Spirit Walker 2

Shadow Walker

by Fel

 

 

Kyven is an apprentice crystal cutter in a small out of the way village in an area loosely governed by the Loremasters.  Little does he know that soon he will be leaving his village, that he grew up in and chased by the Loremasters, hunters, slavers, arcans... 

 

 

Table of Contents 

Chapter         1

 

 


To:   Title    ToC            2

Chapter 1

 

      Avannar was under siege, from within.

      The entire city knew about the attack at the Loremasters’ headquarters by dawn, and by noon, the entire city was locked down.  There was no one in the streets but Loreguard patrols, and they were going door to door, searching for the black fox Arcan they knew was responsible for the attack on the building.  They were searching every building, hunting for him, and they were giving every citizen in town a picture of him mass produced on sheets of paper by alchemy.  There were no words on the sheets because so few could read, but the likeness of the black fox was scattered across Avannar, along with the stern warning that the Arcan was a Shaman, and that no one should try to capture the Arcan, they should immediately warn the Loreguard.  The Loreguard were not gentle in their searching for the Shaman.  They felt that the Shaman either had help or had used magic to enslave humans in the city to hide himself, and so they treated every family, every room renter, every business, every single person, as hostile.  Families were rounded up and questioned with a truth crystal as the Loreguard tore their houses apart, searching for anything out of the ordinary, armed with magic sniffers and room detectors to ferret out secret chambers, hidden alchemical devices, and possibly a Shaman.  Arcans within those houses were all but tortured during questioning to see if they were the Shaman in disguise.  Any house searched was marked on maps the Loreguard carried, any people searched were given a magical tattoo on the backs of their hands that would fade after two weeks, a tattoo that couldn’t be duplicated because it could only be seen by someone looking for it through a specific alchemical device.

      All their efforts earned them nothing.

      When they approached the shop of Kyven Steelhammer, a crystalcutter in the employ of the Loremasters to cut difficult or valuable crystals, and also the black fox Arcan for which they were searching, they thought to look at their maps, and discovered that the house had already been searched and all those within questioned.  Another search detachment also approached the house whose job was to search houses already searched, but when they approached the shop, they felt that searching someone who worked for the Loremasters himself was a ridiculous thing to do, that it wasn’t worth searching because they wouldn’t find anything, and they turned away without performing their duty.  When a roving patrol approached the human Kyven on the street the evening after the attack, who was walking quickly and fearfully back towards his shop carrying a huge box filled with a great deal of food bought at outrageously high prices from a greedy and enterprising greengrocer who was taking advantage of the chaos in Avannar to make some quick chits, they challenged him for breaking curfew.  He answered that he was out of food and desperate, had tried to get the attention of a wandering Loreguard patrol to issue him an emergency pass but had had no luck, and had finally had to come out to get something to eat.  They accepted his explanation immediately and without question, and they wrote him out an emergency pass so he could return to his shop without being challenged again.  The fact that he was carrying enough food in the box that would last five people for a week didn’t cross their minds, even though it should have.  It was as if what he had in the box…didn’t matter.  They could see it was food, but the amount of that food seemed irrelevant, insignificant, not even worth pursuing.  The fact that they didn’t check to see if he had the Loreguard mark on his hand didn’t seem to matter to them either.  It was as if it was unimportant, wasn’t worth checking, for they were sure that it was already there.  Why would it not be? they asked themselves, shirking duties they were supposed to very strictly enforce, no matter how mundane the situation appeared to be.

      Such was the very subtle and effective ways Clover had bargained them protection.  The spirit that watched over their shop and them, a wise-looking owl the size of an eagle, was acting in a very subtle manner by removing the desire of the Loreguard to inspect the building or the people who were inside it when the protection was enacted.  The Loreguard and Loremasters knew the shop was there, and they would challenge the inhabitants in matters not dealing with hiding the secret of the shop, but the owl’s influence caused them to feel that checking the shop or challenging the inhabitants was a waste of time, and thus not worth pursuing.  It was an extremely effective tactic, since the fact that the shop had been previously searched took away a viable reason to search it, and so long as the owl was there to discourage their enemies from becoming motivated enough to inspect the shop or question those within, they were safe.  Even when they did finally search the shop again once they ordered a second complete search of the city, the owl’s subtle suggestion to ignore what was there would cause them to do a very poor job, and thus be much easier to fool.  They would accept any plausible explanation as the truth, they would give each room just a cursory glance, and so long as there was nothing outrageously out of place or blatantly obvious, the shop would pass the second inspection as easily as it had passed the first.

      The young man that entered the shop through the front door certainly wouldn’t look out of place on the streets of Avannar.  He was an athletic-looking man that was taller than the norm, with coal black hair that was long, very thick, and a little shaggy, and piercing green eyes.  He was a ruggedly handsome man, a face and body that sometimes caused a woman’s eye to follow him for a moment, maybe even more so because all he was wearing was a short-sleeved brown linen shirt and a pair of denim trousers, and was wearing a pair of scuffed, worn-looking boots, clothes that showed off his athletic form.

      Those women would quickly change their favorable impression of him if they knew the truth of him.  Though he appeared to be human, he was not…at least he wasn’t right at the moment.  Kyven Steelhammer was a Shaman, the only known human Shaman alive, but he was human no longer.  To both punish him and to teach him the truth of the terrible lives the Arcans suffered while in slavery, Kyven’s totem spirit stripped him of his humanity and transformed him into an Arcan, an Arcan based on the species of monster she created, the shadow fox.  Kyven was the black-furred fox the Loreguard were desperately trying to find, Kyven was the Shaman that had invaded the headquarters of the Loremasters, ransacked several offices, killed several men, then set fire to the building both to do as much damage as possible and also to facilitate his escape from their island headquarters.  It was Kyven they wanted, to find out just how much he’d discovered, and whether or not he had passed along any of that information to someone else.

      Would they be angry if they knew the truth.  Not only did Kyven found out everything he needed to know while he was there, that the Loremasters were about to break the treaties they drew up and take military control of the Free Territories, but he also found out that they intended to invade the unclaimed territory west of the Smoke Mountains and establish a kingdom ruled by the Loremasters.  He also learned that they wanted to find the original machine that created the first Arcans so that they might use it to find some way to control or destroy the present Arcans or use it to create new ones, and he had learned that they wanted to rebuild the machine in some insane idea that it would make new mana crystals, but that machine had caused the Breach and brought about the destruction of the Great Ancient Civilization.  It was insanity to want to build another one.  He knew everything that they did not want anyone else to know, and what was worse, he had already passed on that information to the Shaman, and tonight he would pass that information on to someone else that they really didn’t want to know, for he was an agent of Flaur.  With that information in his hands, the other human civilizations of Noraam would discover the perfidy of the Loremasters, and would probably damn well do something about it.

      He already knew what was going to be done about it.  War.  The Arcans east of the Smoke Mountains were slaves, property, used and abused by the whim of humanity.  On this side of the mountains, Arcans were bought and sold like commodities, kept in pens and cages and wearing alchemical collars that guaranteed their obedience to their owners.  They were worked in all forms of manual labor, worked hard, where life for an Arcan was filled with endless backbreaking labor and life was short and brutal.  They were made to fight one another for the amusement of men.  They were raced like horses.  They were shown off like prize livestock in competitions.  And they were slaughtered for their fur and their meat, which was used to feed to other Arcans, and being killed for his fur was a fate that Kyven had just barely managed to avoid after his totem had transformed him into an Arcan.  Though most Arcans were as intelligent as men, their hybrid animalistic appearance made humans consider them to be animals, chattel, creatures without souls that existed only to serve men as beasts of burden.  In a way, they were.  Kyven knew the secret of the origin of the Arcans, and he knew that the Great Ancient Civilization had created them to be soldiers, to fight in the great war that was the catalyst that destroyed their world.  In a way, they had been created to serve man by fighting for him, but the truth was that they were created in the worst way.  The Great Ancients killed hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of humans to create the Arcans, and did not tell them that they would die in the process.  From what he was told, the Great Ancients used anyone who could not fight and forced them to die to create an Arcan that could.  The young, the old, the infirm, the unfit, all were sacrificed to become Arcans, even infants.

      And the humans called Arcans animals.

      But west of the Smoke Mountains, Arcans were free.  There was an entire nation of Arcans hidden far to the northwest, on the cold grassy plains north and west of the Inner Sea, the twisted sea of fresh water, where hundreds of thousands of free Arcans lived safely away from the humans that would enslave them, or destroy them had the known the Arcans were there.  But the humans would know about them soon, for the Arcans were preparing for war.  Under no circumstance, under no condition, could the Arcans allow the Loremasters to succeed in any of their plans.  They could not allow the Loremasters to establish territory on the fertile plains of the Snake River, far to the south of the secret Arcan nation of Haven.  They could not permit the Loremasters from finding the original machine used to create the Arcans over a thousand years ago, for they would either use it to find some way to kill the Arcans living now, studying the process by which they were made to come up with some way to attack them at that level and kill them, nor could they allow them to have it to make new Arcans that were tractable and obedient.  They didn’t know that the machine that created the Arcans required a human sacrifice in order to complete the process, putting a human and an animal in it where the human was killed and imparted the essence of his humanity upon the animal, transforming it into an Arcan.  And they could not, under any circumstance, allow the Loremasters to build a new version of the machine that had caused the Breach and nearly destroyed Noraam a millennium ago.  The Arcans were prepared to sacrifice their entire race in order to prevent such a disaster to come to pass, because the Loremasters had absolutely no idea what kind of unbridled destruction that machine could wreak upon the land and on both human and Arcan that inhabited it.

      Kyven had been born human, and had apprenticed to the best crystalcutter in Atan, Master Holm, but he’d been an Arcan for nearly a year now.  There were only two of his kind in the entire world, two shadow fox Arcans, and the other, Umbra, was pregnant with three babies, three of his children.  In that year he had learned from the inside what kind of life there was for an Arcan on the east side of the mountains, and it had so horrified him that his life was now utterly devoted to their salvation.  Kyven had joined the Masked, the secret organization of Arcans and humans that worked ceaselessly to free the Arcans from enslavement, and he used both his Shaman magic and his shadow powers granted because of what he was for those ends.  Kyven was an Arcan, but he was not an Arcan of an animal, he was an Arcan of a monster, a creature transformed by magic to possess certain magical qualities or powers.  This distinction gave him the same powers of the shadow foxes, the ability to control, create, manipulate, and interact with shadow.  His shadow powers allowed him to blend with the shadows to become literally invisible, and change the shape and size of shadows that already existed.  He could pull shadows off the ground or walls and into the air, and the most useful trick he’d learned was creating a cloud of shadow around him that could fill a large room.  One of his clever little tricks he’d learned was to create just enough shadow and wrap it around himself, them meld into it, rendering him all but invisible, nothing but a shadow himself, which made him almost impossible to see in darkness or dim light.  In brighter light, the shadow he wrapped around himself was visible and let them see at least the shadow with which he was joined, but in sunlight there was little he could do.  When there was that much light, his shadows were melted away quickly by the brilliant light, and it took a lot of effort on his part to counteract it.  The only thing that really worked was to create a cloud of shadow around him, anything less than that the sunlight burned away.  His powers were based on shadow itself, and in simplest terms, the more light there was, the weaker his powers became.  The darker it was, the stronger they became, up until there was no light at all, and then he lost his powers.  There could be no shadow without both light and darkness, though his powers were definitely attuned to the darkness of shadow rather than the lightness of shadow.  The absence of either rendered him all but powerless, only able to do the most basic things.

      It was a good thing he had those powers, for as a Shaman, he was very weak.  His human heritage made him much weaker than other Shaman, but his totem had worked around that little problem.  For her, he was the perfect Shaman, because for what she wanted him to learn, he didn’t need power, he only needed stamina…and stamina he had, he had it in spades.  His totem spirit’s forte was guile, deception, deceit, and her focus was illusion.  And since Kyven was a totem Shaman, bound to a particular spirit and granted boons based on the nature of his spirit, that made his illusions stronger and better than illusions created by Shaman who had no totem.  For the shadow fox, to kill was the last resort.  For the shadow fox, lies and trickery were proper behavior, guile and deceit were the most desired qualities of a Shaman.  The shadow fox tried to deceive him and trick him at every turn, and had used his initial trust of her to gain total power over him, gave her the ability to transform him into an Arcan.  Kyven hated the fox, hated her for what she did to him, but he was bound to her, and he was helpless.  He was her slave now, for she held his humanity in her jaws, and if he ever wanted to be human again, he had to serve her.  And in the back of his mind, deep in his heart, a part of him knew that she would never let him go.  He was her possession, and she did not seem the type to give up her possessions.

      But, if serving the shadow fox also helped him free the Arcans and stopped the Loremasters, he could live with it.  He had grown…accustomed to being an Arcan over the year.  He understood their customs and their society, and he could interact with Arcans on their own level, be accepted by them as one of their own.  He’d grown used to the unique physical advantages he had as an Arcan, being much stronger and more agile than a human, and armed with sharp claws and deadly teeth that could, and did, kill a human, though it certainly hadn‘t been easy when he was first changed, unable to walk on his digitigrade legs which were much different from his human plantigrade legs, unable to talk clearly because of his boxy vulpine muzzle.  He had grown fond of raw meat, though he’d started that transition while still human, because he’d needed to eat raw meat to recover from being exhausted from his Shaman training. He’d had to learn how to eat and drink all over again because of the muzzle, but he was used to that now.  He was truly a child of both races now, a human who knew Arcan custom, who could be accepted in both worlds…and maybe that was what his totem wanted.  An Arcan Shaman hiding behind an illusion of a human wouldn’t know the little nuances that would allow them to pass as a human, where Kyven could because he was born and raised human.  And he had been immersed deeply into Arcan society, literally a trial by fire, transformed into an Arcan and literally thrown into the cage with them, where he learned the mannerisms of the Arcans through personal experience, in a way few humans could ever hope to manage, since Arcans were extremely hesitant and guarded around humans.  Arcan society was intricate, and he certainly didn‘t know as much about being an Arcan as he did about being a human, but Kyven had learned the basics quickly, and that basis had allowed him to understand enough to be accepted into Arcan society.  He could move freely through both worlds, passing for either human or Arcan, and that gave him a freedom that few could match.

      But this…this almost felt weird.  He looked down at his human hand, almost mesmerized, as he entered his shop through the customer lobby and put the box of groceries on the counter so he could lift the leaf and get back into the shop.  It had been nearly a year since he had a human hand, and to see it again when it wasn’t an illusion, to feel the air on his skin instead of shifting through his fur, to not see his black-topped muzzle with the faint touches of white on each side because of the white ruff that came halfway up his muzzle, surrounding his mouth, dominating the bottom of his vision, it was, was bizarre.  He looked at himself in the reflection of the glass and was startled to see himself as a human, with pale skin because it had been covered by fur for a year, but the same eyes, the same eyes he had as an Arcan, those same piercing green eyes.  To see the skin on his neck, see his human arms, see his normal human legs, to not have a tail, it was an eerie feeling after so long.

      Too bad it wasn’t real.  This human shape came from an alchemical device, and right now, halfway across Noraam, Danna Pannen, his human friend, was now wearing his fur, had a muzzle and a tail and had hybrid legs, she was wearing his outward Arcan appearance and he was wearing her outward human one.  Beneath this alteration, however, he was still an Arcan, and Danna was still human.  He wondered how she reacted to seeing herself in a mirror, since she wasn’t exactly friendly with most Arcans.  She considered Arcans to be soulless creatures, animals granted human intelligence through alchemy, and whose place was to serve man by the design of the Father and the Trinity.  The medallion he wore that gave him that appearance was around his neck, but instead of it having Danna’s human face, it now appeared as a fox head, as it changed to reflect Danna’s appearance.  However she appeared, the medallion appeared.   So, he knew what Danna looked like in the face as an Arcan because of the medallion, but to the passerby, it just looked like Kyven was wearing a smoky gray metal fox head necklace, since Danna kept her hair in a braid and that gave the fox head the appearance that it didn’t have hair, since it was tied back and pulled down.

      At least the transformation was painless when he enacted it.  When he changed, his body took on a feeling of water, a feeling of liquid, and then it flowed into the other shape.  But only his body changed, not his clothes, so he had to be careful about wearing boots or something that may not accommodate his transformation when it was over.  For Kyven, that wasn’t that hard, because he was the one that controlled the transformation.  He had the time to remove his boots or any binding clothing that wouldn’t like suddenly having a tail trying to push through it.  But for Danna, he knew, it wasn’t quite that simple.  She never knew when he was going to use the medallion, so she couldn’t wear her boots, and had to wear a pair of pants with a hole in the back for where the tail would go…which exposed the top of the cleft of her buttocks, since that was where the tail came out of an Arcan, extending out at the top of the base of the buttocks and fully clearing them about a quarter of the way down.  Danna’s only respite was knowing that when Kyven took the human form using the medallion, for every minute he stayed in human form, the medallion would need an equal minute to recharge after he changed back.  So if he transformed for two hours, she knew that he couldn’t change again for two hours once he changed back.  The medallion could also only maintain him in human form for one full day before it exhausted itself and forced him to change back, where it would need a full day to recharge before being usable again.

      Thankfully, the fox was thorough with such things.  The medallion carried its own protections, and could not be seen by those who did not know it was there.  Clover, Patches and Tweak knew about the medallion because the fox and Kyven had specifically shown it to them, they were there when the fox gave it to him.  But no one else could see it, touch it, or otherwise interact with it.  To Kyven it was a solid object, but to those to whom Kyven did not specifically show the medallion, it did not exist.  It couldn’t be detected with magic sniffers, it couldn’t be touched, there was quite literally no way it could be taken from him by force.  And part of that protection also extended to his transformed state, which was actually necessary given that his body would radiate powerful magic to a magic sniffer while he was transformed.  While he was a human, any attempt to detect magic about him would fail, to prevent a magic sniffer from penetrating his disguise.  It only worked when he was wearing the human shape, but that meant that he had up to a full day of invisibility to magical detection if he needed it.

      He stared at himself another moment, then lifted the leaf and went in.  As soon as he closed the door to the lobby, he put the box on a nearby table, sat in a chair he’d put by the door, and bent to take off his boots.  Patches, his red panda apprentice, hurried out of the kitchen when he sat down.  Patches was a small, slim little thing, with red fur but white and beige patches of fur over her eyes and near her ears, which was how she earned her namesake.  Her tail was long and thickly furred, with alternating bands of red and tan fur up to the tip, and she wore nothing but a simple gray canvas smock that hung down to her thighs, her cleaning smock that had two large pockets in the front and was belted at her waist with a frayed piece of rope.  Patches was a very timid Arcan, the result of severe abuse when she was a child, abuse by both her owners and her parents, but she could be extremely brave when the situation demanded it.  There was a hidden strength in his little apprentice, and he admired her for it.  When the fat was in the fire, he knew he could depend on her to do what had to be done, even if it terrified her.

      “Kyven!” she said with relief.  “Was there any trouble?”

      “A brush with a patrol, but Clover’s spirit kept me out of trouble,” Kyven answered as she picked up the box, grunting a bit under the weight.  Despite her small size, Patches was an Arcan, and that meant that she was stronger than a human of the same size.  But, since she was so small, that meant that she wasn’t quite as strong as most human men…but she came close.  Her strength would surprise any man who accosted her.  “There’s enough in there for the whole week.”

      “There must be, it’s so heavy!” she said as she lugged the box towards the kitchen.  “I’ll get it sorted out and stored, Kyven.”

      “Has Lightfoot came back yet?” he called.

      “Not yet,” Clover answered for Patches as she came down the stairs.  Clover was a coyote, sleek and athletic, with a beige stomach, grayish-brown fur on her side and back, but with dark stripes along her flanks, running from just under her armpits to her hips.  Her hair was cut very short and was unkempt, and her coyote ears poked out from her hair atop her head.  Clover was also a Shaman, a much stronger and better trained Shaman than him, and it was her bargain with the owl spirit that had put it here, protecting them from the Loremasters.  Clover was a very mild, unruffled woman who thought fast, and was exceptionally wise.  She was his sister Shaman, his role model for proper Shaman behavior, a woman he admired and respected for her intelligence and ability, and in the custom among Arcans, she was his casual lover.  “She should be home soon.  I am starting to worry about her.  It’s very dangerous out there right now.”

      “And it’s only going to get worse,” Kyven grunted as he pulled off one of his boots.  “I just hope your owl spirit can protect two of us outside at the same time.”

      “Of course he can,” she chuckled as she helped him with the other boot.  “How much food did you get?”

      “Enough for a week,” he answered.  “No meat, though, the butcher wouldn’t let me in.”

      She sighed.  “A week of vegetables.  Not a way a Shaman should eat,” she complained mildly.

      “Be glad for those vegetables, the greengrocer charged me ten times their worth,” he growled as he freed himself of the other boot, then stood up and started unbuckling his belt.  “I’m going to pay him a little visit tonight and get my money back,” he said darkly as he undid the ties on his breeches, and then pulled them down enough to sit and finish taking them off, leaving him nude from the waist down, but it didn’t bother him at all.  One thing he had earned from being an Arcan for a year was a complete indifference to his own nudity.  His ability to blend into the shadows didn’t work if he wore clothes, so he had adjusted to being naked all the time…though it often didn’t feel that way because of the fur.  His Arcan fur almost felt like clothing to him, and he never really felt self-conscious about exposing himself when he was in his fur.

      It took but a moment’s concentration.  The foxhead medallion flared with light, and then there was the sense of fluidity as his outward appearance changed back to his Arcan self.  His feet elongated, widened through the ball of his foot, transformed into a fox’s paw, as his shin shortened to create the proper proportion that would allow him to walk.  His fingernails and toenails grew out, thickened, curved, forming the non-retractable hooked claws of his breed.  His nose, jaw, and face elongated to form his long boxy muzzle, his ears were absorbed back into his head and new ones sprouted from the top, and the snaky line of a tail appeared just above and between his buttocks.  Black and white fur sprouted from all over his changing body and quickly grew out to its full length, with a very thick short, soft base, almost like down, a layer of medium-length fur over it, and a slightly shaggy layer of long hairs over that, forming the fur that everyone told him was the softest fur they’d ever felt.

      All that change, and yet his eyes never changed, remaining those piercing green eyes in either of his shapes.

        He shook himself as if to shake off water, dropping down onto all fours to do so, getting rid of that creepy feeling of fluidity, like his muscles were made of water.  His tail slashed behind him several times, then he stretched like a cat, arching his back sharply, then rose back up onto his feet, his body realigning itself to a vertical base.

      “That looks so much better,” Clover noted, putting a padded hand on his shoulder, feeling his fur.

      “You are so biased,” he accused, stretching his arms out and yawning widely to shake off the last of that feeling.  “Much better,” he said.  “It makes me feel cold and watery when I do that.”

      “It looks like it would hurt,” Patches told him compassionately.

      “Not hurt, but it’s a creepy feeling,” he told her.  “Like your bones and muscles turn to water, and you flow into a different shape.  Where is that cat?” he complained.  “She should have been back by now.”

      “She left before the crackdown and got caught there when it happened, Kyven.  I’m sure she’ll be along soon,” Clover assured him.

      “You know we’re gonna have to be totally honest with Shario,” Kyven said.

      “Yes.  He has to know who we are, what we’re doing, and what is coming.  And we have to stress the fact that war is coming, my brother, and the Arcans will fight.”

      He nodded grimly.

      The bell of the outer door rang, which caused Kyven to immediately react.  He quickly and effortlessly formed an illusion of his human self, wearing the same clothes he’d worn outside, and beckoned to the fox to grant the power to enact the spell.  She responded immediately, and Kyven’s form shimmered, the black fox Arcan replaced by a human one.  Illusion was the power of his totem, and since he was a totem Shaman, it gave him a command of illusion that far surpassed Clover and other Shaman.  They couldn’t make illusions as large as he could or as detailed as he could, couldn’t make them as believable as he could.  Kyven could introduce such a level of detail that his illusions took on aspects of actual reality.  By instilling the substance of an object into an illusion, it took on qualities of the real thing.  The substance of stone captured into an illusion made the illusion feel like stone to the mind that accepted what it could see, would cause the mind to touch that which was not there and accept it as reality.  Kyven had instilled the substance of humanity into his illusion, so much so that anyone who touched his bare arm wouldn’t feel the soft fur that was really there, their mind would force them to believe that they touched a man’s tan skin.  That was the power of illusion, and that, Kyven believed, was why his kind of magic was actually the most versatile of them all.  He was limited only by his ability to instill substance into his illusion.  If he made it believable enough, the victims accepted the illusion as reality.  The fox told him that the ultimate expression of illusion was to take an illusory sword and use it to inflict a real injury, putting so much substance into the illusion that it actually took on aspects of reality.  Kyven was nowhere near that level of mastery, but if he could achieve it, then the floodgates would be open.  With that kind of ability, he could all but control reality itself, because it would be by his will that reality would be perceived by those around him.

      The door to the shop opened, and Lightfoot stepped through.  Lightfoot was a cat Arcan, small and slender, with curious fur that was a riot of jagged white and black horizontal stripes.  It was impossible to tell if Lightfoot was black with white stripes, or black with white stripes.  Kyven was of a mind that she was white with black stripes because her hair was bone white.  Her vertically slitted pupils were intimidating when she met one’s gaze.  Lightfoot never wore clothes, wore only a wide leather belt around her waist, which usually dipped down over one hip or the other since it was much wider than her slender waist, displaying her small, powerful little body.  Like most female Arcans, Lightfoot’s breasts were small, and her hips were slightly narrow, giving her a waifish look.  But her small little frame concealed deceptive power, even as her little fingers concealed small yet razor-sharp claws.  Lightfoot was a fighter, a fighting Arcan, and she was very good at what she did.  But, she was a hard Arcan to know.  She was almost militantly silent.  She expressed herself in the fewest words possible.

      Behind her was the reason she went out, for Shario filed in behind her.  Shario was a tall, olive-skinned, handsome man with wavy black hair and a black goatee and thin moustache, dressed in a light waistcoat made for the summer heat, soft cotton trousers, and elegant half-boots, dressed like a proper gentleman and a man of means.  And while he truly was a man of means, he attained those means in a manner that was not gentlemanly.  Shario was a thief who had built his fortune stealing and doing other dastardly things, and had since branched out into legitimate businesses…but that was all a front.  Shario was a Flauren spy, sent by his government to keep an eye on things in Avannar.  He used his status as a thief and murderer in the city to keep an eye on everything going on, both officially and behind the scenes, keeping Flaur informed of the activities of the Loremasters…which they very much liked to do.  Of the kingdoms of Noraam, Flaur was the most resistant to the Loremasters, the most troublesome for them because they were highly independent.  They had their own language where the only other languages spoken on Noraam, Meinar and Nuvian, were spoken by very small kingdoms by comparison, where Flaur was huge, dominating the entire Flauren Peninsula.  They followed a different tradition of religion as well, for though they believed in the Father and the Holy Trinity, they had a much more orthodox approach, much more formal, much more organized.  Flaur had an organized national church, the only kingdom of Noraam whose churches were so organized, watched over by the High Prelate.  Flaur was large, organized, strong, and had an independent streak, and had long been a thorn in the side of the Loremasters.

      “Ah, Kyven my friend,” he said, shaking Kyven’s hand and clapping him on the upper arm.  “I was expecting this invitation.  Really, did you have to set fire to the building?”

      Kyven chuckled.  “Usually I’d say something clever to distract you from that line of thought, but not today,” Kyven told him seriously.  “Yes, setting fire to the building was more or less necessary.”

      “So you are the black fox they seek!” he said with a laugh.  As soon as Lightfoot closed the door to the lobby, Kyven dismissed the illusion, which made Shario gasp and take a step back.  “Mei diau,” he gasped in Flauren, looking him up and down clinically.  “Amazing!  How do you accomplish such a disguise?  When I shook your hand, I felt your skin, felt the linen of your shirt!”

      “Part of why I’m still here, Shario,” Kyven told him.  “You said you wanted to see what I really look like.  Well, here you go.”

      He laughed.  “Then you must have something monumental to tell me, if you’re willing to reveal this secret, my friend.”  He looked down.  “You cannot accomplish your disguise without clothes?”

      He shook his head.  “They get in the way,” he answered honestly.  “Come in and sit, Shario, we have a lot to talk about.”

      They sat near his workbench, in chairs pulled from the other benches and his office, and were joined by Tweak before they began. Tweak was his other apprentice, a small, thin ferret with ruddy beige fur and a dark stripe down his back, as well as a bandit-like mask of brown fur over his eyes.  Tweak was a talkative, energetic young ferret that talked fast, walked fast, did most things fast, but he had steady hands and had once been an alchemist’s apprentice back at Haven, and could repair alchemical devices.  Patches would be the better crystalcutter because she was much better at appraising crystals, but Tweak’s cutting skills were acceptable for an apprentice.

      Not that it would matter much longer.  Kyven was training his apprentices in a doomed craft, for the crystals were running out.  The Arcans knew it, the Loremasters knew it.  The mines that produced crystals were failing.  The crystals were created in the Breach, when the Great Ancients used a device they should have never built that breached into the spirit world.  That breach had created the crystals that the modern society was using now to power their alchemical devices, spirit energy ripped out of the spirit world and into the real world, where it formed crystals when exposed to the human reality, and then scattered by the force of the explosion, seeding the Smoke Mountains with the crystal deposits that they now mined.  The number of crystals created during that cataclysmic event had been limited, and now, after discovering them and learning to use them, mankind had used most of them up.  Within five years, the crystals would be so rare that, by most estimation, the nations of Noraam would fight over the crystal-producing Smoke Mountains, try to control what few crystals would remain.  War would erupt across Noraam, and the way of life known by all its inhabitants would forever change.  For one, it would mean that there wouldn’t be enough crystals to power the collars that controlled the Arcans.  Humanity would lose its easy control over the Arcans, forced to take different measures like chains or ropes, which weren’t nearly as effective given a large male Arcan could break chains, and nearly any Arcan, of any size, could kill a human.  They were stronger, faster, and most were armed with deadly teeth or claws.  Simple chains could not stop an Arcan from killing a human that got too close, and that made controlling slave Arcans much, much harder.

      This was the reason why the Arcans of Haven were about to reveal themselves.  When the crystals got so scarce that there weren’t enough collars for the Arcans, they feared that the humans would solve the problem with a mass slaughter of Arcan slaves.  They wouldn’t allow that to happen, but that was in the future; but current events had come about in a way that required that they make dramatic, drastic moves now, not in three years when the crystals started getting harder and harder to find.  They were going to reveal to the world that Arcans were not stupid animals, that they had their own nation far to the northwest, where the winters were frigid and the game plentiful.  The Arcans fully expected there to be a backlash over this, a sudden fear of the Arcan slaves, but they saw no choice in the matter.  The Loremasters had made a move that required an immediate response, and they could not hide themselves after they responded.

      It was a bad situation for the Arcans no matter which way it went, but brutal pragmatism had to rule here.  To save all of Noraam, they had to risk a violent backlash against the Arcans still enslaved in human lands.  Stopping the Loremasters far outweighed the Arcans in captivity, for if the Loremasters carried out their mad plan, they would die anyway.

      Sometimes there were no happy endings.

      Kyven sat on his stool as Patches and Tweak sat on theirs, and Clover sat at a chair turned backwards so she could lean on the backrest and also to give her room for her tail, as the chair back was not split or made to accommodate an Arcan.  Lightfoot stood just behind Kyven, a silent protective presence.

      “There’s much to tell you, Shario, and you may not believe some of it,” Kyven told him.  “But the most important part doesn’t depend on whether you believe it or not.”

      “I’m listening, my friend.”

      “Last night, we found out what they’re doing,” Kyven told him.  “Simply put, the Loremasters are preparing to take complete control of Noraam.”

      It took them nearly an hour to explain everything to him.  Shario asked no questions, seeming to save them for after they were done, listening with a quiet, intense expression as Kyven explained their three objectives.  When he finished, Kyven looked him squarely in the eyes.  “We can’t let that happen, Shario,” he told him.  “The Arcans will fight.  We can’t let them accomplish any of those objectives, any of the three is a threat to the Arcans, and to all of Noraam.  You may not believe me about the Arcan device or the device they intend to build, but the solid fact that they’re preparing to set up their own kingdom in the Snake River valley, and they are going to take over the Free Territories.  We can’t allow that.”

      “Surely there is some evidence of this activity, something you brought from the headquarters.”

      “I can’t carry anything, Shario,” Kyven told him.  “If I do, I can’t do what I do that lets me move through their headquarters undetected, for the same reason I can‘t wear clothes.”

      “Without some kind of evidence, I cannot take what you say at face value.  I can only take it under advisement and seek out the truth, to verify your claim.”

      “Shario, the Arcans have their own home beyond the Smoke Mountains,” Clover told him.  “It is a nation of free Arcans, hidden from Noraam.  The invasion of the Loremasters into our territory cannot be permitted.  If you understand nothing else of what we have told you, then understand that.  When the Loremasters cross the mountains, they will meet us, and we will fight.  We cannot allow it.  We just cannot.  We are going to reveal ourselves to Noraam, Shario, reveal that the Arcans have a nation of their own.  Think about the implications of that.  Understand how seriously we take this information.”

      He was quiet a long moment.  “Ah yes, the mythical Arcan homeland.  We sent loyal Flauren Arcans into the wilderness to find the truth, but no word ever returned from them.  We feared them dead.”

      “We found them, Shario, and convinced them that the lives of our people depended on secrecy,” Clover answered him immediately.  “How would the humans of Noraam react to know that the Arcans had their own nation, that they were enslaving our people, and our people are not the dumb animals they believe them to be?  We feared that the humans would kill our enslaved people in retaliation.  The lives of our people enslaved in Noraam depended on our secrecy, leaving us to try to free them through the efforts of the Shaman and the Masked.  But we will risk that now, for the sake of all of us depends on stopping the Loremasters.  That is how seriously we take it, Shario.”

      “I…cannot promise anything,” he said.  “I can only do my patriotic duty to my homeland and send word of this back to them.  How they wish to respond is their decision.”

      “That’s fine, Shario, but you had to know,” Kyven told him.

      “So, the Shaman and the Masked, they work for this Arcan nation?”

      “The Shaman do, but the Masked do not,” Clover told him.  “As of right now, you are the only human on this side of the mountains that knows of our nation.  The Masked do not know, they only know of the Shaman, and work with us to free the Arcans.  The Shaman help them, for it is our duty to help our people, as well as the humans.”

      “You will help the humans?”

      “Are we not here warning you now?” she asked simply.  “The spirits care about all of us, Shario, both human and Arcan.  Would not that the humans would slaughter us, we would help them.  The spirits regret and mourn for what they know is coming, but at this point, it is unavoidable.  They have worked long years to prevent humans and Arcans from going to war with each other, but now there is no choice.  The spirits have spoken, Shario, and they command us to prevent the Loremasters from carrying out their plans, no matter the cost.”

      “Most humans would not believe you don‘t wish war on humanity.”

      “Unfortunately, the Loremasters have been quite efficient with their propaganda,” Clover said with a small frown.   “The role of the Shaman is to serve the spirits, but it is also to serve those who need us,” she told him.  “That is because the spirits care about us, be us human or Arcan.  We Shaman often help humans, though they usually never see our actions.  In this case, however, our aid will be quite obvious.”

      “We can fight propaganda with propaganda,” Kyven grunted, scratching the white ruff on the side of his mouth.  “That’s one thing we were hoping you could help us with, Shario.  If the kingdoms of Noraam know what the Loremasters are doing, they won’t find it quite so easy to just walk into the Free Territories and take them over.  Especially not when they find out that the Loremasters are moving to secure the mines and what few crystals there are left in them.”

      “But we can’t prove that.”

      “We can prove they’re about to undertake a military expedition,” he answered.  “You said it yourself, Shario, the Loremasters is arming the Loreguard to the hilt.  Why would they do that unless they expect some kind of major action?  They’re even importing firearms from Eusica.  I told you why they were doing it, remember?  Well, now we know what they intend to do about it.  Just go to Riyan or Stinger Bay, Shario, and see the troops that are flooding into the Free Territories for yourself.  The reports I read said that they’re there.  Why are they there?  What reason would there be for them?  The Free Territories don’t have armies outside of little village militias and the Riyan Regulars.  The Loremasters don’t need to mass an army unless they have a reason to use it.  And they do.  They want to take over the mining villages to the west, and they also want to take over Deep River and march into the frontier so they can dig in before winter.  To do that, they need troops, they need supplies, and they need labor, and they can‘t find any Arcans to use as that labor, so they‘re hiring any able-bodied man that‘ll take the job, and those men have to be talking about that job.  Trace the supplies and the labor, Shario, and you’ll see our information is good.”

      Shario was quiet a long moment, then he looked to Patches.  “So are you a part of the information network, my little chef?” he asked lightly.

      “No, Shario, I just cook and clean,” she answered shyly.  “They need me to take care of them while they do the dangerous stuff.”

      “We’d be lost without her,” Clover smiled at her.

      “I will look into these things, my friends, and see how much corroborates your tale.  I will also send word of everything back home, whether I believe it or not, because you want us to know.  And I must say, Kyven, that you are already quite famous.  The Loremasters have seen you, and if you don’t recall, the mysterious black fox Arcan was the only Arcan ever to escape from the Blue Ring of Alamar, which immediately ran for Atan, which was your home.  And now, that selfsame black fox Arcan shows up in Avannar.  They might trace the black fox to you.”

      Clover looked to Kyven, who sighed.  “Well, if Toby didn’t do his job covering up my tracks in Alamar and they connect the black fox that escaped from Alamar to me, they’re gonna figure it out,” he reasoned.  “After all, I did use my real name.  I don’t think the Loremasters are quite so dumb as to miss that connection.  But, I also have a pretty powerful defense in that I am human.  I don’t have to lie when they ask me that question under a truth crystal.  I have an established history, and the fact that I‘m here now, cutting crystals that only Kyven Steelhammer could possibly cut, gives me protection.  My defense, if it comes to it, will be that this black fox Shaman must have met me while I was prospecting using some kind of disguise, found out who I was, and used my name to pass himself off as me while I was out having my fun before settling down to be a shop master.”

      “Yes, that would work, at its face,” he said.  “But if they inspect you, they’ll find the truth of you.  No disguise I can imagine would allow you to evade a magic sniffer.”

      “They’ll never find me, Shario, trust me,” Kyven smiled.  “All we want you to do is warn your government, so someone beyond us knows what’s going on in human lands.  The Arcans have already been warned, and they’re starting to prepare to meet the Loremasters when they march out of the east and into our territory.”

      “No requests for help?” he asked with a slight smile.

      “If you want to help, you can help on this side of the mountains,” Clover told him.  “We do not need even more human armies marching into our territory.  That might be seen as a hostile act by our people,” she warned.

      “I will be sure to stress that,” Shario smiled.  “But I do need to take you to task for causing me so much trouble, my friends,” he told them.  “I’ve already had two of my brothels raided, and I’ve had to send my Arcans underground for fear of losing them to avenging Loreguard.”

      “We would have warned you if I’d have expected to make so much noise, so for that much I’m sorry,” Kyven told him.  “But I’d keep them under wraps if I were you, because I’m not going to let them settle down.”

      “Eh?”

      “I’m going out again, before sunset,” he told him.  “With the Loreguard turning the city upside down and shaking it to see if I fall out, this is the perfect opportunity to poke through their building a little more, because they won‘t be expecting me to be that brazen.  There’s something in there I need to know, and I didn’t get the chance last night to find that answer.  I got a little sidetracked,” he chuckled.

      “I am against that idea, my brother,” Clover told him seriously.  “They may be looking for you out here, but they will be on a razor’s edge inside.”

      “Yes, but right now there are a bunch of workers inside cleaning up the mess I made,” he said.  “With all that confusion, this is the perfect chance to get in and snoop.  I already know how I’m going to get in, I just have to wait for his shift to start,” he said with a toothy smile.  “I’ll find out what the Loremasters know about what we’re doing with the Arcans, and I’ll cause a little more chaos tonight.”

      “How do you mean, friend Kyven?” Shario asked.

      “Well, I don’t know how the Councillors are going to feel if one of their own gets murdered,” he said with an ominous smile.  “He was supposed to die last night, but he wasn’t home.  Well, as soon as he shows up at home, he’s going to die.”

      “You intend to assassinate a Councillor in his own house?” Shario asked with surprise.  “I would never dare allow one of my assassins attempt such a dangerous thing!”

      “I have advantages they don’t, Shario,” he answered simply.  “Most humans have no idea what a Shaman can really do, because we’ve never done anything like this before.”

      “Truly,” Clover agreed.  “We have always strove to preserve life whenever possible, and have never resorted to such tactics because we have always labored to effect change peacefully.  But this is war now, Shario.  The Shaman will fight, and we can fight in ways the Loremasters are not prepared to counter.”

      “Does that give you an idea of what’s coming?” Kyven asked.  “The Shaman and the Arcans are now at war with the Loremasters, Shario, and war has no rules.  My job here is to disrupt them as much as possible, even as I keep an eye on everything they do.  From this day forward, no Councillor or high-ranking Loreguard officer who sets foot off that island is safe.  If I know they’re in the city, I’ll try to kill them.  If I can kill off their leaders, those below will be in disarray, and it’ll cause problems in their chain of command.”

      Shario was quiet a long moment, then he laughed ruefully.  “Why do I get the feeling that the Loremasters are in for a very bad month?” he asked with a bright smile at Kyven.

      “That’s something I think both of us can hope for, Shario,” Kyven told him.  “One thing you can do for me is warn me if you know a high-ranking target leaves the island.  Get word to me quickly so I can go out and kill them.”

      “I believe that I can fit see to arrange that,” he nodded.  “The Loremasters have never been the allies of Flaur.  They forced the treaties upon us with threats of instigating war between us and the entirety of Noraam.  We have ever felt the occupied nation since we were forced to sign into the agreement.  If you wish to depopulate the gilded chairs in the Loremaster headquarters, I will send you off with a cheer and a smile.”

      “Oh, and I want one more thing from you, Shario.”

      “What is that?”

      “I want you to get me a Briton rifle,” he said.  “I’ll pay you what it costs you to get it.”

      “Why do you want one?”

      “Because they don‘t take magic to use,” he answered simply.  “And I could use that.  More to the point, I need the most accurate rifle you can find, Shario.  Something I can use to hit a target from three hundred paces with one try.”

      “Ah, you want a sniper’s rifle,” Shario said with a knowing smile.  “I can get you one, friend Kyven, but they are not cheap.  It will cost you nearly two thousand chits.”

      “Done.  Tweak, can you go get the money please?”

      “Surely, Kyven.  Be right back,” he said, jumping up and hurrying towards the stairs to the basement.

      “I would suggest you ensure that rifle cannot be traced back to you, Shario,” Clover warned.  “I believe you have an understanding of why Kyven wants it.”

      “Yes, yes, of course, they’ll never know it came from me,” he said with a nod.

      Tweak returned quickly carrying a small leather pouch.  “Two thousand chits,” he said, offering it to Shario.

      “Thank you, my boy,” Shario smiled, tucking the pouch into his waistcoat.  “I’ll have the rifle for you by sunset, Kyven.”

      “Just bring it to the shop, someone will be here to get it,” he nodded.

      “Very well, very well, I’ll take my leave now to pass along this information.  When I get word of what will be done about it, I’ll be sure to let you know.”

      “We’ll be here,” Kyven said.  “Do you want help getting home?”

      “Help?” he laughed lightly.  “No, I’ll be fine.  As you know, my whorehouse is just two doors down, and I can get home from there with no trouble.  I should visit to ensure my girls are well, anyway.  No doubt they are worried and upset with the curfew and the lack of customers.  I also need to ensure they have enough food to get through curfew.”

      “Lightfoot, go to the roof and make sure there’s no Loreguard that can see Shario get home,” Clover ordered.  The small cat nodded once, then turned and bounded up the stairs on all fours.

      Kyven again shrouded himself in his human illusion, then escorted Shario to the door.  He opened it and looked both ways, making sure the street was empty, and Lightfoot’s call from above sounded an all clear.  “Good luck, my friend,” Kyven told him.

      “I think you are the one that needs luck, my friend, so I will pray that good fortune finds you today,” he answered, clapping Kyven on the shoulder, then intentionally feeling around.  “I felt cloth at first, but now I feel what is there,” he whispered.

      “I’ll explain how it works someday,” he whispered back.  “Now go before a patrol comes up Sun Street.”

      Kyven watched Shario hurry down the street, going past the chandler’s shop and rushing up the steps of his brothel.  He knocked just once and was immediately allowed in, so Kyven shut his door and barred it, then went back into the shop.  Inside, Clover, Patches, and Tweak were giving him serious looks.  “What?”

he asked.

      “My brother, going back out today is insane,” Clover said adamantly.  “They are too upset and too wary right now.  They will be suspicious, and they will catch you.”

      “I need to, Clover,” he said simply as he locked the door to the lobby, and Lightfoot came back down.  “I’m positive I can get in and move around without attracting any attention, because only my face is going to be an illusion.”

      “How do you mean?”

      “I’ve seen you alter clothes using magic, Clover.  I’m going to need a common Loreguard soldier’s uniform, can you make it and have it pass a close inspection?”

      She opened her maw, and then laughed and nodded.  “Easily.  What rank do you need to be?”

      “A Lieutenant,” he answered.  “Lightfoot, I’ll need a pistol and a shockrod for the disguise.  Do we have them in the armory?”

      “Yes.”

      “Good.  I’ll need the entire uniform, Clover.  Boots, the belt they wear over it, the surcoat, helmet, chain jack, everything.  And it does need to fit me.”

      “I can make them easily, my brother,” she assured him.  “When do you need it?”

      “By four bells,” he answered.  “The Lieutenant starts his shift at six bells, so I have to be in position to intercept him before he makes it to work.”

      “Which is it?”

      “Lieutenant Ezram Thatcher,” Kyven answered.  “He’s a fellow who secretly frequents certain pubs and tea shops that cater to men who prefer men, but this one’s claim to fame is that he likes to rape his partner.  I’m sure the city will be a cleaner place when I kill him and take his place, and he’s so disliked as a moral reprobate that I won’t be overly bothered when I get into the building.  The only reason he‘s an officer in the Loreguard is because his father is a Colonel.  Since he‘s an arrogant ass and his father is a high-ranking Loreguard, I can move around with little challenge.”

      “Clever,” she nodded.

      “Thank Danna, not me, she’s the one that told me about him, and it just took about a day to learn all those unpleasant things about him.  Once I‘m inside, I’ll pull rank to get around and penetrate the Department of Arcan Affairs to find out what they know.  I’ll do that the easy way, I’ll just kill the entire room and take everything that looks promising, then just walk out with it.  We have  to know what they know about what we‘re doing, and it‘ll get more important when they try to take Deep River.”

      “They’ll probably find their first shock when they try to cross the river,” Clover mused.  “A single Shaman could pin them on the east bank of the river for weeks, preventing them from crossing.  All it would take would be the cooperation of a water spirit who would make the river uncrossable.”

      “I’m sure they’ll see to it,” Kyven told her.

      “We are the only Shaman away from Haven right now, my brother.  All the others are there, preparing.”

      “Well, they might send you to go do it,” he noted.  “It’s a five day trip for you, where it’d be almost a month for someone else.”

      “I am needed here.”

      “You’re needed where you’ll do the most good.  And if you can stop the Loremasters from crossing the river all by yourself, you’ll be doing a hell of a lot more good there than here.  I promise you, sister, I can make without you for a while.  I’ll be very lonely, but I’ll survive.”

      “Flatterer,” she teased, leaning in and licking him on the muzzle fondly.

      “Truth isn’t flattery,” he replied, licking her on the cheek in reply.  “Now go make that uniform while I go read up on my notes about Ezram Thatcher.  Hop, you,” he said lightly, swatting her on her backside.

      “You are saving up for a reckoning, my brother,” she winked at him.

      “I’ll enjoy that reckoning when we have time to get to it,” he told her as he dropped down on all fours and padded towards the cellar.

      The cellar looked like any other cellar, a place where things were stored, but it held a secret.  Hidden behind a shelf, a large room hid the heart of their little operation.  It was a room holding a desk, a table, several cabinets, a shelf behind the desk holding three alchemical communication machines that kept them in contact with the Masked in Avannar, and also with Virren and Timble in Atan, and on one wall there were pinned hundreds of pieces of paper that held the entirety of the Loremaster operation, each piece of paper holding a name and a rank, some of them with a location under them.  Kyven had painstakingly built that wall over weeks, learning every name worth knowing, and working hard to find out just where those men and women had their offices within their headquarters.  Most of them only had a name and a rank, very few had an office, but it would both fill out and change over time, as he assassinated Loremasters and they were replaced.  But those weren’t the only notes he had.  His cabinets had files in them, files of promising targets for exactly what he was going to do, targets he would kill and replace to gain access to the building.  Because he might be challenged wearing another man’s face, Kyven made it a point to find out everything about his potential target he might need to know.  Names of family members.  Friends.  Hobbies.  Favorite places to go.  Ezram Thatcher was a very promising target because he was an officer and he was also hated, with a reputation for being a pervert and an unmitigated ass.  That was a golden combination for Kyven, because it made the man very unpopular and less likely to be bothered for idle conversation, and also gave him access and the ability to move about unchallenged due to his rank.  Nobody would want to talk to Thatcher except maybe his father, but Kyven could avoid Colonel Jed Thatcher…or, if the opportunity presented itself, kill him too.  The loss of a Colonel in the Loreguard would cause problems for them, and the more trouble Kyven could heap on them, the better.

      Today’s excursion would serve two purposes.  First, he would gain entry to the Department of Arcan Affairs and get the information he meant to get last night.  Second, if he had any moment of opportunity to cause damage or kill someone important, he would take it.  Kyven could kill silently and without attracting attention, both with and without magic.  Since Kyven would be wearing the human shape in the building, it would prevent him from using his claws and teeth, but the human Kyven had a different bite when it came to killing silently, his daggers.  Kyven could pin a fly to the wall with a throwing dagger from across the room, and the wound made by a throwing dagger was all but indistinguishable from the wound from a regular dagger.  Kyven could plant a dagger in the back of a target of opportunity’s neck, which was a silent kill, or if he was in a position to use Shaman magic, there were several ways he could go about killing his target.  Either way, the target would be dead, and that would remove someone that might cause the Arcans or Haven any problems later down the road.

      The Loreguard would fight their war with soldiers, muskets, and alchemy.  Here, the war would be fought with guile, deception, and an assassin’s dagger flashing in the night.

      Kyven studied his notes about Ezram Thatcher for a couple of hours, until Clover came down with the uniform.  “Alright, my brother, let’s size it,” she said.  “Put yourself in that ugly shape.”

      “Hey, that’s the real me,” Kyven protested  as he stood up and willed the change.  Again, his body became water, and it flowed from the shape of an Arcan into the shape of a human.  The now naked Kyven stepped out from around the desk and held the coat up to his shoulders, checking the size.  “Looks close.”

      “It will be perfect,” she scoffed.  “Patches!  Kyven will need underclothes please!” she shouted.

      “I’ll bring some down!” she called in reply.

      “So ugly,” Clover chuckled, looking at him.  “You are a very handsome Arcan, my brother.  That coloration of yours suits you so well.”

      “You are unbelievably biased,” he accused.

      “Of course I am.  I’m an Arcan,” she smiled at him, looking down.  “I’m glad to see that some parts of you are just as…impressive, regardless of which shape you wear.”

      “Stop, you’ll make me blush,” he said in a bland voice, which made her laugh lightly.

      Once Patches delivered the undergarments, Kyven dressed in the uniform with everyone down in his office, to make sure he looked right.  Clover was right in that it fit him perfectly, and he cut a rather dashing figure in it, with its blue coat with white epaulets and the single star and stripe on the outside edge that marked him as a Lieutenant.  His boots were highly polished and nearly reached his knees, and his weapon belt was notched to accept a pistol holster, sword, and shockrod holster, and he attached the pistol and shockrod to it and checked himself in a full length mirror he kept in the office to practice his illusions.  “I’m going to take the sword from Thatcher,” he said.  “I’m going to take his shockrod and pistol too, but I wanted ones from the armory to make sure it looked right.  And it does.  Well done, my sister.”

      “Thank you, my brother,” she said with a nod.  “I told you, that’s a simple affair.”

      “How are you going to replace him, Kyven?” Tweak asked.

      “I’m going to ambush him at his house, just before he leaves,” he answered.  “The little ass lives by himself about fifteen blocks from here, near the Blue Moon tea shop, his favorite place to try to pick up men to rape.  Lightfoot, I think you should go pick the house over tonight after dark.  There might be something useful in there, especially his uniforms.  At the very least, we can clean him out of anything valuable.”

      Lightfoot nodded silently.

      “I’ll disable any alchemical defenses he might have before I leave, so you just have to get past the lock.”

      “Easy,” she said simply.  Lightfoot was never one to use two words when only one would do.

      “Alright then, I think we’re set.”

      “I do not like this, my brother.”

      “I’ll be fine, because it’s the last thing they’ll expect.  The last time I did this, I buried myself somewhere in the city after they found out and didn’t resurface until last night.  Odds are, they’ll expect me to do it again, because it’s crazy to try to go back in there immediately afterward…and that’s exactly why it’ll work.  Because it is crazy, and in this instance, crazy works.  If I were me, I’d stay far away from them, so they won‘t be expecting me, even though they‘re putting up new defenses against me.  So, I‘ll just sneak in while they‘re not looking for me but looking for me, because it‘s a crazy thing to do.”

      Patches giggled, and Tweak gave him a strange look.

      “He’s analyzing what he thinks they think he will do, Tweak,” Clover told him.  “And making a very foolish decision based on his assumption of what they think he will do.”

      “We’ll find out in about an hour,” he said simply, turning and looking at his back, his head over his shoulder.  “Father, that looks weird.”

      “No tail,” Clover chuckled.

      “It’s the one part of me as an Arcan I never see, why is it so strange that that’s the one part of me I think is the strangest not to see?” he complained.  “I should think it’s strange not to have my muzzle under my eyes, not miss the tail I almost never see.”

      “I can’t deal with your male logic right now, my brother,” she smiled at him.

      “It’s a good thing you used male there, Clover.  If you tried to use female, I’d have to accuse of you of speaking in impossibilities.”

      “Someone doesn’t want dinner before he leaves,” Patches giggled.

      “You wouldn’t send me out there without my supper, you fraud.  Why, I‘d be sneaking up on someone, and my growling stomach would give me away,” he challenged, which made her laugh.  “Seriously, though, can you make me something, little one?” he asked.

      “I can make you a sandwich of cheese and leftover beef from last night, but there’s not much else unless you want raw vegetables.”

      “A sandwich sounds fine, thank you,” he nodded to her.

 

      He knew that he’d be unchallenged on the streets of Avannar dressed as a Loreguard officer, and he found just that.  The streets were empty of everything but Loreguard patrols, and they didn’t challenge a Loreguard officer on a horse, moving as if he had a purpose, his horse galloping towards some certain destination.

      In reality, the officer and the horse were an illusion.  Kyven, in his Arcan form and with his uniform in a pack on his back, ran on all fours beneath the illusion, running as fast as the illusory horse.  There was a certain strange joy and freedom that came with being able to run so fast, the ability to outrun any human, to chase down a horse or a deer.  That was a very liberating feeling, like he could race the wind, and it made him feel safe in knowing that no man on foot could ever catch him. Out here, on open ground, he was a free man.  His muscles moved with a symphony of harmony that propelled him forward with grace and power, his hands and feet barely touched the cobblestone streets of Avannar, and in a strange way, it almost felt like he was flying.

      It seemed that almost before he knew it, he was there.  The illusory horse slowed to a stop before a small row house on Coin Way, then, when the officer seemed to nod that he was at the right place, he turned and went around the corner, and then down an alley behind the row of small townhouses.  Behind the houses along the alley were a series of gates leading into gardens, and the horse and officer opened a specific gate and trotted into a weedy, unkempt garden.  The officer atop the dismounted and tied the horse to a fencepost nearby.  Kyven had to separate his illusions then, as he moved away from the illusory horse, having to split them into two separate spells to maintain the horse as he moved to the back door of the house.  His eyes were open to the spirits, and he saw no alchemical devices on the door to serve as an alarm or deterrent, which would make it easy for Lightfoot when she came later tonight.  He put three small scratches on the door from his claws, a mark telling her where to enter, and then he banged loudly on the door.

      Moments later, just before he was going to knock again, the door was yanked open, and an effete-looking man with blond hair was in the doorway.  He had his uniform pants on and his white undershirt for the coat.  “What?” he demanded hotly, looking insulted.

      “New orders from headquarters, sir,” Kyven told him, sizing him up.  This Ezram Thatcher was about a finger shorter than Kyven in his human form, so that wasn’t going to be a problem.  Nobody would notice such a small difference in heights.  “You need to pack your field gear, sir, you’ll be leading a search party checking the horse ranches and outlying farms.”

      “What?  I’m being sent out?” he demanded harshly.  “I’m an aide to Colonel Jed Thatcher, I don’t do field work!” he said scathingly.

      “You can take that up with command, sir.  I just do what I’m told, and I was told to deliver these orders and warn you to pack your field gear.”

      “We’ll just see about that!” he snapped.  “I’m not being sent out like common rabble!  My father will see to that!” he declared, storming back into the house…and leaving the door open.  Kyven simply stepped inside and closed the door, inwardly smiling.  He was almost making this too easy.  But when he realized that Ezram was going to use an alchemical talker to contact his father, for he had it in his hands and was turning it on, Kyven had to act.  He called forth a zone of silence and dropped it on Ezram Thatcher before he could do anything, which made him freeze in surprise when all sound around him suddenly stopped.  He turned to look at Kyven, realization dawning on him that he had to be under attack, and he snatched up the weapon belt on the table to draw his pistol.

      He never made it.

      The room exploded into darkness as Kyven enacted his shadow powers to fill the room with a cloud of shadow, then he dropped down onto all fours and surged forward, able to see his victim as he seemed to start in surprise, then tore his pistol free of its holster and pointed it wildly, randomly through the room, unable to see, unable to hear, and having no idea where his attacker was.  Kyven slithered by him, rose up on his legs behind him, then reached out and touched him with almost surprising gentleness, a single finger on the back of his head.  With that touch, Kyven imagined lightning lancing from his finger and into the man’s body, and then beckoned to the fox to grant him the power to cast the spell.  Ezram Thatcher’s body suddenly locked up and shuddered horribly as he was electrocuted by Kyven’s spell, and then fell to the floor with eerie silence.

      Ezram Thatcher was dead, killed by Shaman magic.  And that was why Kyven was so effective as an assassin.  His illusions let him get close, his ability to silence and blind his opponents with magic and his shadow powers kept a wary target from stopping him, which would let him get close enough to kill silently with either magic or his natural weaponry.

      Of course, now the other part of it came into play, getting rid of the body.  Kyven quickly stripped the body, and then took it upstairs and put it in the bed to make it look like he died of natural causes.  Were he any other Shaman, he would have had any number of ways to dispose of the corpse, but Kyven didn’t have the kind of power needed to shape stone like Clover to cover it over, or decay the body into dust, or change it.  All he could really do was burn it, bury it, go throw it in the river, leave it for Lightfoot to get rid of it, or conceal how the man died and make it appear it was something else that killed him.

      Once Ezram Thatcher was removed, Kyven moved quickly.  He first took on the human shape using his medallion, then he dressed himself in the uniform that Clover had made for him.  He then took all the pins, rank, and decorations off Thatcher’s uniform and placed them on his own, then took his sword, pistol, shockrod, and a useful little trinket, the communicator that Thatcher was about to use. Kyven had had one once, when he killed the Loreguard on his first trip here, but he’d given it to Coldfoot and they had it in Haven by now, most likely.  The one Coldfoot had would let them listen in on announcements to all roving Loreguard patrols in Avannar, but this one, it was an alchemical communication device that probably only worked between father and son.  He finished dressing and then checked himself in the mirror in Ezram’s bedroom, and found that he would pass inspection.

      Kyven attached the sword to his belt, then prepared himself for the second part of the public show.  He put on an illusion of Ezram’s face, created an illusory duplicate of himself as he went out the back door, then gave a cold look to the illusion of him that filed past him, silently got on the horse, then trotted off.  The strain of maintaining three illusions at once, then two illusions with one of them getting further and further away, made his knees a little weak as the illusory horse and rider turned a corner, the clop clop of hooves fading into the distance.  He dismissed the illusion of horse and rider and felt much of the strain lift from him, then closed the door and got to work.

      First, he had to make sure the house would be safe for Lightfoot.  He searched the house first by surveying it with spirit sight, marking the location of every alchemical device in the house, but also seeing that there were two Arcans in the basement, and from the positions they were in, they were being held in tiny cages.  He left them where they were for the moment, for clearing the house for Lightfoot was more important than running down there and getting sidetracked.  They could wait a few more minutes.  They looked healthy, one of them was asleep, and the other was laying in his tiny cage that Kyven couldn’t see in a fetal position, his eyes open and a nervous look on his face.  Kyven returned to his mission and inspected every alchemical device in the house, making sure that none of them were dangerous.  He did have to disable one device in the bedroom that looked to protect a secret door, and when he got it open, he’d rather have not.  It was a room that smelled faintly of waste, of stale urine and feces, and there were whips and lashes and rods hanging on the walls.  There was a wooden bed in the center of the bare floor, with leather manacles at the four corners, that told him that the man brought victims into this room to torture them.

      Not men.  Arcans.  The bed’s upper board showed deep furrows that could only have been made by a canine or feline Arcan’s claws, and there were an array of muzzles on the far wall, for every type of snout that Arcans had, be it short mouse snouts or long canine muzzles.  The man liked to rape his lovers, but it seemed his other hobby was torturing Arcans.  And no doubt, the two Arcans in the basement had been destined for this room.

       Once he got that done, he descended into the basement.  It was a dark, dank place filled with small cages stacked on top of each other along the wall, stacked three high and fifteen in total, and two of those cells were occupied by Arcans.  One was an adolescent male cat Arcan, a calico with a riot of conflicting colors of fur randomly arrayed across his body.  The other was a young male raccoon Arcan, and that was the one that was awake.  Kyven then did something he’d never done before, he took on the illusion of himself in his Arcan form, and he was sure to allow them to see that his eyes were glowing with green radiance.  That was the mark of a Shaman, eyes lit from within with magical light, for that was how their eyes appeared when their eyes were open to the spirits.  “Wake up,” Kyven called from the stairs.

      Both of the young males looked in his direction.  The raccoon gasped and shrank back in his tiny cage, but the cat gave him a startled look and grabbed the bars of his cage.  Kyven noticed that one of his hands was covered with white fur, the other covered with red fur.  “Shaman!” he said with a gasp.  “Oh, Shaman!  Let us out!”

      “I will, but it’s important that you remain calm and quiet,” Kyven told them as he came down into the basement.  “Can you do that for me, young ones?”

      The raccoon gaped at him, but the cat was reaching out to him with his red paw.  Kyven came up to the raccoon, but the young male just cowered deep in his cage, his eyes fearful.  “Calmly, little one,” Kyven said in a soothing voice.  “I am here to help you.” He glanced to the cat. “Is he wild?”

      “I don’t think so,” the cat answered.  “I’ve heard him muttering.”

      “I’m going to let you out, young one, but it’s very, very important that you remain quiet and calm.  Can you do that?”

      The raccoon gazed at him fearfully, then blinked and nodded.

      “Good,” Kyven said, unlocking the cage and opening the door.  “Let me help you out,” he offered, reaching a hand in a little for him.  The raccoon took his hand, and Kyven gently pulled the young male out of the cage, holding him under his arms as he put him on the floor.  The male was almost starved to death, nothing but fur and bones, and his legs trembled to hold up his weight.  “Shh, I’ll get you something to eat in just a moment.  Then you can sit and rest for a while, alright?”

      The raccoon nodded, but he held onto Kyven, clinging to him, as he opened the lower cage and helped the calico crawl out.  The calico looked in much better shape, and as soon as he was out, he took Kyven’s hands and looked up at him adoringly.  “Will you bless me, Shaman?” he asked.

      “I’m going to do more than that,” Kyven chuckled, pulling the cat close to him and embracing both of them, holding them close.  Poor boys, how terrifying it had to have been!  But it was the lot of the Arcans.  Fate rolled the dice when they stood on the auction block, and these two poor boys had rolled hag’s eyes.  “My name is Kyven, young ones, and I am a Shaman.  I came here to kill your master, but the spirits have also led me to you.”

      “He’s dead?” the raccoon asked timidly.

      “He’s laying dead up in his room,” Kyven answered immediately.  “You can go up and see him for yourself, but for now, come upstairs, come up and eat.  His food is now your food.”

      “Are you going to rescue us?”

      “That wasn‘t the original plan, but yes, I‘m going to save you,” he said as he led them towards the stairs, the cat following behind him as he carried the raccoon in gentle arms.  “I came to kill your master so I can take his place and invade the Loremaster headquarters.  I can just take you back to my home on the way there and drop you off.  How long have you been here?”

      “Just a few days,” the cat answered.

      “I don’t know, a long time,” the raccoon answered woodenly.  “I was next,” he whispered.  “Next to be taken out and disappear.  I don’t know where the others went.  We didn’t know if it was good or bad to be taken, because it’s always so quiet here…so quiet.”

      “It’s over now, little one, shh,” he said gently as they came up into the kitchen.  “Find food for both of you while I go finish what I was doing,” he ordered of the cat.  “Help our brother, he’s weak.”

      “I will, Shaman,” he said with adoring eyes as Kyven set the raccoon down in a chair by the small table.

      Kyven left them in the kitchen to finish his sweep of the house, and he found nothing else that required his attention.  He did go up and close the secret door in case the raccoon came up here, so as not to upset him with what might have happened to him.  From what Kyven could deduce, the man starved the Arcans to weaken them, then dragged them up into his torture room and tormented them until they died.  Then he’d just sell off the body to a butcher and bring up another one when the mood to be cruel hit him.

      Kyven knew what it felt like to be starved, and he shuddered at the memory of it.  His compassion for the raccoon was quite deep.  That had been him, once.  Starved nearly to death, and for nothing but the twisted amusement of a sadistic monster.  But he’d killed his tormentor, killed Arthur Ledwell to save his wife from his murderous rage, and then that bitch paid him back by trying to sell him in the Blue Ring of Alamar.  He guessed he got his revenge on the bitch too, since he’d escaped.

      He returned to the kitchen to find the cat literally feeding the raccoon by hand, feeding him slices of bread cut from a dark loaf sitting on the table, which the raccoon ate slowly.  Kyven nodded when he saw them and went over to the back door and made sure it was locked, then came up to them.  “I’m going to use magic to take on the appearance of Thatcher, the man who bought you,” he warned the young males.  “So don’t be afraid.  It’s not him, it’s me in disguise.  Understand?” he asked.  When the two of the nodded, he dismissed his illusion of himself and again took on the illusory face of Ezram Thatcher. The raccoon seemed to stare at him in fear for a moment, which Kyven felt needed to be addressed, or the poor boy would never feel peace.  “Come with me, young one.  Let me show you your former owner‘s corpse, so you can know that he’ll never hurt you again.”

      The raccoon allowed Kyven to pick him up, and Kyven carried him upstairs as he cradled a piece of bread and gnawed on it weakly.  He brought him to the door and slipped in, and turned so the raccoon could see the naked corpse splayed out on the bed.  “There he is, young one.  Dead.  He’ll never hurt you again.”

      It didn’t surprise him too much when the young raccoon began to cry.  Kyven cuddled him and held him close, tucking his head under his chin and comforting him as he cried out his relief, rocking him gently back and forth as he held the weakened young male.  “Shh, it’s alright, my young one.  You’re safe now.  I’m going to make sure that you’ll be cared for.  Do you have a name?”

      He sniffled.  “My mother used to call me Smoke, because of the color of my fur.”

      “It’s good to meet you, Smoke.  Do you want to go back to the kitchen now?”

      “May I?”

      “Of course,” he said in a gentle voice, and he carried the young male back down the stairs.

      Kyven let the two boys eat for about ten minutes, as he rifled through the first floor, then he went back up and grabbed some of the clothes from the dead man’s room and a blanket.  After the two had finished the bread and had some water, he handed a pair of breeches and a belt to the cat.  “What’s your name?” he asked.

      “I’ve never really had one, Shaman,” he answered.  “My last owners just called me cat.”

      “Well, you‘ll have to think of one,” Kyven told him as he put the blanket around the shoulders of the raccoon.  “Fur like that would beg for me to call you Patches, but then my Patches wouldn’t appreciate that,” he chuckled.  “So don’t name yourself that.”

      “Well, I think the spirits have smiled on me to send you to save me, so I think that makes me very lucky.  So that’s my name.  Lucky.”

      “Lucky it is,” Kyven nodded as he finished settling the blanket over the raccoon.  “Let me explain how we’re getting out of here,” he began as Lucky tore a hole in the back of the pants with his claw, the pulled them on, having to belt them in place because he was thinner than Thatcher.  He knelt down and started rolling the cuffs of the pants so they didn‘t drag the ground.  “I’m going to take you back to my house, and to do that, I have to use magic that hides us from the Loreguard.  While we’re walking, it’s absolutely imperative that you remain absolutely silent and never let go of me, Lucky.  Do you understand?  You have to grab hold of me and not let go, no matter what.”

      “I can just hold your tail.”

      “Actually, you can’t, part of this magic makes my tail impossible to touch,” he said, motioning at himself.  “I’m going to be carrying Smoke, so you need to grab hold of me somewhere and not let go.”

      “Okay.”

      “Alright then, are you ready to go?” he asked, and both of them nodded.  He picked up Smoke and settled him into his arms, then Lucky grabbed hold of his belt.

      “Is this good?” he asked.

      “That’s fine.  Just don’t let go, no matter what happens.”

      “I won’t.”

      “Alright, from here out, both of you must be very quiet,” he instructed.  “And no matter what happens, make no sound and don’t let go of me, even if we’re stopped by the Loreguard.  Let me handle it.  Do you understand?”

      Both of them nodded silently.

      “Alright then, let’s go,” he said calmly.

      It was very easy.  Kyven covered all three of them with a single illusion of Ezram Thatcher walking along the streets, swaggering on his way confidently, as if he owned the whole city.  Lucky kept a death-grip on the back of his belt, and Smoke stayed huddled in the blanket Kyven had put around him, allowing Kyven to carry him.  Kyven moved straight towards his house, and thankfully, they encountered no patrols of Loreguard on the empty streets, which let him bring the two young males, both of them probably around three or four, just barely past puberty, all the way back to his shop.  He took them around to the alley and padded up to the alley door, then knocked on it in a specific pattern that those within would identify.  Tweak opened the door for him, and gaped a moment at him before looking at him curiously.

      “Move, Tweak,” Kyven ordered in his own voice.

      The ferret laughed lightly and backed up, then let him in.  As soon as the ferret closed the door, he dismissed the illusion, which revealed his two companions.  “Woah!” Tweak exclaimed.  “Who are they, Kyven?”

      “The Loreguard owned them,” he answered, bringing them into the shop.  “Clover!  Patches!  Lightfoot!” he barked, carrying Smoke into the main shop.   The three females hurried to the main shop room at his call, and they all looked curiously at him as he set Smoke down in a chair.  “This is Smoke, and that’s Lucky,” Kyven introduced.  “The Thatcher boy had them locked in cages in his basement, and I couldn’t leave them.  Clover, Smoke has been starved,” he said simply.

      “I’ll take care of it, my brother,” she said with a nod, coming up and putting her hand on Smoke’s shoulder.  “I am Clover, my young one.  I am a Shaman, and I will take care of you.”

      “Another Shaman!” Lucky gasped, rushing up and taking hold of her forearm.  “Will you bless me, Shaman?”

      “Of course I will,” she smiled, putting her hand on his shoulder and giving him the ritual blessing of the  Shaman, which made him quiver in delight.  “Patches, our young friend here needs food.  Whatever meat we have left.”

      “We have a little, but not much.  I’ll get it,” she nodded, and hurried to the kitchen.

      “I cleared his house of any nasty surprises, Lightfoot, you can get in through the back door,” he told the cat.  “It has nothing but a lock.”

      She nodded silently.

      “Are you a Shaman too?” Lucky asked Lightfoot enthusiastically, which she answered with a shake of her head.

      “No, Lucky, she is my thief,” Kyven said, giving her a smile.  “Nothing is safe from her.”

      “Especially you,” she answered, which made him chuckle.

      “Patches and Tweak work here in the house, helping us stay hidden,” he added.  “Together, we do our work.”

      “You will stay with us for a little while to recover from your ordeal, and when you are recovered, we will send you on to a place where there are no humans,” Clover told them with a gentle smile.

      “There is no such place,” Smoke said in a voice that was barely more than a whisper.

      “Yes there is, young one, far from here,” Kyven told him.  “But I’ll let Clover explain it to you while she gets you more to eat.  I’ll be back sometime after dark, Clover.”

      “I wish you would not do this, my brother.  It is too dangerous,” she objected.

      “I’ll be fine, I promise,” he told her, leaning in and kissing her on the nose.  “Be careful out there, Lightfoot.”

      She nodded calmly to him.

 

      Kyven’s bold plan to just march up to the guards at the bridge and bluff his way past actually worked.

