness.

Chapter Twenty Eight

"I stated previously that many wizards choose to focus on one or two aspects of magic early in their studies but there is one which cannot be learned at any college: necromancy. It is the magic of the dead, specifically communicating with the souls of those long past and returning a departed soul to life, though the latter is power so rarely seen that it is often considered a myth. I point out these specifics because many are quick to declare any spell involving the dead as necromancy when they are not. Raising the bodies of the fallen to serve you, while horrific, is not necromancy if the bodies remain bereft of their soul; such an act is little different from creating an automaton, as rare as that vocation is. It is also not the staving off of death through magical healing as the recipient of the magic is very much alive.

Many state that necromancy is evil, citing that it dabbles in things which no person should have power over. This attitude has come about from many centuries of folk tales, hearsay and a lingering fear in some of the peoples of Kolvan that those gifted with magic will one day seek to use their power for selfish ends, a quite farcical notion when you consider the great sacrifices many magicians made during the Great War to keep the world safe. It is the moral fibre of the magician that determines whether their magic is evil, not the other way around. That said, there have been a smattering of instances where necromancers have sought power through the use of their magic, most notable of which was Ixel, a very mighty and quite mad necromancer who sought to conquer the Southern Kingdoms in 598 A.E. with her great power. She was bested by the splintered nations who put aside their petty squabbles to defeat her under one unified banner. That the nations didn't use this as an opportunity to form a lasting peace accord was, in my humble opinion, a missed opportunity.

The reason that arcane colleges will not teach necromancy is mostly because of the stigma surrounding it but also due to people like Ixel. She was once a part of the circle of necromancers who have practised in Afran since 371. Afran is the only nation of Kolvan that openly accepts necromancers and allows them to practice their arts as freely as any other magician. She spent much of her time learning ancient and truly terrifying spells, experimenting in secret and studying long-lost troves of arcane lore. She left the circle shortly before her actions came to light, fleeing to the Southern Kingdoms where she began planning her power play. I will not go into detail as to the full extent of her perceived abilities for I lack the arcane acumen to explain them properly and, quite frankly, most are too sickening to put in writing, though one of the things often cited about her was that she could bind the souls of the dead to her will. The necromancers destroyed what tomes and scrolls she left behind and while the generals of the Southern Kingdom claimed at the time that those Ixel brought with her were burned, there is no hard proof confirming this is so. That no wizard has since wielded spells so depraved says either that they were indeed eradicated or that those who know of these dark secrets keep them hidden. I hope that it is the latter, for the last thing Kolvan needs is another mighty wizard to go mad with power and start yet another war."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

That Kaden awoke at all surprised him. The deep pain in his chest was less shocking, groaning quietly in a futile attempt to quell it. He shifted, feeling the soft straw mattress beneath and a blanket resting where rocks should've been. He then heard a friendly voice to his left.

"Was starting to wonder if you'd sleep through today as well," It was Harlethorne, the aged warrior sounding somewhat relieved but also a little envious. Kaden opened his eyes with some difficulty only to be dazzled by how bright his surroundings were. He tried to lift his arm to block it out but it refused, answering with a jolt of agony that made him groan louder, "Easy there. You've been through quite a lot."

"Are the others alright?" Kaden asked quickly, the first of many questions.

"They're fine," Came the answer which soothed his most immediate worry, "The worst of the collapse happened around you or should I say, on you. There were a few close calls but we made it out alright, though it took some convincing to stop Calista from going back in to find you." Had Kaden heard that right? His eyes slowly began to adjust to the light which came from many candles, some on sconces and the rest scattered about on small tables and the floor. He then detected the scent of flowers about them and knew that he was in the home of a healer. The walls were of light wood and hanging from the ceiling was an old iron chandelier adorned with yet more flickering candles. Though it hurt to move his head, he tilted it to his right and caught sight of Skyrazor and what remained of his breastplate, the latter heavily dented. The pommel gem of his blade was dull, its magic spent.

"How long have I been out, Harlethorne?" The warrior asked then.

"Two days, not including the time it took the miners to excavate you from the rubble. We found you in a pocket of air formed by large slabs and half-buried by debris," Kaden briefly reflected on the final moments in the tunnel and his life, or so he'd thought at the time, "You were a mess when Azalea and the healer got their hands on you and if you'd asked me, I'd of said you were a goner."

"I'd of probably thought the same had I of been you." Kaden agreed.

"You got very lucky." Kaden's imagination tried to fill in the blanks of what would've happened on any other day to him, quickly pushing away the thoughts before they could take hold.

"...I know." He wanted to see just how he looked now and so tried to sit up. Every part of him protested but somehow he found the strength to shift his position.

"Don't push yourself," Hawthorne chided even as Kaden managed to assume a slouch. Harlethorne was sat on a chair next to the bed, still clad in his armour. The old man's crossbow was propped up against the wall along with his now full quiver. His expression was stern but Kaden had expected no less. He glanced to his arms, looking for new scars and finding none, "You can thank Azalea and the healer that you don't look as bad as I do, but just be glad you were asleep when the healer applied the unguents."

"Why's that?"

"Why do you think the healer sprayed lavender scent everywhere? Never liked the smell myself, reminds me too much of home. I'd preferred the stuff he smeared on you."

Kaden winced as his arm ached, then asked the next question on his mind, the most troubling one.

"Where's the dragon?" He asked cautiously. Harlethorne didn't answer which made him all the more worried, "What did it to the Glimmershade?"

"...Nothing," Again, Kaden doubted his ears. The old warrior noticed his look of puzzlement, "As we were getting the miners ready to go in after you, the whole town shook. At first, I thought the dragon had drawn the attention of some deep nesting earthgerts but the second time it happened, I realised it was coming from the mountain. Then all at once it... escaped."

"Escaped? How?" Immediately Kaden's mind pieced together what must've happened, though his imagination couldn't do the spectacle justice.

"We're lucky it chose to blast a hole in the north side of the mountain. Had it been the east... Anyway, it took one long look at the town, roared as loud as its lungs would let it and then headed out to sea at great speed. Been no sight nor sound of it or Anastasia since." Kaden took a deep, pained breath and tried to sort through everything that had happened, "Stop that, Kaden."

"...Stop what?" Harlethorne had narrowed his eyes at him.

"I know what you're doing" Kaden didn't try to hide his guilt; he was good at hiding that as he was lying convincingly when it mattered, "We did all we could."

"We didn't stop her."

"I was as ready as you were to go down in a burning blaze of glory against them, but they were too many and us too unprepared," It was Harlethorne's turn to sigh now, glancing briefly at the closed door, "As much as I hate to admit it, we owe our lives to Evan's foolishness, not that I forgive him for ditching the caravan to come after us."

"Don't be too hard on him." Kaden urged, "He's been through a lot."

"And we haven't?" Kaden's look made the old man relent, "I wasn't going to mention it anyway. I don't think I need to."

"Anastasia is far from done, Harlethorne. She escaped the cavern before the tunnel collapse," Harlethorne looked deeply sceptical, "The man in tattered robes made them vanish."

"People don't just disappear."

"They did."

"You'll want to tell Dran that when he arrives later. He's got half the town guard scouring the place for her and her cronies on top of trying to quell the panic the dragon caused," The old warrior got to his feet, picking his crossbow as he did, "Want me to tell the others you're up?" Kaden didn't need to consider his answer for long.

"I might try and rest again." Kaden leaned back against the headboard, closing his eyes.

"I'd want to get it over and done with were I the one bedridden, but suit yourself," Kaden was about to ask what he meant but he could imagine the man's stare without seeing it, an incredulous look that spoke of his friend's worry and the anger one in particular waited to unleash upon him. He heard footsteps heading away from him, "There's a guard at the end of the corridor, just in case. Knock when you're ready for visitors."

"I will." The door opened.

"And Kaden?" There was a heavy pause, "That was damn brave what you did back there. You'd of made one heck of a soldier in the war."

"I just... did what I had to do." That prompted a chuckle from the former soldier.

"Of course you did." And with that Harlethorne left, leaving Kaden alone with his thoughts and a hundred little aches. Despite that, it didn't take long for him to drift off to into a dreamless sleep.

Kaden felt little better when he awoke, his weariness complemented by a deep hunger that was triggered by a new smell: food. A bowl of piping hot stew and two thick slices of bread rested on a plate which had been left on Harlethorne's chair and Kaden wasted no time in reaching out to retrieve the meal. The plate rested precariously in his lap as he went to dip the bread into the yellow-green mixture only to hear a knock at the door. Without thinking, he answered.

"I'm awake." He informed whoever it was. The door opened to reveal Dran but it was Evan who entered first, pushing past the captain of the guard to get to the bedside first. The boy's eyes were full of wonder but behind them was a fear that hadn't gone away since his capture in the mine, "Hello, Evan."

"I told them you'd be alright!" Proclaimed the child with no small amount of satisfaction. Dran stepped aside from the doorway to let Harlethorne back in who lingered just inside the room. Then Calista entered and Kaden's breath stilled, waiting for the harsh and very justified words of admonishment. She said nothing but her momentary stare forced his guilt to resurface for all to see just as Azalea and Dran passed the threshold. The druid waited by the door for Vae before shutting the door behind, the dragon flying over to the headboard and perching expertly to the right of Kaden's head. The others formed a semicircle around the bed with Evan taking the lone chair for his own. The captain looked as stern as ever, though Kaden saw no anger in this man's stare.

"I take it from the gaping hole in the side of the mountain that things didn't quite go according to plan," Dran asked. Kaden didn't answer, knowing one wasn't required, "Was what I saw out the window real, Kaden?"

"As real as I am," Vae answered, "Brought back to life by the magical music made whole once more in the hopes that it would serve Anastasia." Kaden was expecting Evan to ramble excitedly about how awesome it looked until he remembered the boy's terror at the sight of it attacking. Instead, he sat in silence, observing the conversation and not-at-all subtly taking small bites of one of the slices of bread he'd stolen from Kaden's plate. That he hadn't noticed the theft spoke volumes of how distracted he was.

"To conquer the world?" The captain guessed.

"To liberate Dustledom from the monsters that hold it, or so she claims." Dran scoffed at that.

"A likely story but it's clear it didn't work out unless the thing's taking the scenic route past Holnar," Dran stroked his chin for a moment, considering the little dragon, "...You didn't happen to-"

"I was as surprised as the rest of my companions at the revelation of the dragon's remains," Vae cut off the captain, quick to defend itself, "I was also unaware of the second half of the music they used to resurrect it."

"Second half?" Dran repeated, unsure he'd heard it right.

"The pieces formed a magical song with the power to disrupt the cycle and reform the dragon, body and soul," Azalea explained with distaste, "The magic of the parchments is no lesser for it, meaning they could be used to resurrect another."

"Or un-resurrect it," Evan suggested. Harltethorne chuckled again, "What?"

"You mean kill." The old man stated. Dran exhaled loudly.

"If I'd of known you'd be talking of magic, I'd of asked old Wizzleward to come along," The captain muttered to himself before addressing Calista, "What of the troupe?"

"Dead." The bard said with regret.

"Anastasia, her knight protector and their son-" Kaden began to explain.

"Their son?" Dran cut him off. He wasn't the only one surprised at the statement, Calista looking to Kaden with disbelief, "You're sure?"

"Enough that I'd say that," Kaden confirmed, "They vanished before the dragon could crush them, saved by someone in black robes. I couldn't tell you who they were but I've never seen magic like that before."

"If anyone else had told me that, I'd call them a liar, but I believe you. The queen needs to be told about the threat Anastasia has unleashed upon the world so she and the other nations can plan to deal with it."

Vae moved from the headboard onto the bed, gently walking across the covers with the soft-clawed grace of a cat.

"While we do not know where the dragon is headed, it is easy to guess why they are going there," Vae stated softly, looking to each of them in turn, "It has awoken deep underground surrounded by creatures it doesn't know, one of which threatened its life."

"Anastasia?" Dran guessed. Harlethorne nodded as the dragon continued.

"It will try and make sense of what it has seen and in that regard, it will do what any of you would in this situation: seek others of its kind to learn in the hopes of learning what has transpired."

"Its answer will come when it finds that it is alone, a species of one." Azalea's tone was both sad and angry but the two conflicting emotions muted one another, dulling her normal gentleness.

"And then what?" Dran asked warily. The druid locked eyes with him.

"What would you do if you discovered you were the last?" She asked him bluntly, "Which of the raging emotions would you answer first? Grief? Emptiness? Anger?"

"I'd be looking for who killed the others." The captain's answer was grim, coming to the same conclusion Kaden had just reached.

"Could it have been us?" Harlethorne asked none of them in particular, "I can't think of a single weapon powerful enough to fell one of those things outside of the Gollins Tube thingies Afran has but they're pretty new. On the other hand, if your sword's anything to go by, Kaden, we had some pretty crazy magic stuff back then... whenever 'then' was. Hundreds of years? Thousands?"

"Many thousands." Vae clarified.

"I guess it doesn't matter either way. If it's going to point the finger at us-"

"Claw." Again the dragon intervened.

"You know perfectly well what I meant," Snapped the old man. Vae rolled its eyes but let him carry on, "Give us some mudrunners and we'll be off as soon as Kaden can walk."

"A wagon would surely be better. Kaden's in no fit state to-" Kaden had already begun to try and leave the bed, every joint in his being complaining bitterly as shifted to its edge. He paused when Calista shot him a warning glare.

"Don't," Her tone told him not to push it but he had no choice; every hour he languished in that room was another that brought the kingdom - no, the world – closer to great peril. His feet touched the wooden floor and he forced himself to stand only to find to that his legs betrayed him immediately.

"Kaden!" Evan explained as the warrior tumbled unceremoniously to the floor, landing in a small heap. He was quickly helped up by Calista who'd darted to his side even as he'd begun to fall, "What did I just say?" Calista was angry.

"I'll be fine once I-" Kaden started.

"You'll be fine once you get more rest," She finished the sentence for him. His objections died when he saw her steely gaze, nor did as she moved him back to the bed. He found himself right back where he'd started, letting out a deep, frustrated sigh she caught and answered with another glare, "You're no good to anyone as you are, Kaden. You need to get your strength back."

"But-"

"But nothing," His head rested against the pillows once more, unwilling to concede that his aches were already starting to fade. The bard looked to Dran then, "Can you get a message sent ahead of us?"

"Of course," It was then that the captain reached down to his waist and offered her a large pouch. It jingled with the sound of coin, "You'll need this too."

"What for?"

"For making sure none of my people died."

"We can't say they still won't."

"You've given us time to make sure they don't, however," Still the pouch was held out to her, "I'm not going to take no for an answer." Calista took the coin reluctantly, though her smile of thanks was a warm one. Kaden found his eyelids growing heavy and though he tried to keep awake, listen to what would surely be very important information, he was fighting a losing battle with his body which desperately cried for time to heal. Not even the thought of eating the food which had been left for him kept him awake. Vae spied his struggle and brought it to the attention of Azalea with a look. She approached him and with a tap of her finger upon his forehead, the waves of exhaustion become overwhelming, once more carried away into the land of sleep. It was far from restful, however, for his dreams were plagued with the terrible aftermath of the dragon's rampage, the cities and lands he knew reduced to smouldering wastes by its fury. Whether it would do that or not didn't matter to his subconscious, racked with worry and guilt as it was. Still, so long as he lived, there was a chance that he could stop it, avert calamity and bring Anastasia to justice for her crimes. But first, he would rest, whether he liked it or not. Tomorrow was going to be a very busy day indeed.

Chapter Twenty Nine

"That I need to discuss this topic at all is lamentable, but I would be remiss to not bring up an integral part of Afran society: slavery. While the nation has long been one led by power-hungry individuals who scheme, blackmail and murder their way into positions of power – including the throne – the practice of legally owning another person did not come about until the reign of Yenton the Despoiler. Despite his name, the iron-fisted and shrewd military general was the first ruler that brought stability to the nation, for he was seen as a powerful leader by the general populace and an untouchable target by the nobility. Many were his plans to improve the infrastructure of not just the Ringed City but the rest of Afran but his goal was marred by two major problems: a lack of labour and large scale banditry in the countryside.

Seeking to slay two chirpies with one stone, Yenton passed a law in 760 A.E. that allowed for criminals to be put into indentured servitude as punishment for their crimes, serving their sentence as labourers for the crown. Had that of been the end of it, we wouldn't be talking about this at length, but Yenton also decreed that individuals could sell themselves into indentured servitude, either to the crown or to other individuals for a set period. The person 'buying' the individual would have to provide for them during the length of the contract but this, like many aspects of the law, was immediately preyed upon by those without morals. Cruel and corrupt authority figures would sentence those they didn't like or wanted gone – usually the very poor, the crippled or personal enemies – to indentured servitude for ridiculous lengths of time and it wasn't long before people were being kidnapped, their signatures forged on bogus contracts pledging life-long service to prominent nobles.

Yenton's reign was not long, the monarch succumbing to his obesity in 766 shortly after threatening war with Polena. Anarchy once again returned to the nation but slavery remained, as did the former king's plans for improving infrastructure. Shortly after his passing, word of the terrible practice reached Polena through escaped slaves fleeing across the border and Polena was quick to condemn it, severing diplomatic ties and closing all trade routes with Afran. The rest of the world followed suit while also added watertight laws forbidding slavery in their lands. To give an example, Letani law expressly states that any slave who steps foot in their lands is given both their freedom and citizenship. Even the Southern Kingdoms are united in their opposition of slavery; a slaver was caught in 807 outside Zantarock attempting to kidnap vagrants and was promptly tried and hung. Idra was the first and only nation to break ranks in isolating Afran, entering a trade and military non-aggressive pact with Afran in 983 A.E., a warning sign the world should have heeded yet was ignored. By that time, almost every noble in Afran owned slaves and to be a slave means a lifetime without freedom and the most basic of rights but for the people of that nation it had become... a part of life there.

I must inform you that I wrote that last sentence with great revulsion.

There is a tiny glimmer of hope in this bleak passage, however. Nerian, the current ruler of Afran and the only monarch to have succeeded to the throne legitimately, is a fair and compassionate ruler whose reign balances on the most precarious of knife edges. Diplomatic channels have very tentatively begun to open because of his efforts, a miraculous feat that is nevertheless very fragile. He, like his father Calahan who was murdered a mere month after abdicating, sees opposition at every turn from the bloated noble class that holds far more power than it should. They wait for a sign of weakness that can be pounced upon but are also wary of tearing down a king who rules not because he's the most ruthless or holds the most dirt over his fellows but because he is MEANT to be there. They rightly fear that his death or exile would cause riots in the streets not just from the general populace but from the sizeable slave population that I believe he wishes to save. His father's interest in doing so cost him his life and, in my humble opinion, it will also claim Nerian unless something truly miraculous occurs."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Kaden arose from bed after what had felt like the best night of sleep in his life. The deep pain that had riddled his body was now a glimmer of its former self, a dull ache that he could easily ignore. He'd also awoken with a clear head, though that quickly filled with worries of what Anastasia was up to. A glance to where his sword had been confirmed that it was still there as well as his backpack which was a lot fuller than it had upon entering Glimmershade. His breastplate was missing but that didn't surprise him, for it had been in no fit state to shield him from further harm. Gone too was the scent of lavender, it replaced with that of the meal of bread and cheese which had been left on the chair much like the soup Evan had picked at. Kaden went to grab it but was distracted by the sound of the door opening. The silence told him exactly who'd entered, supplanting his hunger with nervousness he'd hoped to deal with when they were journeying back to Kant's Rest. Though his time in bed had been greatly restorative, it had done nothing to help him figure out what he'd say to her so instead he ate a mouthful of his breakfast – a very tasty breakfast at that – and went to check on what was in his pack.

"I'm sorry if I've been holding you all up." He told her as he opened the flap on his pack. He wasn't surprised to see that most of the new weight was fresh rations but underneath them was a pouch not unlike the one Dran had offered Calista. It too jingled with coin but it wasn't as large and attached to it by a pin was a crumpled note.

"That is what you're sorry about?" Calista's question drew his attention immediately for she wasn't just angry; ingrained in her words and expression was a deep hurt that tugged at his heart, "You nearly get yourself killed-"

"And what was I meant to do, Calista, let us all die?" He said back without thinking, voice raised. His friend went to speak but caught herself, growing quiet despite her boiling emotions. The calm he'd felt but a minute before was a distant memory, sighing as he tried to piece together something to stop things degenerating, "It was the only thing I could do to try and stop it and you know that." Calista locked eyes with him, taking a step closer. He matched her look with his own, though it was hard to see beyond her deep annoyance.

"It was a stupid plan."

"At that moment, all I had was stupid and it worked. If sacrificing myself meant you were all safe, I'd do it in a heartbeat. You'd do the same for me," Calista broke off her stare then, eyes on the chair by his bed. It was his turn to take a step closer, all the while trying to formulate what to say next. It was only when he realised how harsh he'd been that the words came to him, "I'm sorry." All the anger in Calista seemed to ebb away at those words, leaving only worry and something else he couldn't quite figure out.

"No, I'm sorry. I..." Calista quickly trailed off, then sighed, "It's not right of me to shout at you for this."

"It's okay, I understand," Kaden managed a smile, though it was fragile. She noticed it but couldn't return the gesture, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear, "At least we know now that Skyrazor can block its lightning breath. Whether it'll actually hurt the thing-"

"Let's... not talk about that right now. We'll have plenty of time for that on the way to Kant's Rest. The others are waiting outside with the mudrunners."

"Then there's not a moment to lose." Kaden retrieved his backpack, putting it on quickly before grabbing what remained of his breakfast – was it even morning? The room had no windows for him to check – before heading out of the room together.

Kaden emerged in a short corridor with doors on either side and a stairway not far ahead. He ignored the other rooms and descended, each step creaking with age as he wolfed down what remained of his meal. He emerged into a room whose walls were entirely hidden by old shelves littered with boxes of leaves, dusty bottles and battered tomes. Stood in the middle of the room with his back to the doorway was the proprietor, a man who wore a light grey tunic and had not a hair on his head. The healer turned to reveal a young face that was horribly burned on the right side, something Kaden had difficulty not looking at despite seeing far worse in his many adventures. The man smiled to him as Calista joined them in the room.

"Ah, Master Kaden. It is good to see you up and about," The healer's voice was soft and understanding, "I hope the meal I prepared for you was satisfactory."

"Try delicious." Kaden smiled. The healer smiled at the gesture as best he could.

"I am glad. There is one more thing I must give you, however," The man picked up a small package wrapped in cloth and tied up with black string which he presented to Kaden, "These bandages have been treated with the same unguent I used on your wounds."

"I wouldn't want you out of coin-" Kaden began.