      There were fifteen guards there, and when Kyven approached and railed at them in Ezram Thatcher’s voice, being as annoying and insufferable as possible, he clearly must have convinced them that he was the real deal, for they allowed him to pass after inspecting him with a magic sniffer.  The sniffer found no magic about him, which was a gift from the medallion, for it hid both its own magic and the magic of his illusion, making him appear to be completely normal.  After that, he waltzed over the bridge and into a very busy grounds, where guards, Loremasters, and workers were milling around all over the place.  Kyven marched down the gravel path and towards the building, passing Loremasters in deep discussion, Loreguard supervising workers who were cleaning up, and men and women carrying beams, boards, rugs, and panes of glass.  They must have cleaned up most of the fire damage on the sixth floor, and were now rebuilding.  Kyven simply attached himself to one of those gangs of workers and walked right in with them, acting like he was supervising them.  The guards at the front doors looked a little surprised to see him herding a group of workers, but they did not challenge him, letting him in without comment.

      It worked.

      Kyven continued to play the deception as the workers filed up the nearest set of stairs, moving just close enough to seem that he was with them but not so close that they took notice.  When they went past the third floor, however, Kyven slowed down and let them get a lead on him, and he approached the guards on the fourth floor.  He gave them both a challenging stair as he squared off, clearly intending to move onto their floor, and his eyes arrogantly dared them to say a word.  They saluted him sharply, and he came up to them.  “Anything unusual?” he demanded.

      “No sir!” one of them answered.

      “Good.  Carry on,” he said, stalking past them and turning right, as if going to the right side stairs to check in with the guards at that station.  He passed by the right stair guards without a word, just returning their salute, then came to the far side and did the same with the far side stair guards.  He came back down the center hallway, going towards the door he knew, the Department of Arcan Control.  He reached it and opened the door, and again found himself in the large cluttered office he had visited some days ago, on his very first visit to the headquarters.  There were only two people in the office, sitting a desks on the far side, quills scratching as they wrote reports.  “You there,” Kyven said as he closed the door, looking at the two tired-looking men.  “Where is the rest of your department?  Surely you two aren’t the only ones on duty!”

      “They pulled my workers to supervise the construction efforts on the sixth floor,” the balding middle-aged man said with a sour grunt.  “What did you need, Lieutenant?”

      “You just gave me what I need,” Kyven answered, and without another word, he struck.  He raised a hand and pictured in his mind the withering blast of cold striking at an angle that would kill both men but not hit their desks, hitting them only from the neck up.  He beckoned to the fox for the power to grant the spell, and she responded.  A pale blue beam of light erupted from his hand, and it struck the two men and the wall behind them.  Their heads became rimed in frost, as did the wall, killing them instantly.  They slumped to their desks, the balding man’s head cracking in two like a piece of glass, showing the frozen interior of his head.

      He moved fast.  He grabbed a satchel from the floor beside the desk of the balding man, then started quickly grabbing up reports.  He cleared out the balding man’s desk, then the other man’s desk, then he ran over to a cabinet and quickly searched it.  He found where they were filing their reports, and he gathered up the most recent and worked his way backwards and stuffed them into the satchel, stuffing it almost to overflowing.  He realized that he needed more storage space, so he ransacked the office for something he could use, and came up with a small bag that looked to be used for carrying a lunch, then piled even more papers into it.  He filled that too, and decided that he both had enough and also was out of time.  Both sets of guards had seen him come into the office, so someone had to leave the office, and very soon.  Kyven kept the balding man’s face firmly in mind and ready to take an illusion of him at any time, then hid the satchel and the small lunch bag by shouldering the satchel and tying the bag to it, then covering them over with an illusion that they weren’t there, like he was leaving the office exactly as he appeared when he entered it.

      He stepped out of the office and marched immediately towards the far stair guards, and they saluted him when he reached them.  “Anything unusual?” he asked.

      “Nothing, sir,” one of them answered.

      “Very good.  Carry on,” he said imperiously, then walked past them and down the stairs.  He returned to the ground floor, and instead of heading towards the door leading to the front, he instead left through the back door, which brought him out behind the building and near the Loreguard barracks.  He knew that right now, getting out was imperative, for the faster he did this, the less chance he had of being discovered.  However, the tricky part now was getting out, which would require a little help.  He couldn’t just walk out the way he’d come in else he’d be challenged, and no amount of bluster would get him past those guards without them finding out why someone who’d just come on duty was leaving after little more than an hour.  To get out, he needed to attach himself to a Loreguard patrol that was leaving the island.  That, or he waited for about half an hour, for the sun was already very low on the western horizon, and soon it would be dark enough for him to attempt to slip past.

      As a wagon ambled away, he realized that that was his way out.  That wagon was heading towards the bridge, and was clearly going out to pick up more supplies to rebuild the sixth floor.  He glanced around to make sure nobody was really paying much attention, then he hurried over to it.  He stopped the wagon with a sharp call, putting an annoyed look on the driver and his assistant, two rough-looking men, the driver tall and wide and with a bristling black beard, and the assistant tall and lanky and with a trimmed blond beard.  “I will inspect your wagon before you leave, to make sure no contraband is leaving!” Kyven announced arrogantly.

      “Contraband?  The wagon’s empty, you jackass!” the black-bearded man declared with a hot look.

      “Then this will take but a moment, won’t it?” Kyven retorted.  “Just hold until I’m done!”

      Kyven carefully put a foot onto the wagon and pulled himself up, but doing so with a very light and gentle manner that put his weight onto the wagon very gently and prevented it from rocking or dipping, which would have warned the two men, who were pointedly not looking at him, that he was on the wagon.  He stepped over the back gate and knelt down, then, after looking around quickly to make sure nobody was paying attention to them, he knelt down as if to look at something, then created a new illusion of himself that leaned back up.  That illusion then split from him as he summoned forth a shadow, spread it through the existing shadow and also around himself, and then melded to it, creating a slightly darker shadow than what would be normal on the shadowed side of the wagon, something that wouldn’t be obviously noticeable.  Kyven hunkered down as his illusion of himself got down and moved over to the assistant’s side of the wagon, and waved them on.  “Be about your business,” the illusion called as if disappointed.

      “Oh, we will, you jackass,” the driver growled.  “And this’ll be the last job I take for the Loremasters.  It’s always more trouble than it’s worth coming here!”  The driver snapped the reins, and his two horses started out, leaving the illusion behind.  Kyven glanced up and saw where the illusion was, then literally laid down in the wagon, against the side, staying in the shadow cast by the wagon’s side as he had his illusion start walking towards the shore.  He kept just his eyes over the top of the wagon, watching his illusion as the wagon left it, and he had it walk towards the wagon so as not to let it get too far away from him too quickly and thus make it much harder to maintain.  The illusion did get further away as the wagon pulled away from it, making Kyven strain to hold it and keep himself hidden in shadow at the same time.  He looked around as his breath threatened to start coming quickly, seeing if anyone seemed to be looking at the illusion, and when it seemed to him that nobody was, he released it and let it waver and vanish.  He tensed, waiting for a shout of alarm, but none came.  Nobody had been paying attention to the illusion, and thus nobody seemed to immediately notice that it vanished.

      The wagon was stopped on the bridge, as he knew it would be, and he saw two guards look into the back to make sure it was empty.  Both of them looked right at him, but saw only shadow, and their eyes did not pick up that the shadow was perhaps a little deeper than it should have been, maybe just the tiniest bit darker.  They looked out as the driver complained about being stopped, which made the Loreguard officer on the bridge chuckle.  “Sometimes Lieutenants get a little too full of themselves,” he said.  “I should know, I’m a Lieutenant as well.”

      The driver laughed with him.  “Well, you ain’t no ass like that other one,” he said.  “Fuckin’ little jackass.  I’d love to meet him out on the streets some dark night.”

      “What did he look like?”

      “Snotty bastard with blond hair and a look like he owns the island,” the driver answered.

      “Straight nose?  Brown eyes?  A little mole over his left eye?” the officer asked, and when the rider nodded, he chuckled.  “That’s Thatcher.  Jackass describes him fairly well.”

      “Well, you guys should beat the shit out of him,” the driver grated.

      “Some of us would love to do just that,” the officer laughed.  “About when do you think you’ll be back?”

      “Won’t be gone long,” he promised.  “The lumber’s all stacked and waiting to be picked up.”

      The wagon started up again, and unwittingly carried Kyven out of danger.

      He rode with it for about a block, then very carefully and very gently rose up, still shrouded in shadow and melded into it, then silently crept to the back of the wagon, stepped over the gate, and then stepped off of it.  The wagon rocked slightly with the loss of his weight, but neither the driver or the passenger seemed to notice, probably attributing the rocking to the cobblestones.  Kyven moved to the side, stepped into an alley, and after using spirit sight to ensure that no one was lurking near and able to see him, he took on the illusion of a large boarhound.  A common dog was something that the roving patrols of Loreguard would not challenge without good reason, because it‘s just a dog.  He unshrouded himself from his shadow and walked down the alley to the other side, then stepped out onto Hammer Street, just as alarms rang on the island.

      They had discovered his handiwork.

      Now it was important to get home.  Keeping his eyes open to the spirits so he could see through buildings, he ran at a fairly fast clip, yet feeling very slow since he was in his human form, as the dog illusion that hid him trotted along at a fair speed.  Kyven saw a roving patrol around a corner, about to come onto his street, so he angled quickly into a shop doorway and had his illusion lay down, looking for all the world like a dog waiting to get back inside.  The roving patrol stopped in the intersection as the Sergeant in command of the four men listened to his communicator, then he barked a command to his men and the four of them ran towards the Loremaster headquarters, running right past him without giving him a single glance.  He had his illusion stand up, and then it padded out of the doorway as Kyven trotted to the intersection, turned the way they’d come, and broke out into a ground-eating run that the illusion took at an easy lope.  He dodged another patrol by ducking into an alley and dismissing it as he melded to the deepening shadows of the alley, vanishing from sight completely, but the patrol wasn’t really looking for him.  They too were moving at a trotting run towards the Loremaster headquarters, and Kyven realized they were taking up positions to stop someone from leaving the island, occupying critical streets and intersections.

      His choice of a dog rather than a Loreguard or Loremaster had been a wise choice, he realized.  They would have challenged any human they saw, but they wouldn’t care about a dog.

      He slipped out of the alley after restoring his canine illusion and loped down Sun Street, and then turned a corner, went one block, and slipped into the alley behind his shop.  He vanished into shadow once more and dismissed his illusion when he scanned the buildings around to ensure nobody was looking into the alley, then rapped in that specific sequence on the back door of the shop to tell them to let him in.  Clover was the one to come to the door, looking through it with spirit sight, and when she saw nothing on the other side, she opened it.  Not even spirit sight could penetrate his cloak of shadows.  Kyven slipped in around her, and when he patted her on the side, she closed the door and barred it.

      “I’m home,” he said, returning to visibility.  “That was quick and easy.”

      “So it worked?”

      “Well enough,” he answered, handing her the satchel and bag.  “I cleaned out the Department of Arcan Control,” he winked.  “I took everything I could carry.”

      “Was there any trouble?”

      He shook his head as they went back into the main shop.  “I think your owl spirit was watching over me, though I never saw it.  Nobody challenged me.  They all took my lies for the truth without question.”

      “No, the owl would not protect you on their island,” she said.  “You were just that convincing.  But I still say that was too dangerous, my brother.”

      “I knew it would be, Clover, but it was worth the risk,” he said, looking around.  “Where are the boys?”

      “Upstairs resting,” she answered.  “Patches and Tweak are keeping them company.  Lightfoot is in the kitchen.”

      “Good,” he said, sitting down and leaning over to take off his boot.  “Your uniform was perfect, my sister,” he complemented her.  “After I took Thatcher’s jacket decorations and weapon belt, you couldn’t tell your uniform from a real one.”

      “I told you it would work,” she told him.  “But that does not change the fact that you should not have done that!”

      “I can’t do my job without taking risks, Clover,” he said mildly as he took off the other boot.  “I knew the security on the island itself would be weak because of all the confusion with them rebuilding after the fire, and I was right.  I was able to walk around without attracting any attention, and they’d stripped the clerks out of the department to work on the sixth floor, leaving only two functionaries in the office, so they were easy to kill without making a sound.  But I know I won’t be able to do it again.  They already know I was there, I heard the alarms when I was well off the island.  They never expected me to be crazy enough to come back the very next day, and they paid for it.  But I know that they’ll tighten security severely now, maybe even put magic sniffers everywhere to try to catch me using Shaman magic, since I used magic to kill the two clerks in the office.  They’re not stupid, and I know they’re not.  I exploited an assumption this time, and they won’t make that assumption again.  The next time I go, no matter when that is or what I did beforehand, they’ll be waiting for me.”  He stood and took off the jacket, handing it to Clover, then the shirt, then he pushed off the trousers, leaving him in nothing but braes.  He pushed those down and off as well, then enacted the power of his medallion.  He again felt his body become cold and liquid, and it flowed back into his Arcan shape.  He dropped to all fours and shook himself vigorously to get rid of that feeling, sneezed, then rose back up onto his feet.  “I hate that feeling,” he said, flexing his fingers to work out the last of that cold, watery feeling.

      “Much better,” Clover said, looking at him with open admiration.

      “Down, girl, we have work to do,” he chided with a toothy grin.  “Let me go up and visit the two boys, then we’ll skulk off to our underground lair and go through these papers and find out exactly what the Loremasters know about what we’re doing.”

      The calico brightened when Kyven came into the room that the Arcans shared upstairs.  Lucky was sitting by the bed where Tweak slept most often, sitting with Smoke, who was resting with the covers pulled up and around him.  The raccoon was sleeping peacefully, and Patches was putting clean sheets down on one of the other beds.  Tweak was helping her, and a look up showed him that Lightfoot was in the attic, waiting for it to get dark enough to go out.  Kyven had no worries at all about letting Lightfoot go out with all the soldiers on the streets.  They’d never see her.  “Did you have a good meal, Lucky?” he asked, letting the young cat give him a hug, patting him on the back.

      “Yes, I’m full!” he said happily.  “Will you bless me, Shaman?”

      Kyven smiled and gave him the ritual blessing, which made him smile beatifically.  “How is Smoke?”

      “Sleeping after eating all he wanted,” Lucky answered.

      “How is he, sister?” he asked Clover, who came in behind him.

      “He will need several days to recover, but he will recover,” she answered.

      “That’s good,” Kyven sighed in relief, patting Lucky’s shoulder.  “It looks like you’ll be stuck with us for a little while, young one,” he said.  “I hope you don’t mind.”

      “No!” he said happily.  “My mother used to tell me about the Shaman, but I never thought I’d meet one!  What kind of Arcan are you, Shaman?”

      Kyven chuckled.  “One of only two, young one,” he answered.  “My breed is the rarest of them all.”  He leaned over Smoke and saw that the gray raccoon was breathing steadily, his thin, emaciated face peaceful.  Kyven didn’t wake him, was just content that he looked better, not as afraid.  “Now I have work to do, young one, I just wanted to make sure you’re alright.”

      “I’m fine,” he said with a nod.

      Kyven patted him on the shoulder.  “Alright then, get some rest, and obey the others.  There are things about this house that can be dangerous, so listen to them.  They know.”

      “I will,” he promised.

      Kyven and Clover left the two boys with Patches and Tweak, padding downstairs.  “Young, aren’t they?”
      “About three, both of them,” Clover answered.  “In their first stage of maturity.  What you would call a teenager,” she told him as they went through the main shop and to the stairs leading to the cellar.

      “I can’t imagine growing that fast,” Kyven grunted.  “It must be painful.”

      “Not at all,” she answered as they both opened their eyes to the spirits as they came down into the dark cellar.   “I grew from the size of a human toddler to the size of a human teen in about two years,” she told him.  “I was very clumsy during that time because I was constantly growing, as are we all, but there’s little pain.”

      “You must have eaten like crazy.”

      “A child eats about the same as an adult.  In that respect, it’s easy to portion meals for us,” she chuckled.  They entered the office, and he saw that she’d already placed the satchel and bag on the desk.  She shut the door and padded up to the desk, and as Kyven leaned down to start taking out the papers, he yelped when Clover smacked him on the backside, under his upraised tail, and she was not gentle.

      “Ow!  What the hell was that for?” he demanded, whirling to face her.

      “For being foolish with your life,” she answered in a serious voice.  “This was a dangerous thing to do!” she accused, pointing at the papers.  “They are alert and wary, my brother!  It was just blind luck that you got away with it this time!”

      “I know, that’s why I won’t do it again, because the opportunity is gone,” he said mildly.  “I told you, Clover, the circumstances were uniquely favorable for another invasion.  But now that they saw me slip through in their moment of confusion, they won’t give me another chance.  I took a risk because I saw it as a worthwhile risk.  The fact that I was proven right doesn’t lower the risk that I took, and I know it.  I’m sorry if I frightened you, my sister, but I felt it had to be done.  But for what it’s worth, thank you for trusting me enough to let me do it.”

      She looked up at him, then wordlessly embraced him.  “I trust you to keep yourself alive, even if you are the one that placed yourself in danger to begin with.”

      “Always have to get in the last word,” he chuckled, patting her on the back.

      “You are my brother Shaman, but you are also one of my best friends, Kyven.  I would hate to lose you to your own overconfidence.”

      “Ah, but I was following the path of wisdom, my sister,” he told her lightly.  “It told me that I had an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.”

      “I’m starting to forgive you.  You are backsliding,” she said, swatting him lightly on his rump.

      “Always,” he chuckled.  “Now let’s see what the Loremasters know, and hope that I killed the only man who knows what’s on these papers.”

      “They will know we think they are close,” she said.

      “Yes, but without solid information, they won’t know what or why,” he answered.  “They’ll lose valuable time trying to reconstitute all this information, and that’ll give us time to move our routes and get more Arcans out of the east.”

      “True.”

      They sat down at the desk and carefully searched through the information, paper by paper.  Most of it was reports, a detailed analysis of what the Masked was doing, and much of it was right.  They’d correctly identified over half of the agents of the Masked doing the buying, and had deduced that the Arcans were being moved out of populated lands.  But they didn’t know why it was being done, they could only speculate.  They were waiting for more information before making that guess, according to the report Kyven had all but taken off the desk of the dead Loremaster while he was writing it.  The Loremaster writing the report was convinced that the Masked or the Shaman were somehow involved, and the frankness of the report said much about what the Loremasters knew as the truth.  “We cannot let it become common knowledge that the Shaman are intelligent and organized,” the report noted.  “If the Shaman are indeed involved in this, if this is not some move by a power broker to starve the market of Arcans to inflate prices, then we must be ready with a cover story to explain what’s going on, because this can’t be hidden by any conventional method.  If we don’t know what’s going on, we need to make sure that we can convince the people that we do with a plausible explanation.  To do less would cause us to lose respect among the commoners.”

      It seemed that the Department of Arcan Control served more than one purpose, they discovered.  It was responsible for the oversight of the Arcan slaving operations and laws concerning Arcans, primarily ensuring that they remained enslaved and preventing people from treating with any dignity, but they also worked to try to find Shaman.  That was basically an impossible job, but they at least tried, for many of the reports in the papers he stole were reports of suspected Shaman activity, descriptions of possible Shaman, and, rather chillingly, lists of Arcans killed because they were suspected Shaman.  They were even trying to trace the bloodlines of those Arcans to inspect their parents or siblings.  They were very serious about it, though Clover told him that the Loremasters had never actually captured a Shaman, but they’d come close a few times, and had killed several.  But Shaman were hard to capture, and even harder to find…but unfortunately, not quite so difficult to kill.  The Shaman who had died to the Loremasters had died because they had been protecting others, or died trying to escape when they were discovered.  But the reluctance of the Shaman to fight was not misconstrued by the Loremasters.  They didn’t see this aversion to fighting as weakness, they saw it as Shaman buying time for others to erase all tracks and bury why the Shaman was there.  They knew this because when they did discover a Shaman, they never found anything else, and Shaman couldn’t just walk around.  They were Arcans, they required humans to help hide them when operating in Noraam. This was how they knew the Shaman were part of an organized system that was sophisticated enough to vanish whenever it was uncovered.  The reports correctly linked the Shaman with the Masked, but they didn’t know about Haven or the Arcan organization that existed to the west.  Their intelligence stated that the Shaman served the Masked, because the Shaman by themselves may be intelligent, but lacked the sophistication to set up a large and effective organization.  The Loremasters believed that the Shaman were the instruments of the Masked, working for the same goal of freeing the Arcans from slavery, which violated the Loremasters’ concept of the natural order of the world, both religiously and politically.

      The Loremasters knew that some Arcans were intelligent.  They knew they were enslaving sentient beings, but they didn’t care.  The reports noted that more and more Arcans were showing more and more intelligence, that some were as smart as humans, but that was an unfavorable trait they felt they could correct through breeding…and culling.  They found plans in those papers, plans dealing with the crystal shortage, to begin the culling with the intelligent Arcans first, then to ensure that intelligent Arcans weren’t bred together thereafter.  They didn’t want their race of slaves to be intelligent, to think, because they felt that the rise of the thinking Arcan was one reason why the Shaman came to be.

      Their theory behind the Shaman was that because the Arcans were created using alchemy, they were naturally attuned to alchemical power.  They felt that it was a natural trait, like intelligence, that could intensify through breeding, and that the breeding of alchemically suitable Arcans produced Shaman  Clover admitted that there was a little to their idea, for the children of Shaman had a much better chance of being Shaman themselves.  It wasn’t a guarantee, but they did have a better chance.

      The reports did confirm one of his suspicions.  They wanted to capture him if they could, rather than kill him…or any Shaman, for that matter.  They knew that because one of the reports was sent to them dated yesterday by the Circle itself, seeing if there was any record of the strange powers the invader had, seemingly able to turn invisible, and what suggestions they might have to trap the Shaman the next time he entered the building.  They wanted a live Shaman both to study and to interrogate, to help them track down and kill the other Shaman and expose the Masked.  Little did they understand that they’d never accomplish that goal.  A Shaman who was captured in that manner only needed a moment of clarity to beg a spirit to kill them, and thus deny the Loremasters their prize.  That was why they’d never captured a Shaman, because a Shaman would never allow himself to be captured.  In that respect, Kyven shared the Shaman way with his brothers and sisters.  If he knew he had no way out, he would kill himself to deny the Loremasters any chance to learn anything from him.

      All in all, the information he gathered had been useful, and worth the risk.  Now they knew that the Loremasters hadn’t yet discovered the truth.

      Patches brought them something to eat as they neared the bottom of the pile, putting plates of boiled corn ears in front of them.  “No meat,” she sighed, looking at the ear.

      “I gave it all to Smoke, like you wanted, Clover,” she answered, a little defensively.

      “I know, little one,” she chuckled.  “This is no meal for a proper carnivore.”

      “Coyotes eat anything,” Kyven teased.

      “You’re looking rather tasty, my brother,” she countered with a toothy smile.  “And I know you won’t put up much of a fight.”

      “Try me,” Kyven smiled, showing his fangs and holding up his clawed hand for her inspection.

      “Wait.  Why fight each other, when there’s this small morsel right here?” she asked, turning her gaze to Patches.

      Patches gave her a startled look, then laughed nervously.  “If you eat me, you won’t have anyone to cook for you,” she warned.  But her eyes went wide when Clover turned more fully in her direction, and licked her chops.  “Clover, stop playing.  Clover?  Clover!” she said in sudden worry as the coyote came around the table, then she gasped and turned to flee when Clover lunged at her.  But her squeal turned to laughter when Clover grabbed her around the middle and picked her up off her feet and turned her towards Kyven.  “I’ve caught our prey, brother, now let’s feast!”

      Patches laughed uncontrollably as Clover dragged her over to the table, and Kyven licked her hard on her nose.  “I get the dark meat,” he told Clover.

      “So long as I get her liver, agreed.”

      “Okay, hold her still, let’s divy her up,” Kyven told her, putting a claw to her belly, which made her tense up.  But when he started tickling her, she broke into uncontrollable laughter, but unable to get away because Clover was holding onto her.  Kyven tickled her mercilessly for several moments, then collected her up from Clover and gave her a warm hug, holding her feet off the floor.  “Thanks for the food, little one,” he told her, licking her cheek fondly.

      “It was nothing,” she told him, nuzzling his cheek.  “Now put me down, I have to clean the kitchen after cooking, and you need to eat before it gets cold.”

      Kyven laughed and set her down.  “We’ll be up in a while,” he told her.

      “Bring the dish up when you do,” she ordered as she scurried for the door and closed it behind her, and they heard her close the shelf over the door to hide the secret room.

      “She is such a treasure,” Clover chuckled.

      “I’m just glad she’s happy,” he said.  “But you have to promise me one thing.”

      “What?”

      “When I ask it, you take her and Tweak and leave,” he told her as he sat back down.  “I don’t want her put in any unnecessary danger.  When I think it’s getting too hot here, I want you to take her back.”

      Clover gave him a long look, then nodded and sat back down.  “Let’s eat this totally unsuitable meal and finish our task, and in the morning we’ll see what Lightfoot brings us from our departed officer’s home.”

      “I just wonder if the Loremasters are tearing their hair out yet trying to figure out how the hell I got in right under their noses.”

      “Let’s leave that alone,” she said, a bit frostily, then chuckled.  “Screaming in frustration, most likely.”

      “I hope so.”

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    1      3

Chapter 2

 

      The old, chipped crockery tankard never saw it coming.

      The battered old tankard exploded into a shower of flying shards, and a spray of mud and dirt erupted from the embankment behind it, pattering back to the grass along with the crockery shards.  The tankard beside it wobbled slightly when a glob of mud landed on its handle, then it too exploded into fragments.

      Some three hundred paces away, Kyven and Shario looked on, Shario through a spyglass, as Kyven cocked the lever of the Briton rifle.  The Britons were truly advanced with their firearms technology, for the rifle in Kyven’s hands was an order of magnitude better than a Noraavi musket.  It had a slightly shorter barrel then a musket, but the interior of the barrel had spiraled grooves etched into it that caused the bullet to spin when fired, and that spin made the bullet fly straight and true.  The rifle also didn’t load through the breech.  The Britons had invented these small brass cartridges that held all the gunpowder, primer, and round, which made the rifle reload with amazing speed.  The rifle could hold seven cartridges, one in the barrel and six in a spring-loaded holding chamber.  To cause the weapon to reload, all he had to do was cock a lever behind the trigger, which ejected the brass casing of the prior shot and loaded the new cartridge in the barrel.  To load new cartridges into the weapon, all he had to do was slide them into a slotted, covered hole on the side of the rifle, where a spring pushed the next cartridge into position when the lever was cocked, then the cartridge was pulled into the firing chamber.  It was absolutely ingenious, this rifle, and its speed of fire and accuracy were almost overshadowed by its sighting scope.  Consisting of a spyglass-like tube, the sighting scope magnified what he could see, and there was a little black cross inlaid onto the sights that he could use to aim the rifle.  He’d had to manually adjust the scope to match up that little cross the actual rifle, using tiny adjusting screws on the scope to shift its angle until the little cross matched the actual aim of the rifle.  The crosshair wasn’t exactly where the bullet went, though.  He’d found that the bullet actually hit a few fingers below that mark, reflecting the few fingers of difference between the sight and the barrel.  He’d tried to match up the sight to the rifle exactly, but he discovered that that changed when the rifle was shooting at targets at different distances.  So, to make it uniform, he set it up this way, so his sight was true if he was shooting at something twenty paces away, or a hundred paces away.

      In the week since he’d attacked the Loremasters, things were still very tense.  His follow-up invasion had sent them almost into hysterics, and though the daytime curfew was now lifted, the night curfew was still in effect and there were checkpoints at almost every other intersection where the Loreguard searched citizens and questioned them as to where they were going, what they were doing, and how long it would take.  They were actually trying to track the movements of everyone in the city using those checkpoints, logging everything down and searching for disparities where people said they were going one place or doing one thing and actually did another.  Kyven couldn’t imagine what kind of paper trail that would create, every checkpoint turning in logs filled with names, times, and information which then had to all be collated, but they were serious about it.  But the simple fact was, nothing they had done so far had found the Shaman, so they were trying new ideas to try to track him down.  They knew he was still in the city.  They knew he was going to invade them again, cause more damage.  One didn’t successfully walk into the headquarters of the Loremasters three separate times and not expect to do it a fourth.  And so far, the only headway they’d made is that they now knew what the Shaman looked like.  Outside of that, they were powerless to stop him, and they knew it.

      That was one of the reasons he wanted the rifle.  They were now in a very high state of alert, and it would be hard to get close to them, it would be much harder to invade the island again.  With this little toy, Kyven could get around the distance limitation of his Shaman magic and attack the Loremasters in a much more mundane manner, but Kyven’s unique abilities would allow him to get into positions where he could use the rifle, and then escape once it was fired.  For one, the rifle’s shot would never be heard, because Kyven could silence himself, silence the weapon, which would eliminate the single most revealing aspect of using it.  For another, he could hide himself both before and after firing the rifle, making it impossible for them to find the shooter.  And since the rifle used a different kind of gunpowder that was much stronger and smokeless, there was no telltale cloud of smoke to give away his position, just a small puff which he could easily eliminate with magically-created breeze of air.  The only drawbacks to the rifle were that he couldn’t hide the rifle when he melded with shadows, meaning he had to use illusion to conceal both himself and the rifle, and also the scope did nothing for his spirit sight.  He had to use normal sight to aim the rifle through the scope, so there had to be some light present for him to see his target.

      Kyven, it turned out, was a natural with a rifle.  The same steady hands that allowed him to cut valuable crystals also gave him a precise and methodical aim, and that made him an excellent natural marksman.  His sense of aim refined with his daggers and the idea of leading a distant target with a thrown dagger translated to the scope and rifle fairly well, and it only took about ten days of practice with the rifle to get the hang of it.

      Tweak became the hero when he got the rifle from Shario.  Tweak’s alchemy training allowed him to work out how to refill the used cartridges, and it was the thin ferret that took the empty casings Kyven brought to him and used a bullet press from Briton that came with the rifle, and he made the rifle rounds, then he taught Kyven how it was done when he demanded to learn the skill from the ferret.  Clover took metal stock and used her Shaman magic to make the metal bullets, then Tweak or Kyven took the bullet, powder, and primer and used the Briton press to make new cartridges.  Shario had procured the powder and primer for them, as well as some extra empty rifle casings, which gave them enough casings to make 50 bullets at a time.  But what was sobering to Kyven was that these same rifles—without the scope—and the bullet presses were coming to Noraam, part of the deal the Loremasters made with Briton.  Briton would supply them the rifles, casings, smokeless powder, and teach them how to press the bullets themselves, and in return Briton got a large number of uncut crystals and the services of fifty cutters that would sail to Briton and live there for ten years, both cutting the crystals and training Britons in the art of cutting as well.  From what Shario had discovered, there were 5,000 rifles coming to Noraam.  In the hands of trained soldiers, those 5,000 rifles could decimate any organized Arcan attack, because they could start killing Arcans far outside the range of Shaman magic, giving them the first shot, and a highly accurate shot at that.  Kyven had proved that hands down, for he could hit a tankard at three hundred paces using a scope.  In the hands of a trained soldier, that would give each soldier a good two shots before the Arcans were in range to retaliate with alchemical weapons.

      That was the trade-off.  Shaman magic and alchemical weapons were very powerful, but they had a much shorter range than firearms.  To use the strongest weapons the Arcans had, magic and their natural strength and agility, they had to be very close.  He could see that any battle fought between the Arcans and the Loreguard would hinge on that fact.  If the Arcans could close the distance without losing too many of their number, they would win.  If they were reduced too much in number before they could bring their weapons to bear, they would lose.  That was why he was so glad Danna was there.  She would understand that problem and probably push to get the Arcans as many muskets as she could get her hands on, to level the playing field.  They would have to fight using muskets and cannons themselves, or remove the ability of the Loreguard to fight from a distance by attacking at night.  All Arcans had superior night vision compared to humans, capable of seeing in a moonless night.  Night attacks were almost perfect for an Arcan army, when they could see and their human enemies would have a much harder time.

      That was how she was going to do it, he was certain.  Arm the Arcans with muskets and have them attack at night, when they could see and the humans would need alchemical aids to see them.  In that style of attack, the Arcans could close the distance and get within range of Shaman magic and alchemical weapons, as well as engage in hand to hand combat where the Arcans had natural advantages.  Lightfoot by herself could kill a large number of Loreguard if she could get close enough, because she was twice as strong as a human and was fast as lightning.  She could kill with her small claws and her raw strength, without needing any weapons.  A few dozen fighting Arcans like Lightfoot could wreak havoc on Loreguard lines, but such an attack would almost certainly be suicidal.  For them to survive, the fighting Arcans would need support from the Arcans who were serving in the army.

      There was definitely a difference between the fighters and the soldiers.  Fighting Arcans like Lightfoot were either trained as gladiatorial pit fighters or had chosen to be fighting Arcans.  Lightfoot was a freeborn Arcan, born in Haven, but she had trained as a fighting Arcan to serve as a protector, trained in both using weapons and fighting hand to hand.  Arcans like Lightfoot were the ones that roamed the lands south and east of Haven searching for invaders or free Arcans. They were the true soldiers of Haven before the army was formed, the fighters, the ones that protected Haven from monsters and invaders.  A pack of fighting Arcans was willing to take on a Wolveran or an Ursorax to protect Haven.  They were remarkably well trained, and since they were all volunteers, they were very good at what they did.  Lightfoot was a typical example of a fighting Arcan; loyal, disciplined, and capable.  But there were only a few thousand fighting Arcans among the hundreds of thousands that lived in Haven.

      But now there would be soldiers, and lots of them.  Clover told him that nearly half the population of Haven had volunteered for service, and though he had no idea how Danna was organizing it, she’d have no want for willing Arcans to fill the ranks of her army.

      He hoped that they wouldn’t have to fight.  That was what this was all about, as he shouldered the rifle and aimed through the scope.  The Loremasters were controlled by the Circle, and now, he felt, it was time to take the war to the Loremasters well before they started their march into the frontier.  As a Shaman, he had to get too close to kill Loremasters and high-ranking Loreguard.  But with this rifle, magically silenced to hide his location, he could kill from a great distance, and then his Shaman and shadow powers would make him extremely hard to find.  Kyven intended to be the assassin that the fox had told him he could be, and his target would be anyone with a gold-bordered Loremaster tabard or Loreguard officer’s insignia.  Any time he wasn’t running his shop or trying to invade the Loremaster’s headquarters, he’d be hunting them down with his rifle.  And when they stopped coming out or started not wearing their rank openly, he’d simply start randomly killing anyone in a Loremaster’s tabard or a Loreguard uniform.

      He knew that alchemy would allow the Loremasters to deliver their orders to the Loreguard from the safety of their island, but he wanted them all but imprisoned within that island.  He wanted anyone who had any rank to be too afraid to so much as step out of a building for fear of being shot by an invisible assassin.  He wanted them so afraid that it would cause disruption in their headquarters, that they would be forced to devote resources and manpower to him instead of Haven.  He wanted exactly what was happening right now on a large scale.  He wanted the Loremasters to be prisoners in their own city, and have to expend a great deal of time and energy trying to get rid of a single Shaman when they could be using that time or energy on other purposes.

      This was war, and that meant that he had to do anything he could to protect Haven, protect his Shaman brothers and sisters, protect Danna, protect the innocent Arcans, and protect his future children.

      “Nice, nice,” Shario noted as Kyven lowered the rifle.  “You certainly didn’t take long to master the rifle.”

      “It’s not that hard,” he said casually, picking up the brass casing so he could use it later.  “What brings you out here Shario?  It must be important for you to come all the way out here.”  And it was quite a way.  Kyven was in a small clearing near the Great Falls of the Podac River, some twenty minars northwest from Avannar and well north of the horse ranches for which the region was famous.  Shario himself had brought Kyven out here when he’d noted he needed a remote place to practice but not too far from the city, and Shario showed him this place the next day.

      “A mixture of curiosity and business, my friend,” he answered.  “And my little chef has issued the command for you to come home.  It is dinnertime.”

      Kyven chuckled.  “She keeps us all on a tight leash.”

      “Come, my buggy is close.  Let us ride home.”

      Kyven accepted the ride, stowing the rifle under the seat of the buckboard and climbing up as Shario untied the reins of the two horses pulling it from a nearby branch.  “So, I received a letter today from my brother,” Shario began, holding the reins negligently in a hand as he leaned easily back in the chair.  “He’s a junior undersecretary in the Flauren Parliament, you know,” he added with a smile and a glance.  “Works in the office of the parliament itself, not for any of the Barrista, the elected representatives.  It seems that the Barristas are taking certain warnings to heart, my friend.  The King has accepted the recommendations of Parliament and he’s mobilizing the armed forces.”

      “I’m glad to hear that.  Do they believe us?”

      “Not everything,” he answered honestly.  “But what they do believe is that the Loremasters have a very large army massing in Riyan, they have no authority to do so according to the treaties they forced upon us, and they have no earthly reason to raise such a force without some kind of objective for it to accomplish.  Flaur intends to act first.  Next week, my country intends to expel the Loremasters and dissolve the treaties holding Flaur in the Noraam Alliance on the grounds that the Loremasters have violated those treaties.”

      “Very bold,” Kyven noted.  “Any worry of possible violence with Georvan, Alamar, or Nurys?”

      “Nurys,” Shario spat.  The rivalry between Flaur and the large city-state stationed at the mouth of the Snake River was as famous as it was bitter, focusing on the fact that Nurys utterly controlled all traffic on the Snake River between the sea and the two cities further north, Alexton and Bayonne, choking the merchant Flauren off from potential customers, and the city was surrounded by water, literally.  It rested at the terminus of the Snake River Delta on slightly higher ground straddling the channel cut through it by the Snake River just before it began to divide into the channels of the Snake River Delta, a city that literally rose up out of deep, dark, dangerous swamps that surrounded the city.  Because it was surrounded on three sides by swamp and by the delta on the fourth, it was virtually impossible to invade Nurys by land, and because of that fact, the city-state had one of the most powerful navies in the Waveless Sea.  Nurys was said to be a very hot, muggy, unpleasant place to live, where if the heat and humidity didn’t make you miserable enough, the clouds of mosquitoes and other biting insects rolling in off the swamps like a living fog could suck half the blood out of a man every night.  “They don’t think so, my friend.  Flaur is quietly approaching the other governments of Noraam and presenting your evidence, which is now unmistakable and unarguable.  My people have verified the army massing near Riyan through independent means.  They will find that Flaur has every legal right to withdraw from the agreements, because they have been violated by the Loremasters themselves.”

      “We can only hope that the others have the same sense your people do, Shario.”

      “We can only watch and see, my friend,” he answered soberly.  “Have you fared well this last week?”

      He nodded.  Since taking in Lucky and Watcher, they had quietly informed Shario that they weren’t available to entertain.  They had no fear of Shario knowing about the boys, it was more for the boys, to give them the chance to both recover and acclimate themselves…and also to prevent Lucky from accidentally saying something to Shario that the Flauren shouldn’t know.  Watcher was still recovering from nearly being starved to death, and it was much worse than what had happened to Kyven.  Watcher’s body had wasted and emaciated from a combination of being locked in that tiny box and getting virtually no food over a long period of time, and it was taking a while for him to recover, even with Clover using a blessing on him every day to speed up his recovery.  Even now, after a week, he could barely walk without assistance, though his body was again starting to flesh out and the trembling palsy in his limbs had ceased.  “It’s been rather tight since finding food has been a problem, but we’re alright,” he answered.

      “Yes, yes, I’m having the same problem.  The inspections at the bridges and the gates of the old city is disrupting the supplies coming into the city, and the merchants have inflated their prices far over the drop in supply.  A baker tried to charge me fifteen chits for a single loaf of bread!” he declared a bit indignantly.

      “At least some of the people are taking it in stride,” Kyven noted.

      Shario laughed.  “Yes, the veritable forest of fishing poles that have sprouted up along the riverbanks and bridges,” he noted.  “I feel sorry for the fish.  I believe they can’t swim a single rod without bumping into a hook.”  He ducked under a low branch hanging over the narrow lane.  “Any information of note you need to pass along?”

      “Nothing really right now.  It’s been too dangerous to so much as put a foot outside my shop.  I haven’t had a customer since the crackdown,” he frowned.  “And I won’t dare allow anyone out of the shop except me.  Not even Lightfoot, and Trinity is she pissed about it.  But it’s way too dangerous right now, not with patrols of Loreguard shooting anything that moves the instant the sun goes down.  It’s not a good time to be so much as a stray cat in Avannar at the moment.”

      “Yes,” Shario said soberly.  “That is something I think you should consider, my friend.  When their attempts to find the Shaman come up empty, you know what they will do.”

      “Start slaughtering Arcans hoping they kill him through random luck, or at the very least kill whoever is helping him,” Kyven said grimly.  “There have been quite a few Arcan deaths as it is, but those haven’t been…systematic.”

      “I am already in the process of removing every one of my Arcans from Avannar,” he declared.  “I am sending them to my cousin who runs a kennel in Hammon, and he will take care of them for me until it is safe to bring them back.  The last of them should be safely gone from here by tomorrow.  I would normally not presume to give you advice, my friend, but my little chef, and Tweak, they are in very real danger.  Clover and Lightfoot can protect themselves, but the young ones…” he trailed off.

      “I know,” Kyven sighed.  “I’ve been thinking about the problem, and a few others.  I might have a problem telling Patches she has to go.  Believe it or not, that little red panda rules us all.”

      Shario laughed.  “She controls the kitchen,” he noted with a sly smile.

      “And that’s how she rules us,” Kyven agreed.  “I mean, look at us.  She sent you an hour outside the city to come get me, and I’m running back home at her command.  We’re completely tail-whipped.”

      Shario laughed delightedly.

      It took about an hour for them to get back to Avannar, as Shario was able to canter the horses after they got on the Atan Road.  But they were held up at the gate to the old city, joining a line of merchants and villagers trying to get in.  The Loreguard hadn’t closed off the city, but they had instituted these checkpoints to thoroughly inspect anyone coming in or going out, searching for the black fox Shaman.  It took them nearly half an hour to get to the gate, and then they were subjected to a half hour of inspection and questioning.  Kyven had no reason to lie about what he’d been doing, and immediately told them he’d been target shooting by the river, which was his hobby.  That explained the presence of his firearm, which to the Loreguard appeared to be a breech loading hunter’s blunderbuss instead of a Briton sniper’s rifle.  Both Kyven and Shario were inspected, searched, inspected again, then had an alchemical device swept over them to see if they were using disguises.  A truth crystal was prominently displayed at all times, which was why Kyven simply told the truth, and then their departures were checked against a log, for both of them had been similarly grilled when they left.  Kyven hadn’t lied when he left either, telling the guards when he left he intended to go out and target shoot.  Shario had been honest in saying he was going out to fetch Kyven, and now here they were, doing exactly what they said they were doing when they left.

      Eventually, they got through the checkpoint, and Shario drove Kyven back to his shop.  He waved goodbye to the Flauren with a simple word of farewell, and entered his shop through the front door, unlocking it with his key and stepping inside.  Clover met him before he could even get the door closed, then switched the sign on the window to demonstrate that he was open for business.  He would leave it thus until sundown, but over the last week, he’d had not a single customer.  “Clover,” he greeted as he handed her the rifle.

      “We had a visit earlier,” she said seriously.  “The Loremaster that brings you crystals, Yoris.  He was looking for you.”

      “Really?  What did he want?”

      “He had an order for you,” she answered.  “I told him you had gone hunting, since there is such little food available in the city right now.  He said he’d come back later.”

      “Did he see the boys?”

      She shook his head.  “Lightfoot saw him coming and warned us.  We took the boys upstairs.”  Kyven could explain the Arcans they knew about because he’d had them since they’d started hiring him.  But for him to suddenly have two new Arcans in a shop where he didn’t need two more Arcans, and in the current Arcan market where even finding an Arcan for sale was a challenge.  Even old or unsuitable Arcans were going for over a hundred chits right now, because the Masked had been so amazingly effective at clearing out the Arcans from the kennels, buying them and sending them west.  In this current climate, Yoris could not see anything that might seem out of the ordinary…and the sudden appearance of two young, healthy, expensive Arcans in a small cutter’s shop where they weren’t needed would definitely seem unusual.

      He stepped into the workshop and patted Patches fondly on the shoulder.  “That was a cute trick, sending Shario after me, little one,” he told her slyly.

      She gave him a shy look.  “It was Clover’s idea.  She wanted you to come home because the Loremasters were looking for you, and Shario had something he needed to tell you, so she had him go get you.”

      “Ah,” he said, glancing at the coyote, who just smiled.  “Clever.”

      “Thank you,” she said lightly.  “I have little doubt that Yoris has a page watching for you to return, so I’d expect to see him very soon.”

      Kyven scratched his cheek, nodding.  “You should take something to eat up to the boys and have Lightfoot keep them up there,” he told Patches.

      “I’ll take care of it,” she nodded, scurrying off.

      “Tweak upstairs?”

      “Down in the cellar,” she answered.  “He’s putting away the press in the vault.”

      “Smart,” Kyven nodded.

      Clover, as usual, was correct, for Yoris arrived at the shop about half an hour after Kyven got home.  He shook Kyven’s hand as he entered the workshop with four Loreguard and a robed Loremaster Kyven had never seen before.  “I’m glad to see you, Yoris, I haven’t had a single customer since the curfew,” he said.  “I need the money.”

      “Well, you’ll earn it, my friend,” the bearded man told him.  “I have two things here for you.  One is a cut job, but the other, well, we want your appraisal of something…unusual.”

      “Unusual?  You’ve made me curious, Yoris,” he said, sitting down at his workbench.

      The largest of the four Loreguard stepped up and removed his pack, then produced a cloth-wrapped bundle.  “We want you to appraise this, Kyven,” Yoris told him as the man unwrapped it, and produced what had to be a sixty point green crystal, ovoid in shape, and nearly the size of a baby’s head.  “We have never seen anything like it before.”

      Kyven’s fingers tingled as he took hold of the crystal, peering into its depths.  Almost immediately, he could sense the…perfection of this crystal.  It had no internal flaws at all, and its structure was as dense as possible, meaning that the crystal had the absolute maximum potential for a crystal its size.  The exterior of the crystal was the only irregularity about it, and it was literally paper-thin, just enough to protect the interior from the hostile outside.  He put it under his magnifying glass to inspect the internal structure, but he didn’t really need to do it to understand just what he was holding in his hands.

      He had no doubt at all that this crystal was not natural.  It was made, one of the crystals made by the Shaman to pay for the Arcans.  But he didn’t expect any of them to make a mistake like this.  They were explicitly told that the crystals they made had to pass muster to appear normal, and that meant no unusually large crystals, no perfect crystals, and no saturated crystals.  This one was all three.

      Kyven knew immediately why they brought it to him, and he knew exactly what to say and do.  “I…by the Trinity.  Where did you get this, Yoris?” he asked in what sounded like awe as he slowly turned the crystal in his hands under the glass.  “This crystal is…is…perfect.  It has no flaws at all, and it’s got an internal structure that amplifies its power instead of weakening it.  I’d bet a hundred chits you could stick it in a device uncut, and it’d power it with no problems.  I’ve never seen anything like it.”

      “Neither have we,” Yoris said seriously.

      “Where did you get it?”

      “I’m afraid I can’t discuss that with you, Kyven,” he said seriously.  “But we wanted a second opinion, and your training makes you a very dependable man to give it.  Now, as to the other matter of business,” he said, taking a sixteen point green crystal out of his belt pouch that was very irregularly shaped.  “What can you do with this?”

      Kyven carefully handed the large crystal back to the guard, then took the crystal.  He studied it for a long moment, seeing that it was a well formed trapezoidal symmetry crystal with a very nasty flaw running almost parallel to the longitudinal axis for nearly half the crystal.  The crystal itself was well formed and would be easy to cut if not for that internal flaw.  “Not much you want to hear,” he said seriously, putting it under his glass.  “The central flaw is nearly fatal, due to its position and the shape of the crystal.  But…I might be able to do something about it.  It’s going to cost you about a point and a half, but I can take that off in a one point sliver which you can probably use.  The shard should power a small healing bell on its own.”

      “About what our own cutters suggested, but none of them felt confident attempting the cut,” Yoris nodded.  “Your standard fee?”

      “That’s fine with me.  Since I’ve had no work for days, I can get started on it immediately.  I should have it done sometime tomorrow afternoon.”

      “I’ll have a page stop by a few times through the afternoon,” he said, standing up as the Loreguard carefully wrapped the crystal and replaced it in the pack.  “And we’ll add on a hundred chits for your appraisal of the other crystal, which we can pay you now…if only so you can afford to eat tonight.”

      Kyven laughed without much humor.  “That’s about the truth.  You know how much a loaf of bread costs right now?”

      “Tell me about it,” the old man grunted.  “I buy my groceries at Falcon Square, and dear Father, are the merchants gouging for everything they’re worth!  Did your hunt go well?”

      “Well, I didn’t hunt,” Kyven said.  “I just needed something to do, so I went out by the river up where I couldn’t hit anyone by accident and shot at targets.  I might start hunting soon, though, if the price of meat doesn’t come down.  I’m not doing anything else right now with no work, I guess I could go across the river and try my luck out in the forest northwest of town.”

      “Just be careful, because you’re not the only one with that idea,” Yoris said.  “There’s been quite a few accidental shootings over the week, one hunter shooting another thinking he’s a deer.”

      Kyven chuckled.  “Amateurs,” he said.  “Deer sound nothing like men.  And if there are really that many up there, there won’t be a deer anywhere near them.”

      “You’re an avid hunter, I see.”

      “When I tried my hand prospecting after buying out my contract, I learned very fast, because it was learn fast or starve after I lost my pack horse,” he said.  “Hunger is a powerful motivator for learning something.”

      Yoris laughed.  “No doubt.  Well, I need to be on my way, Master Kyven.  Thanks for the help.”

      “Thanks for showing me something I never thought I’d ever see,” he answered.  “I didn’t think a crystal like that was even possible, and then you drop it in my lap.  It’s something I won’t forget anytime soon.”

      “Ah, yes, well, I do hope that you’ll keep this in confidence?  We’d like to quietly try to find where it was mined, and if word got out of a crystal like that existing, well, wherever it came from would be dismantled in short order as miners stampeded into the region and leveled every hillside looking for others like it.”

      “I can imagine,” he nodded.  “I’ll keep it quiet, if only because you’re such a good customer, Yoris.”

      He nodded, and Kyven escorted them from the shop, then closed the door and frowned.  Someone, somewhere, had screwed up, and showed the Loremasters something that wouldn’t exist naturally, a crystal that was absolutely perfect.  And since it was both so large and also a rare green crystal, well, the Loremasters would definitely try to find out where it came from.  A crystal that large could power a healing bell that could all but resurrect the dead, or heal an entire room full of men at the same time.  Yoris’ story about the minesite was nothing but fluff, for Kyven knew better, and he was fairly sure that Yoris did too…but most people believed crystals were a naturally occurring mineral, like coal or iron ore, and would accept a story like that at face value.

      Kyven took the crystal to his bench as Clover came back downstairs, and he sat down and put it in the holder.  “Well, I have some work now,” he told her absently as he moved the magnifying glass and adjusted the lamp over his desk.  He already knew exactly how he needed to cut the crystal, and he studied it for a moment to lay out in his mind just how he needed to go about it to cut that large piece off the side that would refocus the interior angles of the crystal to actually use the internal flaw.  It was a smooth, even planar fault that would actually benefit the crystal if it was cut specifically to utilize the fault as just an internal planar surface.  “What’s for dinner?”

      “I don’t know, but probably something I won’t like,” she answered.

      “I guess I can go out and try my hand at hunting tomorrow instead of just target practice,” he said.  “If there’s a deer left between here and the Blue Valley, anyway.”  He peered through the magnifying glass at the crystal, and adjusted it in the prongs.  “You need to have a little talk with someone, sister.”

      “Oh?”

      “That crystal Yoris brought to me wasn’t natural,” he declared.  “It has the Loremasters very, very curious.”

      “They can be curious,” Clover shrugged.  “Would you give over on that?”

      “What?”

      “Appearing so ugly!”

      He looked down at his human hand, then laughed lightly.  “No, because it annoys you,” he said with a slight smile, looking back at her.

      “Don’t make me do something about it, brother,” she threatened with a sly smile.

      “Biased.”

      “Haven’t we established that?”

      “I’d rather not have my claws getting in the way,” he said.  “It’s easier to hold my tools this way.”  He picked up his chisel and hammer.  “I think we can let Lightfoot out tonight, because I’m going out as well,” he told her.

      “Oh?  Where?”

      “The pubs and inns are starting to re-open, so I’m going to nose around a bit tonight,” he answered.  “I have to keep an eye on things, and you can pick up a lot of information from surly off-duty Loreguard who are drowning their sorrows in pubs.”

      “Ah.  And what will Lightfoot be doing?”

      “Whatever she wants.  If we don’t let her out, she’s going to do something to one of us.”

      “That’s possible,” she chuckled.  “What did Shario have to say?”

      Kyven went over what Shario had said, about Flaur’s intentions.  “It’s just good news for us.  If the Loremasters have to deal with rebelling provinces, then it’ll split their attention, and that just helps us.  The Flaurens will only be helping us, and maybe we can help them.”

      “That we will, when they discover there is organized resistance beyond the Smoke Mountains,” she nodded.  “That will force the Loremasters to commit far more forces to maintaining their foothold than they are willing to send because of Flaur.  If they openly go to war with Flaur, however, it might get touchy.  If the Flaurens fail to sway the Georvans or the Alamari, or the Loremasters call on the northern kingdoms to send troops south, then the Flaurens may be fighting a superior force.”

      “No…I’m not sure they’d do that,” Kyven mused as he made another cut.  “The last thing the Loremasters want right now is mobilized Noraam armies that might turn on them when word gets out that they’ve broken every treaty they’ve ever made with the twelve kingdoms.”

      “It’s all conjecture, and that’s not our job, my brother,” she told him easily.  “How long do you intend to be out tonight?”

      “There’s still a sunset curfew, so no longer than that no matter what,” he told her.

      “I’ll have Patches start dinner right now, then,” she nodded, licking him lightly on the cheek.

      He didn’t finish the crystal, so he put it aside and ate dinner with the others, which was a happy and relaxed scene.  Lucky had truly fit in with them, for he was amiable and generally carefree and happy, if a bit talkative.  Tweak especially took a liking to him, for they had a couple of similar traits in that both of them were energetic and had good senses of humor.  Watcher was still quiet and withdrawn, sitting right beside Clover and being given the lion’s share of the meal, which he ate with quiet urgency.  Watcher brought out the maternal instincts in both Clover and Patches, and since he’d come to the house, both of them had mothered him outrageously.  He was frail both physically and mentally, trying to recover from the trauma and raw terror he had endured in that cage, so Kyven couldn’t blame him for wanting to feel watched over and protected.  Kyven himself still had a nearly phobic sense of panic rise up in him if he got too hungry, a wonderful gift to him thanks to Arthur Ledwell.

      They wouldn’t be here forever.  As soon as Clover felt that Watcher was up to the journey, both he and Lucky would be shipped west, sent to Haven, but not yet.  Watcher could barely walk up the stairs, and simply could not handle a journey of that magnitude.  But, given the rapid pace at which he was recovering, it would only be a couple of weeks.  Clover’s healing magic and daily blessings were slowly but steadily restoring Watcher’s body…but his mind would take longer to heal, and magic would not help that healing process.

      After dinner, Kyven went out.  He went to a tavern frequented by the craftsmen in his neighborhood, just four blocks away from his shop, called the Hammer and Anvil.  Run by a former blacksmith who lost the lower part of his left arm in an accident and had to give up the craft, the place was built inside the owner’s former forge and foundry.  It wasn’t that large, but it did a brisk business and was very popular with the local craftsmen.  Veraad had brought Kyven here, and Kyven had found it a nice place to both relax and pick up information.  Craftsmen gossiped quite a bit, and that information got around.  And by tracking what the Loremasters were ordering from the craftsmen, it gave them an idea of what they were up to.  Veraad was there, sitting at a table with a local gunsmith, Brenden, and a fellow cutter named Harn that ran a small yet respectable shop about five blocks from Kyven’s own.  “Kyv!” Veraad called, motioning him over.  He sat down at the end of the table beside Brenden and shook a few hands.  “I’m glad you came out.”

      “I’m glad I came out too,” he said.  “I’ve been keeping very close to my Arcans.”

      “I can understand that,” Brenden grunted as he took a drink from his tankard. “When the Loreguard searched my shop, they nearly killed Bristletail, my serving Arcan.  If one of my apprentices hadn’t have got between her and the soldier, he’d have shot her.”

      “Why?” Veraad asked in surprise.

      “Because she’s a black wolf,” he answered.  “They’re looking for some black-furred Arcan that’s supposed to be a Shaman, and they felt her having black fur was enough reason to kill her.  I had to talk very fast and show them her collar was real before they shot her dead and dragged us all to the Black Keep as Masked.”

      “Insanity,” Harn growled.  “I think they’ve completely gone off their porches over this.”

      “Well, there is a Shaman on the loose in Avannar, Harn,” Veraad said.  “Who else could set fire to the Loremaster’s building?”

      “I won’t debate that point, but the insanity is all this other shit,” he grunted.  “They’re never going to catch a Shaman by setting up roadblocks and aggravating the fuck out of us law-abiding citizens.  Odds are he’s long gone.  If they really wanna catch him, they should just set up around the island.  That’s where he seems to go, and it ain’t like Arcans are overly smart.”

      “Then how did he get in twice?” Kyven asked.

      “Cause the Loremasters got stupid,” he answered.  “Arcans ain’t that smart, but a few of them are clever, and they didn’t take that into account.  And thanks to them being stupid, we all have to be back in our shops by sundown.”

      “I can agree to that,” Brenden chuckled as a barmaid wandered over to them.  Her name was Didi, and she was the owner’s daughter, a pretty young thing who was openly courted by quite a few regulars in the tavern.

      “Ale please,” Kyven told her, to which she nodded and scurried off.  “I can agree to that too,” Kyven added.  “Sundown curfew, food hard to find and outrageously expensive, no work at all since the crackdown, being treated like a criminal at every checkpoint, Loreguard looking at me like I’ll pull a Shaman out of my pants and have it kill them any second, it’s getting old.”

      “You haven’t got any work either?” Harn asked, to which Kyven shook his head.

      “Well, I just got a contract a bit ago,” Kyven added.  “Another Loremaster job.  At least this time I didn’t have other orders in front of it to make them mad.”

      “It’s been the other way around for me,” Veraad said.  “I’ve had a brisk business in shockrods and intruder sensors.”

      “I’ve had a run on my pistols and short-barrel muskets,” Brenden added.  “People buying protection against both the boogey-man Shaman the Loreguard go on and on about and the thieves.  They’ve gotten bad.”

      “People are getting hungry,” Harn grunted.  “Not everyone can afford five chits for a slice of cheese, so the desperate are starting to steal.  If the food merchants aren’t stepped on, and soon, the Loremasters are going to be looking at chaos and riots in the streets.”

      “Why haven’t the guilds of the food makers put a stop to it?” Veraad complained.

      “Are you kidding?  They’re making a killing,” Harn grunted.  “They took a temporary disruption in the food trade and inflated it way out of proportion to charge outrageous prices.  Typical guild skullduggery.”

      “Careful there, friend, you have another member of your guild right there,” Brenden chuckled, pointing at Kyven.

      “I agree with him,” Kyven grunted.  “The guilds are encouraging it, but they’ll get theirs when it’s over.  The Loremaster that contracts me was very unhappy, so the Loremasters are aware of what the greengrocers and butchers and bakers are doing.  They forget, the Loremasters have to eat too, and gouging people is going to get them gouged when their greed gets the better of them and they try it on the first Loremaster that’s not in uniform.”

      “I hope it comes soon.  I admit I’m making a profit in the current panic, but most of it’s being eaten up by food costs.  I shudder at those whose business has dried up.”

      “Well, you’ll get business from me when I run out of pre-made shockrods,” Veraad said.  “But crystals…they’re coming up short.”

      “How so?” Harn asked curiously.

      “I tried to buy some yesterday in preparation, but the brokers are all closed down.  Everywhere.  All over the city.  I don’t know why.”

      “That would explain why we’ve had no work,” Harn growled, as Brenden leaned aside to allow Didi to set a tankard down in front of Kyven. He handed her a single chit, and she smiled and took it before scurrying off.  “If the alchemists are busy, you’d think we’d be busy.”

      “Yeah, but I can’t buy any crystals,” Veraad said.  “I’m going to the broker’s guild tomorrow and try to find out what’s going on.  I need to warn my guild as well, maybe they can put an official inquiry in to get some answers.”

      “I’m surprised there isn’t one already,” Kyven noted.

      “There probably is, but since they have all these controls and checkpoints, we’re just not getting any information,” Brenden predicted.  “I for one don’t have a message receiver machine, so the only way I get information from the guild is when I go there.  I sure as hell ain’t going to spend two hours trying to get to the north bank to check in with the guild.”

      “Send an apprentice,” Kyven chuckled.  “They can wait in the lines and just deliver a note.”

      “Now that’s an idea,” Harn said.  “I’ll send Bucky over to the cutter’s guild tomorrow and tell them I want to know what the hell’s going on.  If all the brokers are closed, this may be another guild attempt to drive up crystal prices like they did some twenty years ago.  Wait for demand to peak, then open and charge triple list.”

      “Hmph,” Kyven snorted.  “I’ll just go around the guild.”

      “How can you go around the guild?”

      “Because I can get them from the source,” he answered.  “I’ll send a message to my partner Timble in Atan.  Our shop there has extensive contacts with the miners.  I’ll buy the crystals directly from them and have Timble ship them to me.”

      “Now then, I think we might be able to do some business, Kyv,” Veraad said brightly.  “How fast do you think you could get fifty crystals suitable for a shockrod here?”

      “Three or four days,” he answered with a shrug.

      “Well then, if I can’t get any crystals through the brokers, perhaps I’ll buy them from you.”

      “Sure.  Come talk to me if you can’t get them another way.  Timble can buy them for me and ship them on a post wagon.”

      They sat around and nursed their ale after that, but not much more of interest was said, just a rehashing of the current state of affairs in Avannar.  But the closing of the brokers was rather curious.  Either it was the guild doing what Harn suggested and trying to make demand reach a fever pitch so they could gouge, or the guild was forced to make the brokers close for some other reason.  Possibly the Loremasters had something to do with it.

      Kyven made his way home just before sunset, and entered the shop through the back door and all but running into the arms of Lightfoot.  The small gray tabby gave him a rough and short embrace, then licked his cheek.  “Well, what did I do to earn such an honor?” he asked lightly, putting his human arm around her.

      “Thanks,” she said simply, and she really didn’t need to say any more.

      “It was let you out or have you kill someone in a tiff,” he told her, which made her smile slightly.  “But you will be careful out there, understand young lady?”

      “I will,” she promised.

      “What do you have planned?”

      “The Councilor,” she answered.  “He’s still alive.  That’s unfinished business.”

      He chuckled.  “So you’re going to go lurk over by his house and see if he’s brave enough to show up?”

      She nodded.  “It’s been a week.  He may feel comfortable now to return.”

      “Careful, kitty, you’re about to use way more words than your mouth can handle,” he said with a teasing smile.

      She said nothing, just extended a claw on one finger and tapped it lightly on the tip of his nose, which made him laugh.

      After a short meal and spending a little time with the boys, Kyven retreated to an upstairs room and engaged himself in the other main project he’d undertaken since last week.  Somehow, the shadow fox had pulled him into the shadows and then caused them to emerge from shadows at a different place, and he was absolutely convinced that what she did was not some exercise of her power as a spirit.  He had felt it, felt it, deep in the core of himself, and that told him that what she did was an exercise of her shadow powers, not her spirit powers.  Those were the same powers he had, and she had flat-out told him that he had no handicap when it came to the power he gained from being a Shadow Fox Arcan.  That meant that he could learn to step into the shadows and emerge in a different place too, and he meant to discover that power.  If he could do that, then he would be a demon unleashed on the Loremasters, able to circumvent all their protections and defenses and literally walk through their headquarters at whim.  No secret would be safe from him, and that meant that the Arcans would all but have a man sitting in on the most secret meetings of the Circle.

      So, ever his last invasion of their headquarters, he had been spending at least two hours a day up in this dark room, with only a dim alchemical lamp blocked off by two chair backs to provide deep, dark shadows.  He sat within one, the one cast by the opposite chair on the far wall was the shadow to which he wanted to jump.  He sat on the floor, surrounded by shadow, and did his best to try to recall exactly how it had felt when the fox had done it, and try to duplicate that ability.  There had been two stages to it, he recalled, first the feeling of the shadow going through him, then the feeling of it enveloping him.  He remembered how the shadows seemed to have consumed everything around him, how he couldn’t see anything, and then it was like he was in a small, dark room…then the shadows receded and he was somewhere else.

      In the week since he’d been trying, he had made some progress.  His awareness of the shadows had increased.  He could now not only see them, but sense them, almost feel them around him even when they weren’t touching him.  They were surrounding him, comforting him almost like old friends, and he felt secure and comfortable within the shadowed room.  Yesterday, for just a second or two on two occasions, he had felt the cool sensation that usually flowed through his fur flow through him instead, in a way that was unusual but not dangerous, which encouraged him because he felt he was making some progress.  The fox had said that he was the shadow, and the shadows were his friend…and since he’d started this determined training, he saw she was right.  The shadows welcomed him, they were his allies and his protectors, and they seemed eager to answer his call.  That was why he had learned to meld into the shadows without having any inkling of what he was doing or how to do it, it was why the shadows allowed him to control them, manipulate them.  They didn’t see him as a hostile outside force, they saw him as one of their own, and they cooperated with him willingly.  He wasn’t just a man, or an Arcan, he was also part shadow, and that was the part of him with which he had to make contract if he wanted to learn how to move through the shadows from one place to another.

      After nearly an hour, he again felt that strange sensation after almost meditative concentration, not pushing or forcing, just trying to fully get in touch with the shadows around him.  He felt that sensation of coolness first wash over his fur, telling him he had melded into the shadow, then it invaded into his very skin and saturated itself into him.  The cool sensation then washed through his entire body, almost like how it felt when he used the amulet to take an outward human appearance, and the instant he felt it he focused on it, focused on maintaining it with all his concentration.  He opened his eyes and opened his eyes to the spirits and looked down through the floor to see Patches, Tweak, Clover, Watcher, and Lucky playing some kind of game around the main table, but he then focused on the shadows within the room.  He looked to the shadow opposite his, focused the entirety of his concentration on that shadow, and tried to trigger that sense of the shadows enveloping him he remembered from before, beckoned to the shadows with his mind and tried to have them swallow him up and move him across the room.

      For nearly an hour, he tried.  He managed to maintain that sense of the shadows moving through him, but he couldn’t get them to move him to the other shadow.  He tried for so long that the door opened and Clover looked in.  He looked at her, but saw that she was looking at him with surprised eyes.  “What is it, sister?” he asked.

      She laughed.  “I see you learned a new trick, brother!” she called.

      “What do you mean?”

      She turned and opened her eyes to the spirits, and a magical pool of liquid seemed to swirl into being.  It smoothed out and solidified into a mirror, and he looked at himself through it.

      He was a shadow!

      There was absolutely no mistaking it.  His form was visible and apparent, and his eyes were visible with their green glow, but it was also unmistakable that he was opaque, that the wall behind him was visible through his body.  He was a three dimensional shadow, with border but without features, a silhouette that was somewhat transparent and darker than the shadow in which he sat.

      Clover advanced up to him and boldly reached her hand out towards his chest, sliding it through his silky fur on his chest, which was no longer white.  “Amazing.  I can feel you clearly, but I can see through you, and you aren’t there to my spirit sight.  I can only see you with my mundane eyes,” she murmured.  “I can still see your eyes as well, when they are open to the spirits.  Another form of hiding?”

      “I’m not sure, but it feels different,” he answered, trying to meld into the shadow, but failing.  “I can’t melt into the shadows like this, in this…this…shadow form.”

      “It’s like you’re a living shadow,” she noted, looking him up and down.  “But unlike a normal shadow, I can touch you.”

      “And I can touch you,” he said after putting his paws on her shoulders, then sliding them down to cup her small breasts brazenly.

      She gave him a slight look. “Don’t start something you may not be able to finish, brother,” she warned with a narrow little smile.

      “Hey, I’m experimenting here.  Don’t lose your objectivity,” he said teasingly as he kneaded her breasts through her simple shirt.

      “Insatiable,” she chided with a throaty laugh.

      “Curious, actually,” he said clinically, moving his hands down to her sides.  “You feel no different at all.  Your shirt feels like a shirt, your fur feels just the same.  And I feel the same?”

      “Yes, though you appear different, you feel no different,” she said as he dug his hands up under his shirt to put them on her furry waist.  “I wonder,” she mused.  “You can control shadow, change its shape.  Can you do the same to yourself when like that?”

      He hadn’t thought of that.  “I, I don’t know.  Maybe,” he said, stepping back on his Arcan legs and holding his hand out.  He focused on the hand, but more to the point, he focused on the shadow that was his hand, and he tried to control it.  He bade it to elongate, like a long shadow across a cobbled street at sunset.

      Clover gasped as Kyven felt a curious fluidity, like when the amulet the fox gave him transformed him from one shape to another, and his fingers lengthened to a length that was anatomically impossible, nearly two rods long.  “I think that answers your question, sister,” he said as he had his hand flatten out.  Again, it felt fluid, liquid, and there was no pain as his hand literally flattened out to the width of a pancake.  Clover reached out and touched his flattened hand, and then she probed it with her fingertips.  “It feels…pliable, like clay,” she reported, kneading her fingers into his altered, shadowy hand.  “But I still feel fur, and I can feel your claws,” she added, touching his wicked claws.  “I bet you could slide your hand under a door.”

      “I could slide all of me under a door,” he said with a sudden smile.  “Or between the bars of a jail cell, or into a pipe.  This will let me get past some obstacles.”

      “At the cost of being visible,” she warned.

      “Well, if I’m lucky, I won’t have to worry about that,” he said.  “If I can learn how my totem moved me through the shadows, well, let them try and stop me,” he said with a chuckle.

      “But this is progress, brother,” she told him, pinching his flat finger.  “You have learned a new way to use the gifts she gave you.  Any increase in knowledge is an increase in wisdom, and you can never be too wise.”

      “I just wish I could be half as wise as you, my sister,” he said honestly.  “You are what I believe a Shaman should be.”

      “Such a sweet talker,” she chuckled, putting her arms on his shoulders.  Kyven lost his concentration, and his hand almost painfully reverted to normal as the shadow bled out of his fur.

      “Guess I need to practice this until I get the hang of it,” he chuckled.  “But I think I can do that tomorrow.  I still haven’t looked over the messages yet.”

      “Nothing of real note came in, but I did send on the fact that the brokers are all closed to our friends,” she told him.

      “Good, because I think I’m going to be busy tomorrow morning.  I’m going to set up on that high building that overlooks the Loremasters’ bridge and see if I can pick off someone important in the morning.”

      “So soon?”

      “I think I’m ready, so it’s time.  I can’t let them get too complacent, after all,” he smiled.  “I’ll have to try to slink around in an animal illusion, and hope they don’t take much notice of a stray dog.”

      “You will be careful, my brother,” she warned.  “Right now, they’re shooting almost anything that moves before even seeing what it is.”

      “I know.  I can go over the rooftops up til I get to the crossing of Ring Street and the Chain Way, but then I’ll have to come down and risk the streets.  I know keeping them stirred up will make it harder to get information, but I can’t ignore the fact that if I can keep them off balance and disorganized, hopefully kill their leaders, it’ll make it easier for our brothers and sisters on the other side of the mountains.  I have to do everything I can to help the Arcans, even if doing one thing makes it harder to do the other.”

      “You will simply find a way,” she smiled at him.  “As your spirit said, you are clever and resourceful, my brother.”

      “We are clever and resourceful.  I’m just a member of a team, sister.”

      “It’s so nice to be appreciated,” she hummed as she slid a little deeper into his arms.

      “Every day,” he said, nuzzling her.

      Lightfoot left not long after sunset, and the house settled down for the night.  Lucky went to bed early, Patches lured Tweak upstairs, and Clover also went to bed, leaving Kyven with Watcher as he locked up the shop.  Watcher was, as usual, watching him, quite intently, and he looked a little unsettled as Kyven put his arm over the boy’s shoulders and helped him to his feet, to escort him upstairs.  “Shaman,” he said hesitantly.

      “Yes, little one?” he asked as Watcher gained his feet, and they walked towards the stairs.

      “Is, is it really true what Patches said about you?”

      “Well, I’m not sure what that is, but I think I have a good idea,” he said mildly.  “Yes, young one, I’m a human.”

      “Really?” he asked in surprise, giving him a look.

      He nodded.  “This Arcan body was what you might call a very direct and brutal lesson by my totem, the spirit that gives me my power.  She wanted me to understand the Arcans, and decided that the most effective way was to make me an Arcan myself.  It was a very…unpleasant lesson,” he said after a pause.  “But it worked.  My time as an Arcan showed me how my people treat yours, and now I’ve dedicated my life to freeing the Arcans and helping them any way I can.  I am a Shaman now,” he declared calmly.

      “And this talk of a war, you’re siding against the humans?”

      “I’m siding against the ones who are wrong,” he said simply.  “The spirits don’t hate the humans, my young one.  They’re actually very unhappy that war is coming, but they see no other way.  The Loremasters are trying to do something terrible, and they can’t be allowed to do it.  The spirits don’t want a war between the Arcans and the humans, but they see that a war between the Arcans and the Loremasters is necessary.  They are our true enemies, Watcher.  Not all the humans, just the Loremasters, and those who believe as they do.”