"I do not heal out of avarice, master Kaden, but to ease the suffering of those around me. Your work does that for those far from this place. If they help you, I will have helped them," The man pressed the package into Kaden's hands, "Please, take them and go with Yem'Da's blessing." Kaden nodded reluctantly; he didn't feel like he deserved such a gift but the man's argument was compelling if a touch flawed and he knew better than to turn down the generosity of the one who'd saved his life.

"Thank you. They will surely be useful," He told the healer, placing the package into his now bulging pack, "I would know the name of the one who tended to me."

"My name is unimportant. That I am a servant of Yem'Da is all you need know," The burned man smiled wider and indicated to the door out, "May your journey be swift and without peril, my friends."

"Thank you," Calista said graciously before she and Kaden left the building via the aged front door. They emerged straight onto a busy street of people in the early morning and while everything seemed ordinary at first glance, some glanced up warily at the sky in case the dragon returned. Kaden also heard talk of the creature about them, though he couldn't pinpoint exactly who was talking fearfully about the 'monstrous beast' that had 'been heartbeat away from killing them all.' He wished he could tell them that things would be alright but he was as afraid as they were, the memory of its huge eye glaring at him through the mouth of the tunnel returning vividly. Only when Calista placed her hand on his shoulder were his thoughts returned to the there and then.

"Something wrong?" She asked him.

"It's nothing," He told her. She didn't appear convinced, forcing him to clarify his answer, "It's nothing we can do anything about, not yet." She nodded and indicated to their right down a narrow street.

"They're this way." She led the way, weaving deftly through the crowd which parted readily for Kaden when they caught sight of his blade.

The mudrunners they'd been loaned were the very ones Harlethorne had sold to the guard but a few days before, though the saddles and harnesses they wore were new.

"The stable master knows I'll return them as they were." Harlethorne had explained simply. Kaden had expected Evan to ride with Azalea but was surprised to find him on the old man's steed instead. He also spied the backpack that Azalea now wore which surely contained Vae, for there was no place in Kaden's pack for it with all the extra provisions. Their journey out of the town was the slowest part, forced to travel down the wider roads and wait for people to make room for them. Kaden's worry that the noise of the town would spook the mudrunners was quickly dispelled, the beasts concerned by their surroundings and even willing to allow the more curious children to touch them, though Harlethorne shooed them away after a few moments to stop an impromptu petting zoo from forming. The guards at the main gatehouse raised the portcullis without hesitation, wishing them a safe and expedient journey home and no sooner had they got away from the queue of people waiting to enter Glimmerside did their flight to Glimmershade truly begin. Harlethorne set the pace of the group which rarely shifted from gruelling, driving the mudrunners harder than Kaden had ever seen anyone do so. He kept checking his steed for signs of pain and exhaustion but the creature seemed no worse for wear, only needing to stop occasionally to feed. Camp was only set up when the sun had truly set and far from the road, Evan eating his fill and falling to sleep by the roaring fire almost immediately afterwards. There would be no rest for the others, however, for conversation had drifted to the inevitable topic of the dragon.

"There's little use hunting something that can fly that fast," Harlethorne had barely touched his rations, sat by the fire checking his crossbow thoroughly as he addressed the others, "Same goes for using infantry. It won't land to give them a chance to strike."

"You presume that we will have to fight it." Vae pointed out. The little dragon was resting but a few inches from the fire and showed no signs of discomfort. Calista strummed on her harp gently, her soft tune sharply contrasting the seriousness of the topic. The bard's eyes were on the cloudless night sky, seemingly lost in thought.

"That thing was mighty angry when we last saw it and I doubt it's mood's going to get better."

"It was reacting to a threat to its life. You would be angry too."

"I can't shoot lightning out of my mouth." The old warrior's words prompted Azalea to stop sorting the berries she'd foraged and join in the discussion.

"It is an affront to the Cycle and must be returned to it," She declared sternly without hesitation. Kaden looked to her with an uncertainty that she noticed, "We all witnessed first-hand what was it capable of, what it could do to Kolvan."

"Every one of us here is capable of many things, Azalea. Whether we'd do them or not is another matter," Kaden argued. Calista's tune grew more sorrowful, now watching the debate rather than the twinkling canopy, "We can guess at its motives and goals but that's all we're doing, guessing."

"That thing nearly killed you, Kaden." Harlethorne reminded him.

"I'm not denying that."

"Until we know what it's intent is, we have to presume it's a threat," Harlethorne told him bluntly, "If that dragon is anything like the monsters of Idra, we're in serious trouble."

"The dragon's not the true enemy here," Calista interjected. All eyes went to her as she finally stopped playing, "Anastasia brought it back for the sake of her ambition. For all we know, she's out there planning to raise another."

"With what magic? We have the scrolls now." Harlethorne argued.

"You presume they're unique," The dragon's rebuttal gave Harlethorne pause, "You also presume that this is the only way to return those from the dead."

"It'd have to be a powerful necromancer to-" Calista cut herself off. Azalea's expression hardened, "The Afran emissary might know how the scrolls work." The old warrior frowned.

"First I've heard of this," He muttered, "Didn't think Letani would be buddying up with them."

"Queen Maren has no intention of allying with them, of that I'm sure," Kaden told him, "It's just a diplomatic formality."

"They don't deserve even that."

"They fought as hard as anyone else in the war, didn't they?"

"Only when the monsters showed up. They were quite happy to sit back and let us do all the fighting till then."

"But they did fight."

"Fresh troops were desperately needed at that point, but when we really needed them was a lot earlier," Harlethorne sighed, looking up the stars briefly, "Sorry, I'm getting us off track."

"We do not need one such as the necromancer to glean how the scrolls perverted the Cycle," Azalea told them all then with certainty, "If music can raise a creature from death, it can be used to return it to its rightful place. We must learn how music interacts with the magic of the scrolls, then learn how to reverse it."

"It is in its rightful place now, Azalea." Vae's statement drew the druid's ire but the dragon held firm, taking to the air so it could match her stare.

"It is an affront to the Cycle-"

"It is a part of the Cycle!" The dragon snapped loudly.

The dragon's shout caused Evan to stir from his rest. The boy looked about with tired eyes, confused that it was still night.

"It did not ask to be returned to the world of the living but it is here." Vae's words were sharp and short.

"But it should not be here." Azalea declared just as firmly.

"And yet it is."

"The world has moved on since its time," The druid indicated all around them, "Were it not for Anastasia's schemes-"

"It is not a dead shell forced to house a soul but a living, breathing creature of this world! What do your teachings tell you of slaying such a thing for the 'crime' of existing? Is that not itself a perversion of the Cycle?" Azalea did not answer, an opportunity the little dragon seized upon, "Calista speaks the truth. That dragon is a victim of our true foe, the so-called queen of Dustledom. It is her that we must ready to battle."

"And if she's ensnared the dragon to her service through beguiling magic?" Harlethorne asked, "What then?"

"Then we do what we can to break the enchantment and return its senses to it," Vae answered back firmly.

"And if we can't? What if we do and it's decided that humans are all like Anastasia and fights us anyway?" The group paused as the question sunk in, the quiet only broken when Evan said his peace.

"Then we show it that not all people are bad," He spoke the words with hope, something that had been in short supply since their lucky escape, "It was frightened like we were. People do silly things when they're frightened, like... like I did when I came to warn you." Kaden found himself smiling at the boy's answer, for it reminded him why he did what he did; to better the world and those who lived in it, be they human, dragon or otherwise.

"Exactly right, Evan," He agreed. The boy hadn't expected that but his shock didn't last, overwhelmed by a huge smile the likes of which Kaden hadn't seen since Kant's Rest, "We hope for the best but prepare for the worst. If we can find a way to communicate with the dragon then I'm all for talking. The last thing I want to do is wipe them out a second time."

"The queen might not see things your way," Harlethorne warned.

"We'll find that out when we speak with her. She gets the last say either way." Calista said as she started to strum her harp once more. The tune this time was lighter than the last which brought Kaden's thoughts to the prospect of standing before the monarch of Letani, broaching the bad news to one who had much on her shoulders already. Azalea gave the dragon one last look before she went back to sorting her berries, deep in thought. That brought the conversation to a close, Harlethorne returning to checking his crossbow, now with Evan watching his every move. The old warrior motioned for the boy to come closer and at first he hesitated. Only when Harlethorne did so again with a weary smile did Evan settle down next to him, beginning a barrage of questions about the weapon that the warrior would soon regret. On a whim, Kaden decided to check the note on the pouch of coins buried in his pack. He retrieved the note and glanced over it.

'We'll get your armour back to you as soon as the smiths have fixed it up,' It said, 'If we're too slow, use this to get something to tide you over till then. I'd like to tell you not to be a stranger, but I know that when adventurers come a-knocking, that means trouble. Maybe I'll come see YOU sometime instead. Dran.' Kaden opened the pouch to tuck the paper into it and saw that the coins within weren't the silver kals he'd expected but rather gold. They were coins from Ulhad and far more than he'd need for a replacement breastplate, another reward that he didn't feel he deserved. He could hardly return it, however, pressed for time as they were so instead he made a mental note to put it with the rest of his and his father's savings when this was all over, provided he had a home to come back to. Much was still in the air and the threat Kolvan faced was still far from over but he knew that no matter how much his friends disagreed, all of them would do what was right to save Letani and the kingdoms beyond, be it from Anastasia or the dragon.

Chapter Thirty

"One person that is rarely mentioned in historical texts is Olium the Mad. Born in Oak's Point in 437 A.E., his affinity with magic was unlike anything that had been seen in Kolvan up to that point. Even at a very young age, he was able to manipulate arcane energies in ways that surprised even the teachers at the college of Haldoshern, prompting an offer to enrol him at the tender age of six. His parents, who eked out a meagre living fly fishing and selling seashells, took the sizeable payment offered by the college without a second thought and while little is known of their later lives, rumour has it that they squandered the money in a few short years and lived in destitution thereafter.

Olium was heralded by all the teachers as a prodigy, the institution showering him with attention and praise as his talents advanced at a meteoric rate. He showed particular affinity in the field of enchantment which caught the attention of the monarch of Haldoshern who lacked an enchanter in his court. Records from the time note that only one member of the college staff voiced concern at the rate of Olium's growth, the head librarian Maria Hewrent. Her worries that Olium was developing a dangerously powerful ego – one openly encouraged by the teachers and the royal court – were brushed aside, prompting her to leave the institution in 451. A year later, Olium was to graduate from the college with the highest honours but the ceremony never occurred.

No-one is quite sure when exactly during the proceedings Olium snapped but the aftermath of his rampage was said to be so horrible that many fainted upon seeing it. Almost all of the teachers attending the ceremony had been killed along with most of the students, or so the guard concluded; what few remains were to be found in the burning room were impossible to identify. It was presumed that Olium had perished along with the others, destroyed by his own magic, but those that had managed to survive had been too busy fleeing the room to say if that was true. It took a century of rebuilding and training before the college reopened and another before attendance returned to normal levels.

This is not the end of Olium's tale, however. Supposed sightings of the wizard – now dubbed the mad enchanter for the travesty he wrought – began to surface all over Kolvan. While none of them were ever validated, several curious magical items began to surface which hinted at his survival. Whether they were weaponry, pieces of armour, arcane paraphernalia or more mundane objects, they all shared two things in common: they were tremendously magical and equally cursed. Whatever boon made using them desirable was countered by a drawback so severe that only the foolish or the desperate would use them. I have catalogued every item attributed to Olium in the section of this tome devoted to magical artefacts, though many have not been seen in centuries. That Olium is long dead is a given, though whether old age or a calamitous arcane accident eventually claimed him will never be known.

It is rather fitting that the collective sum of Olium's legacy is much like the magician: dangerous, deeply flawed and all-but-forgotten. Only the most learned scholars utter his name and his creations are rarely recognised for what they are by the general populace. Of Maria Hewrent, however, we know a little more. She moved to Lodonia, working as chief librarian at the royal library and later serving the ruler directly as head chronicler. Her family line still serves the nation loyally to this day with Patricia Hewrent as royal chancellor. I shall speak more at length of her and the nation she helps govern later in this tome but suffice it to say, hers is the one happy tale in this whole sorry affair which, in my humble opinion, could have easily been avoided with a helpful dose of humility administered at the correct time."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

The ride to Kant's Rest was swift and exhausting, fatiguing Kaden in ways that he hadn't known were possible. Harlethorne had pushed their steeds ever onward, refusing to stop until everyone was half asleep and the day had long since passed. Too tired to debate as they had on the first night, Kaden instead had it all play out in his dreams, going over every possible situation and their countless outcomes. Most of them were laden with disaster and death, the capital of Letani often reduced to a desolate husk. Sometimes it occurred shortly after their arrival, other times it had happened days before the city came in sight. Anastasia was often present, commanding the dragon with magical words that he'd never heard spoken by any wizard but which bade the creature to enact her terrible will. No matter what they did – focusing on saving the populace, trying to rally the guard to fend off the dragon, going after Anastasia themselves – it always failed. What's worse, Kaden was always left alive at the end of it, stood amongst the ruins of what had once been his home and the bodies of his fallen friends. He knew that it was all a nightmare but that didn't make his grief and pain any less real, it lingering long after he was roused awake by Harlethorne before the sun had even thought of rising. The dark about them did little to keep his mind off those horrible thoughts but he did his best, relying on watching the countryside about them as they rushed towards the capital. He hadn't been the only one to suffer from their unending advance; the lack of sleep had hit Calista hard also, though she'd been better at hiding it along with her worry. Azalea and Harlethorne had appeared to be no worse for wear, though Kaden was doubtful they were coping better. This didn't stop the druid continuing to head out into the darkness to forage for berries at night, making Kaden wonder where she got the energy to do so. Evan was hit hardest by the pace of travel, practically asleep by the day's end and barely able to get a meal in before being lost to his deep slumber. Harlethorne had made sure to put a blanket over him at that time, glancing to him occasionally as he checked his weapon and ate his fill. Throughout the journey, Kaden had seen little of Vae, the dragon nestled in Azalea's pack while they'd travelled and curling up by the campfire once they'd stopped. He wondered what the queen would think of the tiny creature if it allowed itself to be seen at all.

Kaden was relieved when he finally reached the farmland surrounding Kant's Rest not long after sunrise. The city was on the horizon and just as he and Calista had left it. They stopped only for a moment to observe it, however, pushing their steeds one last time to navigate the wide dirt path that wound its way between the many fields of wheat on the outskirts. The other people using the road gave way long before they reached them, alerted to their presence by the thunderous noise of the mudrunners. Kaden looked back at each group they passed to check they were alright, watching as many pointed and talked amongst themselves. He also checked the sky for the dragon, trying to spy its silhouette amongst the clouds. That he saw nothing each time didn't reassure him; for all they knew, the mighty creature could command magic as capably as the most mighty spell casters in the kingdom. They crossed the bridge that Kaden had stopped at to converse with the lone fisherman but a few weeks ago without a second thought, reaching the gatehouse shortly afterwards. The portcullis was closed and waiting to get in were only a few people with smallish wagons of produce and goods. Kaden had begun to dismount before his steed had come to a stop, determined as he was to get to the queen as quickly as possible. One of the guards stationed by the gatehouse pointed him out to his fellow, a man that Kaden didn't recognise until he called out.

"Kaden?" It was Adam. The guard looked to the rest of the group, then to his friend in confusion, "I didn't expect you back so soon! Did you rescue the troupe?"

"Open the gates. We need to see the queen immediately," Kaden demanded. Adam was taken aback, frowning as those already waiting began to quietly complain, "Everyone here may be in great danger."

"Woah, woah. Slow down, friend. What happened?"

"We don't have time to explain. The queen needs to be warned."

"Warned of what?"

"Damn it, man, open the gates and let us through!" Harlethorne bellowed angrily from atop his mudrunner. Adam looked to his fellow guard who was as puzzled as ultimately did as was asked.

"Open the gates!" Adam shouted up to the gatehouse. With a loud grinding noise, the portcullis began to rise, giving the guard a few moments which he seized upon to enquire of Kaden further, "Do I need to send a message to the captain?"

"Get the militia ready and all the siege equipment you can muster." That made Adam's eyes widen.

"Siege equipment? Kaden, what's going on? Are we being invaded?" Kaden had already moved back to his mudrunner, mounting it hastily, "Give me something to work with, Kaden!"

"Tell her to watch the skies!" Kaden shouted.

"The skies?!" Even as Adam repeated his words, Harlethorne galloped past him and under the now raised portcullis, ignoring the protests of those who'd waited far longer than him. Kaden wanted to explain everything but knew that time was of the essence and so said nothing. He managed to pass an apologetic look to his friend as he and the others followed behind Harlethorne, leaving those at the gatehouse to look hesitantly at the cloud canopy overhead.

Though the royal palace was surrounded by a lovely garden that the populace were free to appreciate, the seat of power itself was anything but majestic. The curtain wall of the castle had never been besieged but that didn't stop the guards that walked along it from keeping their eyes open for trouble. The fortress itself was as large as the cathedral to Yem'Da and only slightly shorter. Its sole entrance was that gatehouse which Kaden and the others had ridden to at great speed, drawing lots of attention to themselves as the market crowds hastily made way. A few guards had called after them but the group didn't stop, wouldn't stop until the queen was told of the threat to the kingdom. The thought had occurred to Kaden that now was the perfect time to return Evan to his mother but that was a diversion they couldn't afford to take. Four soldiers stood ready to defend the gatehouse leading into the palace grounds, each wearing a suit of spotless plate mail emblazoned with the heraldry of their order, a white cup pouring water into welcoming hands. They'd seen the commotion caused by the group's advance long before they were a threat and had readied themselves for a fight, halberds lowered to stop a charge that never came.

"Stop where you are!" The frontmost soldier ordered even as they'd begun to slow. Those that had been watching the spectacle took a nervous step back, afraid of what might happen, "Identify yourselves!"

"I am Kaden Mallas De'Dustledom and I must speak to the queen on an urgent matter!" Kaden declared loudly as he dismounted once more. Though the soldier's faces were concealed by helmets, he noted the pause before their leader's response.

"Her majesty is very busy at present," The soldier began, "We'll tell her you requested an audience."

"Trust me, she's going to want to hear this sooner rather than later," Harlethorne had moved to Kaden's right. Calista was to his left moments later. One of the soldiers started lowering their weapon only to have a warning glance shot at them by the leader.

"What is the nature of this message?" Asked the soldier. Kaden hesitated, not wanting to spread panic amongst the onlookers any more than they already had at the city entrance. Calista had no such reservations, taking a step forward that prompted the four opposing them to train their weapons on her instead.

"Are you not aware of the edict the queen enacted to assist us in our investigations concerning the kidnapped troupe?" She asked them firmly.

"We are," Came the reply, "We can pass on your findings-"

"The situation has changed drastically since we left here," Kaden watched as her wording prompted another, longer pause. Two of the soldiers glanced to one another, "We must speak with the queen immediately-"

It was then that Kaden heard a voice from atop the gatehouse that went far beyond familiarity.

"Kaden!" He looked up without thinking, immediately recognising the accent first and the man that stood above them second. Malkan was dressed for battle, as always, clad in white brigandine armour, the colour of Dustledom. Though Kaden couldn't see his father's gloves and boots, he had little doubt they matched his armour perfectly. Only a few tufts of brown remained in the old knight's grey hair and beard and though he couldn't see his eyes clearly from that distance, Kaden remembered them vividly. They had a softness to them that had survived despite all that he'd been through, "Let them pass!" The lead soldier looked up to Malkan.

"My orders are to-"

"And I'm ordering you to let them through!" The soldier saluted without hesitation then bellowed at the top of his voice.

"Raise the portcullis!" Kaden looked up again only to find his father gone.

"Pays to have family in high places, eh?" Harlethorne uttered. Whether the soldier guarding the now-rising portcullis heard him, Kaden didn't know, though it prompted Calista to roll her eyes. It also made Kaden ponder why his father, a knight of Dustledom, held authority over Letani soldiers. It was likely the queen's will that made it so; Malkan was just as much a knight as any and it was no secret that he and the ruler were friends, though his father had never gone into how that had come to be. Malkan then emerged from the gatehouse, allowing Kaden to get a better look at him. His trousers and shirt were black – he'd always liked the contrasting colours, or so he'd said in the past – and hanging from his belt was the longsword that had been given to him by the late king of Dustledom. Though time had put wrinkles on his face, the ageing knight still stood a little taller than his son and was fighting fit, a testament to the many hours he devoted to training. Kaden's first instinct was to embrace his father; he hadn't seen him for so long and wanted to hear of his latest foray into the world but he knew that pleasantries were the last thing on his father's mind at that time and after a moment, the impulse vanished.

"I heard of your quest," Malkan began, speaking softly so that the onlookers couldn't hear. Even with the quiet, it was as noble and commanding as ever, "That you have returned soon means something went wrong."

"Very much so, but we mustn't talk about it here," Already Kaden was trying to think on when the best time would be to inform Malkan of that which would shake the very foundations of his world, "Can you get us an audience with her majesty?" Malkan turned and headed back into the gatehouse, motioning for the others to follow. Azalea handed the reigns of the mudrunners to the nearest soldier who hadn't expected that responsibility placed upon him but was too slow to object. Evan remained close to Kaden, his excitement barely contained at the prospect of seeing the queen; few people were allowed beyond the walls protecting the palace and fewer still got to see the monarch face-to-face.

The courtyard beyond the walls was not as Kaden had imagined it would be. Where he'd thought gardens would be there were instead groups of soldiers deep in melee training, following the orders of their superiors to the letter. Stable hands tended to mudrunners by a small wooden building to their left and to their right was an archery range that had recently been used if the arrow-laden targets were anything to go by. Directly ahead of them was the entrance to the castle itself, two huge iron-bound doors that were being watched diligently by six soldiers that glanced briefly in their direction but made no effort to stop them; anyone who'd made it this far without a fight was meant to be there. Malkan stopped the group just beyond the gatehouse, turning to look at them all appraisingly as the portcullis closed behind him. The knight's gaze settled upon Evan, the boy unable to stop himself from smirking from ear to ear.

"Is it best I don't ask?" Malkan enquired idly to his son.

"It's a long story," Kaden told him.

"Adventures often are," Malkan looked to the dull pommel gem of Skyrazor, then to him, "Give me the short version. What are we dealing with?" Kaden took a breath, something his father noticed.

"The troupe were kidnapped by..." Kaden found himself hesitating, his worry getting the better of him.

"By whom?" The knight asked again. Azalea stepped forward before Kaden could answer, drawing Malkan's attention to her.

"A dragon has been resurrected." She stated simply. The gentleness in her voice had mostly returned, though a twinge of her anger lingered. Malkan furrowed his brow, not in puzzlement but concern.

"Well, that's... certainly not what I was expecting." The old knight conceded.

"You did ask for the short version," Harlethorne remarked with a smile.

"I've asked Adam to get the guard ready just in case it comes here," Kadan added, glad that the conversation had drifted in that direction.

"Do you expect it to come here?" Was Malkan's next question.