      “But all the humans hate us.”

      “Not all,” he said calmly as they started up the stairs, which would be a long and slow process.  Kyven did not carry Watcher up, since the exercise was good for him.  “There are many humans in the Masked, which is a group that tries to free Arcan slaves.  They believe that Arcans aren’t the animals that others think they are, and they believe that it’s a terrible thing what the humans have done to the Arcans, so they work to free them and make their lives better.  Not all humans are bad, my young one, just as not all Arcans are good.  You have to take each race as they come, and then see where they stand after you get to know them a little bit.”

      Watcher paused on the steps, his face thoughtful.

      Kyven smiled.  “You’ve known me a week, my young one.  Does your opinion of me change now that you know my secret?”

      “Well, it makes me wonder a little bit,” he answered as they started again.  “I wouldn’t have thought you were a human.  I mean, you’re a Shaman,” he said simply.

      “I know.  I’m the only human Shaman that we know of,” he affirmed with a gentle smile, a hand on Watcher’s back to steady him as he wobbled a bit.  “And if you can’t tell me from Clover, well, that makes me very happy, young one.  I only learned about a year ago that I’m a Shaman, and I had a lot to learn about it.  My spirit didn’t give me much time to learn, and I think she actually cut a few corners.  She taught me a great deal about my magic, but not a whole lot about what it means to be a Shaman.  Actually, I’m still learning what it means to be a Shaman.  If I’m acting like Clover, then I’m doing it right.”

      “What does it mean to be a Shaman, Shaman?”

      Kyven chuckled.  “Shaman serve, my young one,” he told him immediately.  “That is our purpose.  We serve those who need us.  We serve the spirits by doing their will, and we serve the Arcans by being here for you, doing whatever we can to help.  If the humans would allow it, we would serve them as well.”

      “Well, that’s what you do, not what it means.”

      “That is what it means, Watcher,” he said simply.  “Shaman serve.  That is the essence of a Shaman, one who serves the needs of those who need him.  The will of the spirits means more to us than our will.  The needs of the people mean more to us than our needs.  The spirits teach us wisdom so we can represent them in the world, and also so we can be better at what we do.  And what we do, my young one, is serve.”

      “It almost sounds like slavery.”

      Kyven chuckled. “I’ve noticed that myself, Watcher.  My totem spirit, well, to be nice about it is to say that she’s not actually very nice.  The honest truth about it is she’s an evil, cold, ruthless bitch and I hate her, but that doesn’t matter.  She knows I hate her, but she also knows that I will do my very best for her, because she needs me, and I understand just why she needs me and what I’m doing…and that means far more than my own personal feelings.  I serve because I want to serve.  I could walk away right here and right now, and all it would cost me is losing the chance to be human again…and I think I could live with that.  I’ve actually gotten used to being an Arcan.  But I won’t, because you need me, because the Arcans need me.  And maybe even the humans need me.  The needs of others matter more to me than my own.”

      “A spirit can be evil?” he asked in surprise.

      “You take everyone as they come, my young one,” he said simply.  “Even the spirits.  The spirit I serve is evil, and there’s no denying it.  But how she is evil is what counts.  She cares just as much about the Arcans and the humans as the other spirits, so in that respect she’s just like the other spirits.  The evil comes in with her personality.  She’s a spirit of guile and deceit, my young one, and she cannot go against her nature.  She’s lied to me, manipulated me, and deceived me since the moment I realized she was more than just a hallucination.  She doesn’t care about me in the slightest, and if I were to die, she wouldn’t shed a single tear, she’d just be annoyed that all the effort she put into training me was wasted.  All she cares about is that I obey, and in that regard, she has nothing to worry about.  Even though I hate her, despite everything she’s done to me, I will serve her faithfully, because she needs me.”

      Watcher looked up at him.  “I think you’re too good to that mean spirit, Shaman,” he said.  “You give her everything, and she gives you nothing.  That’s not fair.”

      “Life isn’t fair, young one.  And sometimes, there can be no happy ending,” he said sagely as they reached the top of the stairs.  “But, she does give back to me.  Not in ways you’d expect or notice, but she does give back to me.  Now off to bed with you, young one.  You need your rest.”

      “Good night, Shaman,” he said, reaching up.  Kyven gave him a gentle hug, and nuzzled him lightly.  “Will you bless me before I go to bed?”

      “Of course,” he smiled, putting his hand on Watcher’s shoulder and reciting the ritual blessing.  After he was blessed, Kyven walked him to the bedroom where all the Arcans slept, they walked past the shivering pallet where Patches was entertaining Tweak and they were trying to be quiet about it so they didn’t disturb Lucky, and he knelt down and helped the frail raccoon into his pallet.  “Good night, young one.  Sleep well.”

      “I hope the spirits bless you, Shaman,” he said simply from the pallet.

      He chuckled patting the raccoon on the shoulder.  “They do, every day I wake up and see that you’re getting better.  Now go to sleep.”

      Watcher nodded and settled down into the pallet.  Kyven watched him close his eyes, then he stood up and made his way out of the room.

      Clover was already in bed when he ambled into his room.  She sat up and looked at him as he sat down on the edge of the bed, yawning and showing off his impressive canines.  “Is he alright?”

      “Watcher?  Got up the stairs without much trouble,” he answered.  “I think he’ll be well enough to travel next week.  I was thinking of having him sent to Virren and Timble and let them nurse him back to full health before he went on.”

      “I’m sure Virren would be willing to take him in,” Clover nodded.  “But it’s not safe for him to be shipped to Atan, brother.  He’s too weak, and being put under control of a kennelmaster might do him mental harm.”

      “I wasn’t thinking of shipping him with a kennel, sister.  I was thinking of…something else.”

      She blinked and gave him a look.  “No,” she declared.  “We understood the risks when we volunteered, Kyven.  You will not send us away because you fear it’s getting too dangerous.”

      He sighed.  “Damn your wisdom,” he said ruefully, which earned him a playful swat.  “It is getting dangerous, Clover.  You have to promise me one thing.”

      “What?”

      “When I feel that your lives are in imminent danger, you will leave.  I don’t worry about you and Lightfoot as much as Tweak and Patches.  Shario was quite right in pointing out that they can’t protect themselves the way we can.  When I think it’s reached the boiling point, I will send them home.  And I won’t trust them with anyone but you.”

      “I…well, in that case, I would be cruel to decline,” she said.  “But I would come back.”

      “And I’d be happy to have your help, sister.  Like I said, I trust your ability to protect yourself, and we make a very good team.  I’m just worried about the kids.”

      “Then when you feel that it is too dangerous, I’ll take them to Atan and return,” she promised.

      “That makes me feel better,” he told her, leaning back until he was laying in her lap.  She smiled down at him and dragged her fingers through the fur on his chest, then her fingers started tracing lower.

      “Don’t start something you can’t finish,” he teased lightly.

      She laughed.  “Oh, I think I can handle you, my brother,” she retorted, leaning down and licking him playfully on the nose and muzzle.  “You still have no endurance,” she teased.

      “That sounds like a challenge, sister,” he declared.  “But a challenge that’ll have to hold until tomorrow.  I would like to get some sleep tonight.  I have to be up early in the morning.”

      “Then we’ll just have a little fun instead of proving that you have no stamina,” she smiled, licking at his muzzle.

      “And you accuse me of being insatiable,” he taunted.

      “You started this,” she told him, flicking him on the nose.  “Think I couldn’t let you pawing me go unchallenged?”

      “Well, I’m a man that lives up to his mistakes,” he said lightly, putting his hands behind his head and looking up at her with a sober expression.  “So, you’d better get to work.”

      She laughed, leaning further down and licking him sensually on his nose, which made his tail shiver.  “I think I’m getting somewhere,” she noted playfully.

      “Keep going and find out,” he answered.

 

      It was a warm, muggy summer morning, early enough for the only light to illuminate the streets below were alchemical lamps, set to automatically shut off when there was sufficient light streaming in from above.  Roving patrols of Loreguard moved between stationary checkpoints, and all of them were edgy and alert.

      But, like most men, their attention was focused on the ground, focused on what was near them, on what they could reach.

      They never looked up.

      Kyven moved with quiet yet confident stealth along the rooftops, for in old Avannar, the rooftops were so close together that one could easily jump from one to another, and the streets were narrow enough that one could navigate the entire southwest sector of the city without having to come down to the streets.  Lightfoot had been the one to teach him the rooftop avenues, routes traveled not just by the cat Arcan, but also by Shario’s thieves.  Kyven moved quietly yet confidently, hidden behind an illusion that made him appear to be a large cat.  Since he was carrying the rifle, he couldn’t meld into the shadows to move invisibly.  But, the illusion he chose was very small, which made him very hard to see.  Unfortunately, though, he couldn’t get to where he was going along the rooftops.  The Chain Way and Ring Street were both too wide to cross by rooftop, so from there, about eight blocks from the river, Kyven had to come down from the rooftops and move on the streets, as the buildings past Ring Street towards the river were large and of different heights, and therefore would be too difficult to traverse.

      There were ten men in the intersection of the two large streets, a checkpoint to catch those breaking the curfew that would lift at sunrise which would then stop everyone on the street to search them and log who they were and where they were going, part of the Loremasters’ attempts to track him down.  They were attentive, paying attention to all four streets from which the intersection, and more than one man stopped to look at the large tabby cat that jumped from a overhanging beam to a porch, then to a horse rail, then to the ground.  The cat looked at them, and when one man moved towards it, it turned and ran away fearfully.  The behavior wasn’t unusual for a cat, so the men thought nothing more of it.

      Behind that illusion, Kyven held the rifle in both hands to keep it from hitting anything and stalked slowly and quietly down the street, his padded feet making no sound and his claws being held up and away to prevent them from clacking and moving at a slow pace which would allow the cat illusion behind which he hid keep up with him without it looking unnatural.  He glanced back to see that the Loreguard hadn’t bothered to chase down the cat, which told him that the Loreguard didn’t believe that he could hide in the guise of an animal.  So far, the only real idea of his power they had is the ability to conjure shadowy darkness, vanish into that darkness, to turn invisible in the night, and also to take on the guise of humans and use their visages to slip through their building.  Luckily for him, they hadn’t considered the idea that he could take on the guise of an animal…or perhaps they believed that he could transform himself into humans, literally become them, rather than hide behind an illusion of them.  That Loremaster woman had touched him, and in that touch she had to believe that he was human…or at least was human enough.  They had no idea of what he could do, and their assumptions were working in his favor.

      He had to agree with his totem.  Illusion, the very power of illusion, was one of the most powerful forces, because the nature of it made him mysterious…and that mystery protected him.  To never reveal the extent of his powers and abilities, to make them guess at what he could do rather than know what he could do, it was its own form of protection, and it made him seem more powerful than he was.

      The building he intended to use appeared on the street ahead.  It was half a block from the river, and its four story height would give him an unimpeded view of the area at the base of the bridge, where a contingent of Loreguard would stop anyone trying to get to the island to inspect them…and that stop to inspect would afford Kyven the opportunity to take a shot at them.  The impressive townhouse, in a style called a redstone because of the brick facing, had an angled roof with a flat crest that was about a foot wide, and that was the perch he was going to use.  He slung the rifle as he went around the house to the back, having to jump a fence, then he started clambering slowly yet confidently up the side of the building, using his claws to gain solid purchase on the wood wall of the rear of the building; the red brick facing was only on the front.  He climbed up to the slate roof, pulled himself atop it carefully so as not to dislodge any slate tiles, then climbed up to the flat apex of the roof.  The roof was the tallest structure for about five blocks, which gave him a commanding view in addition to preventing anyone from spotting him unless they had a spyglass…and he didn’t doubt that there were scouts in the Loremaster headquarters, on the roof and in the towers, who were doing just that.  That was one of the reasons Kyven had climbed the back of the building, so he could come up the roof on the protected side.  He utilized an illusion of the roof itself once he was at the apex, a covering blanket of illusion that allowed him to settle in a vantage where he was laying partially on the angled roof and partially on its flat top, where he could brace the rifle.   He maintained the illusion as he adjusted the scope and looked through it, towards the river, and saw that he had been correct.  The height of the building and the angle of the roof was almost perfect, and allowed him a clear view of the base of the bridge to the Loremasters’ island headquarters.  Thank the Trinity the Loremasters had insisted on a wide plaza at the base of that bridge.  Their prevention of anyone building a building close to the landing gave him a vantage of the landing and the Loreguard soldiers stationed at the base of the bridge that wasn’t blocked by a rooftop.

      He was in position.  All he had to do now was wait.

      The sky slowly painted itself in the colors of the predawn, going from black to murky charcoal, and then the purple bloomed from the east towards the west.  It was followed by dark blue, and then a greenish tinge, as the sky went through the colors of the rainbow in preparation for the appearance of the sun.  Below, on the streets, and in the house beneath him, Kyven could see and hear the common citizens stirring, awakening, preparing to live another day in the city of Avannar.  People were standing on their porches, near their doors, waiting for sunrise so they could leave their homes and begin their day.  As the sun peeked over the eastern buildings, people did begin to leave their homes, and the streets became populated as they endured the aggravation of being stopped, searched, and questioned on every street corner by Loreguard checkpoints.  Kyven remained quiet, hidden under his illusion of the roof, rendering him effectively invisible as long as he didn’t move around too much, stayed within the boundaries of his illusion.  All he had to do was be patient, because he knew that many important member of the Loremasters and most of the high-ranking Loreguard didn’t stay within the headquarters.  The majority of the Councilors did live in the headquarters, the highest-ranking ones did, but the lower-ranking ones and the important Loremasters that served the Circle did not.  They lived in the city, and eventually, they would come to the bridge to go to work.

      He didn’t have to wait as long as he thought.  Looking through the magnifying scope, he saw a face he recognized approach the bridge checkpoint and barrier.  It was that woman, the one that had an unhealthy interest in young pages, and he remembered that she was called to audience with a Councilor.

      That qualified as high-ranking to him.

      He settled himself down completely, relaxing as he slowly, carefully flipped the lever that served as the safety, then actuated the bolt that chambered the first round, a bullet that had been specifically prepared for this.  Since he would be leaving something behind, and he might lose a brass casing if it bounced off a roof and to the ground where it would be unrecoverable, those were something they could inspect and also investigate using alchemy.  Clover had wiped the bullets and casings clean of any trace they could use to, say, use alchemy to divine a name or face of whoever had touched that item.  Since Clover had used her magic on them, they had not been touched with anything but a pair of linen-wrapped tongs…and loading them into the rifle using those tongs had challenged his highly trained manual dexterity.  As he shifted, he opened his eyes to the spirits and called down a bubble of silence that only covered the rifle, so he could still hear yet the rifle shot would be covered.  He then looked carefully through the scope, using his mundane sight to watch as the woman, sitting in an open carriage, stopped at the checkpoint.  Her back was to him, wearing her elegant Loremaster dress that, he recalled, showed off quite a bit of her cleavage.  The wagon was stopped, and she stood rigidly for a moment….

      A fatal moment.

      Slowly, easily, he set the crosshairs just over her head, understanding that at that distance, the downward angle would put the bullet somewhere in her middle.  He pulled his clawed finger back on the trigger, until he was surprised to feel it buck against his muzzle, a report that had no sound.  He lost his sighting of the woman for a second as the rifle recoiled, but he quickly pulled it back down to see if his aim was true.

      He clearly saw the sudden bloom of red just between her shoulder blades.  She pitched forward off her elegant open carriage and between the two horses, and the horses skittered a little.  The men rushed towards her, thinking she had fallen, but then there were startled shouts of alarm audible even from his vantage point when they got her out and realized she had a bullet hole in her back.

      Instant chaos.

      Alarm horns blew, mirrored by a gong in the Loremaster headquarters, and there were suddenly soldiers running all over the place, pointing in every direction.  Men were looking towards the alleys, and a contingent of Loreguard were rushing across the bridge.  One of them, he could see from his scope, was wearing the insignia of a General officer.

      Target.  Kyven worked the bolt to chamber another round, then remembered when he heard the brass hit the top of the roof to pick up the casing before settling himself over his rifle and starting again.

      Kyven saw the man was running, and running towards him.  Just like with daggers, he needed to lead the man, so he put the crosshairs of the rifle at his feet, moving it with steady, exacting grace as he kept the crosshair set right at the man’s boot.  He knew that the man would literally run right into the path of the bullet.  He again gently squeezed the trigger, then felt the rifle buck against his shoulder as he lost sight of the man. He brought it back down just in time to see the man pitch forward, writhing on the ground, and then the first thin screams of pain drifted up to Kyven’s ears.  His men staggered to a halt then rushed back to him, turning him over to give Kyven just enough view to see that his bullet had struck the man almost right between the collar bones, just at the base of his neck.  The man writhed, his boots scrabbling on the stones of the bridge, then he fell unnaturally still, a blood flowing down towards the base as it followed grade of the bridge.

      A high-ranking Loremaster and a general of the Loreguard, dead.

      A successful attack.

      Just to keep the other men on their toes, Kyven chambered another round and fired it into the throng of Loreguard.  He missed the first two shots, as the men reacted to the screaming whines of the bullets hitting the bridge, then he hit a man in the shoulder with the third shot.  The other men seemed to realize then that the attacker was still there when they saw a line of blood fly away from a man that suddenly dropped to the ground, and they dove for cover.  It was here where Kyven saw that if he kept firing, who he could hit and who he couldn’t would give away his position, so he stopped firing, slid down out of sight on the roof, then created an illusion of a large black cat to hide him as he slid down to the eaves.  He hooked into the wood of the building and clambered down, dropping nearly ten rods to the garden behind the house, then he rushed out of the garden and back out onto the streets.

      The clanging gong and horns had everyone on the street nervous, and they were milling around, talking to each other, even as the checkpoints at the corners bunkered down, listening to instructions being screamed at them from their alchemical talkers, the way the central headquarters relayed instructions to the roving patrols.  Kyven slipped past several of these checkpoints as the men within seemed uncertain as to what to do, but by the time he reached the intersection of Ring Street and the Chain Way, they finally had themselves organized.  The checkpoint there was forcing everyone to go back home and lock themselves inside, and they were honest in saying that there was a maniac with a musket or pistol running around shooting people, which made the citizens more than willing to run back home to where they felt it was safe.  Kyven used an alternative means to get back onto the rooftops once he snuck past the main checkpoint, the black cat ducking fearfully into an alley, and then once he was out of sight, the black cat seemed to climb up the side of a brothel with impossible speed, until it was up on the rooftop pathways thieves used to get around the southwestern sector of the city.

      Kyven breathed a sigh of relief when he gained the rooftops.  He was in a position where he couldn’t be blindsided, where he wasn’t surrounded by Loreguard soldiers.  Up here, he could stay out of sight, and if they did somehow detect him, he could get out of the line of fire, had avenues of escape not available to him on the ground that didn’t force him to fight…and fighting was usually his last resort.

      By means of the rooftops, Kyven moved faster, but still carefully, staying out of sight of the streets by running the middles of the roofs, only coming to the edges to jump from roof to roof.  He traversed the length of Jewel Way, then crossed Moon Street, then he turned and jumped onto his own roof after bounding over the roof of the chandler and the whorehouse.  Lightfoot had left the attic window open, and it was by that means that Kyven got into the house.  He didn’t dismiss the illusion until he was well away from the window, completely out of the attic and on the stairs leading down, then he called out as he came down to the second floor.  “Clover!” he called.  “Patches!”

      Lightfoot padded in from the room they shared, and Kyven started when he saw dried blood on her shoulder.  He dropped the rifle and put his hands on her.  “Dear Trinity, are you alright?” he asked in concern, touching her shoulder.

      “Shot,” she said simply.  “Clover fixed it.”

      “I told you to be careful!”

      “It was worth it,” she said with a toothy little smile. “I got him.”

      “You killed the Councilor?” he asked, and she nodded simply.

      “He came home,” she announced.

      “I don’t know if I should kiss you or wring your pretty little neck!” he said with a rueful laugh, hugging her to him.  “Now go clean up, while I go put this where they won’t find it.”

      “What happened?”

      “I got that Loremaster woman that likes little boys and a man wearing general’s insignia at the bridge,” he told her as he picked up the rifle.  “Then I took a few shots at the soldiers before it gave away my position, then I came home.  It was actually pretty easy.  Tweak!” he boomed as he came down into the shop.

      The ferret wasn’t the only one that came towards the stairs as he came down.  He removed the little pouch slung from the butt of the rifle, where he stored the spent casings, and handed it to him.  “I need a few more,” he grinned toothily.

      “We heard the alarms,” Clover chuckled.  “We weren’t sure if that was you or Lightfoot’s handiwork.”

      “Mine,” he said.  “I killed that woman that took an unwholesome interest in me when she thought I was a little boy, and a man wearing a General’s epaulets.  Then I took a few more shots at the soldiers to keep them on their toes, and came home.  It was pretty easy.”

      “No trouble getting back and forth?”

      He shook his head.  “Lightfoot taught me well,” he chuckled, squeezing her shoulder slightly.  “I’m sure they’re going crazy over there right now, and they may even have one of those little flying devices up in the air to search the rooftops for me.”

      “So, we become a nondescript shop for a while longer,” Tweak grinned.

      “At least until tomorrow,” he said.  “Tomorrow night, me and Lightfoot are going…out.”

      “Where?” she asked.

      “General Bren Fourpost, commander of Loreguard forces in the Free Territories,” he answered.  “He lives on the north bank, near the guild of chandlers.  I’m sure there are some papers in his house that might tell us when they intend to start moving troops, if he doesn’t know himself.  I’m certain between the two of us, we can convince him to talk to us.  While they’re running all over the old city hunting for the sniper, it’s the perfect time to sneak over there and see what secrets he keeps.”

      “That house?  It’s well defended,” Clover warned.

      He nodded.  “That’s why I need my fighting Arcan, to protect me from the soldiers.  Trinity knows, I’m terrible when it comes to that kind of thing.”

      “You’re bad, but improving,” Lightfoot murmured.

      “Thanks,” he drawled, which made Lucky laugh.  “While me and Lightfoot are snooping through the man’s house, Clover, you need to do a little something.”

      “Oh?  What is that?”

      “Someone screwed up and let a crystal only a Shaman could make out where the Loremasters found it,” he said.  “We can use that to help Shario and the Flaurens.  I think you’re the only Shaman close enough to do it, so I need you to make at least five more crystals like the one they brought.  At least thirty points and absolutely perfect.”

      “For what purpose?”

      “Bait,” he said simply.

      She gave him a look, then smiled and nodded.  “I understand, my brother,” she said.

      “I don’t get it,” Lucky fretted.

      “It’s simple, my young one,” Clover said.  “We will create those crystals and then have Shario’s people send them north and plant them where the Loremasters will certainly discover them.  Some place out of the way, say, Two Rivers.  That will draw the Loreguard to the north, to find and secure the source of those amazing crystals, giving the Flaurens a little more breathing room when they declare independence.”

      “Precisely,” Kyven nodded.  “The Flaurens may not be our allies, but they are fighting the Loremasters, so we need to help them.  And if word of those crystals became common knowledge, it’ll flood the area with prospectors and miners, which will make it very hard for the Loremasters to march in an army and take over Two Rivers and keep it quiet.  The Loreguard absolutely need Two Rivers if they want to invade Arcan territory, because it’s the only relatively flat northern pass through the Smoke Mountains.  If there’s suddenly a huge boom of miners, prospectors, and those who live off them clogging up Two Rivers, they’ll have to devote a large chunk of forces to holding the city.  Every man we tie down on this side of the mountains is a man the Arcans don’t have to fight on the other.”

      “So, Shario needs to ensure that the discovery of those crystals is very public,” Clover mused.

      “And it makes it a little more dangerous for us.  They brought that crystal to me, after all, and they know I’ve seen it.  Then, not days later, even more crystals that shouldn’t exist are suddenly found.  They might see that as more than a coincidence…but it’s worth the risk if it ties up a good piece of the Loreguard army into trying to keep control of Two Rivers, and reduces the number of troops they can send west or south.”

      Clover sat down at the table, tapping her muzzle. “Brother,” she said tentatively.  “If our main goal is to tie up the Loreguard forces, then might not something major do a good part of that work for us?”

      “What’s on your mind?”

      “If we want to help Flaur and also put a wrench in the plans of the Loremasters, then there is a way to do both, as well as possibly help our own cause.  Remember the ship you attacked?”

      Kyven saw almost immediately what she was saying.  “No,” he hissed.  “That would get a lot of Arcans killed, sister!  The Loreguard already have a huge army at Riyan, it wouldn’t take them long to march them to wherever the Arcans revolted and crush them!”

      “Ah, but that’s the point,” she said.  “If a Shaman were to lead the Arcans and took them south, to Rallan, and then through the South Pass towards Nash, and there just happened to be an Arcan force there to attack them….”

      “You mean lead them into a trap,” Kyven grunted.  “Using slave Arcans as bait.”

      “It will come to this eventually, brother,” she said grimly.  “The plantation owners and farmers will never sell their Arcan workers.  And the fate of those Arcans is in doubt when the humans discover the truth.  You said it yourself, the humans may slaughter them all out of fear.  This way, we give our enslaved people a chance, Kyven.  An Arcan who dies in his own way, by a manner of his own choosing, is not afraid to die, you know this.  We should give the slaves the choice, and that they will help both us and the Flaurens at the same time is simply bonus.”

      “I…I don’t like it, sister.”

      “I don’t either, but it’s something we must consider.  Will you present the idea to the council and Firetail?”

      “I, alright,” he sighed, remembering the most important of all of his totem’s lessons to him; for some, there is no happy ending.  He had to consider the alternative.  The council and Firetail were wiser than he, Danna was a better general than him.  He would let them make that decision.  It wasn’t his to make.  “I don’t like it, but do it.”

      “Let me take that, Kyven,” Tweak said, taking the rifle.  “I’ll refill those casings right after breakfast.”

      “Yes, breakfast, that sounds good,” he said, shaking off a feeling of…foreboding.  Clover’s idea was suicide for quite a few Arcans, but something…something told him that he’d be seeing that idea again.

      Very soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    2      4

Chapter 3

 

      He’d never done anything quite like this before, and that made it both frightening and oddly exciting.

      It was a dark, cloudy, moonless night, so dark that if it weren’t for the street lights of Avannar, Kyven and Lightfoot may have trouble seeing.  As it was, though, the lights on the corners and halfway between each corner gave them just enough light for Lightfoot to see clearly, while Kyven was relying on his spirit sight in order to navigate.

      They’d spent all day preparing for this.  Kyven had reconnoitered the general’s house that morning clandestinely under the pretense of going to the guild, and had seen that the man’s house was more of a walled compound than a house, a walled-in property that held a fairly nice house and a small greenhouse for his wife, who was a passionate gardener well known for her roses and her greenhouse garden that produced vegetables and tomatoes all through the winter.  The place not only held the general, his wife, his four children, and his two human servants and three Arcans, but it also held six Loreguard soldiers who guarded the officer and his home.

      This would definitely be delving into the area of no happy endings.  Both Kyven and Lightfoot understood that under absolutely no circumstances could anyone see Lightfoot and be allowed to live.  If they linked Lightfoot to Kyven, then that would bring them right to his shop, since Veraad knew of her and he wasn’t sure if Yoris or the Loremasters and employees of them with whom he often dealt had ever seen her.  In this, he had to be absolutely ruthless, and he knew it.  If the general’s ten year old son saw Lightfoot, he had to die.  Kyven didn’t hold much of a candle to slaughtering a child, but there was no room for error in this dangerous game he was playing.  Anyone who saw Lightfoot could unveil Kyven’s secret to the Loremasters, and that could not be permitted, no matter what he had to do.  Kyven intended to partially assuage that grim possibility by covering Lightfoot in an illusion and leaving himself uncovered.  They already knew what he looked like, so they’d gain nothing by someone seeing him again.  So, his idea was to conceal Lightfoot’s identity, making her appear to be an ultra-rare kind of Arcan Clover described to him called an ocelot, some kind of small spotted cat native to the continent south of Noraam, which was called Mecana.  So, instead of Lightfoot appearing as her white-gray furred and bone-white haired self, she appeared as a tan cat with both spots and bands in her fur, a short, thick muzzle, long, dark hair, and penetrating yellow eyes.  To reinforce it, the illusion was also about half a rod taller than the petite cat, but he kept her a cat so one wouldn’t doubt the illusion if she used her claws.

      Clover had dealt with the Masked cell in Avannar to somehow dig up information of the general’s home, a general kind of layout that one might expect a servant to know.  How the cell got that information was beyond him, and he hoped that it didn’t give them away if someone had knowledge that they had that information and then the general’s house is attacked.  But thanks to them, the two of them had a rough idea of the layout of the general’s house.  They knew where the general’s family lived on the second floor, they knew that the wife spent all her time out in the garden from sunrise to sunset, tending both her food plants and her rare or experimental plants she cultivated, and they knew that the three Arcans all lived in a small shack behind the greenhouse when not actually working, primarily helping the wife with her gardening.  They didn’t have information on where the guards would be stationed or what kind of alchemical defenses the house may possess, but Kyven would be able to ferret them out with spirit sight once they got there.  They knew that only the guards would be awake at this time of the night, halfway between midnight and sunrise, and if they moved carefully enough, they could eliminate the guards without rousing the house, and therefore have plenty of time to chat with General Bren Fourpost, commander of the two Free Territories regiments of the Loreguard Expeditionary Forces, the official name of the segment of the Loreguard that were common infantry.

      Thus far, it had been relatively easy going, mainly because the darkness made the shadows away from the lamps deep and protective.  By manipulating those shadows, Kyven had gotten them through most of old town unseen, and all the way to Beggar’s Bridge, where their first major obstacle had to be conquered…the checkpoint that literally blockaded the bridge.  Lightfoot’s solution that problem was both simple and effective, and Kyven had to agree when she led him away from the bridge and to a small quay that extended out into the river about a block from the bridge.  There, they stole a small rowboat, and crossed the river in the darkness using their boat.  There were lights on the bridge, but it was so dark that the lights didn’t even illuminate the water underneath the bridge, let alone a rowboat a block away.  Kyven had never rowed a boat before, but he managed to figure out that he had to angle the boat partially upstream to keep the current from pushing them towards the main docks southeast of their position.  By using magic to silence the oars, but not the entire boat, they moved with confident stealth across the river.

      Once on the north bank, however, things got more serious.  The streets of New Avannar were wide and spacious, and there were many more streetlamps, which made it much harder to move around unseen.  The checkpoints and roving patrols made it much harder on top of that, but Lightfoot was again prepared.  New Avannar had a feature not seen in Old Avannar, and that was alleyways between the blocks that ran from east to west.  The houses of the new city were large and spacious, and most had carriage houses or even small one horse stables behind the houses.  This was an aesthetic affectation, leaving the fronts of the houses and yards to each side uncluttered by such things.  Putting them in the backs of the organized blocks created narrow alleyways between the houses facing the streets to the north and south where families actually entered and left their homes, making the front door, porch, walkway and gate at the edge of their lawn more ceremonial or formal than functional.  The Loreguard naturally knew about the alleys and kept a pair of guards at the intersection of every alley and street, but that meant very little to them, because there was plenty of open space between the alleys and the houses.  They would slip into the yard of the house at the end of the alley, get halfway between the alley and the street intersection further down, then slip across the street and over the fence on the other side under the safety of an illusion that made both of them appear to be a single mouse.

      It was a major strain for Kyven to conceal both of them under such a tiny illusion, because in actuality such small illusions were much harder to maintain than large ones when he had so much area to render invisible by means of the fact that to the illusion, that space was not filled.  But it did just that, it made them appear to be a mouse, and a mouse was a very hard thing to see from a quarter block away on a dark night.

      It took them about an hour to get to the walled compound that was the general’s house.  It was on the far side of the block from the guild of chandlers, and just two blocks away was the guild of crystal brokers…and that was another curious thing they’d discovered that day.  It seemed that the Loremasters had shut down the brokers, over what the crystalcutter’s guild said was a matter of formal inquiry, and the brokers would all be open either tomorrow or the day after.  Kyven suspected wasn’t entirely sure what they were up to, because he doubted that they’d gotten that perfect crystal from Avannar, and it was something he’d have to investigate later, when he had the time.

      They paused just across the street from the compound as Kyven both melted into the shadows and covered Lightfoot in the illusion, then he scanned the compound with spirit sight, taking stock of the place.  He saw several magical blooms inside that marked alchemical devices, and saw twelve guards moving around.  Several humans were up on the second floor of the nice house, reclining; they were asleep or laying down.  The main gate and the walls of the compound glowed with faint magical radiance that he had to peer through to see those behind it, telling him that the wall and gate were alchemical in nature, but he couldn’t tell what function they possessed.

      “Well?” Lightfoot whispered.

      “Twelve guards.  Six static, six roaming.  The walls are alchemical.  Several alchemical devices inside the house, but they look like appliances, not weapons or alarms.  There are several sleeping figures on the second floor with a single human standing watch near where I think the stairs are,” he reported in a bare whisper as he strained his eyes to look towards the greenhouse.  “Three forms sleeping behind the greenhouse.  The man’s Arcans.”

      “Where?”

      He knew Lightfoot enough to understand what she didn’t say along with what she said.  “We should jump the wall behind the greenhouse,” he whispered back.  “We can eliminate two static guard positions from behind and then ambush the others as we move forward.  Remember, the further you get from me, the harder it is for me to hold that disguise, so try to stay close.  Ready?”

      She nodded.  “Let’s go.”

      Getting past the wall wasn’t that hard for two Arcans as physically fit as Kyven and Lightfoot.  Simply put, they jumped the eight rod tall wall, clearing it completely and without touching it.  They landed soundlessly on the lush, thick, well-maintained grass of the lawn between the wall and the shack holding the Arcans, then both of them dropped down to all fours and slinked forward on utterly silent hands and feet.  They ghosted past the shack and the greenhouse, and came up to a very ornate pair of double glass-paned doors that led from a lavishly appointed patio into what looked like a musical conservatory within the house, holding a harpsichord, a harp, and a Eusican plava, a series of small metal bars of escalating sizes lined up on a horizontal stand that were struck by small wooden mallets to produce chiming notes.  Kyven pointed to the far door, then held up two fingers to denote that that was a guard position.  Lightfoot nodded as she slinked up to the door, rose up onto her feet, and produce a couple of small probes from her belt.  Those were her lockpicks, and she went to work on the door, her little probes making very faint sounds as she worked them into the lock.  Her clawed fingers moved with delicate precision, then she twisted her tools in the lock, which made it turn, unlocking the door.  Kyven nodded as she slowly put her hand on the door, and Kyven channeled silence on the door to prevent it from making any noise as it was opened.

      Kyven entered first, padding in on all fours, advancing on the door leading from the room, which glowed with a very faint magical aura.  The door itself was alchemical in nature, and it was his turn to do his work.  He put his hand on the door and opened himself to the crystal hidden within the wood-paneled door, which was framed with bronze and tin that formed the alchemical device.  He siphoned off the power of the crystal, draining it into himself, and holding that power inside himself to use to power magical spells if needs be, spells that would not tire him, would instead use up the energy he absorbed.  He nodded to the cat and rose up onto his feet as he channeled silence over the door, then pointed to each side of the frame deliberately, warning her where the guards were.  She nodded, then held up her hand, showing all five fingers.  She then tucked one in, and he realized she was counting down.

      He followed her count.  When she hit zero, he opened the door slowly, peering through the crack to see the side and partial back of a Loreguard, where he stood beside the door that was at the end of a passageway.  Lightfoot slinked under him as he creaked the door open wider, then she lunged with amazing speed even as he lunged forward and turned to get the other guard.  Lightfoot drove her claws into the man’s throat, and all he made was a gurgling sound as he collapsed under her lighter weight as she all but pounced on him.  The other man started in surprise, but that moment of surprise prevented him from calling out or raising an alarm as Kyven’s clawed hand closed around his throat.  Kyven was a Shaman, so he had been physically conditioned for muscular power, and that power crushed the man’s throat.  He pushed the man down and pinned his legs to the floor as his face turned blue and he squirmed and convulsed out the last of his life, and then his body went limp and a thin, reedy sigh managed to escape his crushed windpipe.

      The attack took less than twenty seconds, and the two guards died silently.  Kyven and Lightfoot dragged the bodies into the conservatory, and Kyven stripped his victim of his shockrod, pistol, and his alchemical talking device, which was how the guards communicated with one another.   Lightfoot took the other guard’s shockrod and pistol as well, attaching their holsters to her belt to join the shockrod and pistol she commonly carried.

      “You’re amassing quite a collection there, Lightfoot,” he whispered as he pulled a cover from the back of a chair, then advanced to the door and wiped up the blood from Lightfoot’s kill that was smeared on the floor.  Two missing guards wouldn’t raise an instant alarm as would a bloodstain where the guards were supposed to be.

      “One pistol, one shot.  Two pistols, two shots,” she murmured.  “Ready?”

      “Let’s go.”

      With Kyven guiding them, the two of them systematically cleared the first floor of guards.  They killed them all, by either ambushing the static positions or laying in wait for the roamers.   They moved both quietly and quickly, killing guards before the roamers realized that men were missing, then killing those roamers when they moved towards where the static guards should have been.  Kyven did not use Shaman magic to kill, relying instead on his claws and his Arcan strength.  The entire process took only about ten minutes, when they killed the two guards stationed at the base of the stairs, whom they had saved for last just in case someone upstairs got up and happened to glance down the stairs as they moved about.  There were two guards left, upstairs, as was the general and his sleeping family.

      “What’s going on down there?” a voice came over his talker, even as they heard the chimes of a clock upstairs announce that it was three in the morning.  “Price, you missed the check-in…and the rest of you jesters don’t have to wait for him to go first!”

      “Quickly,” Lightfoot said in a bare whisper.

      He knew she was right.  When nobody answered that guard, he was going to sound an alarm.  They had to get to him and kill him before he did something that brought every patrol of Loreguard in the New City down on the house.  The two of them ghosted up the stairs on all fours, until they heard both the voice making the call and the call through their talkers.  “Where are--who’s coming up the stairs without announcing?” he barked.  Kyven’s eyes ferreted out the man in a room near the stair landing, which hid the stairwell from the room by a wall.  He pointed in that direction as they came up onto the carpet of the second floor, then slinked silently up to the door holding the last two guards.  They were sitting at a table, both facing the door.  He held up two fingers to Lightfoot.  “Facing the door.”

      “Yours,” she breathed, slinking back a step.

      He knew what she meant, and knew she was right.  Centering himself, bringing the spell clearly to mind, he rose up on his legs and took hold of the doorknob, started to very slowly turn it so he could push the door open suddenly…and found it locked.

      “Locked,” he whispered.

      “Silence it,” Lightfoot ordered as she replaced him in front of the door and withdrew her thieving tools from her belt.  He did so, silencing the lock so she could pick it without the sound alerting those within, but those within were getting anxious.  “Someone report in!” came the voice over the talker.  One of them stood up, and the other reached for something at his waist, something Kyven couldn’t see, but the way he was holding it hinted that it was a pistol.  They were smart enough not to use alchemical weapons against a suspected Shaman.  He looked closer, and realized that there was a darkness just in front of the man’s hand, and he realized that there was a sliver of black crystal loaded into that pistol.  That meant that it would kill whatever it hit instantly, even if it just barely grazed a finger.

      That would make this tricky.

      Lightfoot finished with the lock and sidestepped out of the way, and Kyven decided to just go for it.  He silenced the entire door and pushed it open just enough to allow him to put his hand through, and give him a line of sight to both men.  They were sitting at the table, and neither of them had noticed the door open because it made no sound.  The one holding the pistol did look up as the door opened wide enough for Kyven to see him, and he reacted immediately and with surprising swiftness, raising his pistol at the opening door.

      But he was too late.  Kyven channeled a withering blast of cold from his hand, a cold that rampaged into the room and slammed into the two men.  Both of the men, the pistol, the desk, the chairs, even the carpet under them, all rimed over with a bluish frost, and both men were literally frozen in mid-movement, the pistol-wielder frozen literally in the act of pulling the trigger.

      “Close,” Lightfoot breathed as she looked in.

      “Take the shooter’s pistol, it has a black crystal bullet,” he whispered, looking at the door past the men, which was the door to the general’s bedroom.  The room they were in was a combination parlor and office of sorts, with a writing desk and shelves on one side, the chairs and tables placed deliberately in the middle of the room, and a pair of couches near a hearth on the other.  “Ransack the desk and shelves, look for any official documents.  I’ll go pay a visit to the general.  When you’re done, stand in front of the door and wave until you get my attention, but don’t come in.  I don’t want him to see you.”

      “Why?”

      “Because I’m keeping him alive.”

      “Why?”

      “To feed false information to the Loremasters,” he said with a wolfish smile.  “I’ll load him up with some information that’ll send the Loremasters running in the wrong direction, which’ll help everyone else.  When you signal me, be ready to run like hell.  We have to make it look believable that he survived the attack on him.”

      She nodded simply, then advanced on the frozen man.  Instead of trying to wrest the pistol out of the man’s frozen hand, she simply broke the man’s hand off at the wrist and started working on breaking the packing wad from the breech of the pistol to free the bullet behind it, using one of her little probes because she knew better than to touch that bullet with her bare hand.

      The bedroom beyond was fitting of a high-ranking member of the military.  It was richly appointed but not lavish, with elegant furniture of exceeding quality but also of practical use.  Rich velvet curtains hung from the corners of the four-poster bed, curtains drawn to let air flow in the summer night, drawing in through an open window and circulated by a slow-turning fan on the ceiling, an alchemical device that circulated the warm summer air.  The room was large and spacious, the furniture not detracting from that feeling of space.  There were two figures in the bed, a middle-aged woman with a slightly plump figure and a grizzled, gray-haired man.  General Bren Fourpost, commander of all Loreguard forces in the Free Territories.

      A hand to the general’s mouth snapped him awake in a heartbeat, and his eyes widened when he stared up into the glowing eyes of a Shaman.  “Wake your wife and she dies,” Kyven breathed in a very low whisper.  “Get up.”

      The general moved with quiet and slow care, sliding out from under the covers and slowly gaining his feet, looking fearfully at Kyven while glancing towards his wife.  Kyven channeled silence over the woman to keep her oblivious to the sounds of the room, then dragged the general to the padded chair in front of a vanity and pushed him into it.  “I placed a spell over your wife so our talk won’t disturb her.  I’ve already ransacked your office out there, but now I want to see if what I read matches up with what you know.  So, now, you and me are going to have a little chat, General,” Kyven told him.  “Your honesty ensures that when I leave here, your family is still alive.  Every time you lie to me, you lose someone.  When you run out of family to die in your place, it will be your turn with your next lie.  I know you’re a brave man, General, and would willingly sacrifice yourself for your family.  But remember, you’ll die last.  The first to be killed will be your youngest son, then we’ll just work our way up the ages until we get to you.  So, you can die nobly for the Loremasters, but you’ll take your entire family with you.”

      “I knew you Arcans were animals,” he spat.

      “We are what the humans made of us, General,” Kyven said simply.  “If you hate my barbarism, blame the humans who walk down the street wearing the skins and fur of my people as clothing, or force my people to fight each other to the death for their amusement.  You hold no value for the lives of my people, so don’t expect me to have much value for the lives of yours.”

      The general glared at him, but said nothing.

      “Now, there’s an awfully large force of Loreguard massing in Riyan.  I’m mightily curious to know why they’re there, and what they’re going to be doing.  Your Loremasters would have no earthly reason to spend the chits to raise an army of that size without having a purpose in mind for them.  I believe that it might even be a breach of the treaties the Loremasters have with the kingdoms of Noraam.”

      “Why would a Shaman want to know that?” he hissed.

      “Because I’m being well paid to be curious, General,” he answered smoothly.  “I think you know you won’t live to see the sunrise, so I may as well be honest with you.  Phion managed to lure me into a meeting with them, because they unearthed a cell of the Masked, and that cell summoned me.  But instead of attacking me or killing me, they instead negotiated with me, human.  They offered me a very lucrative deal to hire my services.”

      “Liar!  No Shaman would work for humans!”

      “When Phion promised to free a number of my people equal to the number of Arcans in slavery in Phion in return for my assistance, yes, I would work for humans, General,” he said simply.  “The spirits deemed it a fair bargain and agreed to allow me to make it.  They already carried through on their side of our agreement, and so now I carry through with mine.  They have been buying Arcans and freeing them…which is why the Arcan markets have gone dry.  Phion has done a good job hiding the fact that they’re buying all the Arcans, and I made sure their activities won’t be discovered.  The Phioni buy the Arcans, then let them go.  I’ve seen documented evidence they’re doing it, which was the signal to me that they have honored their word, and now I honor mine.  I invaded the Loremaster building and destroyed the evidence the Loremasters were massing about Arcans being bought to hide Phion’s involvement, and now that Phion is protected, I’m going about finding out what they’re most interested to know.  So, in return for my services, I have freed tens of thousands of my people, who I hope will stay away from humans and remain free for the rest of their lives.”

      The general’s face turned pensive, and then stony.  He saw a sliver of possibility in Kyven’s deception.  He didn’t believe it completely, Kyven could see that, but it was just plausible enough for the general to accept it for the moment.

      “So, if I seem unnaturally curious about Loremaster troop movements, at least now you know why.  And you will answer the question,” he prompted in a neutral voice, yet dripping with veiled threat.  “Why are the Loremasters massing an army near Riyan that they have no legal right to raise?  What purpose will it serve?  And when will it serve that purpose?”

      The general gave him a long, searching look, no doubt weighing Kyven’s threat to kill his youngest son against his loyalty to the Loremasters.  “That army isn’t under my command,” he answered.  “It’s under the command of General Abram Bell, High Adjunct to the Circle.  I haven’t been in the meetings about exactly what the army is going to do, I can only tell you what I’ve heard in rumor and through my own briefings.”

      “Go on,” Kyven prompted, sitting easily on a high-backed chair near the general’s chair, turning it around so the back faced the general and leaning into it, leaning his forearms on the back of the chair easily.  The casual, relaxed posture didn’t give the general any courage to make an escape.  He would know much more about Shaman than the average man, so he would know that Kyven could kill him without moving a single muscle.  So long as Kyven’s eyes glowed, the general knew that the Shaman could snuff out his life in an instant.  Both of them glanced towards the bed when the woman shifted, turning on her side, and that made the general breathe a sigh of relief.

      “My own orders tell me that something major is about to happen out in the mining districts,” he began.  “I’ve had to draw up a troop disbursal plan and a plan of action for those troops through all the mining villages, but focused specifically on Atan, Harpan, and Two Rivers.  The forces are supposed to defend the villages.  I’ve been ordered to draw up plans to fortify each village against possible attack and secure supply and communication lines between each village and Avannar, as well as with each other.  But I haven’t been told who is going to doing the attacking,” he fretted.  “Though if the Phioni hired you, maybe now I know where the attack’s coming from.”

      “We’re not here to dwell on that kind of conjecture, General,” Kyven said calmly.

      “The plans are all done and submitted and approved,” the man continued.  “The first elements are scheduled to deploy in two weeks, on the first of July.  Advance elements of engineers and alchemists to begin surveys and start construction on fortifications.”

      “And when do the troops arrive in force?”

      “Through mid-July,” he answered.  “Since we can’t find Arcan labor, the soldiers themselves are going to be doing the majority of the work shoring up the defenses.”

      “Why, the Loremasters own thousands of Arcans, General.  Whyever can’t you just use them?”

      “Because they’ve been claimed for another project,” he answered.  “Soldiers aren’t the only thing being massed in Riyan.  Just about every Arcan wearing a Loremaster collar is being moved to Riyan.  The High Kennelmaster told me so himself when I went there to try to get some Arcans for the construction.”

      Kyven tapped his muzzle absently.  That matched the information they had so far, that the Loremasters were desperately trying to find Arcans to use as slave labor.  It was only logical that the Arcans the Loremasters owned, which were scattered all over Noraam, were being centralized in preparation.  If they were pulling in all their Arcans, then they would be moving out soon.

      Very soon.

      “I think that army will be moving soon.  They won’t want to keep a bunch of Arcans in one place for long without using them, because they’re eating food and doing no work.  They’ll probably start moving out in a month,” the general noted, to which Kyven nodded in agreement.

      “And you have no idea where that army is going?”

      He shook his head.  “Whatever that army is going to do, it’s being kept quiet,” he said.  “There’s only rumor, and the rumor is a bit wild, but it seems logical to me.”

      “What’s the rumor?”

      “Word’s come through the vines that the geographers have been focusing on the unexplored territories west of the Smoke Mountains, and the current popular rumor is that the intelligence arm has uncovered a plan to attack Avannar by marching an army west of the Smoke Mountains, through one of the two passes, and then into the Free Territories.  It’s got some truth to it, if you ask me.  All the army would have to do is dig in along the passes and an enemy army would have a hell of a time getting through.  That would also explain why they need the Arcans, to build large-scale fortifications in the passes, and why the Loremasters raised such a big army.  Avannar is Loremaster territory, and we have the right to defend it.  It also explains why they had me draw up a defense plan for the Free Territories and focus on defending the mining districts.  That army can still march over the mountains in smaller groups that don’t need wagons and harass the settlements along the border, and it’s our duty to protect the Free Territories from invasion.”  He looked down.  “If the kingdoms are starting to send Shaman to Avannar, then maybe the rumors are true.”

      “What rumors?”

      “That some kingdoms are starting to drift from the teachings of the Trinity,” he declared, a bit defiantly.  “They’ve been saying for years that those dirty star-worshipping Eusicans have started coming over here and setting up underground churches.  If Phion really did make a deal with a Shaman, they’re not walkers of the path of the light,” he spat.

      “Your Loremasters were certainly fast enough to make a deal with those dirty star-worshipping Eusicans to get their hands on Briton rifles,” Kyven noted lightly.

      The General gave him a hard look.

      “Really, you think we don’t know what’s going on?” he asked with a light, scornful chuckle.  “It took me about a week to dig up most of the secrets of your Loremasters, human, there’s only a few of the better-kept ones I’m digging to uncover.  You have no idea what I’m capable of doing, General.  All your defenses in your headquarters were at least laughably amusing to me, and at most a minor inconvenience.  Watching your Loremasters run around like chickens with their heads cut off has been very entertaining,” Kyven said with a short, low laugh.  “The Shaman have avoided conflict with the humans because the spirits forbade it, to prevent conflict between humans and Arcans as the spirits sought some peaceful means to free the Arcans from human control.  For some reason far beyond me, the spirits care about the humans and don’t want a war between your people and mine.  But since war is coming to Noraam, the spirits have finally released the leash and are allowing us to act, to try to mitigate the loss of Arcans in the war to come.  I made a deal with the humans to save the lives of my people, human, because when the war starts, they will be the first casualties, even if the Arcans won’t be the direct target.”

      “War?  What war?”

      “The war your Loremasters are preparing for at this very moment, human,” Kyven said simply.  “You do understand exactly why Phion went to the extreme of getting me to work for them, don’t you?” he asked lightly.

      The general gave him a stunted look.

      “The crystals are running out, human,” he declared.  “There isn’t an endless supply of them.  Every day, fewer and fewer are coming up from the mines.  Phion knows it, the Loremasters know it, most of the kingdoms of Noraam either know it or suspect it.  The Loremasters are bolstering the defenses of the mining districts because, soon, those will be the last regions of Noraam that still produces what few crystals there are left.  So the Loremasters are preparing to hold them when the other kingdoms, knowing that without crystals they will be destroyed, invade the Free Territories to try to claim the last crystal-producing region on Noraam.  What do you think will happen to my people when your slavers can’t find crystals to put in their collars, human?  The spirits have sent me to try to save as many of my people as possible, so they allowed me to work for Phion.  Thanks to them, tens of thousands of my people who would have been slaughtered will now live.  That, I think, was a fair bargain between the Shaman and Phion.”

      Kyven let that sink in, leaning on the back of the chair.  “That’s why Phion hired me.  They want the mining villages of the Free Territories, human, because whoever controls those mines will literally control Noraam.  And now that we have confirmation that the Loremasters have sniffed out their intent and are moving an army out to repel the attack, odds are they’ll make their move before your Loreguard can take control of the region.  While your armies prepare to repel an invasion from the west, they’ll be blindsided by the invasion from the north.  Ironic, isn’t it?” Kyven chuckled.

      “You’re lying,” the general hissed.

      “Maybe.  On the other hand, maybe I enjoy watching you struggle with hearing what I have to say and knowing that it’s true, that all the rumors you’ve heard matches up with everything the Loremasters are doing, and now it makes sense once you fit that little piece of the puzzle into the frame.  The Loremasters are about to violate the treaties holding the Alliance together, human, by taking control of the mining districts, and they’ve raised an army to defend those mines from the other kingdoms of Noraam, not from some outside force.  They have no authority to do that, but yet that’s exactly what they’re having you do.  Not to protect them from an outside invasion, but to hold them for the Loremasters when the crystals dry up everywhere else.  You are preparing to break the word of your organization and be revealed as liars and backstabbers, General.  That is the honorable organization you serve.  So, let’s go over exactly when your soldiers are leaving, exactly what they’re going to be doing, where they’re going to do it, and we’ll go from there.”

      Kyven made the man talk for nearly an hour, giving Lightfoot time to ransack his office, as he made the man explain just how many men were going to what place, what they were going to do, and then when the rest of the soldiers would arrive and start fortifying the mining villages.  He kept the general talking until Lightfoot stood behind the door and waved vigorously, getting his attention.  She was ready.

      It was time for the last bit of deception.

      Carefully, Kyven built an illusion of himself in the exact pose in which he was in, then covered himself with it.  Then, with painstaking quiet, he got up and knelt down, getting down lower than his illusion as it peered steadily at the general, then scratched its face absently.  He got down on all fours and kept contact with the illusion with only his tail, getting well away from it, then he turned his attention to the bed.  The man’s wife was still sleeping there, and all it took was a little illusory bang in her ear, which only she could hear, to wake her up.

      “Bren, dear,” she said blearily, “the guards are making too much noise.”

      The illusion of Kyven stood up quickly, whirling towards the woman, who had sat up in bed and saw the Arcan.  She screamed, an ear-splitting, lusty scream, and Kyven’s illusion motioned a hand towards her, as if to execute her with magic.  The general moved with a speed deceptive for a man that old, his hand diving into a drawer of the vanity and coming out with a pistol with two barrels, and both loaded with black crystal shots.  As lightning swelled around Kyven’s hand, the man whirled that pistol at the illusion’s back and side and wasted not an instant pulling the trigger.  The gunshot echoed through the house, the bullet hitting the far wall and digging into the wood paneling, and the illusion pitched forward bonelessly to the floor.  The general jumped to his feet as the woman screamed again, holding the double-barreled pistol on the still form he could see on the floor.  Kyven melded with the shadows of the room and separated himself from the illusion, then stalked over to the door on silent hands and feet.  The general still held his pistol on the illusion, and when he moved to prod the illusion with his foot, Kyven had the illusion begin to smoke, black tendrils wafting up from the fur of the illusion.  The general recoiled, the woman screamed again, and then the illusion on the floor seemed to just dissolve into a fine, shadowy mist.  The general gaped as Kyven opened the door and slipped through it, then the hovering mist laughed in Kyven’s voice.  “You can’t kill a spirit, human,” the voice taunted, even as the mist evaporated, and the voice faded as if retreating to some far distance.  “I will return with the setting sun, and I will track you down and finish you and your family.  And spirits are eternal….”

      On the both sides of the door, all hell broke loose.  The general tried to open the door and found it stuck, so he ran to the window and started bellowing into the dark predawn, shouting to arouse the interest of a street patrol.  On the other side of the door, Kyven and Lightfoot were racing like mad through the house.  They had to be away from the house before it was surrounded by patrols of Loreguard.  Lightfoot was carrying a satchel full of papers, the plunder from the house, and Kyven hovered over her and her bounty as they bounded down the stairs and then back to the conservatory, back to the open door.  They rushed through it just after Lightfoot locked the door so they wouldn’t know exactly where and how they had gained entry, then they bounded across the neatly manicured lawn and jumped the wall, blindly leaping over it and into the street beyond.  There could have been an army of Loreguard there waiting for them, but thank the spirits, the street was empty and deserted…but the sound of boots rushing towards them was audible on both sides of the street.  Kyven grabbed hold of Lightfoot and pulled her towards the fence encompassing the manor across the street, and with an urging hand on her backside, sent her over the fence.  He clambered up it himself, dropped to the grass beside her, put his arm around her, and covered both of them in an illusion of a small redpetal bush, just as a patrol of Loreguard rushed towards the compound.  Lightfoot remained quiet and still as the ten men ran by and then around the corner towards the gate into the compound, then a pair of mounted men galloped up and nearly made their horses fall trying to navigate the corner.  When both groups were out of sight, he released the cat, turned, and bolted towards the far side of the yard, where a fence separated the lawn from the alley that bisected the block.

      “Nervous,” Lightfoot mused in a whisper as they jumped the fence of the far side, dashed across the alleyway, and then went over the next fence.

      “No, now it gets nervous,” he said as he pulled her back into the alley and turned his back to her.  “On my back, and for the love of the spirits, do not let go for any reason,” he warned.

      She nodded and climbed up onto his back, then wedged the satchel in between them.  She took firm grip of him around his chest as her legs wrapped around his waist, and he dropped down onto all fours even as he built an illusion of a Loreguard man and a dappled mare horse that almost exactly resembled the man and horse that had galloped by them.  The horse turned as the man atop it urged it aside with the reins, then the man kicked the horse and spurred it a gallop, but under that illusion, Kyven turned his nose towards the river, settled himself to get Lightfoot in a position where he could run, then he bounded off right down the middle of the street once he turned out of the alleyway.  The illusory sound of a horse’s shod hooves clapping on the stones of the street echoed up and down as Kyven loped right down the street towards a static checkpoint.  The men at the checkpoint moved to intercept the horse, but Kyven shimmied to the side.  To those men, it looked as if the rider was reining his horse to go around them, and then the man shouted at the top of his lungs, “General Fourpost’s house was attacked!  Half of you stay, half of you get there now!  Now, you lazy asses!” the man thundered as the horse barged past the checkpoint and galloped down the street towards Beggar’s Bridge.

      “Cute,” Lightfoot intoned, her muzzle near his ear.

      “Men often look for guidance in a time of confusion,” Kyven said sagely as another checkpoint came into view ahead.

      The lone rider charged through the southern half of New Avannar, screaming the alert at the top of his lungs, charging past checkpoint after checkpoint, patrol after patrol.  The men at first thought to stop him, but as they heard him shouting the alarm, they allowed him to pass so he could continue spreading the word, even as a small army of Loreguard converged on the compound of General Bren Fourpost.  No checkpoint dared stop the rider as he roused the city, to the point where the checkpoints at both sides of Beggar’s Bridge actually got out of his way and allowed him to pass, and they thought nothing of it as the horse turned after it came off the bridge and rode straight towards the bridge leading to the Loremasters’ headquarters.

      They would have stopped to think, however, when the horse turned at Silver Street, which angled into Chain Way.  Silver Street wasn’t straight, it was one of the more crooked streets in Old Avannar, where the checkpoints at either side of a block couldn’t see each other at several points between the river and Chain Way.  The rider charged down Silver Street, to the surprise of the checkpoint of Silver Street and River Boulevard, but the checkpoint at the intersection of Silver Street and Noble Street never saw the horse and rider.

      They saw nothing.

      Kyven and Lightfoot ducked into a narrow gap between two old sandstone buildings, and then the lithe cat pulled up an iron grate at the end of that gap.  “That smells awful,” Kyven complained.

      “It gets worse.  In,” she commanded.

      And so, as they made their way to New Avannar over the rooftops, they made their way back home through the sewers.  The sewers of Old Avannar were actually extremely dangerous, because they were dilapidated, narrow, twisting, and were prone to flooding depending on the tides.  They were far too dangerous to use with regularity, but salty thieves like Shario knew the paths of the sewers and knew when they were safe to travel, when the tide was low…and Shario had taught Lightfoot well.  Despite the city being on the river and not the sea, the high tide did back the river up and raise its level, and when that happened, many of the sewers in Old Avannar flooded.  It was a period of lowering tide, so the water in the sewers was nearly knee deep for Lightfoot, and shin deep for Kyven, but the water was flowing steadily as it drained back out into the river.  It wasn’t the danger of flooding that made the sewers dangerous, it was the Ratrags.  Ratrags were monsters about three times the size of a sewer rat, the size of a small dog, who were uniquely adapted to living in the sewers of Avannar…and were in fact found nowhere else in the world.  They could breathe both air and water, and lived off garbage and anything unfortunate enough to get washed down into the tunnels.  A Ratrag by itself wasn’t capable of killing a man unless they took the man by surprise, but the problem was that they moved in packs, and a pack of Ratrags could kill almost anything.  The sewers were their domain, and a man gambled with his life any time he entered their territory.  The Ratrags were never, ever seen outside of the tunnels, and that was why the city tolerated them.  They were hairless and had very sensitive, slimy skin, almost like a slug, they died quickly if their skin dried out, and they were severely allergic to sunlight, to the point where a Ratrag exposed to sunlight died within a matter of minutes.  Because they couldn’t live long out of the water, and sunlight could kill them, they would not leave the safe confines of their narrow, wet tunnels, even when it rained; they seemed to understand that rain was only temporary, and if the rain stopped while they were out of their tunnels, they might be in trouble if they couldn’t get back to the sewers before the water drained away or evaporated, or if the clouds moved on and the sun came out.  Like the rats from which they magically evolved, Ratrags were rather clever creatures.

      Lightfoot didn’t lead them far through the sewers, because they were just too dangerous.  It was impossible to travel the rooftops all the way home because they were on the wrong side of Chain Way, and that was as far as the cat took them through the sewers.  The sewer tunnels were narrow and crooked, as crooked as the streets above, and they went up, and down, waded through waist-high filthy water, then climbed a ladder to a grate that opened in an alley.  “Chain Way,” Lightfoot whispered, pointing down the alley.  “That way,” she added, pointing up the building beside them.

      “Not yet,” he said.  He used the spell he’d learned in Haven that ejected all foreign matter and water from his fur, which left it clean, shiny, and not smelling like an open cesspool.  He duplicated the spell for Lightfoot, which left her similarly clean.  “You know she’d absolutely kill us if we came home smelling like that,” he whispered in explanation.

      Lightfoot gave him a slightly amused look, then she started up the wooden beam that formed the corner of the building beside them.  Kyven replaced the grate and looked up to see her climbing, and when her tail ghosted out from her, it revealed Lightfoot’s genitals.  “At least I’ll love the view as I climb,” he mused quietly as he started up after her.

      Once they were on the rooftops, both of them felt much safer.  The Loreguard weren’t up here, and their path was clear.  They moved with confident stealth along the rooftops, jumping from roof to roof, making no sound even as Loreguard patrolled the streets right under them.  They did, however, slow to a stop and take cover as something Kyven had heard about but had never seen appeared southeast of them and moved in an angle towards them, a flying machine.  It was the size of a buggy, with two narrow seats and a pair of long, fluttering wings that beat at the air in a droning sound, like a dragonfly’s wings.  The flying machines were dreadfully expensive to build and consumed crystals at a tremendous rate, making them both expensive to buy and also to operate, but they offered someone an advantage far over anyone else.  Kyven and Lightfoot huddled under the eaves of a window and covered by an illusion of that very window as the flying device fluttered to within a block of them, as magical lights scanned the city below as it moved steadily north.

      “I think they’re mad,” Lightfoot whispered as the flying device fluttered out of sight.

      “You think?” he asked with a chuckle, letting her go and dismissing the illusion.

      It took them about ten more minutes to get home, and they found the attic window open and waiting for them.  Lightfoot slipped in first, and Kyven slinked in after her.  They padded down the narrow stairs to the second floor, and found Clover in the hallway, her hand reaching for the door as Lightfoot opened it.  “Thank the spirits!” she said in relief.  “How did it go?”

      “Well,” Lightfoot noted, holding up the satchel.

      “Very smooth,” Kyven told her.  “Let’s go to the vault and go through this stuff.”

      Down in the secret room, Kyven started to sort through the papers as he explained what happened.  “I got a good amount out of the general that more or less validates the guesses we made,” he surmised.  “And I laid a false trail with him that should make the Loremasters look in the wrong direction long enough to give Shario and his friends time they need.”

      “What did you do?”

      “Pinned my attacks and the Arcan buying to Phion,” he answered.  “I claimed the Phioni exchanged releasing thousands of Arcans in exchange for me coming to Avannar and investigating the Loremasters and their clandestine activities, and told him the Phioni were moving to invade the mining villages in the Free Territories because they know that the crystals are almost gone.  The general didn’t believe half of it, but there was just enough plausibility to my story to force them to investigate it.  While they’re busy aggravating the fuck out of the Phioni, the Flaurens should have a nice open field.”  He took one paper with the Loremaster seal on it and scanned it.  “And these papers will hopefully substantiate what the general told me.  But, he had a lot of motivation to tell the truth.”

      “What did you threaten to do to him?” Clover asked lightly.

      “To him, nothing.  I threatened to murder his youngest child if he lied to me, and kill the next oldest for every subsequent lie, until he was the only one left.  He took me seriously.”

      “He was convincing,” Lightfoot murmured.  “I heard him through the door.”

      “I am a Shaman of guile and deceit, Lightfoot,” Kyven chuckled.  “If I couldn’t lie convincingly, my totem would have nothing to do with me.”  He frowned.  “The general said that the first advance elements of the occupational forces are leaving for the mining villages in two weeks,” he told Clover.  “Surveyors and engineers.  The soldiers are supposed to arrive a week later, and they’re the ones that’ll be doing most of the work fortifying the villages.  So that’s the window, sister.  The Masked have to move their routes away from the mining villages within two weeks.”

      “Any word on Deep River?”

      He shook his head.  “The Loremasters are keeping the plans for the army away from the rest of the Loreguard,” he explained.  “The general didn’t know their plans, but he heard rumors that were pretty accurate.  He knows through rumor that the army is marching into the forests west of the Smoke Mountains, and since the Loremasters are taking every Arcan they own and sending them to Riyan right now, he’s sure that they’ll be moving very soon.”

      “They must, if they want to march across the mountains, find a site, and dig in to prepare for winter,” she nodded.  “An army on horseback is one thing, but an army this size will march, and so they must give themselves at least two months to get to Deep River, if that is where they intend to bunker down for the winter.”

      “That’s a long time.”

      “Brother, an army does not go fast,” she told him.  “So many men pitching tents every night, packing up every morning, then organizing and marching, then stops for rest and to eat, that doesn’t actually give them much time to move.  It’s about five hundred minars from Riyan to Deep River if they go in a straight line, but they can’t do that.  An army of that size needs supplies, and those supplies will be on wagons…and there is no way they could run wagons across the Smoke Mountains from Riyan to Deep River without wasting months finding a navigable path through the mountains and clearing a road.  They’ll march the army north to Two Rivers, then down the Deep River valley to Deep River, which is a trip of nearly eight hundred minars, and use the river to ferry supplies back and forth from Two Rivers to Deep River.  Given that the army will only move about twelve to fifteen minars a day, that’s about two months.”

      “Could they load up their troops on boats and sail them from Two Rivers?” Kyven asked.

      “They could, and probably will, with some of their men, to get them to Deep River fast and have them start securing the town.  But that’s too many men for the very few boats that sail that river.  The bulk of the army will march, brother.”

      “Well, the letter said they wanted to build their new kingdom in the Snake River valley,” Kyven mused.  “It’s a good five hundred more minars from Deep River to where it drains into the Great Snake River.”

      “Our scouts have seen no road building through the south pass, so unless they intend to carry everything they need on the backs of their soldiers, they have to be planning to use the river to move their goods, and that means Two Rivers and Deep River,” Clover noted.  “That or up the Snake River from Nurys and Alexton.”

      “Well, let’s find out,” Kyven said, handing Clover a sheaf of papers.

      They rifled through the general’s papers until well after dawn, and the papers weren’t much more illuminating, but they did corroborate most of what the general told him and proved the general hadn’t been lying.  They found the general’s very deployment plans in the papers, detailing exactly where his men were to go and what they were to do, in a systematic, logical, and practical deployment to every mining town between Rokan and Two Rivers, where they would build fortifications around both the villages and the mines, then bunker down behind their fortifications and defend the villages and the mines against what the papers said were simply any and all hostile forces.  Most of the papers were just detailed orders and reports from the various army elements as they communicated their status and progress in their mission, showing that the armies that intended to occupy the mining areas were ready to begin the operation.  Everything was planned out from troop locations to supply routes, even schedules of supply trains that would restock the supplies of the Loreguard armies.  General Fourpost was efficient and very thorough, going by his plan and his execution of that plan, which was his responsibility.

      By the time Patches brought them some breakfast, they had gone through all the papers and were discussing the information…which didn’t take long.  Everything they had learned was actually nothing new, it was just concrete evidence that their theories and assumptions had been correct.  The only new information they had were the detailed plans of deployment, which would not certainly change because they didn’t hide the fact that they had ransacked the general’s office, and all his papers had been stolen.

      It was what Kyven left behind that they discussed more than anything else.  They would suspect he was lying, but there was just enough truth salted into those lies to make the Loremasters bite, and Kyven knew it.  Every lie he told had a small seed of truth inside it, and while the General wouldn’t know where those seeds were, the general’s Councilor overseers would know where the truth was, and that truth would reinforce the lies and force them to take those lies at face value until they could actively prove they were false.  They would hear that the hated Shaman knew their secret, that they were moving to take over Noraam because of the impending shortage of crystals, but that wasn’t the true secret…but it touched on their deepest secrets in a way that would make them very uncomfortable and wary.  They would come down on Phion like an angry mother-in-law if only because there was just enough in what the general would report Kyven said for them to take a close look at the city-state some two hundred minars north of Avannar.  Kyven’s deception was pretty encompassing, bringing the activities of the seemingly unstoppable Shaman in Avannar and the disappearance of Arcans from the kennels together in a patchwork quilt that, from a distance, did look like it all fit together in a way that made a kind of sense.  They would be desperate to learn just what Phion knew, to see which pieces fit and which were just laid over the quilt to make it look like they fit, and that would cause them to focus their attention northward for a couple of critical weeks.  They would investigate Phion if only to discount Kyven’s claims and separate the lies from the truth…and while they were looking north, the Flaurens would make their move in the south.  Kyven left more than just that, though.  His little trick at the end, making them think that he was somehow unkillable, would also throw them for a loop.

      But the main thing Kyven felt needed to be silently conveyed to the Loremasters was someone knew their secret, because he wanted them to sweat.  When word got back to them that Flaur was withdrawing from the alliance, he wanted them to worry just who was going to leave next, he wanted them to see enemies behind every tree on this side of the Smoke Mountains, enemies that they were not yet ready to face.  Until they had complete military control of the Smoke Mountain regions of the Free Territories, they needed the fiction of the alliance to hold to keep the kingdoms from attacking the Loremasters.  He wanted them to be so embroiled in maintaining the fiction of the alliance and struggling to quell Flaur that they couldn’t devote full time and attention to their activities west of the mountains, which would give the Arcans a chance to blindside them and hopefully deal them a swift, startling, and crushing blow that would shatter any attempt they made to establish a foothold in the Snake River or Deep River valleys.

      And when word got back to the human kingdoms on this side of the mountains that the Arcans were organized and had their own nation far to the west, he wanted them too worried about each other to focus on the Arcans.  If the Loremasters and Flaur were beating each other up on the piedmont plains south of Riyan, if other kingdoms withdrew from the alliance and declared war on the Loremasters because of their duplicity, that tied up the human war machines on this side of the mountains and kept them from banding together and attacking the Arcans to the west.  That kind of unbridled chaos was the perfect opportunity for the Shaman to invade the human lands of Noraam and free the Arcans, and take them home.

      About an hour after breakfast, they ended the conference.  Kyven was sleepy from being up most of the night, so he padded upstairs to take a nap.  Lightfoot came up with him, and he was a little surprised when she followed him into the room, and quite deliberately reached for the buckle of her belt.  “You sure we have the energy for that?” he asked with a chuckle.

      “Let’s find out,” she said, letting the belt fall to the floor.  Seeing her without that belt instigated an immediate reaction out of him.

      It turned out they did.  When Lightfoot wanted him, she was almost always ready, so there was very little in the way of foreplay.  It a matter of minutes, she was kneeling on the bed with him behind her, her tail shivering as he pushed into her.  She was her usual intense self despite both of them being a little sleepy, and as usual the only sound he elicited from her were soft, throaty growls as he kneaded her small breasts with his claws hands and thrust into her with growing urgency.  But, since both of them were tired, they didn’t last half as long as they usually did.  Lightfoot clenched around him after what seemed only a moment, and he held her tightly against him as she triggered his own climax, spending himself into her.  She panted to recover as he licked at the backs of her ears, then nuzzled her neck and cheek from behind.  “Was that what you wanted?” he breathed.

      “Yes, thanks,” she said breathlessly, keeping hold of his arms as she leaned forward, urging them both down to the bed.  “Like this,” she said, then she yawned.  “Again when we wake up.”

      “Of course, my sleek Lightfoot,” he breathed in her ear as he settled in on his side, keeping her back pressed against his chest and stomach.  “What man could say no to you?”

      “Bleeding ones,” she answered, which made him explode into laughter, his breath disturbing her wild shock of bone-white hair.

 

      They only slept a couple of hours, then enjoyed each other again before getting up, getting up to take stock in the reactions of the Loremasters to their attacks.  Kyven stayed close to the shop during the day, reading the reports sent by the Masked cell in town, as well as a few letters sent over by postboy by Shario.  The Masked cell had a few moles in the Loremaster organization, and the information they gleaned was shared with Kyven’s group.  Shario’s information, however, was much more interesting.  The Flaurens had already begun purging themselves of the Loremasters by doing it quietly, primarily by arresting or detaining the Loremasters stationed at the most remote Flauren villages.  By the time those Loremasters reached the main cities, the Flaurens would expel all Loremasters.  Their plans for the Loreguard were simple; they intended to march their armies and sail their navies and evict the Loreguard, by force if necessary.  Kyven and Clover digested this information and discussed it until well into the afternoon.  When it was clear Kyven would have no customers that day, he closed the shop and went out to the taverns and festhalls frequented by off-duty Loreguard and Loremasters.  Out there, he bought a few rounds of drinks, settled in, and listened.  And they didn’t disappoint him.  Just by sitting there and listening to half-drunk Loremasters and Loreguard, Kyven learned that the Loremasters were, to use a phrase, in a tizzy.  Lightfoot’s killing of the Councilor had put the upper echelons of the organization into an absolute uproar, because the evidence made it abundantly clear that he’d been murdered by a clawed Arcan.  The body had been savaged, his ten guards murdered by someone that had overpowered them physically and ripped them up with claws or broken bones or necks through sheer physical power, which were blatant indications that an Arcan had been the attacker.  But what was most mysterious at all, all alchemical attempts to divine the identity of the attacker had been defeated.

      Clearly, Clover’s owl spirit had a hand in that, covering Lightfoot’s tracks from a magical standpoint to prevent the Loremasters from using alchemy to gather clues.  The bargain, Kyven knew, was for the owl to protect them from discovery.  Most of the defenses the owl had placed were around the shop itself, but each of them had a touch, a mark of favor, then extended to them the same protection when they were outside.  The owl’s protection wouldn’t stop someone from seeing Lightfoot, but it seemed that protection did protect his fighting Arcan from being discovered using magic.  The protection on Kyven and Clover was much weaker than it was on the others, because he and she were Shaman, and were able to protect themselves.

      The murder of the Councilor had put the elite in a state of what could be called panic.  For the first time, they saw that they were just as much a target as the Loreguard grunt standing guard on a street corner, and that sense of personal involvement had caused them all to run to the safety of the Loremaster headquarters and triple the already heavy guard.  The murder of the Loremaster and the general at the bridge only solidified it, made it abundantly clear that the rulers of the Loremasters had been targeted…and what was interesting to Kyven was that they believed that it was a group doing it, not just a couple of people.  The rumors flying around was that some kingdom or government was attacking the Loremasters, and had somehow gained the cooperation of a Shaman, and now that group was attacking the Loremasters.

      That just played right into the story he told the general.  The Eusicans were highly prominent in the rumors, because they didn’t believe in the Trinity, and in many Eusican nations and kingdoms, it was illegal to keep Arcans as slaves…what few Arcans there were outside of Noraam.  Until just fifty years ago, no kingdom in Eusica would permit an Arcan within their borders.  Most nations in western Eusica followed a religion called the Followers of the Star, but it wasn’t literally worshipping the night sky.  That was just a metaphor, because their god’s title was translated into the guiding star in Noraavi.  Their religion forbade slavery, though it didn’t recognize Arcans as sentient beings.  Their reasoning was that Arcans were animals, very intelligent animals without souls, but their religion also said it was immoral to treat either man or animal as chattel, to use them or abuse them, and no man could force another to do a day’s labor without giving a day’s pay, and their High Prelate had decreed that since Arcans could perform tasks that only a human could perform, they therefore had to be compensated for performing a human’s work just like a human.  Their religious leader decided this because even though their religion classified Arcans as animals because Arcans had human-like intelligence far beyond any other animal, Arcans could comprehend their situation in ways no other animal could.  That human-like comprehension gave Arcans a unique status in the Eusican religion, more than an animal but less than a man, and it fit in with the religion’s strict teachings about being compassionate and kind to lesser creatures and animals.  Even animals raised to be slaughtered and eaten had to be treated kindly and well, and that slaughter had to be painless and humane.  They believed that an animal who died in pain caused the meat from that animal to become tainted with sin, and they would not touch it.  What they did was put the animal in a special barn filled with a gas that caused the animals to go to sleep, and then die peacefully in that sleep.  When a couple of Eusican nations changed their laws to allow Arcans to enter, to entice Noraavi merchants to set up shop, the Noraavi were shocked to find out that the Eusicans would allow them to bring their Arcans, and own those Arcans, but those Arcans were not permitted to perform slave labor.  If the merchants wanted to employ Arcans, they had to pay them for that work.  Even owned Arcans could not be forced to do labor without compensation, as per the tenets of the Eusican religion. That so shocked the Noraavi that they still to this day refused to open trade enclaves in any kingdom in Eusica.

      But, the Loremasters were right, up to a point.  There was a group attacking the Loremasters…just no group they would ever believe existed.

      The full measure of the rumor was thus:  they believed that there was a large group of agents from a Eusican country was in Avannar attacking the Loremasters to try to destabilize Noraam, which was the first step to Eusica taking over the kingdoms to gain access to the crystals, a resource that only existed in any real quantity on Noraam.  They believed that these Eusicans had somehow managed to find and enlist a Shaman, who was working with them because the Shaman foolishly believed that the Eusicans would treat the Arcans in a way immoral to the Trinity, which taught that Arcans were animals created for the sole reason to serve man in any capacity man so desired.

      It showed Kyven both the good and the bad of the effectiveness of the Shaman and the Arcans in hiding their true nature.  The Loremasters absolutely could not believe that Arcans were intelligent and sophisticated enough to perpetrate such an action, or at least lower-ranking Arcans.  More powerful Loremasters knew that the Shaman were in fact highly intelligent and very dangerous, but even they couldn’t comprehend something like Haven, where Arcans lived and governed themselves peacefully.  But when the average human did discover that Arcans were just as smart as humans, able to create their own society and function, the backlash would be severe.  Humans feared what they didn’t understand, and that fear most often turned to violence.

      It also showed that, at the moment, the lower-ranking Loremasters couldn’t believe that people in the Noraavi Alliance would ever back out of it.  Never one mention of Flaur in their rumors, nor of Phion, which told him that Kyven’s baiting of the general had yet to leak out of the upper echelons of their organization.

      Kyven returned to the shop well before sunset, only to find Clover packing a small pack in the vault.  “What are you up to?” he asked curiously.

      “I have been summoned by the spirits,” she told him.

      “Summoned?  What for?”

      “I am to meet a large element of Masked near Hamon, and attack the Briton frigate carrying the rifles before it can reach Stinger Bay.  The council and the spirits do not want those weapons to enter the field.”

      Kyven gasped.  “How?”

      “Some of the Masked are experienced sailors, and they have acquired a raker.  That should be fast enough to catch the frigate while still too far from land for the Loreguard or the Stinger Bay ships to respond.  The Britons have no exposure to Shaman, my brother.  Our orders are to capture the ship if possible and take the rifles and then sink it, or sink the ship and deny the rifles to the Loreguard if that’s not possible.  Capturing the ship will be dangerous, but if we can get those rifles for our people, then the risk is worth the result.  Either way, keeping them out of the hands of the Loreguard is what matters most.”

      “I…sister, I’ll feel, helpless without you here.”

      She gave him a light smile.  “I am not your mother, my brother,” she teased lightly.  “I have every confidence you’ll still be here when I get back.  You are clever and resourceful, and I’m sure that while I’m gone, you’ll be much more careful than usual.”

      “Damn right I will,” he said, coming up and nuzzling her, then pulling her into an embrace.  “But I’m more worried about you, sister.  Britons are supposed to be the finest sailors on the sea.  Any attack on their ship won’t be without risk.”

      “Cannons and rifles are no match for magic, my brother,” she told him.  “They won’t fire on us until I’m close enough for their weapons to mean nothing.  That, the Masked absolutely swear will happen, something about maritime law and custom dealing with ship to ship parley which we will admittedly be breaking.  But this is war now, brother, and there are no rules in war but one.  Win.”

      The idea of Clover not being with him was…it was terrifying.  He didn’t realize until that moment how much he depended on his sister, on her calm wisdom and her analytical mind, and on the reassuring comfort of her presence.  Though Kyven was technically the leader of their cell, Clover was the true ruler, because he acceded to her greater wisdom and she had a great say in every decision made.  She was his role model, everything a Shaman should be, wise and gentle and powerful, and he would feel both exposed and uncertain with her not there.

      But he would make it.  He would be much more careful without Clover being there, both because she was so important and also because without Clover it meant that the young ones would be defenseless when he wasn’t home.  Yes, until she came back, he would stay very, very close to the shop.

      He had no idea how it happened, or which of them started it, but one moment he was holding her, and the next she was bent over the table, her leather trousers around her feet, and Kyven was penetrating her while his clawed hands pushed under her shirt and grabbed her breasts.  He pushed fully into her and grabbed tight hold of her.  “Tell me you’ll be careful,” he whispered.  “Tell me you’ll come home safely.”

      “With you saying goodbye like this, how could I not?” she asked with a light chuckle that was drowned out by a low, deep-throated growl of pleasure as she leaned on her hands and allowed Kyven to have his way with her…and he didn’t disappoint.  He was both urgent and mindful that he was giving her her last episode with him until she came home, so he made sure that it was her pleasure that mattered most in their sexual interlude.  He could feel her trembling against him as he did everything he knew she liked, from gripping her shoulders to biting at her ears lightly to making love to her with powerful yet measured strokes that shook the table but didn’t bounce her around.  He worked her up to a powerful climax that made her dig furrows in the table with her short claws as she clenched around him in a way that almost felt like she was joining to him, and he gripped her tightly as that incited his own climax.  He panted into her hair as she growled and groaned in equal measure, then collapsed to her elbows on the table.  “By the spirits, my brother, that was one hell of a way to send me off,” she panted disjointedly.  “You’re tempting me to take you upstairs and do that again.”

      “I would if I could keep you here, but the spirits have called you,” he said regrettably.  “You are needed, sister, by someone who needs you more than I do.  You and me are the only Shaman east of the Smoke Mountains, and I can’t leave Avannar.  You’re the only one that can do it.”

      “I know.  But I promise you, my brother, I’ll be careful.  And I’ll be home soon.  A week at the most is how long I’ll be gone.  The Masked knows exactly when that ship is supposed to arrive and which direction it’s coming from.  I’ll be literally going through Hamon and straight to the ship, then we set sail.  We’ll intercept it and sink it, then I’ll be right back here.”

      “And I’ll be waiting for you.”

      “You’ve definitely determined what we’re doing first when I get back,” she said impishly, looking back at him as she wiggled her bottom slightly.  The shifting was actually a little painful for him, and he winced slightly and grabbed tighter hold of her.

      “Stop that, or you won’t get it when you get back.”

      She laughed lightly.  “Just be careful, my brother.  Without me here to rein in your wilder notions, I’ll worry about you.”

      “I may not leave the shop until you get back,” he grunted, which made her laugh for some odd reason.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    3      5

Chapter 4

 

      He never expected to feel like this.

      It was a funny thing that sometimes you didn’t understand exactly how one felt about someone else until that other person was no longer there.  Clover had left two days ago, and ever since she slipped out of the house in the dead of night and headed for Hamon, which was across the inlet of the Great Blue Bay from Stinger Bay at the very tip of the peninsula that formed the northern edge of the bay, Kyven had felt…unsettled.  Clover was an integral part of his life, and without her there, he was feeling the normal smooth action of the cogs and gears of his life grinding to a halt.  She was his casual lover in the way of Arcans, giving her the comfort and physical pleasure she enjoyed.  She was also his mentor and his role model.  She was a real Shaman, a true Shaman, a woman settled into her role and who was confident and capable.  Kyven had Shaman training, but he knew that he hadn’t learned nearly as much as other Shaman knew.  He was nowhere near as wise as Clover, or any other Shaman.  The fox spirit had rushed his training because of the seriousness of the situation, and in that respect, he could not fault her.  Things were coming to a head, and the fox needed him, and needed him right now.  She didn’t have time to train him as thoroughly as she probably would have any other time.  Lacking the training, he had looked up to Clover as what he should be, the model of a true Shaman, and he tried to emulate her whenever possible.  He knew he would never quite match her maternal nature, because that was her more than being a Shaman, but in other ways, he tried to be as much like Clover as possible.

      She had certainly not discouraged him from that.  Their talks at night were long and involved, and in a way, she had taken over from the fox to teach him those things the fox either could not or would not.  But instead of teaching him magic or harsh lessons, her teaching was about the essence of being a Shaman.  It was from her that he had learned about being a Shaman, learned as much if not more than he had from the fox.

      The loss of Clover certainly impacted their operations.  She did a great deal of communicating with the faceless cell of the Masked in Avannar, trading information with them and knowing how to organize it and sift through it to seek out the truth.  Kyven was certainly capable of that himself, but her help gave him more time to focus on his masquerade of being a respectable member of Avannar society, a prominent crystalcutter.  Clover helped him perpetrate that deception by giving him free time to pursue it.

      But most of all…he just missed her.  She was his mentor, his teacher, his partner, and his friend.  He felt strangely exposed without Clover there, the quiet, gentle, charming presence that guided them all.  He missed her so much it shocked him, and the entire first day she was gone, he staggered through the day in a kind of haze that made it hard for him to concentrate.

      But, strangely enough…it wasn’t love.  He had laid in bed this morning, woken up by Lightfoot when she came in and decided to sleep in his bed, and analyzed everything he felt about Clover.  He was worried at first that it was love making him feel the way he did, that he had somehow fallen for his mentor…but it wasn’t.  He loved Clover, oh yes, but not in a romantic fashion.  He loved her as a friend, his deepest and most intimate friend, the one who knew more about him than he knew about himself, the one woman whom he could trust and be honest.  Clover really did feel like a sister to him, though in a rather odd and disturbing twist of Arcan culture, a near-sister who shared his bed when she wanted some physical attention.  She was a dear, dear friend, and he loved her deeply, but something deep inside him did not see her as a wife.  He could love her, admitted that he was sexually attracted enough to enjoy sleeping with her, but she was not for him.  Not like that.  It was proof to him that the fur on him was only skin deep.  Despite his acceptance of Arcan customs and Arcan ways, inside, he was still human, and always would be.  Though he had learned well from the lesson of Clet and Stripes that love could transcend the boundary between human and Arcan, the human in him sought out its own.

      Danna.

      Even now, despite the minars that separated them and the anger and bad blood that existed between them, when he thought of a woman in that fashion, in the terms of love and marriage, the first and only woman that came to mind was Danna.  Like a rheumy joint, she was a pain that just wouldn’t go away, one to which he’d grown so accustomed that he didn’t even think about it anymore.

      Ironic, that.  The one woman he wanted wanted nothing to do with him, yet the woman who was pregnant with his children, Umbra, barely crossed his mind during the course of a day.

      Umbra.  Last he’d heard of her, she was comfortably pregnant and living with Firetail, because she was too naïve and uneducated in Arcan ways to be left by herself.  Her lack of experience with advanced technology might get her killed.  So Firetail had taken her in and looked after her like she was Firetail’s daughter, and the report he’d gotten from Haven about it a couple of weeks ago intimated that all was well with her.

      Clover.  He hoped she was alright.  He hoped her mission was swift and without danger, and she came home well and whole next week.

      But, he had to go on.  He couldn’t hide in his shop until she came back.  He had the Loremasters on the defensive, running around like maniacs.  The murder of a Councilor in his own home who was savaged by a clawed Arcan when they knew that the fox Arcan sported nasty claws, the attack on the general, and the sniper killings of a high-ranking Loremaster and a Loreguard general had had their desired effect.  The Loremasters were now terrified, because the mysterious Shaman that had made them look like fools now seemed to have help in the form of a highly trained gunman, and also because they now understood that this was no longer some abstract plan put down on paper and commanded over a map from the safety of their offices and dens.  Now, this was immediate, and they were right in the middle of it…and they were targets.  They had planned a war, the systematic takeover of the Free Territories and the forging of their own nation west of the Smoke Mountains, and they were disconcerted and paralyzed when that war leaped off dusty papers filled with procedures and statistics and started killing them.  Now they were engaged.  Now they were involved, intimately involved, and their Loremasters tabards and their reputations and the security of Avannar and their Loreguard protectors did not isolate them from the war they were planning.  The war had come early, and instead of them moving with stealth and acting out of surprise then settling in behind heavy fortifications to bleed the kingdoms of Noraam until their crystals went dry, the tables had been turned and now they were the ones reeling from a foe that had struck a swift and decisive first blow.

      The one thing he’d been doing was keeping up with his intelligence.  His Masked compatriots, Shario, and his own foray out into the taverns last night had painted a picture of a group on the defensive.  All the Loremasters of any kind of rank were now domiciled inside the Loremaster headquarters, sleeping in offices and wherever they could set up a bed or pallet.  Food was being shipped in by the wagonload, and the guards stationed at the bridge, the only way onto the island, were sixty strong.  They were afraid now, afraid that the mysterious black fox Shaman, who moved through the city like a ghost, would attack them next.  The Circle had pulled in everyone that mattered to them to their headquarters to protect them as they continued to try to find and eliminate the Shaman and whoever he hired to kill those people at the bridge.  They did not think that a Shaman would use a gun, not when a Shaman could use magic.  They believed that the Shaman had enlisted the help of a sharpshooter to attack the bridge while he did something else, something which they didn’t know about.

      They knew about the rifle now.  The shape of a Briton rifle bullet was nothing like a musket ball, for it was conical and aerodynamic.  They knew that whoever killed the Loremaster and the General had a weapon rarely seen in Noraam, a Eusican rifle, and now they were searching for the attacker by trying to track down that gun.  They were rare enough that it was easy to track the few that existed in Avannar, and the owners of weapons like that had already received very direct visits from Loreguard detachments.

      Shario, that clever rascal, had covered his tracks well.  He was not part of that sweep.

      He was part of another sweep yesterday, though.  He was a respectable businessman now, but the Loreguard knew, or suspected, that the money he’d used to start those legitimate businesses had come by less than legal means, and now the Loreguard were coming down on the criminal underside of the city.  They were smart enough to understand that even the black fox Shaman had to have help to do some of the things he was doing, a cell of the Masked buried in the city that was providing him with assistance--or was commanding him, since many felt that Arcans weren’t smart enough to run a sophisticated operation, but that cell would need supplies, equipment, and information that could only be acquired through the black market and the criminal underworld.  That was a fairly logical conclusion, and also a correct one.  So, they were trying to unearth the Masked cell by trying to drag information about them out of the fences, thieves, and black marketeers through which they would be dealing to get their supplies.

      But they would come up empty.  The only one they dealt with was Shario, and Shario was far too clever to be caught by the likes of them.

      Kyven sighed and stirred, and Lightfoot shifted in her sleep and grabbed hold of his shoulder.  He was on his stomach with her up against his side, her arm draped over his back to grip his opposite shoulder, but while she slept he laid there and pondered.  He shifted to try to get out from under her arm without disturbing her, but she gripped him with her claws, just enough to send a slight shiver of pain through his skin.

      “Lightfoot,” he called reluctantly.  “Let me up.”

      “No,” she answered in a crystal-clear voice.

      “It’s past sunrise, I have to open the shop.”

      He felt her claws flex slightly, then they withdrew and she removed her hand from his shoulder.  “Thanks,” he said as she slid out of bed, rolling to his feet as she settled back into the bed.  He leaned over and licked her fondly on the cheek, then wrapped himself in an illusion of himself in a robe as he padded downstairs and into the shop.  The others were already awake, Tweak sitting at a bench explaining cutting to Watcher and Lucky as Patches busied herself in the kitchen, the smell of bacon wafting in as pans sizzled within.  “Good morning!” Lucky called happily.

      “Mornin’ boys, mornin’ Tweak,” he said.  “Keep the door closed, I’m opening the shop.”

      “Breakfast is almost ready!” Patches called from the kitchen.

      When he stepped through the door and looked through the glass of the window, he saw Yoris and a few Loreguard outside.  As he opened the eave of the counter, he dislodged himself from the illusion enough to enact the power of the amulet and take on a human form.  His experience with Shario had proved to him that he had to be very careful around enemies, and if Shario could puzzle out his Arcan nature through subtle clues, so could someone like Danna…and the Loreguard certainly had others as smart as Danna working for them.  He felt his muscles and bones turn to cold water as he was poured into a new mold, and then he felt a little cooler when the feeling faded and left him naked and human under the illusion.  He still did not wear clothes for fear that they would interfere with his shadow powers.  Once he was settled, his illusion paused to give a big, languid yawn and stretch, as underneath it he kicked his heel against the door several times, a signal to those in the shop to evacuate immediately, then he advanced onto the door and opened it, then stepped outside.  “What are you doing here so early, Yoris?” he asked, feigning sleepiness.

      “Odd for you to open so late, Artisan,” one of the guards said coolly.

      “Eh, I’ve had no business for weeks anyway, so I figured what the hell, why not sleep in,” he said dismissively, then he yawned.  “It’s not like I’m missing anything.”

      “Well, I’m about to give you some, Kyven,” Yoris told him, and the tone of his voice wasn’t…normal.  Kyven’s instincts woke up at that point.  There was something, something wrong here.  Either they were spooked by the murders of the Loremasters or it was directed at Kyven himself.  That, and these men, they didn’t feel like normal Loreguard.  He didn’t know why he felt that way, but he did, and he knew better than to ignore those kinds of feelings and instincts.

      Kyven realized that he had to be very, very careful here.  He wouldn’t dare open his eyes to the spirits without an illusion covering him, but he didn’t need to do so to heavily suspect that one of these men had a truth crystal hidden somewhere on his person.  From here, he had to be very careful to speak only the truth…from his point of view.  So he had to choose his words carefully.

      “Well, come on in and I’ll take a look,” he invited.  “I can have my cook make you some breakfast if you want.”  And if Tweak was doing what he was supposed to do, he had the boys hustled out of the shop.

      “This time we have to go to the building, my friend,” Yoris told him.  “What we need you to appraise isn’t something they would let me bring out.”

      “Okay, now you’ve got me curious, my friend, given what you’ve brought to me,” he said.  “Let me go get some clothes on.  Come on in, no need standing around here when you can sit down and wait for me.”

      “Certainly,” Yoris said with a smile.

      Patches was standing by the kitchen door in the shop, and thankfully, everyone else was gone and the shop left in the same condition it always appeared when Yoris visited when he came in.  The other benches were covered, with only Kyven’s own bench looking to be used.  “Still no apprentices?”

      “I was just about ready to bring some before all this crazy stuff started happening,” Kyven said frankly.  “Timble’s begging me to take a few of them.  Master Holm was too stern to let us get away with anything, but Timble’s not quite so harsh.  Yet, anyway,” he chuckled.   “I think you can make some coffee for the gentlemen while I get dressed,” he said to Patches.

      “Coffee,” she nodded, scurrying back into the kitchen.

      Yoris looked around.  “Where is that handsome coyote?”

      He saw that this could get ugly quick, because that was a question that he could not answer without either lying or saying something that they could check by going back through the logs of the checkpoints around his shop.  “Out running an errand, I think,” he answered carefully, which was technically true.  “She should be back soon.”  Also technically true, compared to the complexity of her task.  If she was back in a week, given what she had to do, that was definitely soon.

      “You think?  You don’t know what your own Arcans are up to?” one of the guards asked pointedly.

      “My coyote is a very clever Arcan, so I give her latitude I don’t give the others,” he answered simply, which again was technically true.  He’d never trust the others with the kinds of things Clover did.  “If she’s out, then she certainly has a good reason to be out, and she’ll be back home as soon as she’s finished.  I have no doubt what she’s doing is important and needs to be done, especially how dangerous it is out on the streets right now for an unescorted Arcan.”

      “That’s a little strange, Artisan.”

      “Before all this insanity happened, I saw Arcans on the street unescorted all the time,” Kyven said flatly, giving the man a direct look.  “My Arcan went out by herself before.  What makes it so suspicious that I let her do the same thing now?  The only thing that’s changed is that there’s suddenly a Loreguard checkpoint on every corner.  Her ability to do her chores without my supervision certainly didn’t change.  The only thing that changed is your stupid checkpoints making it hard for her to do those chores without being hassled.  Now let me get dressed.  Be right back.”

      Upstairs, Kyven found Tweak and the boys hiding in their room.  He opened the door and looked in, then nodded.  “Go to the attic and hide, and don’t come out until Patches says it’s safe,” he ordered.  Tweak nodded soberly and herded the two young boys across the hall and through the narrow door at the end of the hall that led to the attic, closing the door behind him, then he went into his room.  Lightfoot was already gone, most likely up on the roof so she could keep watch, so he sat on the bed and considered options.  If he was going into the headquarters of the Loremasters, he couldn’t take any chances…and that meant clothes.  He wasn’t going in there as anything but a crystalcutter, but he was absolutely sure he’d be searched and inspected, and he didn’t want to have to worry about holding an illusion on top of everything else.  While in his human form, the fox said he was absolutely undetectable, human in every way, and even the foxhead medallion would vanish and be absolutely undetectable itself…which was true.  It wasn’t around his neck, and he honestly had no idea where it was.  So, if they were taking him into the lion’s den, he wanted to be as normal as possible.

      So, he pulled his human clothes out of the wardrobe, an outfit which he used as a basis for his illusions quite often.  A soft blue cotton shirt with laces on the neckline went over his head, and soft underclothes went under a pair of rugged denim pants.  He pulled on a pair of soft moccasin boots, then grabbed a light vest from the wardrobe and padded back downstairs, feeling a little odd to be wearing clothes as he pulled the vest on.

      In the shop, things were quiet and a little tense.  Patches was serving coffee to the Loreguard, who were giving her hard looks even as their eyes surveyed the shop’s interior coolly.  These were not normal guards.  These were…different.  They were almost unusually interested in his shop, and their eyes took in everything. 

      “Where are your other Arcans?” Yoris asked.  “The ferret and that little cat of yours?”

      “Doing something I don’t think you’re old enough to hear about, Yoris,” he answered directly, which made Yoris laugh.  He took a sandwich of bacon and eggs, his breakfast, from Patches with a nod, and she rushed back into the kitchen.

      “You let them rut like animals?” another guard asked.

      “Why not?” he shrugged.  “They’re going to do it anyway.  I keep them all in the same room.  This way, they think I’m kindly for letting them do something they’d do no matter what.”

      “Why does a lone shopkeeper have so many Arcans?”

      “I fell into it, as it were,” he answered simply.  “I needed help running the shop but didn’t want to bring any apprentices until I was set up, so I got some Arcans to do the chores apprentices would usually do.  I only wanted two, but I was convinced to take four.  I gave in, and I’m glad I did.  The two extra mouths to feed isn’t cheap, but there’s a lot to do around here and they pull their weight.  It makes it worth it to keep them around.”  And all of it was perfectly true.  He’d only wanted two to come with him to start out with, but he ended up with four.  He just left out what they were brought to do.  Again, perfectly true…from a certain point of view.

      “I’m sure you have papers for them?” one of the guards pressed.

      “Papers?” Kyven asked, then he laughed.  “My collar is on them.  Why do I need papers?”

      “They don’t bother with papers in Atan, Grel,” Yoris said simply.  “It’s a small village where everyone knows everyone.  Kyven’s collar is all the proof of ownership he needs.”

      Kyven could tell they were obviously digging, but he couldn’t really do anything about it.  To push to leave would make it look like he was uncomfortable, and his past experiences with anyone but Yoris had been less that cordial, so he remained tight-lipped and terse with the guards while remaining friendly and amiable to Yoris.  So, he simply ate his sandwich as the Loreguard and Yoris sipped at their coffees without much enthusiasm.  After a few minutes, after Kyven finished his sandwich, Yoris stood up.  “I think we should get going,” he prompted.

      Kyven was escorted out of the shop in a way that almost made him feel like these men were encircling him.  Yoris and the one named Grel were in front of him as the other five came up behind, and they gathered in a loose semicircle around him that would make it impossible for him to bolt as he closed and locked the door.  There were horses and an open buggy carriage waiting on the street, attended by a young boy who was the driver of the wagon and an eighth soldier who was tending the horses.  Kyven was invited into the buggy ahead of Yoris, and the two of them settled in as the Loreguard mounted.  They then started down the street with four guards in front and four behind.

      “Odd that you’d bring so many guards if you’re not carrying anything, Yoris,” he noted.

      “Ghastly business,” he answered grimly.  “They didn’t want me to come out at all, but they know that you don’t…deal well with anyone but me.”

      “I take it this has to do with that rumor that’s been flying around about the shooting at the bridge?” he asked.  “I heard it was some crazy man with a pair of pistols that did it, and he jumped in the river before they could catch him.”  Which was indeed one of the rumors flying around.

      “The honest truth, my friend, is they have no idea who did it,” he answered with a conspiratorial look.  “But yes, this is part of the precautions they’re having us take now.  That’s also why they want you to come to the building rather than me come to you.  They figure that an Artisan is less at risk than a Loremaster on the streets right now.”

      “Lovely,” Kyven said darkly.  “So they want me to take the risk.  Remind me again why I work for you, Yoris.”

      He chuckled.  “Because I pay you twice list.”

      “That’s a good reason,” Kyven noted, which made Yoris laugh.

      After moving through several checkpoints, they reached the bridge.  Kyven was right that he was thoroughly searched, and then they passed a probe over him searching for any magical or alchemical auras, something he’d have been hard pressed to defeat using an illusion.  He was almost thankfully relieved that he had made the right decision in putting on clothes.

      What he wasn’t prepared for, however, was when one of the guards grabbed his arm and pulled it out, and then a knife blade was dragged over his forearm.  “Ow!  Hey, what the hell?” Kyven demanded as a line of blood appeared on his forearm.  A guard touched a crystal-tipped delicate wand-like device to the blood, and the crystal tip turned red.

      “He’s clean,” the guard announced, letting go of him. Kyven yanked his arm back and put his hand over the shallow cut.

      “Clean?  What the hell did you cut me for?” he asked hotly.

      “To make sure you’re human, my friend,” Yoris said seriously, holding his arm out for the man.  Kyven saw that even Yoris was cut and checked.  “The Shaman that has invaded the headquarters can somehow hide behind a magical mask that makes him appear to be human.  So they make sure that everyone that goes to the island is what they appear to be.”

      “Oh.  Well, warn a man next time.  That hurt!” he complained, filing away this bit of information away as yet another obstacle to overcome the next time he came here to plunder.

      After they got back in the buggy, they were driven to the building, to a side entrance near the Loreguard barracks.  To Kyven’s surprise, they were all cut and checked again by guards at the entrance, and once cleared, Kyven followed Yoris not upstairs, but downstairs.  The Loremasters’ office of crystal management was in the basement, near the vaults they had where they kept their crystals and devices.  So, the move downstairs didn’t surprise Kyven at all.  They walked along a low-ceilinged yet comfortably wide passageway that was obviously underground, until they entered a wide, spacious room where bench after bench was laid out at equal distances, and each one was manned by a crystalcutter, plying his trade.  There had to be sixty cutters down here, and the tink tink of hammers and chisels filled the air almost like chiming music.

      Kyven looked out over the cutters with sober eyes.  This was, by far, abundant proof that the Loremasters were about to undertake something major, if they needed so many crystals cut.

      “What is it, Kyven?” Yoris asked as Kyven stopped and stared.

      “Yoris…what’s going on?” he asked in a low whisper.  “This…this isn’t normal.”

      “I honestly don’t know,” he said soberly.  “I just know what I was told to do, and so I’m doing it.  Follow me, my friend.”

      Kyven was brought to a bench, but a bench in a small room off that main room, a tiny room with a door on opposite walls, a well-appointed bench, and a strong light over it.  The room seemed like it would be stuffy and uncomfortable, but the air was fresh and seemed to be circulating, and a look up showed the small holes in the ceiling through which that air was flowing.  A young woman came through the other door carrying something in her hands.  “Sit, my friend,” Yoris said, and he did so as the rather handsome young lady brought a tray out and set it on the bench.  On the tray was a sixteen point black crystal…and Kyven was acutely aware of the eight Loreguard that had come from the shop file into the small room behind him.  “This is what we need you to cut, my friend.  What can you do with it?”

      Kyven put everything else out of his mind as he picked up the crystal, felt it tingle under his fingers.  He rifled around on the desk until he came up with a jeweler’s glass, a necessary tool for a black crystal, then put it to his eye and held the crystal under the light. It had an erratic internal structure of shifting alignments that weren’t quite internal flaws or planar faults, but would hamper the flow of energy in the crystal if not cut very carefully to take those into account.  This kind of crystal was the kind that tested a cutter, since what Kyven could see was not something the average cutter would look at, or much consider.  He would cut the crystal in a pattern based on the three flaws near the center of the crystal and the two planar faults running along its left internal plane, ignoring those shifting alignments underneath, which would be a very bad cut for the crystal.  “This one’s a tricky little bugger,” he noted aloud.  “But I can cut it at weight.”

      “What our own cutters suggested, but given the value of the crystal, we decided your special skills were needed,” Yoris said with a smile.

      “Glad to have a paying contract,” Kyven chuckled.  “I assume you want me to cut it now?”

      “Please.  Given the current situation, they don’t want the crystal taken from the building.”

      “Fear the Shaman might attack the holder and take it?” he asked with a wry chuckle.

      “The very thing,” Yoris nodded soberly.

      “We’ve heard you have more than a passing connection to the Shaman running loose in Avannar, Steelhammer,” one of the Loreguard said as Kyven turned back to the bench.

      “Yeah,” he said honestly.  “They said a rare black fox Arcan escaped from the Blue Ring of Avannar, and it used my name.  I think I know why.”

      “And why is that?” another pressed.

      So this was what they were after.  Kyven settled himself on the bench, surveying the tools, then he started picking them up and testing them.  They weren’t his tools, and a cutter had to know his tools if he wanted to be a good cutter.  The pause gave him time to organize his thoughts so he could evade the truth crystal while giving them enough to dissuade them.  “Well, as I’m sure you know, after I bought out my contract, I left the shop.  I told them I was prospecting, but the reality was I’d just had something of a traumatic experience in my life and I needed a little time to sort it out.”

      “What kind of trauma?”

      “A friend of mine was killed by an Arcan infected with the Touch,” he said, which was an honest interpretation of the events.   He had been unsettled by that attack when he left.  It wasn’t the primary reason he left, but it was there, and thus it was technically true.  “I didn’t see it happen, but I was there to find him.  It was ghastly,” he said with an honest shudder.  “I’d never seen anything like that before in my life.  Anyway, I geared myself up for some prospecting, not really knowing what I needed, I had to get advice, then I struck out on my own…for all of a few days.  Not two days after I left Atan, I had no horses, I had no gear, and I had no supplies.  Guess I just wasn’t cut out for life in the wild,” he chuckled.  “Anyway, while I was out there, I met an Arcan.”

      “The black fox?”

      He shook his head as he weighed a hammer in his fingers.  “It was a wolf, actually.  A really big black wolf.  It wasn’t very nice, or very friendly, and I don’t think it liked me very much.  It was clearly wild, but it was smart.  And it helped me.”

      “Helped you?”

      He nodded.  “Brought me food, even taught me a little bit about living in the wild.  I wasn’t about to put my nose up for it, either.  I still think it’s odd that it helped me when it didn’t like me very much.”

      “And that’s it?  It helped you then wandered off?”

      “It taught me how to hunt and how to live in the woods,” he said calmly.  “It stayed with me for a while, and sometimes, when it wasn’t being particularly irritating, sometimes we’d talk a while.  Now that I know what I know, I think it could be said that the fox sent that wolf to me to help me so it could learn about me, and use me.  I mean, not long after that, a black fox Arcan using my name escapes from the blue ring, and I thought nothing could escape from the blue ring.  I guess a Shaman can,” he shrugged.  “And now there’s a black fox Arcan running loose in Avannar.  At the time, I didn’t say much about the wolf helping me, because it was literally keeping me alive.  After that fox showed up here, I guess I was too worried about you Loremasters blaming me for the fox when I had no idea at the time that I was helping it indirectly, so I kept my mouth shut.  Now that I have so many Loreguard standing audience over me cutting a crystal, I think now you want to know what I know, so I’m telling you what I know.  I guess I should have thought more about what kind of price tag was hanging off that help, because I’m sure as hell paying for it now.”

      And all of it completely true.  From a certain point of view.

      “A pretty outlandish story,” one of the Loreguard said in a strong voice.  But he knew they were looking at each other without even looking, he knew they were looking at the one with the hidden truth crystal, who was no doubt nodding that he had spoken not a single lie.

      “I know, which is why I’ve kept it to myself,” he answered evenly.  “If people found out I had a connection to the black fox Arcan, even an unknowing one, it would cost me business and friends, and may even get me run out of Avannar by my neighbors.  Don’t you think I was only smart for keeping my mouth shut?”

      “You should have come forward!” one of them protested.

      “And lose my shop and have to go back to Atan in disgrace, or maybe even end up in the Black Keep?” Kyven drawled as he picked up the crystal and set it in the holder.  “What would you have done in my position?”

      “Well, you’re being pretty chatty now,” one of the said.

      “Because I’m not stupid, sir,” he said simply as he picked up a pencil and made a couple of notes.  “It doesn’t take eight Loreguard to escort Yoris around, you’ve hovered over me like I was a criminal that would escape at any minute, and I doubt any of you are adherents of crystalcutting to where you’re here to watch me work.  If anything, there should be a group of other cutters in here watching me, because I have certain specialized skills that aren’t taught in the average shop, and they’d get a chance to learn something,” he noted dryly, glancing at Yoris, who was decidedly red-faced.  “You’re in here to gently interrogate me without being blatant about it because you found out that the black fox that escaped from Alamar used my name.  I knew it was coming eventually, so I told you the truth.  I’d rather tell you the truth now rather than get dragged to the Black Keep and have the truth dragged out of me by a pain stick.  And I think I can prove that pretty easily.  I am the king of Itana.”

      From behind him came a sudden high-pitched whine of the truth crystal reacting to such a blatant, bald-faced lie, faint but clearly audible in the quiet room.

      “Mmm-hmm,” he hummed calmly as he finished his notes, and one of the Loreguard cleared his throat uncomfortably.  “Now, you’ve heard the truth out of me.  So you can kindly leave and let real cutters take those chairs.”

      “Not until you answer how you knew the black fox used your name before coming to Avannar, so you’d know not to say anything,” one of them pressed.

      “Simple.  I heard about it in Atan, when I went back to get ready to come here,” he answered.  “Didn’t you hear about what happened?”

      “What is that?”

      “The black fox showed up there, after I sent the letter to Holm telling him I was trying sailing instead of prospecting,” he said.  “Being chased by a hunter and a group of Loreguard being led by a woman.  The fox escaped into the forest, the hunter and the Loreguard went into the forest after it, and they haven’t been seen in Atan since.  Timble tells me in his letters there’s all kinds of rumors flying over what happened, but the village isn’t really sure.”

      “Captain Pannen,” one of them said quietly.

      “This is new information to me,” one of them said.  “Go through what your partner told you.”

      “Sure,” he said, then he related the story of how the black fox had been attacked by the hunter in the streets, chased into the mine area, and then escaped, being careful to use neutral terms that could be interpreted by the truth crystal as truth so long as he was careful about how he presented the information.  By using terms like it was said that and rumor is that rather than I heard or other direct, first-person statements that the truth crystal would interpret as dishonesty.  He also left out the part about the fox being in a collar, so as not to bring any unpleasantness on Virren.

      “Well, that does explain a couple of things,” one of them said as Kyven prepared to make his first cut.  “Why didn’t the Loremaster in Atan forward that to us?”

      “He may have, and it was part of what was taken or destroyed in the attack,” another said in a low tone.

      “What ship did you sail on, Steelhammer?” one of them asked curiously.

      “A Flauren Arcan trader,” he answered honestly.  “It was named in Flauren, never did really find out what it meant.  They didn’t like me much, but they were desperate for hands, so they took me.  I learned a great deal, but I was glad to be done with them when it was over.”

      “Did you like sailing?” he asked curiously, in a less hostile voice.

      “It wasn’t that bad,” he answered honestly.  “It’s hard work, though.  Now I know why you never see a fat sailor.”

      The man chuckled.  “Tell me about it, I served in the Stinger Bay Navy for two years before joining the Loreguard.”

      “So, when that ship was taken over, were you on it?” one of them asked casually.

      “Eh?” he asked in sincere surprise.

      “A Flauren Arcan trader in desperate need of hands?  That’s the ship that was sunk, because the Arcans had somehow gotten loose and taken it over.  And it sailed shorthanded because a whole bunch of the crew were killed by some Nurysian maniac.”

      “Sounds interesting,” Kyven said mildly, going back to the crystal.  “There was a full crew on my ship when I left it.”  Yes, a full crew…of Arcan females.  “Makes me wonder how the Arcans could sail the ship.  That’s not something Arcans are usually taught.”

      “Oh, I can answer that for you, Steelhammer,” came a slightly mocking response.  “They had help.”

      “From?”

      “You.”

      Kyven laughed, looking back at them.  “Me?  I’m a crystalcutter, not a sailor.  I wasn’t very good at it.”

      “You know, that’s the part that really fried my eggs for quite a while,” the same man said casually.  “At least until last week, when we got an Arcan in from down Cheston way that turns out was on that ship.  Little raccoon, very talkative little female.  I must say, her description of you is pretty accurate.”

      Holy fuck.  The Arcans on the beach!  Some of them had just sat there, waiting for someone to come and catch them!  He had completely forgot about them! They’d seen him!  If the Loreguard had managed to get one of them, she would tell them all about what happened.

      He had a cold, cold feeling in the pit of his stomach.  If they’d known that before coming to his shop, then everything they’d done up to now was just getting him to talk to see what he gave up before they sprang the trap on him.

      “I spent four months investigating that case because of the murders of the sailors at the dock, and it burned my beef trying to make sense of it.  Then the ship gets captured by its cargo and the Stinger Bay Navy had to go out and sink it.  The whole thing was really confusing, made no sense at all, at least until I just happened to cross paths with a little raccoon working on a plantation down Riyan way investigating the murder of a Loreguard soldier.  Scared little thing.  The instant I came into the room, she started singing about a raven-haired human with green eyes who killed the crew of a ship she was on and took it over, who was there because the ship was carrying a Shaman.  She told us all about how the human taught the Arcans how to manage the sails and then run the ship aground.  You are the spitting image of the description she gave, Steelhammer, and you just admitted that you were on a Flauren Arcan trader.  So that means that the human who said he was from the Masked, the human there to recover a captured Shaman, was you.”

      “An interesting story,”’ Kyven said idly, putting his hand on the black crystal, feeling the power inside it.  “But given that everything I told you was the truth, how does that match up with what you believe?  Let me say it again for your truth crystal.  When I was discharged from the ship, it had a full crew.”

      “Yes, but a full crew of who, Steelhammer?” the man asked.  “You don’t think we can’t tell a man who’s talking carefully to get around a truth crystal?”

      “Put any man on a hot seat, and he’s going to squirm,” Kyven answered evenly.  “Even when he has no reason to be nervous.”  They had him, and he knew it.  Deception would no longer serve him.  Now, came the time for guile.  His back was to them, hiding his eyes, but there was an unknown here.  They had searched him more than once on the way to this room, and as such they were certain that he had no alchemical devices.  So, the gamble was, was one of those men carrying a magic sniffer that would detect it if he opened his eyes to the spirits?  He wouldn’t need it, for they believed him to be unarmed, and therefore powerless.  They had no inkling of just who or what he was, and in this desperate situation, that was his last available weapon.

      He wasn’t kidding himself, though.  He knew he’d never get off the island alive.  Even if he got out of this room alive, there were too many men between him and the city to get past without being discovered.  What mattered now was making sure that he created enough of a scene that Shario would know what happened quickly, so he could sweep in and collect Patches and the other children and get them to safety.  His life was over, now came only protecting those he left behind.

      So be it.  He accepted it not with fear and terror, but with the calm dignity of a man who had more at stake than his own life.

      He was glad now, glad that Clover was out of Avannar.  Shario would take good care of Patches and the boys, and Patches knew what to do if Kyven was ever killed or captured.  She would do what had to be done.

      I guess you’re going to be irritated, my treacherous totem, he thought wryly, remembering what he told Watcher.  Because all that time you spent training me looks like it was wasted.

      There was nothing left now but the gamble.  He put down his hammer, and opened his eyes to the spirits, almost expecting some alarm to whine behind him and then a bullet to rip through his brain a second later.  A second went by, and another, and another, and there was no alarm, there was no pistol shot.  Clearly, they had come in without a magic sniffer, and that fact was going to give him his last chance at misdirection and guile before all hell broke loose.

      First, he built an illusion of himself and the chair in which he was sitting and laid it over himself so smoothly there wasn’t even a shimmer.  He then slowly, carefully got out of the chair while keeping the illusion there, making sure his illusion muted any possible sound of the chair as he got up.  He then built a second illusion, an illusion of a mouse, and carefully separated himself from the illusion of himself and attached himself to the illusion of the mouse.  The illusion sighed, then chuckled ruefully as he worked himself along the wall, the little black mouse moving slowly and carefully as it worked its away around the men in the chairs behind the workbench.  “After all this, I get caught by the very ones I was there to save,” his illusion declared, turning to look at the men, who were now looking quite smug.

      Now came the second bit of guile.  Now that it was the illusion talking and not him, then the truth crystal would not react to any lies the illusion spoke, because those words weren’t spoken by a living thing.  Truth crystals didn’t react to any sound that didn’t come from a person.  “You set a fine trap, gentlemen, and it seems that I walked right into it.  Well done.  I am found and captured.”

      “So it was you, Steelhammer,” the man declared.

      “It was me, but I’m not Kyven Steelhammer,” the illusion said with a slight smile as Kyven got behind the men, and moved quickly yet quietly towards the door.  “Oh, he’s still alive, most likely somewhere in Eusica by now, and he has no idea he was replaced.  We had him targeted to be replaced with an agent of the Masked since he was a boy, and our agent kept a close watch on him, at least until he was killed by a Touched Arcan.  I made sure he got on a ship heading far from Noraam for quite a while, captained by a friend of the Masked who promised to keep him out of Noraam while we were using his identity.  I wonder if he’s a good sailor by now,” the illusion mused.  “Quite the cover, isn’t it?” he asked conversationally.  “I was trained specifically to take his place because I look just like him, trained to be a master cutter myself.  What better way to hide in plain sight than to be an employee of the Loremasters?  It put me right inside where I could keep a close eye on you.”

      “My, we’re talkative now,” one of them said with a smile.  “There’s a great many things we’re going to talk about, Steelhammer.”

      “No, we’re not,” Kyven said simply.  “Because in just a moment, I’ll be dead, and I’ll take all those secrets with me when I die.  You think we don’t go around without being able to keep our secrets?”

      “What are you going to do, try to hold your breath until you pass out?” one of them asked with a scornful laugh.

      “No, I’m already dying,” he said calmly.  “I’ve been Sealed, gentlemen.  When I said I’ve been found and captured, it deactivated the Seal, and now the poison the Seal has held back is killing me. Thank the Trinity it will be a painless death.”
      “Get a healing bell in here now!” the tallest of them snapped as all nine men suddenly burst into action.  But they all skidded to a halt when the illusion seemed to pick up a chisel and held it to his temple.

      “Not so fast, gentlemen,” the illusion said softly.  “Or you lose what little time you do have and you’ll miss my last taunting confession and what little information it will give you.  I’ll be dead long before the healing bell gets here.”  The illusion smiled as they all hesitated, even Yoris.  “I’m sorry to be something you didn’t expect, Yoris.  I did like you, my friend, and I apologize for the trouble I’ll cause you after I’m dead and they try to figure out just how much you knew about me.  You were alright for a Loremaster.  You deserve better than to be mixed up with them.

      “So, here it is, gentlemen, my dying confession.  I did it.  I’m the cell of the Masked in Avannar you’ve been turning the city inside out trying to find.  And I didn’t need any help…after all, I’ve been inside the whole time, right among you, passing on everything I’ve heard to the Masked.”  As his illusion talked, keeping their attention, Kyven carefully and quietly opened the door under his tiny illusion and pulled it just enough to slip through, doing so and keeping his eyes on his illusion through the door with his spirit sight, maintaining the necessary visual contact required to use his magic.  He couldn’t cast an illusion to any place he could not see.   The illusion’s forehead suddenly sheened over with sweat, and the illusion’s eyes seemed to turn a bit glassy, even as Kyven used his spell of cold to freeze the door in its frame, making it impossible for them to get out.  The door rimed over in sudden frost, but none of the cutters in the cavernous room, intent on their crystals, seemed to notice that curious event.  “Is it hot in here?” the illusion asked in a slightly vacant tone, and started to blink owlishly as the chisel in its hand drooped noticeably.

      At that sign of weakness, one of the men lunged for the illusion, his hands aiming at the chisel.  But the man passed right through the illusion and crashed headfirst into the edge of the desk, hitting his head on the lip and crumpling to the floor like a boned fish.

      “Surprise,” the illusion said with sudden clarity, smiling like a misbehaving boy.  “And you thought you had me.”  Kyven edged along the wall, looking through it with spirit sight to maintain the illusion.

      “Impossible!” one of them shouted.  “How did he fool the detectors and get a device in here?”

      “Did you really think I came into this room with you?” the illusion asked with a scornful laugh.  “You lost me between the door and this room.  While you’ve been toying with this, I’ve already gotten off the island.  Good luck finding me.  For that matter, good luck getting out of this room.”

      Kyven cancelled the illusion, then created a new one over the door, covering the frostbound door and smothering it in an auditory illusion of quiet…and not a second too soon, for a few of the men rushed for the frost-covered door, grabbed the handle, then howled in pain and recoiled at the deathly cold of the metal ring.  As one man vigorously waved his hand back and forth as if burned, another pounded on the door with his fist, and almost all of them screamed at the top of their lungs…but those sounds were cancelled by the illusion over the door which replaced the men’s reality with a reality of Kyven’s own choosing.

      Despite the good start, he still knew he’d never get off the island.  They had too many men out there, and the alarm would be raised the instant he left the big room and could no longer hold the illusion over the door.  He could try in vain to escape, or he could do what he needed to do to protect his precious friends back at the shop.  All he could do now was do as much damage as humanly possible before they killed him, which would alert Shario and Lightfoot and protect the others.

      He got all the way across the room before he cancelled the illusion over the door and rushed for the passage, moving far faster than a mouse could manage.  The instant he did, the banging on the door became audible, and cutters and two Loreguard stationed in the room looked to the icy door.

      And that was all it took.

      Almost immediately, alarm bells sounded in the passageway.  Kyven managed to get to the stairs and up them and onto the first floor before a wave of Loreguard crashed down those stairs, heading for the focal point of the disturbance, even as guards flooded the hallways and took up both static positions at intersections and formed roving patrols that were armed with both sniffers and mana grounders, devices that dispelled alchemical devices and magic in a cone in front of the crystal lens of the device, smaller versions of that large device that protected the tower, an alchemical device that defeated other alchemical devices, and also Shaman magic.  All it would take would be for either of those to get anywhere near him, and he’d be discovered, so he moved fast.  He would do the same thing he did last time, attack the sixth floor, but this time he’d stay and fight, setting more fires, until they killed him, in hopes that he started so many fires that they couldn’t contain them all and it destroyed the building.  But the only way up there would be outside, so he needed to get out so he could use the blessing to climb up the outer wall to the roof.

      Getting there, that was going to be the trick.  He was a good fifty rods from any office with a window, and the halls were filling up fast with soldiers.  He stayed flat against the wall and edged along as men rushed by him, thankfully not having turned on their devices yet or not bothering to use them in what they thought was an empty hallway.  He got nearly halfway to where he knew offices would have windows when one of the rushing men edged a little too far from the middle of the hallway, and his elbow brushed against Kyven’s stomach as he tried to get out of the way.

      So close…so close.

      “Hold it!” the man said in sudden surprise, skidding to a halt.  But he never managed to turn around, for Kyven killed the entire patrol literally in their tracks, his blast of withering cold hitting them from behind and freezing them solid in the blink of an eye.  The frozen men tumbled to the ground like tipped-over statues, and another patrol of men further down the hall, the way Kyven had come, saw the men seize up and collapse.  Kyven still wasn’t visible to them, still hidden under his illusion of a mouse, but his attack was more than visible.

      “He’s in the main east hall!” Kyven heard behind him as he turned and fled.  “He’s invisible!  Seal off the passageway!”

      He knew soldiers would converge on the passage, so he dashed towards the way out.  But he took no more than five steps before a large contingent of soldiers appeared in front of him, the lead man holding a grounder out to stave off a magical attack.  He skidded to a halt and looked behind him, and saw the men who had spotted his attack rushing towards him.  He was trapped in the hallway, and trapped in a way that would make his magic useless.

      Maybe his magic…but not his shadow powers.

      Kyven abandoned his illusion at the same time as he abandoned the power of his amulet.  He felt his body turn to icewater as it flowed into a new mold, felt the Arcan body replace his human one.  When it was over, when warmth returned to his muscles, he caused an explosion of shadow to fill the hallway, concealing him and making the soldiers cry out and skid to a stop before they plunged into it.  Kyven dropped to all fours as one of the men panicked and fired a shot into the cloud of shadow, which buzzed over his head and struck a guard on the far side in the shoulder.  The man screamed in pain as another man angrily called for no shooting, and that gave Kyven a critical moment to let the shadow flow into him, through him.  If he was ever going to learn how to do what his totem did, move through the shadows, it had to be right here, right now.  If he didn’t, he was dead, and he was dead long before he could warn the others.  If he failed, then Patches, Tweak, and the boys were also going to die.

      He could not fail.

      He centered himself, feeling the shadow, feeling it not just around him, but inside him, felt it move through him.  He needed to join fully to the shadows and melt out of the physical world, then move from one shadow to another and emerge somewhere else.  He knew what he had to do.  He was one with the shadow.  He was the shadow, even as the shadow was him.  He had to melt utterly into the shadow, completely become the shadow, join fully to the shadow.  He could feel the cool wash in his fur start to flow deeper into him, below his skin, into his muscles, all the way down to his bones, felt himself becoming one with the shadow--

      And then there was light.  Bright, blasting, blazing light, saturating his eyes, behind his eyes, flooding through him the same way the shadow had…but this was not light.  It was pain.

      He had been joined to the shadow, but that shadow had been banished by the light, banished by a grounder as it was brought to bear against the cloud of shadow…which was a creation of the innate magic of the shadow fox.  The loss of the shadow so suddenly when Kyven was joined to it was like a sledgehammer to the head, robbing him of his senses and blasting pain through him.  He wilted on all fours, his arms and legs trembling as he tried to make sense of a world that had turned to chaos, but then bright lights popped in his skull, and he knew no more.

 

      The men on both sides stood and stared for a long second as they gazed down at the inert form of the black fox Arcan, the Shaman…but he didn’t seem so powerful now.  One of the soldiers had bravely plunged into the cloud with his musket, and the instant the cloud had been scattered by a grounder, he took up his musket and slammed the stock into the back of the Arcan’s head, sending him sprawling senselessly to the floor.

      They had captured him at last.

      The man who had knocked him out kicked him in the side hard enough to roll him over on his back, and they saw that he was indeed out cold.  But it was also unmistakable that it was the Arcan they were seeking, for the black fur with the white ruff and white tips on his ears were complete proof.  This was the Shaman that had attacked the building three times, and had to be the one responsible for the murder of a Councilor, a high-ranking Loremaster, a general, and was the one that attacked General Fourpost.

      And what was the best of all, they had caught him alive.  All they had to do was put his eyes out before he woke up, and he would be powerless, and a treasure trove of vital information for the Loremasters.

      The man holding the grounder grinned, looking to one of his companions, even as the officer behind them ordered the man with the musket to take his knife out and cut out the Arcan’s eyes.  The man with the grounder never took it off the Arcan, but despite that, despite being cut off from both alchemy and magic, something happened.

      The body of the Arcan suddenly erupted with bright light.  The man with the grounder quickly thrust the device out even further to make sure he had it aimed at the Arcan, but it did no good, it did nothing to dim that light.  Other men with grounders joined their devices to the first man, until three grounders were aimed at the Shaman, but they were absolutely useless.  The light infused the entire body of the Arcan, so bright that it made the men flinch away.  The light flared incandescently for just a brief moment, and then it faded away to nothingness.

      When they looked back at the Arcan, they gasped in consternation and shock.

      There was no Arcan laying there now.  Now, laying in the exact same position, was a human.

      A human?  A human?  How was that possible?  The Arcan was knocked out!  He couldn’t have used magic, he had three grounders pointed right at him!

      It made no sense!

      The officer gaped, then gasped.  “No!” he screamed when the man he’d ordered to take the Arcan’s eyes dropped down with his knife, hurrying to complete the task.  “No, don’t!  Not til we know what the hell’s going on!  Leave him whole, just keep the grounders on him!”

      “They didn’t do no good before!”

      “I know, but something’s very strange here,” the officer said grimly, looking down at the black-haired man.  “We leave him whole until someone higher up the chain decides what to do.”

 

      Humming to herself, Patches washed the last pan in the sink, even as her mind was focused on lunch.  She wasn’t really worried for Kyven, because he’d just gone to cut a crystal for the Loremasters, so she busied herself with the mundane tasks of the house servant.  She didn’t mind all that much, though.  She’d been cooking and cleaning since she could remember, and it was something she understood, something that made her feel useful.  She wasn’t brave like the others. She really didn’t do anything here except take care of Kyven and Clover and make sure they had good food, even as Kyven taught her all about being a crystalcutter.  But, slight as her duties were, it made her happy to feel like she was contributing to their little group.  If she could free up her Kyven’s mind from little things and let him focus on the bigger things, well, that was just fine with her.

      Outside, there was a strange sound.  She looked towards the kitchen door, saw Lightfoot move through towards the lobby, but she paid it little more mind after that.  Lightfoot was…scary.  She was nice enough, but she was always so quiet, and the way she looked at people, like they were mice, it was a little scary sometimes.  But, she couldn’t deny that she felt safe knowing Lightfoot was around.  Lightfoot would investigate, and if there was any trouble, she’d handle it.

      It wasn’t trouble…well, not really.  Tweak stood up quickly and looked towards something she couldn’t see, but then she heard Lucky gasp.  “Come out quickly!” Shario’s voice called, and it wasn’t his usual jovial voice.  “Clover!  Patches!  Come out!”

      “I’m here, Master Shario,” she said, scurrying out into the main shop.  Shario was standing near the door to the lobby, and his expression was…foreboding.  He was looking at Watcher and Lucky, his expression dark.  “What do you want?  Master Kyven isn’t here.”

      “I know, my little chef,” he said grimly.  “Where is Clover?”

      “Out,” Lightfoot said gruffly  “Away from the city until next week.”

      “Damn,” he growled.  “Well, then it falls to me, she must catch up to you.  Come quickly.   You must be away from here!  They are coming!”

      “Who?” Lightfoot asked.

      “Loreguard.  I just got word, my Arcan friends.  Kyven has been captured.”

      “But, but they took him to cut a crystal!” Patches protested, dread rising in her.

      “Be that as it may, I know that the Loreguard have captured the black fox Shaman,” he said.  “Any minute, they will show up here, for I have no doubt they have connected the Shaman to our unfortunate friend.  I promised him I would care for you should something happen to him and Clover, my little chef.  He left me instructions, and I will carry them out.  So come, quickly, all of you!  I will honor my promise to our friend!”

      Patches almost felt like her world was shattering.  Kyven…captured?  How?  How?  He was so clever, so sneaky!  He was so convincing with his illusions!  She had seen him talk his way past nearly anyone!  How had they managed to make him reveal himself, then manage to capture him?  He had always seemed so, so, so invincible!  It just couldn’t be right.  It couldn’t be!

      A rough hand grabbed her arm and shook her.  She blinked and saw Lightfoot in front of her, the cat’s face emotionless.  “Go,” she commanded.  “Take the boys and go.  Everything else must stay here.”

      “Lightfoot,” Shario warned.  “You will not stay.”

      “I’ll catch up,” she said in a dark, dangerous tone.  “Meet me at Plum Lane at sunset.  I have a duty.”

      “The shop?”

      She simply nodded.

      Shario sighed.  “Very well, my little thief.  Be very careful, and I’ll see you at sunset.”

      She nodded again, turned, and rushed towards the steps to the cellar.  Patches knew, she knew what she was going to do.  Kyven told all of them what had to be done if something happened to him, and that was destroy all evidence of what had gone on here, and burn the shop to the ground.  Patches knew that Lightfoot would risk her own life to stay behind to make sure it was done, even sacrifice herself to see it through to the end.  That was how she was.

      That was how Patches wished she could be, so incredibly brave.

      She stood there numbly for a moment, but the look of fear and concern on Shario’s handsome brown face shocked her to action.  Dear spirits, poor Kyven!  Was he dead?  Did they kill him?  Or was he still alive, and facing a torture chamber where the first thing they would do would be to put out his eyes to rob him of his powers, then spend his last hours in this world screaming in pain before he died?  He knew they would never make him talk.  He was too strong.  They would kill him trying to make him talk, but he’d never say a word.

      “Kyven,” she sniffed, then she burst into uncontrollable tears, burying her face in her hands.

      Shario’s strong arm encompassed her.  “I know, my little chef.  Come.  We must do what we can to honor his wishes, and foremost among them was that you would be safe.  So come.  Come.  I must get you safely to Atan, and we have little time before the Loremasters close off the city or send word ahead.  So come, my little chef.  I will take care of you.”

 

      Damn that man!

      Danna Pannen scratched vigorously at her arm, an arm covered in fur, as she rode along at the head of a long column moving steadily to the south.  She was at the vanguard of a mismatched, rag-tag mob of Arcans who tried very hard to be soldiers, but didn’t do very well at it.  It certainly wasn’t for lack of enthusiasm or determination, though.  They tried very hard, but being a soldier wasn’t as easy as most people thought it was.  There was a great deal to learn, and they hadn’t had much time.   Firetail had uprooted them from Haven and told them they had to start moving, else they wouldn’t be in position to oppose the Loremasters when they came over the mountains.  It was a long, long way from Haven to Deep River, a journey that would take an Arcan army a month or more, but would take a human army even longer.

      She had to admit a grudging respect of the Arcans, though she’d never say that out loud.  So many volunteered to serve in the army, to protect Haven, that they had to turn most of then away.  It gave them the chance to go through all the Arcans and pick the ones that would be the best soldiers, the strongest, the fastest, the smartest, and enrolling many of the rejects into support roles such as livestock wranglers, supply wagon drivers, quartermasters, cooks, and attendants that helped the army in any way it could as it moved and camped.  On top of those conscripts, they had a core of several thousand fighting Arcans, the militia of sorts that protected the lands of Haven before this emergency.  These were grizzled, seasoned, tough Arcans who were very deadly in a fight, and on top of that, the vast majority of them were very intelligent.  Those were now her officers in this army, leading elements of conscripts because they understood fighting and would be able to make critical battlefield decisions that might win a battle.  All of them, fighting Arcans, conscripts, and the support workers, were dedicated and focused on the task, a task even Danna had to admit was necessary.

      One thing she couldn’t fault the Arcans for, and that was their mobility.  They moved fast, even this large, disorganized mob that she laughably called an army.

      She knew what it would mean for Haven if humans pressed past the Smoke Mountains in any great number.  There would be war between the two, war instigated by the humans as they encroached on Arcan lands.  She had to admit to herself that she didn’t want to see that.  In the time she’d been in Haven, she didn’t feel like this was her home, but she had come to care for the Arcans in her own way.  She had enough compassion for them to feel that they deserved this place, a place where they could live without fear or enslavement, and while she didn’t like the idea of fighting her own people, she couldn’t deny that she felt the Arcans deserved a chance to make it on their own.  For that reason, and only that reason, she had formed this army.  She still didn’t think she’d lead it against her own people when the bets were on the table, but she had given the Arcans their chance.

      The army was designed based on everything Danna knew about the military, and it was not modeled on the Loreguard.  Danna was a student of history, part of her inquisitive nature, and she had based her army on historical models, taking the best and most practical elements of armies of history and combining them into a system that worked for the Arcans.  The army was built on elements that she’d first called squads, but the Arcans had decided to call packs…and that term stuck.  A pack of 12 Arcans was led by a sergeant, three packs were led by a lieutenant, and a congregate of 12 packs was led by a captain.  Most armies had similar small divisions, but when the time came to fight, they tended to operate in much larger formations.  This army would not.  It was based on the small element, and it would operate the same way.  Communication was no problem, because of the Shaman.  A single Shaman could use a spell that caused every Arcan in the army to hear the same command, and it could not be heard by anything but an Arcan.  The Shaman could also direct those orders to specific elements, which would give the commander the ability to quickly and securely communicate with any part of the army in real time, which was a critical and huge tactical advantage in modern warfare.  Human armies relied on alchemical talkers, which could be attacked and disrupted by other alchemical devices…or by Shaman.  Her army would have complete communication, and the commander would have total control of the army at all times.

      Weaponry…that was another matter.  The primary weapon of this army was the Shaman.  A single Shaman could devastate an enemy position with magic, but they had many more uses than that.  Shaman had gone out and used their magic to tame many of the dangerous animals of the plains, and now the army had a component of enthralled Wolverans, Ursoraxes, Tauron, Lupans, and Cougrans.  A single Wolveran was a nightmare with which no sane man would want to tangle, yet the Shaman had brought fifteen of those nasty brutes into the army, where they acted like friendly puppies and were surprisingly easy to manage.  Add to those the massive bear-like Ursoraxes and four packs of wolf-like animals the size of horses known as Lupans and six buffalo-sized big cats that looked like gigantic versions of rock lions, and they had a nasty, nasty core of monsters that would fight on their side.  In addition to that, Shaman were supporting the war cause as well.  Because they had spells that could shape metal and other items, they were producing the parts that gunsmiths and alchemists needed for their devices far faster than they could be manufactured by normal means, which had dramatically accelerated the production of weapons for the army.  A single Shaman could create every part needed for a musket in about three minutes, and then it just came down to a gunsmith taking those parts and assembling them into a finished product.  Shaman acted in both direct roles to fight in the battle and support roles to help the army coordinate, communicate, and operate, and that made them highly valuable to the cause.  As far as mundane weaponry went, the Arcans were armed with anything they could find, and unfortunately, that meant they were underequipped.  Some of them had muskets or pistols, some of them had alchemical weapons, but some had no weapons but knives, clubs, spears, or their teeth and claws.  They had organized what weaponry they had so every pack had at least one musket and at least one shockrod or other alchemical weapon, but there was little more.  The alchemists and gunsmiths of Haven were working around the clock without rest to produce weapons, but even with the help of Shaman to quickly produce the parts they needed, there weren’t many alchemists or gunsmiths in Haven and there were thousands of Arcan soldiers who needed weapons.  They were trying their very hardest, but sheer numbers were hard to ignore.  Every day, boxes and cases of new weapons caught up to the army, but Danna had done the math and she knew that by the time they reached Deep River, only half of the army would be armed with ranged weapons.  Without more ranged weaponry, their tactics would revolve around night attacks where the Arcans would attempt to get within melee range before being detected, deal damage, then retreat, classic guerilla tactics.  And Arcans were outstanding guerilla fighters.  They could see in total darkness, had powerful senses, and the vast majority of them could move with surprising stealth when necessary, even when encumbered with battle gear.  Danna was certain that she could get half her army up to a position’s outer perimeter before the sentries had any idea there was anything amiss.  With that kind of stealth, an Arcan army could blindside almost any opponent, which got them around the greatest advantage of the enemy, their artillery and muskets.

      The Arcans had one true advantage over the invaders, and that was numbers.  The army behind her numbered nearly 200,000, where she was sure that no more than 20,000 men were marching in from the east.  After all, the Loremasters believed that there was nothing out here but the occasional human frontier village and roaming wild Arcans.  They had no idea that there was a large nation of coordinated Arcans on this side of the mountains.  They would send only what men they needed to secure their position, saving their armies for the east side of the mountains, where the kingdoms of Noraam posed a much greater threat that they could see.  But she knew well history, and had read of more than one battle where a vastly outnumbered force with a technological advantage defeated a much larger but more primitive one.  Danna had the advantage of numbers, but she couldn’t just throw her superior numbers against a fortified position.  She had to manage those numbers very carefully, avoid a direct battle until she as absolutely convinced she could win with a minimal of losses to her side.  Until she was sure of that, they would use their superior numbers to surrounded the invaders, then settle in and starve them to death while sniping at them using guerilla attacks conducted at night.

      She knew that the invaders would be heavily outnumbered, but she had to save every soldier she could, for one simple reason.  When the humans learned of an organized Arcan army on the west side of the mountains, they would march over them in force to destroy it.  She had to keep a tight control on things and take absolutely no risks whatsoever, because she was going to need every soldier, every musket, and every shockrod she could get her hands on after they defeated the initial expeditionary force.  This was just the first skirmish.  The real war would be later, and that would be war of defense as the Arcans protected their home from a human army determined to wipe them out.

      It had certainly been a challenge to organize.  The Arcans had determination, but no training and no equipment.  She was riding at the vanguard of an army armed primarily with sticks, and leading them against a well trained, highly disciplined opponent armed with muskets, cannons, shockrods, and death machines.  Given those options, when it did come to fighting, everyone knew that their only chance was to attack from surprise and get among the enemy before they could bring those weapons to bear, because in hand to hand combat, Arcans had all the weapons they needed without picking up a single thing.  A death machine could kill hundreds, maybe thousands of soldiers with one use, but it was useless if the enemy was intermingled with friendly troops…unless the field commander was a ruthless bastard.  And ruthless bastards didn’t keep the loyalty of their men for very long.

      But battle would be the last resort.  Their plan was to let the invading army settle in Deep River, then cut it off using their superior numbers and choke them, starve them to death through the winter.   An army had to eat, and there wasn’t enough food in Deep River to feed an army through the winter.  After the humans were weakened, if they didn’t surrender, then they would attack Deep River, but do so very, very carefully, for the invaders would have had all winter to fortify the town against assault.

      She hated it when he did this to her, made her wear Arcan fur.  It never felt right to her.  Kyven said he’d gotten used to being an Arcan, but she sure as fury did not feel right like this.  She couldn’t walk right when she was changed, and she couldn’t speak clearly, and unlike him, she certainly didn’t get any perks out of it.  She didn’t get better senses or more strength.  It was nothing but skin deep, forced into an Arcan shape but not getting any Arcan benefits, getting the worst of both worlds out of her “bargain.”

      That fucking fox.  It was all her fault!  She was the one that had approached Danna, speaking through Firetail, and she’d made it sound so logical, that she would be protecting Kyven’s life.  She still had no idea why on earth she ever agreed to this, but at the time it seemed like a good idea.  Well, it sure as hell wasn’t a good idea now.

      She hated this.  Hated it!  The fur was always itchy, and her deformed legs made her walk like a drunken sailor, and she couldn’t speak clearly to save her life, and she scratched herself with the claws more than anything else.  And even when she tried to get used to it, usually right as she started getting the hang of things, poof, she was herself again, and it was like she forgot it all and had to start over the next time she changed.

      And she never knew when!  That was what really baked her potato.  There was never any warning it was going to happen, just bang like a musket shot, and she was changing.  Once it had happened when she was in the privy, and that had not been pleasant!  At least the changes were painless, just a weird feeling like her bones turned to water…but the threat of being changed at any time often made her go around without shoes at first, since her boots were never made to fit an Arcan’s deformed foot.  She’d gone barefoot for nearly a week, until a cobbler made her a pair of soft moccasin-like half boots that could contain her Arcan foot when she changed, yet still fit her human foot comfortably.  The threat of changing made her a little short-tempered sometimes, if it had been a while since it happened, but always after she returned to herself, changed back to a human, came the calm, easy period where she was much more friendly…since she knew it would be at least as long as she was an Arcan before she could change again.

      She still cursed at her stupid decision, and wondered what hair got in her oatmeal that made her agree to such an idiotic thing.

      “Stop scratching,” Firetail said lightly, padding along beside her walking horse.

      “I hrate this,” she growled through her Arcan muzzle, with which it was so hard to make normal sounds!  “Hrate it!  Whren I gret my hrands on that fox, I’m gronna strrangre her!”

      “Well, I think you look quite handsome, dear,” Firetail told her with a light smile.

      “Oh, shut up,” she snapped.  At least riding as an Arcan wasn’t bad, she noticed.  They’d started out from Haven two days ago, and it was a blissful two days without changing, spent in the saddle or in tents.  She still wasn’t entirely sure about this insanity, but Firetail had managed to talk pretty fast to keep her here.  The idea of attacking her own people with an Arcan army really didn’t sit well with her, but the one thing she couldn’t deny was that what the Loremasters were doing was against the treaties they had signed, and the Arcans absolutely could not permit them to gain a foothold in the wildlands.   She still hadn’t decided what she was going to do, but for now, she had agreed to ride with the army, to continue to command it until they got down closer to the Loremasters, when she’d decide if she was permanently betraying her own people or if she was holding to at least some shred of her humanity and dignity.