"I've no idea, honestly."

"Does Adam know?"

"No. I think we riled up the people outside but they don't know all the details."

"Good. The last thing we want is panic," Malkan made a gesture with his left hand. The soldiers watching the castle doors went to work, pulling one of them open just wide enough for them to get through, "Stay close." Malkan went to enter without another word and Kaden quickly followed along with the others. One of the soldiers gave a respectful nod as they passed but Kaden was too busy trying to figure out what they'd say to the queen, how they'd say it and how bad the fallout would be when they'd said it. He didn't know who'd take the news worse, Maren or his father and while the look Calista gave him was a hopeful one, things were likely to get far worse before they got better.

Chapter Thirty One

"Many were the achievements of Kandas and many more are the books that one can consult that talk of great length about them, but what isn't talked about is the equipment they used to achieve such legendary feats. For all of his and Leal's heroics, the tools of their trade were the same as the weapons of war wielded by any other soldier, mercenary or brigand. Kandas was known for favouring melee combat – sword and board was his preferred style – supplemented by his vast arcane prowess. Leal, not possessing the same gift as his friend, relied upon axes for close encounters and the bow to deal with enemies at a distance. If you believe the myths, he was able to hit a moving target over three hundred metres away, a feat I find very unlikely.

In 396 A.E the then king of Letani, Osvaldo, gifted both Kandas and Leal with weapons and armour imbued by the court enchanter for their actions with secured Ethania's independence. This was a great honour, for few were the magic items in existence at that time and fewer still were those not held in the royal armoury of the kingdom. Kandas was given a sword, shield and suit of plate mail while Leal received a bow, quiver, two axes and a suit of chain mail. This only further increased their ability to right wrongs in the world, with many of their enemies surrendering on the spot rather than face off against them. It also further soured Corgaca's opinion of the pair, but that was a given. The enchantments were further bolstered in 413, though the details of what was done have been lost to time.

The third and final enchantments, however, we know a little more about. This was done in 425 A.E. and was again paid for by king Osvaldo. It took nearly a year but the result was what later became known as the Regalia of Kandas: The Dawn's Edge, the Shield of the Sun and the Armour of Radiance. Each was made to be unbreakable and the blade is said to be both amazingly sharp and capable of emitting light that dazzles those whose hearts are full of evil. The shield can absorb and nullify fire both magical and mundane, a mighty enchantment considering the fondness most magicians have for the element. Finally, there was the Armour of Radiance which not only protected Kandas from evil magic but was also capable of warding off the undead, though there are no accounts of him ever battling against such creatures to verify if it was capable of doing so.

I must note at that this point that there are no records as to what specific enchantments Leal's equipment received, though we can presume that it was on the same level of power as that of Kandas's regalia. That the knowledge of Leal's weaponry is once again lost to history is deeply lamentable and something I may look into after this tome has been completed.

Kandas used that equipment for the rest of his adventuring career and it was buried with him when he died. Some refute this, claiming that Kandas would not want such powerful items to languish in a dusty tomb when they could continue to be used in the fight against evil and injustice by others. While I agree with that sentiment, they could also just as easily fall into the wrong hands, a disaster that would surely spell dark days for the world. Until such a time that another whose heart and soul can match the purity and good of Kandas emerges, I humbly believe that the regalia of the hero of old is where it rightly belongs."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Even with him trying to muddle through the many thoughts and concerns within his head, Kaden was brought to a stop by the beauty of the palace's interior. Though the walls were the same grey stone that he'd come to expect from a fortress, much of it was hidden by paintings and tapestries. The former were of the many breathtaking local landscapes, rolling hills and ancient forests that had remained unchanged for centuries. The latter each depicted the many rulers of old who wore both regal finery and battle-ready armour. The head of each was adorned by the same crown which, in stark contrast to the rest of their garb, was a humble thing made of silver and adorned with none of them gems and finery that was typical for such things. The intricate detail of the tapestries was such that Kaden wondered whether magic had been involved in their creation, especially when it came to the faces. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling which glowed with a magical light that filled the entire room, leaving few places for shadows to linger. An unbroken red carpet with a purple wave pattern running along its centre ran the length of the thirty metre corridor ahead of them that was lined with suits of display armour. Each was emblazoned with the heraldry of Maren's family – two crossed bows in front of a tree of silver bark and rainbow leaves – and held a different weapon. At the end of the corridor was a door even larger than the one that had led inside which was as much a work of art as everything else about them. The wood had an intricate forest motif carved into it that was gilded with silver leaf. Two guards wearing thick suits of chain mail and holding two-handed swords stood in front of the door, serving as yet another barrier to those wishing to meet the monarch. Kaden briefly glanced to their left and right to see corridors no less grand save the carpets that ran down them. They were dark blue, not as wide and lacked any embroidered details.

"Must be a pain to dust this place," Harlethorne uttered quietly. Malkan again motioned for them to follow and so they did, though Kaden had to tap Evan on the shoulder to draw him from his wide-eyed wonderment at the riches all about them. While the guards didn't ready for battle as the group approached, they also didn't stand aside to let them past.

"What ho, sir knight," The left guard greeted. Malkan nodded to her.

"Is the queen busy?" He asked politely.

"Her majesty is currently meeting with petitioners," Answered the other guard. She looked past Malkan to Kaden and the others, his gaze lingering on Azalea and Evan, "That said, I am under orders to let you in to see her as and when you require it." The guard knocked on the door gently and only once but whoever waited on the other side heard it and opened the way for them quickly.

The throne room was roughly fifty metres long, half as wide and half as tall. The red carpet had given way to a purple one that led unerringly to the back of the room, stopping before a handful of steps which lead to the two thrones of Letani. Both had been carved from a single piece of wood but were otherwise unadorned. The sole window occupied almost all of the back wall and was of stained glass, the central image of a mighty king standing with his shield and sword ready for battle. The surrounding panes were of heraldic crests, some of which Kaden recognised as belonging to prominent knights and lordly families of the kingdom. Hanging from the walls on either side of the cavernous space were more tapestries that, while wondrous, paled in comparison to the mosaic of light from the window which served as the backdrop to the nation's seat of power. Kaden briefly glanced to the vaulted ceiling, the action prompted by a fleeting bout of paranoia. It looked sturdy though whether it would survive an attack from a dragon was something no-one could answer. In front of the thrones was a group of people, some dressed in rich finery and others not, most of whom turned to look at them as they entered. Then there were the guards, twenty positioned in various places about the room; four were by the doors they'd just entered, that they'd likely opened, seven stood watch along each wall while two protected the queen. Malkan held his hand up in greeting to those who stood along the walls. They watched the group intently but made no move to stop their advance. Kaden's attention returned to the left-hand throne and the one who sat in it that he hoped they'd soon be speaking to. He'd seen her likeness on many a coin but nothing compared to being face-to-face with the monarch. Kaden guessed that she stood only an inch or two shorter than him but it was hard to tell from that distance. Her brown hair was long, flowing down her back and stopping halfway down it. She wore a blue woollen dress and the same crown that Kaden had seen on the tapestries in the entrance hall. He spied no other jewellery, though he'd expected that from her appearance on the coins; many were the times that he'd heard people discuss how plainly she dressed, most attributing it to her humble upbringing. From the group in front of the throne emerged a middle-aged man in an expensive looking green robe clutching a small pile of parchments.

"There is to be no more arriving today!" Beckoned the figure. Malkan stopped and the others followed suit, now but a few steps away from the petitioners. The man's voice was regal and harsh, "Her majesty has devoted quite enough of her time-"

"Stay your breath, Nicholas!" Malkan shouted back without hesitation. The response he got was an exaggerated sigh followed by a tut.

"Who's that?" Kadan whispered to his father.

"The chancellor," Malkan spoke even quieter, "Good at managing kingdoms, terrible at managing people."

"Charming fellow." Harlethorne let his sarcasm flow freely just as Nicholas did with his disapproval.

"Must you always pick the most inopportune times to distract her majesty from her duties?" Nicholas asked with a sigh.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't important." Malkan narrowed his eyes as he answered, the two engaging in a stare-off of sorts. Kaden wanted to interject, desperate to pass on what they knew but he was also painfully aware of where he stood and who was watching. The queen observed the slowly escalating argument with light blue eyes that looked less weary than Kaden had imagined they'd be. He couldn't begin to guess how difficult it was to rule a nation, all while having to look strong in front of her people. She did nothing to hide her wrinkles, be they from time's never-ending march or the stress of her position, sat upright and without a smile on her lips. She caught him looking at her which prompted Kaden to quickly divert his eyes to his father and the chancellor.

"You claim that everything is important, Malkan." Nicholas chided.

"Have I been wrong?" The old knight objected.

"Importance is relative. What is important to one such as you is but a trifling matter far beneath the attentions of her majesty."

It was then that Evan moved from the group with purpose and that same stubborn, angry look Kaden recognised from their argument in Glimmershade.

"Evan! Get back here!" Calista's warning was ignored and the boy was already too far away from Kaden to be grabbed. Before anyone knew it, Evan was stood in front of Nicholas, glaring at him. The chancellor looked down to him for but a fleeting instant before ignoring him and returning to looking down at Malkan instead.

"You know as well as I that children are not allowed to petition-" Nicholas was cut off by the boy he'd spurned stamping his foot in frustration, an action which caught everyone's attention including the guards.

"I am not a child!" Evan told him in a hauntingly adult-like voice, "I am eleven but I won't reach twelve if you don't let my friends tell the queen about what we've seen!" Though his words brought about mutterings from the petitioners, it only prompted a dismissive eye roll from Nicholas.

"What you've 'seen' is probably nothing that cannot be handled by local authorities," Nicholas declared in a patronising tone, "It is not the queen's responsibility to root out every brigand or cutpurse that plagues the kingdom."

"And what about a dragon?" The mood in the throne room shifted immediately from curiosity to open concern, the mutterings between the petitioners now louder and more frantic. The guards either side of the throne risked a glancing look between each other. While it looked like Maren hadn't reacted to the news, her eyes had shifted to look upon Evan, perhaps to see if she could detect any falsehood. Nicholas merely laughed.

"Dragons do not exist!" The chancellor was speaking not just to Evan but everyone else about him and he did so with certainty, "Her majesty has no time to waste chasing childish fantasies!"

"They do exist!" Evan protested, stamping his foot, "I've seen it, we all saw it! It's big and scaly and... and big! Very big!" Harlethorne and Azalea nodded in unison but the chancellor remained unconvinced, levelling an accusing stare upon Kaden's father.

"And you took this at face value, Malkan?" He asked the man.

"My son-"

"Did he present you with any actual evidence of this 'dragon' existing?" Malkan paused, something the chancellor seized upon, "You have no proof because there is no proof because there is no-"

"Then what am I?" The new voice in the debate came from Azalea's direction. The chancellor turned to address what he thought was a person only to freeze in fright at the sight of Vae. The little dragon sat as tall and regally on the druid's shoulder and its expression was full of equal parts smugness and anger. The petitioners that could see it recoiled in horror, their gasps echoing about the room even as the guards by the walls moved in to encircle the group. Malkan was momentarily surprised but quickly regained his composure, motioning for the advancing circle to stop. It did not. Kaden resisted the instinct to draw Skyrazor, knowing that they weren't in any real danger.

"Told you!" Evan had folded his arms as if awaiting an apology. Maren had stood from her throne. Nicholas struggled for words.

"...You... you...!" The man fumbled.

"Do not exist? Am beneath the concerns of her majesty?" Vae tried to guess as he took to the air.

"C-Clearly you are a figment of magic, conjured to deceive her majesty so that she might-" Vae flew closer to the chancellor then in a fast, deliberate move. He tried to step back but caught his feet on the bottom of his robe, causing him to stumble and fall. The parchments he'd held scattered about him, some unfurling to reveal huge blocks of tiny text. All sense of decorum left Nicholas as he cried out, "Stay back! Don't hurt me!"

"You are welcome to reach out and see for yourself that I am flesh and scale. I promise not to bite," Vae smirked, flashing its teeth at the already scared chancellor. One of the guards surrounding them interposed himself between the dragon and Nicholas, prompting the dragon to stop its advance and instead hover, "I am very real and so is the much larger, powerful and ancient dragon that was resurrected deep within the mountains of Glimmershade by the queen of Dustledom."

The chorus of gasps and murmurings from the petitioners was so loud that it filled the whole room. The guards were more stoic, unflinching in the face of the revelation. From Maren, there was a raised eyebrow of curiosity but Kaden wasn't watching her; his attention was fixed squarely on his father, waiting for the kal to drop. At first, Malkan didn't react at all but once the words had sunk in he did a double-take, staring in utter disbelief at the little dragon.

"Queen," Malkan uttered the word as if he'd seen a ghost.

"Indeed." Confirmed the dragon. Malkan blinked.

"It...it cannot be. She perished with the rest of the royals when the castle fell," In Malkan's voice were many emotions; shock, doubt and but also a hint of hope, "She must be an impostor, someone besmirching the good name of the Dustledom family line to gain leverage for her schemes!" Kaden remembered something then, opening one of his pouches to retrieve the signet ring they'd found on the farm. He held it out and his father took it, the old knight examining it intently.

"She was with a knight called Asimov," Kaden told him. Malkan's eyes widened, "...Is that a name you know?" His father said nothing, his look distant as his face paled. That told Kaden he knew either the crest or the name but his father eventually answered.

"...It is," The knight declared to everyone about them, taking a deep and shaky breath. The murmurings about them had changed to be all about Anastasia. For Kaden there was no more doubt; no-one on all of Kolvan knew more about the knightly order of Dustledom, except possibly those that now opposed them. Nicholas picked himself up slowly, keeping a keen eye on Vae the entire time, "...This is Asimov's heraldry. He'd been a knight for nearly a decade before I took up my sword in defence of the king. I... I was sure he'd fallen during the siege."

"He and Anastasia escaped before the castle walls fell, or so she claims." Harlethorne still didn't sound completely convinced. Malkan's gaze was on the ring, focusing utterly upon it. Kaden couldn't begin to understand what his father was going through, his whole world falling about him in one fell swoop. What he did know was that the heraldry on Asimov's magical shield didn't match the one on the ring; had the shield originally not belonged to him?

"Asimov was a good man, a man of integrity and virtue and princess Anastasia-" Malkan's voice was buckling under the weight of the emotions he was trying so hard to contain, "...What would drive them to do something like this?" Everyone waited for everyone else to give the answer and so Kaden nervously gave it.

"...Dustledom," His father looked up from the ring. There were tears in his eyes, "She wants to liberate Dustledom."

"With a dragon she brought from the dead," Harlethorne's addition was a stern one which prompted the queen to step from her throne, flanked either side by her guards, "She tried to control it with her son's magic-"

"Son?" Malkan was taken by surprise yet again, "She has a son?"

"Kaden seems to think so. Asimov's the father." Malkan again withdrew into his pondering, more troubled as well as lost and confused. Kaden wished he could say something that would make everything better, ease his father's worries but all they had was the truth and the many stinging barbs which adorned it.

Movement out of the corner of Kaden's eye made him turn to see the queen moving through the crowd of petitioners towards them. Nicholas bowed his head respectfully to his liege and Kaden followed suit, not wanting to offend her. At her approach, the guards circling them stepped back and lowered their weapons, silently obeying the queen's will.

"If there is a chance that it is headed this way, we must be ready for it," Maren's voice was quiet, strong and every bit what Kaden had imagined it to sound like. Her eyes settled on Vae who she looked at without fear, "What is this thing capable of, little one?"

"It has breath of lighting and the power to blast a hole through a mountain," Vae had stopped projecting its voice about the room, speaking only to her, "We are unsure what can harm it if anything."

"I asked one of the guards at the city gates to get the siege equipment ready," Kaden said despite the awkwardness he felt in addressing the queen directly, "Better to have it set up and not need it than the other way around, I wagered."

"A wise sentiment," The queen complimented. Maren nodded then looked to the guard at her right, "Alert the wizard's college. Tell them everything." She ordered. The guard nodded.

"At once your highness." The guard began to head out when Calista spoke up.

"There may be a way we can avoid bloodshed," The bard said out of the blue, "I... don't know if it'll work but I might allow me to talk to it." While it was the first that Kaden had heard of this, he had no reason to doubt her and the queen appeared to think the same. Before Calista could continue, however, a guard rushed into the throne room. She was out of breath and terrified.

"Your highness..!" She gasped, "In the sky, a... a thing! A huge thing! It's headed this way!" Her words were immediately by a roar that managed to pierce the walls about them. Everyone froze. Kaden's heart sank only for it to be filled with fright; they were too late.

Chapter Thirty Two

"Some would say that the Great War was inevitable, that our society is built upon a foundation of strife, bloodshed and death. Some go one step further, proclaiming that humans are a savage, instinctual species of individuals who seek power and riches above all else. They claim that those in positions of authority do all they can to keep them, the better to dictate the flow of future events in their favour, leading to conflicts that will one day spell out our destruction.

As part of my efforts to write this tome, I have studied many aspects of history: the foundation of the world's nations, their ancient leaders, technological advancements and the many bumps in the road that have brought us to the present day. I do not deny that the past is fraught with war and suffering, much of which you can find detailed within this very book. Corgaca's era of colonialism and conquest, the ever-unstable Southern Kingdoms and the contested Aefun-Takken border paint a bleak picture of power-hungry rulers using their populace as cannon fodder in a game of resources and land. Then there are the many plagues, droughts, floods and Earthgert attacks throughout the centuries which have left entire communities devastated, if not in total ruin. Faced with all of that and the Great War that the world is still recovering from, you'd be forgiven for believing that we as a people are doomed.

Those events do not exist in a vacuum, however. While it is true that terrible things have happened in days gone by, much good has also occurred. Many of the nations of the world have remained peaceful, just and prosperous for most of their existence. The Letani-Polena alliance has existed since 323 A.E. with Lodonia joining upon being granted its independence in 500. Aefun and the Great Takken Empire are working hard to repair the damage caused by emperor Okawa's naked ambition and even the people of Afran are beginning to see some very small improvements to their rights. When calamity befalls communities, others rush to pledge whatever assistance they can to save lives and get those who have suffered back on their feet quickly. Then there is the Great War which serves both as an example of the worst depravities some will stoop to and the moment that the world united to defeat a great evil.

Finally, there are those individuals who go above and beyond what is expected of them to better the lives of others. I imagine that when I say that, the images that come to mind are of great heroes, both the past and present but that is only one of many ways someone can be extraordinary. You do not need to take up arms and do battle with evil directly, though there are times when such drastic action is required. No, the way that evil shall be eradicated and the world made better is through small acts of generosity and compassion. Helping to fix the farmer's fence so they can focus on bringing in the harvest, giving a spare kal to someone down on their luck and always being non-judgemental to those you meet are but a few examples of what you can do. It may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things but kindness begets kindness and if we all took the time to be kinder to one another, the world will be all the better for it."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

"Yem'Da, save us." Nicholas uttered, his words trembling with the fear they all felt, "Why is it here? What could it want with us?"

"Beats me," Harlethorne answered, his crossbow already in hand, "Maybe Anastasia lured it here as payback for us 'ruining' her plans."

"You presume she actually has a way to control it and knows where it was head." Vae pointed out.

"If she can vanish into thin air, who knows what else she can do?"

"The man in tattered robes did that, not her."

"You knew exactly what I meant and we don't have time to bicker." The panicked petitioners being were escorted out of the throne room by some of the guards. The assurances that they were being led to 'somewhere safer' didn't sit well with most of them but they had few other options and so complied. Soon it was just them, the queen's protectors and an eerie quiet within the throne room. The chancellor rushed to the side of his queen, his look imploring and desperate.

"We have to get you out of the city and to safety, your highness!" He insisted. Maren shook her head, something Nicholas hadn't expected, "My duty first and foremost is to ensure that you-"

"My place is here with my people, Nicholas. Their fate is my own." She said to him simply. Kaden took heart in her bravery but the painful memories of his close call in Glimmershade forced him to speak up.

"With all due respect, your highness, this castle will not withstand the dragon's assault," Kaden told her. The look he got from the queen told him that she would not be moved and so he didn't push further.

"Do not concern yourself with me. You and your companions have more important things to take care of," Maren informed them. The remaining guards had moved closer to Maren, ready to defend their liege with their lives. She and Malkan glanced to one another in which she passed him a smile which vanished as quickly as it had appeared, "All I ask is that you avoid killing the dragon if at all possible. There is much we could learn from it of this world's past, provided we can communicate with it."

"I'll try my best." Calista didn't sound sure of herself but the queen appeared to have confidence in her.

"What of Anastasia?" Malkan asked warily. The queen paused.

"I would prefer that she was brought in alive to be questioned. However noble her motives claim to be, her desires have led to this potentially dire situation and I do not think that she will let go of her dream to see Dustledom restored willingly."

"That's what I thought too," Kaden's agreement drew his fathers attention. He couldn't tell whether he agreed or was angry with him.

"If you are left with no alternative but to slay her, however, then so be it. I will leave that judgement call up to you." The old knight listened to Maren's words then spoke with conviction.

"You deal with the dragon. I'll confront Anastasia when she shows herself."

"If you are sure you do not require our aid." Azalea checked. Malkan gave her a look.

"You know far more about this dragon that I," Malkan stepped towards the door out, once more taking the lead, "Let's move."

Kaden followed his father quickly, eager both to save as many lives a possible but also to make sure his father didn't get out of sight. For all that he'd said to Anastasia about Malkan's loyalties when within that cave, there was a minuscule gasp of doubt which had surfaced ever since he saw his father's reaction to the queen-in-exile's survival. So distracted was he that Kaden didn't notice Harlethorne pausing to bow to the queen before leaving the throne room or that Evan was still with them. Only when a question was aimed at Calista did he focus again on what was most important, keeping his wits about him.

"So what's this master plan of yours?" The old warrior asked as they rushed towards the still open doors leading out.

"I think its language is one of song," Calista explained hastily. She reached not for the hand crossbow at her waist but the harp buried in her pack, "If I can figure out the mood of the piece as it were-"

"Don't tell me you're going to sing to it!" Harlethorne was both aghast and incredulous all at once.

"I'd like to hear you come up with a better idea!" The sounds of panic were audible the moment they exited the palace, a noise that put Kaden on edge while also spurring him on to rush out and see what he could do. Only his years of adventuring stayed his nerves; his voice alone would do nothing to ease the very justified fright that was gripping the populace. He had to leave that to the city guard and the militia that were surely mobilising to defend their home. A quick look about the skies revealed no dragon, it likely hidden behind the dense cloud. A beckoned order brought his gaze to the training grounds within the palace courtyard and quickly spied those who'd been training but minutes before. They were now assembled in battle formation under the watchful eye of their commander, bows at the ready to fire. Three more were pushing a wheeled ballista from around the corner while a fourth pulled a smaller cart laden with heavy bolts alongside. Kaden hoped it would be powerful enough to penetrate the dragon's hide. None of the guards noticed them, a small mercy considering that Vae was no longer making an effort to hide its presence. The portcullis out to the city streets had been raised just high enough for them to pass under and so they did but not before he looked back to the palace one last time. He hoped this wouldn't be the last time he looked upon it intact but hope alone would not win the day.