      Humanity and dignity.  Both had been tested since she’d agreed to help Kyven, because it put her face to face with one of the Shaman’s spirits.  Looking at it, being able to see it, and listening to it speak had shaken her faith in her religion a little bit.  Danna had heard very bad things about this spirit, this fox, that she was a dark, uncaring bitch, and speaking with her had cemented that impresson in her mind.  She seemed…cold.  There was no warmth in her voice or her words, and when she broached the idea of Danna helping Kyven, it was all about logic, not about compassion for Kyven.  Kyven had once told her that this spirit all but owned him, and didn’t care a whit about him.  Kyven was her possession, her pet, and her concern for him was more like a warrior’s concern for keeping his musket clean and serviceable more than it was concern for a living thing.

      And she knew he was right after talking to her just once.

      Maybe that was why she agreed to help, because Trinity, someone had to show Kyven a little compassion.  She couldn’t deny that helping Kyven would keep him safe, and so she agreed to help, because some little corner of her wanted him to be okay, wanted him to live.

      Wanted him.

      She gasped as a sudden cold wave washed through her.  Her bones and muscles seemed to turn to cold water, and she felt herself, well, pouring into another shape.  She was almost giddy with delight when she realized that she was returning to her normal form, and she was looking forward to about two hours of freedom from the fear of changing at any second.  “That’s better,” she said, shrugging her shoulders, then pushing her hair from her face.

      Firetail stopped dead on the road, which caused Danna to rein in her horse and look back.  She had the strangest expression on her face, and she was looking down, in front of Danna.  Danna glanced in front of her horse, and to her surprise and malevolent glee, that damned fox was sitting in the middle of the road!  Now she was going to give that spirit bitch a piece of her mind!

      Her eyes blazed with sudden green light, and the amulet around Danna’s neck suddenly burned like fire!

      She was changing again, but this time it wasn’t the cold water feeling, it was like someone poured boiling water into her bones!  She gasped, gave a shuddering retching sound, then literally screamed as the amulet around her neck blazed forth with sudden incandescent light, a light that burned into her, infusing her with power, a light that both scoured something inside of her away, and replaced with with something new, something different.  She felt her muscles lose all control, felt herself falling from the horse, and then she was laying on the ground as the blazing light brought pain, and that pain scoured rational thought out of her.

      It lasted only a few seconds, but to Danna, those seconds were an eternity of agony.  But mercifully, the pain eased along with the light, and she was able to think again, to move.  She was in Firetail’s arms, and the old cougar looked down at her with shocked eyes.

      Wait a minute…why was there a muzzle at the bottom of her vision?

      She held her hand up, and saw the black fur and the claws.  She’d changed again?  It was too soon!  The amulet wouldn’t let Kyven change again so soon after changing back.

      “Spirit,” Firetail said both reverently and hesitantly.  “What has happened?”

      “He has been captured by the Loremasters,” she answered dryly.  “I have returned what I took from him.  He is human again.”

      “Whru--whrat happened?” Danna asked as her head cleared and she could think again.

      “I have taken from you what I took from him, female, and restored it to him,” the fox intoned in a sonorous voice, her unblinking eyes staring into  Danna’s own.  “He is human again, and you are now the Arcan that replaces him.  For now.”

      “Whrat?  Yrou mean I’rm stuck lrike this?”

      “Until such time as I have what I want from you,” she answered with a sniff.

      “Whrat does that mrean?”

      “A race cannot be built by only one,” she answered bluntly.  “When you produce your first litter of shadow fox Arcans, you will give them to Umbra to raise, I will restore your humanity to you, and you will be free.  Until then, Danna Pannen, you belong to me.”

      “Whrat?” she gasped, outraged.  “That wasn’t whrat yrou said!”

      “You did not listen, and made a foolish bargain,” she answered, nonplussed.

      Firetail, however, wasn’t listening to that.  “Spirit, what happened to Kyven?” she asked.

      The fox turned her gaze to the Shaman.  “He was foolish, and will now pay for his lack of wisdom.   But it is of no moment.  He has served his purpose.  I have no more use for him.”

      “Whrat?  Kyven was captrured?” Danna gasped.

      “Yes.  Fear not that he will betray us, I have wiped such dangerous things from his mind and replaced it with information that will send them down the wrong path.  He will tell them what I wish them to know, no more.  Once he gives to them what I wish them to hear, he will have served his purpose,” she sniffed impassively.

      Danna could barely comprehend it.  “Yrou, BITCH!” she screamed, suddenly struggling against Firetail to lunge out and grab that mangy bitch by the neck and shake her til her head fell off!  How could she be so cruel?  Kyven had done everything she told him to do, and now she was just throwing him away like he was nothing!

      The fox just stared at her with those glowing eyes, slightly amused, then she just vanished.  Danna could only stare after where she had been fear and shock and outrage and cold fury churning all mixed up inside her.  Kyven…captured?  They would put out his eyes, then torture him until he told them everything, then they’d kill him!  Kyven.  Kyven!

      “Nro!” she said desperately.  “Nro, nro, nro, NRO!”

      “Shh,” Firetail said gently, keeping firm grip on the newest shadow fox Arcan.  “Calmly, child, calmly.  It will be alright.”

      “Nro it won’t!” she said, bursting into tears.  “They’rr kirr him, Firretrair!”

      “If that is the way it must be, then that is the way it must be.  We can only hope he dies well, child.”

      “Hrow can yrou say that!” she demanded in a choking voice.

      “I say that because I love him, child,” she answered in a sad voice.  “There is nothing we can do for him now, child.  All we can do is pray to the spirits that they take him quickly, so he does not suffer, and he dies with dignity and honor.  For an Arcan, that is a very important thing.  We do not fear death when it is a death of our own choosing.  Because we love him, we can pray that Kyven’s death may be so.”

      Overwhelmed, Danna broke down into wracking sobs, clutching at Firetail like a child.  He was going to die…he was going to die….

      And she never once told him how she felt about him.

 

      Moving through the realm of the spirits, the shadow fox padded down a familiar path, her feet steady and her mind occupied.

      The seeds were sown, both the truth and the lies.  Now, as always, came the waiting for the harvest.

      Only then would they see the lies within the truth, and the truth within the lies.  If they could even understand what they were seeing.  Sometimes mortals were very dense creatures, which made it that much easier for her to manipulate them.

      It was good.  Her Shaman was in the hands of the enemy, right where she wanted him, and despite what she told the mortals, his mind was completely untouched.  That was said mainly for their benefit, as much as her pretended indifference to his fate was naught but a goad prodding Danna Pannen to admit a truth within herself.  In time, her Shaman would be in the perfect position to do the most good, though he would not understand that until the time came.  Returning his humanity had come at the proper time, and would itself serve its purpose in the game about to be played with the Loremasters, just as much as what she did not take from her Shaman would serve him well at the proper time, and be the key instrument through which he would serve his purpose.  Danna was now hers, having foolishly bargained away her freedom just as her Shaman had done, and the female would remain hers until it pleased her to let her go.

      Guile and deceit.

      The fox was content with the progression of things, and would now turn her mind to the last piece of her puzzle, which would also be both the most challenging and the most enjoyable prey to stalk.

      Toby Fisher.

      Unlike her Shaman or Danna Pannen, the hunter was neither naïve nor foolish.  He would be a difficult prey to catch.

      But catch him she would.  In time, he would belong to her.

      It was inevitable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    4      6

Chapter 5

 

      He…hurt.

      There was pain everywhere, when he finally climbed back out of the black pit.  Everywhere.  It wasn’t excruciating pain, but it was pain.  He couldn’t remember why he was in pain, and there was nothing but that pain.  There was no light.  There was no sound.  The air in his lungs had no smell.  The only sensation, sensory input he had was pain.

      But in a way, the pain was good.  It told him that he was alive.

      Over time, how much he didn’t know, the sense of the pain seemed to refine. At first, he was only aware of pain a vague pain that seemed to be everywhere, but then that pain seemed to diverge, to shift, and he became aware of different types of pain.  There was a pain in his head that was a dull throbbing that was pounded in his skull with every beat of his heart.  There was a sharp pain in his wrists and ankles, as something dug into them, and he became aware of a dull ache in his joints, the ache of joints held in an awkward position for a long time.  The divulgence of the pain was still all there was, though.  There was still no sound, there was still no light, there was still no smell.

      For how long  he did not know, the separation of the pain was all there was, as each sensation became more distinct, sharper, until he became aware of a new sensation…cold.  His skin was cold.  It was cold, even as he felt...water?  Water.  There was water on his skin.

      Skin.  Skin…not fur.  Skin.

      It was like a jolt behind his eyes.  He came much more in focus and much of his rational mind came back to him all at once.  Yes…skin!  Skin, not fur!  He felt inside himself, took stock of the sensations that were now coming to his brain, and he realized that there was no tail sprouting out from the upper cleft of his buttocks.  The tail was gone, and his ears were not on top of his head, and his tongue in his mouth revealed a very small, flat mouth filled with human teeth.

      That should be impossible.  With cognizance came memory, and the last thing he remembered was trying to enter the shadows, trying to enter the shadows in his Arcan form.  He could only change with conscious effort.  He should not be in his human shape now, because he had not enacted the change…and besides, the amulet had to rest once he returned to his Arcan body.  It could not have changed him back, unless he’d been asleep for hours.

      Wait a minute….

      More and more memory came back to him.  He had been trying to enter the shadows while in the Loremasters’ headquarters, because he had been found out.  Not found out as a Shaman, the Loreguard had tracked his activities during his Walk back to him, back when he was a human.  They hadn’t been after him because he was the Shaman they were seeking, but they had to know he was the one they wanted now.  They had seen him, maybe even seen him change from human to Arcan.  How did he come to be…wherever he was?  And why could he not see or hear anything?

      He tried to move an arm.  He tensed his muscles  in his left arm, and felt them respond.  He shifted his arm, but felt something pull against his wrist, and pull painfully.

      Manacle.  It was a manacle.  He got more of a sense of himself, and realized that he was vertical, that the pain he felt before was the manacles biting into his wrists, pressing against his hands because he was hanging from them.

      Oh, spirits.  He was in chains.

      They had captured him.

      No wonder he couldn’t see.  They must have taken out his eyes.  He tried to open his eyes to the spirits, but there was…nothing.  Nothing.  Nothing but darkness.  All he could feel was something wrapped around the upper part of his face, and he found that his eyelids didn’t seem to work anymore…they were sealed shut.  He tried to move his eyes, to see if they were under those sealed lids, and he felt nothing against his lids, felt or sensed no movement behind them, though he felt a strange tingling around his upper face and head, a tingling that seemed odd, strange.

      He wilted against his chains.  Robbed of his eyes, he couldn’t even kill himself using magic.  The eyes of a Shaman were literally the focus of his power, and without his eyes, a Shaman had no power.  They had captured him, they had removed his only way to keep them from learning anything from him, and he again felt the cage of the Ledwell plantation forming around him.  He was again a prisoner, again a slave.  But this time he would have a short, brutal time before they killed him.  He had no doubt they would interrogate him before they killed him, and they would not be gentle.

      All he could hope to do was take his secrets to the grave with him.

      He steeled himself.  He had to do just that.  No matter what they did, he had to keep the others safe.  He had to protect Clover, protect Lightfoot and the children--if they were still alive--protect Haven and his Shaman brothers and sisters.  He could give them nothing.

      But…he was human.  That still made no sense.  Why was he human now, when he could not have changed back?  The amulet required him to trigger it through conscious will--

      The amulet.  It was gone.  It wasn’t there!  He couldn’t feel it around his neck!

      But, but he couldn’t be human without that amulet unless--

      He almost gasped.  The fox had changed him back!  She had restored his humanity!  And that bitch had done it at the worst possible time!  He could have used his shadow powers to try to escape.  But now, if he was human once more, then he no longer had those powers, and that meant that he was truly, completely, and utterly helpless to the merciless Loremasters.

      She had abandoned him.  He realized that now.  She saw he was captured, and instead of trying to help him as she did once before, she instead took from him what she gave him to deny the Loremasters the chance to examine his Arcan body and left him behind without a second thought, abandoning him to his fate.

      She had betrayed him.  And in a mocking action of keeping her word, she had indeed restored his humanity, as she said she would.

      It seemed that even when she kept her word, it was filled with guile and deceit.

      He couldn’t even find any fury in himself over it.  It was, after all, her nature…and she could not go against her nature.  She had told him that she did not care for him, only cared that he obeyed her.  He was no longer any use to her, and so she left him behind, and would not give him another thought.  Her tool was broken, so she cast it aside and would seek another.

      He was alone.

      Wait…or was he?

      His spirit was cold and ruthless, but she was not stupid.  The logical thing to do for her would have been to kill him.  If she could change him back into a human, then she could have easily killed him, to deny the Loremasters what he knew.  But she didn’t.  She had to have a reason for not killing him, she had to have a reason for leaving him alive and in the hands of their enemies.  There was something she wanted him to do here, there had to be.  Some part of the plan she had that she didn’t show him.  She had abandoned him to die, yes, but it was clear that she wanted him to do something before that happened.  The stakes were too high in this game for her to risk Kyven’s vast knowledge of the Shaman and Haven to fall into the hands of the Loremasters.  She didn’t care about him, but she did care about the big picture, else she’d never have set Kyven on his path in the first place.

      And what of him?  Would he play that part?  Would he still obey his spirit even after she threw him to the wolves?

      Yes.  Too much was at stake, and this wasn’t about him.  He was just a soldier on the battlefield, and in this battle, he was expendable.  All that mattered was his duty to the Arcans, his duty as a Shaman, to protect the defenseless, serve the spirits, and try to stop the Loremasters from doing the unthinkable.  He was needed, and he would serve that need.

      For him, there would be no happy ending.  But so long as there was a happy ending for the Arcans, then he would be content.  That would be his happy ending.  That would be his little victory.

      All he had to do was figure out what she wanted him to do.  Once he did that, he would be ready to meet the spirits face to face…if that indeed was what happened to Shaman when they died, as Clover said.  According to Clover, a Shaman who died became a spirit himself, to serve the spirits beyond the flesh, while the spirits of others…moved on.  Kyven didn’t really believe that, but if it was true, maybe he’d get a chance to punch the shadow fox in the mouth for everything she put him through when he was alive.

      That thought comforted him.  He should have been terrified to be hanging by chains in the clutches of the Loremasters, but he felt an odd peace.  He knew he had something to do here, and because of that…he had nothing to fear.  He was a Shaman, and he would act like one.  Clover wouldn’t whimper or whine in her chains, she would stand tall and act with dignity, even under the whip.  He would do the same.  They would not get the satisfaction of seeing him cower in fear.

      But that didn’t change his situation much.  He could see nothing, hear nothing, could only feel the pain of hanging by manacles and a throbbing in his head that came from a knot just over his left ear.  They must have hit him with something, but he couldn’t remember.  There was nothing for him to do but hang there, hurt, and wait.

 

      Time is a funny thing when one has no concept of its passage.  He honestly had no idea how long he hung there, for the only indication he had of the passage of time was the change in the pain in his body.  The throbbing in his head eased, but the pain in his arms and body increased from hanging with his full weight on those manacles for longer and longer.  His feet were not on the ground, and they were also chained slightly behind him, forcing him to lean forward with his arms more behind him, adding to the awkwardness of the position and therefore the pain it caused.  He swam in a haze, where it was hard to think, which he thought was because he was hit in the head, and hit hard.  That blow had addled him, caused him to drift in and out of periods of rationality, but over time, the pain of the blow to his head did fade, and with it came a more solid concept of the passage of time.  That time dragged by as the pain in his arms and back got worse and worse…and then he heard something.

      It was faint. Very faint.  At first, he thought it was just a figment of his imagination.  But he heard…the sound of his own breathing.   He was sure of it.  He inhaled, and heard the sound of the air filling his lungs.  Slowly, he became aware of another sound, the faint rattle of chains from somewhere above him, the chains holding him up.  He shifted his hand, and heard the very faint yet unmistakable sound of to chain links clicking together.  Quicker than he thought, his ears seemed to recover from whatever had rendered them useless, and he became aware of more sounds.  The faint dripping of water far distant.  He thought he heard the scraping of a boot, but it was such a faint sound that he wasn’t sure.  Then he heard faint skittering of a type that told him it was a mouse or other small creature.

      His nose seemed to wake up, too.  His Arcan sense of smell was gone, but he could smell dank, almost stale air, air that was cool, almost cold, moist, and unpleasant both in his lungs and against his skin.  He could smell the faint odor of detritus, the smell of human waste, and could smell both the tang of sweat and the metallic scent of blood.  Probably his own blood.

      A voice.  A very faint voice, from a distance, or maybe through a door.  He couldn’t make out what it said, but it was clear to him it was a man, speaking in a low tone, probably to someone standing just beside him or very close to him.  Guards, maybe?  It had to be.  If he was hanging from chains, then he had to be in a place that was set up for it, and needed to be close to where they would torture him.  Torture wasn’t a business one conducted without having the proper tools available, so that meant they either had to bring those tools to him, or take him to those tools…and odds were they would take him to the tools.  Those tools would be in a secure location where they could keep him under complete control, and where his screams wouldn’t arouse any attention or upset anyone of a mild disposition.  He had to be in a jail or dungeon, either under the Loremaster headquarters or in the fabled Black Keep, the prison of the Loremasters and the Free Territories.

      Another voice, and it seemed to be growing stronger.  It was moving closer.  Another voice, deeper, rougher.  It too was moving, getting stronger, moving closer.  The sounds of footsteps, more than one.  Yes, people were moving, moving towards him.

      He felt no fear as he realized that the time had come, and they were coming for him.

      He was certain he was in a dungeon when he heard hinges squealing in protest as a door was opened.  It was hard to tell if it was in front of him or behind him, but it was definitely either or.  He was hanging parallel to that door.  The voices stopped when the door opened, and he imagined the visitors were standing at the door, regarding him hanging there motionless with his head hanging down, unsure if he was awake or unconscious.

      A man in terror would have hung there silent as the grave, hoping they would think him unconscious and leave him be at least for a little while longer, but Kyven was not a man with fear inside him.  “I do hope I’m not offending any sensibilities,” he said in a weary, weak voice.  “If there’s a lady present, I apologize, for I do think that I’m not wearing anything.”

      “You’ll offend no sensibilities here,” came a rather casual response, by a young man from the sound of it.  He could hear movement, and picked out four separate people standing near each other.

      “That’s a relief.  Trinity forbid I give some impressionable young lady impure thoughts.”

      “I doubt she’d be that pure if she got excited at the sight of a man in chains,” the voice said with a wry chuckle.

      “He won’t be chatty long,” came a growling reply.

      “Oh, leave off, Barker.  I rather like the man chatty.  Maybe that means our job will be easier.  He certainly seems to grasp his situation, and with far more dignity than other men, I might add.”

      “A man has little but his dignity when hanging naked from the ceiling,” Kyven said sagely, which actually made one of them laugh.

      “Ah, but you see, that’s one of the little things we’re going to talk about,” the young man said lightly, and from the sound of wood scraping, Kyven got the feeling he was sitting on a chair.  “When we caught you, you were the black fox Arcan Shaman we’ve been searching for.  But the instant we put grounders on you, you show yourself as a human, so we can only assume that the black fox was nothing but an elaborate disguise to conceal the truth of you.  Which, naturally, is impossible, so what we think is that you’re an Shaman transformed into a human by magic so you could get past our defenses.  Quite a curious little development, isn’t it?  So, one of the loose ends we’ll be tying up is figuring out just what you are, my dangling friend.”

      “I do hope my dangling looks menacing.  I think this is where I’m supposed to make some foolishly brave comment about how you’ll never make me talk.  I do so hope I can live up to your expectations.”

      “He’s fearless, alright,” a new voice spoke up.

      “A man in the right has nothing to fear,” Kyven said simply.  “When you’re done with me, I’ll go on to my reward.  How could a man show fear in the face of that?  A little pain now is a good trade for an eternity of happiness.”

      “Now he talks like a Eusican,” a fourth voice noted, the final unidentified person in the room.

      “No, he talks like a Shaman,” the young man said intently.  “But let’s start simply, my hanging friend.  We’re here to have a little chat in the presence of a truth crystal.  We’ll ask questions, and you will answer.  If you speak the truth and answer the question to our satisfaction, we move on to the next question.  Every time you lie, or every time you refuse to answer, we jab you with a pain stick.  You know what a pain stick is, don’t you?”

      “Intimately,” he said, shuddering a little deep inside.  He thought they would torture him with branding irons or blades, that they would be afraid to use an alchemical device on someone they suspected was a Shaman…but he guessed they felt that without his eyes, he was powerless and therefore the pain stick was the most effective tool.  He’d never considered them using a pain stick…maybe because that was something he didn’t particularly want to face.  It was certainly the best choice.  It was easy, it didn’t make a mess, and it didn’t require any extensive preparations…and a pain stick could incite far more pain than any other form of torture, with the added bonus of doing no actual injury.  Just the memory of the pain of the Ledwell’s collar was enough to make him go cold inside…but he would show no outward fear.

      “After we talk a while, if you behave and cooperate, we may even take you down from there and let you sleep a little in a more comfortable position.”

      “I see you haven’t put your truth crystal out yet,” Kyven said lightly, inwardly steeling himself for what he knew was going to come.  “I’d be expecting to hear it go off after a whopper like that.  You’ll learn what you want to know from me, and then you will kill me.  Then you’ll hang my body from the gibbet outside the Black Keep as a warning to others not to cross the Loremasters…which won’t make a whit of difference, because the world already thinks the lot of you are fools.”

      “I’d be careful who I called a fool in this room, prisoner,” the gravelly-voiced man growled.

      “Oh please.  Idle threats at this point?  Put up or shut up.”

      And the world exploded in pain.

      Kyven was proud of himself that he did not scream.  He knew it was coming, had goaded them into it on purpose, and he was ready.  His body did jerk and convulse slightly as it was assaulted with pure agony, washed to his bones in acid, and he gritted his teeth and clenched his eyelids shut tightly, gripping the chains attached to his manacles in a grip that nearly broke his finger bones.  But he did not cry out.  The tormentor only held the pain stick to him for a brief second, but that was like an eternity when it came to those cursed objects.  The pain vanished as quickly as it came, leaving Kyven weak and trembling, wilting against his chains…but he did not cry out.

      “Want me to put up again, you nothing little shit?” the gravel-voiced man growled.

      “You should check the crystal in that pain stick.  I think it’s about done,” Kyven said in a weak, panting voice, but his tone was light and off-handed.

      “How much help did you have, Arcan?” the deep-voiced man asked.  “How many are in your cell?”

      “Why, the entire city helped me,” Kyven chuckled weakly.  “Even your own Loremasters and Loreguard helped me.  You made it so easy.”  He raised his chin, and his hopes soared as he realized an important point.  “Found the shop burned to the ground, didn’t you?” he asked conversationally.

      There was a brief yet pregnant silence that told Kyven volumes.

      They had got out!   Bless the spirits, they had got out!  Praise be to Shario, that clever, clever man!  He got them out!

      “Shut up!  We ask the questions here!” the gravel-voiced man snapped angrily.

      “Oh, we know all about your Arcan helpers, and we’ll have them soon,” the young man purred.  “After all, they won’t be hard to find.  But let’s not jump around.  I think we should start with introductions, after all.  My name is Major Will Savage, and you will address me as Major, or Major Savage.  And you are?”

      “The king of Itana,” he answered pleasantly, and immediately heard a faint whine from their truth crystal.  “You may address me as your Imperial Majesty.”

      And the world exploded in pain.

      Again, Kyven did not cry out as his body jerked and recoiled from the pain stick held against the pit of his stomach.  His back arched severely as he gritted his teeth, and then the pain stick was removed, bringing blessed, wonderful relief.

      “I’m sure we’d like to keep this civil,” the man named Savage said calmly.

      “You forgot to say your Imperial Majesty,” Kyven corrected him.

      He paid for that bit of impertinence as well, as the pain stick was pressed against him and held against him longer, making him start to convulse after a few seconds, pain scouring away everything but the feeling that he had been dropped into Hell.

      “We have all day, Master Steelhammer,” Savage said in a relaxed manner.  “And lots of crystals for our pain stick.  All you have to do is cooperate, and it can be much more pleasant.  We are civilized men, and contrary to your beliefs, we don’t particularly enjoy having to do this.”

      “Then I hope I single-handedly cause a crystal shortage for crystals that fit in pain sticks,” Kyven said weakly.  “I think if I force you to use more barbaric forms of torture, you might be too squeamish to be serious about it.  Because you’re such civilized men, you understand.  Do you faint at the sight of blood?”

      He paid for that, too.  The stick was held against him for nearly fifteen seconds, and his teeth clenched for so long that he almost felt like they were going to shatter as he endured unspeakable agony.

      “You will address me as Major,” the man said, less polite.

      “I will do anything that pisses you off, if only because it amuses me,” Kyven answered immediately.

      “I think we need to take the sass out of him, Major,” the gravel-voiced man urged.

      “I do believe you’re right, Sergeant.  We’ll go have some coffee while you take care of it.”

      The gravel-voiced Sergeant was a man whom Arthur Ledwell would have admired, for he clearly enjoyed torturing people.  For nearly half an hour, Kyven endured applications of a pain stick that left him so weak that the blows to his face and stomach from a man’s fist barely registered, almost felt like love taps in comparison.  Nothing could compare to the agony that could be exacted with a pain stick, and compared to that, his need to beat Kyven’s body was as nothing.  The gravel-voiced man never said a word, never made a sound outside of sharp exhales that accompanied his punches into Kyven’s prostrated stomach and chest.  He would hold the pain stick to Kyven until he was about to pass out from the pain, and then relent and let him recover while he amused himself with blows to Kyven’s body.

      Kyven’s Shaman training served him well over that agonizing time.  His body was in peak physical condition, and tensed muscles absorbed much of the impact of the physical blows safely, even as his Shaman stamina allowed him to quickly recover from the aftereffects of the pain stick.  But over time, he began to weaken, to tire.  Resisting the pain stick was much harder than working with magic, and tired him quickly.  But he continued to try to resist.

      By the time he heard the other three men file back in, he was trembling and exhausted from the pain stick.  It was harder to think now, and he couldn’t seem to keep his breath, and his muscles were shivering violently.  He’d never been exposed to a pain stick for that long before, and could only guess what kind of effect it had on a body over time.  “Now that you’re less sassy,” the major noted in a calm voice.  “Let’s start again, shall we?  What is your name?”

      “Major…Will…Savage,” he answered between heavy breaths.

      “Not what is my name, what is your name?” he demanded in a harsher tone.

      “Why…I don’t really know…what a your name is.  I’ve never thought…about it.”

      “Sergeant.”

      And the world exploded in pain.  Kyven again refused to scream as the pain stick burned into his very soul, but then the pain seemed to waver, then weaken…then it vanished.  He could feel the tip of the pain stick against his stomach, and he laughed weakly.  “That’s…one…crystal,” he declared between heavy pants of breath.  “I do…hope…you have…extras handy.”

      There was a quiet grumbling, and he heard one of them stump towards the door.  As he hung there, weary, exhausted, he pondered something curious that had just occurred to him as the pain stick was applied.  They had taken his eyes, and his eyes were the focus of his power…but were they all of his power?  He couldn’t cast spells, and since he couldn’t open his eyes to the spirits, he couldn’t channel magic from the spirit world into the material world.  But…could he use energy that was already here?  He didn’t have to be able to see in order to use a blessing, and since he would be shaping the power himself, he didn’t necessarily need the fox’s consent either.

      Not that that would be much help, since he only knew two blessings, and neither would help him here.  But, what he could do is stockpile that power, and try to use it to kill himself.  Now that he thought he might be able to accomplish.

      It couldn’t be blatant, if he tried and it worked.  If they jabbed him with a pain stick and it didn’t work, they might figure out that he had drained the crystal.  They thought he was a Shaman, which was why he couldn’t see now, and they thought they had neutralized his power.  If he didn’t drain enough power to kill himself, then they’d react, and it might not be pretty.  The pain stick would definitely be replaced then, replaced with red-hot irons, serrated blades, barbed hooks, ropes and chains, and all the trapments of what most people imagined a torture chamber contained.

      He heard gravel-voice return to the room, heard something smack against a hand, probably some auditory warning to Kyven that he had a new pain stick, but Kyven wasn’t paying attention to that right now.  He was focusing on the strange tingling that still persisted around his upper face and head, because when he started pondering the possibility of draining a crystal, that tingling, faint but tactile, seemed sharper to him.

      Tingling…of course!  Why didn’t he realize it before, he felt that tingle all the time in his fingers!  He must have been more addled by that blow to his head than he thought, it made him miss something so obvious!

      They had something alchemical wrapped around his head!

      He searched that tingling with his senses, and found it.  There was definitely a crystal there, he could sense it now that he was actively looking for it.  It was attached to him through what felt like a mesh of metal wire cloth wrapped around his eyes like a bandage.

      The question now, was, why was it there?  He had to find out.  He had to trick one of them into saying something about the device that might help him understand it.

      “Are you or are you not Kyven Steelhammer?” the major demanded.

      “I am…and I’m not,” he answered, a bit more stable now that he had a moment to rest and recover.  “I am both.”

      “The truth crystal disagrees with one part of that statement, Master Steelhammer,” the major warned.  “You’d better clarify before the Sergeant takes issue.”

      “Then let me say that I used to be Kyven Steelhammer.”

      “Then who are you now?” another asked after a pause.

      “Kyven Steelhammer,” he answered simply.

      “Took the name after he replaced the real one,” he heard a bare whisper.  Spirits, were they dense!  Confronted with incontrovertible proof that a human had used Shaman magic, they still would not accept what they had seen.  They believed him to be an Arcan changed into a human by magic…when the reality was the exact opposite!

      “Who were you before?” another voice asked.

      “Kyven Steelhammer,” he answered.  When he heard a long silence, he knew that this statement, which passed muster with their truth crystal, was now giving them a bit of trouble.

      “Are you the same Kyven Steelhammer that is registered with the guild as being trained in Atan by Master Holm?”

      “That’s the identity I once possessed.”

      “Since you seem to know how to talk around a truth crystal, I want a yes or no answer, or you get fifteen seconds with the pain stick,” the major warned.  “And if you don’t answer, you get thirty seconds. “Now answer the question.”

      “No.”  Silly man, he didn’t specifically ask which question Kyven was to answer, therefore any answer he gave would be correct so long as he thought of a question for which that answer was the right one.

      “Then where did you learn to appraise and cut crystals?  What artisan taught an Arcan such skills?”

      “A dead man who is beyond your reach,” he said with a slightly amused voice.

      “What was his name?”

      “Whose name?”

      “The man who taught you?” came an annoyed response.

      “Aven,” he answered.  The man didn’t ask what he was taught, and Aven had taught him quite a bit about prospecting.  “Don’t bother looking for him, he’s dead.  Was killed by a Touched Arcan about a year ago.”

      “Alright then, how did you manage to become human, Arcan?  What magic is this?”

      “No magic did this,” he said simply, which was true.  Magic didn’t change him, his spirit did.  Just how she changed him, he couldn’t say exactly, and since he wasn’t sure she used magic in the sense to which the man was referring, therefore his statement was not untrue.

      “He’s cheating the truth crystal, Major,” the older voice called out.  “He clearly knows how they work.  You’ll have to question him as if he was testifying at a trial.  Everything must be explicit.”

      “Well then, let’s begin again, and if your answers don’t match what you’ve already given, we’ll have to make sure you pay for it,” the major said calmly.  “Is your name Kyven Steelhammer?”

      “Yes,” he answered.

      “Are you the same Kyven Steelhammer trained by Master Holm of Atan?”

      “Yes,” he answered, seeing no other way to interpret it that would allow him to cheat the crystal.  He would give them the little things they probably already knew, and save his strength for enduring the pain stick when it came time to refuse to answer the important questions.

      “Impossible!” he heard one of them whisper.

      “Are you a Shaman?” he asked directly.

      “No.  I’m not.”  Without his eyes, he was not a Shaman.  Take that, truth crystal and explicit questions.

      “We have documented evidence you used Shaman magic!” the fifth man finally called, who sounded like an old man.

      Kyven laughed scornfully.  “You have no idea,” he said cryptically.

      “So you admit that you are Kyven Steelhammer, crystalcutter, Artisan, trained by Master Holm of Atan?”

      “I am,” he admitted.

      “Then how did you use magic?” the major demanded.  “What alchemical device did you have that allowed you to look like an Arcan and mimic the spells of a Shaman?”

      “That device was destroyed when you put the grounders on me,” he answered honestly.  That was when the foxhead medallion was destroyed, he had to guess, because it wasn’t on him now.  And it did give him the power to look like an Arcan…sort of.

      “Who made it for you?”

      “No body did,” he said cryptically.  Since the fox was not a living thing with a body, therefore to say that no body made it for him was essentially correct.  That they would construe his response as nobody rather than no body was not his affair.

      “What is the name of the one who made that device?” the older voice demanded, seeing through his trick.

      “Names are like clothes, who knows which is the cloak and which is the shift?” he answered simply.  “Names are a dangerous thing, and best left packed in your suitcase with your underwear.”

      “You’re getting perilously close to tasting the pain stick, Steelhammer,” the major warned.

      “My dear fellow, I haven’t spoken a single truth since you started questioning me,” Kyven said lightly.  “I do indeed know how truth crystals work, and I can get around them, no matter how careful you think you are in framing your questions.  I can make yours get up and dance across the table, if you’d like.  Want to see it?”

      And the world exploded in pain.  He still refused to scream, refused to give them that satisfaction, kept his teeth clenched as he endured the agony that only a pain stick could inflict, like his blood had turned to fire inside him.

      He heard them discussing something when he recovered enough to hear something other than the pounding of his own heart, speaking in low murmurs that he couldn’t make out.

      “Sergeant, I believe he needs more sass taken from him.  Work him until he screams.  No matter how long it takes.  Maybe by then, he’ll be ready to answer honestly, when he faces an equal length of time under the pain stick as it takes for him to scream each time he fails to satisfy me with an answer.”

      “I hope you have plenty of crystals,” Kyven murmured.

      He had no idea how long it took.  The Sergeant applied the pain stick to him, and held it to him for what seemed an eternity.  His body jerked, convulsed and spasmed, and the indescribable pain caused his heart to flutter, caused his lungs to burn as he exhaled and refused to inhale so as to be incapable of screaming, even if they made him do it.  It was endless, ceaseless pain, applied expertly right up until the verge where he would pass out, then it was removed and he was given some brief period to pant heavily and recover somewhat before it was applied again.  The Sergeant made not a single sound as he systematically tortured Kyven to the brink of unconsciousness, again, and again, and again, and again.  Every time, it seemed, the pain lasted longer.  Every time, it seemed, he would surely die from the trauma, from the stress the pain stick put on his body.  But every time, it didn’t happen.  Rational thought was scattered to the winds as Kyven’s mind withdrew from the pain, retreated deep inside himself, leaving only one unalterable command:  do not scream.

      And he did not.  Right up until the pain stick was held just a second too long, through what seemed an absolute eternity of mind-shattering pain, Kyven did not scream.  It could have been ten seconds later, it could have been ten days later, but when the pain stick was applied just a touch too long, it caused Kyven to spiral into blessed, welcome blackness, and know no more.

 

      It was again the pain that he felt first, before anything else.  It was worse now, as his arms and body protested vociferously being held in that awkward position, which told him that he was still hanging by chains from his cell.  There was an oozing sensation on his forearms, which told him that his wrists were now bleeding, the skin rubbed away by the manacles and now biting into raw open wounds.

      How long had he been unconscious?  He had no idea.  All he knew was that it was unnaturally quiet…that, or his ears weren’t working again as they hadn’t been when he woke up the first time.

      He had achieved his first little victory.  He had not screamed.  He knew that he didn’t scream.  The Sergeant had literally tortured him into unconsciousness, but he did not scream.  By now, he knew, they were debating this.  They now knew they were dealing with someone whom they very well may kill before they got any useful information out of him.  Kyven was a Shaman, and even though he was no longer an Arcan, he still had the physical conditioning.  He was stronger than any man in the building, he was certain of that, and he had the endurance of a mule.  That formidable physical conditioning was what was giving him the strength to defy the pain stick, and he would die before giving them a single thing….

      A single thing he did not want them to know.

      As he came back to consciousness, he realized he had to look at this situation as his totem would.  She had abandoned him to this fate, but there was something she wanted him to say or do before he died.  Being a spirit of guile and deceit, it told him that what she wanted him to do was trick the Loremasters, probably give them some bit of information that turned them on their ears and disrupted them to the core.

      Well, that was easy enough.  Was that all she wanted him to do?  Admit he was a human Shaman?

      That would certainly put them into total chaos.  The foundational cornerstone of the Loremaster position that Shaman were twisted, evil creatures bound to sinister forces.  If they found out that humans were becoming Shaman, then they would see that as a spread of that dark infection, a direct assault on humanity itself.  But under that religious foundation was a much more frightening one to the Loremasters; human Shaman could infiltrate their organization and expose all their dark secrets, just as Kyven had done.  They had worked for centuries to wipe out the Shaman, and they feared them above all other things in this world.  The fact that no Arcan was allowed to even set foot on the island holding their headquarters showed that fear to the world.  If the Loremasters had proof that humans were Shaman, then they would all but self-destruct as they desperately tried to find out how many humans had become Shaman, and try to destroy them.  But that would be impossible.  A Shaman was completely indistinguishable from other Arcans unless he used his powers, and the same would hold for the humans.

      The Loremasters would go nuts, knowing that there were human Shaman out there working against them, and all their elaborate precautions, which were aimed at Arcans, would mean nothing.

      Yes, his totem would salt lies with that little bit of truth, and throw the Loremasters into disarray.  As would telling them that their secret was out, that the kingdoms of Noraam knew about their perfidy.  That would force the Loremasters to devote most of their resources and energy towards keeping the alliance that gave them complete power together until they were ready to dissolve it…which would fail.  Flaur was already leaving the alliance, and Kyven figured that as more and more kingdoms learned of the treachery of the Loremasters, they would follow suit.  The more the Loremasters had to keep their eyes focused on this side of the Smoke Mountains, the better it would be for Haven.

      That was what he must do.  Admitting he was a Shaman would ruin any chance he might have to use it to escape…but that was a moot point.  They had taken his eyes and put this device over his face, and without his eyes, without being able to see, escaping from this place would be all but impossible.  Even if he could use magic, him stumbling around looking for the door would make escaping just a tiny bit difficult.

      They may not even believe he was a Shaman since he couldn’t use magic.

      He just wanted it done, so he could die.  Being tortured into unconsciousness wasn’t very fun, and this place was starting to get to him in a way that had nothing to do with his tormentors.  He was hungry and thirsty, and that triggered a terror far more effective than anything the Loremasters could throw at him, a lingering trauma from his time in the Ledwell’s cage.  He had a nearly phobic fear, a terror, of starving to death, of dying of thirst, and internal fears like that were far stronger than the kind of fear the Loremasters were trying to instill into him to make him talk.

      Yes, these men knew nothing of true torture.  Coming hours from dying of starvation in plain view of dozens of people, and having a sadistic monster eat and drink in front of you while it was happening, that was true torture.

      He sighed and raised his head, feeling nothing but pain and exhaustion, reaching out with his senses, but he felt his hearing return quickly, even as he heard the steps coming towards him.  Maybe this thing on his head rendered him deaf unless they wanted him to hear, to make it that much harder to try to escape.  That could certainly be it, though it was a silly point.  Maybe it was another torture mechanism, sensory deprivation to augment the terror, the fear of waiting, of never knowing….  That would work on some men, but not Kyven, for he had nothing to fear from these men.  He was a Shaman, he would stand tall and proud         and not fear death so long as his death served the spirits and the Arcans.  The only fear he had in him was fear of failing his totem, and the lingering phobia of starving left in him by the Ledwells.

      He knew almost immediately what was coming when he heard the door open, and only one set of footsteps entered the room.  The promise was unfulfilled, and until it was, they would not stop.  They would not stop torturing him and start asking him questions until he screamed.

      And he intended for them to break that promise, for fear that they’d kill him before they got anything out of him.  Though a pain stick did no physical harm, it did put stresses on the body.  The weaker the victim, the more apt a pain stick was to cause them to die from the shock.

      “You are going to scream,” the gravel-voiced sergeant said in a dreadfully eager voice.  “And I think you owe me a scream on top of that.

      And before Kyven could offer a tart response, the world exploded into pain.

      The sergeant was as effective with his pain stick as he was sadistic.  It took a cruel, twisted man to train and practice to bring a man to the brink of passing out with a pain stick over and over, inflicting unspeakable agony, and not either be horrified by it or enjoy it.  This man was the kind that enjoyed it.  For how long, Kyven had no idea, he was repeatably tormented with a device whose soul function was to make someone feel like they had been cast into Hell.  Every time, he could feel consciousness slipping away as the pain stick was held to him for an eternity, and each time, the man expertly removed the stick just a second before he dropped into that abyss. Minutes passed, or hours, or maybe years, and the cycle continued of being tortured with the pain stick to the brink of unconsciousness, only to be denied that sweet oblivion.  His Shaman-trained endurance worked both for him and against him, as it gave him the strength and focus to fight the pain enough not to scream, but it also gave him a strength that caused him to remain strong and conscious long after weaker men would have either passed out or died from the trauma of the pain stick.

      Kyven lost all sense of rationality, after a while.  Logical thought escaped him, all rationality retreated into the deepest recesses of his mind, leaving only a vacant, unthinking mind that knew only pain, knew only that no matter what, it could not scream, that no matter how unbearable the pain was, something even worse would happen to him if he screamed.  It just kept on and on, pain sweeping him towards a dark pit, only to drag him back away from the edge over which he so desperately wanted to jump.  That was his little victory, that was his refuge from the pain, that black hole deep in himself, and it was to that point the clawed and struggled to reach.  But the pain was an effective shackle holding him in the conscious world, until the one time the shackle seemed to have just a tiny bit too much slack.  Kyven reached his goal, lunged over the edge and into the pit, and found, if only for a moment, the sweet nothingness of oblivion.

      But that itself was a lie.  He became aware of something jabbing him in the stomach, something that felt like a cane’s tip, and the conscious part of his mind that had been huddling in the dark tunnels of his subconscious like a child realized that the crystal in the pain stick had been depleted.

      That was two.

      “Two…down,” he whispered so feebly that he wasn’t sure if he even made a sound.

      “Then you owe me four screams, you piece of shit,” the sergeant growled, and Kyven’s drooping head snapped to the side as the man punched him, punched him hard enough to fracture his cheekbone.

      What the pain stick couldn’t accomplish, the brutal punch had.  Kyven spiraled down into the welcome darkness like a traveler stepping across the threshold of a house unseen and missed for a long, long time.

 

      Pain.

      Eventually, that was all there was.  All else succumbed to pain, the pain in his arms and back, the pain in his head from his broken cheekbone, the shuddering pain of a body that had been subjected to a pain stick for so long that now there was a lingering pain in every cell of his body, as if a pain stick had taken up residence inside of him.  The pain scoured away his rational mind, and over some time--how long he had no idea--of being tortured to unconsciousness, of being weakened from no food and no water, Kyven’s mind began to wander.

      He could no longer remember how many times he’d been tortured, it was as if his entire life had been spent in this terrifying darkness, where the sudden arrival of sound in his ears as naught but the realization that he was awake, and also that he was about to be sent back into oblivion only after he was tortured to the brink of madness.  The only thing he knew, the only thing to which he clung from his rational mind, was the fact that he had not screamed.  He had not made a single sound since he had uttered the words “that’s two.”

      But it wasn’t the pain that had the most effect on him, it was the horrid, horrifying emptiness inside him.  Kyven’s mind reacted to his starvation like a child confronted with a monster, and that was sheer terror and a desperate need to flee, to escape.  He feared his hunger far more than he feared the footsteps entering the room, because at least the footsteps eventually brought blissful unknowingness, where the emptiness inside him threatened to consume him from within.  The deep subconscious of his mind remembered the cage, remembered the torment, remembered what it felt like to be so hungry that it took a man’s very soul.  That was a feeling that he never wanted to feel again, feel the burn of his muscles as a dehydrated body consumed its own tissues to survive, to be so hungry that he would eat stones if only to fill the terrifying emptiness at his core.

      Kyven’s will was powerful and his body was strong, but the strongest body could not last long without water.  Some hazy part of him was aware of that, that he would die of dehydration, that his raw wrists had stopped oozing blood if only because there was little blood left to seep out.  He was weakened from the repeated tortures, debilitated by his injuries, and his life had drained away to hang by a thread by the seeping drops of blood that escaped the tortured flesh under the manacles that held him suspended over the floor.

      He was so far gone that as he hung there, he distinctly heard and felt his left shoulder dislocate, pulled out of its socket by the stress placed on it by the manacle and the awkward position.  But even that injury was painless.  He was only aware of it because he had felt his shoulder pull free, and felt a strange new pressure on his shoulder and arm as he hung by a slightly different angle.

      No matter how hard he tried to keep focused, he felt his mind slipping away, overwhelmed by hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and trauma.  He drifted in a haze, a shadowy world where the present and the past were all mixed up, a world of shades and spectres conjured by a delirious mind.  He was again in the cage, chained to the roof, feeling the fire in his veins from no water, the fire in his throat, and the all-consuming hunger, even as he watched the Ledwell family enjoy a breakfast out on their back porch.  Every bite ripped out his very soul as they ate in front of a starving man, a man who wore a collar that would destroy him if he made a single sound.  He hung there, watching them eat, and then the world exploded into pain.

      And that was too much.  His determined defiance wilted as his mind lost its focus, and he screamed.  It was a primal scream, a scream of a mindless animal in absolute agony, and had it been heard beyond the walls of the prison, it would have given children nightmares and sent respectable women racing for the safety of their homes.

      The pain eased, leaving him trembling and totally delirious.  He drifted in his own world, a world of shadows and strange shapes, of strange whispers and both pain and fear.  Pain from a tortured body, pain from a starving stomach, and fear of what that emptiness inside him meant, though he had lost too much rationality to understand why it made him so afraid.  It was reflexive, innate, subconscious, that fear, and that fear overwhelmed all others.

      Then, there was respite.  Something cool and wet touched his lips, and he responded by instinct, taking in the blessed wetness and swallowing it.  It was like nectar from the gods, and the liquid eased the mind-consuming pain within him, seemed to take the pain away, and made him feel…good.  He felt better, but still weak, still felt the pain behind that sensation, but he felt like the pain just…didn’t matter.

      A voice drifted within his haze, a voice he did not know.  “What is your name?”

      “Kyven…Steelhammer,” he whispered in reply.  He saw no reason why he should not respond to the voice.  It was something, something other than pain or fear, something that gave his mind a new stimulus to which to respond.

      “You are the same Kyven Steelhammer from Atan?”

      “Yes.”

      There seemed to be a…pause.  He swam in his delusion for what seemed like long moments before the voice whispered to him again.

      “How were you helping the black fox Shaman?”

      “I…am…the black fox,” he whispered feverishly.  “It’s…my disguise.”

      A startled silence.  “You are a Shaman?”

      “I…was.  No eyes…no eyes….”

      “A Shaman?  You’re a Shaman?”

      He couldn’t understand why the voice was so insistent.  “Yes,” he reaffirmed.

      “A human Shaman?”

      “The…first,” he breathed, then he coughed, which weakened him considerably.  “The…first of…those…to come.”

      “Who sent you to Avannar?”

      “Haven.”

      “What is Haven?”

      “Haven.”

      “Again, what is Haven?”

      “Arcans,” he whispered, his head drooping even lower.  “Arcans.”

      “They’re part of the Masked?”

      “The…Masked is…part of…them.”

      There was another silence.  “You mean Arcans run the Masked, and not humans?”

      “Yes.  Haven commands…Masked obey.”

      “Where are the leaders of Haven?”

      “Far,” he mumbled.  “Far.”

      “Where exactly?”

      “Far,” he repeated.  “Cold.  Snow.  Far.”

      “What city do they hide in?”

      “Haven,” he answered.  “Capitol…Arcan nation.  Haven.”

      There was a long silence, so much so that Kyven thought the comforting voice that was giving him a reason to focus on something other than the pain had left him.

      “You mean to say that there is a nation of Arcans?” came the whisper in his mind, incredulous.

      “Cities.  Villages.  Many,” he whispered disjointedly.  “Far.  Cold.  Snow.”

      There was another lengthy time where he floated alone in his shadowy world, and then the voice touched him once again.  “What is your purpose here,  Kyven Steelhammer?”

      “Learn.  Watch.  Warn,” he answered.  “Share.”

      “And what did you learn?”

      “Loremasters…lie.  Crystals…gone.  Loreguard.  Atan.  Mines.  Take.  War…coming.  Warn.  Flaur believes.  Flaur…fighting…Loremasters.  Mountains…blood.  War.  Noraam.  War.”

      “War with who?”

      “Everyone.  All Noraam…war…coming.  Crystals…gone.  Noraam…fight.  Mines.  Mountains…blood.

      “Flaur intends to go to war with the Loremasters?”

      “Yes.  Loremasters…lie.  No…crystals.  Flaur…warns…others.  Alliance…dissolved.  War.  Everywhere.  Everyone.  Mountains…blood.  Mines.  War.”

      “So, this Haven is trying to dissolve the Noraavi alliance and get the kingdoms to fight each other?”

      “No.  War…coming.  Humans…war…each other.  Crystals…gone.  Mines.  Fight over mines.  Mountains…blood.  Haven…save Arcans.  Arcans…die…humans…fight.  Arcans…killed.  No crystals…collars.  Save Arcans.”

      “So Haven is trying to free the Arcans?”

      “Bought…Arcans.  Bought.  Haven…send Masked…buy.  Crystals.  Bring…crystals.  Buy…Arcans.  Legal.  Take…Arcans…crystals…last longer.  Collars.  Crystals…for Arcans.  Helps…Arcans.  Helps…humans.”

      “This Haven has its own crystals?  Where do they mine them?  What deposits have they found?”

      “Shaman…make.”

      There was a startled silence.  “Shaman can make crystals?” came a stunned question.

      “Spirits…mana…same.  Energy…spirits…energy…crystals.  Magic.  Same.  Shaman….crystals…same.  Shaman…drain.  Shaman…make.  Crystals…same…Shaman.  Shaman…make…crystals.  Masked…use.  Buy Arcans.”

      “So you’re telling me that you can make crystals?”

      “Me…no.  Weak.  Guile…deceit.  Tricks.  Spy.  Crystals…too weak.   Shaman…make.  Not me.  Too weak.”

      He was starting to feel quite peculiar, and the pain was starting to push away his sense of strange contentment.  He could hear the voice, that whispering voice, but it was as if, now, it had no meaning.  It joined other voices, other whispers, other murmurs in his head, descended into the cacophony of his shadowy, delusional world.

      He heard it, but it meant nothing to him.  “The drug is wearing off, and he’s no longer in a lucid state.  We have to let him rest.”

      “Give him another dose.”

      “You don’t understand how this drug works, Major.  It has what you might call diminishing returns, because his body builds a tolerance to it every time it’s used.  To get him into a lucid state where he’ll answer questions, we’ll have to give him a larger dose.  If we do give him another dose right now, it will kill him.  This drug puts stress on the heart, and I don’t think his heart can take that kind of strain right now given he’s been weakened by torture and dehydration and his heart is already stressed from the first dose.  No, his pulse is racing like a frightened rabbit.  Another dose would be fatal.”

      “That’s unacceptable.”

      “It’s our only option, Major.  He already proved he can resist torture, so you’re not going to get anything out of him unless he’s drugged, and these drugs have limits.  No dominator or hypnotizer will work on him because of that hood, and I seriously doubt you want to remove that hood right now.  No Shaman ever caught has lived more than an hour after taking out his eyes.  If he really is a Shaman, then maybe the fact that we didn’t take out his eyes is the only reason he’s still alive…but do you really want to take that hood off of him while he still has his eyes?  He won’t get out of this room alive, but he’ll sure as hell kill everyone in it before he goes.”

      “How long do we have to wait?”

      “Two hours.  I suggest giving him some water or broth to build up his strength as well, or the next dose will kill him.  He’s so weak now, I’m honestly shocked he’s not dead.”

      “Do it, Sergeant.  Water him, and we’ll continue this in two hours.”

      There was a long period of shadowy drifting, and then a voice seemed to rise up from the fog.  “I can’t fuckin’ believe it, a human Shaman,” the voice growled in a rough voice.  “Father-damned traitor to your own race is what you are, you sack a’ shit.  I’ll give you water, alright, but by fuckin’ grace, you’re gonna scream for it.”

      And the world exploded in pain.

      The pain scoured everything away, everything but a pair of eyes, green and glowing with an unwavering light, staring at him through the darkness of eternity, exploding through the white light popping in his skull from the agony being inflicted on him.  The darkness around the eyes swallowed the light, and swallowed the pain, leaving him numb, leaving him unfeeling, leaving him in a state he imagined death would feel.

      The eyes simply regarded him emotionlessly, coming no closer, but keeping the pain away, shielding him with the comforting darkness of shadow.  The shadow kept the pain away, shadow that seemed to comfort him, shadow that could stand no longer the torment of something that was part of itself and had rose up of its own volition to defend.  It shielded him now, protected him from the pain, left him with nothing…but at least the pain had been shunted away, blocked.

      There was no more pain, and there was nothing more to fear.  He was dying.  He knew that now.  He was dying, and he would go to his grave without giving them the satisfaction of even making him scream.  But he would make one more sound before it happened.  He looked into those eyes, steady and unmoved, and yearned for them and the release they represented.  She had abandoned him, but he still belonged to her.  She had come for what was hers.  “Did I do well?” he asked in a bare whisper.

      “That remains to be seen, my Shaman,” came the answer, an answer that filled him with a pride that even staved off the burning of his thirst and the emptiness of his hunger.  “Let me show you something.”

      In a flash, he was no longer in his shifting, private world of ghosts and shadows and voices.  He was no longer hungry.  He was no longer thirsty.  He merely…was.  He was beside his spirit, and they were moving, even though they were both motionless.  Hills and forests blurred by, until he was looking down at a plantation, a tobacco plantation that covered two very low, gentle hills between which a small river flowed.  Below him, dozens of Arcans labored in the fields under the watchful eye of a single human carrying a black rod, sitting astride a horse.  The Arcans were collared, most of them were naked, and they worked in silence with their heads down

      “Where are we?” he asked in a voice that was strong and steady.  He looked down and saw that he was nude, but he was whole and unharmed.  The hunger was gone, the thirst was gone, the pain was gone.  All there was left in him was a peculiar kind of weariness, an exhaustion of a man who had walked the length of Noraam without a single moment’s rest.  Though he felt weary, he also felt like he could go on for a while longer.  He wasn’t ready to rest yet…and he seemed to sense that if he rested, his spirit would take him, and he would be dead.

      “What do you see?” came the answer.

      “I see a plantation,” he answered, looking down from their hovering viewpoint.  “It looks like the piedmonts south of Riyan.”

      “What do you see?”

      He looked again.  “I see…Arcans.  Working the fields.  There’s a man on a horse watching over them.”

      “What do you see?”

      He looked closer, and that act almost seemed to put him right in the fields among the Arcans.  They worked quietly, hands moving among the tobacco stalks picking off insects, pulling up weeds.  He looked at a young canine, a brown bristly-furred canine with a nick out of his left ear, and he saw what he had seen in so many Arcans before this one.  This one had nothing left in him.  The hope, the joy of life, it was gone.  The Arcan had been beaten into submission, and now he was nothing but a slave.

      “I see despair,” he answered after a long moment, looking from Arcan to Arcan.  “These Arcans have lost all hope.”

      “What do you see?”

      He looked closer at an older feline, one that vaguely reminded him of Stripes.  Is this what could have happened to Stripes had she not had the luck of being bought by Clet’s parents?  Could Patches be working in this field, or Lightfoot, or Tweak?  Was this the fate that awaited the Arcans, to become the slaves the humans made them to be?  That almost filled him with despair himself, the thought of beautiful, timid little Patches, so meek and yet so strong, who had endured unspeakable abuse and yet had the strength in her to be her own woman, had the courage to go back into human lands to help her friend, her dear friend, in his dangerous mission.  She was on the run now, watched over by Lightfoot and being smuggled to Atan by Shario, who would fulfill his final promise to Kyven and save his beloved Arcan companions.  He knew Shario would.  Shario was a man of honor, and a man which made Kyven feel honored to consider a friend.

      “I see…I see a wrong that must be set right,” he declared.

      “What do you see?”

      He hesitated a moment.  He knew the answer, but he also understood that to answer that question was to deny the release from the pain he so desperately wanted, and he could sense that in this decision, the spirit would not sway him one way or the other.  Two paths split at a fork in the road before him.  One was short, but ended in contentment.  The other was long and difficult, and ended at the same contentment.  He could take either path and arrive at the same destination, and would be welcomed by those at that destination with equal joy and welcome no matter which path he took.

      One path was death.  The other path was life.

      Which path would he choose?  There was more to them than that simple idea.  If he chose death, he would die hanging from those chains, die and go on to whatever reward the fox felt him worthy, for she owned him, body and soul.  But if he chose life, he was returning to the pain, to the horror and the terror of the hunger, but he was also returning to try to make a difference.  He had achieved his little victory, but if he chose life, he could maybe achieve a few more little victories.

      Maybe…he could make a difference.

      But he already knew the answer.  And to accept that answer was to accept a fundamental truth about himself that he had played at, but had never faced in earnest.

      He could not deny it.  He was a Shaman now, and he would honor the path he had chosen for himself by being a Shaman in heart, body, mind, and soul.  He had believed that by mimicking Clover, he could be a true Shaman, but now he understood that every Shaman was different, that there was no one way to be a Shaman.  Clover had her way, he would have his…and neither of them would be any less a Shaman.  That they served the spirits, served the Arcans, and even served the humans, that was all that mattered.  That was their purpose.

      That was his purpose.

      He had known that truth, but in that moment, he understood it, deep inside himself.  Like a door opening in his soul, he understood what it meant to be a Shaman, understood in a way far beyond mere words.

      He, Kyven Steelhammer, was a Shaman.

      He chose his path.

      “I see that I am needed.”

      He felt…acceptance.  She was pleased by his decision, but would have thought no less of him for choosing the other path.  After suffering so much, she would have accepted it if he chose to end his pain.  “Remember this place, my Shaman, for you are needed here.  This is where your Walk will end, and you begin the path of a true Shaman.  This is where you will begin.  This is where you will begin.  This is where you will begin.  This is where you will begin.

      “This is where you will begin….”

      The plantation shuddered around him, then it dissolved into darkness, then that darkness shattered like a thousand mirrors and was consumed by the light.  And with that light came pain.  A world exploded into pain.

      But there was more than pain.  As the pain stick was removed and rational thought returned to him, he realized that there was more there than there had been.

      The fox had taught him the second of the three spells she said he ever had need to know.

      That simple act told him everything.  It told him that they had not taken his eyes.  The device over his face had to shut his eyes down in a way that made it impossible for him to use his magic, since his eyes were his window into the spirit world, and therefore the focus of his power.  He was also keenly aware of every shadow around him, he could sense every single one of them, sense how deep they were, their shapes, and could sense the energy within them in a way he had only felt when he was an Arcan.  As unbelievable as that seemed, he knew what it meant.  Somehow, some way, the fox had restored him to humanity, but she did not take his shadow powers.  She left them within him, and only now, in this moment of clarity, did he understand the truth.

      The truth within the truth, within the lie.  Which was itself within a deeper truth.

      Guile and deceit.

      He understood that he had had a vision, incited by a moment of near-death, but that didn’t make it any less real or true.  His spirit had communicated with him in that vision, and now he understood.

      He understood.

      All of this, it had been a test.  She had tested his devotion, tested his determination, and tested his loyalty.

      And he passed.

      He understood that the fox did want him to reveal certain truths to the Loremasters.  He knew that he had said…something.  He couldn’t clearly remember, only knew that he had heard a voice, and had responded to it while in some kind of haze.   He had no idea what he’d told the Loremasters, but something told him that he said exactly what his spirit wanted them to hear.  She was playing her own game in this, a game separate from the other spirits, and Kyven was the primary piece on her board.  He had served his purpose, and now she was moving him elsewhere, to begin the game again.

      For some reason, she felt his time in Avannar was complete, and though he could certainly serve Haven by remaining in the city to feed them information, the fox had decided to use him in some other manner.  But before he left, she wanted certain truths revealed, truths which would be highly effective in turning the Loremasters on their ears and sending them in a panic.  He had no idea what he told the Loremasters, but given what he knew, he was certain that any one of his deeper secrets would cause the Loremasters to go into hysterics.

      To use that spell, he needed his eyes and he needed to be in contact with his victim.  That wouldn’t be that hard, because he could sense the crystal in the device over his upper face, and he was absolutely sure he could drain it even without his eyes.  And he’d be in contact with his victim the next time he jabbed him with that pain stick.  The alchemical device would serve as a bridge, for it was a conductor of magical energy.  All he had to do was open himself to the energy within the pain stick, and the crystal inside would get drained the instant it made contact with him.  It wouldn’t be instant, but the pain stick wouldn’t function while he was draining it, which would protect him from its pain-giving purpose.

      He was starved, dehydrated, injured, exhausted, and disoriented, but he knew it was time to act.

      He focused his attention on feeling the magic around him.  He could feel the crystal on the device over his face, and could sense the crystal of the pain stick close to him, as well as a few other crystals.  The sergeant was loaded with alchemical devices, he could assense them.  From the sense of the shadow under him, Kyven could detect that he was close, within reach of the pain stick.  He had recoiled, watching Kyven carefully, no doubt having heard him make a sound, and would most likely hit him again to make him scream.

      First things first.  He focused his attention on the crystal and the device over his face, sensing the magic within them, the power of the spirits trapped in the mortal world.  He opened himself to that power completely, and that act caused the crystal within the device to discharge all of its power into Kyven through the alchemical device which was specifically built to channel magic.  Kyven absorbed that power and immediately turned it on himself in a blessing, a blessing that would cause him to recover quickly from his wounds and exhaustion after he rested.  Such a blessing would remain within him until it was activated, so that ensured that he would recover much faster than if he let nature take its course.

      The instant the crystal was drained, the device over his face ceased functioning.  Light assaulted his eyes, and his eyelids and eyes suddenly worked again, no longer paralyzed and rendered useless by the device which had been placed over them.  His eyes worked again, and delving the device told him that it had been made to render the wearer blind and deaf when the user so desired.  It was a clever device, no doubt designed to use against a Shaman in how it rendered one sightless, by completely disabling the eyes.  The problem was, the Loremasters believed that a Shaman was powerless without his eyes, but that wasn’t entirely true.  Crystals had the same power within them, and with a crystal to serve as the source of magic, a Shaman could utilize blessings, which did not require him to be able to see, and thus didn’t require that he even have eyes to use.  That was why he had been surprised when they used an alchemical device to torture him rather than use mundane means.  They obviously felt that with that device on his head, he was powerless.

      Back to the drawing board for them.  But he had to admit, it was a very clever idea that almost worked.

      He opened his eyes to the spirits, and opened his eyes, the glow all but concealed behind the wire mesh over his eyes.  The metal mesh over his face didn’t exist to spirit sight, so he saw right through it and saw that he was in a medium sized room holding only the one man.  Behind him there was a large table behind which there were several chairs, and from the pattern of tiny life and also the crystals within them, he saw that there were several small objects and two alchemical devices on that table.  Clearly they believed he was absolutely no threat, for the man was alone, alone with him in the room.  No other observers, not even guards.  That was…that was just stupid.  The man was wearing three devices in addition to the pain stick in his hand, a talker, a shockrod, and a small device hanging by a chain around his neck.  He watched a moment as Kyven’s head wilted, then he reared back with the pain stick, and pushed it forward--

      Kyven struck the instant the pain stick touched him.  The crystal in the pain stick suddenly had an unimpeded path for its power to return to the spirit world, which caused the stick to cease to function as its power bled away from a different path.  Even as he drained the pain stick, he imagined the spell the fox had taught him and then unleashed it against the unwary man.

      He didn’t even get the chance to scream.  Kyven would never be strong enough to heal, but what the fox taught him was a spell that wasn’t quite healing, but would help him now.  It was a vampiric attack, as Kyven drained away the very life energy of his victim, life energy that would revitalize him enough to be able to move and function for a short time.  He would still be starved and dehydrated, but the borrowed strength would be enough for him to operate for a good half an hour before it drained away, giving him a good, solid chance to effect his escape.  Energy flowed into him, through him, surging into a weakened heart and causing it to beat with strength and certainly, flowed through muscles that had been slowly eroding away and gave them renewed vitality.  The strength and energy did nothing for his raw wrists or dislocated shoulder, but it did give him the sudden strength to pull against his chains and take the stress off his shoulders, even as the man, paralyzed by the spell and his eyes wild, began to degrade.  His skin took a grayish pall, and his muscles seemed to wilt and wither as the energy was drained from him.  As Kyven grew stronger, the man grew weaker, until he was no longer strong enough to hold the pain stick or stand.  He broke the contact, which ended the spell, but by then it was too late.  He collapsed to the ground, too weak to move, too weak to cry out, his eyes the only thing that could move…until they rolled back in his head and he passed out

      He wasn’t dead, but it would take him weeks to recover what Kyven took from him.  But, Kyven knew he could kill with that spell, if he kept contact long enough to drain away every iota of life energy within his victim.  The fox would not grant him the black energy of death magic that could kill instantly, but she had no qualms teaching him spells that killed as secondary effect, like his cold and his lightning.  The spells themselves weren’t killing, it was the effects they created that caused death…just indirectly.  A small difference, but it made all the difference in the world when once compared black crystal energy to other energies.

      He knew he didn’t have much time.  The energy he stole would only last a short time, a short time he had to get out of wherever he was and get somewhere safe.  He turned his attention to himself, and then called forth the energy of the shadow.  He felt it fill him, move through him, infuse him, and then he felt it settle into him.  His body again took on that shadowy form, and that shadow he could manipulate.  It was a simple matter to make his feet thin enough to slip through the manacles on his ankles, then he did the same to his hands.  He slipped free of his chains, the foot chains clinking to the stone floor as he dropped lightly beside the man, using his command of his shadow form to even put his shoulder back in its socket, and doing it painlessly while his body was malleable and open to such manipulation.   He felt no pain, felt strong and healthy, but he knew that underneath that false feeling he was still injured and weakened, and his good feeling would last only as long as the stolen strength within him lasted.

      He didn’t have time to think about this or plan it.  All he had time to do was step out that door and wing it for everything he was worth, because he still had not learned how to move through the shadows, and his false sense of strength and vitality was only an illusion.  In his condition, he couldn’t risk trying.  He would get out in a way suitable for a Shaman of the shadow fox; he would put on an illusion, walk out that door, and use every lie, trick, and deception he knew to talk his way out of this prison and to freedom.

      He did have one sense of poetic justice.  He wasted the time and energy to strip and search the wasted form of the grizzled, sadistic sergeant, found the key to his manacles and his cell on his body, and then put the sergeant in the manacles in his place.  The man’s uniform wouldn’t fit him, so he used it to clean all the blood off his arms and feet so as to prevent any physical evidence give him away if he was touched.  He then took all the man’s alchemical devices, threw his now bloodstained uniform on the table but belted on his belt holding his pistol, shockrod, and his money, put the circular pendant device around his neck just as the sergeant had worn it, and he also decided to keep the wire mesh device that robbed him of the use of his eyes.  That might be useful, but it would also be good to give it to a friendly alchemist and have them study it.  He then wrapped himself in an illusion of the sergeant before Kyven attacked him, perfect in every detail.  After it was done, he picked up the depleted pain stick, took out the man’s keys, went out, and locked the door.

      Beyond the door was a long, narrow corridor devoid of any windows.  It had only one door, and that was the door to his cell, and then a fifty rod walk to where a pair of guards stood flanking a dark stairway leading up.  It was a curious setup, but given what kind of security risk Kyven was, it made sense to put him in a place where they only way out was down a long corridor with no other way to go, and two guards that would see him coming.  Kyven stumped down the hall in a way that mimicked what he heard of the man’s walk, and it seemed to be enough to convince the two men that he was who they thought he was.

      “Be right back,” Kyven said in the man’s own voice.  “Privy.”

      They let him go by without challenge.

      The stairs came up to another level, more what Kyven expected a prison would appear.  It was a large open chamber filled with cages built into the middle, open-air cells that held men.  Cell doors were also in the walls on each wall of the rectangular chamber’s long sides, and there was another set of stairs at the other end of the long room.  The men in the open cells were all naked, dirty, bedraggled, and looked weary.  Most of them had beards, and the longer their beards, the thinner and more emaciated they appeared.  The place smelled awful.  There were guards at the stairs on the far end, but there were also two patrols of single roving guards that seemed to walk the path around the center cages, patrolling the chamber.  The chamber was lit by a series of alchemical lamps affixed to the ceiling, high and far out of reach of anyone without a ladder.

      Kyven realized he was in the Black Keep, the notorious island prison just upriver from the Loremaster headquarters.  A room like this wouldn’t exist in the Loremaster headquarters, and they would not take him anywhere else but the Black Keep if they took him out of that building.

      He took stock.  The look of this place was that it was underground, one of the dungeons under the keep, so he had to go up to the ground floor and then find his way outside.  Once outside, he had to get on a boat; there were no bridges to the Black Keep.  That gave the guards at least three solid chokepoints where he would have to talk or trick his way past them.  Once at the door to the keep, once more at the gate through the wall surrounding it, then a third time at the boat dock as he tried to get to the mainland.  The sergeant probably had no orders to leave the island, so the problem would come at the wall gate and the boat dock.  He could probably talk his way out of the front door just by professing a desire for a little fresh air.

      Well, no reason to dally.  He set off down the length of the room, nodding to the single guard that was patrolling the rectangular hallway created by the cages in the middle and the wall.  The guard nodded back, but did not challenge him.  He wasn’t challenged by the guards at the far stairs either, and mounted them and went up a straight stair that opened into yet another hallway.  This looked vaguely familiar, a long wide passage with a set of open bar cells one side, showing that each cell held four men, and no furniture, just blankets laid out on the floor and a bucket to serve as a chamber pot.  Catwalks on the upper walls above had doors, forming a stack of sorts of cells on only one side of the block, with stairs on the far side, near a closed and barred door.  It looked very similar to the kennel in which he’d been kept in Cheston.  Kyven passed two patrolling guards on the way to that closed door, and as he approached, he inspected it.  It was a iron bar door, open from top to bottom, and two men stood guard just on the other side of it.  He saw no way to open it from his side, which meant that the men beyond had to open the door for him, but he did see that it had an alchemical device inside it, which formed part of its lock.  He stumped up to the door and stood there, but the two men just looked at him lazily.  “Well?” he finally growled in the sergeant’s voice.

      “Well what, Sergeant?” one of them asked.

      “You gonna make me wait all day or you gonna open the door?” Kyven demanded.

      The men laughed.  “I never knew a sergeant’s stripes entitled a man to be treated like a general,” the shorter of the two men said, who also had sergeant’s stripes on his uniform.

      Clearly, they expected him to open the door, but he had no key, and all there was on this side of the door was a keyslot.

      Wait.  The keyslot was thin, and it was just an etched depression in the door.  The shape of it and the fact that it was alchemical made it pretty clear what he had to do.  He took the little medallion off his neck and fitted the edge of it into that depression, and found it fit perfectly.  He turned it, and then the door unlocked and retracted into the wall of its own volition.  “Anything else, your Majesty?” the other sergeant asked teasingly.

      “I need a drink.  I’m feeling a bit drained,” Kyven growled as he stumped past them.  Beyond them was a short corridor with another door, and that door had a more normal door beyond it that should open to the outside, or to another part of the prison.  He fitted his key to the next door, and it too opened to the key.

      Not a single man challenged him as he made his way through the prison.  That heavy door did not lead outside, it was more of a division between major sections of the prison.  Kyven moved from section to section at a steady pace, through different cellblocks, saying nothing to any man, but always moving as if he knew exactly where he was going even though he had no idea.  He was just moving from major doorway to major doorway, knowing that eventually he would either find a window or a door that would lead outside.  He spent so much time walking that he started to feel the passage of time, and he knew that the strength he stole from the sergeant wasn’t going to hold out forever.  He had to find his way out, and find it quickly, then get himself someplace safe and hole up until he had a chance to recover.

      But his luck did pay off, for he reached what seemed a major node of the keep, where there were doors on three walls that led to cell blocks, and a fourth that opened directly to the outside.  He made his way to that door quickly, using his key to open it, and stepped out into a paved courtyard that had a huge set of gates at the far end, gates which were closed and guarded.  There were a few guards out in the courtyard, and there was a table and chairs off to one side where a few guards sat and rested, probably taking a break.  This courtyard was a staging area for the guards on top of being the main way into the prison.  It was late afternoon, very nearly sunset, windy, and the sky was heavily laden with clouds that threatened rain, and that determined just what kind of angle Kyven would use to try to talk his way off the island.

      He knew he had to do it, so he wasted no time.  He stumped up to that main gate, and a guard on the far side regarded him.  “Did the major leave?” he asked.

      “Which one?”

      “The one that’s been coming in with me, blockhead,” Kyven growled.

      The guard frowned.  “I don’t know.  I can check.”

      “Do it, cause I need to talk to him, and I can’t find him anywhere,” Kyven said bluntly.

      “He’s not answering his talker?”

      “If he was answering his talker, would I be looking for him?” Kyven asked acidly.  “That’s why I’m out here seeing if he left!”

      The guards checked several logs, then he came back. “He left half an hour ago,” he answered.

      “Then let me out, I have to go get him,” Kyven said.

      “Why don’t you just call him in?”

      Kyven had the illusion give the man a flat look. “And just how do I do that when he ain’t answerin’ his talker?” he asked.

      “Oh.  Right,” the man said with a rueful chuckle.

      Kyven stood there and watched with building anxiety as the guard opened the gate for him.  The large gate swung open ponderously, and Kyven stalked through it and down the well-defined paved path that led down to the docks.  He kept his elation in check as he marched down to the docks, and without so much as a word, stumped into the small boat and sat down as a young man started untying it from the wharf.  The young man took hold of the tiller, and the boat, powered by alchemy, started across the river of its own volition.   The young man aimed them at a guarded quay that jutted out into the river, and the trip only took a few minutes.  The entire time, however, Kyven was carefully measuring how he felt and how it deteriorated, and estimated he only had about twenty more minutes before he was all but debilitated by his exhaustion and injuries.  He had to find a place where he could rest and recover, but it couldn’t be anywhere even remotely connected to Kyven Steelhammer.  That meant that he had to avoid Shario and his friends, and go somewhere where he could hide when they started searching for him…and they would search for him.  They would seal Avannar off and search the entire city from one end to the other until they found him, and he knew it.  He needed to escape, but that would do him no good after his borrowed strength ebbed and he was helpless.  No, he needed to eat, and he needed to do it right now.  Food and water would work with the blessing he put on himself to help him recover quickly, so he wouldn’t be helpless for long after his borrowed strength faded.

      He knew where he could go.

      As soon as the boat reached the far side, he climbed out and stumped up the quay, saying not a single word to any man.  He turned on River Street towards the Loremaster headquarters, which was only a couple of blocks up, but he turned off the street and into a narrow alley as soon as he was out of convenient sight of the guards at the quay.  He changed his illusion to that of a well-dressed man with short, well groomed blond hair, wearing a clean, new gray waistcoat over a linen shirt and a pair of elegant black breeches.  Once he had his illusion settled, he hurried to an inn he had visited once before, the inn where he’d stayed when the fox had sent him here after parting with Stalker.

      The place was exactly as he remembered it, as was the marten at the door and the well-dressed proprietor.  He wasn’t playing chess this time, he was standing near a table holding men dressed in finery and smoking cigars, and he shook Kyven’s hand as he entered the common room and was seated at a table by the marten. “Nice to meet you, my friend.  What may my fine kitchen make for you?”

      “Anything that’s ready, my good gentleman,” Kyven answered.  “And a lot of it.  I’m quite hungry.”

      “I have a sumptuous beef and vegetable stew simmering as we speak, sir.”

      “Stew it is.  And some bread and some potatoes, fresh milk if you have it along with some fine ale and a pitcher of water, and be sure to make the plate heavy.”  Kyven handed the man a 25 chit coin.

      “I’ll have it brought to you at once,” he said with a smile.

      A slender little raccoon female came out quickly, loaded down with a tray meant for him.  On that tray was two bowls of stew, milk, a bowl of sliced potatoes in a beef broth, a tankard of hearty ale, and a small decanter pitcher filled with water.  Kyven felt his strength ebbing as the raccoon placed his meal before him, and his hands were shaking under the illusion as the cute little raccoon serving girl set things down one at a time.  The smell of it almost made him tear it out of her hands, and it was a supreme act of willpower to allow her to set it on the table. “Will there be anything else, good Master?” the raccoon asked.

      “No thank you.  This smells heavenly.”

      “We have very good cooks here, good Master.  If you need anything else, just wave and I’ll come serve you.”

      As soon as she left, he wanted to ravenously attack the meal…but he couldn’t do that.  If he tore into the meal like a starving man here in the common room in front of everyone, it might make people curious, and Kyven didn’t want to stand out.  So he took his time, almost torturing himself as he first poured a glass of water with a trembling hand and started drinking slowly.  His stomach heaved when the water hit it, so he took small sips, letting his stomach adjust little by little.  After he’d drank about half the glass, he set it down and took up his spoon and a slice of warm dark bread and started eating very slowly, both so it didn’t look unusual to the other customers and also to allow his stomach to accept the food so soon after the water without him throwing it back up.  He ate the large bowl of stew and all the bread, and drank almost all of the pitcher of water, eating steadily but not too fast so as not to make himself sick.  Then he ate the potatoes, drank the broth, finished off the water, then leaned back and nursed his tankard of ale…not for the alcohol, but because a good ale was actually good for a recovering body.  He could almost feel the food working with the blessing he had placed on himself, and under his borrowed strength, which was starting to ebb, he could feel that his body was recovering.  He would still be weak, and he’d have to be careful, but he felt confident he could sustain his illusion.  After he felt so full he could barely move and enjoyed a few precious moments of rest and recovery, he used the privy which was just off the common room and dispelled shockingly dark yellow urine from himself. 

      When he returned to the common room, he saw a large number of Loreguard at the entrance, and the proprietor standing there talking to them.  Kyven knew that they’d discovered he had escaped, but they didn’t want to raise an alarm.  But he also didn’t want to use that door, nor appear even remotely human right now.  They were going to stop every man they could find and make sure it wasn’t Kyven, so he needed to look very much unlike himself right now.

      He wrapped himself in an illusion of the raccoon serving female as soon as he was out of the common room, using the passage that went from the common room out to the stableyard behind the inn.  He stepped out into the stableyard and moved to the horse gate without hesitation.

      “Dancer, what are you doing out there?  You know you’re still on duty!” came a quiet call.  Kyven looked towards the dorm, and saw a young male raccoon looking through a small window from his room.

      Kyven didn’t answer.  What he did do was allow the illusion’s eyes to suddenly glow with a steady emerald light, and the illusion put a finger before its muzzle with a slightly mischievous expression.

      The raccoon’s eyes widened, and he nodded vigorously.  “Will you bless me?” he called in a bare whisper.

      He couldn’t resist.  He came over to the window and reached in, putting his hand on the raccoon’s shoulder.  “May the spirits bless you, and watch over you, and bring you happiness,” he said in his own voice, which made the young male’s eyes go wild.

      And for the first time, he truly meant it.

      “I was never here.”

      “You were never here,” the raccoon affirmed, putting his hands on Kyven’s wrist and forearms with an adoring expression.  His eyes widened even more when he felt no fur under his pads, just skin.  Human skin, and raw open wounds left over from the manacles  The hand that recoiled from his wrist had a little blood on the pad from his open wounds.

      He just put his finger to his lips again, his eyes playful.

      “To my grave, Shaman.  To my grave.”

      He let himself out of the stable gate, and as soon as he was in an alley, he again changed his illusion.  He was now a Loreguard officer, a Captain, who looked ruggedly handsome with graying black hair, salt-and-pepper, and walked with a slight limp, the illusion patterned on a real Loreguard officer whose name Kyven did not know, but whom Kyven had seen.  He came back out to River Street and moved towards the quay used by boats running to the Black Keep along a street that was now empty of anything but Loreguard, for the sun had set, the streets were darkening and the sky threatened to unleash its rain at any moment, and curfew was still in effect.

      This was the gamble.  The last thing they would ever expect is for him to go back to the Black Keep.  But this was his only way out.

      Moving through Loreguard patrols with little trouble, Kyven limped back to the quay holding the boats to the Black Keep, just as the rain began to fall.  He marched past the guards at the street, then was challenged by the guards near the boats.  “I have business on the island, Corporal,” he said in a calm yet authoritative voice.

      “I need--nevermind,” he said under Kyven’s steady stare.  Kyven limped past him as gracefully as he could, and settled himself in the very same boat he’d used to get off the island.  The same young man untied it and started them towards the island.

      The rain was a blessing.  After they were about a hundred rods out from the quay, it made the shore hard to see in the rapidly descending darkness.  Kyven simply sat there for a moment, gauging the visibility, then he turned in the boat and looked at the young man.  “I imagine that a man who makes his living in boats would know how to swim, in case of an accident.  Ever learn, my boy?” he asked curiously.

      “Why, yes sir,” he answered.

      “Good.”

      Kyven reached out and put a hand on the young man’s bare arm, and used the strength-stealing spell.  The man seemed to jerk, but he too was paralyzed by the spell, unable to move as Kyven drained him of a portion of his strength.  Kyven drained away more and more of his strength, feeling it flood him, until the man slumped, the tiller shifted, and the boat began to turn wild circles in the steady rain.  Kyven ended the spell feeling once again invigorated and renewed, then pushed the young man to the floor of the boat and took his place at the tiller.  He’d seen the young man use it, so he knew that all he had to do was twist the handle to make the boat go, and the tiller would guide it.  Kyven turned the boat downstream and turned the handle enough to give them a steady pace.  He passed under the bridge leading to the Loremaster’s island unseen, and when he was out from under it, he turned the handle to make the boat move slowly yet steadily, not so fast that its motion would draw attention through the steady rain, and he steered the boat to the very center of the river, which would make him all but invisible in the rainy night from either shore, barely moving faster than the river’s current so the boat drew no attention from its motion and it left no wake that would betray the passage of the boat to those on shore.

      This was the last place they’d look, because they could account for every man that had left the island except for the sergeant, whom they had seen walk off into old Avannar.  That was where they would look first, and wouldn’t think to cover the rivers until their hasty first search came up empty, when it became clear to them that Kyven was not injured, did not crawl off to the first hole he could find and try to bury himself.  And it would be the hardest place for them to check, for only boats could get out here.

      He moved very slowly but steadily downstream, going on the strength he stole from the young man laying unconscious in the boat’s bottom, until a shadow ahead of him revealed a ship anchored as close to the center of the river as it could manage.  It was a Loreguard naval vessel, and its rails were manned with sailors who were peering out into the storm with alchemical lights.  Kyven released the alchemical motor and caused the boat to slow to a drift, carried only by the current so as to leave no wake whatsoever, and he covered the entire boat in an illusion that it was a piece of driftwood, a large log that might explain the very faint wake trailing out behind the boat.  Covering the whole boat strained him considerably in his weakened condition, and he had to concentrate every iota of strength on it to hold it steady, so much so that his heart was pounding in his ears after only a moment.  But he did not waver, did not falter, drawing on the strength he stole from the young man to give him the strength he needed to drift past the anchored boat, a process that took nearly ten agonizing minutes where he thought of nothing but holding his illusion, and he burned up all the stolen strength he had taken from the young man.  He slid past it silently, and once he was past it, as the ship vanished into the rainy night he saw the wharfs of Avannar.  Those were on the edge of town.  That naval vessel had been the picket searching for renegade boats…searching for him.

      But he was past them.

      He had escaped.

      He leaned against the back of the boat, feeling weary, in pain, but strangely good.  He had no stolen strength left, and it left him weak as a kitten, his wrists and ankles throbbing, his shoulder aching, and his breathing fast and a little shallow as he tried to recover…and he did recover.  The blessing he has used on himself right at first was already at work, and he knew he would be if not in good shape, at least in good enough shape to travel by sunrise.  He didn’t know how much he’d told the Loremasters, but something told him that he said what he needed to say to further whatever plans his totem had in mind.  He had faced himself, and had admitted, in his soul, what he was, something he had never done before.  Before, he knew he was a Shaman.  Now, he understood what that meant.  He wasn’t just parroting, mimicking Clover, imitating what he thought a Shaman should be.  He knew who he was, he knew what he was, and he knew what he had to do.

      He had a duty that he had to answer.  Not because he knew it was the right thing to do, but because he was a Shaman, and he was needed to serve the will of the spirits, of his spirit, at that place.  So she directed, so he followed.  He would not be like Clover, but he would be no less a Shaman than her.

      He twisted the handle on the tiller as far as it would go, and the boat surged ahead.  Somewhere down this river and to the west, somewhere south of Riyan, there was a tobacco plantation situated on two gentle hills with a river between them.  That was his destination.  He had no idea where it was.  He had no idea what he would do there, and he was too tired and weary to dwell much upon it.  He only knew that his totem had ordered him to go there, that he was needed there, and so he would go.

      And that, he mused, had been the most important lesson of all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    5      7

Chapter 6

 

      The young man whose boat Kyven had stolen became one of those who had no happy ending.

      Simply put, Kyven could not afford to leave him alive.  He regretted having to do it, but in this there could be no mistakes.  If that man lived, he might guide the Loreguard to Kyven, so he couldn’t be left alive.

      The man and his boat were put back out into the Podac river after Kyven felt strong enough to disembark, and then he watched as the stones he piled in the boat and the hole he broke into the bottom did their work.  The boat settled more and more into the water, it then started pouring over the sides, and then the boat and the man tied to it with vines sank into nearly in the exact center of the wide channel of the Podac River, more than deep enough that it would never be found.

      Kyven felt an odd serenity.  He was still injured, his wrists and ankles little but bloody meat and his shoulder in a great deal of pain from having been dislocated, but his blessing and the meal he had wisely eaten in Avannar had done wonders for him, leaving him strong enough to walk without dragging.  He felt…sedate.  Calm.  Confident.  He knew exactly who he was, where he was going--even if he wasn’t quite sure exactly where that was--and what he was doing.  He had gotten out of the boat on the west bank of the Podac river just before sunrise, probably about sixty minars from Avannar, found a nice sandy area sheltered by a deadfall, and caught a nice nap.  He felt stronger when he woke up, if a bit hungry, but he was out in the wilds now, and food was not as much a problem.  He had no clothes, but he had the sergeant’s belt and his alchemical devices which he could use as barter when he reached a village, but until he got there it was a simple matter to use his lightning against a small stream to electrocute up a meal of raw fish.

      Fishing, Shaman style.

      Lucky for him, the sergeant’s belt included a small dagger, and that served to clean and gut the fish.  The meal staved off the hunger he so feared, and the stream slaked his thirst, and he set out through the wilds heading southwest, knowing that he would eventually reach Tobacco Road, the major thoroughfare that linked Avannar and Rallan, with Riyan in the middle between the two.  Until he reached the road, however, he wanted to make progress south, get away from Avannar, so he opted for the angled approach to the road that led him through regions of untamed forest.  He moved carefully on his bare feet and hurting ankles, stepping carefully so as not to impale himself on a thorn or twig, wincing every time a stick or branch grated against his raw wounds, and keeping his left arm tucked in close to keep from moving it too much.

      About sunset, he stepped from the forest into a clearing, an artificial clearing.  It was a remote farmstead, not too large, with fields surrounding a sturdy little house, a barn, a short, squat silo, and a chicken coop and pigpen.  The barnyard had a fenced section for a few sheep and a single cow.  Kyven wrapped himself in an illusion of a buckskin-clad prospector carrying a small pack with a bedroll tied to the top and picked his way through the rows of beets towards the house, and it wasn’t long before someone took notice of him.  “Hello the farm!” Kyven called.  “Might I approach?”

      “What business you have?” a man on the porch shouted back.

      “I wanted to see if I could buy a new blanket and maybe a bit of food that I don’t have to catch and kill!”

      “Come along, but step careful,” the man said, shouldering a long musket.  “We don’t get enough visitors ‘round these parts to be particular friendly til we talk a bit.”

      The man was a tall, lanky man with a balding pate of blond hair and hard brown eyes.  His skin was browned and leathered from the sun and wind, and his farmstead seemed to hold only him, his wife, a young lady cousin or relative, and five kids.  There were no Arcans, no other farmhands, and Kyven wondered how just eight of them ran a farm of this size.  Kyven stopped at the steps of the porch and took the money purse stolen from the sergeant from his belt.  “I only need a new blanket and some prepared food.  I’ll happily move on after I get them and camp well away from your fields.”

      “How much?”

      “Given my need and the fact that I don’t think I’ll find anyone else around here, how about ten chits for the blanket and five for the food?”  Kyven pulled three five chit coins from the purse, which looked to only hold fifteen chits more, and offered them to the man.

      “Done and done, stranger,” the balding man nodded, reaching out and taking the chits, inspecting them, then looking towards the door.  “Sammy, go get a good blanket for the man.  Ma, fix him up a dinner he can eat later.”

      “My thanks, friend.  I’m looking forward to eating something I don’t have to skin or gut first.”

      The man smiled.  “Not many prospectors out this way.”

      “That’s why I’m here,” he said smoothly.  “Working the streams near where they feed into the Podac.  My thinking is when they slow down and when the tide backs them up, smaller crystals might bank up on the sandbars.  I’m gonna work the bars from the Podac and up a good few minars and see what I come up with.”

      “Sounds like an odd plan.”

      “Well, hoping quantity makes up for the small crystals, cause I’ve sure had bad luck west and this here purse is starting to get a little light, so I’m willing to try something odd about now,” he grunted, hefting the sergeant’s money purse before tying it back to his belt.  “Say, how far am I from the nearest village?  I’m gonna need to restock soon.”

      “Fried’s about half a day that way if you’re walkin’,” he said, pointing towards the south.  “Just follow the wagon track leading out of my land, goes right to it.”

      “I may have to do that before I go back out,” he noted aloud.

      A young boy brought out both a folded blanket and a small makeshift sack made by pulling up the corners of a piece of burlap that held cheese and a bit of jerked beef.  “Nice, nice,” he said, unfolding the wool blanket and finding it fairly large and in good condition.  “My thanks, friends.  I’ll be on my way now.  Good evening to you.”

      “Be careful out there, traveler,” the farmer said gruffly.  “And good luck prospectin’.”

      Kyven took the cart track south, which wound along low, gentle hills, and found a nice clearing in which to camp for the night that was about two minars from the farm and just off the track, close enough to hear any traffic that used it but far enough back not to be seen, for it was separated from the track by a stand of oak and maple trees.  He built a small fire for himself, enjoyed his meal of cheese and beef, found a stream nearby from which to get a drink, then used magic on himself.  He’d found that the spell he’d used to strip water and detritus out of his fur also worked almost perfectly for cleaning his wounds quickly and painlessly.  After envisioning it and beseeching the fox for the power to cast the spell, he saw all the accumulated dirt that had worked into the raw wounds on his ankles and wrists clear out of them, leaving them clean.  Still open and oozing both blood and clear fluid, but clean.  He then took the blanket and tore a good piece of it into narrow strips, and those he used to bandage his wounds as best he could.  He settled in with what blanket he had left and almost immediately fell into a deep, recuperative sleep, with the sounds of the forest serenading him and the gentle warmth of the fire radiating against his face and side as he lay near the dwindling flames.

      He awoke feeling a little stiff an tender, and also a bit…warm.  A hand to his forehead warned him that he was on the verge of a fever, and he realized that his wounds must have become infected.  He used the spell that cured diseases on himself, which would eradicate the infection…which he could use on himself because it was a Blessing, a spell of healing, and all healing spells were Blessings.  He hoped he got it early enough that it didn’t weaken him any more than he was, but after a full day of steady food and a lack of heavy activity, he was confident that he wasn’t going to suffer too greatly from the infection, that he cured it early enough.

      Too bad curing diseases was the extent of his healing powers.  The raw, bloody wounds on his wrists would be long to heal and would heal back badly scarred, but the ones on his ankles wouldn’t be quite as bad.  His wrists had taken the brunt of it, days and days of him hanging at that awkward angle that put all his weight on where his wrists had been in the shackles, and had put enough stress on his shoulders to cause his left one to dislocate of its own volition.

      He reached the small, rural, isolated village of Fried about noon on a hot, muggy summer day, and was careful to wrap himself in his blond-haired illusion before coming out into the open…but he had to work carefully here so as to not cause problems with his illusion, so he was careful not to add any clothes to his illusion.  He instead tied the remains of his blanket around himself like a kilt and put the belt on over it.  He attracted quite a bit of attention as he walked in, as kids stopped to look at him and women watched him go by from their porches or gardens, and there were quite a few giggles and pointed fingers.  There were a few Arcans here as well, all of them in collars, but he paid them no special attention.  He could tell the general store from the surrounding buildings because of its size and the fact that four men were sitting on stools on the porch, deep in conversation.  They all stopped as Kyven came up, but one man did nod to him and open the door for him when he reached it.  All four were smiling.

      Within was a typical village general store, for it had a little bit of just about everything.  Farm equipment, supplies, food, sundries, even clothes.  A general store was the sole supplier of most of the needs of its village, and so they were usually well stocked with almost anything the customers might need.  This store was being minded by a young, surprisingly pretty girl with long, slightly wavy hair tied back in a single tail, sweeping the floor near the counter, wearing a simple country dress of blue cotton with white bands on the ends of the short sleeves, the edge of the bodice where it buttoned down, and the hem of the skirt.  It was a dress made to deal with the muggy summers of the region.  “Can I help you, sir?” she asked with a gentle smile, obviously trying not to laugh or let her eyes wander from his face.

      “Yes ma’am,” he said.  “As you can probably tell, I’ve had a pretty bad run of luck and lost all my clothes and most of my gear.  So, I need two good sets of clothes, a pack, a bedroll, a couple of waterskins, an extra blanket, a pair of boots, and maybe a small tent or a good sized tarp if you have one.  I only have fifteen chits, but I’m willing to trade this shockrod for what I need.”  He removed the shockrod from the holster and offered it to her.

      She took it from him and rather expertly checked to make sure it had a crystal, then she activated it.  The faint hum it gave off satisfied her, and she nodded.  “What happened to you, sir?”

      “Remember that storm a couple of days ago?”

      She nodded.

      “Well, it was a lot worse up north a ways, and I made the bad move of camping by a small stream that channeled a flash flood right on top of me.  It washed out my camp, when I had my last set of good clothes off to wash them.  I lost everything.  Tent, clothes, gear, even my boots,” he said, holding up a bare foot and wiggling his toes.  “Only things I found were this blanket and my belt.  Everything else is probably halfway to the Angry Sea by now.”

      “Terrible luck, sir,” she said with a nod.  “I think the shockrod will cover most of what you want.  I’ll have to have my pa set a value.  Pa!” she called.

      When a tall, heavy-set man with small eyes came out from the back room, he laughed openly at Kyven’s appearance.  Kyven just chuckled ruefully and accepted it with a smile.  The man introduced himself as Vern Millerson, but his amusement at Kyven’s appearance turned into a compassionate nod when Kyven repeated his story.  “So, you think the shockrod will cover what I need?” he asked.

      The man held it up and inspected it, then his eyes widened.  “This is a Loreguard shockrod.  Where did you get it?”

      “It is?  Wow,” Kyven said with feigned surprise.  “I’ve had it for over a year.  Bought it in Balton in an alchemist shop.  No Loreguard’s ever said a thing about me carrying it, even when I went through Avannar last fall.”

      “Well, we don’t see them here often enough for it to matter to me,” he said with a smile.  “I’ll trade you the shockrod for everything you want except the tent.”

      “How about a piece of tarp I can use to make a lean-to instead?”

      “Now that’s a deal,” he said, taking the shockrod and putting it under the counter.  “Go ahead and help him gear up, Linny.”

      “Okay, pa,” she nodded in reply.

      With the girl Linny’s help, Kyven geared up.  He picked a nice pair of denim trousers and a short-sleeved brown shirt, a rugged leather vest to wear over it and protect it, underclothes, and they had a nice pair of soft moccasin-boots that were a perfect fit.  He wanted clothes for one simple reason, so he could get around without using illusions if necessary…and walking naked through the forest wasn’t entirely pleasant.  Branches, thorns, and brambles had a habit of poking a man in some pretty sensitive areas.  He got a second set of clothes, a roomy backpack, a bedroll, a sturdy wool blanket, two waterskins, and a length of rope and some leather thongs and a few pieces of sackcloth.  He rounded it off with a long leather strap he tied over his forehead to again serve as a blindfold to hide his eyes when he used spirit sight, and good piece of canvas that would serve him as a beggar’s tent.  He used his last fifteen chits to buy some trail food, cheese and dried meat and some dried fruit, which would tide him over on those days he was either too tired to hunt or couldn’t find anything.  He even managed to talk Linny out of a used, battered old set of posts knives they had behind the counter, for her to add it to his order.  They were old, but they were in good condition and they were actually pretty well balanced, and would serve Kyven well as a formidable physical weapon if he couldn’t use magic for some reason.

      Despite his magic, he was still a deadly man with a thrown knife, and he’d be a fool not to make sure he could use that advantage if he needed it.

      “You’re a posts player, eh?” she asked with a smile.

      “When I can find the time and a game,” he answered honestly.  “I haven’t played in a long time.  Not many partners out there.”  He folded up the canvas and packed it over the other goods in his pack, and then closed it.  “Many thanks ma’am.  You were a lifesaver.  I was feeling all kinds of exposed and a bit silly wearing that blanket.”

      “Well, you have nice legs, so at least you wore it well,” she winked.

      He laughed.  “Well, I’ll be on my way so the old women can gossip about me for the next three months.”

      “More like six, nothing ever happens around here.”

      “Well, at least I’ll be famous for a good reason,” he mused, which made her laugh again.

      Shouldering his pack, he got directions to Tobacco Road from one of the fellows standing on the porch, and started off in that direction.  He happened to come up on a young man being followed by a young Arcan, probably no more than two, who was wearing a brassy-colored collar.  Before he even knew what he was doing, he reached out and put his hand on the young canine’s shoulder, smiling down on him, the side of his pinky brushing up against that collar.  And in that contact, he drained away the power of the collar’s crystal.

      “What you doin’, mister?” the young man asked.

      “Oh, just admiring this handsome young Arcan,” he said with a smile.  The Arcan child stared up at him in surprise, and then his mouth dropped open when  Kyven’s eyes began to glow.  “May the spirits bless you, little one,” he told him.

      The young canine gave him the most curious look, like he had no idea what Kyven was, but was certain that something important and unusual had just happened.  Kyven just smiled, leaning closer to the small canine and patting him on the shoulder.  He then put his thumbs under his pack straps and strolled towards the road leading to Tobacco Road like he had not a care in the world and was in no hurry to get wherever he was going.

 

      The Loreguard was no doubt hunting him by now, convinced he had escaped Avannar, and would be combing the Free Territories looking for him.

      But, Kyven felt that he had an advantage.  If they believed that he was Kyven Steelhammer, then the first direction they’d be looking was west, towards Atan.  Kyven had a history in Atan, and he knew that country well, so they might think that he would seek out familiar trails and friends that would help him even as a fugitive.  But that also didn’t mean that they didn’t have every Loremaster and Loreguard patrol on Tobacco Road keeping an eye out for a tall, raven-haired young man that would be either traveling alone or with Arcans.

      Their problem was simple.  They were dealing with someone who didn’t leave any trail they could follow.

      Kyven never appeared to the same farmstead or sleepy village with the same face.  He was always polite and cordial, but he also didn’t stay or utilize any inns or visit any cafés or inns or taverns.  He simply walked into town, walked through town, and then walked out of town.  The only thing that anyone noticed about him was that the man--or woman, when his illusion was that of a woman--would stop and greet every single Arcan, put a hand on the Arcan’s shoulder, and then move on.  That was very curious behavior.

      What was even more curious was the rash of runaway Arcans that proceeded his departure, as Arcans realized their collars no longer worked, slipped them, and bolted for the forests.

      For his part, he wasn’t entirely sure why he was draining every collar he came across, but he was.  It was almost like a compulsion, a need to set things right whenever he saw a collar.  He was often doing it before he even knew what he was doing.

      Though Kyven’s appearance gave the Loreguard no way to track him down or find him, his behavior was consistent enough for some to take notice of it.  Two Loreguard riding exhausted horses were asking questions in a little village through which he walked a couple of days after leaving Fried, as he neared Riyan, and they were asking about a lone traveler that seemed to be traveling south along the road that had an unusual interest in Arcans.  No one in the village had seen such a person, and Kyven simply strolled through the village while the Loreguard were busy questioning everyone, and the two Loreguard cantered their tired horses past a dog laying lazily in the grass by the road south of the village, which was actually Kyven in disguise.

      About five minars south of the village, out where nobody was around to see anything, those two Loreguard mysteriously disappeared.  Not an hour later, Kyven Steelhammer was riding a brand new horse south towards Riyan, leading a second horse, both of which equipped with gear that looked like it was standard issue Loreguard, but had none of the official emblems.

      Those hadn’t been that hard to pry off the saddles.  It was a good thing that the Loreguard didn’t brand their horses, he mused, they instead used an alchemical device that caused the hair to literally glow with magical light to form the Loremaster symbol on the rear flank of every horse, which also doubled as a means for the Loreguard to locate their horses by using an alchemical device, tracking them by those magical brands.  The vast majority of horse thieves didn’t have a grounder, so the Loreguard didn’t worry all that much about someone figuring out some way to remove that magical mark.

      Unfortunately for them, a Shaman would find getting rid of that mark child’s play, even a half-trained Shaman like Kyven.

      Kyven wouldn’t keep something so distinct, though.  He got rid of the saddles and bridles, kept the saddlebags, and sold the extra horse and bought a new nondescript saddle and bridle in a sleepy little village that was about ten minars off Tobacco Road, on a country lane that drifted off to the east.  He hadn’t really planned on riding a horse, but he’d been broke when those Loreguard showed up, and they were a veritable treasure trove of equipment Kyven could sell or trade for equipment or food in addition to their horses.  The horse he decided to keep was a rather large, burly roan, barrel-chested and powerful.  This wasn’t a racing horse, this was a horse born and bred in the Smoke Mountains, a mountain horse that could ride up and down steep hills, the kind of horse that could walk all day and all night and still be ready to go after a short rest and a little food.  The roan wouldn’t run very fast, but he could run all day…at least after some rest.  The Loreguard had rode them hard, and Kyven ambled along at a slow walk, leading the horses, the day after he “liberated” them from the Loreguard.  After he reached the village, a night in the village livery did wonders for the burly animal, and he was refreshed and ready to go the next day.

      So, thanks to the Loreguard questioners, Kyven now had a horse, two new shockrods, a talker that let him listen in on everything the patrolling Loreguard had to say, two pistols, two alchemical searchlights, a brand new tent, and a purse filled with 67 chits after buying a saddle and tack for his new roan.

      He got a good price for that horse.

      Riding slow gave Kyven time to adjust to the idea of being on a horse, and also didn’t attract much attention to him.  He hadn’t ridden very much since leaving Atan, and truth be told, he could probably run most horses into the ground.  He was far more conditioned than most men, and could run all day if he wanted to do so, a feat a horse couldn’t match.  But they were looking for someone on foot that was overly friendly to Arcans, and the horse was a convenient means to carry his gear in addition to helping conceal him from the Loreguard.  He wasn’t a bad rider, he knew how and had had just enough practice back home to not fall out of the saddle and break his butt, but a little more practice wouldn’t hurt.  Besides, riding the horse actually felt better to his injured ankles, though the bouncing around in the saddle made his injuries throb a bit.

      He was on the horse when the city of Riyan came into view as he crested a gentle rise.  It looked just as he remembered, except this time he wouldn’t be stopped and questioned by a sexy Loreguard officer.

      Too bad.

      What he did, see, however, was stark evidence of what was coming.  Scattered in camps all over the north of the city, just outside it, was a veritable sea of tents.  This was where the Loremasters were massing their armies for what was coming.  Some of these men would be marching over the mountains to fight the Arcans…though they didn’t know that yet.  Some would be fortifying the mountain villages and crystal-producing regions of the mountains.  Some would be deployed here in the human lands to fend off the kingdoms of Noraam that would oppose the Loremasters’ plans by force.  He looked out and saw that there had to be 10,000 men camped along the grassy slopes north of Riyan, and this couldn’t be even a quarter of the tens of thousands of men the reports said were here.  The city had to be all but surrounded by Loreguard armies.  Also here, he remembered, were literally every single Loremaster-owned Arcan, collected from every corner of Noraam and brought here in preparation for sending them over the Smoke Mountains, to force them to build the forts they would use out there as a base to establish their claim on Arcan territory.

      He, a wanted man, was about to ride through the very heart of the enemy’s military forces.  But he had no choice.  His destination was somewhere to the south, and so he would move on, depending on his illusions and his horse to conceal who he was.

      He rode through town without stopping, and without looking around too much.  There were a great many Arcans here, and for once, he had to control his impulses to keep the Loreguard from knowing he was in town.  According to the talkers, they’d lost him somewhere between the villages of Herigo and Vaiya, but they didn’t know if it was Kyven.  They had orders to track down anyone that attracted any unusual attention or acted in an unusual manner, and Kyven’s behavior had caused them to take notice.

      They sure as hell knew he’d escaped, for he found himself confronting an image of himself on a poster nailed to a board near the road.  Under his rather accurate likeness was the message:

 

REWARD!

 

5,000CC.

Must Be Turned In Alive.

Wanted for Murder.

 

      Kyven was rather flattered that they’d offer a 5,000 chit reward for him.  That was high enough for every bounty hunter in the Free Territories to start checking under every rock for him, but not so high that people wondered if he’d murdered half of Avannar that he was worth so much bounty.  He also thought it was amusing that his supposed crime was literally fine print on the wanted poster.

      “Well, that might be worth a look around,” a grizzled older man said, with the looks of a woodsman, as he looked at the poster from beside Kyven’s horse.  “Wonder what he done did.  Murder, eh?”

      “Nah, that’s just what they say he did,” Kyven said with a chuckle.  “I was there in Avannar when it happened.”

      “You was there?  What he did?”

      “He’s a Shaman,” Kyven said.  “A human Shaman, if you can believe such a thing is possible.  He escaped from the Black Keep after they caught him.  They tore the city apart looking for him, to the point where a man without roots such as myself decided to go see if it’s still hot in Lanna this time of year.”

      “Usually,” he said thoughtfully in reply.  “They knows he’s a Shaman?”

      “That’s what I heard, from the son of a Loreguard in a tavern who heard it from his pa.  He said the man said he was a Shaman, and said they found one of the jailors hanging in his chains, and not a whisper of him, like he just vanished into thin air.  Ain’t nobody saw a single thing, just poof, gone.  Don’t know how much you can set store by it, though.  He mighta been lyin’ just to make himself sound impressive, but I don’t see how a normal man could escape from the Black Keep, and that, I know he did.  I heard it straight from a Loreguard when I asked what the fuss was about.”

      “Amen to that, neighbor,” the older man nodded soberly.  “I had the bad luck of spending a month in the Black Keep when a disagreement in a bar got bloody.  I don’t see how nobody could escape from that place, unless he’s got alchemy…or he’s a Shaman.”  He looked at the poster again.  “I don’t see how a human can be a Shaman, though.”

      “On that, my friend, we’re both stumped,” he said with a light smile the man couldn’t see.  “But he had to be something to walk out of the Black Keep without anyone seeing even a hair of him.”

      “True enough,” he agreed.  “If he is a Shaman, it ain’t worth no five thousand to go get killed tryin’ to catch him.  Think I’ll wander back to the tavern.  Want to sit a spell, traveler?”

      “No thanks.  I hear Lanna calling my name, friend.”

      “Well, ain’t a man who can resist the call of the road,” he chuckled, patting the roan’s flank.  “And that’s a mighty fine horse.”

      “Thanks.  He’s always been dependable.”

      “Mountain horse.  Always the best horse for the long road.”

      “I see you know your horses, my friend.”

      “He got a name?”

      “Spirit,” Kyven said with a small smile.

      And so, he and his newly named horse ambled out of Riyan, through another sea of Loreguard tents south of the city, past a huge fenced area holding what looked like a few thousand Arcans, and ambled out of sight.  Riding was certainly different from walking, and aside from the strange pressure it put on his backside, it wasn’t all that bad…though he preferred walking.  But, the horse made him much less conspicuous, and so it helped with his disguise.  More than once, Loreguard patrols rode by him, and though he was stopped once for them to inquire as to his destination, the horse seemed to throw them off his trail.

      A day of easy riding after leaving Riyan, he found himself at a crossroads, as a rather large and well-traveled road led off to the west.  He found himself turning down that road before he knew what he was doing, and understood that his destination lay somewhere off that way, off Tobacco Road.  The horse settled into a nice ambling fast walk, nearly a canter, when he felt talons on his shoulder, and sensed the presence of a spirit.  It was a small eagle, golden feathers gracing a surprisingly small body, and she settled on his shoulder.  In that touch, there was communication.  I bear a message from Clover, the spirit intoned.  She is frenzied with worry for you, Shaman of the shadow fox.  Are you well?

      “I am well, sister eagle,” he answered respectfully.  “Injured and a little worse for wear, but I am well.  Would you please be so kind as to let her know I am well and am following the path set before me by my totem?”

      I can carry your message, Shaman of the shadow fox, as Clover bargained carrying your reply to her as well.  Clover’s message continues, however.  She has accomplished her mission.  The weapons of the Britons are now in the hands of the Masked and are being sent where they are needed, and the Masked accomplished the task quickly and without harm.  She also informs you that Patches, Tweak, and Watcher are well.  They have left Atan and travel west along with many of their brother and sister Arcans, fleeing back to Haven, where Patches and Tweak will take up positions of great importance teaching others what you taught them about cutting crystals.  Lightfoot and Lucky, however, remain in Atan.  Lightfoot awaits word of you, and intends to come to you, wherever you are.  Lucky intends to follow Lightfoot wherever she goes.  He has taken fancy to her.

      “That’s a surprise,” Kyven chuckled.  “I’m not sure how Lightfoot will find me.”

      Clover can find you, and Clover hastens to Atan.  She should be there by late tomorrow.

      “Well, if the spirits wish it for her to come to me, then I’ll welcome her, even though I’m not sure yet what my totem wants me to do wherever I’m going,” he said.  “We are best friends and work well together.”

      Thus is why we do not object to her returning to you.  Together, you and Clover are quite formidable.

      “Thank you for the compliment, and thank you for bringing me the message, sister eagle.  I truly appreciate it.”

      It is as was bargained, Shaman, the eagle replied calmly.  Would that you could bargain with me so I could heal your wounds, but sister shadow fox would take most unkindly to my lack of manners.  Would that you bargain with her for her boon?

      “I know better,” he said simply.  “Every bargain you make with her ends with her taking far more from you than you intended.  I’ll live with the pain.”

      Truly, you have become wise in your short time as a Shaman, human, the eagle noted, amused.  Sister shadow fox has the snake’s cunning and the wolverine’s temperament.

      “That’s the truth,” he grunted.  “But thank you for your compassion.  It comforts me, sister eagle.”

      Compassion is love, Shaman, and love is the greatest thing there is, she answered.  I will return to Clover with your answer, as was bargained.  Fare well, human, and know that we are pleased with your service thus far.  You have proved that humans can be true Shaman.

      Kyven felt her talons release his grip on him, and the sense of her faded.  “Well, it’s nice to know I’m going to get some trusted company, Spirit,” he told his horse.  “Not that you haven’t been a good companion, but at least they can speak.”

      The horse snuffled haughtily and urged out to a full canter.

      “Alright, alright, take your own pace,” he chuckled, loosing the reins in his hands and letting the horse canter along.

      Kyven encountered only one patrol of Loreguard and quite a few other travelers along the western road, that looked to go towards Doram, which was just inside the kingdom of Carin, which bordered the Free Territories to the south.  Carin was a very small kingdom bordered by the vast kingdom of Georvan to the south, the sea to the east, and the mountains to the west.  Georvan dominated southern Noraam, running from New Jacktown to Hatera, the eastern cape of Noraam dominated by barrier islands.  Cheston was within Georvan, but it was independent of Georvan and used to be part of a kingdom known as South Carin before Georvan conquered it some two centuries ago.  Carin itself used to be called North Carin until then, but when South Carin became no more, people stopped calling it that and just called it Carin.  The other travelers often stopped him to chat a moment, as was the friendly way within the Free Territories, and the Loreguard patrol he encountered seemed to not really care about him very much, riding past him without questioning him.  This, Kyven knew from the talker, was because they honestly had no idea where he was, they were still searching for him, but he’d been gone for so long that they no longer believed that he was in the Free Territories. They were focusing their search north of him and to the west, thinking that he would flee towards Atan and the Smoke Mountains, going back to familiar territory and where he had friends that might help him hide or escape.

      For two days, Kyven traveled southwest away from Tobacco Road.  His wrists and ankles were healing, albeit slowly, but he could tell after changing the bandages that he would have some ugly scars on his wrists.  His flesh had been pulled, twisted, pinched, and torn by his weight, almost to the bone on his left arm, but he could live with it.  He’d lost no mobility in either hand, had suffered no permanent damage, and he’d live with the scars if it meant his left hand wasn’t a stiffened claw for the rest of his life.  His ankles weren’t as badly injured, and they had healed most of the way.  His left ankle had completely closed over in scabs, and his right was nearly there.

      He camped the first night near a small stream back away from the road, in a tiny clearing barely large enough for his tent, and the second night he camped in a grassy meadow on the very top of a hill that overlooked a tobacco plantation…which literally covered the entire region.  Small strips of forest or unclaimed land marked the boundaries between the plantations, and the road traveled between them in a nearly straight line, often turning sharply to the right or left to follow the boundaries.  He saw hundreds of Arcans working in the fields, and somewhat surprising to him, the plantation hands did not ride over to talk with him.

      About an hour after he broke camp and rode on, he crested a small hill and reined the horse in so sharply he almost reared.  To his right, he saw it.  A plantation on two very low, gentle hills, with a stream flowing in the shallow valley between them that crossed the road.  The plantation house, a very large affair that was actually the crown of several buildings in a compound, stood in that valley far back from the road, and there was a whitewashed rail fence bordering the road that had a gate blocking a lane leading along that valley and to the house.

      This was the place.  This was where his totem told him he needed to go.

      This was where his Walk would end.  And after that…he guessed he would take his place among his brother and sister Shaman.

      But what was he to do here?  His totem didn’t tell him that…maybe he had to figure it out for himself.  Or maybe she would tell him now that he was here.

      But one thing seemed clear to him.  Here, there would be no hiding.  No illusions, no lies, no tricks, no guile and deceit.  He would walk in leading his horse, and he would proudly proclaim himself.

      “This is it, fella,” Kyven noted to his horse, then he dismounted.  “This is where we’re supposed to be.”  The horse nickered and nudged him with his nose, and he chuckled and reached up and patted him.  “I could let you go, you know.  I’m not sure I’m going to need a horse now.”

      The horse snorted and pushed at him again.

      “Alright, but I gave you the chance,” he said lightly, patting him on the neck.  “Let’s go see what kind of mischief we can stir up, Spirit.”

      He felt anxious more than nervous as he reached the gate, and then opened it and walked in, the horse following him.  He padded calmly down the lane as the Arcans took notice of him.  There were dozens of them here, all of them with hollow eyes and blank expressions, the expressions of Arcans who had had all life and happiness beaten out of them long ago.  These were slaves, in every sense of the word.  The humans here didn’t even really need the collars.  Just like those females that sat down on the beach and waited for someone to come get them, these Arcans had become slaves in mind as well as body.

      But why was he here?  He could find Arcans like this on almost any plantation.  Some owners and foremen were kindly, but on big places like this, most of them were not.  They saw Arcans as a commodity, as numbers, as faceless living machines whose sole purpose was to work…work until they died.  Then they just butchered the body to feed to the other machines and buy another one.  So, what was special about this place?  What made his spirit send him nearly a week from Avannar to come to this most particular plantation?  Was it its location, well away from the bustle of Tobacco Road, yet conveniently close to the Smoke Mountains?  Was there a specific person or Arcan here that would help him in his next task? Or was there a lesson waiting to be learned here, the last lesson that the fox would teach on his Walk?  She said that his Walk would end at this place, and when he left it, he would be walking the path of the Shaman.

      Perhaps that was his task, to figure out what she wanted him to do here.  But, to do that, he’d need some information…and to gather information, he’d need to use a little guile and deceit.  Just enough to keep the entire plantation from either attacking him or fleeing in terror.

      A lone human on a horse crested the hill to his left and ahead of him, hesitated, the cantered down a path between sections of tobacco plants and hurried towards him.  He was a tall young man, with brown hair, brown eyes, and a pleasant face, if not a handsome one, though he did have a scar over his left eye.  “Hold, stranger,” the man called as he came down off the hill.  “What business do you have here?”

      Kyven regarded the man calmly.  “I was sent here,” he said evenly.

      “Sent?  Fella, we’re full up.  I’m sorry if they told ya wrong.  Who told you we had work?  Jessup?”

      “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Kyven said lightly.

      “Well, guess you can come along and get some lunch, traveler, before you head back.  No need for you to leave hungry.”

      “Sure, that sounds good,” he said, mounting his horse.

      He followed along behind the hand, looking at the Arcans.  They had quite a few, and the plantation just rolled out past those hills for quite a ways.  Whoever owned this place had a lot of money and a lot of land.  He also saw that they grew more than tobacco.  Behind the house and to the right, there were rows and rows of corn, and there were other food plants beside those leading to a fence.

      “Pretty big place,” Kyven noted, looking around.

      “Yeah, it’s a handful to work,” the hand grunted.  “I’m Trevon.”

      “Kyven,” he offered.

      “That name sounds…familiar somehow.  Ever been through this part of the territories, friend?”

      “No, my first time here,” he answered.

      “Eh, thought I may have heard of ya.  Anyway, yeah, the old man got nearly sixty akes of farmed land, and there ain‘t nobody behind us.  Nothing out west but the mountains.”

      “Old man?  Who owns this place?”

      “General Wilson Danvers, Esquire,” the hand Trevon said with a grunt.

      “He sounds charming,” Kyven said grimly.

      “Pensioned from the Loremasters, bought this spread.”

      “Danvers?  The hero of Balton?”

      “That’s him,” he nodded.  “He relives that battle every other night at the dinner table.  I think every hand on the plantation can recite it from memory.”  The Balton Incident was the last major Arcan rebellion…such as it was.  A large kennel in Ocean City was taken over, a few hundred Arcans escaped, and they fled, sacking farms and plantations, gathering up weapons, and freeing every Arcan they could find along the way.  The Loreguard went after them, and caught up to them just outside Balton.  What made it notorious was that the Arcans fought back, for they knew they’d be killed no matter what, so they had nothing to lose.  General Danvers was outnumbered when the Arcans attacked, by nearly three to one, but his men managed to crush the rebellion, and they slaughtered every single Arcan.  That happened some fifteen years ago, within Kyven’s lifetime.

      “Sounds like you don’t like him too much.”

      “He’s a fancy dandy, and I don‘t cotton much to dandies,” Trevon growled.  “But he pays well and he’s a fair man when it comes to his hired hands, and I only have to get close to him once a day.  His foreman manages the plantation, he just rides around on his horse, entertains guests, and enjoys his retirement.”

      “Seems like he uses a heavy hand with his Arcans,” Kyven noted, glancing at a small mouse walking down the lane carrying a water bucket, her eyes down.

      “He don’t give a shit about anything but his medals, pardon my language,” Trevon answered.  “Bull, the foreman, he’ll beat an Arcan for any reason, even if he has to make one up.”

      “Sounds like you don’t like him.”

      “Not too fond of him, no, but I don’t have to like him to work with him.  He knows farms and he knows farmin’, and he’s why this place makes money.  Danvers don’t know one side of the hoe from the other.”

      They rode up into the main compound of the house, barns, and other utility buildings.  They dismounted and tied their horses to a rail near the stables, and Trevon led him to what looked like a small dorm, like the one at the inn in Avannar.  On farms and ranches, though, they were called bunkhouses.  Trevon brought him into the common room of the bunkhouse, which already had three men in it as well as a small brown-furred dog and a gray-furred rat Arcan, both wearing collars, and both with swollen faces.  They were utterly silent as they served the men plates of beans, boiled corncobs, chicken, and beer.  The three men at the long table had the look of men who worked with their hands.  The youngest was about eighteen, the oldest nearly forty from the look of him, wearing dirty denim overalls, cotton shirts, and all three had wide-brimmed hats hanging from their backs by a leather cord around their necks.  “Hey fellas,” Trevon said.  “Got a traveler come through, offered him a bite before he moves on.”

      “Hey there, traveler, welcome,” the oldest of the three said, waving him in.  “I’m Jack.  This ugly fella here beside me is Geral, and the youngster is Vick.”

      “Kyven,” he mirrored, nodding to the man.

      One of the men, Geral, dropped his fork.  “Kyven?  That name sounds, dunno, I heard it before.”

      “I guess it’s a popular name around here, Trevon said the same thing,” Kyven said mildly as he accepted a plate from the rat Arcan with a nod.

      “So where you off to, Kyven?” the man Jack asked.

      “Here,” he answered calmly.  “I was sent here, to this very plantation.”

      “By who?”

      “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

      “Then you must be here to see the General,” Jack grunted.  “They trying to lure him out of retirement?”

      “Got me.  They didn’t send me either.”

      “Then why are you here?” the youngest, Vick, asked.

      “Dunno,” he shrugged, then took a bite.  “Just know I’m supposed to be here.  I’ll figure out why when I poke around a bit, I guess.  I was just told where to be.  I wasn’t told why.”

       “Well, son, that sound a bit…strange,” Jack noted.

      “You’re not the first person to call me strange, Jack,” he chuckled, reaching down and unbuckling his belt holding all his captured weapons, and then dropping it on the table.  “That should ease your mind a bit.  I don’t think I was sent here to start trouble.  If that’s all I was sent to do, well, I passed plenty of other plantations on my way here.  And I wouldn’t bring trouble to men who invited me to lunch no matter what.”

      “Almost sounds like you’re a Trinity monk,” Trevon chuckled.  “Following some inner voice.”

      “Or the voices in my head,” Kyven added, which made Trevon laugh.  He sensed her appear within the room, the shadow fox.  He glanced towards the door and saw her sitting there sedately, tail wrapped around her front legs, glowing eyes fixed on him unwaveringly.  But she didn’t speak out, content merely to watch for the moment.

      Her appearance caused him to again evaluate this place, looking at it with an impartial eye.  The hands seemed decent men, friendly and not judgmental after his wild remarks, accepting him at their table.  From what he heard, the main antagonist on the farm was the foreman, Bull, who sounded as mean as a snake.  The owner, Danvers, was seen as a hero, having put down a small Arcan rebellion ten years ago, but he seemed to have no care for the workings of his plantation, allowing Bull to run it as he pleased while he enjoyed his retirement.

      Retirement.  The man was ex-Loreguard, and had been a very high-ranking officer.  Was he why Kyven was sent to this particular plantation?  Kyven doubted he’d been sent down here to kill the man.  No, the fox seemed it important that Kyven be here, and the General had something to do with it.  This is where you will begin, she told him.  But begin what seemed to be the question.

      One thing was plain.  No matter what he was to do here, getting rid of Bull was going to be on his agenda.  The faces of the two servers in the room were swollen from being beaten, and they moved like they had other injuries hidden under their fur.  Men like Bull, who hurt others for their own amusement, had no business nor place in this world.  Even if there were no Arcans, they’d still hurt things…probably dogs and cats and other small, defenseless animals, even children and women.  Anything that could not hurt them back.  Kyven had been on the receiving end of a man with similar sadism, and he wouldn’t allow men like Arthur Ledwell to roam the world when he knew about them.

      “It does sound a bit crazy,” Jack told him.  “But any man willing to take his pistol belt off and sit a meal with us nobodies is crazy to begin with,” he grinned.

      “Why, thank you, Jack.  You make it sound like this crazy man is in like company.”

      They ate their meal with amiable chatter, as Kyven gently yet carefully urged more information out of them. There were twelve farmhands that worked under Bull, who ran the farm.  They ate lunch in shifts, he learned, so there were hands out directing the nearly hundred Arcans that worked the farm.  The General had little to do with his plantation except he lived upon it, and spent his days riding his thoroughbred horses by day and attending parties or entertaining the upper class of owners and important people by night.  He was a man fully enjoying his retirement, who seemed relatively harmless as things go outside of his blind eye to the sadistic bent of his foreman.  But for an ex-Loreguard like him, the treatment of the Arcans he owned probably never crossed his mind.  If he had a similar mindset that Danna had had at first, he wouldn’t care.  The Loremasters taught their people not only that Arcans were animals, but that it was entirely alright, even encouraged, to mistreat them.

      And soon, all the Arcans would be gone.  The entire backbone of Noraavi society would collapse, he realized, for the kingdoms of Noraam absolutely depended on the slave labor they employed.  But just like the crystals, the days of the slave era were numbered.  Haven was moving, and once they were out in the open, they wouldn’t stop until all the Arcans were free of the collars.  There would be war…or there would have been, if the Loremasters were not in the middle mucking things up.  The double whammy of losing the crystals and losing the Arcans would cause violent upheaval in Noraam, and that was unavoidable.

      There could be no happy endings for everyone.

      The humans would suffer for losing the Arcans, and there was no way that Haven could soften that blow, no matter how hard they tried.  If they warned the humans ahead of time, they might respond with violence against their Arcans or go to war to keep them.  What had to be done was what Clover suggested, to free the Arcans from within before the humans realized what was happening, and then just flee with them back over the mountains.  The only way to save the Arcans was to cause harm to the human race, unavoidable harm.

      Was that why he was here?  To start an Arcan revolt, like Clover had considered?

      No.  All things considered, he was a poor choice to lead Arcans.  For one, even though he was a Shaman, he was still human.  The other Shaman accepted him, but Arcans who had no idea of him would not.  They would see him as a human.  They would only follow him after they were certain he was on their side, and in something like a revolt, where they had to move quickly, he wouldn’t have the time to convince Arcans at every farm and plantation to follow him.  As a human, he would get the obedience of the slaves, but not the loyalty of the fighters…and he’d need loyalty far more than obedience.  Besides, he had no idea how to manage a large group.

      What Kyven could do, however, is move effortlessly and without hindrance through Noraam.  He was human, and unlike any other Shaman, he did not have to hide and move carefully.  He could mount a horse and ride anywhere he pleased.  He understood human customs, and was the only Shaman who could function in a fully human situation, because he was human.

      He was not fit to lead an Arcan revolt…but the one thing he could do would be to speak for it.  Clover was coming.  Clover and Lightfoot both.  With Clover to lead the Arcans and Lightfoot to teach them to fight, and Kyven to scout ahead to sniff out the locations of plantations and track down Loreguard, maybe even trick and misdirect them, a large number of Arcans could move about with little resistance, and might force the Loremasters to tie up the large army they had massing near Riyan to deal with an uprising, further giving Haven and Flaur time to set up.  His training had been as a spy, and his forte was guile and deceit.

      The one thing Kyven could do over any other Shaman was use his skills and training to wreak havoc through the Free Territories.  The primary goal of all of this was to prevent the Loremasters from gaining a foothold in Arcan territory, for it was out there, away from Noraam, where they intended to try to build the machine, and from that base they would try to gain access to the original machine that created the Arcans.  But beyond that, the Loremasters had to be destroyed.  If they were denied their plans to form their own kingdom out in the frontier as a secure base to build their machine, they may decide to build it in the one place where they had absolute control…Avannar.

      Kyven hadn’t been trained to lead Arcans or run an army, he had been trained to be a quiet, skulking spy, and when needs be, an assassin.  To put him in control of an army of slave Arcans was a waste of his training and skills.  No, the fox had something else in mind, and he had a sudden feeling he was about to find out what it was.

      The door opened, and two men stepped in.  One was a huge man, both tall and wide, with a balding pate of brown hair and a brutish, unpleasant face, wearing farmer’s coveralls and a cotton shirt.  The other man was a tall, slender man of a strong bearing, wearing black breeches tucked into knee-high boots polished to a sheen, a red riding waistcoat with split tails with a linen shirt under it, and a wide-brimmed hat with a chin strap.  The man had a military bearing, and Kyven knew immediately that this man had to be the plantation owner, General Wilson Danvers.

      Danvers gave Kyven a long, calm look.        Then, to the shock of every man in the room, he pulled out his pistol, put the muzzle against the back of the big man’s head, and blew his brains out.  Blood and gore flew in an arc from the exit wound, and the big man collapsed to the floor in a boneless heap.  “Father, I’ve wanted to do that for six months,” he said with an explosive sigh, stuffing his pistol back into his belt holster.

      “G-General, what the hell?” Jack asked in shock.

      “I won’t tolerate his vicious ways another minute, not after what he did over by the Simmons farm to Miss Delilah.“

      “Bull did that?” Jack said with a sudden scowl.

      “He did.  I just came back from there, and they proved it was him enough for me to take action.  The Sheriff gave me leeway to handle the matter myself.”  He turned to Kyven.  “Master Steelhammer, I welcome you to Twin Hills.  Please, come up to the main house.  I’ve been waiting for you.”

      “The wanted poster!” the youngest said, snapping his fingers.  “That’s where I done seen him before!”

      “That’s right, Vick, though I know for a fact from my old Loreguard friends that the charges are false.  He was framed.  Master Steelhammer had every good right to run, and you’ll not say a single word that he’s here,” Danvers said, to which all three men nodded calmly.  “Now be good boys and bury that piece of trash somewhere far off my property.  No doubt the grass that grows over him will be diseased.  And congratulations, Jack, you’re my new foreman.  I’m sure you’ll do the plantation proud.”

      “Yes sir, General Danvers,” Jack said, standing up.  “We’ll see to it.”

      A little startled, Kyven followed the thin, sturdy man out of the bunkhouse and towards the main house.  “Was it a rough roll to get here?” he asked conversationally.

      “Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Kyven answered.  “How did you know I was coming?”

      “Welcome to a stop along the Network, Master Steelhammer.  But down here, we call it the Freedom Trail.”

      “You’re in the Masked,” Kyven noted, then he chuckled when Danvers nodded.

      “As are about half my men, though the other half don’t know it,” he said.  “But now that you’re here, they won’t work here much longer, since the plantation won’t be here either.”

      “What do you mean?”

      “We’ll discuss it inside,” he said.

      “I’m curious how the hero of Balton ended up on this side.”

      “It’s because of Balton,” he answered when they mounted the porch.  A slender little canine female with brown fur, in a pretty blue wool dress, opened the door for them, and she took Danvers’ hat with a smile and a nod.  “But that’s a long story for when we have time.  I’ve received orders, and now that you’re here, we’ll carry them out.”

      “I haven’t been told what we’re doing, General.”

      He gave Kyven a slight look as they moved through a richly appointed foyer which had a large pair of bronze-covered double doors at the far side, giving the foyer a bit of elegant class.  “I’m coming out of retirement, son,” he said simply.  “I’ve been told what the Loremasters are trying to do, and they’re maniacs.  They have to be stopped.  Right now, in the forests behind the plantation, I have nearly three thousand men camped.  They’re not Masked, but they’re loyal to my name and the chits I pay them, and they’ll fight.  As soon as those Briton rifles get here, we’re marching out.”

      “We’re attacking Avannar?” he asked, in surprise.

      Danvers shook his head.  “Riyan.  Our mission is to free the Arcans collected by the Loremasters, which are to be marched out towards the mountains at the end of the month.  We were promised a Shaman to help with the operation, and they sent you.  And with you here, we have a damn good chance.  I’ve been told your specialty is infiltration and covert action.”

      “It is,” Kyven nodded.  “But you’ll get more than just me.  There’s another Shaman in the area, and she’s coming to join us.”

      “She?  Clover’s coming?”  Kyven nodded, and it caused Danvers to laugh lightly.  “I feel a whole lot better about this, I was afraid it was going to be Stalker they send, and instead I get a Shaman perfect for what we have to do and Clover, who’ll be perfect for the second phase of the operation.  Anyway, as far as you’re concerned, if you can get inside and get the Arcans ready to move, we can do this fast and with minimal risk,” he explained as they moved through a dining room and to an office just off a hallway behind it, which had a single window that looked out over the barn and corral, a corral holding several fine-looking horses.  “Things are coming to a head, Shaman,” he said.  “Once I have the Arcans, my orders are to arm them with anything I can find and march them south, picking up every Arcan we can find along the way, which is where Clover will be very useful. She can talk a rattlesnake into biting its own tail.  We’re marching on Cheston.”

      “Cheston?”

      He nodded.  “I have orders to take it and hold it until I get relief, which I have no idea who that will be.  But I’ll do it, because it needs to be done.  With enough Arcans and my soldiers there to command them, I can hold the city for a year against a force five times bigger than mine.”  He sat down at his desk.  “The Loremasters are going to tear Noraam apart, and that can’t be allowed,” he said in a gruff voice.  “They intend to start a war.  Well, we’re making sure we get the first shot.”

      “How much of it do you know?” Kyven asked.

      “I’ve been told that the crystals are almost gone,” he said, looking up at Kyven.  “And the Loremasters are going to take advantage of the social unrest that’ll create to try to take over all of Noraam, as well as push human territory west of the Smoke Mountains.  I have lots of friends in the Loreguard, and they’ve been keeping me up on what’s going on, son, and it’s exactly what the Masked said.  They’re getting ready for major action.  They’re going to march into the mountains and take over all the remaining crystal-producing areas, and then dig in like there’s no tomorrow and defend those resources against anyone that tries to take them.  In addition to that, a group of twenty thousand soldiers and every Arcan and hired laborman they can find is scheduled to leave at the end of the month, and I managed to find out where.  Their destination is where the Deep River and the Snake River merge, a very long ways west of here.  They’re not just sending men and slaves, son, they’re sending enough building materials and supplies to build a city.  That tells me everything I need to know right there.  They’re gonna bunker up at a critical tactical position like the meeting place of two major navigable rivers, and they have no earthly reason to do that unless they intend to make that presence permanent.  From that position, the outpost can get supplies from either the Deep or Snake Rivers, from Two River by way of the Cuman Pass or from Nurys or Alexton, and it gives them a river route into the upper plains of the Snake River Valley, hell, all the way over to the Stone Mountains on the far side of the continent.  Anyone who controls that point controls those rivers, anyone who controls those rivers controls movement through the frontiers of the prairies of central Noraam, and you have no reason to control those rivers unless you intend to use them.

      “I found all this out about two weeks ago,” he grunted as he poured himself a drink from a bottle on his desk.  “I got the orders to take direct action about six days ago, about the same time you escaped from Avannar.  I called in every soldier I could find, men who have a grudge against the Loremasters and would love nothing better than to pay them back, men who will fight, and most of them have arrived.  Our mission is to stop those armies from deploying, and we’ll do that by forcing them to stay on this side of the mountains to deal with a sudden armed insurrection against the Loremasters.  We’ll strip them of their slave labor by raiding Riyan, then we’ll beat feet south.  All my men are mounted and Arcans can move a hell of a lot faster than human infantry, so we’ll have no trouble outrunning the Loreguard on our way south.  We’ll hit Cheston, free the fighting Arcans they love to raise there, and then give them a chance to give back what they got after we bunker in at Cheston and fight off the counterattack.  Then we hold the city until reinforcements arrive.”

      “A pretty crazy plan.”

      “Sometimes crazy works,” he said simply in reply.  “And it has surprise on its side.  The Loreguard will never in their wildest dreams expect an attack on Riyan, and since my men will be armed with rifles that will let them decimate any resistance from far out of musket range, we’ll stand a good chance of accomplishing our mission there.  Reports I’ve got on Riyan shows that their security and precautions are very lax.  The city is just begging for someone to come along and raid the fuck out of it, and put the fear of the Father into my old Loreguard compatriots.  They’re acting like they’re on leave, not in a war…well, we’re gonna teach them just what they’re in for.  After that, we just move south and collect up every Arcan we can find, to either fight with us or deny the Loremasters from taking them to replace the Arcans we take from Riyan.  Without their slave labor force, they’ll be delayed trying to find builders to replace them.  Meanwhile, I’ve been told that elements of the Masked are going to try to take over Atan and Two River, to deny the Loremasters routes into the Smoke Mountains.  The only two passes that can handle wagons are the Cuman Pass up Two River way and the South Pass southwest of here, but they’ll find organized resistance that will make them pay in blood for every wagon they get through the mountains.

      “That’s my job,” he said, leaning back in his chair.  “Your job is to help.  You’re supposed to be a spy and an assassin, the Shaman that managed to slip through the fingers of the Loremasters in Avannar for months before they finally caught you, and looking at you I can see why.  A human Shaman…I bet they still can’t bring themselves to believe it.  I can use a man like you and your special talents.  You’ll go in first in Riyan and get the Arcans ready to move, which will make that raid a hell of a lot easier.  After that you’ll scout ahead of the army as we move south, disrupting communications, and doing what you can to keep them from finding us and pinning us down.  They’ll know where we’ve been by the trail we leave, but the key to getting to Cheston is making sure they can’t organize in front of us and set a trap.  From what I was told, I could send you into a town, and an hour later every Loremaster and Loreguard officer will be dead and every talker or other alchemical communication device will be hunted down and eliminated.”

      “I can do it,” Kyven said with a nod.

      “That’s exactly what we’ll need,” the man said calmly.  “With you running in front of us, we can get past population centers without the Loreguard knowing every move we make.  The key to any military campaign is communication and intelligence, son.  Whichever side knows more about the enemy and is able to communicate with the rest of the army more effectively wins, even if they’re outnumbered.  I intend to rob our opponents of both, and that’s your primary objective.  You will blind the Loreguard to keep them from knowing where we are and where we’re going, which will make it much harder for them to organize a response in front of us.  That will make them chase us, and if they have to chase us, then we accomplish our mission of preventing those armies from deploying to the west.  We get to Cheston, take it over, dig in, and wait.  For what I’m not sure, but we’ll wait.”

      “For Flaur, General,” Kyven told him.  “Flaur intends to fight.  If we attack Cheston, the Flaurens will realize they have help, and they’ll move.”

      “Really?  Damn, we have a chance,” he grinned.  “If the Flaurens can do anything, son, it’s fight.”

      “I just wonder how Georvan is going to react when we invade their territory.”

      “They’ll applaud and cheer when we go right on past and hit Cheston.  Georvan’s been trying to annex Cheston for decades, but they’ve never quite managed it.  It sticks in their craw that there’s an independent city literally surrounded by Georvan territory, and sitting at the mouth of the Collia river besides.  Cheston chokes off the river trade of Georvan’s river cities, and they’d love nothing better for Cheston to get themselves invaded by some other army.  They’ll just set up to march in and take over after we pull out.  The bigger question is, what will Georvan do when they find out what the Loremasters are doing,” he said, taking a sip of his drink.  “If Flaur intends to fight, they’ll need permission from Georvan to move their troops north.  The king of Georvan is no fool, however.  Odds are, he’ll just add his own armies to Flaur’s as they come up from the peninsula.  No king wants to see the Loremasters take control of Noraam, because it means he loses his crown to the Circle.”  He leaned back.  “The wild card will be Carin.  The kingdom is much smaller than Georvan and the Free Territories, and the king knows he’s in a very precarious position.  He may not fight against the Loremasters, but he may not help them either.  A weak kingdom always has to play its cards carefully or it gets swallowed up by a stronger one, the very way South Carin was swallowed up by Georvan.”

      Kyven was impressed.  This General Danvers was a very intelligent man, but he also had a very firm grasp on the politics of the kingdoms of Noraam.

      “We’ll be moving as soon as those rifles get here.”

      “The Briton rifles?”

      He nodded.  “They’re on their way here now.  Armed with those rifles, my men and any Arcans that fight with us have a major tactical advantage.  Those rifles have double the accurate range of a musket and fire ten times faster.  As soon as they get here, we move across country so they don’t see us coming.  We collect up my Arcans and my hands, the army will come out, and we ride, hit Riyan, then pull back to the south.”

      “I’m still surprised they’re not sending us against Avannar.”

      “We’d get wiped out, son.  Avannar is a walled city, and they’d only have to hold out long enough for the army coming up from Riyan to catch up with us.  Besides, think about it.  If Flaur is really in this with us against the Loremasters, what we’ll be doing is luring the Loreguard army into a position where they’ll be counterattacked by a larger force once they try to dig us out of Cheston, and then we reinforce the Flaurens as we march back to the north.  Now that I know what’s going on, I can see that that’s the entire objective of our mission, to draw the Loreguard forces into a position where they can be attacked by the Flaurens.  If we take out that army, then the Loreguard and the Loremasters are going to be in a pickle, because a very large army will be coming up from the south, and we’ll have just wiped out a very large chunk of the available forces they would have had in position to try to stop us.”

      “I…see,” he said with a nod.  The General was exactly right.  What they were doing was setting a trap, and it would be an effective one.  The raid on Riyan would cause the Loreguard to chase them south, and if they chased them long enough, they’d run right into the Flaurens as they moved north.  Despite the fact that the Loremasters knew that Flaur was going to go to war with them, they would have no choice but to go after Danvers and his army.  One didn’t just allow a hostile force to roam around within one’s territory.  Kyven rather doubted that they’d send the entire army after Danvers, at least until Danvers started conscripting Arcans to fight for him, Arcans who would do it because there was a Shaman with them.  The Arcans would obey a Shaman…and that was one reason why Danvers needed a Shaman to accomplish his mission.  With Clover there to bring Arcans into Danvers’ army, it would quickly swell to a force large enough to force the Loremasters to send a large complement of the tens of thousands of men they had stationed around Riyan to destroy it.

      It wasn’t an Arcan rebellion…it was something much, much more devious.  Where Kyven or Clover wouldn’t have been able to pull of something like this because they had no idea how to do it, had no experience in military matters, the Masked had found someone that did have the kind of training and experience to conduct a military campaign against the Loremasters using Arcans freed from the collar and given a chance to fight for their freedom.  With veteran human soldiers to help the untrained Arcans learn enough about fighting and soldiering to be useful, they had a good chance of drawing that Loreguard army to the south, digging in, then letting Flaur march up from their peninsula and wipe it out.  The Loremasters, fearing an attack from Phion to the north, wouldn’t commit their entire army to facing the Flaurens, and that would give them a chance to push deep into the Free Territories.  If the Flaurens and their allies could defeat the Loreguard at Riyan, they had a good chance of taking Avannar.

      And that would solve everyone’s problems so far as the Loremasters went.

      “Well, it’ll push a bit, but I’m used to playing from behind the line,” Kyven finally said.  “I’m yours to command, General.”

      “Good.  Now, just because I have to know…are you really a Shaman, Steelhammer?”  Danvers’ eyes widened when Kyven opened his eyes to the spirits, and then he laughed delightedly.  “I never thought I’d see the day.  But I think it’s a good thing.”

      “I’m glad you feel that way, General.”

      “You look a bit travel worn, Master Steelhammer, so I’ll have you set up with a room, a bath, and a chance to rest a bit.”

      “I’d like that, thank you.  It’s been a long ride, and all my clothes are getting a bit fragrant.”

      “Missy!” he called loudly.  Almost immediately, the little canine opened the door to the study.  “Take Master Steelhammer here and get him a room and draw him a bath, if you please, my dear.  He’ll be staying with us for a while, and he will be treated as an honored guest.”

      The little canine nodded, and offered her paw towards Kyven.

      “Arcan servants?”

      “It keeps up appearances, which is important given this plantation is a major stop along the Freedom Trail.  Besides, this one can shoot your eyes out from two hundred rods, Steelhammer, and she’s carrying a pepperbox pistol in that pretty little dress,” Danvers smiled.  “My Arcan helpers can protect themselves, and their collars are fakes.  It’s part of the deception.”

      “So, Bull was part of the deception?”

      “Unfortunately,” he grunted.  “I hated it, but in his brutish way, he helped hide the truth of this place, because no one believed I’d ever be the type to be in the Masked.  The Arcans that helped me were willing to endure his abuse to continue to help move Arcans along the trail, and for that I have tremendous respect for them.  But he’d gotten too brutal, and last week he raped the daughter of another plantation owner up the road.  The sheriff was going to come arrest him, but I talked him into letting me take care of it.  Believe me, pulling that trigger was the high point of my whole week.  I’ve wanted to kill that bastard since the day I hired him.”  He looked towards the canine.  “Missy, if you didn’t know, Kyven here is a Shaman, a human Shaman.”

      Her eyes widened, and she rushed up to him, taking his hand.  “Will you bless me, Shaman?” she asked immediately.

      “Of course, little one,” he said, putting his hand on her shoulder and reciting the ritual benediction, which nearly made her quiver with delight.  “I’m glad me being a human doesn’t bother you.”

      “A Shaman is a Shaman,” she told him simply, leaning into his hand when he gently cupped her cheek.  “Please come with me, honored Shaman.  I’ll see to your needs.”

      The little canine Missy took him upstairs, and to a room so large that he almost felt like he was in a workshop.  It was dominated by a four-poster bed, complete with curtains, but also had a sitting sofa facing a large window that afforded one a spectacular view of the Smoke Mountains.  The little canine turned down his bed for him despite the fact that it was only a little past noon, and then she stepped through a door on the far side of the room.  He heard running water past the room, and it shouldn’t have been a surprise to him that a house like this would have internal plumbing.  She came out holding a towel and a robe.  “The bath will be ready in a few minutes, Shaman,” she informed him.  “Would you like me to have your clothes washed?”

      “That’s kind of you, little one,” he told her.  “I could stand to have all my clothes washed, and just endure with the robe until they’re done.”

      She nodded, then gave him a slightly startled look as he started undressing right then and there.  “What?” he asked.

      “You’re much braver than most humans, Shaman,” she told him, giving him an appraising look as he shrugged out of his vest and shirt.  “Most would send me out to undress.”

      “I spent enough time among the Arcans to understand your customs, little one,” he told her as he sat down on the edge of the bed and removed his boots and trousers, which left him nude before her.  She helped him into the robe, and then put the towel on his shoulder and started collecting up his clothes.

      “May I take the clothes from your pack, Shaman?”

      “You’re welcome to,” he told her as he padded to the door from which the sound of water emanated.  It was a large bathing room dominated by a huge ivory-colored tub, into which water flowed from a faucet.  The water, he found with a touch, was hot, but not painfully so, and there was soap in a dish on the edge of the tub.  A hole in the bottom of the tub, which was currently stoppered, would drain the water out of the tub by means of a pipe that sank into the floor when he was finished.