The relative calm within the palace walls felt a far cry away as Kaden observed the pandemonium that had erupted on the streets. People scurried this way and that and while many appeared to have a destination in mind – likely home – some had rushed to the nearest locked building to hammer on the doors fruitlessly, wailing for sanctuary. Though some guards and militia were trying to guide people off the streets – the latter identifiable by their equipment, old suits of leather armour and spears – there were too few of them for their efforts to make much of a difference. There were also no signs that any siege equipment was being set up, though Kaden knew it would take a good while to get the heavier stuff into the more open parts of the city if it was even fully assembled. They were an island of relative tranquillity in a maelstrom of bedlam, one which was being totally ignored as everyone looked out for themselves. Malkan's eyes were scanning everywhere that someone could be hidden, from the highest rooftops to the darkest alleys, his sword drawn ready for a fight. Kaden followed suit, though he doubted the dragon would land to give him any of them a chance to strike. Evan stood in the midst of them observing the chaos in silence.

"...I'm scared." Evan declared in a shaky whisper.

"You should go check if your mother's alright," Kaden suggested then, hoping to spare him yet more peril. The boy thought on it briefly, then shook his head. His dagger was drawn ready for a fight.

"You might need my help." Though Evan was struggling to keep his hand steady, Kaden knew better than to go against the boy's stubbornness. Calista meanwhile had handed Azalea two rolled-up parchments, the magical music scores.

"In case my plan doesn't work." She told the druid.

"I cannot read music," Azalea replied.

"But you can read magic."

"You really think it's going to stop by for a chat?" Harlethorne didn't take his aim from the sky while he spoke.

"It might recognise us."

"Not sure we want to be remembered as being there when it was brought to life."

"We were not the ones to bring it to be." Vae reminded him.

"And how does it know that?" It was then that the old warrior's attention focused on something in the distance, "There you are." Kaden looked up and spotted it immediately, though it was higher than he'd thought it would be. In the light of day, it was an even more majestic sight, its feathers shimmering as if it were a rainbow made real. The panic about them only grew in intensity at the sight of the beast and then again by a tightly massed group of guards who were pushing a pair of ballista that were far larger than the one being set up in the palace. The group were being led by Lizzy whose sword was drawn ready for a fight. To her left was Adam who looked up to the dragon warily along with many of the other guards. The captain, meanwhile, appeared to be more annoyed at the development than anything else.

"You didn't tell me it was a dragon!" Adam exclaimed. Then he spotted Vae and gasped in shock. The dragon – now sat on Azalea's shoulder and observing the skies calmly – ignored the man's pointing finger at first. The captain of the guard was watching it warily, "You... you're-"

"It's a long story, one we don't have time to explain. Just know that this one is on our side." Kaden apologised. To Lizzy's right was a figure Kaden recognised not by his appearance but his garb which was similar to the attire of the wizards from the college and yet very different. This man wore an old, grey robe rather than muted orange of the teachers and students he'd seen from time to time. The middle aged man had pale skin and a face gaunt but his eyes were a deep green and more curiously, his teeth were immaculate. He held no arcane tome in his hand, instead clutching a plain staff forged of steel that he carried with relative ease. Evan hid immediately behind Kaden, face as white as the wizard who approached and stopped but a few paces from the group along with Lizzy. The robed figure was the only one of the three that hadn't reacted to Vae's presence; did the man know of their existence already? Kaden found it unlikely but then, wizards did end up accumulating a lot of eclectic knowledge in their long lives.

"You must be Feval." Kaden guessed. His words were ignored by the necromancer who had eyes only for the parchment that Azalea held. The druid glared at the man who ignored her too.

"Tell me you have a way to kill this thing, Kaden," Lizzy spoke both with hope and resignation, for she knew as well as they that what they had likely wouldn't work. The guards continued to push the siege equipment into place, careful to avoid the more even parts of the cobbles. Their arrival was anathema to the panicking populace who vacated the square towards anywhere else. With them went most of the commotion, though Kaden could still hear distant cries of fright in the distance. He quickly looked up to the sky again to check on the dragon only to find that it had vanished again, it likely back behind the clouds that hid it so well. He hoped its lightning breath didn't have the reach of the more mundane variety that rained down from the heavens, a thought that made him lament on the pallid dreariness of the clouds above them. No storm meant no recharge for Skyrazor outside of absorbing its attack within the blade. He hoped that wouldn't damage it but at that point, he'd gladly sacrifice his weapon if it meant saving the city.

"We're going to try and talk to it first," Kaden told Lizzy, motioning to Calista, "We think music is the key to that as it was used in its resurrection."

"And if that fails?"

"Let me look upon them," Feval's voice was quiet, croaky and directed at the sheet music. Azalea looked reluctant to part with them, "You have my word they will be returned to you." Feval snatched the parchment from her hand the moment she opened it for him, quickly unfurling the first and skimming it briefly. The man muttered something under his breath and for a moment, his hands and eyes began glowing a sinister green that set Kaden's hair on end. He wanted to know what kind of spell he was using but knew better than to interrupt a wizard. The first ballista had been put in place but one of the wheels on the second had fallen off in the commotion. Lizzy rolled her eyes and beckoned to the guards by it.

"Set it up where it is!" She ordered.

"But the angle-"

"Then find something to prop it up! We don't have time to fix it!" Two of the guards rushed over to an abandoned market stall and the wooden crate by it. Harlethorne let out an almost wistful sigh.

"This takes me back," The old warrior said, "They were bigger in Ulhad and backed up by a line of catapults but you couldn't have asked for better support against the beasts of Idra."

"Did it actually work?" Adam inquired.

"As a morale booster, certainly," Malkan answered, "In actually killing them?" Adam didn't look encouraged by the old knight's silence, looking up at the sky with concern.

"This thing isn't one of those monsters, however, so it might work." He hoped. To that, Malkan said nothing. A guard emerged then from a side street and quickly rushed over, his face red and breaths deep. He saluted to Lizzy and she nodded in return, awaiting his report.

"We've got detachments setting up safe zones in the cathedral, the west park and the warehouse district," The guard told her, "We've also got isolated reports of looting people trying to shelter in the sewers. We've got people working on the former, but should I get others on the latter?"

"They're as safe as they'll ever be down there," The captain replied, keeping calm, "Check the north guardhouse for anyone unassigned and send them to the gatehouses. They'll likely be swamped with people trying to leave the city."

"At once!" With that, the guard rushed off out of the square faster than Kaden thought he could considering his armour. Lizzy turned them to the guards who had finished setting up the ballistae.

"Firing positions!" Her command was answered not with words but action as people moved into a loose formation, bows ready and aimed at the sky waiting for their foe to appear. The ballista crew began readying a bolt to be fired, with one guard taking a moment to shift the crate that kept their weapon balanced.

Feval's eyes returned to normal at that point and though his expression had remained utterly unchanged, there was something different about it.

"This magic cannot be used to unmake the creature," He declared bluntly, offering the scrolls back to Azalea. Calista took them instead, rolling the two together into one. Harlethorne sighed, voicing the disappointment that Kaden had half expected, "It can only return what has passed to be."

"A defilement of the cycle," Azalea remarked. She and the necromancer looked to one another once more, Kaden expecting a bitter argument to erupt. Instead Feval cracked a tiny smile, something that didn't look right at all.

"We have more pressing matters than a clash of ideology, my friend," He said to her, "Once this matter is taken care of, however, I will happily debate with you on the matter."

"Then we shall hold off until that time." The druid agreed. A bellowing roar came from directly above them and before they knew it the dragon had begun its descent, soaring down towards them at great speed. The guards grew restless.

"Hold!" Lizzy beckoned to those under her command. Most stood firm but a few hesitated, looking about for a possible avenue of escape "HOLD!" Kaden could well understand their fear, his heart pounding hard as it drew ever closer. He held his sword up ready to defend them from a blast of lightning. Harlethorne did the same with his crossbow and Azalea's posture had shifted to one of spellcasting but rather than attacking, the hulking creature slowed its descent upon approaching the square and landed right in front of the guard formation with an earthshaking thud that almost knocked them all off their feet and succeeding in sending Vae falling off Azalea's shoulder, the little dragon just managing to take flight before hitting the ground.

Chapter Thirty Three

"Ethania is a curious nation. Originally the first colony of Corgaca in its search for mineral riches, it was founded in 220 A.E. with the hope that gold would be discovered within the mountain range lining the northern shores of the sizeable island. It quickly became apparent, however, that Ethania had very poor mineral wealth; copper was the only metal discovered in significant quantities which Corgaca had no use for. Significantly out of pocket, Corgaca sought to recoup their 'investment' by subjecting Ethania's few exports – food, lumber and the aforementioned copper – to heavy taxes on top of a yearly tribute paid directly to the royal coffers. That the Ethanian people suffered was an understatement and though there were a few failed attempts to rid themselves of their oppressors, it wasn't until Kandas intervened that they finally became an independent nation in their own right.

The isle of Ethania is slightly larger than that of Ilara – the third and final of Corgaca's colonial acquisitions – and at first glance, you would be forgiven for thinking that you were in Letani, though there are subtle differences. The forests are nowhere near as ancient, continuously cut down and replanted in a masterfully planned operation that ensures a never-ending supply of lumber. The farmer's fields are also meticulously planned out, with regular crop rotations and specially tailored fertilisers to make up for the poor soil. Their mining operations are expensive, aggressively seeking out the rare deposits of iron hidden amongst the abundance of copper.

The people of Ethania are hard-working folk who start the day early and put down tools only when fatigue forces them to. Contrary to popular belief, however, their rigorous work ethic has not made them dour and unfriendly; a stranger willing to extend a hand in friendship can find themselves overwhelmed by generosity and conversation which the Ethanians have a great fondness for. Each farming community looks out not just for their own but the other communities about them, doing all they can to ensure everyone has enough to get by when times are tough. When times are better, they save most of their profits for a rainy day and spend the rest on luxuries. This attitude exists also in the three major towns of the nation, Deln, Loris and the capital of Kinos.

People seeking a souvenir to commemorate their time in Ethania have many choices. I could point you to any one of the many talented metal artists, each of whom creates breathtaking copper and bronze pieces. The same is true of those who work in wood and the taverns have some of the finest meals I have ever eaten on the road; each one makes me question whether magic was somehow involved in turning the local produce into mouthwatering dishes resplendent in flavour. I wholeheartedly recommend you pick up some mustard while there, though do not be fooled into buying mustard seeds, for no-one has ever managed to get them to grow beyond Ethania's shores. For those with particularly deep pockets, you can commission a master bowyer to make you a longbow. It is a weapon all Ethanians are required by law to both possess and be proficient with its use in case they are called to defend their nation as the people did many centuries before in their fight for freedom. Their lethal volleys were a critical part of the war effort against Idra, turning the tide in many battles, showing the world that there was much more to the Ethanian people than the sum of their exports."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

The dragon's tail smashed into two of the buildings behind it, caving in their front walls and sending the rest of the structures crashing down. The ballistae were right in front of it but the creature ignored the siege weapons in favour of roaring once more. So loud was its bellow that most of the guard dropped their bows to cover their ears, crying out in pain. It took all of Kaden's willpower not to do the same, though he did recoil from the agony, his ears left ringing from the noise. The others fared little better, Evan still wincing in pain after the dragon's cry had abated. Malkan stared at the thing in both wonderment and wariness, caught up by its terrifying beauty.

"It's so huge..." Adam exclaimed in a gasp. Some of the guards scrambled for their weapons while the rest wavered in the alien gaze of the beast, hoping to strike before it lashed out at them.

"Hold your fire!" Lizzy ordered once more, this time louder.

"But captain-" One of the frightened ballista crew called back.

"You will do as I say!"

"But the thing-"

"I am well aware of what we're facing but you will not attack until we are certain that it intends us ill, do I make myself clear?" She didn't get a reply, "Do I make myself clear?!"

"Y-yes captain!" Still, it didn't attack; was it waiting for something, an order from Anastasia? The dragon's attention wasn't on the exchange but the siege weapons readied before it, though its look was more of curiosity than aversion.

"I don't know how long I'm going to be able to keep my men in line..." Lizzy warned them quietly, looking to the wavering ranks that shielded them – however ineffectually – from the dragon's wrath.

Calista nodded to the captain and took a deep breath before stepping forward. Kaden moved to join her but she shook her head.

"After what you did in the cave, it's probably frightened of you," She said to him. He couldn't disagree even though the last thing he wanted was for her to face it alone. He resisted the urge to drag her back just barely, knowing that each second they wasted potentially drew them closer to calamity. She smiled in an attempt to reassure him but it rang false, barely masking her deep fear, "Wish me luck, Kaden."

"All of it." Kaden's words quivered as they left his lips, breath shaky. They looked to each other for a second more and it seemed like Calista was about to say something just as Kaden felt something weighing his mind down, something very important. The chaos of the situation kept the thought clouded, however, obfuscating the words he wanted to let free and so he said nothing. He watched her walk carefully away, weaving through the disorganised ranks of the guard towards the dragon.

"Be ready," Feval uttered quietly.

"For what?" Kaden asked that question despite knowing deep down what he meant. The necromancer let silence be his response and as Harlethorne double-checked the bolt loaded in his crossbow. Kaden raised his sword reluctantly, something that the dragon noticed. By then Calista had made it past the still recovering formation of guards, stopping only when the dragon dug its claws deep into the cobbles, tensing up and baring its teeth bared threateningly.

Kaden winced. He expected a scream followed immediately by his worst nightmare becoming reality but... there was nothing. No cry of rage, no lightning, just... silence and staring. Calista and the dragon were looking to one another and while the huge creature glared, her expression was one of empathy.

"The moment of truth." Vae had flown up to Kaden's shoulder, its words whispered. Calista lifted her harp and strummed a soft, melodious chord that carried in the quiet. The dragon blinked quickly then dug its claws deeper into the earth as if bracing for something terrible.

"You're confused, aren't you?" She asked gently, strumming another chord which complimented the first. Upon hearing that the dragon lowered its head to be closer to her and the music. Calista closed her eyes and began to play a song that Kaden had never heard before. It was both beautiful and haunting, an otherworldly melody that brought to mind magical places that could only be seen in dreams and the minds of the young. The sensation wasn't entirely dissimilar from the magical song he'd heard twice before but it lacked the enrapturing nature of it.

"Most intriguing," Feval said to himself, stroking his chin as he watched Calista perform. Was that the right word? There was music but almost magic so was she playing or casting? The bard continued and though everyone about was listening, she was playing only for the dragon. It no longer bared its teeth and the tension in its body had faded though it was far from the comfortable slump of scales that Vae was when next to a roaring campfire.

"You went to seek your kin and found no-one," Calista's song moved subtly to a more melancholy tune, welling with a loneliness that was mirrored in Kaden's stomach despite himself. He had to concentrate to banish it away but the dragon reacted to the change. Its eyes slowly shifted shut and it let out a deep, laboured breath. Within it was a rumbling note that struggled to be and yet slotted in perfectly to Calista's sorrowful song. A spark of hope ignited in Kaden's heart; had it understood her? "You found only us, strangers in a land you once knew." Only then did Kaden realised that he'd lowered his weapon; had her song made him do that? He wasn't the only one either, the guard's fear non-existent as they listened in awe to the piece Calista weaved into being with each pluck of her fingers. The dragon 'spoke' again but this time there were more 'words'. They were fast, erratic and discordant, a barrage of desperate noise that Calista did nothing to fight. Instead, she slowed the pace of her song, slotting notes in only when the dragon left a gap.

"We do not know what happened to your kind but you are not truly alone," The dragon's eyes opened, looking questioningly at her and only her. While Kaden wanted nothing more than to be beside her in that terrifying moment, he was also glad not to be subjected to the creature's intense stare. He'd been in many a scary situation but this was something else entirely and yet still she stood firm.

Calista stopped playing and indicated back to those behind her, a signal the Vae understood perfectly. The little creature lifted off from Kaden's shoulder and flew straight and true through the guard formation. They gasped and shot startled looks at Vae but none made an effort to stop it soaring into Calista's open hand, perching delicately there. The two dragons looked to one another and though no words were spoken – literal or in song – Kaden could feel a discourse going on between them. Calista lifted the hand Vae rested on and the little dragon took flight once more, allowing the bard to resume playing, the tone calm and soothing.

"I cannot begin to understand the pain you suffer," Despite how quiet Vae's words were, Kaden could hear it just fine, "Though we are not strictly of the same blood, you are as much family to me as the rest of my brethren." A subtle shift to Kaden's left alerted him to Feval looking about to the nearby buildings. His posture hadn't changed but there was an urgency to how his eyes darted about that told Kaden that something was wrong. He tried to catch the necromancer's attention to find out precisely what but the man ignored him, focused absolutely on his search. This prompted Kaden to have a look about himself, though he couldn't see anything out of the ordinary aside from the massive dragon that dominated everyone's attention. Calista's music was again taking on its dreamy, near magical-state and that was when he spotted something. On the other side of the square there stood a figure at the mouth of an alleyway, one in dark robes that Kaden recognised as belonging to the sinister figure from back in the cave. He'd of completely evaded Kaden's notice were it not for a large wooden crate that his form partially obscured. Kaden subtly moved his hand to tap Feval on the shoulder.

"I see it." The necromancer whispered darkly. Kaden wanted to warn Calista but knew that any sudden movements or noise would interrupt her song and almost certainly annoy the dragon she'd worked so hard to calm. He looked to Harlethorne who noticed his movements and then spied the robed figure. He, in turn, nudged Malkan, nodding his head in the direction of their foe who'd picked the perfect time to make their move.

"We are not your enemies," Calista told the dragon, unaware of the threat she faced, "We will do all we can to ensure you live free and safe-"

The twang of a crossbow firing caught Calista off guard, the rhythm of her music faltering as the bolt pierced the air. Kaden caught sight of it and immediately noticed that it wasn't aimed at the shadow figure. It sailed over the heads of the guard and past the dragon, shooting ever upward until it reached the rooftop to the left of the collapsed buildings. Atop it stood two figures that wore the same grey cloaks that Kaden had come to associate with Anastasia and her lackeys. That the bolt veered wildly off course just before hitting the frontmost of the pair told Kaden everything he needed to know about who they were, a hunch that was confirmed when the other pulled back her hood to reveal herself. Malkan looked up to see his rightful liege and paused; did he recognise her despite the passage of time? The guard formation took notice of the new arrivals but before they could even think about repositioning, the queen drew from her cloak a short white rod which she pointed towards the dragon.

"Hear me, people of Letani!" Anastasia beckoned to all those assembled as she stepped in front of the other with her, her son. The other figure was too short to be Asimov which made him wonder where the knight was and what he was planning.

"Oh no..." Calista exclaimed, stepping back slowly as the dragon shuffled agitatedly to look at the one who bellowed so loud. Some of the guards began to reposition to better aim at the new arrivals. Azalea looked ready to cast a spell. Feval didn't move, watching the queen with an unmoving expression.

"Make one more move and my son will incinerate you all!" Threatened the queen in a tone that sent a shiver down Kaden's spine; it still held all the authority it had deep in the cavern but now there was frustration hanging on each word and desperation trailing not far behind. Kaden looked momentarily to his father whose face was a mess of contradicting feelings. The guards had stopped dead in their tracks, "This creature is the key to Dustledom's future, a future you seek to rob from my people!"

"It is not your tool! It's a living being!" Calista shouted back, moving into view of the queen despite her threat.

"What is one being to the tens of thousands of my subjects without a home? What is one being compared to those whose lives were cut short by the monsters of Idra that cry for that terrible wrong to be righted?" The rod in the queen's hand began to glow an ominous purple, "We were ever your friends in times of peace and allies in war and yet you would cast us aside for the sake of this... thing? It owes its life to me, its very existence to me!"

"It is neither your servant nor your slave!" It was Vae's turn to shout, its voice once more carried on the winds to everyone as if by magic, "You brought this thing back against your will and you expect it to serve you?"

"I will make it serve me!" Kaden took a nervous breath. He was now able to guess the terrible enchantment the rod she held possessed. Whether it would be enough was something he didn't want to find out but what could he do? A part of him knew better than to wade into the heated discussion; the wrong words at the wrong time could unleash untold carnage and death but at the same time, his inaction could very well cause the same. He decided to risk it, clearing his throat and his mind as best he could before throwing his metaphorical hat into the ring.

"No-one cast you aside, Anastasia!" He called to her. He could feel her eyes move to him, glare at him, "You had many other ways to make your dream a reality!"

"How easy it must be for you to tell me such, you who has turned your back on your rightful queen!" The queen retorted in anger. Malkan remained silent; If Anastasia had recognised him, she'd not given it away, "Are you so eager for Maren to rule a second kingdom in all-but name, my people prisoners to her 'generosity'?"

"She's not like that-"

"She is a queen! She took the throne for herself when the opportunity arose, snatching it from the rightful heir! Do you think I would be foolish enough to let her do the same thing again to MY throne?"

"She did what she had to do to ensure peace, to ensure the war could be won!"

"And how is that so different to what I'm doing, traitor?!"

Malkan went to speak but no words came out. He was stunned at her damning declaration but Kaden was not so surprised. Anastasia was growing more furious by the minute and though her son stood still, Kaden guessed that he was only just holding back his rage that would soon be unleashed in a fiery inferno.

"I did not sacrifice so much for all those years for you to throw it away!" The dragon turned its head to look back not at the queen but at the glowing rod, narrowing its draconic eyes at the device that it feared enough not to lash out with its lightning breath, "I will have this dragon and I will return Dustledom to glory, make it whole once more!"

"You'd be wise to give yourself up and cease this foolishness before someone gets hurt!" Lizzy demanded. At that, Anastasia laughed deeply and loudly.

"The only people who will get hurt are those who stand in my way! I only want what is rightfully mine, my birthright!" Malkan's expression was no longer of wonder and surprise. The old knight stared at his liege in disbelief. He was finally about to say something but Calista beat him to it.

"You'll have to get through us first!" She declared. Kaden's stomach lurched, knowing that any hope of things ending peacefully had died but also that she'd took the words right out of his mouth. Harlethorne had loaded another bolt and aimed once more at the queen.

"And so the charade ends." Mumbled the old warrior as Anastasia's rod glowed more intensely as if fuelled by her hate but also regret.

"Know that I gave you ample opportunity to avoid what is to come," She declared with finality, "Dustledom will rise from the ashes and it will remember the wrongs you have inflicted this day." The air about was filled with the shrill sound of a whistle that was very unlike those of the guard and all too late did Kaden realise that Anastasia had prepared for this situation far more than they had.

Chapter Thirty Four

"Many are the different facets of war but one that is not often talked about in many historical tomes is that of siege weaponry. This is likely due to the fact that up until the outbreak of the Great War, siege engines had fallen out of general use after the major kingdoms of the world formed and peace become normality. The Southern Kingdoms is an exception to this, for it has remained a turbulent region plagued with many small conflicts throughout the centuries. It is where most innovations in this field have come from and where the majority of the world's machines are made, crafted by skilled engineers and exported to those nations able to pay the coin for them.

I feel I must take some time to address a commonly asked question before continuing: Why do siege weapons exist when spellcasters can unleash untold destruction with but a thought? While it is true that wizards and their ilk are formidable opponents, they require many years of training to reach that point and are far too rare to be fielded in any but the more important of battles. It is far more cost and time-efficient to hurl rocks using more mundane methods than with the power of magic. As Ludon Valdaren of Zantarock, inventor of the trebuchet once famously said: 'The day you can build a wizard out of wood, iron and rope is the day I'll be out of a job.'

Some siege engines are so ancient that their origin has been lost to the mists of history. The siege tower, battering ram and catapult are as ubiquitous as the sword and bow but many more are the ways to smash down a wall. The trebuchet has largely supplanted the catapult's role, capable of launching heavier projectiles with more power, range and accuracy at the cost of needing to be unpacked and built on-site. Zantarock remains the place where the finest trebuchets are built but it is Aefun that has the finest ballistae. They vary in size and power – some are small enough to able to be mounted on carts drawn by billowargs – and are capable of firing both stones and bolts dependant on the need. That their maintenance is both time and resource-intensive is the one downside that prevents them being stationed at every military fortification the world over, though they exist in enough quantities outside of Aefun to ensure a thriving guild of specialised engineers remain in constant demand to repair them.

I would be a fool at this point not to mention again a recent innovation which threatens to redefine all that we know about siege warfare: Gollinos. The explosive force this compound is capable of creating is truly immense and while it is presently confined to handheld weaponry, you need only read the earlier section dedicated to this compound to realise that the technology can and will be upscaled. The attitude amongst the siege engineers of the Southern Kingdoms has remained resolute in the face of this emergent field of warfare. They are confident that their creations will remain viable with only minimal amounts of innovation and improvement, allowing their industry to continue for many years to come. In my humble opinion, I believe they are in for quite a shock when they are reminded that the commanders of the world will pick whatever weapons are the most effective against their enemies, provided the price is right. It is the reason they choose their creations now and will remain so when they switch from stone-throwing catapults to thick metal tubes capable of fielding far more deadly payloads."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

All at once, there was a flourish of movement as half the formation of guards before them dropped their bows and turned upon those about them. The other half barely had time to comprehend the sudden threat before they were being attacked by people they'd thought were allies in arms.

"Damn it!" Lizzy exclaimed in frustration. They'd blindly trusted those that had assembled, too caught up in the panic of the moment to check who was a member of the guard. Kaden remembered then the one she'd ordered to check the city gates; had he been one of Anastasia's lackeys, slinking away the moment they were out of sight to cause chaos elsewhere? Calista, wedged between the combat and the dragon, chose to remain by its side. She tried to play her soothing melody but it was no use; the creature wasn't listening any more, distracted by the songs of battle and the bellowing cries of the one atop the roof who threatened it. Kaden wanted to help her but to do that he had to make it through the carnage before him and so he rushed into the fray with his father, Adam and Lizzy to save who they could. Only when he was in the midst of the melee, however, did he realise that he had no idea who was on his side. The guards and lackeys alike were all clad in the same armour, wielding the same weapons and everyone had the same desperate determination about them, leaving Kaden without a clear target and thus very vulnerable.

"Blood on the blades!" Malkan exclaimed as he dodged a man's clumsy overhead swing, running him through without hesitation. Kaden risked another moment of inaction to look at the weapons of his foes and spotted one dripping with red mere paces ahead of him. He locked eyes with the woman and the look he got back told him all he needed to know of her intent. Kaden closed the distance but didn't swing with his sword, instead punching her in the nose as she prepared to block the blade strike that never came. She staggered back but was saved by two others stepping up to challenge him. It was then that the dragon was enveloped in an all-consuming purple haze emitted from Anastasia's rod. It roared in great pain, thrashing and writhing in a vain effort to escape which sent its tail flailing about into more buildings which crumbled and collapsed as the first two had. The ballistae fared little better, one smashed to pieces and the barrels supporting the other dislodged with a single swipe of its claws. Calista barely dodged the dragon's arm by dropping to the ground. Her harp slipped from her hands as she did so but the instrument miraculously managed to avoid being crushed. Vae had flown up to the dragon's head and appeared to be saying something to it that was lost in the din of swords clashing and cries of pain.

The queen's son took that as his cue to lash out himself and so he did, sending a ball of flame hurtling towards the pitched battle that had erupted without a care for his allies within it. Azalea had been ready for such reckless abandon, however, bringing about an intense gust of wind so strong that it knocked Kaden and most of the fighters off their feet along with dissipating the flames into harmless scattered embers. The two Kaden had been fighting managed to get up before him but were stopped from finishing him off by Adam whose warhammer struck the left warrior's chest with bone-shattering force that sent them tumbling to the ground in a bloody heap.

"Good thing I'm here to watch your back," Adam remarked. Kaden took the chance to stand up quickly andas he did, he noticed the felled warrior's body twitch unnaturally. He blinked, unsure if his mind was playing tricks on him until it happened again. A sickly green glow began to envelop the warrior and then all at once it began to rise. Kaden was as horrified as the dead man's comrades-in-arms who let out a startled cry that was but the first of many. In a scene that mirrored the second part of the magical song which had brought the dragon to be, Kaden and Adam watched as the lifeless shells of the fallen defied their fate and took up arms once more. Kaden realised then what was happening; it was the necromancer who controlled them with his powerful magic, commanding them as puppets of flesh.

"By Yem'Da..." Adam exclaimed without thinking, retching. Kaden had a strong urge to cut down the one that stood before him that had a moment ago been a living, breathing person but refrained once it turned on its former allies. All at once, Anastasia's lackeys were outnumbered and though the dead could hardly match them in single combat, the grisly shock was enough for them to be overwhelmed just as they had overwhelmed the guard, freeing Kaden and Adam to do what they needed to.

Kaden's first instinct was to rush to Calsita's side and help her. She'd managed to retrieve her harp but was now trapped behind the dragon's arm which was becoming more and more enveloped in the purple magic of Anastasia's rod. Neither he nor her could spy an opening that was safe enough to escape through but even as he moved closer the dragon caught sight of him and roared louder than it had even before. Kaden was momentarily overwhelmed not just by how loud it was but its sheer power, knocked to the ground once again with his head swimming. It was Adam who grabbed his wrist and helped him to his feet once, the guard having fared better for not being the main target of the cry. Kaden questioned for a moment why it didn't use its lightning breath only to remind himself of how moot that effort would be so long as he held Skyrazor. His footing was still shaky but he had no time to rest; Adam gave him a look that pleaded for ideas but Kaden had none save one that most likely wouldn't work. Anastasia's magic began to grow in intensity, the purple shifting to a darker, more ominous shade. Kaden didn't know magic but that couldn't have been good. He spotted something in the corner of his vision moving rapidly towards them and fell to the ground willingly this time, dodging a fiery projectile Anastasia's son had shot at him. It landed mere metres from the battle behind him that was fast approaching its bloody conclusion, the living far outnumbered by Lizzy, Harlethorne, Malkan and the dead that fought alongside them. Harlethorne, in particular, was vicious in his assault, giving no quarter and striking with unrestrained ferocity with both his axes at those who dared to face off against him. He almost didn't look like he was paying attention as if his mind was somewhere else entirely as he fought. This time Kaden managed to get up by himself, looking up at the pair on the rooftop moments before another spell was launched at him. This time it was a blast of lightning that flew straight and true through the air right up until it approached Skyrazor which drew the bolt towards and within it. Kaden felt the tingle of energy in his hand and couldn't help but grin as the pommel gem began glowing, albeit faintly. Anastasia's son reacted with confusion but his mother knew exactly what had happened.

"His sword absorbs that, you fool!" She chastised angrily. Kaden pointed the tip of his sword towards the pair and willed it to unleash its power. He doubted the spell would connect but he hoped that it would disrupt Anastasia's hold on the dragon long enough for Calista to calm it down. The blade answered his call without hesitation, letting loose its primal spark that ignored the dragon completely as it arced to the rooftops. Anastasia's son tried to counter it with own power but an unexpected and powerful gust of howling wind from behind them knocked him off-balance. Anastasia was forced to end the spell on the dragon to defend herself, deflecting the lightning with a burst of her own arcane energy. The bolt struck the collapsed building next to her causing the floorboards on the ground level to burst into flames but Kaden's attention was on the dragon. The purple haze had dissipated but its mood didn't improve, howling as it tried to take to the air, to escape. For the fourth time, Kaden was knocked to the ground by the wing buffet alongside Adam and all those about them. Calista remained standing for she had been shielded from the brunt of the winds by the creature's body. She didn't stop to watch what would have been a monumental sight at any other time, instead moving to offer Kaden a hand up which he took hold of instantly. The dragon didn't get far, however, for it was once more hit by Anastasia's magic which sent it crashing back to the ground. The whole square shook as the dragon touched down harshly, causing even more of the surrounding buildings to collapse and making Calista lose her footing, sending her and Kaden back down to the cobbles. Wooden beams and floorboards fell onto the fire which had already spread to the adjacent buildings but it was ignored in light of the more imminent threat of destruction. The dead who had been fighting at Feval's behest had slumped lifelessly to the ground once more as the necromancer's concentration was broken, leaving Lizzy, Harlethorne and Malkan surrounded by a pile of corpses and a single, toppled ballista.

The flickering of another flame on the rooftop caught Kaden's attention. It was in the hands of Anastasia' son and was quickly growing in both size and intensity. He knew who it was intended for but the robed form of Azalea walked past them before he could even begin to try and stand. She had not been shaken off her feet by the dragon's fall – the mighty creature still struggling against the effects of the purple haze – and the look she gave the queen was one of quiet anger. The sight of her made the wizard hesitate which gave Kaden and the others time enough to start scrabbling to their feet yet again but only that, for the moment of inaction between the spellcasters was brief. The wizard hurled his blazing spell towards them with even more speed than his previous efforts. Kaden expected another wall of wind to stop it but that didn't happen. Instead, Azalea threw her hands up and for a very brief instant, Kaden felt something wash over his body as the druid's flashed a soft white. It was cold and sharp but not painful and it was gone before he could even begin to think on what it had been, replaced by the sound of thunder booming overhead. The skies had darkened and from the clouds came torrential rain that extinguished the fireball before it could hit them and the larger fire which had nearly reached the building Anastasia was stood atop of. All at once Kaden – now on his feet and very much happy to be alive, but not as relieved as Adam – remembered what Vae had told him about storms and his sword which in turn brought him to search the skies for the little dragon. Kaden couldn't see the little dragon anywhere, making him worry for its safety despite knowing how capable it was.

"Your actions are an affront to the Cycle!" Azalea's voice was carried not by the winds but the booms of thunder high above. Kaden had seen an outburst like this from her once before but this one was even more unsettling to watch, "You will kill no more here, lest you suffer its wrath!"

All at once, the dragon was freed from the queen's magic, it roaring between frantic gasps of air.

"I have lost more than you or the Cycle can ever take away from me!" Anastasia just managed to be heard over the unyielding storm which did nothing to stop her rod's power from blasting Azalea.

"Azalea!" Harlethorne exclaimed as Kaden moved to try and pull her free. His hand touched the purple magic and immediately was overwhelmed by indescribable torment, yanking it back and gritting his teeth so as not to scream. The feeling faded quickly but the memory lingered, a dire warning not to attempt it again. Calista had rushed to his side and was about to try and grab her himself but he shot her a warning look that the bard heeded immediately. Azalea didn't struggle as the dragon had, though it was clear that she suffered just as much, if not more so. Already the druid's magic was starting to fail, the storm weakening and robbing them of the protection it provided. Kaden knew they had to do something and he could think of only one thing that might work, one crazy, foolish thing. He pushed back all his fear and ignored the gut feeling screaming at him to stop as he pointed Skyrazor towards Anastasia. Calista's eyes widened, knowing what he had planned.

"Kaden, no-"

"I must!" Were the only words he could think to say as he willed his blade to make him fly, to bring him to Anastasia so he could end the threat she posed not just to them, but everyone in the city. Skyrazor answered once more, wrenching him off the ground and through the downpour towards the rooftop at such speed that it hurt his sword arm but he had acted too late. The storm faded rapidly and with it, the magic keeping him aloft. He barely made it to the edge of the roof before he began to fall, grabbing onto the edge with his free hand desperately. His body collided with the wall and already he felt his grip slipping. He tried to pull himself up but he couldn't do it with Skyrazor in hand and he couldn't reach his scabbard to put it away. The fear in his stomach grew as he dangled there, helpless before the wizard that now looked over the edge at him with a satisfied, sinister grin. Kaden had only two choices at that moment and neither was good.

"So dies a traitor!" The wizard hissed with loathing as he called forth another ball of flame which emerged in his hands. Kaden was just about ready to let his fail, take his chance with the fall rather than be incinerated but his terror took hold and froze him in place as the realisation that he was about to die echoed through his head mockingly.

A loud twang was the only warning Kaden got before a ballista bolt pierced the air above him. It punched through the wizard's chest, splattering him and the roof with blood and carried on, undeterred by the pitiful barrier of flesh and bone that had dared to try and stop it. Kaden was too surprised and aghast to even blink as the flames in the man's hands winked out. The prince looked to Kaden, eyes questioning everything before they lost focus, falling from the roof and hitting the ground with a sickening thud.

Chapter Thirty Five

"If you ask someone from Dustledom where they hailed from, they would tell that they were of Dustledom rather than the village or town they were born in. The most common reaction to that is a light chuckle or a smirk but I have on occasion been accused of being too proud of the place from where I hail. I, of course, refute the allegation politely but such people are not truly interested in the reasoning for my answer. They're more concerned with finding differences that separate 'us' and 'them', lumping the problems they face as a consequence of 'them' while attributing all their successes to their actions alone.

The truth why I answer with Dustledom is rather plain and comes down to geography. The isle of Dustledom is small – about the size of Haldoshern, maybe a little bigger – with the northern half comprised of mineral-rich mountains and the lands to the south mostly dominated by expansive forests. You were rarely more than a hundred miles from the capital which was both the largest and most important settlement in the kingdom. That the kingdom ended up with the same name as its capital was ultimately the fault of cartographers who gave the city lettering so large that people from other nations began assuming that the whole island was called Dustledom rather than just that one place. I don't know whether efforts were made to correct people but ultimately the name stuck.

Since my kingdom's fall, those who choose say they're from Dustledom do so to avoid going into great detail about a home they can never return to. Others answer with where they live now, focusing on the present rather than dwelling in the past like I do a little too often. For me... it's harder to let go. I am the last knight of Dustledom, the end of a prestigious line of warriors who swore to uphold the tenants of virtues that Kandas lived by. When I die...

My mind always drifts to that inevitability whenever I sit down to write about my homeland. I should leave this to the proper historians but what historians survived the fall of Dustledom? They don't know my land as I do but every time I try to write I... I can't get beyond the first page. Perhaps I'll do better tomorrow once I'm out on the road again. I've got a promising lead on a collector who claims to have some of Crowford's masterpieces.

Yes, some fresh air would do me some good."

Extract from the journal of Malkan Levovich De'Dustledom, 1447 A.E.

A multitude of emotions hit Malkan simultaneously as he watched Anastasia's son die, all of them raw. Horror, grief and relief all mixed to leave him oddly cold and all at once furious. He'd been too focused on watching his son rush to stop the queen – his queen – from continuing her relentless magical onslaught against the dragon to notice the others working to prop up the surviving ballistae. Adam and Harlethorne had held it steady but it was Lizzy who' taken the shot, the captain smiling with satisfaction at her handiwork. Malkan had expected Anastasia to be as aghast, to cry out at her loss but she did neither; instead, she passed one look to Kaden before stepping back beyond the edge of the rooftop and out of sight. The magic she'd unleashed upon Azalea vanished, the druid collapsing to the ground. Calista and Feval rushed to her side, the latter checking her breathing while the former examined her head for injuries. Malkan's thoughts weren't on Azalea, his son who was pulling himself up onto the roof or even the dragon who still howled in pain but his queen, for her actions had left him so very confused and conflicted. He didn't know whether she was trying to flee or move to confront them more directly but it didn't matter either way. They couldn't afford to let her out of their sight, lest she ran into opposition who didn't know of Maren's request to bring her in alive.

"I'm going after her." He declared before taking off in a sprint.

"Malkan, wait!" Lizzy's words were already distant by the time they reached his ears, moving past the alleyway where the shadowy figure had once stood but did so no longer. Malkan vaguely recognised the street next to it but a moment of movement ahead of him drew his attention from examining his surroundings more intently. It looked liked whoever it was had entered one of the taller buildings on the right, one unpainted and older than the others. He'd been about to give chase when he heard the sound of someone running behind him. Malkan pivoted on the spot ready to swing but held back his sword when he recognised the man that had caught up to him.

"Thought you could use some backup," Harlethorne said between deep breaths.

"I can handle this myself," Malkan assured him.

"And you'll handle it even better with someone by your side." The old knight narrowed his eyes upon the even older warrior with suspicion.

"If you think I'm going to turncoat-" The dragon roared behind them, a chilling reminder of the great peril the city was still in.

"You're not stupid enough to do that and frankly, we don't have time to argue the point," Harlethorne loaded a crossbow bolt ready to fire, something Malkan hoped wouldn't happen, "Like it or not, you're stuck with me." The two stared at one another for a second longer before Malkan nodded, indicating to the place he thought Anastasia had gone.

"Then let's go."

Together the pair hustled towards the door which had been left ajar. Malkan opened it slowly and carefully, wincing as it creaked to reveal emptiness. It looked abandoned at first sight but the lack of dust or cobwebs spoke of occupancy long before he noticed the flickering embers in the stone fireplace. What furniture the room had was stacked up against the opposite wall, half obscuring an open door that led into what he guessed was a storage room. He dismissed that as an avenue of exploration immediately; it would have taken Anastasia far too long to move and reposition them so neatly. It also had none of the hallmarks of a base of operations, meaning that Anastasia had had scant minutes to familiarise herself with the place and what exits she had from the flames that were burning their way towards them. Sturdy looking stairs led up to the next floor and though he wanted to bound up them and scout out the rooms above, his many years of training and adventuring gave him pause.

"I've got your back," Harlethorne whispered, crossbow trained on the stairs. Malkan couldn't begin to guess where his son had come across such a man but right then, he was just glad to have someone there to help even if he doubted the warrior's intentions, "If she's here, Asimov will be too. Any hints on how to deal with him?"

"I'm hoping we won't have to."

"And I'm hoping to start ageing backwards. What's the plan?"

"Hit hard, hit fast and hope we catch him off guard," Malkan answered just as softly and without hesitation.

"Thought you'd say something like that." Every step Malkan took was deliberate and as gentle as possible, trying so hard to avoid notice even though he knew they knew they were there. His efforts were being impeded by the rush of emotions and words that coursed through every inch of his being as he knew he drew closer to Anastasia, to his queen. Many had been the deluded dreams where somehow the king had survived, hidden away deep in the bowels of the castle where none of Idra's monsters could reach them. He was younger in those hazy imagined realities, the war having ended but a few short months when the word reached him of the call to liberate his homeland at the behest of his liege. He would always be on the first boat of warriors from all corners of the world, the alliance that broke Idra working together one more time to right a wrong. Every time he caught sight of the shores of Dustledom was when he'd awoke back to what was true, what was real. The heartbreak had lessened over the years but now it was happening and he was awake and it was all so wrong. He had many questions for Anastasia but he knew upon reaching the foot of the stairs that he'd not get the chance to ask them. Standing at the top was a figure hidden by a full-length cloak that was given away by his broad physique and the shield he couldn't hide. Harlethorne took his shot without hesitation but the man blocked it with ease before bounding down the stairs to strike at them with his sword.

"Traitor!" The stranger bellowed emotionally. Malkan caught glimpses of the plate armour beneath the man's cloak and quickly sidestepped out of the way, knowing better than to try and stop someone mid-charge. Harlethorne had done the same, dropping his crossbow and reaching for his hand axes just as their foe arrived at the bottom of the stairs. The armoured figure squared off against the pair, holding his weapon in a way Malkan knew only one other person did: Asimov. Malkan taking the opportunity to try and think of a way he could neutralise this threat. Disarming him was a possibility only if the man wasn't wearing locking gauntlets and he wasn't keen to get close enough to find out. He could've tripped him were he a few decades younger but those times were long gone. Harlethorne's axes would struggle to reach the joints in the plate mail without getting even closer than Malkan had to.

A voice then spoke from the floor above.

"Is it him?" He'd heard it only minutes before bellowing from the rooftops but it was neither full of hatred nor sorrow. It was softer and oozing with a regality that brought back memories of hearing her speak when he was but a young knight. What minuscule slithers of doubt had remained in his heart that she might be an imposter died when she descended the stairs. Time had weathered her as it had him but her face was still hers, her eyes still those of the young princess that he remembered from when he was knighted. He recognised also her crown as belonging to her mother before Dustledom's fall, one of the treasures of the kingdom he'd searched in vain for on more than one occasion. The queen was every bit as wondrous as Maren, standing beside her protector without a drop of fear. It should've been the happiest day in his life but the sound of the dragon's pained roar from outside reminded him of the unfortunate circumstances that had led to their meeting. Footsteps behind him made him glance back at the pair of cloaked figures that blocked their escape, drawing closer with weapons ready to cut them down. Harlethorne whirled around to face off against them, ready for a fight.

"Hold," Anastasia ordered. Her lackeys obeyed without question, stopping dead in their tracks. Asimov was less obedient.

"B-but my queen, they killed our-"

"I said hold." Silence followed.

"...Yes, my queen." Malkan resisted the urge to drop to one knee in deference; she'd caused all this chaos, brought the dragon to be and riled up its anger. He had to remember that but it was so hard. Despite his cautiousness and all the voices crying that she was the enemy, he couldn't help but lower his sword just a little as the queen's eyes assessed him from head to toe.

"You are every bit the knight I remember you being, Malkan. It is an honour to meet you, though I wish the circumstances were better." Malkan wanted to ask her so many things but one burned more brightly and fiercely than all the others.

"...Why," He asked her, "Why do this?"

"For our people," Her answer sent a pang of emotion through him, an exuberance that he struggled to contain, "Those who serve me knew the risks they were taking, my son included. When the dragon is brought under my control, it will return our kingdom to us and his sacrifice will be avenged."