      “Would you like anything else, honored Shaman?” she asked from the door.

      “I’m good, thank you very much.  I’m just looking forward to a nice hot bath, that’s all.”

      After the bath was filled, he settled into the hot water, and felt the weariness of days of travel seep out of his muscles, and also to ponder the plan Danvers set out.  It wasn’t really Kyven’s specialty, but he’d do what he could to help…and he could help.  Danvers was right that Kyven would be best at infiltrating Riyan, disabling the collars of the Arcans held there, and be there to coordinate to get them out when the time came, when Danvers attacked.  That attack would be a hit and run, hit hard at a point where Kyven would take out the Arcans, cover them as they escaped, then run like hell.  It would be dangerous, the most danger to the Arcans themselves and to Kyven, who had to protect them as they fled from their pens.  He would be the most exposed, at the most risk, but he would take that risk.  There was no one better suited to the task than him.  Nobody else could get inside, move through the Loreguard, reach the pens, and get the collars off the Arcans without getting killed.  Afterward, he would protect the moving formation by moving in front of them, eliminating the ability of the Loreguard to communicate, which again was something which he was well suited to accomplish.  He had the best chance of infiltrating a village, killing the resident Loremaster, eliminating the Loreguard command structure, and then destroying all alchemical devices anyone could use to warn of the moving army.

      She was there.  He opened his eyes and saw her sitting sedately on the surface of the water, over his legs, her tail wrapped around her front paws and her unblinking eyes regarding him.  “Shadow fox,” he said aloud, nodding his head to her.  A mixture of anger and respect reared up in him, hatred and obedience.  His feelings for his treacherous spirit were still jumbled, mixed, as he raged against her for everything she had done to him, yet was still her Shaman, still obeyed her utterly, even now that she no longer held his humanity over him like a carrot to entice him to obey.  He had accepted his lot with dignity, accepted that he was her Shaman, and he would endure her cruelty if only for the good he could do for others.

      He was needed.  And for him, there would be no happy ending.

      She unwound her tail from her legs and dipped it under the water, against his knee.  And in that touch, there was communication.  You have well pleased me, Shaman, she intoned, her voice…prideful.  For now, do as the human needs.  In time, you will return to Avannar to again delve the secrets of the Loremasters, but not now.  Things change, and the Loremasters will change their plans to deal with changing events.  When they have reset those plans, you will return to discover those changes.  For now, you need time away for them to believe you gone for good, which is why I have urged you to be…visible away from Avannar.  They need to see you are out of the city, so when you do return, they will believe you to be elsewhere.  But until then, you will do what you can where you can.

      She lowered her head, under his chin, then touched his upper chest with her nose.  He distinctly felt something settle against his chest, and then she withdrew.  He looked down, and saw that there was now a black foxhead medallion around his neck, just like the old one.  It is exactly like the old one, she informed him, her tone…mischievous.  You may need your Arcan body in the future, Shaman, and this will supply it to you.

      “But it won’t work anymore.  Danna—“

      Danna is still linked to you through this, Shaman.  When I gave you back your humanity, I took it from her.  She has replaced you as my shadow fox Arcan…and she is now mine.  Now, when you take the Arcan form, she will supply it to you.  Aside from the fact that it now allows you to take an Arcan form rather than a human one, it still operates exactly the same, Shaman.

      Kyven actually laughed, without humor.  Spirits, she had actually managed to trick Danna into bargaining away her humanity.  And now, Danna was utterly in her thrall, for she had to obey the shadow fox to get back what was taken from her…just as Kyven had done.  It showed just how treacherous his spirit was…and yet, he still would obey her.

      What else could he do?

      The coming mission will be dangerous, my Shaman.

      “I understand the danger.  I’ll take the risk.”
      As it should be, she sniffed, then she dipped her head under the surface of the water and locked her jaws around his forearm.  She pulled his arm out, which surprised him a little, then she began to lick the wound on his wrist, which was now half-healed.  Her tongue was hot, and strangely soothing, as she licked away the pain.  I would not send my Shaman out into danger while wounded, she intoned haughtily as she systematically licked away the wound on his wrist.  The other one.

      A little startled, he offered his other arm to her, and saw her expression was…pleased.  She had surprised him, and she rather liked that fact.  But that was just within her nature, he realized.  This was all just part her of her little game, the game the two of them had been playing since the first day he saw her…though he’d not understood the game, or the rules, until after she had exploited them to all but allow her to win.  She licked away all the pain, licked away the wound, then she startled him rather badly by leaning forward and licking him on the cheek.  It was…gentle.  Intimate.  He closed his eyes and leaned back in the tub, but she simply chased him, licking at his cheek and neck like a puppy.  You have finished your Walk, my Shaman, she announced as she licked at his ear.  You now stand with your brothers and sisters as an equal, and may speak in council.  What you learn from this day, you will not need my guidance to understand.  You have gained wisdom.  Know that I am pleased with you, Kyven Steelhammer, Shaman of the Shadow Fox.  My Shaman, she announced proudly.  Walk forth from this place with my full blessing, for so long as you give me your loyalty, I shall ever walk beside you.

      And then, she taught him the final spell.  It was a spell perfect for a being of guile and deceit.  It was a spell of illusion, but this illusion was of the victim’s own making, powered by Kyven’s magic, and visible only to the victim.  It delved into the fears of the victim and presented an illusion of what he feared most, which might cause them to flee in terror, freeze like a frightened rabbit, attack the illusion, however that particular person would respond to their deepmost terror realized before them.  It could be used to terrify attacking guards, torment a prisoner into giving up information, and if Kyven was cornered, it was one hell of a devastating means of striking back, in a way that could not be stopped.

      It made perfect sense, given what kind of spirit he served.

      According to her, his training was complete.  He would still learn, still grow wiser, would still learn new spells by watching others and experimenting himself, but she would teach him no more. From this moment, he would walk forth as a Shaman of the Shadow Fox, and he had her full confidence.

      That, at least, he fully believed.

      “I will do my best, my spirit,” he whispered.

      I can ask for nothing more, nor nothing less, she answered evenly.  I will leave you now, my Shaman.  In a moment, you will be…busy, she intoned with amusement, and then the shadows converged around both of them.  He felt what happened, he felt what she did, far more clearly this time than the last, when he had been exhausted and frightened.  He felt the shadows respond to her call, felt them gather her up and form a…a bridge between one shadow and the next, a bridge formed by a strange place, a place not of the spirit world.  It was a place of, of, of…shadows.  She would be gathered up by one shadow, step through that other realm, and then emerge from another shadow on the other side.  The shadows were the gateways into that other place, a place where a single step moved one from one shadow to another in the material world.

      That was how she did it!  And was absolutely convinced that with a little practice, he could learn to do it too, because now he understood how she did it!

      He looked at his wrists, which were now fully healed, the skin smooth and unscarred, and could only chuckle.  He doubted he would ever understand his spirit…and that was just the way she liked it.

      There was stirring, movement out in the bedroom.  Kyven put his hands on the lip of the tub to get up, but the door banged open, and Clover was standing there.  She gave him one look, gave an excited squeal, and literally dove at him from all the way across the bathroom.  She landed heavily in the tub, splashing water everywhere, licking his face with exuberance.  He laughed and put his arms around him, and gave her a gentle squeeze.  “I’m so happy to see you, my brother!” she exclaimed.  “I was so worried!”

      “I’m alright, sister, I’m alright,” he told her, pushing her out enough to look at her.  “You made good time getting here.”

      “I had plenty of motivation,” she answered with a grin, slurping her tongue up his entire face, from chin to hairline, making him sputter, then laugh helplessly.

      “Now get out of my bath, you silly coyote.  You’re getting hair in my water.”

      She laughed and clambered out of his tub, then used the spell that stripped water out of her fur, the one he had more or less invented, to dry out.  He stood up and stepped out, grabbing the towel, but then Lightfoot slammed into him before he could get it around his waist.  Her claws dug into his sides, and she rasped her rough tongue across his cheek.  “Hello, my little warrior,” he laughed, hugging her.  “I’m glad you’re alright.  Did you do your duty?”

      “I burned it to the ground,” she answered, nuzzling her muzzle against his chest.

      “That’s my girl,” he said, patting her shoulder.  “Lucky!  Why didn’t you go to Haven?” he asked as the calico looked into the bathroom.

      “I thought you might need another pair of paws, Shaman,” he answered.  “I wanted to help.”

      “Well, we’ll make sure that’s exactly what you do,” he said as he offered his hand. Lucky rushed up and took it, holding Kyven’s hand between his furry hands, a silly smile on his face.

      “Now, since I’m standing here naked, let me find my robe, then we’ll sit down and catch up,” he said, but Clover grabbed hold of the amulet around his neck.

      “I thought she changed you back.  Firetail sent me a message.  She said you were human, and that Danna is now a shadow fox Arcan, that she used Danna to change you back.”

      “She did.  I’ll explain this later.  And everything it represents.”

      She gave him a look, then nodded.  “Brother,” she said formally.  “I welcome you to the path.”

      “Sister,” he returned, taking her hand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    6      8

Chapter 7

 

      There was a big difference between understanding how to do something, and actually doing it.

      The room was dark, with only a tiny point of light coming in from a covered window to produce deep, deep shadow, the type of shadow he needed right now, since he was still learning this trick.  This was shadow at its strongest, the darkest shadow could get before becoming complete dark, which was not shadow and therefore meant nothing.  For it to be shadow, there had to be light.  There was nothing in the room except for him, and he sat on the floor, nude, eyes open and both mind and body completely attuned to the shadow that surrounded him.  He could see it, sense it, was part of it, and he was in a state of concentration, of meditation, that allowed him to control it.

      For two straight days he had worked at nothing but this.  Three times, he had almost managed to accomplish his objective of disappearing from this empty room and appearing in the cellar, in a closed-off area with naught but a tiny window in one corner almost against the ceiling, leaving the room in dark shadow.  Three times, he had managed to disappear from the room he was in, but failed to traverse the distance and appear in the cellar because of the nature of where he went when he vanished.

      He had been wrong about one thing.  The fox hadn’t stepped through that other place instantly.  There was real travel involved in that other place, that place of shadow, and the three times he had entered it, he had lost his concentration and had fallen back into the real world because the place was confusing…and unwelcoming.

      There were…things in there.  The three times he’d crossed into the shadow, he sensed them almost immediately, and they were not friendly.  All three times, he appeared within that world of shadow, saw where he wanted to go, but then the vertigo of the place would assault him because it was a place that had no up or down, no near or far, not even a sense of time.  It merely was, in its myriad forms, and that radical difference from the real world was enough to confuse him.  Just about the time he was starting to get his senses in there and would be able to cross over to the cellar, he would sense them, sense them coming towards him, seeking him out.  Without seeing them, without getting anywhere near them, he could feel that they would not greet him kindly if they caught him.  Their presence would make him antsy and uncertain, he would lose his concentration, and then fall back into the real world.

      But he would persevere.  He knew he could do it, he was absolutely certain of it.  He just had to conquer the vertigo and get to where he wanted to be quickly as soon as he entered that shadowy world.  It was a place with no sense of distance, but there was distance in that he had to get from his start point to his end point while inside that place.  It was like…like a ten year journey accomplished by a single step.  Distance, time, they were jumbled in there, they all but didn’t exist, and he had the feeling that the only reason he perceived distance between his start and end points was because he believed there was distance between them.  He was thinking in real-world terms in a place that had no similar dimensions, and his belief was enough to cause what he believed to be his own reality within it.

      That was what he was trying to solve now.  He had to convince himself that there was no distance, just like convincing himself in the veracity of an illusion so as to fool others, but, he also had to maintain the sense of distance between him and the things in there, so they couldn’t get him.  His sense of distance impressed itself upon them as well as himself, and forced them to actually travel to get close to him, which gave him the time to get scared, get confused, and then lose his concentration and drop out of that world back where he started.

      He situated himself, framing everything in his mind.  All his practice and work using illusions was going to help him now, for he had conditioned his mind to work in the exact way it needed to work to do this, to selectively believe something in one manner, but believe in a matter that contradicted the first without ruining either one.  It was all about how it was framed in his mind.  He envisioned it as a simple step, a doorway from which he would step and another into which he would enter that were but a single step apart, which was vital point since his entire body had to enter that other place for this to work.  He had to spend some time completely within that shadow world, and he would envision it as a single step.  He would appear in the world with the door from which he came behind him, and the door into which he would go immediately before him, dominating his field of view and allowing him to cross to his destination with a single step.   These doors would be far, far away from the beings in there, to give him the time he needed to take that single step and return to the real world where he wanted to appear.

      He was ready to try again.

      He blew out his breath and closed his eyes to center himself, and then he opened them and called out to the shadow.  It responded immediately, surrounding him, infusing him, and he wrapped them around himself like a blanket, just as the fox had done so many times.  The shadows converged around him, and when they fully surrounded him, he pushed at them in a way he couldn’t quite explain, pushing an opening into that other place.  This part he had accomplished many times, opening the doorway into the shadowy world, but only three times had he actually passed through it and tried to move.  He had practiced opening the doorway many times before trying to go through it to ensure he could do it right, make it stable; he didn’t relish the idea of losing concentration and having it cut him in half when it closed while he was inside it.  When the door was open, he didn’t step through it, he instead had the doorway pass around him.  His eyes swam in an undulating darkness, like being in a sea of swirling ink, and a very cold mist seemed to surround him; the shadows were not a place of warmth, but of cold.  A strange, dank smell touched his nose, but he found no need to breathe, in fact could not force his lungs to exhale, as if there was nothing here to breathe…yet he found no need or desire to do so.  The room took on a strangeness, as if the walls and floor were made of taffy, undulating and shifting along unseen currents.  And he felt them, those malevolent entities.  They were out there, they knew he was here, and they started towards him.

      He was here.

      He felt the dizziness and fear almost immediately, a feeling of no up, no down, like he was falling in place a million minars an hour.  But he had had three prior attempts to prepare him for this sensation, and he battled against it as he focused his mind through the haze, through the cold, through the chilling smell, through the feeling that the whole world was made of tree sap oozing down a branch, and concentrated on the task at hand.  The door.  He reached out with his senses through the living molasses around him, sending the shadows, sensing, understanding, that the vertigo he was suffering was caused by the fact that some of the shadows around him were in the real world, and some were here in this shadow world.  The intersection of the two kinds of shadows were a paradox to his mind, and he couldn’t make sense of them, which caused everything around him to seem to swim as if the world were trapped in one of the gelatin dessert treats famous in Alamar.  He paused a brief moment, fighting the vertigo, trying to look into it, trying to feel the shadows around him, both in the real world and in this world.

      The vertigo faded somewhat.  He was able to penetrate the undulating curtain with his senses; not sight or smell, but that innate sense of shadow that seemed to be part of the powers that the fox gave him.  He focused on that sense, sensing the shadows, and he could feel them, feel them around him, and could feel those that were in the real world…but not with the same precision he usually could when not doing this.  He could also feel those things getting closer, advancing on him with certain speed, for he could sense them as much as the shadows around him.  He separated out the shadows of the real world from this world in his mind, and he could sense them in a way that almost seemed to draw a hazy picture of the entire plantation, but those shadows all seemed to be not even past his own elbow.

      Another indicator that distances were not the same here as they were in the real world, that in fact there was no distance in here but what he decided was distance.  This world had no rules, no boundaries, except what boundaries were enforced upon it by a sentient mind, which was only natural because a sentient mind defined itself by the boundaries around which it was set.

      An epiphany, he realized as he sensed the shadows around him; there was no distance here.  He could move from a shadow in the Free Territories to a shadow in Haven.  He would have to learn how to assence the shadows of a place distant from him within the scope of the real world first, but when he figured it out, he’d be able to step through the shadows across half the continent.

      But that was something to worry about some other time, for those things were getting much closer and much faster, almost as if they had ferreted out his trick and were using their own wills to remove the distance he placed between them.  He reached out with his senses and found the shadows in the cellar, just like the other three times, but this time he kept his mind utterly focused on the task.  He motioned with an arm and caused a swirling vortex to appear in front of him, the intersection of the shadows of the cellar and the shadows of this world, and then he pushed the same way he pushed to get in.  He felt the vortex in front of him shift, become a gateway, and he moved to step through it--

      And moved not an inch.

      Immediately he realized that this place had the same rules for him it did for the shadows.  There was no distance here, and that meant that he couldn’t physically move so much as he enforced his concept of distance on the world and made the portal move towards him.  That was the mistake he made the other times!  In this place, one didn’t move one’s body from one point to the other, the body remained stationary while the entire world moved around it!

      Using his control of shadow, he beckoned the gateway as he felt those things get very, very close, almost close enough to see, filled with hatred and a hunger, a hunger for his warmth, a warmth that was alien to this place.  The gateway shuddered but didn’t move, which surprised him.  He instinctively took a step towards the portal, and then it swept forward suddenly to surround him even as he stepped towards it.  The cold seemed to waver, the world to his eyes seemed to dim, swirl, and then solidify, and then he felt a sudden urge to breathe.

      When the shadows stabilized around him, he was standing in the cellar, in a dark shadow underneath the single tiny window high up on the wall, a cellar filled with brandy casks that were placed on racks spaced evenly across the floor.

      He did it!

      He jumped to his feet and gave out a joyous cry, pumping his fist in the air, and promptly bashed it against the low roof.  He winced and made a hissing sound, then he laughed ruefully as he shook his hand.  He did it, and it wasn’t even that hard!  It only took four tries to figure it out!  He quickly centered himself and beckoned to the shadows, and had them converge on him.  He again pushed into the shadow world, and felt those things literally all but on top of him.  He ignored it as best he could, moving swiftly, because he felt as if he could almost see one of them as soon as he showed up, and they started moving towards him quickly as soon as he appeared.  Since he was very familiar with where he’d just left, he quickly found that spot, beckoned to the shadows there, and had them rise up into the shadowy world and then take him with them when they returned, pushing himself from the shadow world back into the real one.  He again moved from that shadowy place filled with chaotic sights and cold and dank smell and the imminent sense that the things there were almost within arm’s reach of him, back into the real world.  It happened with great speed this time, both because of the fear inspired by the proximity of those creatures in the shadow and also because he’d just moved between the same two points just a moment before.  With much more speed and surety than the first time, he was again in his dark, bare room, after he stepped through the shadow world and back into the real world.

      “Yes!” he shouted in triumph.

      But triumph wasn’t complete until he could do it without any kind of preparation, when his life may depend on his ability to vanish into the shadow world at the blink of an eye.  So, he had won the battle, but he had a lot of work to do to make it as automatic as illusions were now.  He knew that even though he’d accomplished, he had shadow walked, he had only scratched the surface of the ability.  He could tell from the brief exposure to that world that it had its own rules, and since there was no distance within, he could use that trick to move vast distances in the blink of an eye, but only if he mastered the ability.  He had to learn how to sense distant shadows--distant in the real world anyway--and what had to be the ultimate use of the ability, he needed to learn how to surround himself with his own shadow the way the fox could, create her own shadows and use them to enter the shadow world.  If he really worked at it, he could find some way to create shadows in the real world from the shadow world and then appear within them, which would let him shadow walk anywhere, day or shine, shadow or no shadow.  That trick, he knew, would take a long time, because one thing he noticed when he was there in the shadow world was that it was dynamic.  Where shadow did not exist, it did not exist in the shadow world, leaving it a broken jumble, like that cheese with holes in it, a worldscape filled with voids where there were no shadows in the real world.  It was how he imagined it, but that introduced the concept of distance into the place, and it had no distance.  It had no time.  It had nothing but what the conscious mind impressed upon it.

      That was what he had to do, he had to master that other world, become as comfortable as possible with it, learn its secrets.  That world was the key to this power; the better he understood that other place, the more effective the ability would be.

      He was a little wary, though.  That second time, those things had seemed all but on top of him the instant he shifted into the shadow world.   It was a place without distance, but they sure as hell felt like they were only paces away from him, and that proximity had scared him into moving fast.  But thank the spirits, he’d not lost his concentration and had managed to move back to the room rather than fall back into the basement.  Despite the fear and the sense of danger, he had maintained his concentration and completed the shadow walk.

      She was there.  He turned and saw her sitting sedately, her tail wrapped around her legs, but her expression was strange.  It was…prideful.  He knelt down and held out his hand to her, feeling that strange mixture of respect and hatred he had for his spirit, and she placed her large, clawed forepaw in his hand.  And in that touch, there was communication.  Well done, my Shaman, she intoned strongly.  You accomplished it much faster than I expected.  It is not as easy as it appears.  Getting out is much harder than getting in, because you must make sense of a world much different from this one.  Yet you did so, and very quickly.  I am proud of you.

      “Thank you.  What are those things in there, sister fox?” he asked.  “I felt them, and they felt…ominous.  I was afraid of them, so I stayed away from them.”

      They are the beings of the shadow world, those who call it home.  Do not let them catch you, my Shaman.  They are attracted to your warmth, and they will kill you should they catch you, they will drain your warmth from you.  It is their hunger you sense, and since you are what they seek to eat, your mind comprehends that sensation as fear.  It is a healthy fear.  I avoid them as well.  They are not friends to those who move through their world.  Continue to practice, but no more practice today.  You are correct in that you have only just touched on the surface of this power, and once you master it, you will be all but unstoppable.

      “You told me long ago that my shadow powers would rival my Shaman ability.  Now I see why.”

      She nodded.  You have within you the power to cross the entire continent in the blink of an eye, penetrate any defense, circumvent any obstacle.  With this power, you can literally walk through walls, and be naught but a ghost.  When you return to Avannar, they will be defenseless against you.  But remember, my Shaman, remember always.  Your ability to practice is limited by your ability to avoid them.  The more you enter their world from a certain place, the closer they will be when you enter again.  You cannot stay in one place too long or they will find you, and will literally be there waiting for you should you enter their world again.  That is why it is no longer safe to practice today.  Those beings within have found where you left their world, and they are waiting there for you to appear again, like a bear at a stream awaiting a fish.  They will lurk near your entry point for some time before they give up the hunt and move away.  When you practice, limit yourself to only ten walks into the shadow from any one place within the span of a day, and if they get close enough for you to almost feel as if you can see them, then cease practice for the day, for they will be too close to you.  Until you gain such a mastery of the power that you can exceed this restriction safely, follow it.  Though there may not seem to be time or distance in that world, they do exist.  They are only influenced by the conscious mind, who can alter those dimensions as it sees fit when it enters that world.  That too attracts the entities, for it is an alteration of their natural state.

      “When I managed to walk the first time, I imagined being far away from them before I went in, and it seemed to work.”

      It will, temporarily, but they are not mindless, my Shaman.  They will learn to see through the trick for what it is.  Remember that as you think up ways to deceive them, they will be working to penetrate your deception.  They are clever, and they remember tricks you have used in the past.  So use deception only when it is needful.  Do not let them learn your tricks for keeping them at bay for silly reasons, or they will see through them the one time you can’t afford to have it happen.  When you have fully mastered this power, they will no longer be as dangerous to you that they are now, but now, as you are learning, is when they pose the greatest threat to you.  Even as you learn how to move from place to place through the shadows, work also to understand the shadow world.  Your understanding of that world is your protection from those who live within it.  When you learn enough, the entities within will only pose a threat to you if you make a mistake.

      Remember always, my Shaman, that you enter that world at the risk of death, every time.  That is why I am here now, warning you, when usually I would allow you to learn yourself.  I have no use for a Shaman I must coddle, who does not improve himself of his own volition, she sniffed.  You have learned how to shadow walk on your own.  I would be a poor totem for not explaining to you the dangers now that you have unlocked the power within you.  So long as you exercise proper caution, you will master this power safely.  Just always keep the danger in the forefront of your mind, my Shaman.  This power is the most powerful ability you possess, but it is also the deadliest to you.  Mastering it will reduce the danger, but you must face that danger to master it.  Do so with care and caution.

      “I’ll be careful,” he promised.

      As it should be, she intoned calmly, removing her paw from his hand and putting it back on the floor.  She regarded him with her glowing emerald eyes for a moment, then she called forth the shadows of the room, and they carried her off into the shadow world.

      Well, she wasn’t afraid of those things to use the shadows to leave from the same point where they’d be waiting for her…but then again, she said that those who mastered the power had little to fear from those shadow entities.  What did she say exactly?  Oh yes, that knowledge of their world was the protection from them.  The fox clearly had much more understanding of that shadow world than him, so she was not afraid to enter it all but on top of those malevolent things.

      He wanted to practice more, but she had specifically warned him not to do so, and so he would not, both because he respected the danger she was sure to explain to him, and also because she was his totem and she gave him a direct order, and he would not disobey his totem.  It was what she expected of him.    It took him a while to figure that out, he had to admit.  She didn’t expect him to act like anything but himself.  He had thought to act like Clover, thinking she was what a Shaman should be, but that was an unwise conclusion.  Shaman were individuals, and there was no one way to be a Shaman.  Even though Stalker and Clover were very different, they were both still Shaman.  Stalker was violent and hated humans, Clover was gentle and sweet-natured, but both were still Shaman.  Kyven just had to be himself, act in his own way, make his own decisions and be who he was meant to be.  His gained wisdom would change some of his decisions as he learned from his mistakes and became smarter, but it wouldn’t change the fundamental nature of who he was, and it was to that nature which he must be true.  Sometimes that would put him against his totem, sometimes it would not.  He understood that now.  Just as she didn’t seek his approval, he now understood that he didn’t have to seek her approval.  She wanted an independent thinker, someone she could tell what she wanted done and allow him to go about doing it in his own way.  As long as the job got done, she didn’t care how he did it.

      That was the crux of it.  She wanted Kyven Steelhammer, not someone who changed who he was to try to fit into a mold that didn’t really suit him.  She had taught him how to appreciate other ways of thinking and doing things, through changing him into an Arcan and later as he worked with his illusions, but she still wanted him for who he was.  His experience being an Arcan had changed him, he couldn’t deny that, but it was a change for the better.  He’d walked in both worlds, and it gave him a unique outlook on things.  But that was what wisdom was all about, he supposed, to see through opened eyes, to learn, to understand, and to allow that understanding to influence one’s actions in the future.  All he had to be was himself, and learn how being a Shaman changed Kyven Steelhammer, not to change Kyven Steelhammer because he wanted to be a Shaman.

      It was an esoteric, ethereal concept, but maybe that was one of the things that wisdom was supposed to give a man.  The ability to make such delicate distinctions.

      Or maybe he was just full of shit, who knew.

      He left the little room and was almost knocked down by Clover.  She clung to him and slurped her tongue from his chin to his forehead, which made him laugh.  “I felt her in there,” she told him.  “Did you make progress?”

      “I pulled it off,” he grinned.  “Twice.”

      “You did?  Good job!” she congratulated, licking his cheek.  “Is that why she came?”

      He shook his head and pushed out of her arms enough to cross the hall to his room, where his clothes were laid out on the bed.  He had no idea if clothes could go when he did that, so he’d decided to err on the side of caution while trying to learn how to do it.  Tomorrow, however, he’d try it with clothes on, just to see what happened.  “It turns out it’s actually quite dangerous,” he told Clover, explaining about the entities within the shadow world as he dressed.  “The shadow fox warned me to be very careful while practicing, and never try to shadow walk from the same place too many times or they’d find where I was coming in and out and ambush me the instant I showed up on the other side.”

      “A sensible warning,” she nodded, sitting on the bed as he sat down to pull on his boots.  “Did you see one of them?”

      “No, but I felt like it was right on top of me the second time I did it, like I could have punched it in the nose before I got through,” he answered.  “It scared the piss out of me.  I managed to finish the walk, though.”

      “A wise man can fear without being ruled by it,” she said sagely.

      “So can a wise coyote,” he said with a slight smile as he stood up and pulled on his shirt, then buttoned it up.  “Any word on the rifles?”

      She shook her head.  “Nothing yet.  But since we have heard nothing, that means the Loreguard haven’t found them either.”

      “How are they getting here?”

      “Wagons,” she answered.  “There are ten wagons holding the cases and supplies that go with them, moving along the country lanes and along some old trails wide enough for wagons that only locals know.  But, since this is my territory, I know them.  I gave the drivers very detailed maps.  They should get here any time now, and won’t pass through a single village.”

      “So, you knew about this before I did.”

      “I only knew where they wanted the rifles to go,” she said.  “I and I got word of it the day we attacked the ship.”

      “I wonder why the council didn’t call up Danvers to lead the Arcans,” Kyven mused as Clover stood up and they walked out of his room.  “He has much more experience than Danna, and he could have built a very good army.”

      “He would have said no,” she answered immediately.  “He has said no in the past to similar offers, offers to organize a guerilla army of the Masked.  After spending so many years moving, he wanted to stay in one place, my brother, but he does help in one way by teaching members of the Masked about fighting, they just have to come here.  Besides, the spirits demanded Danna.  They see something in her we do not.  We must accede to their wisdom, for it is greater than ours.”

      “But he’ll be moving again,” Kyven grunted as they came to the stairs.  “I guess he can’t ignore how serious it is now.”

      “No,” she said.  “I’ve known him for three years, my brother, and he’s very worried.  Not just at what we have to do, but at what is happening.  He told me at breakfast that he sees the entire continent at war within the year.  When Flaur attacks the Loremasters, and word gets out as to exactly why they’re attacking, it will be the torch thrown into the powder magazine.”

      “Just more substantiation of what we told you, Clover.”

      She nodded soberly.  “I can say I fully believe you now, brother.  But it’s not easy.  I’ve been around humans most of my life, but sometimes I just don’t understand them.”

      “We don’t even understand ourselves,” he said self-deprecatingly.  “Arcans are much easier to understand.  They’re simple, but complex at the same time.”

      They stepped out onto the back porch, where Danvers was sitting at a round table with a cup of what looked like coffee before him, reading from a book.  Out in the back yard, Lightfoot was with Lucky, and she was “teaching” him how to fight.  In reality, she was systematically beating him senseless.  Lucky professed interest in learning how to fight, how to be a fighting Arcan, and Lightfoot rather reluctantly agreed to show him what it was about.  Lucky had absolutely no training at all, but what he did have was amazingly fast reflexes, and that was the only reason he could last more than three seconds against the lithe, dangerous little cat.  This was his second day of lessons, and the only thing he’d managed so far was to learn how avoid Lightfoot’s flashing claws and her feet for more than ten seconds before she put him on his butt.  Kyven remembered his own training with her, where she taught him the basics of unarmed combat so he could protect himself in an emergency, and she showed little mercy on him either.  Even after that training, Kyven could admit that he wasn’t very good at hand to hand fighting.  He could be with more training and practice, but as it was now all he could do was attack someone by surprise and take them down or defeat someone as inexperienced as he was.  If he came up against someone experienced in close fighting, odds were he’d lose.  Kyven’s strength was in either striking from ambush or fighting at range, and in those cases, he was very good.

      “Enjoying the show, General?” Kyven asked with a chuckle as he leaned against the table.

      “Such as it is,” he answered.  “Did your practice go well?”

      “As a matter of fact, yes, General.  I managed to do what I was trying to do.  But I’m done practicing for today.”

      “Good, you’ve been cooped up in that room for far too long, and you look like you could use a little rest.  I received word over my relayer, Clover.  The rifles will arrive sometime early tomorrow morning.”

      “Good, good,” she nodded.

      “Kyven, I hate to intrude on your practice, but I’ll need your help teaching the men how to use them,” he said.  “All they’ve ever handled are breech loading muskets.  I’ve handled a Briton rifle before, but I’m just one man, and Clover told me you are quite a good shot with a Briton rifle.  With two of us training the men, it will go faster.”

      “I’ve been taught how to use them, I can do it,” he assured the older man.

      “I’m going to give us two days to teach the men how to use the rifles, then we move,” he said, picking up his cup of coffee.  “I shouldn’t even waste that time, but we can’t possibly train the men on the move.”

      “Have you got enough horses?”

      He nodded.  “They’ve about denuded the valley and hill of grass, and it’s getting hard to keep them a secret,” he answered.  “Three thousand and more horses aren’t easy to conceal.”

      “You know we’re going to be spotted moving.”

      “There’s no helping it, but Clover’s knowledge of the back roads of the territories should minimize our contact with the civilians,” he answered.  “She’ll be our guide out there.”

      “Easily done, my friend,” she assured him.  “Are the logistics secure?”

      “We have enough supplies to get to Riyan, and have two days afterwards,” he answered.  “We’ll have to forage from there, but since we’ll be moving openly, we can raid for it.”

      “Raid?”

      “We’ll be freeing Arcans on the way, so we’ll raid the plantations and farms for food as well.  We won’t be burning them out or taking everything, but three thousand men and however many Arcans we have won’t be easy to feed.  We’ll be forced to take it from the citizens as we move south.”

      “I just hope it won’t turn into some kind of rolling atrocity,” Kyven fretted.

      “My men are disciplined, Kyven,” Danvers assured him.  “And the civilians aren’t our enemies.  Yes, we’re going to take from them, but there will be no looting, no pillaging, no hurting the civilians, and we won’t leave them starving themselves.  We’ll just raid for what we need.  Oh, Kyven, I’ll have that layout for you by tonight.  I have a man in Riyan scouting, and he’ll send his report this evening.”

      “I’ll need it,” Kyven noted.  “I need to know exactly where they’re keeping the Arcans and what kind of protection they have around them.”

      “My man is very good, my friend, I’m sure the report will be very detailed, and will undoubtedly include maps.”

      “The more detailed it is, the easier it’ll be.”

      They heard Lucky yelp, and saw him on his belly on the ground, Lightfoot sitting negligently across his shoulders, his tail firmly gripped in her hand.  “That little cat of yours is very good, Shaman,” Danvers noted.  “She could fight almost anyone I know toe to toe.”

      “You should see her shoot a pistol, General,” Clover chuckled.  “She’s a deadly shot.  I have never known her to miss.”

      “I wonder how she’d handle those new repeating revolvers,” Danvers mused.  “Have you seen them?”

      Clover nodded.  “I’ve seen them.”

      “What is that?” Kyven asked.

      “It’s a pistol with a revolving cylinder that has six chambers.  You load each chamber, and the pistol’s workings advances the cylinder to line it up under the hammer as you cock it.”

      “It uses the brass cartridges like the Briton rifles?”

      Danvers shook his head.  “You have to load each cylinder, but it does give you six shots instead of just one or two like with normal pistols.  I’ve heard the Britons have pistols that do use cartridges, and fire as fast as you can pull the trigger.”

      “Huh, I’d like to see one of those,” Kyven mused.

      “You may get your chance, given we intercepted the rifles.  The Loreguard has been trying to get the new revolver pistols in numbers to replace the breech loading pistols they use now.  But most of the higher-ranking officers are carrying them.  No doubt loaded with black crystal shot,” he frowned.

      “They have to hit me first, General,” Kyven chuckled.  “And that’s not easy in the dark.”

      “They only have to nick you, Kyven, and that means they can get lucky.”

      “Trust me, General.  I’ll be very careful.”

      “He’d better.  I only have one human brother, and I won’t lose him to his own overconfidence,” Clover noted, poking Kyven in the side.

      “I still can’t quite get used to that idea,” Danvers admitted with a chuckle as Lucky and Lightfoot squared off again, but it only lasted about four seconds.  Lucky tried to grab Lightfoot’s paw, but she intercepted him, knocked him off his feet, and put a foot on his neck deliberately, giving him a cool, unpleasant look and chiding him in a low voice for being foolish.  “But then again, I’ve gotten used to quite a few things since I took this job.”

      “You never did tell me why,” Kyven said.

      “Simple, my young Shaman,” he said, motioning before him.  Kyven and Clover sat down, and Missy, Danvers’ canine house servant, brought out two cups of coffee for the Shaman with a low bow and adoring eyes.  “It started at the Balton rebellion,” he said, leaning back in his chair.  “I was stationed in Balton then, just a Colonel, and our unit was the only one close enough to intercept the Arcans.  We got intelligence from ahead of them that let us intercept them, and we found that they outnumbered us nearly four to one.  But they had no weapons, just farm tools, and my men had muskets and shockrods.

      “We set up at a bridge over a river so their numbers were countered, and we dug in.  With us commanding the bridge, they couldn’t come at us any way where we couldn’t see them coming, they had no room to maneuver, or they’d be going so slow that we’d have time to take them out.  I fully expected them to try to pass us by and swim the river out of musket range, which was only the smart thing to do, which would have given us time to get to that point and fire on them before they could reach our side of the river.  But I was rather stunned when nearly a quarter of them charged us from the woods.   Given we were on the far side of the bridge, it’s fairly predictable what happened next.  None of them made it to our position.  But then another wave of them charged, and they were killed as well.  After the second wave, a third wave charged before we could reload muskets, but they stopped just outside of shockrod range and then retreated, getting back into the forest before we had enough muskets loaded to volley.  Needless to say, their suicidal charges and then the sudden retreat had me a little confused, but that was only until a kerchief floated down the river.  That’s when I realized that the Arcans who attacked us were nothing but a diversion.  Their intent had been to pin my men down at that bridge and occupy us while others went upriver and forded it.  They had given their lives to give the others time to escape, because they did go somewhere else and ford the river.

      “Contrary to popular belief, there was no slaughter to the last Arcan at Balton,” he said calmly.  “The truth is, half of them escaped, mostly females and children, because that last wave of Arcans attacked just as we started to separate so some of the men could chase after those that got past us,” he grunted.  “They timed it perfectly.  Just as the men started to redeploy, they charged out of the forest.  It only took my men a moment to reset to volley on the Arcans, but that moment was all they needed.  The trail end of the attackers managed to get into the formation before we could kill them all.  Seven Arcans made it to the lines, Shaman, and those seven Arcans killed fifty-four men before they were taken out.  At that time, infantry weren’t issued pistols, a policy that changed quickly after Balton, and at that range shockrods would kill our own men.  So my men had to fight off Arcans armed with farm tools using bayonets.  I’d never seen anything like it,” he said in a grim, musing voice.  “I never believed that untrained animals could be so deadly.  But they were.  They got among us, and they killed us like a farmer harvesting wheat.  I saw one chop a man in half with a wide-bladed axe,” he said with a shudder.  “You never appreciate how strong Arcans are until you see them use that strength.  Anyway, after we defeated the Arcans that stayed behind, we couldn’t catch up to the others.  I had wounded men to see to and they had too much of a head start, so I decided to pull back to Balton.  So we sent word ahead and returned to Balton, but I spent the entire return trip trying to make sense of what they did.  What they did troubled me.  What they did, some sacrificing themselves to give others time to escape, that is not the behavior of simple animals, even if they are smart animals.  When I reported what happened to my superiors, they simply spread the story that the Arcans were wiped out, and covered up the activity further west as those females and children moved across Malan, then vanished into the Smoke Mountains north of Two River.  I was promoted, told to keep my mouth shut, and play the role of hero.”

      He took another sip of his coffee.  “But I never forgot what I saw that day.  What those Arcans did was the highest form of nobility, Shaman.  Some of them charged straight into death to give others a chance to escape, and I could not fathom how animals could do such a thing.  Mothers will often fight to protect their cubs, animals will fight to defend their territory, but these were all escaped Arcans who barely knew each other, yet some had willingly died to give others a chance to be free.  It bothered me for years, and I quietly investigated the Arcans myself.  I wanted to see if those I fought at Balton were the exception or the rule.  I bought Arcans and talked to them, I quietly searched through records at headquarters over Arcan activities, and I investigated the Shaman.  What I found out was, Arcans are not animals. They are people, just like us, and while they look very different from us, and have different views about things, they are just as intelligent and capable of emotion as we.  That was when I realized that we are enslaving people, not animals, and I was horrified.  I resigned immediately, but the Loreguard said I’d put in enough time, so they retired me and pensioned me instead…also to maintain the image of General Wilson Danvers, the hero of Balton,” he said scathingly.  “But, thankfully, I retired on good terms with some people still in the Loreguard, and they pass on information to me from time to time.  Us Generals, we all know each other, you see,” he said with another sip of coffee.  “A General would tell another General something he’d never tell another man, which is how I was able to find out what I know about Riyan.  In reality, Generals gossip worse than any maid ever did,” he chuckled.

      “It was during my search for the true nature of the Arcans that the Masked took notice of me.  After I retired, they approached me, and I joined them.  I took the money I was given for pension and some money they supplied me and I bought this plantation, which is a critical stop along the Freedom Trail.  More Arcans move through my plantation than any other stop in the Free Territories,” he said proudly.

      “And that’s why infantry now carries pistols,” Kyven mused.  “Because your fight with the Arcans showed the Loreguard they were no match for Arcans in hand to hand combat.”

      “Pistols and impact rods,” Danvers nodded.  Kyven knew what those were, since he’d taken them off Loreguard before.  They were black metal rods which were alchemical, and their purpose was to strike with magically augmented force.  A child armed with an impact rod could crush the skull of a bear with a solid hit, though the recoil might well break the child’s arm.  Some men called them Bashers or Beatsticks, but the ones that earned that name were the ones whose impact was much lighter, allowing them to be used in a non-lethal manner, dishing out blows with stunning force rather than lethal force.  There were even versions of impact rods which could be changed from the lower, non-lethal mode to the killing mode with a flick of a switch on the base of the rod.  At the low setting, a blow from an impact rod could stun.  At the high setting, the same blow would kill, or at the very least shatter every bone under where the rod struck.  Impact rods weren’t very common outside of the Loreguard, though the occasional bartender might keep one of the non-lethal versions of one under his bar to maintain order.  The Loreguard in Avannar carried them as non-lethal weapons against rowdy drunks and hard cases, but the cavalry Loreguard he’d killed to take their horses had not been carrying them.  Then again, a cavalry man didn’t need an impact rod when he had a horse.  They used swords instead, which were more effective from horseback than an impact rod due to the fact that the impact rod pushed back against the user.  A man leaning over in his saddle doesn’t cater well to being knocked backwards.

      “And now your calico friend wants to learn to fight,” Danvers noted, motioning at the scrap before them.

      “I think he only wants to learn to fight so he can get time with Lightfoot,” Clover said lightly.

      “A very serious young Arcan,” Danvers noted.  “And a damn good fighter.”

      “Trained by former pen fighters,” Clover told him.  “The fighting Arcans that reach us from the fighting pens contribute by teaching the young ones how to fight.  Lightfoot is good with her hands, but she’s even more dangerous with a pistol.”

      “Well, your calico, Lucky, will be good.  He has fast hands and he’s quick.  But he’d be better suited to a rifle than balling his fists.”  He looked to Kyven.   “Clover says you’re the best knife thrower she’s ever seen, Shaman.”

      “A youth wasted at the posts board, General,” he said lightly.

      Danvers laughed.  “I have a posts board, you know.  You have a set?”

      “Not one I’ve tried out yet.  I picked up an old used set a few villages ago.  They were a bit worn, but well made.  An old posts vulture like me just doesn’t feel right if he doesn’t have a set handy.”

      “Well, we should give you the chance to break it in.  And I think you could use a break.  You’ve been in that room for two days.”

      “I think I could.”

      The posts boards were outside, nailed to the side of the carriage house, and they showed signs of heavy use; clearly, posts was a hobby of the overseers.  Kyven found out quickly that Danvers was no slouch at posts.  He was easily as good as Kyven or Timble, and Kyven found the challenge refreshing as he broke in the set of used posts knives he’d bought with the rest of his gear.  “If I might ask, what have you been working on in that room, Kyven?” he asked.

      “I’ve been trying to master a very difficult trick where I vanish from within one shadow, and reappear in another shadow in a different location.”

      Danvers almost missed the entire posts board, giving Kyven a wild look.  “Are you serious?” he asked.

      Kyven nodded.  “I’ve managed to accomplish it twice, moving from my room to the cellar, and then back again.  But it’s very difficult, and it’s not entirely safe to do.”

      “I should say so.  Teleportation would be very dangerous, I imagine.  After all, how can you see where you’re going?”

      “What?”

      “Teleportation.  It’s in some old stories, a magician vanishing from one place and reappearing instantly somewhere else.”

      “Ah.  Well, my totem calls it shadow walking, because the shadows are something like a bridge between where I start and where I finish.  I sort of walk through them and appear where I’m going.  It’s not vanishing and reappearing more than stepping through a door between where I am and where I’m going.”

      “Ah.  Can you take others with you?”

      “You know…yes, actually.  My spirit once carried me through, so it stands to reason I could carry someone else.  But I won’t try that until I fully master the power.  Doing it is very dangerous, General, and I won’t expose anyone to that kind of risk until I can do it safely.”

      “I might be tempted to have you take me someday.”  He threw his last knife, then went down to get them and tally.

      “You wouldn’t like it, General,” Kyven told him.  “The shadow world is a cold, frightening, hostile place filled with things that would eat me if they could catch me.  That’s the danger involved.  There’s no time inside that place, so what looks instant out here actually takes time in there, and that’s when those things in there try to hunt me down and kill me.”

      Danvers gave him a long, searching look.  “And yet you intend to master this power?”

      “The advantages are worth the risk,” he shrugged as he took his place at the line.  “Once I master the power, nobody can stop me.  I’ll be able to get past guards, through locked doors, even cross hundreds of minars in the blink of an eye.  When I master it, I’ll go back to Avannar and go through the Loremasters’ building from top to bottom and ferret out every secret they have, which will make it much easier for the Arcans and everyone opposing them.  That’s what I was trained to do, General.  I’m a spy and an assassin when needs be, and mastering this power will make my job much easier.”

      “More the spy than the assassin, from the sound of it.”

      Kyven nodded.  “My totem only kills as a last resort.  She’s a being of guile and deceit, who prefers to trick or talk her way out of situations rather than fight.  We share that sentiment.  I don’t like to kill, but I will when I have to.”

      “Then you’re the best kind of man to make that kind of decision, my friend.  No man should be given any kind of power that feels no remorse for the lives he takes.”

      “Sounds like you’re the kind of man that remembers the name of every man who died under his command.”

      “Sixty-two, my friend.  I remember their names, families, where they lived, their personal histories, and I still write to their wives or parents on the anniversary of their deaths,” he sighed sadly.  “They were good boys, all of them, and it’s a shame they had to die so young.”

      “I think I could learn to like you, General,” Kyven said calmly as he threw his first knife.

 

      Danvers accepted Kyven by rote because he was a Shaman, and therefore an ally.  But Danvers’ troops, on the other hand, weren’t quite so quick to accept him, and showed Kyven some of the dangers that being a Shaman might entail.

      The rifles arrived almost exactly as Danvers predicted, early the next morning as the still doe-eyed Missy served them breakfast.  She was almost awed to be in the presence of Shaman, and all but fell over herself to see to their every need or want.  Clover had told him she had always been like that, and accepted the attention with her usual calm smile and nod.  But the rifles arrived, and Kyven and Danvers rode with the lead wagon out to the troop encampment.  It was a grassy valley about two minars from the edge of Danvers’ plantation, a large, wide valley nearly five minars long with a hastily built fence around the northern end that held a few thousand horses, and rows and rows of tents to the south backed by a large number of supply wagons.  An army may be made up of men, but it was the food and supplies that made it go, and Danvers clearly understood that.  There were dozens and dozens of wagons lined up with nearly military precision not far from the fence, and there were more of them lined up behind the tents to form a barrier of sorts, for it looked like behind the wagons, the men trained in the large open field with a gentle slope up to the forest.

      There were over three thousand men here, and they were not kids.  These were lean, hard, tough men, professional fighting men, possessed of no standard uniform.  Some men wore cotton shirts and blue denim trousers.  Some wore hardened leather tunics to form as a sort of armor, and some wore buckskins.  But all of them, every one, had at the very least a musket, a pistol, and some kind of alchemical weapon or sword for hand to hand combat.  One dangerous looking fellow Kyven saw had two pistols in his belt, two knives behind them, a knife in each boot, and the hilt of either a large knife or small sword jutted up over his left shoulder.  There were very few Arcans here, and Kyven recognized one from the plantation, who was helping cook breakfast at one of the many fires.   That Arcan, a willowy male feline with tawny fur, was the one that let it slip as to just what Kyven was.  Every Arcan on the plantation knew Kyven was a Shaman, and Kyven wasn’t exactly hiding the fact anymore either.  But, as the men helped unload, the feline came up to him as he and a thin dark-haired man with a scar on his cheek handed off a heavy crate of rifles to two other men.  “I’ll be returning to the farm, General,” the feline said.

      “That’s fine, Gold.”

      “Will you bless me, Shaman?” the feline asked, holding his hands out towards Kyven.

      “Of course,” he answered with a smile, taking one of Gold’s hands and putting the other on his shoulder.  He recited the ritual benediction, which made the tawny cat smile, lean forward and nuzzle Kyven’s neck with the side of his muzzle, then he turned, dropped to all fours, and loped off towards the farm some two minars away.

      When he looked back at the soldiers, he was confronted with dozens of surprised and slightly suspicious expressions.  “You didn’t say nothin’ about working with a fuckin’ Shaman, Danvers,” the closest man growled.

      “I told you the Arcans would help in any way they could, Captain.  Do you think they wouldn’t send a Shaman?”

      “He’s human,” another man said.

      Kyven nodded.  “I’m a human Shaman,” he said simply.

      “Bullshit!” someone else called.  But then there were nothing but gasps and stares when he opened his eyes to the spirits and let them see his glowing emerald eyes.

      “Well stay the fuck away from me,” the captain snapped, taking an aggressive step forward.  “I don’t want no stinkin’ filthy Trinity-cursed Shaman anywhere near me.”

      “Given that he’s the one that’s going to train you in the use of Briton rifles, that may not be easy, Captain,” Danvers said dryly.

      The captain glared at Kyven darkly, then turned and stalked away.

      That one fact made Kyven very unpopular among the men.  They all stared at him, gave him dark looks, or just outright avoided him.  When it came time for them to learn about the rifles, though, they showed they were professional enough to listen to him as he explained how they worked.  A couple of them gave him slightly approving looks when he fired one for them, hitting a target set up that was far out of musket range in quick succession with four bullets, and they paid close attention when it came time for them to learn how to load, unload, and clean the rifles.  Kyven taught them in groups of twenty all through the day, and though most of them glared at him, they didn’t put up their noses at what he had to teach.

      It worked fairly well.   The Briton rifles were actually extremely easy to use, and these men all had extensive experience with using muskets.  The rifles were very easy to load, easy to clean, easy to check for a problem in the action, and could be field stripped into the ten pieces that made up the action in about a minute, which made them very easy for an experienced gunsmith to check for problems if one misfired or broke.  Each group of twenty, after they mastered the idea of it over the course of an hour, then broke up to train another group of twenty themselves, which allowed the training to sweep through the army very quickly.

      It wouldn’t have been that easy had it been a more complicated weapon and these men didn’t already have experience using muskets.  Every man Kyven taught grasped the idea of the cartridges quickly, and the questions they asked were professional and to the point.  He did, however, have to tolerate a number of men making whispered comments that were just out of his ability to hear, but he ignored them.  But the men, almost to a man, did not like him, did not like him one bit.  It may have been because he was Shaman, but the looks in their eyes were more because he was a human Shaman.  That seemed to shock and violate them, that a human had become something…Arcan.

      By sunset, when the men were settling down with dinner, it all came out into the open.  A very large, burly man with black hair got right in front of him and blocked his way.  “They say you’re a Shaman,” he said in an aggressive manner.

      “I am,” Kyven answered simply.

      “Ain’t no human can be a Shaman,” the big man snarled.  “That makes you a liar.”

      Opening his eyes to the spirits, Kyven held out a single finger, a finger that had a lick of flame appear over it.  “Does that answer your question?”

      “Well then, that makes you a devil,” the man growled, taking a fearful step back.

      “You’re here to fight the Loremasters, soldier.  Upholding their beliefs defeats the purpose,” Kyven told him calmly, looking up at him.  “What the Loremasters say about the Shaman is a lie.  I know, I’ve seen the truth with my own eyes.  I used to believe it too, but then I found out I’m a Shaman, and then I learned the truth personally.  Shaman don’t serve demons or evil spirits.  The spirits the Shaman serve are just as worried about the humans as they are the Arcans.  I won’t be the only human Shaman, or the last.  The humans need the spirits, because the Loremasters have corrupted them into believing in something that will destroy the entire civilization of Noraam and kill untold thousands of Arcans.”

      “I’m here because I’m being paid,” one man said bluntly.

      “Then do your job,” Kyven said to him.  “You may not like me, but I’ll be fighting with you, and I’ll be fighting for you.   We don’t have to like each other to do our jobs.”

      “I don’t want your dirty magic anywhere near me,” the big man grated.

      “It won’t be,” Kyven shrugged.  “But when the fat’s in the fire, I doubt you’ll be very picky.”

      The man’s face turned ugly, and he took a swing at him.  Lightfoot’s training took over at that moment.  He’d never be the fighter that Lightfoot was, but he saw the punch coming, and Kyven had fast reflexes.  He leaned out of the path of the punch, then took a couple of steps back.  “Woah!  Calm down there, hoss!” Kyven barked.  He evaded a few more punches, then danced back to put a campfire between him and the big man, while the other men just moved back and watched.

      “What, you gonna magic me like a damned little bitch coward?” the big man sneered.  “Can’t fight without your dirty magic, can you?”

      “I’m not a fighter, my big friend,” Kyven said lightly.  “I leave that job for people better suited for it.  My area of expertise is trickery,” he said, making a gesture towards the man as he channeled a spell of illusion.  The illusion wrapped around the man, and made it appear to the men at the campfire that he was wearing a low-cut dress that a prostitute might wear, with a low neckline, with abundant amounts of short, curly hair peeking out from the neckline and bust.

      A couple of men actually snorted out a laugh at the sight.

      The big man couldn’t see the illusion, and he gave one of the laughing men a dark look.  That distraction was all it took, however.  With blazing speed, Kyven’s foot hooked under a rifle laying near the campfire, kicked it up into his hands, and then he worked the lever and brought it up to his shoulder, leveling it at the big man, who suddenly looked wary and nervous.  “Like I said, I’m a trickster, my big friend,” he said in a calm yet serious voice.  “And I follow only one rule when it comes to fighting.  Win.  By any means necessary, because I for damn sure don’t care if you think I’m a coward or not.  You don’t like me.  I can accept that.  But when the chits are on the table and the hands are being counted, you’d better make sure you’re doing your job, because I’ll be doing mine.  And if you didn’t know, my job is to make sure your job is as easy and safe as possible.  While you boys are waiting outside, I’m the one that’s going to be going into Riyan, alone, and putting myself in jeopardy to make sure you boys are safe by getting the Arcans ready to move and eliminating any threats to you boys that I see while doing it.  That’s what I do, and forgive me if I sound brash, but I’m good at it.  I’m a spy, my big friend, and I’m willing to put myself at great risk if it means keeping the rest of you alive.  Are you willing to do something like that?”

      The big man just stared at him.

      “Then never call me a coward again,” he said, lowering the rifle and tossing it to the nearest man.  “And never throw a punch at me again either, or I’ll do something to you that you’ll never forget.”

      “Damn dirty Shaman,” the man spat.

      “I am a Shaman,” Kyven declared proudly.  “And someday, you’ll understand what that means.”

      He returned to the plantation house to a thick packet of papers, which were the reports sent from Riyan.  Together with Lightfoot, Clover, Danvers, and Lucky, they sat down and pored over them.  The Arcans numbered over a thousand, the closest estimate was around 1400 of them, and they were being held more or less as Danvers expected.  They were in a camp on the southwestern side of Riyan, guarded almost negligently by about 20 men, being kept in a camp dedicated only to them…a camp with no tents, no bedrolls, just 1400 Arcans being kept inside a rail fence and left exposed to the weather.  The problem wasn’t how they were being held, the problem was that the Arcan pen was literally surrounded by tent cities of soldiers on both the south and the west, with the city to the north and east.  Getting to the Arcans wouldn’t be hard, and eliminating their immediate overseers also wouldn’t be difficult.  The problem was, to get them out, they’d have to go through some 500 soldiers no matter which way they went.  There were, total, about 20,000 Loreguard soldiers camped in and around Riyan, which would make some kind of diversion dicey.  With that many men, if Danvers attacked the east side of town, they’d be outnumbered in a matter of minutes.

      But that was exactly what Danvers decided to do.  “We can pull those men out of the tents and to the east,” he declared, pointing at the southeastern corner of Riyan.  “Here.  There are only about two hundred men camped around these warehouses, and the warehouses themselves conceal the area from the rest of the city.  The river cuts the city in half, so it cuts the Loreguard off from those camped on the north bank.  We strike at this point, and that will pull the men from the tents on the west side.  I’ll have a small support force there to cover you as you bring the Arcans out.  We’ll hit those men and torch the warehouses.”

      “Seems dangerous, but I don’t see an easier way,” Kyven sighed.  “I’m going to need a head start on the army, General.  Draining that many collars is going to take some time, and the army can’t just sit around and wait for me to do it.  We can just decide on when you’re going to attack, and I’ll make sure the Arcans are ready by then.”

      “How long do you need?”

      “For that many collars?  A few hours minimum.  I can’t just line them up and walk down the line or the guards will get suspicious.  I’ll have to mill around with them and do it that way, and that means I’ll have to chase down the last stragglers.”

      “The advantage of it is the guards won’t know the collars are drained unless they take one off an Arcan,” Clover added.  “Kyven can infiltrate early and have time to move through the Arcans, draining their collars and getting them ready to move.”

      “I can get there in two days,” Kyven told the General.  “The army won’t move as fast as I do.  So we just decide on a time when you attack, and I’ll have the Arcans ready.”

      “Not alone,” Lightfoot growled.  “I go.”

      “I could use help spreading the word among the Arcans,” he nodded.

      “Then three’s a good number,” Lucky declared.

      “No, Lucky, you’ll stay with Clover.  You’re not quite ready to start doing the heavy lifting yet, but it won’t be too long,” he smiled.

      “Aww,” the calico frowned.

      “Just be patient, young one,” Clover told him.  “You need more time yet before you are ready.”

      “Don’t complain,” Lightfoot said to him directly as he was about to retort, and he clamped his muzzle shut and looked at the map.

      “I’ll help you finish teaching the men how to use the rifles and we’ll leave early tomorrow morning,” Kyven told him.  “Me and Lightfoot will be moving much faster than the army, and moving in a straight line.  I’m going to need a dud collar for her,” he added.  “That way we can just go right up the main roads without attracting attention.”

      “I have plenty,” Danvers assured him.  “If it’s going to take you two days to get there and more time to drain the collars, let’s call it four days to factor in unforeseen circumstances.  How long will it take a column of mounted men and wagons to reach Riyan along the untraveled paths, Clover?”

      “Four days,” she answered confidently.  “If you leave in the morning, you’ll arrive around noon four days later.  We’re assuming there are no problems with the wagons, and they move at a fairly decent rate.”

      “That fits almost perfectly,” Danvers noted, scratching his chin.  “We’ll attack the second hour after midnight.  That gives us time to rest before the race south, then get into position.  The main force will attack the warehouses, but I’ll have two hundred men picketed here, along this ridge,” he added, pointing it out on the map to Kyven.  “They’ll cover the Arcans as they escape.  We’ll pull back and rendezvous here,” he tapped the map.  “Where these two lanes intersect Tobacco Road.  After that, we run like hell using the road until we get to Peteburrough, then strike out due south as the road turns west.  We can skirt the Reed Lake to the east, I know a path through the marshlands down there that will save us some time.”

      “Sounds like a plan.  So, the night after four days, we should expect you to attack?”

      “Two hours after midnight, on the tick,” he nodded.  “That should give you a full day to infiltrate Riyan, drain the collars, and get the Arcans ready to run.  You’ll probably need every minute.”

      “I’m more worried about the Arcans than anything else,” Kyven grunted.  “All it takes is one Arcan too much the slave to run to the Loreguard, and we’re in trouble.”

      “I doubt they’d do that.”

      “When I freed a group of Arcans from a ship and ran it aground, General, some of the Arcans just sat down on the beach and waited for the hunters to come,” Kyven said seriously.  “There are some Arcans who have been all but beaten into believing what the humans say.  They’re so used to being slaves they’re afraid to think of being anything else.”

      “Well, you might have to do something about that, my friend,” Danvers said soberly.

      “I know,” he said with a dark frown.

      They finalized the plans with about two more hours of discussion, and then broke up for dinner.  After dinner, Kyven returned to his dark room to practice.  He found it much easier to enter the shadow world, but the fox was right that the things in there got closer and closer to him as he moved in and out, as they seemed to sense him and moved towards him.  He spent his time studying the shadowy world, for that was the key to mastering the power.  If he wanted to walk far, he had to be able to sense the shadows where he wanted to arrive and form a gateway out of them, so he stayed in the shadow world as long as he possibly could, seeing how far he could extend his senses, trying to understand the alternate reality of the shadow world.  The fox had affirmed his own suspicions that this shadowy world would conform itself to his intent, and he used that to try to stave off the things inside, “stretching” out the distance between him and them even as they tried to reach him, but found little success in that trick.  They seemed to understand what he was doing and circumvented his efforts, which eventually forced him back into the real world, where he would have to stay for a while until those things moved on.

      The next day was nearly as unpleasant as the last.  The soldiers of Danvers’ army let him teach them, but they obviously didn’t like him, didn’t like what he was.  He spent the day speaking in calm, direct words, just training the men in how the rifle was loaded, checked, fired, and cleaned.  There wasn’t any friendly banter, even among the men, there was nothing that even hinted in any way that they wanted anything to do with him outside of what he could teach them.  But if they thought it bothered him, they had no idea.  He simply brushed the men off, for it was too much of an effort to try to talk them out of their prejudice.  He’d let his actions speak for him, for actions were always bigger than words.  By early afternoon, thanks to the efforts of the men to teach each other, all the men had a working knowledge of the Briton rifles, and could load, shoot, unload, and clean them…and if it wasn’t for the fact that the rifles were so easy to use, it would have taken much, much longer.  It was as simple as thumb in cartridges, jack the lever, pull the trigger.  The biggest thing the men had to learn was how to aim using the sights, and how to clean the weapons, since unloading it was accomplished by simply working the lever holding the rifle sideways without pulling the trigger, which caused the unfired round to fall from the same chamber where the empty shell was ejected when the rifle was fired and reloaded.

      While the men moved the unused rifles and supplies to the wagons and prepared to move out, Kyven returned to the house to practice again with his shadow walking.  He again focused on getting used to the feel of the shadow world, trying to conquer the vertigo and the strange sensations, trying to acclimate himself to that place at the same time as he tried to extend his senses into the place.  He again only had a short amount of time to study the place and get used to it, for the things in there started searching for him as soon as he entered, and they inexorable got closer and closer to him as he studied the shadow world and extended his senses to detect shadows further and further away.  He spent nearly ten minutes in the shadow world before the imminent proximity of those creatures forced him out, and he knew that they were too close for him to risk going back in again.  Like a fox standing over a rabbit hole, they were just waiting for him to show his face in order to bite it off.

      Lightfoot woke him up well before dawn, a hand on his shoulder shaking him.  “What?” he asked sleepily, yawning.

      “It’s time,” she said, then turned and stalked out of the room on all fours.

      He shook off his sleepiness and got dressed, a simple buckskin jacket over a light cotton shirt and rugged denim trousers, their dark blue already starting to fade.  These denim pants were becoming very popular because the fabric, made from cotton, was light and comfortable, yet extremely strong, very rugged and resistant to tearing.  He packed a small pack and filled his saddlebags, paused for a quick breakfast down in the kitchen, and then went up to wake up Clover, who was sleeping with Lucky.  “Sister, I’m on my way,” he said gently.

      She yawned and looked up at him with her amber eyes, and nodded.  “You will be very careful, my brother,” she told him, reaching out and taking his hand.  “If you get yourself killed, I’ll never forgive you.”

      He smiled, then leaned down and kissed her on the nose.  “Take good care of Lucky while I’m gone.”

      “At least he’s not as, enthusiastic, as Tweak,” she noted, which made Kyven chuckle.  “I’ll see you in five days, my brother.  Keep each other safe.”

      “We will, I promise,” he told her, patting her on the shoulder, then he let her go back to sleep.

      Lightfoot looked very annoyed when, instead of running, he instead had his roan saddled and rode it out of the livery.  “I don’t have Arcan legs anymore, Lightfoot, I can’t run half as fast now as I could before,” he chuckled.  “And besides, this horse makes me much more invisible.  A man running down the road on foot attracts far more attention than a lone man trotting down the road on a horse.”

      “Foolishness,” she snorted, putting on the fake collar Danvers had given him.

      “Belt,” he ordered, leaning down in the saddle and holding out his hand.

      Lightfoot gave him a dark look, then unbuckled the belt holding her pistol and shockrod, then handed it to him.  He hung it from his saddle, which put the weapons in convenient reach for Lightfoot if she was beside the horse.  Seeing Lightfoot out of that belt had not lost its impact on him, and he had to give her a long, assessing stare that she didn’t miss.  She smiled just slightly.  “Pervert.”

      Kyven laughed.  “I’m still me, it’s just the outside that changed,” he grinned.

      “Let’s go.”

      Lightfoot was a very quiet, reserved person, and traveling alone with her was no different.  She ran alongside the horse, bounding along on all fours at an easy pace as Kyven’s stolen horse, a very burly and sturdy young roan stallion, and said very little.  In a way it was almost like traveling alone, at least until she made one of her rare comments, or they stopped to relieve themselves, give the horse a short break, or eat something.  They passed by a few travelers and one patrol of Loreguard, but nobody challenged them.  Lightfoot was obviously collared, and Kyven moved with calm confidence and certainty, looking like an honest man going about his business.

      After dinner, though, Kyven surprised Lightfoot by pulling her up in front of him in the saddle.  She seemed to protest until he put his arm around her, then she settled down a little.  “I’ve heard what Clover had to say, but I haven’t asked you yet what happened after I was captured.  So tell me.”

      Lightfoot glanced back at him, but she did oblige him.  In her usual manner, she used as few words as possible.  “Not much to say,” she began.  “Shario came to us.  Told us what happened.  He took us from the shop.  I burned it down first, though,” she added, “and made sure of the vault.  Destroyed everything.  He put us with a few of his men.  Good men, I know them.  I trust them.  They pretended to be Arcan traders.  They took us to Atan in a wagon.  There was no trouble.”  She leaned back slightly against him.  “Virren took us in.  He has a place.  An old mine.  We stayed there.  Clover came to us a few days later.  She sent the kids to Haven.  Lucky refused to go,” she said with a slight chuckle.

      “He likes you.”

      “He’s a good kid,” she said in a complementary fashion.  “He wants me.”

      “Nothing wrong with that, Lightfoot.  If I were a cat, I’d want you too.  You’re all kinds of woman.”

      She hissed slightly, a kind of snorting chuckle, and patted the arm wrapped around her furry tummy.  “Flatterer,” she accused.

      “Hey, it’s the truth,” he retorted lightly.  “So, you like him?”

      “He’s a good boy,” she repeated.  “But I won’t give him what he wants.”

      “So you don’t like him.”

      “I didn’t say that,” she said, a bit hastily.  “We’re going to war.  I don’t want to get pregnant.”

      “Ah.  You won’t give him that.”

      She nodded.  “Not even once.  Too much risk,” she grunted.  “I was a first joining baby.  So was my mother.  I won’t risk it.”

      “Did you tell him?”

      She nodded again.  “He said he’ll wait.”

      “Now that’s devotion,” Kyven chuckled.

      “We’ll see.”

      “Poor little Lightfoot,” Kyven chuckled.  “Tweak in Haven, I’m human, and you won’t risk it with the only male left.”

      “I’m a pervert too,” she said calmly.

      Kyven laughed.  “So, me being human doesn’t bother you?”

      She shook her head.  “Does Clover.”

      “I know, she hasn’t made a single invitation since I was changed back,” he chuckled.  “But that’s okay.  I understand, and I don’t mind.  I just don’t do it for her like this.  There’s no attraction for her.  And I’d never dream to impose myself on her when I don’t incite those kinds of feelings in her as a human.”

      “That’s her.  Not me.  It’s still just as big.”

      Kyven blushed slightly, then burst out laughing, patting Lightfoot on her muscled stomach.  “That’s because you’re so small,” he teased.

      “Works for me,” she declared.  “She’d do it if you were an Arcan,” she hummed.

      “Probably.  It was my body that attracted her.”

      “You were handsome.”

      “What is this?  Emotion?” Kyven teased, and he gasped a little when she elbowed him in the ribs.  And she was not gentle.

      “You do have that necklace.”

      Kyven chuckled.  “Now I see why you don’t mind,” he told her.  “You’ll make me use the necklace.”

      She glanced back at him.  “It’s just as big,” she repeated evenly.  “When you fuck me from behind, I can’t see you anyway.  Does it matter what you look like?”

      Kyven burst out laughing.

      She proved that she wasn’t joking when they made camp, well back from the road in a sheltered nook nestled up against a heavily weathered rock face poking out of the side of a very low hill.  After camp was made and the tent was raise, she pulled at his clothes and licked at his neck sensually, and he found his body responding to her advances.  That both surprised him and it didn’t.  She was an Arcan and he was a human, but spending a year as an Arcan had left in him an attraction to his old bedmates that didn’t change with his body.  He had no trouble settling behind Lightfoot as she was on her hands and knees by the fire and giving her what she wanted.  It was different because he was no longer an Arcan, he no longer had the impulse to bite the back of her neck as he achieved initial penetration, and he no longer had to worry about scratching her with his large, sharp claws.  It was an odd sensation feeling her furry body against his hips and legs, but the sensation he was feeling elsewhere was no different as a human as it had been as an Arcan.  She felt the same, and she acted the same, her tail battering his side as it flexed and slashed, making low growling sounds in her throat as he thrust into her, performing no different than he had as an Arcan, gripping her by her hips and digging his fingers into her short, soft fur, then sliding up her back and over her sides, leaning over to cup her small breasts and play with her nipples as he continued to thrust into her.  He actively explored her, actively compared having sex with her now to before, and found that it really wasn’t that much different from before.

      She certainly didn’t act any different.  Lightfoot didn’t try to drag it out the way Clover did, she just arched her head back and urged him to go faster, thrust harder, which never failed to cause him to obey.  Their session ended the way it usually did, with him roughly kneading her breasts and holding her against him as he thrust hard and fast into her, until she gave out a growling cry and he felt her clench around him.  That incited his own climax, and he pulled her against him and held her tight as he spent himself into her.

      “Well, that was certainly like old times,” he panted, which made her laugh.

      “It’s just as big,” she retorted breathlessly.  “Again.  Rest, then again.”

      “Yes ma’am,” he chuckled, putting his forehead on her shoulder as he continued to massage and fondle her breasts.

 

      They reached Riyan about sunset the next day.  Kyven and Lightfoot didn’t meander into the city, instead approaching it from the trees near Tobacco Road and looking it over.  The tent cities still surrounded the city, and now that he knew what to look for, he easily identified the Arcan pens to the southwest, directly behind a large array of tents.  There were hundreds of campfires dotting the grassy plain separating the city from the woods, the campfires of thousands of Loreguard soldiers.  Even from there, they could hear the faint reedy sounds of music, of fiddles and guitars and pipes and mouth organs, as the men whiled away the time waiting for orders to move.

      “We’ll go into the city and get a room,” he told Lightfoot.  “You’ll hold the room while I go out and do the work.  I’ll come back before sunrise and rest, then go back out later.  I’ll need you the second time out to get the Arcans ready.  The first time I go out will just be to kill as many collars as I can.”

      “Alright,” she growled, obviously not liking the idea of waiting in the room.

      They worked their way back out to Tobacco Road, Kyven mounted, and Lightfoot padded beside his horse as he rode north, towards Riyan.  The road bisected two large arrays of tents, and several groups of soldiers at fires near those tents watched Kyven and Lightfoot go by.  Kyven found it a little odd that there were no guards before they reached the tents, but perhaps the Loreguard figured with this many men around, nobody in their right minds would try anything.  They wound their way through the tents along the road, and even came within a hundred rods of the fence of the Arcan pens.  Both of them looked it over as they passed, and saw that it was exactly as the reports described.  The Arcans were penned up inside the fence, and they had nothing.  No tents, no blankets, nothing.  They were all naked as well, wearing nothing but a collar, and they were sitting, laying, standing at the fence looking out, just trying to pass the time as they waited to be moved out.  As was usual for Arcans, he saw almost no talking, and what talking there was was done in whispers and done out of easy sight from the outside.  But since he’d been there once himself, he had an idea of what to look for.

      “Hold, traveler!” a voice called behind them as they approached the outskirts of Riyan.  Kyven reined in the roan and looked back, in time to see three men on horseback trotting down a path between rows of tents behind them and to his left.  The man in the middle was a Loreguard officer, a captain by his rank, and he had two sergeants riding escort with him.  They got out onto the road, and the three of them cantered up to a stop just behind his roan.  Lightfoot moved as he turned the horse to look at them.

      “What do you want, soldier?” Kyven asked calmly.

      “We need that Arcan,” he answered, pointing at Lightfoot.

      “Tough,” Kyven said immediately.  “I need her more.”

      “That wasn’t a request, citizen,” the captain said with sudden flat eyes.

      “I wasn’t being cordial when I said no, either,” Kyven answered gratingly.  “I know my rights, and I know the law.  My dad’s a lawyer.  You can’t take my Arcan, because she’s my personal property.”

      “Your father doesn’t know the law from his own ass,” the captain said haughtily.  “We have every right to confiscate your Arcan by eminent necessity.”

      “Try it.”