"Is that all you care about? Your kingdom?" Harlethorne asked with disdain, "He was your son!"

"You would do well not to provoke me, old man," Anastasia's voice hardened, "I will have time to grieve once I can return his body to rest with the rest of my kin." Asimov's glare was on Harlethorne alone, the knight itching for the chance to strike but being denied it.

"You still think you can win, don't you?" Harlethorne indicated to the building about them.

"I have people yet loyal to my cause."

"A cause not above resurrecting and enslaving a dragon," Harlethorne utterly bitterly. He was keeping his eyes trained not on the queen and her protector but the pair of lackeys that still flanked them, "You're not the victims here."

"It was never my intention to put anyone at risk, Malkan." The queen spoke to him directly, her tone softening once more. Malkan and her looked to one another but his eyes didn't linger there, couldn't linger there. They drifted down to the magic rod she held in her hand, the one she'd used but minutes before on the beast whose roar echoed through the streets. He hoped Kaden and the others were alright, that Calista would be able to soothe the ancient creature as she had before. It reminded him of all the wrongs he'd witnessed in such a short time, each of which broke his heart.

"...I wish I could believe you, Anastasia." How Malkan's soul wept at the words he said despite the many oaths he'd sworn to his former king and by extension her.

"I speak no lie to you, knight. It was your son's meddling, not my actions, that caused the problems this city is facing."

"You're the one who blasted the dragon with magic, caused it to lash out. No ruler of Dustledom would willingly endanger so many, not even to save their kingdom. Your father would not have approved."

Her smiled vanished at the mention of the king, twisting slowly into an angry scowl that didn't look right at all.

"My father..." Anastasia repeated the words with disdain, "You think so highly of my father but he was a fool. He threw away the kingdom with his complacency. He thought us safe from the monsters of Idra on our island, refused to listen to the warnings we were given by so many and look what happened! Look what became of our people, Malkan!"

"I know very well what happened to them, Anastasia," Malkan told her truthfully.

"They are scattered across the world, outcasts barely tolerated! Some think us no better than those from Holnar, all because of my father's lack of foresight!" In Malkan's mind flashed memories of the final moments of the kingdom's fall; his flight from the castle with Kaden in his arms, waiting on the ship until the last moment to cast off in case his liege appeared against all the odds. The memories were painful but they gave him clarity that he desperately needed at that moment.

"I don't know what people you have been amongst, for those I have met do not suffer so," Asimov watched him carefully as he spoke. His expression was hidden by the hood of his cloak but Malkan guessed that it wasn't a friendly one, "I have visited many of the communities they have built within other kingdoms. Each is like a home away from home and they are afforded all the respect they are due, for they work as hard as anyone else, paying back the generosity they were given all those years ago. Some would love to return home, yes, but not all. Most have found new purpose where they are now and others have children who have never set foot in their parent's homeland, our homeland."

"Without Dustledom we are nothing!" The queen's protector proclaimed furiously, "Our history, traditions, everything will fade away into nothing!"

"And you thought resurrecting a dragon was the way to solve that?" Malkan couldn't help but frown as he asked the knight that, "There were so many other things you both could have done. There are countless islands you could have claimed as our new lands, with or without the support of other kingdoms."

"They would not be Dustledom."

"Not right away but in time-"

"So what, I should give up on my kingdom and be content with what I can scrounge from the scraps of the world?" Anastasia snapped. The harsh edge to her voice silenced him, "You almost sound like your son!"

"I raised my son to be a good and just man-"

"You raised him as a fool!" Anastasia failed to blink away her tears, though they were of anger rather than sadness, "I refuse to be 'content'! We have the power to make things right, Malkan, for everyone!"

"For you."

"For our people!"

"You know this is the right decision Malkan," Asimov told him firmly, "You are a knight of Dustldom, your place is by the side of your queen!"

Malkan couldn't deny that serving his liege would be a great honour, doing what he'd dreamed of for so long. Every time he tried to imagine it, however, he saw her standing in the shadows of the spellbound dragon that enacted her every whim. He saw the love she had for her people but also the lengths she would go to protect them.

"Malkan..." Harlethorne was growing concerned. Malkan looked to Anastasia once more and found that he no longer recognised her eyes; they were the same colour and were just as soft but her words had changed them. They had hardened, grown cold and that both troubled and upset him. A single thought slowly bubbled up from the depths of his mind, words that had remained lodged in his head even as he'd watched Dustledom burn, his son asleep in his arms oblivious to the horror. He seized upon them, taking a deep breath as he prepared to do something he never thought he would.

"Your father said something to me that I have lived my life by, Anastasia," He spoke plainly and with all the confidence of his younger years, "'Keep the kingdom in your heart and it can never die, as all deeds you do will be for Dustledom.' It is the first and most important tenant of all the knights of our kingdom, the first words of the oath I swore when pledging my life to him."

"Then honour your oath, Malkan. Serve me as you served him and we will raise the kingdom from the ashes of war. I have and always will do only what is best for my people." She held out her hand for him to kiss. There was a gut instinct to pay homage but he buried it immediately, stepping back from dreams he now knew were just that: dreams.

"I am serving my liege," He raised his sword again slowly. Harlethorne began to grin, "...I'm sorry, but I must ask you to surrender yourself to my custody." Anastasia was both surprised and hurt by his response but neither emotion lasted, quickly erased by a glare.

"Under whose orders?" She asked coldly, "There are no agents of Letani here save the withered fool that stands beside you!"

"This 'withered fool' has killed many people with that attitude," Harlethorne warned, still watching the two lackeys who still hadn't struck.

"I need no orders to do what is right," Malkan countered. Anastasia sighed deeply, shaking her head with closed eyes.

"A shame, but not unexpected considering your son," She stepped back and Asimov moved in front of her, "If you wish to die a traitor's death, so be it."

"I wish nothing of the sort but you left me no choice," Malkan said with regret.

"I gave you the only choice you needed," Anastasia opened her eyes once more, staring at him with both resignation and pain, "You could have been someone again, Malkan."

"I am someone. It is you who is the traitor to the crown you wear." Anastasia stepped back then as if recoiling from the very words he'd spoken. She passed a glance to her knight protector.

"I leave this task to you, Asimov. Do not fail me." The knight readied himself as Malkan and Harlethorne did the same.

"Your will be done, my liege." The knight promised her moments before she raised her magic rod and vanished in a flash of purple mist.

Chapter Thirty Six

"As a child, I'd always wanted to be a knight. This was fuelled in no small part by the stories that I was told by my parents of warriors in shining armour defeating evil and saving the day. I must have asked for the tale of Sir Frenvral and the Six Bandit Kings a thousand times before bed and they couldn't help but smile whenever I asked. At first, I think they were just glad that I went to sleep without fail just at the end of the story but as I grew older, they came to realise that my desire was a genuine one and did all they could to make it a reality. Had I of been the son of a woodsman in Corgaca I'd of been out of luck but Dustledom had much more pragmatic knightly orders that looked far beyond the noble households to fill their ranks, hosting yearly trials that were part non-lethal melee, part athletic competition.

There were three knightly orders in Dustledom that one could apply to join. The Swords of the Realm were inundated with the most applicants for it was the oldest and most prestigious. Many of the realm's finest warriors had been members including the king and his family. Then there was the Shields of the Realm, where most who failed to join the Swords applied for the next year. Because of this, it was the largest order with a focus on battlefield tactics. I applied to each order at ages twelve and thirteen respectively, rejected both times in favour of stronger candidates. I must admit I was disheartened at first but my parents encouraged me to apply one last time to the smallest and least prestigious of the three, the Gloves of the Realm. Theirs was a humble order whose duty was to the people first and the king second, travelling the lands and helping those in need. To my surprise, I was one of only five applicants, each of us serving as a squire for a year to see first-hand what was involved. The months were long and hard but I came to realise that this was the true face of knighthood, a person willing to dedicate themselves to the betterment of others, be it through battle or helping an ill farmer bring in his harvest before the storm clouds broke. I was the only squire left by the time the trial was done and, in a small ceremony attended by the head of the order and my parents, I was knighted. I was bestowed my heraldry and given my equipment – the sword I still wield to this day, armour that lasted me much of my life before it grew too heavy and my steed, Chance. That she died of old age shortly before the fall of Dustledom was a kind mercy.

Much of my time was spent away from my capital travelling the well-worn country roads that snaked their way between small farming communities whose locations have been burned into my memory forever. I dealt with brigands, wild beasts preying on cattle, legal disagreements and feuds between neighbours. I helped clear trade routes of fallen trees, delivered medicine to the sick and gave out of my pocket to those down on their luck. Rarely did I go hungry myself as innkeepers were loath to charge a knight of the realm for room and board. Despite my reluctance to give out my name to those who asked, I ended up with quite a reputation that reached the ears of those in very high places indeed. Upon my return home to celebrate my twenty-first birthday with my parents and wife – that is another story for another time – I received a letter summoning me and a select few other knights to meet with the king. It was I, Asimov, Viktoryia, Dina and Geravaldan who were to be commended for exceptional service to the crown above and beyond what is normally expected. I was the only member of the Gloves of the Realm there and one of only two that had ever received such a commendation. I was also the only one to refuse the reward offered for my deeds, requesting that the money be used instead to repair the bridge between Fall's Landing and Tasvano. When the room went silent I thought I'd said something out of turn but the king's laughter assured me otherwise, though I couldn't have dreamed that he would request I be stationed in the castle 'should he require my services', a request I accepted without thought.

While I quickly came to regret my eagerness – being shackled to the capital prevented me from travelling – there were plenty in need of my aid within the city that occupied my time. That it meant I was close to hand when we were besieged by the monsters of Idra ensured not the survival of me and my son but that of my order. Restoring the order to its former glory is a dream I likely will never achieve but while I still draw breath, I will devote my life to the oaths I swore."

Extract from the journal of Malkan Levovich De'Dustledom, 1447 A.E.

The two lackeys blocking the way out chose that moment to strike. The first went for Harlethorne but the old warrior had expected it, dodging back with dexterity Malkan hadn't expected from one so aged and dispatching his foe with a single strike to the neck. The second tried an overhead swing on Malkan but even as he brought his sword to bear, it was clear that the man was afraid of going up against a knight of the realm. Malkan parried the attack easily and followed up with a strike across the chest. The man slumped back against the wall, breathing erratic and face pale as he went into shock. Malkan had taken no joy in what he'd just done and was looking forward even less to confronting Asimov. He and Harlethorne turned to face the broad-shouldered knight who had waited for them to be done with the others. That he still held some vestige of chivalry close to his heart told Malkan that he was perhaps not beyond reason but the contempt on his former comrade's face screamed otherwise.

"It's two against one," Harlethorne warned, "You'd be wise to lay down your arms and surrender."

"To a peasant?" Spat the knight. Harlethorne shrugged with a sigh.

"Don't say I didn't offer."

"You always were a skilled warrior, Malkan," Asimov said then. He took a step forward, gripping his battle axe tightly, "I envied you back then but not now. I did not protect my liege all this time for you to throw away the last hope of our people, you and your son!"

"He does only as any of Dustledom should," Malkan answered back honestly.

"He's a disgrace to your name!"

"He would've made a damn good knight, but not of her Dustledom," Malkan replied to a tut from his fellow.

"Hers is the only Dustledom, Malkan." Malkan was about to say something that he knew would only make things worse but he couldn't leave it unspoken.

"...I'm sorry about your son." Neither Asimov nor Harlethorne had expected that but the former responded with barely contained rage.

"No, you're not."

"When I have ever lied, Asimov?"

"Every day since you pledged your allegiance to the usurper of Letani's throne!"

Malkan wasn't ready for this. Fighting lackeys was one thing but this was possibly the only other knight of Dustledom left alive in the world and one of the best. They'd known each others fighting styles back in their youth but that was so long ago when the weight of years weighed less heavily on their shoulders. Whether Asimov still had the strength for a protracted fight in heavier armour or not was something he didn't want to test but the rush of adrenaline coursing through his body said he had no choice. Asimov took another step forward and then rushed the pair, trying to smash his shield into Harlethorne's chest. The old warrior didn't dodge fast enough, taking a glancing blow that sent him staggering back even as Malkan sought to strike a weak point in Asimov's armour. His sword bounced harmlessly off the man's plate mail and Asimov responded with a powerful swing that Malkan knew he couldn't parry. Malkan chose to dive to the side, narrowly avoiding the axe which cleaved into the wall and sent wood splinters flying in all directions.

"Death by my hand is too generous for a traitor." Asimov sneered as he quickly brought his axe down in another powerful swing. Malkan barely avoided it by rolling, his heart pounding at the realisation that his luck would run out soon enough. Harlethorne had recovered by that point, launching a furious attack all to buy Malkan time to get to his feet.

"Listen to what you're saying, Asimov!" Malkan tried once more to clear the fog of loyalty clouding the knight's vision, now back on his feet, "Anastasia has endangered the lives of everyone here-"

"Enough!" Asimov bellowed, striking at Harlethorne suddenly. The old warrior had noticed the attack but misjudged both its speed and force and so failed to evade it. The axe sliced through his armour with ease. It sliced through his armour with ease and drew blood, the sight sending a jolt of panicked horror through Malkan.

"No!" Malkan rushed forward without a second thought, desperate to prevent Asimov from landing the finishing blow. The knight smashed his shield into Malkan with ease which sent him crashing back to the ground, his sword slipping from his fingers and sliding across the floorboards. Harlethorne's axes fell a moment later, the old man clutched his bleeding chest wound, breaths deep and ragged, unlike the wounded lackey whose time had passed. Asimov turned his back on Malkan and it was then that he knew he had only one chance to stop disaster. What slipped from Malkan's lips were words he immediately regretted, "It's not him you want, Asimov, it's me!"

Asimov paused. Malkan eyed his sword which was just out of arms reach but dared not move to retrieve it, afraid that the sound of him shuffling would distract his foe from his pondering. Asimov looked over the one he'd just wounded and let forth a chuckle that chilled Malkan's very being.

"...You're quite right," The knight remarked softly. He took a step back, a move which surprised his injured foe, "Go."

"You're kidding," Harlethorne gasped, bemused and a little insulted, "You know I'll go get help."

"Malkan will be long dead and I gone by the time your 'help' arrives," Asimov told him dismissively. Harlethrone began to bend down to retrieve his weapons when the knight shot him a look, "Do not test my mercy, old man."

"Like you're capable of it," Harlethorne kept his free hand against the wall for support as he moved slowly towards the open door. Malkan hoped that this wasn't a twisted joke, a score of lackeys waiting just out of sight to cut the man down in mocking derision of their efforts. Harlethorne took another deep breath before addressing Malkan, "You'd better not die."

"I don't plan to," Malkan responded, though how he was going to achieve that was another matter altogether. Harlethorne didn't linger, leaving the house and staggering into the street beyond. Asimov moved to the door, pulling it shut and locking it with a single twist of a weathered iron key. The clunk sent another spike of fear through Malkan, knowing now that he was trapped.

"You are outmatched, Malkan," The anger had left Asimov's voice. In its stead was calm confidence that only came with your foe being disarmed, "If you have a shred of honour left in your soul, you will submit to the punishment that all traitors to the crown are due."

"If you are to kill me, then let it be in fair combat. I deserve that much." Malkan retorted, eyes on his sword. All he needed was Asimov to be distracted for a single moment but the knight's attention was fixated upon him.

"You deserve nothing," As Asimov closed the distance between them, a wild idea came to Malkan and he went with it, looking to the window by the door with feigned shock.

"Kaden!" He exclaimed. Malkan acted the instant Asimov turned his head to look, rising to his feet just enough to roll forward to his weapon. Too late did Asimov realise the ruse he'd fallen for, his retaliatory strike missing by mere inches. Malkan took his blade in hand and turned his body as he stood. Asimov had closed the distance and was midway through another swing but Malkan had seen it coming, darting back to avoid another close strike. Malkan's back was to the stacked furniture but he at least could protect himself now, assuming a defensive stance. He could feel his legs start to ache, however, his breathing growing heavier all while his opponent appeared no worse for wear from their scuffle.

Another chuckle escaped Asimov's lips despite his annoyance.

"Very clever," The knight conceded, "You always were a wily one."

"It's why I've lasted as long as I have," Malkan knew that his foe expected him to make a break for the door out and so he kept glancing to it, hoping to hide his true intentions once more. He had to play for time, "You don't have to do this-"

"It is the queen's will!" Asimov interrupted firmly and loudly. Malkan couldn't help but reflect on those words, on the naked and hungry desire to serve without question. He saw a tiny fragment of himself within Asimov's unswerving loyalty and that unsettled him; had it been him who'd secreted Anastasia away to safety, would he have been as Asimov was now, paying twisted lip service to their knightly oaths? Both of them had been working for the same dream and they'd both sacrificed much of their lives in its pursuits, a choice that Malkan sometimes regretted when he met up with his son and saw how much of his life he was missing. He wanted to think that he wouldn't have headed down the dark path that Asimov had trodden with all the best intentions but he wasn't so sure he could've resisted, not with Dustledom reborn as the ultimate prize. His thoughts were interrupted by the flash of steel before his eyes, cursing his wandering mind as Asimov again tried to fell him. Malkan reached back to grab one of the piled-up chairs, swinging that rather than his sword. Though the strike was haphazard and lacked power behind it, it succeeded in blocking Asimov's axe and surprising him, allowing Malkan to dart to the side and rush to the stairs leading up. He could hear Asimov's heavy footsteps bounding behind him as he reached the next floor and a cursory glance afforded Malkan no other exit barring a pair of windows far too small to squeeze through had they been open. The furniture in this room was still laid out, a round table dominating the centre upon which rested a lit oil lantern. Around it were rough-looking chairs and in the corner a wardrobe that, like him, had seen better days. A second lantern hung on the wall to Malkan's left but he turned his attention from that to the stairs he'd just climbed and the knight who was already most of the way up them. He stood his ground rather than backing up, knowing better than to give up the high ground afforded by his position. Malkan raised his blade and pointed it downward, holding it in place with his free hand carefully. He'd never half-sworded before but he'd assumed the stance confidently enough to make Asimov stop in his ascent.

"I don't want to kill you, Asimov," Malkan once more tried to reason with him, "We could still do so much for our people."

"You waste your words, traitor," Asimov scowled, his anger returned, "As a Sword of the Realm, I must to put an end to the threat you pose to the queen."

"I have no desire to kill her either."

"To kill her dream is to kill her!"

Asimov moved up the remaining steps, leaving Malkan but an instant to act. He aimed for Asimov's weapon arm, stabbing with his blade at the armour joint and managing to find an opening. Asimov's attack faltered, the man groaning in great pain as blood dripped from Malkan's sword and the injury he'd caused.

"Please, stop this madness," Malkan begged, trying one more time to reach the man he once knew, "You know in your heart that what she's doing is wrong!" Asimov gripped his weapon tighter then, something Malkan had dearly hoped wouldn't happen.

"You do not know her heart!" The wounded knight bellowed at the top of his voice before and lashing out clumsily with his shield. Malkan dodged it with relative ease but the lantern on the wall wasn't so lucky, shattering and spilling its burning oil on the floor. Malkan wanted to smother the flames before they spread but he wasn't given the chance, Asimov climbing the final few stairs and trying to strike him again. His swings were slower now but no less dangerous, Malkan forced to withdraw from the small fire that had already begun to spread towards the table, "First you kill my son and now you dare to claim you know my queen better than I, the one who protected her from all her enemies-"

"The only enemies she has are the ones she's made enacting this crazy scheme!" Malkan shouted back as he began circling the table in a vain attempt to keep distance between them. He was keeping a wary eye on the fire which continued to grow, ravenously feeding on the floors and walls. Asimov ignored it completely, leaping onto the table in a feat of dexterity that Malkan hadn't expected. Before he knew it, Asimov had landed a blow on his chest which his armour failed to entirely resist, a sharp agony shooting through him which sapped at his strength. Malkan resisted the urge to look down at Asimov's handiwork, knowing that it would look worse than it was all the while painfully aware of how his life slowly trickled from it. All the while his foe looked down at him with a grin, watching the suffering that he felt was rightly deserved. Malkan thought he heard the dragon roaring again out in the streets but it might've been the crackling of the now smoky fire playing tricks with his mind, "...We have to get out of here. The fire-"

"Rest assured, Malkan, I will." Came Asimov's answer. Malkan spied one of the windows to his right, now the only safe way to escape with the fire roaring close to the stairs. Asimov tried to land the killing blow but Malkan managed to deflect it with what remained of his might, falling to the ground unceremoniously. Asimov jumped off the table but knocked the lamp over the lamp while doing so, the spilling flames catching the bottom of his cloak. The knight hadn't noticed it yet and Malkan wasn't about to mention it, too focused on trying to stand back up. He managed to get to one knee before Asimov placed the edge of his axe against his neck. He froze; efforts to quell the terrified cries in his mind failed utterly, at long last facing the end that most warriors came to.

"...Asimov-" Malkan's warning was cut short by the feeling of the axe biting ever-so-slightly into his skin.

"No more words," The knight ordered quietly, "Only justice."

It was then that Asmiov noticed the fire which had engulfed most of his cloak. He turned his head back to look at it and Malkan acted without thought, without care, driven by a desperate need to survive. He drew from strength he didn't know he had and rose to his feet, pushing Asimov aside and staggering towards the stairs. He made it to the burning bannister before Asimov caught up with him, turning to see his armoured form wreathed in flame as if a harbinger from the darkest of nightmares.

"My life for Dustledom!" The burning knight screamed as he charged forward with blind conviction. A moment of clarity overtook Malkan in the blazing inferno of emotion, pain and destruction. Malkan let it guide him rather than his instincts and so he dropped to the ground once more. The axe missed him and Asimov realised too late that he couldn't stop in time, smashing through the bannister and falling to stairs below. His cry as he smashed through them and the screams that followed were lost to the flames that now consumed him but all of that was lost to Malkan. Everything had become a blur of flames, smoke and pain as instinct took over. He didn't remember sheathing his sword or climbing over the bannister to land on the intact part of the stairs. He had no memory of tripping over Harlethorne's axes which he managed to retrieve, coughing from the fumes of the fire that were all about him. He only recognised the front door when he took hold of the key in it, twisting it frantically one way and then another and fumbling with the handle every time he did so. He quickly gave up on that and hacked at the wood around the lock furiously, the wood supporting it breaking after far too many strikes. He half fell through the door and made it two steps out into the street before collapsing to the ground, wheezing as the building behind him was lost to the inferno. He wanted to get further away, warn Kaden and the others that Anastasia was still at large but his body had had enough, lying there exhausted. He managed to turn onto his back, looking at the deathtrap he'd managed to escape from with both relief and regret. A tiny bit of him hoped that Asimov had somehow made it out but the rest of him reflected grimly that the man had indeed upheld the final part of his knightly oath, sacrificing himself for a queen not deserving of the crown and a kingdom that would remain dead in all but the hearts of its people.

Chapter Thirty Seven

"After the 'failure' of Ethania, Corgaca sent ships south in search of new lands. They returned with news of a large landmass that looked promising and so the first colony ships were launched in 348 A.E to claim it for their own. What they did not know at the time was that the land was in populated; the Takken Empire had resided on that continent for over two centuries but had no major population centres near the place the explorers had made landfall. The colony ships were never heard from again, likely sunk by the Takken Empire's fledgeing navy. The king, Jericho III, sailed to the new land at the head of a small military force to investigate which was when they made first official contact with the Takken Empire. That said contact was a skirmish where the local military was driven away was quite possibly the worst footing to start on.

The Takken Empire sent a large retaliatory force which succeeded in driving out the Corgacans in 349. Those who couldn't make it to the few remaining boats were either killed on land or driven into the sea and amongst the dead was Jericho III. If you were to read Corgacan accounts of his death, they would speak of how he was assassinated without honour by the savage, uncivilised barbarians that inhabited land which Corgaca had rightfully claimed. The Takken account is just as biased, describing the Corgacans as 'brutal invaders' and their king as a man who was killed only when he attempted to abandon his forces by fleeing ahead of them.

It should be noted at this point that the Ethanians used the chaos caused by the king's death to stage a second rebellion which remained uncontested until 351. Those who fought in the rebellion were drafted en-masse to serve as front-line soldiers in Corgaca's invasion of Takken, an act which bred further resentment amongst the Ethanian people.

Corgaca called to the other nations of the world to assist them but the cry fell on deaf ears for a variety of reasons. Almost all knew they were the aggressors and wanted no part of their conquest and Ulhad was too concerned with developing its kingdom even if they had of been interested. The Southern Kingdoms were afraid it was a ruse to weaken them so Corgaca could invade but truthfully, they would never have managed to unite to assist Corgaca even if they hadn't thought that. Corgaca fared poorly in the war until 354 where they suddenly began to win one decisive victory after another. Corgacan history books would tell you that it was superior tactics and their knightly charges which assured them victory but I doubt this claim. The Takken Empire had the numbers advantage and familiarity with the land, not to mention an emperor well versed in warfare. Jericho IV, on the other hand, was barely an adult and struggling to learn the ins and outs of rulership on top of fighting a war he hadn't started. Takken scholars say nothing of how the war was lost, stating only that the invaders succeeded in creating an unassailable line of forces in 357 that stole a third of their territories from them. They state also that the emperor, unable to deal with the shame of losing so much so quickly, took his own life. While there is no solid evidence pointing to Corgaca engaging in foul play, there is also a gaping hole in the accounts of the conflict which can be explained in no other way.

It would not be until 374 that the colony would be named Aefun by Jericho IV. A failed assassination attempt against the representative chosen by the king to oversee the colony just days later would lead the man to begin studying the Takken way of life, a curiosity which, in turn, eventually led to him appointing Lankerton as his successor. That man's accomplishments are a story for another time, however, one of reconciliation and understanding."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Kaden's eyes were fixed on the sky, searching for the dragon that had taken flight not long after Harlethorne and his father had left. He was stood on the roof the queen and her son had previously been atop of, having managed to pull himself up from the ledge with some difficulty. It provided him with a great vantage point but his eyes weren't on the streets about them but the square and the clouds above it. Calista had tried to prevent the dragon from leaving with her music but the creature either hadn't heard it or refused to listen, though it had made no attempt to attack her or anyone else as it ascended up and away. Hope that it was leaving had been short-lived, silenced by booming roars which made Kaden wonder just what it was waiting for. That wasn't the only hope that had dwindled, glancing to the still form of Azalea and the necromancer who attended to her. He hadn't left her side, casting the occasional spell which failed to wake her. Kaden wasn't knowledgable enough about magic to know what damage Anastasia's spell had caused on top of the exhaustion Azalea would've succumbed to after her monumental display of might; he was only just beginning to learn that Skyrazor had even more power than he thought it had, a weapon he'd used for many years. Lizzy had summoned reinforcements with her signal whistle who were now assembled ready for an attack. This time she and Adam had made sure they were members of the guard before entrusting them with securing the area but with only one of the ballista still intact, Kaden doubted they'd have much impact. He then spied something to his left darting through the air and turned to see that it was Vae, the little dragon stopping close to his ear. It had a worried air about it.

"Where have you-" Kaden began to ask.

"Harlethorne's in a bad way, your father too," The little dragon announced to him frantically. All at once, Kaden had a dozen horrible visions, each making him feel ill and worse than the last. Kaden turned to the street behind him and quickly caught sight of the burning building. A chain of people had assembled, passing buckets laden with water up the line to try and prevent the inferno from spreading. He then spotted Malkan and Harlethorne, the former lying on the ground and being attended by a small group. He saw his father shift a little which filled him with relief and a hundred questions about what had happened to hurt him so. Harlethorne was leaning against the wall on the opposite side of the street in conversation with a pair of monks. One of them was trying to tend to an injury Kaden couldn't make out from that distance, "Anastasia got away, Kaden."

An intense flash of purple light drew Kaden's eyes to the middle of the square but he already knew who it was. Anastasia had appeared before the contingent of guards and though she was still dressed in all the splendour befitting a monarch, Kaden no longer saw a queen. Lizzy too saw only a menace that needed to be subdued and with a pointed finger ordered her arrest. The guards had barely begun to move before Anastasia unleashed the power of her rod upon them, a wave of purple energy which overwhelmed them instantly. They collapsed, screaming and writhing in agony but the magic stopped short of Feval and the others which confused Kaden; did she no longer consider them a threat or did she want an audience to the success she felt she deserved? Lizzy and Adam looked in horror at the suffering but neither acted, knowing better than to give the queen a reason to turn her power upon them too. Feval and Calista rose from tending to Azalea, the former readying his staff ready.

"You're only making it worse for yourself, Anastasia!" Lizzy warned with a shout, "Let them go!" Kaden knew that he had to get off the roof before things got even worse but the only way was to jump and there was no way he was going to manage that without breaking his legs. A roar far louder than the others that had come before echoed above them and from the clouds burst forth the dragon. It plummeted down with pinpoint precision and speed that Kaden barely had time to raise his sword ready to counter its lighting breath. Anastasia ending the magic on the guards abruptly and instead shot it up at the mighty creature which swooped down at them. It was again enveloped by her magic but this time there was no roar of pain or struggle as the haze seeped into its very being.

"Oh no..." Vae gasped in horror. The dragon stopped its descent abruptly, keeping itself in place with powerful, rhythmic flaps of its wings, its eyes now the same colour as the magic which now pulsed from the rod Anastasia held, which had finally bound it to the queen's will. She laughed deeply, triumphantly.

"Its will is my will now and with it, Dustledom will be reborn!" She declared for all to hear. The queen's scheme suddenly became clear; the dragon had been too distracted by its anger at her to realise she'd lulled it into a trap, striking with her enchantment when it was most distracted.

"A Dustledom reborn through an act of great evil!" Calista protested, "Let it go, Anastasia!" The queen's gaze fell on the guards who were only just starting to recover from their ordeal and that brought about a frightened panic in Kaden.

"You thought yourself so smart sabotaging our efforts in the cave but now there's nothing any of you can do to stop me!" Kaden knew of two ways but neither was possible with him trapped on up the roof, "May Yem'Da bless your passing, for I will not!"

The dragon unleashed its elemental fury, blasting the guards without mercy or hesitation. Kaden didn't manage to turn away in time but it happened so fast that he saw nothing; between blinks, the guards were reduced to ash without so much as a single cry. With one act, Anastasia had abandoned any pretence of moral righteousness and all for the supposed sake of her people. Calista and the others were too far away for him to see their reactions clearly but he knew from how they moved that they were as horrified as he was. Kaden tried not to think about what would happen to his friends if it attacked again but he knew there was no if, only when. He had to get down there, had to shield them with Skyrazor but the only way was a sheer drop... or was there? Kaden spied the top of a drainpipe and rushed over to it, almost slipping on a loose roof slate.

"I'll try to distract it," Vae assured him. Its expression was one of terrified determination, a feeling they both shared.

"If it hits you-" Kaden tried to protest even as he readied to climb down.

"You'll never get there in time!" Vae flew off before he could say anything else, launching a blast of flame at Anastasia. The queen noticed the attack, directing her gaze to the approaching threat. The much larger dragon matched her look even as the queen sidestepped the fire. Kaden was climbing down far too quickly and with only one hand but he was too fixated on the threat they all faced to notice his grip slipping. He fell from the pipe with a third of the descent to go, crashing into the pavement below with all the grace of a sack of potatoes even as the massive dragon readied to fire off its lightning breath against Vae. All at once, the tiny creature veered sharply off from its original heading towards Kaden. The dragon unleashed its lightning breath in an instant, most of which arced violently towards and into Skyrazor. Kaden let go of the handle the moment he felt it fill with energy, not eager to scorch his hands like last time but then he remembered just who had managed to get his sword recharged, searching the sky for his winged friend.

"The rod!" Feval declared loudly, broadcasting to all the queen's weakness as he reanimated the corpses of those who'd fallen in the first battle to serve once more.

"And how are we meant to get to it?!" Adam shouted just as loud, rightly hesitant to charge forth. Kaden knew that the necromancer's spell was just another distraction to buy those better equipped to handle the situation more time and so he struggled to stand despite the pain running all through his body. He kept telling himself that what he was suffering now was but a thousandth of what was to come not just for him, but for everyone else that Anastasia's ravenous dream would destroy. The dragon turned the golems of flesh Feval had begun to command into nothing with another blast of lightning and then turned its attention to the one who'd dared to try and harm its puppeteer. That was when Kaden finally grabbed his sword and made it to his feet, the handle of his blade still uncomfortably hot and his entire being crying out for respite that he denied it. He pointed the tip of his sword not at Anastasia but the dragon and willed it to act. The dragon reacted to the magic even before it had fired forth, diving down and blocking his shot with one of its feathered wings which his lightning bounced harmlessly off it. The ground shook as it landed but this time it lashed out with one of its claws at him with far more speed than he'd expected. He raised his sword in a vain attempt to deflect the strike. To his amazement, the blade did manage to cut into its palm which prompted a startled noise from the dragon, it retracting its claw as if stung by a rose's thorn. It then brought it's head right next to him and roared with such ferocity that he was thrown back into the building he'd just climbed down from, smashing into the wall with enough force that he blacked out momentarily.

Kaden was surprised that he came to at all and that he'd done so not in the dragon's stomach. Had it not yet been given the order or was Anastasia enjoying the thought of him trapped there, pleading in vain for his life? The creature's being utterly blocked his view of the square and its face was closer than before, watching him with anger that he couldn't be sure was entirely the projected will of Anastasia. He could hear the sounds of spells being fired off behind the creature, combat he could do nothing to assist in while he was trapped but his feet remained rooted to the spot. Neither fight nor flight would help him now and even if they would, he was too frightened to try. He kept hold of Skyrazor only because his instincts that had been honed over many battles demanded he do. Its breath made his skin tingle not unlike when his sword was charged with magic but it was the creature's eyes that unsettled him the most because they no longer were its eyes, hazed over by the purple enchantment that had robbed it of its freedom. How he wished he would make the dragon understand that he wasn't its enemy but he could neither speak nor understand its ancient tongue... or could he? In a flurry of far-flung inspiration he cast his mind back to but a few minutes before when things had been so much calmer, to when Calista and the dragon had 'spoken', guided by glimmers of the melody she'd played. It grew louder and more defined as he honed in on the moment and though he had no instrument – not that that mattered with his total lack of musical talent – there was one thing he could do. The last time Kaden had whistled was when he was a child, attempting to mimic the tune that Malkan hummed whenever he cooked food for them. The piece Calista had played had been far more complicated and Kaden barely could come to terms with the complicated harmonies she could make be with such ease but still, he tried. The first note wavered even as he sounded it and the dragon didn't react in the least, watching him and yet not all at once. Kaden had nothing to lose from continuing and so his pale imitation of Calista's heavenly playing marched on. He expected each note to be his last but as he went on he noticed that the dragon's stare faltered for tiny instances as if it were wincing in pain. It was a far cry from the struggle that it had put up previously against the magic which now ensnared it but it told him that what he was doing was working. He wanted to tell Calista to play as loud as she could but he couldn't risk interrupting what he'd started and so whistled on. Wondrous dreamscapes flashed in his thoughts then, distracting him momentarily but also making him realise that he'd captured some small part of Calista's mastery; perhaps the dragon was experiencing those fantastical visions as well which was helping weaken Anastasia's hold. A very low rumbling came from the dragon that was neither a roar nor a cry of pain. It was urgent, sharp and demanding and though Kaden didn't know what word it was he could feel its intent.

"Run..." Kaden muttered to himself as the haze about the dragon's eyes lessened, its alien stare barely visible.

Kaden's body acted before he willed it to, bolting to the right. The dragon did nothing to stop him, consumed once more by the struggle against that which robbed it of its mind. Within a few seconds, he was able to see the conflict that had erupted in his absence. Anastasia and Feval were firing magic at one another but each of the necromancer's attacks was defeated by a wave of the queen's rod, torn asunder by tendrils of purple that shot from it. Kaden didn't know how close either of them was to reaching their limit but he had to presume that the queen would last longer. Lizzy was on the ground clutching a nasty wound that Adam was attempting to treat while Calista was standing in front of both Azalea's still form and Evan. The boy stared at the arcane duel with all the amazement and terror that the spectacle was due but hadn't let go of his dagger. Of Vae there was no sign. Kaden assessed his options and the only one that made sense was also one of the worst, a full-frontal assault. If it bought Feval enough time to get one of his spells to land or for someone else to close the distance and wrest the rod from Anastasia's grasp then it was worth the risk and so he called out to the queen as loud as he could with the only presumption he could draw from seeing his father alive.

"Give it up, Anastasia! Your champion has fallen, slain by my father's hand!" Her gaze turned from Feval in an instant, "You have no one left to turn to!"

"You think a lie will save you, traitor?" She unleashed the magic of the rod upon him and all at once all was pain. His feelings, his thoughts, everything was dominated by an excruciating and unrelenting suffering the likes of which he'd never felt before, so strong that he couldn't even let out a scream. He could barely even see, consciousness lapsing and returning with every moment of his ordeal that he somehow endured. He tried to muster the will to fight it but he had nothing to do battle with save his willpower that had dissolved away into nothingness. Even when the magic ended Kaden couldn't stand, his entire body numb. The mocking laughter of Anastasia reached his ears and it might have been the final crushing blow to anyone else, to Kaden it was a rallying cry that forced him to act; he couldn't let her win, not while he still had breath. The tiniest of slithers of feeling returned to his body and he started to drag himself to his feet once more right up until the dragon looked upon him with its ensconced glare, "So ends the line of De'Dustledom!"

"No! It's the end of you!" Of all the voices Kaden had expected to hear, Evan's was the last. He looked with surprise to the queen at the young boy and Calista, both of whom had managed to get close enough to Anastasia while she'd been distracted casting her magic. Even stabbed her with all his strength in the hand which held the rod.

The rod dropped from Anastasia's grip. Calista grabbed Evan's arm and pulled him violently from the queen as the enchantment over the dragon died. Its attention shifted immediately, glaring at the queen with the hatred of a hundred wrongs it righted them no sooner had she begun to gasp in fright. A booming crack, a flash of white and she was gone, her scorched crown the only evidence she'd existed at all.

Chapter Thirty Eight

"Ask any historian or figure of significance at the dawn of 1149 A.E. about the Dustledom royal line and they'd have told you that it was no more, wiped out in a sudden and brutal attack by the monsters of Idra in 1121. The nation's destruction spurred Aefun and Afran to join the Great War against Idra, spelling their eventual doom. For the refugees of Dustledom, hopes of raising a force to retake their home were slim; the nations of the world had little stomach for further conflict after the war's end and there was no leader for the displaced people who could rally enough support to press the issue.

Little did the world know that one of the Dustledom royal line had survived. Anastasia alone saw the imminent peril and fled from the capital with Asimov, a Sword of the Realm, narrowly escaping the death the rest of her family suffered. Fearing that agents of Idra would hunt her down, she and Asimov hid in the Southern Kingdoms under assumed identities, Asimov hiring himself out as a mercenary so they could eke out a living. Little is known of this time but we can conclude at some point that queen and knight fell in love and conceived their only child, Prince Luka.

It was only after the conclusion of the Great War that Anastasia began to plan for her kingdom's liberation. She had no army of her own and no funds to raise one and while she could have appealed to the nations of the world to assist her, Anastasia chose to go her own way. Her belief that she would be indebted to whoever helped her was not entirely irrational, neither was the fear that said debt would impact her kingdom's sovereignty. Over time she gathered a small cadre of trusted associates, all Dustledom born and fanatically loyal but a hundred people were no match for the monsters that inhabited their home.

We do not how she came up with the plan to use a dragon, nor where she learned of the location of its remains. We also do not know where she acquired half the artefact needed to enact her scheme, a score of magically enchanted music capable of clouding the mind and pulling the soul of one who has passed back into the world of the living. We do, however, know what happened when she tried to set her plans in motion. Kaden Mallas De'Dustledom – an adventurer of some renown and son of Malkan, a knight of Dustledom – partially thwarted an attempt to kidnap the troupe in possession of the other half of the magical music score needed for her plan to become reality. Thus began a pursuit which took him and his companions from Letani's capital to the mining town of Glimmershade and back again. Such was the queen's intent to bring the creature under her control that she was prepared to enthral it and use the creature against any who would attempt to free it from her grasp.

Though I am of course happy that her scheme was stopped, it is unfortunate that Anastasia and her son perished in the process... and yet it is not at the same time. Their deaths spelled the end of the royal line of Dustledom, an ancient lineage that had ruled their people justly for many centuries. On the other hand, one must wonder what kind of Dustledom would have risen from the ashes of the fiery inferno of her dragon slave. Though fairy tales and myth often have epic conflicts ending cleanly with all the loose ends tied up, real life has a nasty habit of leaving a sorry, painful mess without victors or closure.

As for the dragon..."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.

Kaden should have been staring in disbelief at the scorch mark that had once been Anastasia but instead, his eyes were on the dragon that had caused it. He should have been scared for his life, still lacking the strength to defend himself such as he could against the mighty creature. The fact that both Calista and Evan had been spared its wrath, however, spoke of restraint that eased his fear somewhat. Kaden could barely read its expression but something about how heavy its breaths were, how its whole form had slumped onto the ground told him that it was as exhausted as he from the whole ordeal.

"Are you alright?" Adam had rushed to his side, watching the dragon the entire time. He pulled Kaden to his feet, supporting his weight once he started to fall, "You're made of stern stuff to survive her magic like that." For its part, the dragon was paying no attention to them whatsoever. Of all the things Kaden could ask his friend, one cried loudest to be voiced.

"Azalea-" Kaden began.

"She wasn't dead before Anastasia appeared," Adam cut him off, "Can't say what Feval was doing to her with his spells but she was still breathing."

"That's something." Kaden looked to his companions and saw that Evan's stare was locked on the crown. Where Kaden expected horror, however, there was contempt, an expression Calista didn't share with the boy. Lizzy had lowered her weapon, the battle finally over. The realisation that it was over hit Kaden then and while he did feel some small sense of relief, the quiet only made his mind mull over the many things that still needed to be done.

"We can handle that, Kaden," Adam told him simply. Kaden frowned quizzically, "You're in no condition to go rushing off after the stragglers and you know it." Calista approached at that point. She was concerned for Kaden's well-being – and him likewise for her – but the bard still had more to do.

Calista pulled out her harp and resumed the soothing melody as if nothing had happened. The dragon noticed it immediately, lowering and turning its head until it was right in front of her. Kaden wanted to warn her to step back but she didn't so much as flinch, utterly convinced of her safety. The ethereal wonder of the song began to creep into his head, something he felt he understood a tiny bit better now that he'd wielded but a slither of its power.

"The one who sought to control you is no more," Calista assured the dragon gently. It responded to her with its low rumbling that, while quiet for it, was a booming tone for Kaden and the others, "Yes. You're free to do whatever you wish."

"Provided it doesn't cause a nuisance of itself," Adam murmured. The side-eye the dragon passed the guard lasted just long enough for Kaden to spot it, provoking a dozen more questions about just what the creature could understand, questions he now believed they'd never get answers for.

"That is for it to decide," Kaden stated. Calista and the dragon looked to one more for what felt like an eternity before it shuffled away from them carefully so as not to hit any of the buildings nearby. It lifted off from the ground using strong but infrequent flaps of its wings that knocked everyone off their feet. The roar it let out was laden with sorrow but Kaden could also hear a vein of hope which laced it as ore would stone. The cry carried itself across the entire city and once it had abated it ascended upward, tearing a hole through the clouds through which rays of sunshine escaped, bathing the square in light.

"Where is it going?" Adam asked.

"To live," Calista answered plainly.

"But where?"

"Does that matter?"

"I guess not." Kaden's strength had returned enough for him to step away from Adam, sheathing Skyrazor and stepping slowly towards the charred cobblestones in the middle of the square. Each step still sent a small jolt of pain through his system that he tried his best to ignore. Lizzy made it there before him, retrieving the crown and dusting the ashes off of it. It had retained its shape but it looked like it was made from old, tarnished bronze than silver. Kaden patted Evan on the shoulder gently.

"Good job," He told him honestly. The boy finally tore his eyes from where the queen had been to look at him, "That was very brave of you."

"I just did what you'd of done," Came Evan's reply. Kaden looked to him but could no longer see the bright and naive child that had been his second shadow once upon a time. In his place was someone who'd seen and done things that no adult should. Evan held out the dagger that had drawn royal blood, "You can have it back now." At that, Kaden shook his head

"I won't take what isn't mine."

"But it's yours."

"Not any more." The boy was initially puzzled before a smile crept onto his lips, only for that to quickly fizzle into concern.

"Mum will be mad with you when she finds out you gave me this."

"You let me worry about that, Evan," That conversation seemed so distant along with all things mundane. A part of him still expected something else to happen, one final attack from the shadows and it was that which prompted him to look to the alleyway where he'd seen the figure in tattered robes before. To his surprise, the stranger was there once more, staring at and through him. A chill ran down Kaden's spine and he was about to inform the others but the person vanished between blinks as mysteriously as they'd appeared. So sudden was it that Kaden questioned whether he'd seen the person at all but the unease within him left him without doubt.

"I'd like to say that she didn't deserve her fate but sod her," Lizzy sneered, distracting him from his line of thought. She offered the crown to him, "Something for your father's collection, perhaps."

"I'm not sure he'll take it," Kaden remarked.

"Better that than being melted down," Kaden couldn't argue with that logic and so took it in hand. The crown was warm to the touch but not uncomfortably so and despite all that Anastasia had done, it had a presence about it that forced Kaden to handle it delicately. Lizzy had turned to look at the remnants of their conflict, "It's going to be tough weeding out the traitors in our ranks."

"If they stay once they realise Anastasia is dead," Kaden was reminded of their conversation back when it all started, specifically her opinion of turncoats, "Do you think they'll believe she's gone?"

"Fanatics tend to leave reality at the door but I might get some of them to see sense," Lizzy sighed, "We were already struggling to sign up recruits as it is."

"If you need my help-"

"I think you'll have your hands full as it is," Kaden looked at her quizzically and got a knowing smile back that only deepened his curiosity, "I won't say no if you don't, though." They were joined then by Feval, the necromancer even paler than before but it was what was in his hands that caught Kaden's attention.

"Vae!" The little dragon's scales were almost as badly scorched as the crown he held but a twitch of its tail told him that it was alive. Evan offered to hold Vae and Feval passed the dragon to him without hesitation, the boy stroking the crest on its head as gently as possible, "How did you find him?"

"I followed the beat of its heart," The necromancer answered as if it were obvious, "I cannot say whether your little friend will fully recover but if it is anything like the lizards of Afran, rest, food and a clean environment are all it will need."

"Thank you. You've done more than I could ever have asked." Kaden said to him.

"As a guest of your queen, it was the least I could do," Feval took a deep breath, "Would that we could have had the chance to ask the dragon what it knew but I am content that it is free and the city out of danger. There is but one more matter to discuss."

"That being?"

"The enchanted music that brought it to life," Kaden looked back to Calista who was speaking to Adam about something. She noticed and the pair approached, "It is too dangerous to remain in your possession."

"It was stolen from Vae's kind."

"Which is why it cannot return to their custody either," The necromancer stroked his chin then, briefly lost in deep contemplation, "My colleagues in Afran would be very interested in uncovering how the magic within that music functions."

"It's not our item to give to you, Feval," Calista pointed out, indicating to Vae with her free hand, "Vae put itself at great risk to try and prevent this all from happening."

"And what if it were stolen again?"

"By who? Who else could possibly have a use for it?" Feval narrowed his eyes at her.

"Dustledom was not the only kingdom to fall during the Great War."

The necromancer's tone told Kaden exactly who he was talking about.

"Do you seriously think Idra has enough people left who still stand by the mad king?" Kaden asked in disbelief.

"If I had told you two weeks ago that Anastasia was alive and planning to resurrect a dragon, would you have believed me?" Feval countered.

"That's different."

"How?"

"People were able to escape the attack on Dustledom but the cataclysm was... was..." Kaden tried to imagine what it must have been like, an inferno that travelled faster than the wind consuming everything in its path.

"Suppose you were right and there are some people who somehow survived, hid away until now," Adam took over, "Even if they did manage to get the music, there's no way they'd last a day in what's left of Idra. It's a scorched wasteland!"

"That which can be seen of it."

"As if anything could ever grow there again."

"If there is one thing I have learned in my many years of study, it is that life is far more tenacious than we give it credit for."

"Scrubland is one thing, squads of soldiers is another thing entirely."

"We're getting sidetracked here," Calista mentioned, drawing Feval and Adam's attention to her, "Vae will be the one to decide what to do with the music once it recovers. I'm sure the queen wouldn't mind keeping it in the royal vault until then."

"It'd be easier to rob Kandas's tomb then break into that," Lizzy remarked proudly.

"I would need to assess the countermeasures in place upon the vault to know for sure, not that I will ask to do so," Feval conceded, "I will petition your draconic companion once it is well, however. Whatever it decides, I shall respect." The sound of many footsteps prompted Kaden to turn and see the score of guards approaching from the direction of the street Malkan and Harlethorne had gone down. Evan tucked his hands and Vae behind his back as the middle-aged man at the head of the group rushed forward to address Lizzy.

"Has the threat passed, captain?" He asked. Lizzy took a moment to examine the man's face thoroughly before answering.

"Not till we've searched every street and home for the rest of her agents," The captain's tone shifted seamlessly to one of authority as she indicated to Azalea, "Take her to the royal physician. Any expense, tell them to dock it from my pay." Kaden was surprised but said nothing; he knew better than to try to argue the point with her.

"Of course," The guard nodded to some of his fellows who darted off down many different streets to spread Lizzy's orders. Four of the remaining militia went about carefully lifting Azalea and carrying her away while the others set about the grisly task of tending to the bodies of the dead save one that approached Evan.

"Do you need me to help you get home, young child?" The man asked him.

"He's not a child, he's eleven." Kaden corrected, "I'll take care of getting him to his mother. You do what you need to do." The guard nodded and joined the others sorting through the corpses.

Kaden spied movement at the edge of the square and immediately reached for his sword only to stop when he saw that it wasn't an armed lackey rushing to avenge their queen but one of the fishmongers from the next street over. The man took one look at the carnage before him and quickly retreated out of sight. Kaden cursed himself mentally for being too quick to presume something was wrong; he was still tuned to adventure and peril despite the dragon having left and Anastasia being no more, a thought which reminded him of his father. He rushed off without a word, wanting to tell him the bad news himself before he heard it from somebody else.

"Kaden?" He barely heard Calista, now sprinting despite how much his limbs objected painfully to the exertion. He reached the mouth of the street to see that his father was now sat up, his damaged armour and tabard resting beside him and a bandage across his chest. Harlethorne was doing better, checking over his axes with narrowed eyes as the fire which had consumed one house and damaged two others was finally being brought under control. Malkan noticed the crown clutched in his hand almost immediately. Kaden was too far away to see exactly how he reacted but by the time he'd gotten closer the old knight's expression was one of pained regret. Kaden didn't know what to say save that which he doubted his father wanted to hear and so kept quiet.

"I saw the dragon leave," Malkan told him quietly. His eyes didn't deviate from the scorched silver in Kaden's hand. An awkward silence lingered between them, "You... you did what you had to do, Kaden. She was beyond reason."

"Where does this leave Dustledom now?" Malkan sighed shakily. A pang of guilt rushed through Kaden but there was no anger in his father's gaze, just disappointment aimed at his former liege.

"Exactly where it was before." The knight answered plainly. The ones who'd been tending Malkan excused themselves to go and check on Harlethorne but the former soldier quickly shooed them away. Malkan finally looked away from the crown to stare at the bloodstain upon his tabard.

"I'm sorry." Kaden apologised.

"It should be me apologising to you, Kaden," Malkan stood up slowly, his armour remaining on the ground, "I spent so long chasing after an impossible dream when I could have been paying attention to what really mattered-"

"It mattered to you," Kaden told him without thinking. The two exchanged a look which made Kaden realise just what he'd said but where normally he'd of fumbled for the words to follow on, this time they flowed with ease from the heart, "I'm who I am now because of you and your dedication to the people of Dustledom. Anastasia may have said she cared about them but your actions speak so much louder than her words ever did." A fragile smile crept onto Malkan's lips that, while laden with grief, was also brimming with pride.

"You'll make a fantastic knight someday, Kaden." His father assured him. Kaden offered him Anastasia's crown along with a warm smile.

"Not half as good as you." Malkan took the crown in hand slowly but found himself chuckling at the remark.

"Now you flatter me."

"You'd still beat me in a sparring match and you know it."

"Maybe before all this began."

"It's only been a few weeks."

"And my, how they've changed you."

"Changed me?" Kaden frowned, "I don't feel any different."

"Go look in a mirror and you'll see what I mean," Kaden still didn't understand but his father wasn't going to elaborate further, "We should go report to the queen. She'll want to hear about all this." Kaden nodded and, together with Malkan and Harlethorne, returned to the square and the small crowd of onlookers who were being kept away from the sight of the battle by a trio of stern-looking guards who needed only a glare to keep people at bay.

Epilogue

For Kaden, the last three days had felt like they'd passed in the blink of an eye and now he found himself standing nervously at the doors to the throne room, waiting to be ushered in. The guards had kept their gaze focused straight ahead, ignoring him and his companions entirely but Kaden couldn't shake the feeling that they were watching his every move, judging him silently. Azalea, while on the mend, was still bedridden and being tended to by the royal physicians. Vae was curled up by the hearth at his home fast asleep. It had awoken only to eat, reminding him of the stray cat Malkan had taken in when he'd been but five years old. That Evan hadn't been summoned to the throne room with them had made him wonder if everything was alright with him; the conversation with his mother had been a delicate matter and while she'd been angry both at him and her son for what had gone on, the overwhelming feeling was one of relief that he was safe and a tiny bit of pride that she made sure Evan hadn't seen. Her promise that she'd keep hold of Kaden's dagger till Evan was older was something he'd not expected.

"Perhaps he's more like his father than I first thought." She'd conceded shortly before he left her company. Kaden's thoughts returned to the ceremony they were about to be a part of and the apprehension he felt about it. He'd received accolades before for his deeds but this was a far cry from the pouch of kal, a hearty congratulations and a tankard of ale in the local tavern that he was used to. That he was in his combat gear complete with a new and very shiny breastplate made him feel like he was off on another adventure, so much so that he had to fight the urge to draw Skyrazor. There was no real threat in the room beyond save for embarrassment and his mind had already begun to imagine the many ways he could cause that in spades.

"You'll be fine," Malkan assured him with a pat on the shoulder. The old knight's tabard and armour had been repaired through the combined efforts of a skilled seamstress and one of the college wizards, leaving no trace of the hardships they'd endured. Harlethorne's armour had undergone similar treatment despite his insistence that he could patch it up himself once he got home.

"I wish I could believe you," Kaden answered back. Calista passed him a smile which eased his concerns for a short moment.

"It's not like you get stage fright," The bard teased gently, idly strumming a pleasant chord on her harp as she did. Kaden tried to frown but failed miserably upon seeing her smile, "You probably won't even have to say anything. For all the fanfares and spectacle, they're usually quite short affairs."

"You've been to one of them?"

"I've played for the Corgacan royal court if that's what you're asking. You know what they're like about giving out honours."

"Are they even worth anything at that point?" Harlethorne's crossbow was on his back rather than in his hands, something which Kaden still wasn't used to. He'd even tidied up his beard, "I served with some knights who had so many extra bits tacked on to their names that you couldn't fit them into one breath."

"It's not that bad." Calista refuted.

"The Great Exalted Count of the Seven Faded Stars Council Sir Benjamin Haldaran Jones, Keeper of the Lance, High Captain of the Watchful Eye and Carrier of the Banner would disagree," Kaden and Calista both looked at him in disbelief, "You think that's too much? His son inherited those titles on top of his own. I could tell you them too-"

"No no, that's fine." Calista quickly assured him.

"Suit yourself."

A chorus of trumpets from beyond the door caught Kaden's attention, filling him with a lingering dread that he didn't have time to quell before the doors were pulled open. The throne room was full of people from all walks of life who erupted into applause and cheering the moment they saw him. The only walkable path was the carpet that led to the thrones where queen Maren stood waiting. Nicholas was to her left, a single piece of aged parchment in his hands which he was looking over again and again. Kaden froze; fear gripped at his heart and turned his feet to lead, rooting him in place as the trumpets sounded their celebratory medley once more. He'd known all along that it would be something of that scale and yet somehow he'd tricked himself into thinking it would be a smaller, more humble affair. None of the others had moved in for him to follow their lead either. What were they waiting for?

"One step at a time, son," Malkan muttered to him calmly, indicating to the carpet head, "We'll be right there with you." Kaden took a deep breath to try and steady his nerves but it did nothing. He chided himself for how stupid this all was; he'd fought against a dragon and a powerful wizard but it was this that defeated him? The absurdity of it all coupled with the knowledge that the others were likely just as nervous – apart from Harlethorne who looked as mildly grumpy about it like he was everything else – was what ultimately spurred him past the double doors and the crowds. Before he knew it, he and the others were stood at the bottom of the steps leading to the thrones. The queen smiled to each of them in turn and the trumpets sounded one more time which ushered silence in the room. Nicholas cleared his throat and began reading from the parchment he held.

"The queen thanks you all for attending this day, a day of both great celebration and mourning," The chancellor projected his voice with practised ease, "Catastrophe has been averted thanks to the actions of these heroes whom we are gathered to commend." Nicholas took a step back and a moment later Maren approached, stopping on the lowest step. The monarch spoke before the silence could wrack at Kaden's nerves.

"Three days ago, this city was threatened by the machinations of one who, though acting with good intentions, would have caused untold suffering and misery. It was a scheme which was brought to light by not just those assembled before us here but others who were unable to attend due to the injuries they sustained defending us," Kaden looked about the crowd briefly for Evan but couldn't see him, "Letani is a nation that rewards those who go above and beyond to uphold the values we hold dear, protecting the innocent and ensuring that justice is administered fairly and rightly."

"Here, here!" A deep-voiced man cried from the crowd. Maren settled her eyes upon Calista who looked back to her with a smile.

"To those who are citizens of other nations, I offer my heartfelt gratitude, coin sufficient to compensate you for the peril you placed yourselves in and this," Nicholas stepped forward and passed to Maren a silver signet ring. Set into it was a sapphire cut into the shape of a tree and about it were engraved leaves. Kaden marvelled at the expert craftsmanship of the piece, one which must have taken an expert jeweller many months to create. The queen held it out to Calista. "I hope these small tokens of my appreciation are sufficient." The bard looked to it and shook her head.

"I didn't do what I did for reward, your majesty," Calista answered back. Nicholas was about to say something but the queen held up her free hand to stop him. Her expression remained warm and the ring on offer.

"You are being rewarded regardless." Calista continued to deliberate silently about it until Harlethorne spoke up.

"I'll take it you don't want it." The old man uttered. Calista took the ring then carefully, slipping it onto her finger to find that it was a perfect fit.

The queen then turned her attention to Kaden and Harlethorne.

"For those of Letani, I offer something quite different," From behind her emerged a man clad head to toe in plate armour. In his hands was a blue pillow and resting upon that was a beautiful sword gilded with silver. Kaden understood the implications of that immediately and gasped. Harlethorne's exclamation was more vocal.

"Woah..." The chancellor frowned at the old warrior as Maren took the sword in her left hand.

"Please kneel," She instructed gently. Kaden was conflicted, torn between his desire to serve and the loyalties of his father's kingdom. Calista was as surprised as him at the development but her look was supportive. He then glanced to his father, expecting disappointment but finding the exact opposite. Malkan's expression was one of understanding and pride, of a father finally seeing his son become what he was meant to be... but was it what Kaden wanted to be? Being an adventurer was one thing but knights had certain duties to uphold, ties that bound them to a certain place. He went through their responsibilities in turn but as he did so, Kaden realised that he'd been doing everything a knight did already, "I understand that this is a big decision, Kaden, one that must not be rushed-"

"It's okay," Kaden told her before taking a shaky breath. Slowly he went down on one knee and lowered his head. Then Maren said something unexpected.

"You too, Harlethorne." Her words took a moment to register with Kaden and longer still with Harlethorne.

"...What?" The old warrior exclaimed. Maren just looked to him, her smile unchanging, "Me?"

"Is there another in the room named thus?"

"Your highness?" Nicholas was as confused as everyone else, "A man of his age-"

"He is as much a hero as the others and one who is to be rewarded." An unkind murmur swelled amongst the crowd as people began to discuss the matter with one another. Harlethorne stumbled to find words to explain how he felt but eventually came across them.

"With all due respect, your highness, I am... hardly worthy of such an honour," He began quietly, "Kaden has many years ahead of him that he can devote to you and the kingdom, but not me. I'm far too old and broken to be of any use to you."

"I am not binding you to further service with this," The queen said to him, walking up to stand before him. The two looked to one another, "You are free to return home or stay here and help me train my armies for what's to come." Her wording was very specific, prompting Kaden's curiosity.

"What is to come, your highness?" He asked the queen. She left a pause.

"The liberation of Dustledom."

A wave of shock washed over all those in the throne room. From the crowd came gasps and commotion that echoed about them. Kaden had to take a second to process what he'd just heard but Nicholas was aghast.

"My queen, you cannot be serious!" The chancellor rushed to her side, "Dustledom teems with the monsters of Idra!" Malkan was the one most taken aback by her proclamation, the breath robbed from his lungs.

"And for too long it has been such," Maren told her advisor before raising her voice to be heard above the commotion of the crowd, "For all the wrongs that Anastasia and her associates had committed, she was right about one thing: we have left the scar inflicted upon Kolvan untouched for too many years. I will call upon our allies to join us in a campaign to slay the beasts."

"You cannot expect them to answer the call to battle," Nicholas protested.

"And why not?"

"It is not their fight to be waged nor ours!"

"So long as the creatures of Idra threaten the world, it is our fight!" Her words silenced the din about them, all eyes settling upon the queen as her voice took on an authoritative tone that Kaden recognised from Anastasia. Hers was different, however, tempered with humility and wisdom, "I do not make this declaration lightly, nor do I seek to claim those lands for my own. It will be returned to the people of Dustledom to whom it has belonged for many centuries."

"And who shall rule them? They are none now who can claim the throne."

"Then they will forge a new monarchy or whatever form of governance they wish," A favourable murmur had begun to develop amongst the crowd, "I do not claim that it will be easy, far from it. Rarely is the righteous path without thorns."

"The beasts of Idra do not die easily," Harlethrone said then. His voice was distant, "They return each wound dealt to them a hundred-fold. Your march upon them will be paved with the blood of your soldiers."

"Not if we use what we have learned from the Great War," The queen said to him, "The tactics employed by those who survived it and the innovations that have come since the Cataclysm could make all the difference."

"Which is why you want me to help you."

"I cannot make you do so."

"You could," Harlethorne pointed out, "You're my queen."

"Doing so would make me no better than Anastasia," Kaden couldn't disagree with that and neither could Harlethorne, though it was clear he was still conflicted about the idea, "I do not set sail to Dustledom tomorrow to wage war. This is something that will take time to come together and if you need that time to decide-" All at once, Harlethorne chuckled. Neither Kaden, Calista nor even the queen had anticipated that but the mirth quickly turned to laughter.

"I fail to see what is funny about this situation," Nicholas remarked with annoyance.

"I swore to myself that I'd never get dragged back into all this but one thing's led to another and look where I am now," The old man shook his head then knelt before his queen ready to accept his reward, "Well, let's get this over with. I've some mudrunners to return to Glimmershade." Malkan caught Maren's gaze at that point and though no words were spoken between the two, Kaden could feel them conversing with their eyes alone. He couldn't tell exactly what was being said but the tears his father had failed to blink away spoke of the hope which had been rekindled in the heart of the aged knight. It was one that Kaden felt also but it was muffled by thought of the conflict that was likely to come. Would he be called to do battle against the monsters of Idra alongside the other knights? He pushed the thoughts and worries aside as best he could, focusing instead on his imminent knighthood.

A single trumpet sounding silenced the room once more and Maren turned her attention first to Harlehthorne. She gently lowered the flat of her blade onto each shoulder in turn and as she did, the trumpets sounded triumphant.

"By the power vested in me as the queen of Letani, I hereby dub you Sir Harlethorne Tavistock of the Sapphire Order," She declared. Kaden knew of a couple of names of those in that order but little about the group itself. Then the queen stepped over to him and his heart lurched. He wanted to look up but dared not to, eyes frantically searching about the steps beneath him for something, anything to focus on.

"You've got this." Calista's whisper was unexpected but not unwelcome, calming him enough to take a deep breath and close his eyes. He felt the sword tap his left shoulder, then his right. The trumpets sounded even more bombastic than the first time and though he was still the same person he'd been a second before, something felt... different.

"By the power vested in me as the queen of Letani, I hereby dub you Sir Kaden Mallas De'Dustledom, knight of the Crown's Guard." His eyes shot wide. He couldn't have heard that right. The Crown's Guard was one of the most prestigious orders whose members served the queen directly. The wild cheering of the crowd killed any hope of asking whether she'd said that in error, however, and soon he too was taken up by the jubilation that surrounded him. Kaden didn't remember getting to his feet but the sudden hug he received from Calista ingrained itself in his memory. He returned it gladly, too caught up in the moment to think about what he was doing.

"Congratulations Kaden," She said to him before a teasing smile took hold, "Or should I call you sir Kaden now?"

"Please don't," Despite his protest, Kaden found himself smiling too. He spotted Malkan and Harlehtorne shaking hands and talking amongst themselves as if the celebrations about them weren't happening while Maren had returned to her throne, watching everything unfold with a neutral expression. A thought came to Kaden's mind, "...What happens now?"

"Don't ask me," Her smile lingered and it was only then that Kaden realised they were still in each other's arms, "You should enjoy it. This is your moment after all."

"Our moment. I didn't do this alone." Thoughts of the others crept into his mind, specifically those who couldn't be there. Calista furrowed her brow at him.

"Stop that," She warned him. He knew full well that she knew what he'd been thinking and so didn't try to defend himself, "They're fine."

"I know, it's just-"

"Kaden..." Her frown deepened, a warning he heeded. Kaden wanted to check about the room again but found, much like when she appeared unexpectedly in the tavern, that he couldn't tear his eyes from her, "Don't think becoming a knight gets you out of your promise either."

"Promise?" The bard's grin deepened. All at once, it came back to him and he knew that he was in trouble.

"You still owe me a cake."

"1149 A.E. is a year that many scholars consider to be the most important in our world's history. While they are correct in their assertion, they make it for the wrong reasons. Most point to the resurrection of the dragon of Glimmershade as the moment that we as a people realised that Kolvan had once belonged to another species and an incredible one at that. It sparked a renewed interest in archaeology, exploration and debate in arcane colleges concerning the principles and moral implications of resurrection. The more pessimistically minded were quick to point out that something was capable of rendering dragons extinct. This emboldened the various doomsday cults that existed at the time who proclaimed that the blight which afflicted Idra is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Its purpose, or so they claimed, was to 'rejuvenate the world and rid it of that which afflicts it', a polite way of stating that it would wipe humanity out as it had the dragons.

What made the year truly significant was another, more minor occurrence which was overshadowed by Queen Anastasia's attempts to liberate Dustledom and Maren's subsequent declaration to begin efforts to reclaim the land from the monsters of Idra. It set off a chain reaction that would require a tome of its own to explain in detail, an endeavour I fully intend to undertake once I have completed this one, I hasten to add. These events steered the trajectory of humanity both towards salvation and destruction in equal measure, ushering in an era far more chaotic than even that of the Great War.

I shall say no more on that matter here save the words of the great Polenan sage Sofia De León: Many are the stories that play in the song of our lives, a thousand thousand melodies and choruses shaping the tune that is to come. Not even I can guess what the future holds but it is my hope that our fight for a brighter tomorrow will not turn out to be our final overture."

An Extract from 'The Complete and Comprehensive History of Kolvan' by Kalendar Parovna, 1160 A.E.