      The captain gawked at him, then he dismounted his horse as he pulled a slender crystal rod from his belt, which what some might call a master key.  It could unlock almost any collar.  Unobtrusively, Kyven put the tip of his boot against Lightfoot’s back, wrapped himself in an illusion of himself so fast that his glowing eyes never registered to the men, and when the captain roughly grabbed hold of the small Arcan and tried to put his key to her collar, Kyven channeled lightning through Lightfoot and into the collar.  The magic had to come from him, but he used Lightfoot as a living extension of himself.  The captain yelped and staggered back when a sudden flash of light and the sharp sound of an electrical arc filled the twilight, dropping his master key onto the road and shaking his hand violently to get rid of the sudden numbness.

      “I hope you like my dad’s collar,” Kyven snickered.  “We had too many people steal our Arcans, so my alchemist uncle made us collars that nobody can take off but us.  So like I said, soldier, no.  And that means no.”

      Lightfoot looked up at him in surprise, but he simply had his illusion smile knowingly down at him.  It would actually behoove them to have the soldiers take Lightfoot into the pens, where she could quietly start spreading the word, but Kyven wanted to see how serious they were about it, and how far they were willing to go.  If they tried to throw him in jail or arrest him for not giving them his Arcan, then he knew they were desperate for Arcans.

      He looked to the pens again, and wondered how many of those Arcans were Loreguard-owned, and how many had been confiscated from nearby plantations.

      “Boy, you are two seconds from a jail cell,” the captain warned as he flexed his fingers.  “I’ll haul you in for interference with official Loreguard business and assault.”

      “I didn’t do a thing,” Kyven retorted smugly.  “You shocked yourself, and did it trying to steal my property.”

      “I think this joker needs a night in the Riyan jail, Captain,” one of the men said.

      “I’m not going to jail for stopping you from stealing my Arcan,” Kyven snorted.  “So yes, let’s call up the Riyan Regulars and tell them all about it.  I don’t care if you’re the Son of the Trinity, you’re not taking my Arcan without paying for her.”

      “Paying?” the captain gasped.

      “Paying,” Kyven said flatly.  “I spent a hundred credits on her thanks to this damn Arcan shortage, so I’ll take off that collar for, say, two hundred credits.”

      “That’s highway robbery!”

      “No, it’s a seller’s market,” Kyven said smoothly, admiring his fingernails.  “Either you pay me to take off that collar, or we go talk to the Riyan Regulars, who I’m fairly sure don’t like you very much given you’ve brought a bunch of scuffy-looking hooligans to their town and I don’t doubt they’re raising hell every night in the city after they get tanked up on beer and whiskey.”

      “Sergeant, go get a grounder,” the captain said flatly, glaring at Kyven.  That glare turned into a shocked look when Kyven leveled a pistol right in his face.

      “Go ahead, Sergeant, go get that grounder.  I’m sure you’ll enjoy picking up the pieces of your officer’s head,” Kyven said coldly.  “You want my Arcan, you’re buying her.  I don’t let nobody steal what’s mine.”

      “Here now, what’s this all about!” someone shouted.  Kyven didn’t look behind him, keeping his eyes locked on the captain, and keeping the pistol leveled dead at his face.  “Put that pistol down, young man, this instant!”

      “No way,” Kyven said.  “This overdressed poppinjay here is trying to steal my property,” he declared.  “I won’t let him out of my sights until there’s money being held out, or I go on my way with my Arcan.”

      “What’s going on, Captain?”

      “This man refuses to surrender his Arcan, Major,” the man said, a little fearfully as he stared down the barrel of a pistol.

      “You tried to steal her,” Kyven snapped.  “No man steals from Jack Masters!  No man!”

      “Ease off there, son,” the man behind him said soothingly.  “I’m afraid the Captain’s in the right here.  We have official authority to confiscate Arcans, authorization directly from Avannar.  I’m afraid you have to surrender your Arcan.  You’ll receive a voucher to get another Arcan from any guild-run kennel, when they’re available again.”

      Kyven was quiet a moment, then eased the hammer down on his pistol.  “He didn’t say that,” Kyven growled.  “He just marched up and demanded my Arcan, like he was gonna take her without paying.  Then he got pissy when I told him he could shove his attitude up his ass, at least in so many words.”

      The captain glared at him.

      “Just a misunderstanding, son,” the man behind him said calmly.  “So go ahead and take your collar, and then come with me and I’ll fill out that voucher for you.”

      “Sure thing, sir,” Kyven said in a much more respectful tone.  He leaned down and took hold of the collar around Lightfoot’s neck, gave her a sober look and a nearly imperceptible nod, and then pulled it off.  She gave him a steady, calm look in return, then one of the sergeants advanced, dismounted, and locked a plain brassy collar around her neck.  Under his illusion, Kyven reached out with his hand and touched that collar and immediately drained it, then patted Lightfoot on the shoulder.  She nodded imperceptibly herself, and then the sergeant locked a leash to the collar and dragged her towards the pens.

      Kyven rode along with the nearly elderly  Major, a man with silvery hair and a trimmed pointed white beard under a weak chin.  “Major Stark,” the man said by way of introduction.  “You’re certainly a brave young man to pull a pistol on a Loreguard officer surrounded by soldiers.”

      “No man steals from Jack Masters, sir.  No man,” Kyven declared.  “And that man was an arrogant little shit.  Pardon my language, sir,” he said quickly.

      “A very rash thing to do, my young friend.”

      “Dad always said I had a hot temper and an even shorter fuse,” Kyven chuckled.

      “Your dad’s a wise man,” the major chuckled.

      Despite pulling a gun on a Loreguard officer, he didn’t really get into much trouble.  The Major took him to a pavilion-style tent near the road, just outside Riyan’s edge, and then he sat down and wrote out a voucher for a new Arcan.  “There you go, young man.  I’m not sure when the kennels will have Arcans again, but when they do, you’ll get a new one.  And you can show that voucher to anyone who asks what happened to the one you had.”

      “I’m not too happy about it, but I can live with it, sir,” Kyven told him.  “I needed that Arcan.”

      “I’m sorry to say it, but the Free Territories has a greater need for it,” he said consolingly, patting Kyven on the shoulder.  “Just be content knowing that you’ve helped us by giving us your Arcan, son.  It’ll be working for the betterment of everyone.”

      He rode on from the tent with the voucher, and a clearer understanding of just how desperate the Loreguard were.

      He got a room in Riyan in a small, cozy little inn not far from the river, and once his horse was stabled and he was in his room, he got to work.  He shed his clothes, and then with a cleansing breath, he took hold of the foxhead medallion and enacted its power.  He felt his body turn cold, his bones turn to water, as he was poured into a new mold.  The cold sensation faded, and he felt he was again in his black-furred, shadow fox Arcan body.  He mused lightly, wondering how Danna felt at that moment to be human again after days in an Arcan form, but he dismissed it as he got his mind on business.  He didn’t want to be seen leaving the inn, so he centered himself, beckoned to the shadows, and then vanished into them, stepping into the shadow world.

      It took him a moment to overcome the vertigo and feel around, feeling the deep shadows of the night all around him, which made the shadow world seem much more solid, much more complete.  He could literally see the real world through those shadows, and he moved through it through both walking and by willing the world around him to move, which carried him closer to the pens.  He selected a nice shadow among the pens that would bring him out in a corner towards the Riyan side, and then formed the gateway.  He felt the things inside with him advancing on him, but he gave them no chance to track him down, stepping through the gateway even as he willed the gateway to go through him, and he appeared again in the real world.

      He was quite pleased with himself.  He had just shadow walked nearly a minar, from the inn to the pens.

      Most of the Arcans were laying on the ground, sleeping, but there were a few that were still awake.  Melting into the shadows, Kyven dropped down to all fours and began his work.

      He had a simple system for it.  He would touch a collar and drain it, a very quick process, then lean down, wake up the Arcan, and whisper “tomorrow night.”  He said nothing more, just tomorrow night.  Lighfoot was in the pens, and she would be the one to elaborate for them.  News traveled very fast through an Arcan community, and he had no doubt that in the hour or so since Lightfoot was put in here, half the pens knew she was sent from the Masked and that there was a plot afoot to get them out.  News would also pass just as quickly among them about him, since he didn’t hide his eyes form the Arcans, letting them see the glowing eyes of a Shaman looming over them as they woke up, and then given that cryptic message tomorrow night.  It was easy for him to see where he’d been and where he needed to go because the crystals in the undrained collars glowed brightly to his eyes under spirit sight, and he worked his way through the entire pens during the course of the night.  Since they weren’t up and moving around, it made it very easy to be systematic about it, allowed him to complete that part of his task in about seven hours.

      With the false down peeking over the eastern horizon, Kyven located and drained the last collar from a mature ferret Arcan who was awake, standing at a rail, then leaned in and whispered “tomorrow night” to him, patting him on the shoulder.  The ferret looked at him, gaped at his glowing eyes, then almost fell over himself grabbing Kyven’s hands.

      “Bless me, please,” he all but begged in a low whisper.

      Kyven put a hand on his shoulder, but put his finger to his lips as he closed his eyes to the spirits.  “Tomorrow night,” he said again, gripping his shoulder firmly but gently.

      The ferret nodded in understanding.  He watched as Kyven took a single step back, and then the shadows seemed to converge around his body, concealing it.  The ferret gawked like an enraptured child when the shadows seemed to melt away, and took the Shaman with them!

      Within the shadow world, Kyven took note that the things were already very close to him, and that dictated he move very fast.  He moved quickly back to the inn and located the shadows within his own room, even as he felt the creatures charging towards him.  He ignored them and the vertigo as he concentrated on the shadows of the room, and twisted them together to form a gateway back into the real world.  He moved into the gateway even as he willed the gateway to move around him, and then he was back in his rented room.

      He moved quickly and confidently.  He put his clothes back on, relieved himself at the chamber pot, washed up, and then packed up his bags and left the room.  The inn’s cook was already awake making breakfast, and the smells wafting in from the kitchen made Kyven’s empty stomach growl, so he stopped by the dining room and sat down to a quick meal of fresh-baked bread, eggs, and bacon.  “You’re up early,” the cook noted as he brought out the meal.

      “I have a ways to go yet,” he answered as he picked up his fork.

      “You look a little tired.”

      “I’ve been on the road so long a single night at an inn doesn’t make up for the minars,” he chuckled.  “But I’m almost there.”

      “Where you off to?”

      “Stinger Bay.”

      “Ah, yes, you’d need to leave early if you want to get there in two days,” the cook nodded.

      “Yup,” Kyven said, picking up a slice of bacon and biting into it.

      Kyven deflected the cook’s attempts to engage him in conversation by being polite yet vague, until another customer came down and took the cook’s attention.  Kyven finished his meal quickly, retrieved his horse from the stable, and then mounted up and rode off to the east.  He took the road to Stinger Bay, a road he’d traveled once before, but when he was about ten minars from Riyan he turned south, following a map Clover supplied to him, using narrow country lanes and overgrown unused roads to circle around to the south.  He returned to Tobacco Road, and then again took to the forest, reaching a gentle ridge that gave him a view of Riyan, a ridge just west of the ridge he and Lightfoot had occupied to survey the city.  This ridge was going to be occupied tonight by their army, he knew, so he picketed his roan after unsaddling him, spread out his bedroll, and got some sleep.

      Tomorrow was going to be very, very busy.  He was sure of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    7      9

Chapter 8

 

      The soldiers that were part of the army didn’t arrive before Kyven left, but they did find his roan stallion.  Kyven himself left the horse, his saddle, and everything he didn’t need at his campsite, which was smack dab in the middle of the ridge that Danvers’ maps showed the men would occupy to cover the retreat of the Arcans away from Riyan.  Kyven had left the camp just a bit after noon, and had returned to Riyan under the illusion of a peasant farmhand.  By working his way through the tent camps of the Loreguard in a variety of illusions, he managed to get inside the pens about midafternoon.  When he got inside, wrapped in the illusion of a nondescript brown canine Arcan wearing a brass collar just like the others, an Arcan that was about as normal as one could get and would attract not one whit of attention, he immediately sought out Lightfoot.  That wasn’t an easy task, since there were so many Arcans in the huge pen, a pen where the grass had all but been trampled to mud and the Arcans had no choice but to lay down in it at night. It took him nearly an hour to finally find her, since she was more or less concealed in a knot of Arcans in the center of the pen, hidden from view of the Loreguard if only because so many Arcans were between her and the fence.  She was squatted down on her feet, her tail held up off the mud and swishing behind her as she drew a crude diagram in the mud for the benefit of the Arcans that had surrounded her.  Kyven didn’t have to give it more than a cursory glance to know that she was mapping out the ground south of the pens for the Arcans.  “This way,” she said quietly in her curt manner, running a finger along a line drawn in the mud.  “The humans will go east.  We go this way when they draw off.”

      “But what about the guards around the fence?  They won’t be drawn off,” one of the Arcans whispered.

      “That’s my job,” Kyven said in a low tone.

      Lightfoot gave a startled look around, and when her eyes fixed on her, he just had his illusion give her a toothy Arcan smile.  “Like it?  It’s the new anonymous.”

      “About time,” she told him curtly, looking back down.  “Me and him will kill the guards quietly,” she continued.  “Everyone has to stay in the pen until we give the call to run,” she stressed.  “The others need time to draw the army men in the tents between us and the forest away.  We can’t give them a reason to turn around.”

      “You realize that’s the most I’ve heard you say at one time in almost a month?” Kyven asked her lightly.

      She made a rude gesture at him, then looked around at the Arcans hunched down with her.  “Understand?”

      They all nodded or said yes.

      “Good.  Spread the word.  Everyone just lay down after sunset and wait, and then get up and run when we give the signal.”

      “We’ll make sure everyone in the pen knows by sunset,” a small raccoon Arcan assured her.

      The others got up, one by one, and wandered away, and Kyven squatted down beside Lightfoot.  “Alright, since you came up with a plan, explain it to me,” he told her.

      She pointed at the map she drew.  “It’s what we talked about,” she told him.  “I told them to lay down and wait.  We’ll start killing guards when we see the soldiers set up on the ridge,” she explained, looking towards the south.  “When they attack, we hold until the soldiers in the tents all get up and run to the fighting.  We’ll break the fence down and give the word, and the Arcans will all get up and run.  I told them to go into that valley between the two ridges, that should be near the men covering us.  They can send them on to the rest from there while we bring up the rear.”

      “Sounds like a plan.  At sunset, I’ll go tell them what we’re gonna do so they’re ready for it.”

      “We defend the Arcans as they run, then bring up the rear.  The men covering us will be closer to the soldiers that may run back, so we can run safely while they shoot at them.”

      “Very nice,” he nodded.  “You’d be one hell of a general, Lightfoot.”

      “Thanks.  Another group is coming.  Listen as I explain it to them.”

      Kyven listened as Lightfoot explained her plan to the next group of Arcans, and he had to admire it for its simplicity and thoroughness.  She covered all the major possibilities, and her choice of where to send the Arcans was both tactically sound and very clever.  The soldiers would be on the east ridge, and that would give them a clear range of fire against any soldiers that ran back to the west.  The Arcans would have about half a minar of ground to cover from the pen to the treeline, which wasn’t very far for Arcans.

      It would all hinge on the time window between when they started killing guards and when the attack came.  But more than that, Kyven also needed to go out and make sure there were no nasty surprises for the men attacking the warehouses and deal with them, which he could do just around sunset, to survey the defenses at that point and report that information to Danvers when he met them.

      In fact, given that he should inspect the city north of the river as well to see how many men could get to the south side and how fast, he should start looking around now.  Lightfoot had everything under control here, and Danvers would need to know the dispensation and readiness of the Loreguard.  If the army was spotted moving north, then he’d hear something about it as he surveyed the enemy.

      After Lightfoot finished briefing that group of Arcans, Kyven leaned close to her.  “I’m going out to check the defenses,” he whispered to her.  “I’ll be back in a few hours.”

      She nodded.  “Be careful,” she warned.

      “I will.”

      He worked his way out of the pens using illusions of animals, cloaked himself in the illusion of a brown-haired commoner of average appearance and rough yet stoutly made work clothes, and then got to work.  He started in the north, checking the tent cities to see what the soldiers were doing, seeing if they were preparing for some kind of an attack.  When he saw them all sitting around playing games, talking, and more or less passing the day lazily, he then went into the city proper and visited several taverns even as he carefully checked the city looking for any kind of defensive fortifications…and there were none.  The talks in the taverns from the workers, citizens of Riyan, and those soldiers that had passes to visit the city proper was in no way ominous or hinted that they knew Danvers was coming.  The soldiers were bored, the citizens a touch annoyed at the soldiers being in and around Riyan and causing problems, and the Riyan Regulars were a bit put out because the soldiers were like soldiers anywhere and tended to get rowdy when they got drunk.  Kyven checked both of the bridges over the river in the middle of town and saw that there were no attempts to fortify those positions, and he also noted that the bulk of the soldiers camped on the north side of the river were too far away from the bridges to allow them to respond quickly to the attack.  The only ones that might get involved were about two hundred camped right across the river from the warehouses, which might conceivably find some way to fire on anyone trying to torch the buildings, as it was just at the extreme edge of musket range.  The south side of the city was much like the north, with the talk in the taverns and inns giving absolutely no indication that anyone knew anything about Danvers and his approaching army.  The soldiers were relaxed and lazy, bored actually, and Kyven saw no indications that anyone knew what was coming.

      It was nearly sunset by the time Kyven completed his sweep, so he decided to spend the time waiting for it to get dark to get a few things done.  He visited the tent cities nearest the warehouses under the illusion of a Sergeant and roamed the many campfires, and whenever he reached a cluster of men sitting around a campfire, he would pause to drain every crystal in every piece of gear he could reach, and also disable their muskets sitting in racks near the fires with a waterskin and a touch of Shaman magic.  The waterskin was filled with honey, and all it took was a bit poured into the barrel, a handful of dirt and small rocks, and then just a touch of heat on the barrel to make the honey less viscous.  The channeled heat caused the sticky, gooey mess to ooze down into the breech, which would make it absolutely impossible to load and fire.  It would take a gunsmith a good two hours to clean out that mess.  Kyven managed to disable a good fifty muskets before it got dark enough.

      Once it was, however, he padded back into the shadows of one of the buildings, and then focused himself.  This time, he wanted to try something different, so he enacted his own shadow powers to create a cloud of shadow around him, and then used those to form the gateway into the shadow world…and it worked.  With surprising ease, Kyven wrapped his own shadows around himself and formed the gateway into the shadow world, and then he vanished from the real world.

      It was no different.  The shadow world was filled with stomach-churning vertigo and shifting, queasy sights as the shadows moved about the real world, and thus caused things to appear, shift, and disappear within the shadow world.  He also felt the things take notice of him, and start moving in his direction, which spurred him to quickly go about his business.  A series of physical steps in the shadow world propelled him well south of Riyan in the real world, as he tested the shadows to find people he knew, for when they passed into shadow their faces and their very sense of being became apparent to him.  When Clover passed under a shadow caused by a tree, shading her from the moonlight of a waxing half moon, Kyven immediately pinpointed her location.  He was already in the general area where he expected the army to be, and he hadn’t been far off the mark.  As the ominous entities within the shadows moved towards him, Kyven converged a gateway back into the real world, and stepped through it even as he willed it to pass around him.

      To those who saw it, it was as if Kyven simply stepped out of the shadows, as if the shadows melted away to produce him.  He was at the edge of a small camp set up just to give men rest, with no fire, no music, no tents, just men sitting on logs or the ground, as officers clustered around a single alchemical lamp where Danvers was going over the strategy one final time.  A sentry jumped when he saw Kyven, standing there naked as the day he was born, but Clover was already looking up at him with a smile.

      “Sorry I’m late,” Kyven said as he knelt down among the officers.  “I got a little carried away.”

      “What’s your report, Shaman?” Danvers asked calmly, which made the officers bristle.

      “They have no idea we’re coming,” he answered, looking down at the map.  “These camps to the north are too far to respond quickly.  This group right here might have an opportunity to shoot at the men who torch the warehouses from the north bank of the river, so they should keep the buildings between them and the river.  The Arcans know what to do, and they’re ready.  We’re going to run the Arcans to this point,” he said, tapping the map.  “This is a shallow valley between two ridges, and the men covering the Arcans are supposed to be on this ridge, which keeps them out of the line of fire.  Me and Lightfoot should have the guards at the pen killed before we start, so the men up here just have to cover us from the soldiers that might run back.  I went through these camps here,” he added, touching the tents drawn on the map closest to the warehouses.  “I drained every alchemical weapon I could get my hands on, and poured honey and dirt down the barrels of a good number of muskets.”

      Danvers laughed.  “Very clever!” he said in appreciation.

      “Thanks, I just wanted to keep as many men out of danger as possible,” he said calmly.  “I’m not sure what else I can do, General.”

      “You disabling the weapons of the men closest to our attack point was more than enough.”

      “Not all of them, remember that, General,” Kyven warned.

      “You got enough to cause a little confusion, and that’s more than I expected,” he chuckled.

      “About an hour after midnight, me and Lightfoot will start killing guards,” he continued.  “We’ll give you time to hit the warehouses, and then break down the pen and start them towards that valley.”

      “I’ll have Arcans and men there to guide them to our planned retreat route,” he nodded in reply.  “I have one hundred men on those ridges, and they’ll cover them as they escape.  What I want you to do before you go back to the pens is to visit these camps here and do the same thing you did to the weapons in the east camps,” he added, pointing out the camps due south of the Arcans.  “They’ll be the ones that will be close enough to fire on the Arcans as they escape, so do what you can to keep that from happening.”

      “I’ll take care of it as soon as I get back,” Kyven affirmed.  “So, what’s the timeline?”

      “You start an hour after midnight by killing guards.  About a half an hour later, I’ll start the attack on the southeast corner.  As soon as it’s matured, whenever you feel is best, you and Lightfoot free the Arcans and run for it.  The men on the west ridges will cover your retreat.  They run into the woods here and get redirected to this meadow,” he reported as he touched the map due south of the west bridge, about two minars past the treeline, which wasn’t far from a small hamlet.  “When the Arcans are free and in the trees, we break off the attack, rendezvous here, and then form up and start our retreat south.  The Loreguard won’t be in a position to organize any kind of pursuit until well after sunrise, which will give us enough time to put a good twenty minars between us and Riyan and give Clover time to wipe out our trail so they can’t track us.  We’ll force march until about noon, picking up every Arcan we can find along the way, and stage for an extended rest in a sheltered and secure place I know.  After that, it’s day to day.”

      “Alright, sounds like a plan,” Kyven nodded.  “I’ll go sabotage the muskets of the soldiers, then wait until it’s time to go.”  He took hold of his amulet and willed it to enact its power, and felt that eerie sensation that his body had turned to icy water, seeping out of one mold and settling into another.  The humans gaped at him in shock as he shivered himself and waggled his tail to adjust to the new sensation, quickly adjusting to the Arcan legs and the tail, and the captain that seemed to hate him the most had a smug expression on his face.

      “I knew you weren’t no human,” he sneered.

      “I am human, this is just magic,” Kyven answered calmly.  “This little alchemical trinket allows me to take on the appearance of an Arcan for a short time.  It’s how I can move among the Arcans without scaring them,” he said simply.  “They tend to be frightened around humans, and this isn’t a situation where I want them worrying more about me than what they’re supposed to be doing.”

      “The black fox Arcan,” another of them breathed, then he laughed.  “That was you?”

      Kyven grinned.  “The very one,” he admitted, tapping the amulet, which now had a human head and Danna’s face.  “That’s what this little bobble is for, since it’s magic far beyond my ability.  I didn’t want the Loremasters to know I was human.”

      “Well, let’s keep our mind on our jobs,” Danvers said.  “Go back and do whatever you feel is necessary, Kyven.  We’ll be starting our attack at exactly two hours past midnight.”

      “I’ll be ready.  Good luck everyone.”

      “You too, my brother,” Clover answered.

      Kyven took a single step back, focused himself on his power, and then converged the shadows around him, forming a gateway back into the shadow world.  The things were very close to him, but he knew exactly where he was going this time, so he was able to traverse the distance in the blink of an eye, in a single step, find an appropriate shadow cast by a tent near the pens, and then converged a gateway back into the real world, stepping through it even as he willed it to pass around him.  He stepped out already melded to the shadows, so he was virtually invisible as he stepped into reality, lurking in the shadow of the tent not fifteen paces from the fence of the pen.  He dropped to all fours and slunk over, jumped the fence, and padded along on the half-dried mud as he quickly sought out Lightfoot.  She was supposed to be in the center of the pen, and that was exactly where he found her.  He melted out of the shadows and became visible in front of her, but his sudden appearance didn’t surprise her.  She was being attended by six other Arcans, who all started when the black fox Arcan seemed to simply just appear in front of them.  “They’re ready,” he whispered.  “We start an hour and half after midnight.”

      Lightfoot nodded.  “Anything to do?”

      “I’m going to go out and sabotage weapons,” he answered.  “You just keep low and be ready when the time comes.”

      “I’ll tell the Arcans to start moving towards the south end of the pens once the shooting starts,” a large bear Arcan said.

      “Good idea, but don’t be obvious about it,” Kyven nodded.  “What you can do is find six or seven Arcans as big and burly as yourself.  When the time comes, I want the fence knocked down so we don’t waste time trying to go over it.”

      “I’ll take care of it, Shaman,” the bear said with a sudden smile.  “To be of help to an honored Shaman is all I could ever hope to be.”

      “You will be,” Kyven said as he turned and padded off.

      Again wrapped in an illusion, Kyven invaded the southwestern camps of the Loreguard soldiers and did the same thing he did on the east side.  He moved among the talking, laughing, carousing men, and as they told stories, ate from spits and pans on the campfires, and passed the time, Kyven moved among them pretending to be a roaming sentry, unobtrusively draining every alchemical device he could touch, and pausing at outdoor musket racks, where the men stowed their weapons when sitting at the campfires so they had them close at hand, he sabotaged their weapons with honey and a bit of dirt poured into the barrel, then heated with just a touch of Shaman magic.  He managed to disable about thirty of them before the honey ran out of his waterskin, and he ambled back towards the kitchen tents to steal more.

      But along the way, he saw something that he couldn’t just ignore.  A Loreguard general was striding along the edge of the tents holding the men, with three other officers with him, discussing something that Kyven couldn’t quite hear.  All four of them were veritably bristling with alchemical weapons and devices, so much so that Kyven gave them a wide berth fearing they might have a grounder among them that would dismiss his illusion, but he padded along behind them just close enough to make out their discussion.

      “I hope they hold up the game for us,” one of the officers said with a chuckle.  “Franklon has gotten far too insufferable, and we need to clear out his chit bag.”

      “This should only take a few more minutes, Mick,” the general said calmly.  “I’ve always been a big believer in personally inspecting things.”

      “We need to move soon, or our men are going to start bursting the seams of their uniforms, General Tag,” another chuckled.  “All this sitting around is making them lazy.”

      “It won’t be much longer, Dennet,” the general said.  “I don’t know for sure, but I’m fairly sure that as soon as they get the last of those supplies here, we’ll be on our way.”  The four of them stopped at the north end of the pens, and Kyven saw most of the Arcans laying down, quietly waiting for the signal to move.  “Odd.”

      “What is it, sir?”

      “They’re quiet tonight.”

      “They’re always quiet, sir,” the Major noted.

      “No, Major, they’re…still.  It’s unusual.”

      “Well, sir, I don’t pay much attention to Arcans.”

      “You should, Major.  They have senses we don’t,” the general said calmly, studying them.  “They usually move around much more than this after dark.  They’re all…edgy.  Nervous.  This is what Arcans do when they’re nervous.”

      “I’ll ask around to see if there’s been anything happening not reported to us, General,” the third offered.  “There might have been another incident with the men.”

      “Possible, I suppose,” the General grunted.  “Ask around, Captain, but don’t take too long.  We can head back to the inn and you can catch up.”

      “Yes, sir,” the fourth man said sharply, and not altogether enthusiastically.

      Kyven shadowed that man for a while, but after he asked around and found nothing unusual, he returned to the city, no doubt to a large, well-appointed inn where the big brass among the Loreguard were quartered, so they didn’t have to sleep outside in a tent like their men.  After that potential threat fizzled out, Kyven returned to the pen and hunkered down with Lightfoot, who was keeping a careful watch.

      Time both slowed down and sped up at that point, as the eternal moment of watching pushed through the night inexorably, as the moon tracked across the sky.  It was due to set around midnight, and after it did, plunging the camps into starlit darkness, Kyven and Lightfoot started moving around.  There were only four guards watching the entire pen, for they relied almost exclusively on the collars to keep the Arcans under control.  The two of them weren’t concerned with the guards as much as the roving patrols.  They watched those roaming quartets of men carefully to discern their patrol patterns, for men who expected no trouble didn’t tend to pay much attention.  That wasn’t to say that these men wouldn’t be alert and cautious out in the world, but here, deep in civilized territory and expecting nothing, they weren’t quite so attentive.  What they were watching wasn’t the forests for an attack, their primary interest was keeping the men in the tents in their tents, discouraging men from sneaking off to Riyan to carouse in the inns and possibly annoy the citizenry.  So their attention, such as it was, was focused in the wrong place.

      After about an hour, they started to move.  The pen guards changed at midnight, so the new guards had had an hour and more to settle in and lose interest, and two of them were asleep.  The roving guards didn’t bother the pen guards, and that was the important thing that they needed to know.  They split up and took care of the guards.  Kyven killed both of his with Shaman magic, electrocuting them, and then propped them up so they looked to be asleep in their chairs.  The Arcans near the fences watched his movements with fearful anticipation, for they knew what was going to happen, and seeing him kill the guards was absolute proof that it was going to come to pass.  Some of them got antsy, started fidgeting, but Kyven’s calm stare into the pen, his eyes glowing with spirit sight, calmed them down some.  On all fours, melded into the night, Kyven moved with the silence of a ghost along the edge of the fence, coming to the south side as Lightfoot crept up from the other side.  “Trouble?” he whispered.

      She gave him a flat look.

      “Lead them when the time comes,” he whispered.  “I’ll protect the flank.”

      She nodded, and almost as soon as she did, they heard it start.  The sharp crack of Briton rifles chattered on the far side of Riyan’s south side, as the rebels opened sudden fire on the sleeping armies of the Loreguard.  So soon?  They weren’t supposed to start for another half hour!

      The reaction of the army was exactly as Danvers expected.  Just beyond the pens, the men were jumping awake with startled shouts, and then a Lieutenant charged down to the camp a moment later as the rifle fire continued to chatter in the distance, some minar away.  “We’re under attack!” the Lieutenant shouted.  “Fall in, fall in damn you!”

      “Who the hell is attacking?” a surly man growled near them.

      “When we get over there you can ask!” the officer snapped.  “Get moving, men!”

      The bloom of fire appeared in the distance to the east right about where the warehouses would be, and the sharp reports of rifles were suddenly intermixed with the heavier sounds of musket fire, and then Kyven distinctly heard the sharp detonation of a shockrod.  There was a sudden impressive explosion from far down there, as what looked like some supply of gunpowder detonated in one of the warehouses, sending fiery shards of wood flying high into the air.

      It took the officer about five minutes to get his men up, armed, and moving, and all that time the Arcans in the pen were slowly creeping closer and closer to the south fence, even as the sounds of battle got even more fierce to the east.  The east side of Riyan were clearly visible now because of several pillars of fire rising into the heavens, the warehouses down there burning in a raging inferno that couldn’t be entirely natural.  Clover had to be down there, using her Shaman magic on the buildings.  Kyven watched intently as the soldiers charged to the east, leaving the Arcan pens unguarded, or at least under the watchful eyes of four dead men, whose condition had gone unnoticed in the chaos caused by the attack.

      Kyven held his hand up to Lightfoot, holding any action as they watched the men running to the east.  The Arcans behind the fence grew highly agitated as they saw open ground between them and safety, but the calm presence of the Shaman kept enough order to keep them from bolting.  Kyven counted their steps, counted the seconds, and when he felt that they were too far to stop the Arcans, he jerked his hand down quickly.  “Now!” he called.

      The Arcans in the pens moved as one.  The bear Arcan had done his job and found several very burly, large Arcans to deal with the fence, and they moved in unison, bashing down the fenceposts to open a large hole for the Arcans.  The fenceposts and rails clattered to the ground, and the Arcans now unrestrained, boiled forth in a sudden action so strong it literally shook the ground.

      “Go!  Go, go, go!” Kyven said, urging the Arcans as they ran from the pens, charging through the tents with Lightfoot leading them towards the break between the two ridges.  Kyven bounded along the edge of them, getting just past the tents as he watched the soldiers intently, both the ones in front of him and the ones further north, who had been quartered just east of the pen, who had also vacated the area to repel the heavy assault to the east, a battle still raging from the sound of it, as rifles continued to fire almost continuously, interspersed with musket fire and the blasting of alchemical weapons.

      Just as Danvers expected, the flight of the Arcans didn’t go unnoticed for long.  The tail end of the men charging east seemed to take notice of the escaping Arcans, and that also caused a little chaos and confusion as men who had orders to repel the eastern attackers now had to warn the command staff about the escaping Arcans, and then get orders back to stop them.  Kyven drew himself up solidly as a group of about a hundred Loreguard at the very end of the charge east stopped, milled around, then turned around and started back, brandishing their muskets.  That many men couldn’t stop all the Arcans, but Kyven could see that they could kill quite a few of them, no matter what the men on the ridge did to try to stop them.  They’d be in musket range, and that meant that Arcans were going to die.

      Now it was his turn.  Kyven couldn’t fight a hundred men, but Kyven was a Shaman whose specialty was illusion, and that gave him a weapon.  He imagined a huge illusion, the biggest he had ever tried, and then beseeched the fox for the magic to power the spell.  She granted him that power, and he felt his knees unlock as a staggering amount of power flowed through him, far more than he had ever tried to channel at once, but he was up to the task.  With teeth clenched and his tail sticking straight out, he channeled that power and manifested the illusion.

      Kyven had imagined fire, a roaring wall of hellish flames about fifty paces from the soldiers and about two hundred paces from him.  The illusion was created with exquisite attention to detail as Kyven threw everything he had into it, all but putting a bit of his own soul into the illusion to try to scare the soldiers into retreating, and that effort gave the illusion great power.  The illusion of the flames towering a hundred rods overhead was absolutely perfect, was so hot that the flames seemed to melt the ground, and so detailed was his imagination, down to the individual licks of flame within the wall, the skin-tightening heat, the smell of burning grass and scorched earth, the hot wind roaring from the wall due to air heating, and the column of smoke rising, that the wall of fire that suddenly exploded from the ground burned the grass.  Real fire erupted from the grass under the illusion, but Kyven was so intent on holding his illusion, the biggest he had ever done, that he was completely oblivious to the world.  Eyes locked on his illusion, he held a steady stance and held a single hand out as his eyes glowed with emerald radiance, and the hot wind created by his illusion flowed over him, billowing his fur and hair in undulating ripples.  He couldn’t see the soldiers beyond the wall of flames, but he saw no attempts to shoot through the illusion; then again, they’d been quite a distance from the Arcans before he raised it, which was a deterrence from trying to approach and also a means to hold their attention.  His wall didn’t extend all the way to the trees, only going about two hundred rods, but it certainly had their attention because it was right in their faces.

      He lost all focus on the world, for his entire world had become the illusion.  He had no idea how long he held it up, what was happening elsewhere, he concentrated solely on the fire, keeping it looking completely realistic, concentrating on the little things that made the fire believable.  It was so believable that the illusion intruded into reality and burned the grass, fire that was spreading from the base of the illusion in both directions, spreading quickly through the dry grass and was actually accomplishing what Kyven himself could not.  The grass fire was spreading towards the trees, and blocking the soldiers from trying to chase down the Arcans.  Behind the oblivious Shaman, the Arcans continued to flee towards the forest, moving in a steady stream on all fours, low to the ground as they moved like a fleeing herd, a stampede of frightened cattle.  The grass fire was creeping closer and closer to their column even as it spread towards the dumbfounded soldiers, who gaped at the towering wall of fire and felt its searing heat even from fifty rods away, real heat.  Fearing that the heat would ignite their gunpowder, they would come no closer.  The Arcans continued to flee, hidden behind the wall of fire on the north and to the south hidden by the blazing light in the faces of the soldiers caused by both the illusion and the real fire spreading from it; the soldiers had all that brilliant light in their faces, and they could see almost nothing in the darkness behind it, only shimmering shadowy shapes behind the flames that could be Arcans but could also be nothing but shifting shadows caused by the fire.

      After a moment that dragged on for longer than he could imagine, the toll of maintaining an illusion that big was exacted on him.  Kyven felt himself falter, and then he knew he had to stop the illusion or die, be drained of his own energy.  He jerked his hand away as he canceled the illusion, felt a bone weariness in him so profound he could barely stand, but his weariness was buried in consternation when he saw that his illusory fire had sparked a very real grass fire that was still spreading.  The soldiers on the far side shuddered when that wall vanished, and seeing Kyven and his glowing eyes, they took aim at him with their muskets.  But the first ranks of them suddenly keeled over, blood flying, and seconds later the sharp reports of Briton rifles reached his ears over the crackle of the fire.  The men on the ridges were using their superior range to fire on the soldiers, and the men, stunned by the attack and fearful of the approaching grass fire, broke their nerve and scattered, searching for cover from the hidden infantrymen firing at them.  The men on the far side of the fire became a disorganized mess as men retreated from the fire and dove behind tents or logs pulled to campsites to serve as seats, as the steady chatter of Briton rifles fired from the nearby ridge kept the men pinned down.

      He could barely move.  He’d never done an illusion that big before, and he could barely fathom what was going on, his mind swimming in a haze of crushing fatigue.  While he was trying to move, huge hands grabbed hold of him and whisked him away, and it took him a moment to realize that he was in the arms of a large bear Arcan, the same one he’d ordered earlier, who was running on his legs towards the trees as smoky lines of musket balls cut the air in front and behind him.  Blearily he saw dark shapes on the ground, Arcans shot and killed while fleeing towards the trees, and saw more and more soldiers rushing back to the west, only to stop and seek cover when the riflemen on the ridges opened up on them.  Something warm spattered on his face, and the huge bear staggered, but kept going.  Dimly, he realized it was blood, and there was blood flowing from a wound high on the bear’s shoulder.  Despite his wound, the strong arms around him didn’t waver, and he was carried into the trees.  As soon as the dark shadows of the canopy above blocked out the stars, Kyven’s eyes rolled back in his head and he passed out.

 

      He woke feeling almost like he was back in Haven and had just finished one of his brutal training sessions.  It was already daytime, for sunlight streamed through the trees, and he found himself in a rolling open-topped wagon.  Men on horseback were to either side of it and Lightfoot was riding in the front seat with the driver, he saw as he sat up wearily, and he also saw that he wasn’t the only man in the wagon.  Four other men were laying in the wagon on bedrolls, laid out side by side, bandaged and sleeping.  The wagon was the last in a train of them, and behind them, on all fours, were a huge number of Arcans.  Most of them were nude, padding along on all fours at a fast walk that was very nearly a jog as the horses moved at a slow canter or fast walk.  They all looked both overjoyed and a little nervous, and there was hushed talk among them as they moved along behind the wagons.

      He yawned and sat up, holding the side of the wagon for much needed support, since he wasn’t sure if he could stand at the moment.  The dreadful hunger that came with an exercise of that kind of power was already starting to stir deep inside him, an all-consuming need to eat that mixed in with his nearly phobic fear of starving, of being too hungry, a scar left over from his time in Arthur Ledwell’s cage.  It had been a long time since he’d felt that hunger, the need for the body to restore what it had burned off using magic, and it was enough to make him risk moving.  He could tell just from the feeling of himself that he was human again, which reaffirmed his notion that the amulet could only keep him transformed so long as he was conscious.  When he passed out, he must have changed back.  “Where’s my horse?” he called to the nearest mounted soldier.

      “Dunno,” he answered.  “I can go fetch one of the spares.”

      “Whatever, just bring me something please,” he said.

      “I’m supposed to tell the General when you wake up anyway,” he shrugged, spurring his horse into a fast trot and moving up along the wagons.

      One of the Arcans padding along just behind the wagon approached, and jumped onto the back.  Kyven was laid out closest to the back gate, so it put the canine Arcan with mottled brown and black fur all but on top of him.  “Shaman,” the Arcan said with the most profound respect.  “Are you well?”

      “Just exhausted,” he said in a weary tone.  “I’ve never tried anything that big before.  What happened?  Where are we?”

      “I know not, Shaman,” the canine said regretfully.

      “What happened after I passed out?”

      “I don’t know when that was, Shaman, but I was near the back.  There was fire between us and the soldiers, but they were shooting at us as we ran.  A few of us died,” he said with a sorrowful look.  “But not nearly as many as would have had you not stopped the soldiers from getting closer.  When we reached the trees, these humans and some Arcans working for you guided us to a meadow where these wagons were parked,” he explained.  “We waited there until a group of men on horses came for us.  They put you in this wagon, and we’ve been following you ever since.”

      “We’ve been moving all night?”

      “Yes, Shaman,” he said with a nod.  “We were running as fast as the wagons would go until dawn, and since then we’ve been moving at this fast walk.  I think I heard one of the humans say we’ll stop to rest soon.  I hope so, many of us are getting hungry.”

      “Good.  Did Clover talk to you?”

      “The honored Shaman did, briefly,” he answered.  “She said we would be given guns and could fight against the Loreguard.  Is it really true?”

      Kyven nodded.  “If you want.  We’ve got you free, but we’re not there yet.  We need your help.  Every Arcan that fights against the Loreguard increases the chances of everyone making it safely away.”

      “I will fight, Shaman,” he declared proudly.  “You risked your life for us, Shaman.  That honors me beyond all words, that you would risk your life for me.  For me!  I would be a poor excuse for an Arcan not to risk my life for you in return.”

      “I’m glad to hear that,” he said, putting his hand on the Arcan’s shoulder.  “But don’t sell yourself short, my friend.  Your life is as valuable as mine.”

      He snorted.  “My life would never be worth yours, Shaman,” he said in a voice of near-adulation.  “I owe the greatest of debts to you, honored Shaman.  I will fight for you.”

      “I’m glad you will, but you won’t be fighting for me, you’ll be fighting for yourself.  For your freedom.”

      “If fighting for you brings me freedom, then that is a nice bonus,” he said with a slight toothy smile.

      Horses galloped back towards them, and Kyven looked back.  He saw the General and four other men on horses, one of them leading a horse, rushing back.  The Arcan gave the men a fearful look and moved to return to the others, but Kyven’s hand on his shoulder tightened, holding him on the back of the wagon.  “Kyven,” Danvers said with a bright smile.  “I’m glad to see you awake.  You scared the hell out of quite a few people, you know.”

      “How?”

      “That fire,” he grinned.  “I’ve never seen anything like it.  You paralyzed the entire battle with that monstrosity.”

      “It was just an illusion, General,” Kyven chuckled.  “But it was supposed to be big and scary looking.  I’ve never done one that big before, and I’m sure feeling it now.”

      “I was worried until Clover explained it,” he answered.  “She said you may be hungry when you wake up.”

      “That’s one hell of an understatement,” he grunted.  “I need meat, General.  Raw.”

      Several men shuddered, but Danvers wasn’t one of them.  “Clover hunted a doe for you,” he said.  “She cut it up and it’s waiting for you at the lead wagon.”

      “Good.  General, where are the extra rifles?”

      “In the supply wagons up ahead of us,” he answered.

      “Well then, we need to hand them out.  The Arcans need to get used to carrying them.”

      All four of the men with Kyven gave him a startled and highly disapproving look.  “Arming them already?  I hadn’t planned on that quite yet,” he said, and Kyven could hear the strain in his voice.

      “I don’t think they need to be loaded until they get lessons in using them, but they need to get used to carrying them,” Kyven elaborated.  “Trust me.  Carrying anything while running on all fours takes a little adjusting.”

      Danvers looked at the canine Arcan, and then nodded.

      “Go back to the others and tell them that anyone who wants to fight needs to go up and get a rifle,” Kyven told the canine.  “Make sure to warn them that they won’t be loaded.  They’ll get the bullets after they learn how to use them.  And also make sure to tell them to be very careful with the rifles.  Don’t let them get dirty and treat them gently.”

      “I will, Shaman,” the canine said with a nod, then he dropped off the wagon and bounded back to the others and started talking.

      “Gently?” Danvers asked.

      “Any number of those Arcans can snap the triggers off with their fingers by accident,” Kyven said simply.  “We can start teaching them when we rest.  Where is Clover?”

      “She’s out with a contingent of men freeing Arcans from nearby plantations,” he answered.  “Recall that that’s part of our strategy.  Every Arcan we free between here and Cheston is either another soldier against the Loreguard or denying them a worker to exploit.”

      “I didn’t realize I was asleep that long.”

      “It’s nearly noon, Kyven,” Danvers chuckled.

      “That late?  Wow,” he grunted.  “Well, let me get on a horse and go eat before I pass out again.”

      Lightfoot came down from the front and helped him mount, and to his surprise, she got on behind him.  “You’ll fall off otherwise,” she told him bluntly as she grabbed him around the waist, and held him securely in the saddle.  He took the reins and urged the horse into a fast walk, and Danvers fell in beside him, with the others behind them.

      “How did it go?” Kyven asked.

      “Textbook,” he answered.  “We caught them with their pants down.  They were confused and disorganized, and we hit them hard and then withdrew before they got any semblance of control over the men.  Clover was part of the advance group that attacked the warehouses first.  She set fire to them, and they got caught by a patrol which started the fight earlier than expected.  The Loreguard had no idea what hit them.  You timed it on your side almost perfectly, and when half the army stopped and thought to turn around, I had a group of cavalry come up to the treeline and open fire on them, then retreat before they could return fire.  The slashing tactics confused the absolute fuck out of them.  Begging your pardon, Lightfoot,” he said, nodding to the cat Arcan, then he chuckled when she let go long enough to give him a rude gesture.  “Right about the time their officers got on the scene and started taking control of the army, you had the Arcans evacuated, and we withdrew quickly.  I had skirmishers set to discourage pursuit, but they didn’t have much to shoot at as we pulled back.  We’re about twenty minars south of Riyan now, making good time despite carrying the wagons, but we’ll be abandoning the wagons when we reach our staging area and moving ahead using nothing but pack animals.  I have all these extra horses, may as well use them,” he grunted.  “The Arcans need to get used to carrying more than a rifle, Kyven.  When we reach the staging area, every one of them will be carrying a pack holding his tent and some basic sundries like drinking cups and blankets.  They’re there waiting for us, two thousand packs.”

      Kyven whistled.  “I hope you didn’t pay for those,” he said.

      “I only paid for about half of them,” he chuckled.  “Clover and the other Shaman have this amazing spell, my friend.  They can create a duplicate of something using magic.  Clover’s already made about thirty rifles by taking one apart and duplicating the pieces, then my gunsmiths put the pieces together.  All she needs is the raw materials.  I give her a sturdy piece of wood and a few pots and pans or a musket we took from the Loreguard, and she gives me a Briton rifle.”

      “I’ve never seen her use it, but I’ve heard about it,” Kyven told him.

      “Anyway, over the last few years, Clover, Stalker, and Coldfoot have been making those supply packs for me, mainly for the Arcans that have gone through my plantation on the way west,” he explained.  “That way they always had what they needed for the journey.  I’ve always kept a few hundred stored for emergencies, but Coldfoot came to the plantation last year and started making them by the wagonload.  When I asked why, he said that they needed large stockpile of gear that they might need in the near future, and my plantation was the best place to hide it.  I had about two thousand of them stored in secret bunkers around my land, stored there in case of any kind of major action or mass Arcan movement, just in case.  Luckily, though, this army came with its own equipment.  They’ll come in handy now, though.”

      “That sounds right before the time I started my Walk,” he mused.  “Just about when things started moving.  Even back then they knew what was coming, and started planning for it.  Actually, they’ve known for about ten years.”

      “Known what, Kyven?” one of the men behind him asked.

      “That the crystals are running out,” he answered immediately.  “What’s going on out here is all because of that.  That’s why the Loremasters are moving to take over Noraam, and why we’re moving now.  Without crystals to power the collars, there will be a mass killing of Arcans.  That’s something the Shaman couldn’t ignore.”

      “Running out?” the man asked in surprise.

      Kyven nodded.  “They’re not an infinite resource.  The humans have used most of them up.  What’s left won’t last Noraam five more years.  Already, crystals are starting to dwindle.  We saw it in Atan just before I found out I’m a Shaman, that the mines were producing less and less.  They were about to start major exploration around the village to search for more deposits right before I left.”

      “Fuck,” the man grunted.  Kyven glanced back at him and saw his face thoughtful and worried.

      “Now do you understand what we’re doing, Major?” Danvers asked.  “We’re freeing Arcans that would be slaughtered otherwise and giving them a chance to fight for their freedom.  The Loreguard have always seen Arcans as animals, but I know better.  I’ve seen them in action, I’ve faced them in battle before.  I know many of the men are wary of arming Arcans, but you’ll see.  The Arcans will surprise you.”

      “They will,” Kyven said simply as the smell of raw venison sent his stomach on the warpath.  “Arcans are just as smart as men, but the main thing you have to get past is their conditioning.  Most slaves need some encouragement and reinforcement to shake it off.  I know I did,” he grunted.  “I remember how I felt when I left the Ledwells.  I was terrified, and it took me time to get to where the sight of that controller or a raised voice wouldn’t send me running to the nearest corner.  I never thought I’d be broken so fast, but that collar,” he said with a shudder.  “I’d wish that on no man.”

      “What do you mean, Shaman?” Danvers asked.

      “The spirits changed me into an Arcan for a while,” he answered in a flat voice.  “To teach me what life was like for them, since I had the same attitude most men had about Arcans.  I didn’t hate them or torment them for fun, but to me they were just…Arcans,” he said.  “My totem didn’t like my attitude, so she changed me into an Arcan as both punishment for something I did and to teach me the truth.  I was an Arcan for about a year before I was changed back.  I was caught, put in a kennel, then sold at auction to a sadistic son of a bitch named Arthur Ledwell.  He put a collar on me that duplicated the effect of a pain stick, and then he put me in a cage behind his house and starved me very nearly to death,” he said in a grating voice.  “To make me more tractable so I could be tamed,” he growled as he leaned over in the saddle and took a handful of venison and started tearing into it with his teeth.  “I can’t describe that kind of horror, gentlemen, to be trapped in a cage in plain sight and starve while people walked by, ignoring me, even eating and drinking in front of me.  The torturers in Avannar could have taken lessons from that bastard,” he said with a shudder, as the memory of it caused the emptiness in his belly trigger a nearly panicked reaction that made him stuff the entire handful of venison into his mouth and struggle to chew and swallow it, nearly choking on it.

      “What happened?” a man behind asked in an eager kind of voice, absorbed in his tale.

      “I nearly died,” he said darkly.  “And I mean I came a whisker from it.  The vet they called in said that I should have been dead already.  It ultimately took a healing bell for me to recover.”

      “They spent that much?”

      “I was the black fox Arcan,” Kyven said without much humor, taking another piece of venison from the wagon and taking a bite.  “Ledwell bought me to resell me in Alamar as a breeder.  I was rather unique.  In fact, I was very nearly sold to a furrier at auction.  I was very nearly killed right at the auction block for my fur.”

      “So, how did you escape?”

      “I didn’t,” he answered, taking another bite.  “I killed Ledwell when he tried to kill his wife when they argued about what to do about me.  She didn’t like the collar, and when she saw the truth of her husband in how he tormented me, it changed her.  Ledwell couldn’t accept her demands, and he tried to kill her, but I killed him first.  You’d think she’d have been grateful enough to let me go, but that bitch sold me,” he spat.  “I save her life, and she sells me.  I got my revenge on her, though,” he laughed bitterly.  “She sent me to the Blue Ring of Alamar, but I escaped before I was auctioned off.”

      “I heard about that,” another man laughed.  “Nobody ever believed an Arcan could escape the blue ring.”

      “That was me.  An Arcan could escape from there if he was serious about it, but the ones I met inside were content.  Being sold in the blue ring is like inheriting a fortune from an unknown relative,” he said, remembering Silver.  “That’s a guarantee for a soft life, and few Arcans would try to escape from that.  At least on my side.  The fighting Arcans they sell there might have a different view, but I was being sold as a breeder.”  He took another bite and swallowed it almost without chewing.  “I escaped from Alamar, made my way back to Atan, then went west, to Haven.”  Lightfoot jabbed him in the ribs, almost knocking the breath out of him.  “No reason to keep it secret now, Lightfoot.  The Loremasters know, and it’s just a matter of time.”

      “What’s that?” one of the men behind him asked.

      “The Arcan nation,” he answered evenly.

      “Bullshit on that,” another of them grunted.

      “That’s what I thought too, until I saw it,” Kyven said.  “There’s about a half million of them on the cold plains far to the northwest, where the winters are so bitter that men won’t live there,” he told them.  “They have a city there even bigger than Avannar.  All the Arcans that escape from Noraam or are freed by the Masked end up in Haven.”  Kyven glanced back at the four men.  “Arcans, gentlemen, and nothing but.  There are some humans who live up there, mountain men and settlers that stumbled across the Arcans, but they don’t live in the city, they live in villages at the edges of Arcan territory, and they get along with the Arcans just fine.  The Arcans built that city and they live in it.  And if you ask me, they do alright for themselves.”

      “I find that hard to believe,” one of them said.  “Arcans don’t seem smart enough to do that.  Not that there aren’t some damn smart Arcans, miss Lightfoot,” he said quickly when Lightfoot glared at him.  “But on the whole, I wouldn’t believe Arcans have the ability to live without human help.”

      “Arcans are just as smart as we are, Captain,” Danvers said calmly.  “And as you said, some are even smarter.  I think we can all agree that Clover is highly intelligent.”  There was a rumble of assent.  “The Arcans are no different from us in that regard, my friends.  There are smart ones and dumb ones, but on the whole, they’re more than smart enough to do for themselves.”

      “Ferals,” Lightfoot grunted.

      “Yeah,” Kyven agreed.  “The feral Arcans are why people think that Arcans are animals.  Because those Arcans really are.  They taint the image of the Arcans for the rest of us.”  He took another bite.  “You’ll see when we start training the Arcans in how to use the rifles.  They’ll do fine, at least once they shake off the slave mindset…if they can.  Not all of them will.  Those are the ones we’ll have to watch, and ensure they don’t work as soldiers.  They’ll have to be given work like cooking and such.  It takes too long to deprogram that kind of trauma in just a couple of days.  I spent a couple of weeks with the Ledwells, and it took me months to get over it…mostly.  I doubt I ever will.”

      “Well, Master Kyven, you’ve intrigued me.  When it comes time to train the Arcans to the rifle, I’d like to be there to help,” one of the men behind him said.  “I’d like to see what kind of soldier an Arcan can be.”

      “You’d be surprised,” Kyven grunted, not divulging the secret inside, that the Arcans were literally created to be soldiers.  That kind of basic programming had to still be in the Arcans, if Lightfoot was any indication.  “As long as we don’t pick up Arcans unsuitable for it because of their histories or their conditioning, we’ll be alright.”  He finished the rest of the venison in his hand, and reached for another piece.

      “So, you were an Arcan,” Danvers mused.  “What was it like?”

      “Very different, but not much at the same time,” he answered.  “The Arcans have a culture that seems simple on the surface, but is actually quite different from ours and very complicated.  I learned very quickly how to fit in among them, because I had to.  They’ve borrowed some human concepts, but at the core Arcan mentality is vastly different from ours.”

      “How so?”

      “Arcans think in terms of we, not I,” he said after a moment.  “An Arcan is a part of a greater whole, a member of the pack,” he elaborated.  “at least when not stressed.  In the kennels, you’ll find those Arcans that take what they can from others, because the survival instinct wins out.  When not under that kind of stress, though, Arcans are very generous and giving.  They’re also intensely social.  Put five stranger Arcans in a room, and within an hour they’ll form a group and be very open, trading information back and forth among one another.  There’s no such thing as a secret in Arcan society.  Arcans don’t have the same concepts of privacy and personal space as we do, so they’ll say and do things in company that a human wouldn’t.  They have a very open society.”

      “That’s actually conducive to being a soldier,” Danvers said after a moment’s contemplation.  “Soldiers are members of a group first and foremost, and must consider the welfare of the unit while in battle.”

      “And that’s how you’ll find the Arcans to behave once they’re given some training in being a soldier.  They’ll follow orders and always think and act in terms of the greater whole.”

      “And what you said explains Balton a great deal,” he added, rubbing his chin.  “Some of the Arcans sacrificed themselves to allow the rest to escape.  The well being of the whole was more important than the individual.”

      “And so they willingly died to protect the group,” Kyven said simply.  “They died in a manner of their own choosing, and Arcans always consider that to be the best way for it to end.  Those Arcans died knowing they were saving others, and that made the sacrifice worth it.”  He chewed down another mouthful of venison.  “I found my time as an Arcan very interesting, and educational.  I experienced life from their perspective, and I learned first hand just how the humans abuse them.  I believe I’m a better man because of it.”

      “You were a better Arcan,” Lightfoot told him.

      Kyven chuckled.  “So biased,” he teased.  “How many casualties?” he asked Danvers.

      “Not many,” he answered.  “Three killed and seven wounded.  The only fatalities were among the men who burned the warehouses.  We were out of musket range, so our firing lines didn’t get a scratch.  We did have a broken leg from a shying horse throwing the man, but outside of that, it was completely one-sided.  We left several dozen dead Loreguard behind.”

      “Good,” Kyven nodded.  “Not that I enjoy killing, but they’ve sided against us, and that’s a few dozen fewer men trying to kill us tomorrow.”

      “Well said.”

      The small army stopped to rest in a large flat clearing that was clearly a fallow farm field surrounded by trees and with the blackened bones of a house at the far end of the large clearing.  Danvers called it the Ghost Plantation, a place considered haunted and cursed by the locals, who wouldn’t buy it or farm it.  Four families had bought the land, built houses, harvested one crop, and then they all died.  Every single one of them.  The blackened bones over there were the remains of the house burned by the locals after the last family was found dead, all their servants and Arcans dead, and not a mark anywhere on any body.  That kind of macabre mystery had attracted attention from Riyan and Avannar, but nothing unusual or suspicious was ever found.  Those people and the ones before just…died. That gave this place a very black reputation, and Danvers exploited that.  This was the staging area Danvers had mentioned, for he ordered the army to bivouac, the wagons to be unloaded and stripped, then broken apart to use as firewood.  In a surprisingly short amount of time, the men had their tents up in orderly rows…but the Arcans weren’t quite as lucky.  None of them had ever raised a tent before, and not many of the men were enthusiastic about teaching them how.  It fell to Kyven and Danvers and a few officers to demonstrate how it was done to some Arcans, who then raised their own tents, then helped others raise theirs.  After all the tents were raised, fires were started, cookpots set out, and the humans partook of an army staple, boiled beans, bacon, and bread and cheese.  When the supply quartermaster started working out how to divide it between the men and the Arcans, quite a few of the men told him not to give their food to the Arcans, that there wasn’t all that much food with them to give it away to Arcans, and they could damn well hunt for their own food.

      Kyven felt that was an eminently practical idea to teach the men a little lesson.  He gathered up the Arcans and selected those like himself, those who knew how to hunt, and they then ranged out in several packs.  The men eating beans and drinking ale chuckled at the Arcans sitting around campfires with no food, at least until Kyven returned from the forest dragging four deer tied together, then another Arcan, a sleek cat, brought back half a dozen rabbits, and a pack of six Arcans appeared from the trees struggling to drag a Tauron, a beast that outweighed all six of them about four times over, and had enough meat on its nearly ton of bulk to feed a large swath of Arcans.  Even Kyven was impressed with that; a Tauron’s sheer size would make it extremely hard to kill with anything but magic.  That those six Arcans felled a Tauron with only one injury among them, one broken arm, was a true accomplishment.  To feed over a thousand Arcans, they’d need about two hundred deer or equivalent meat, but it didn’t take that long to gather that much.  The pack that killed the Tauron was a harbinger, for the Tauron was part of a small herd of wild cattle and Tauron mixed together, and the hunters effectively killed off the wild herd and dragged it back to camp.  After about two hours, the men who had been laughing at the Arcans sitting near their fires hungry turned to slight grumbling when the hunters returned with enough meat to feed them all.  Kyven probably made even more enemies that day when the Arcans with him, dragging a large bull cow to the Arcans nearest the soldiers, offered to share it with the men.

      “No,” Kyven said calmly, and more than loud enough for the men to hear.  “They didn’t help set up camp, they laughed at us while we learned how, and they didn’t offer to share their beans, so we will not share our meat.  Only give it to the humans who helped teach us how to raise the tents.  None for anyone else except General Danvers and his command staff.  They’ll get our meat when they earn it, and not before.”

      So, while the soldiers ate beans, the Arcans ate venison, rabbit, squirrel, and beef…and Kyven was fairly sure that the smell of the meat was making the beans taste very bland, even if the men didn’t much like the idea of the Arcans eating it raw.  Very few Arcans preferred cooked meat over raw meat.

      Clover returned not long after dinner was over, and she and about 30 men were escorting a large throng of Arcans.  Some of them were clothed, some of them were not.  Most of them were not wearing collars, but a few still had collars around their necks.  Most of them were carrying bags, sacks, packs, boxes, and other containers, loaded down with supplies.  The mounted men were weighed down with muskets, alchemical weapons, swords, even a few farm tools.

      “Welcome back,” Danvers told them as Clover padded up to where he, Kyven, Lightfoot, and Danvers’ command staff had come out to greet them.  “I see you had a good time of it.”

      “We had to be very firm with a few plantations,” she said with a slight smile.  “And a few shots were traded at a couple of them, but they saw things our way.  I had the Arcans clean out the storehouses of each plantation we raided.  I recall that we’re low on stores, so I brought anything I could find.”

      “Good, good,” Danvers smiled.  “Why don’t you and Kyven help our new Arcans settle in, and explain things to them?” he asked, then he blanched and stepped back as the tail end of the procession came in.  At the tail end, bringing up the rear, were six of the largest dogs Kyven had ever seen in his life.  They were large canines the size of a horse, like gigantic wolves, their thick coats ranging from smoky gray to pitch black.  They moved with sinuous grace, those massive wolves, then started moving slowly up along the Arcans.  “What the hell are those?”

      “Oh, one of the plantations had an owner that liked to breed Lupans, General.  I thought they might like it better with us than in those pens, so I asked them to come along.  They agreed to help us for a while.”

      “You…asked?”

      “A Shaman spell, General, though I’m not very good at it,” she said modestly.  “Were it not that I’m a canine myself, it wouldn’t have worked.  I can only talk to other canines.  My brothers and sisters are much better at it than me.  So, do you think we’ll have a use for them?”

      “Oh, we might, as long as they don’t eat any horses,” he said, looking speculatively at the huge animals.  Some of the Arcans seemed comfortable near them, but most of them shied away from the monstrous canines.

      “The owner didn’t feed them horses.  He fed them Arcans.”

      Kyven paled and looked at her.

      She nodded soberly.  “I had to explain to them quite sternly that we are not food anymore, and they agreed.  They didn’t like the way we taste anyway.  They’ll hunt for their food, just as we will.  They’ve already eaten, we stopped for a quick meal about an hour ago and they were kind enough to share the deer they killed.  Any sign of pursuit, General?”

      He shook his head.  “You were masterful hiding our trail, my dear Clover,” he said.

      “I am happy to help, General,” she smiled.

      “Let’s get these new Arcans settled in and explain things to them,” Danvers said.

      Clover’s nature became abundantly apparent after the Arcans handed over their supplies to the army’s quartermasters, sat down, and listened.  Clover had no fear of standing up and addressing them, speaking to them in a calm yet strong voice as she explained exactly what they were doing, where they were going, and what they could get from it.  Clover was gentle, kind, wise, and compassionate, but she was also very persuasive.  When she asked how many of the new Arcans would be willing to fight, after a long speech where she quite effectively charmed the whole lot of them, more than three quarters of them responded.  The rest, too timid or conditioned to fight, volunteered to work for the army as horse handlers, cooks, pages, anything it took.  They all understood the one thing she stressed, and that was when it was over, they would all go someplace far from the humans and live in peace and security, where they would be free.  But to get there, they had to help the human army in its quest to hold the attention of the Loreguard and draw them off to give the Arcans west of the mountains time to push them back, as well as to give the Flaurens all the help they could as they moved to make war on the Loremasters.

      Clover was far more valuable to the army for her ability to persuade than she was as a Shaman.

      It took until well after nightfall to get the new Arcans situated.  Those freed last night welcomed them with open arms, sharing what was left of their meat, sharing their tents, sharing the tools and utensils that were in the packs.  While they were doing that, though, Kyven was introduced face to face with Clover’s other little addition.  The six Lupans were even bigger up close than they were at a distance, and when they came over to Clover, Kyven and Lightfoot were introduced, in a man-animal kind of way.  “Lupans are quite intelligent,” Clover explained as the six horse-sized canines approached them, unafraid of the fire.  “Not as intelligent as man or Arcan, but they are quite clever in their own way.  Lupans, coyotes, and wolves are about the only animals I’ve ever managed to be able to get through to using that spell,” she admitted with a laugh, reaching up and stroking the smoky gray Lupan’s neck fondly.

      “They’re huge, Clover.  Huge,” Kyven breathed, looking eye to eye with one of the smaller Lupans, the one with a coat as black as a cloudy, moonless night,  and penetrating yellow eyes that literally glowed with an amber radiance.  It was faint, but in the dim light, it was visible.  The Lupan had to lower its head to look Kyven in the eye, for it stood as high as Kyven at the shoulder; the Lupan was literally large enough to ride like a horse, though its narrow back didn’t look like it would be very comfortable to ride.  The black one was the same size as the roan stallion Kyven had stolen from the Loreguard.  He was a little unsettled with the massive black animal started snuffling at him, then he sputtered and laughed reflexively when a tongue the size of a frying pan slurped the entire right side of his head.

      “They like you, my brother,” Clover grinned.

      The Lupans went off to hunt as Kyven, Clover, and Lightfoot joined Danvers in the main tent for a strategy meeting.  Danvers had them all sit at a large table, and it had a map on it.  The map was very old, made of brittle parchment, and was obviously an antique of some kind.  The spelling on the map was very strange, the letters oddly formed, but in a way, they sort of resembled Noraavi letters, and formed words that didn’t match the names of the kingdoms, cities, rivers, and mountains of the Free Territories, Malan, and Carin, but they weren’t named that on the map.  The Free Territories had a different shape on the map, and the name scrawled across it in flowing letters was Virginia.  Carin was bigger on this map, and was called North Carolina.  The great Georvan city of Lanna was called Atlanta, and Georvan itself was named Georgia, though much smaller on this map than it was in reality.  Alamar was called Mobile, Nurys called New Orleans, and Phion called Philadelphia.  Two River on the map was called Pittsburg, and Deep River was called Parkersburg.  Looking far up, he saw that about where Haven was, was a place called Manitoba.

      “Confused, Kyven?” Danvers asked with a smile.

      “The land looks right, but the names aren’t,” he said, touching where Atan would be on the map, but it wasn’t marked.

      “This is a copy of a map of Noraam before the great war, my friend,” he said, his eyes lit up as he looked at it.  “I love cartography and maps and geography.  That’s what my father did for a living, he was a mapmaker.  In a way, it started me on the path of a Loreguard officer, because I wanted to see the places on the maps.  This map is over three hundred years old, and it was copied from a map that was itself hundreds of years old.  This was our land before the war, when the entire continent of Noraam was a single nation that stretched from the Angry Sea to the Blue Sea, and it had so many people that they filled the entire land.”

      “Why show us this, General?” one of his officers asked.

      “Because this is what the Loremasters want to do,” he said, motioning at the map.  “Restore Noraam to this.  That may be a noble venture, and may very well come to pass some day, but the methods they’re using, and the things they’re teaching, are not.  They want to restore Noraam, but they want to rule it.  Before, Noraam was ruled by the people, who elected men to represent them in the interests of government.  The Loremasters want total control over Noraam, friends.  They want a dictatorship, a tyranny.  The responsibility of any civilized man or Arcan is to resist tyranny, my friends.  That is what we’re going to do.  Look at this map, gentlemen, ladies.  Look at it closely.  If the Loremasters succeed, then the map of Noraam as we know it will change.  And you never know what city, town, or village in that new world will not be on the new map.”

      That was a sobering thought.  If the Loremasters won, then what might happen to Flaur?  Would the great cities of the peninsula be wiped out, to disappear from everything but ancient maps, the last record that they ever existed?  He wondered how the residents of one place on the map he knew was no longer there, New York, would feel to know that their city was no more.  That part of Noraam was effectively a wasteland, and nothing could live there because of some strange kind of illness that took hold of anyone who settled in the area that made their bones brittle, their hair and teeth fall out, and strange sores to ulcerate on their bodies.  It was called the Cursed Fen now, a place dominated by squat brush and sawgrass, areas of wetlands, and not a single animal, not even insects.  Atan wasn’t on this map…and if the Loreguard marched into his home village, it very well may disappear from modern maps too, the people killed or driven off, the buildings burned down.

      “This is the great civilization,” the youngest officer, a captain breathed as he stared at the map.

      “It was,” Danvers said calmly.  “They’re gone now, and that’s history.  They and the other great power, a vast land across the blue sea called China, destroyed themselves in the war, and shattered the entire world in the process.  If we don’t want the Noraam we know to follow it into history, my friends, we’d better do something about it.  And the first step is to plan our route to Cheston.  So,” he said, taking his chair and rolling up the ancient map to reveal a much more modern one underneath, “let’s make some decisions.”

      Kyven didn’t listen for a while, looking at the map.  He’d never seen this before.  The stories were…well, there were no stories.  Just myths and legends.  Just artifacts dug up from the ground, like softrock and the occasional piece of stone, and there were rumors of buildings underwater off the coast of Flaur.  It was hard to fathom a nation so large that it occupied the entire continent.  This was like looking back in time and seeing the past, a past where billions of people lived in the world, before the war.  A war that destroyed it all, shattered those left behind, and erased the memory of that ancient civilization from the memory of man.  He wondered what the spirits knew of that time long ago, and how much that knowledge was guiding them now.

      That was one of the purposes of wisdom, to not make the same mistake twice.

      Did they know?  Did they know that their civilization was doomed?  Did they know what was happening, or did things get so out of control that they lost sight of the goal in the face of the distractions?  Or did the need to reach that goal so cloud their judgment that they lost everything because of their lack of focus?  That was what Danvers was showing them, not to lose sight of the goal even though many details stood between them and the objective.  That was solid wisdom, he saw.  Danvers wasn’t just intelligent, he was wise.  He was a man Kyven could respect, and a man from whom he could learn.

      But it showed that it was happening again, he saw.  A group in power, blinded by the lust for more, were about to make a cataclysmic mistake.  They showed no wisdom in trying to understand that which they sought, they only sought it for the power it could give them.  That what they were after could destroy civilization on Noraam was of no consequence.  Greed incited arrogance, and that arrogance made them believe that they could control that which couldn’t be controlled.  They had no respect for the wisdom of the past, and that would put the whole of Noraam at risk.  That which destroyed the ancients should not be toyed with, yet the Loremasters believed they could succeed where the ancients did not, confident in the fact that modern man had more knowledge of alchemy than the ancients…even when they had no clue just what alchemy truly was.

      No wisdom.

      He tuned back in as Danvers touched the map.  “We can resupply here, at Penbrook.  South of that is tobacco country, and we’ll find a lot of Arcans there to add to our ranks.  We’ll have to strip just about every plantation we come to of food to feed this thing as it moves south and grows.”

      “The Arcans can help with that,” Clover told him.  “We are good hunters.  We’ll send out hunting parties along our flanks to bring back game, and they can double as scouts to protect us as we move.”

      “Can we trust them with that kind of responsibility?” one of the officers asked.  He cleared his throat uncomfortably when four sets of eyes gave him a cool stare.

      “Kyven, we need you to start out.  We need everything you can tell us about Penbrook.  Loreguard strength, layout, everything,” Danvers said, touching the map again.  “Do everything you can to make sure we can ride in with a minimum of fighting.”

      “I can do that,” Kyven said with a nod.

      “There are supposed to be horse farms west of Penbrook, gather information on those as well,” he added.  “We’re going to need more horses to carry supplies, since we can’t use wagons.  They’ll slow us down, and staying in front of the army they send after us is the key.”

      “I’ll see what I can do,” he said.  “Where to from there?  I need to know to keep ahead.”

      “I’ll give you a talker so you can keep in touch,” Danvers said.  “But right now, we’re going to angle more to the east, then turn back more to the west.  I want to avoid Rallan at all costs.  There’s a significant garrison there, and we’re not going to risk the army on a needless battle.  Half of what we need you to do, Shaman, is get us around Rallan without a fight.  If at all possible, you need to send the Loreguard detachment there to the west so we can get around them.”

      Kyven scratched his cheek.  “I…think I can do it.  I saw one of the Loreguard generals in Riyan.  I need his name.”

      “What did he look like?”

      “Tall, very well developed, graying hair.  Brown eyes, and a goatee.”

      “General Taggan Wild, one of their best,” Danvers told him.  “Goes by Tag to us upper officers.”

      “He certainly seemed competent,” Kyven said.  “Noticed things his men didn’t.”

      “He’s the one they were sending with the army west, but with us on the loose, they may send him after us.”  Danvers leaned back in his chair, rubbing his jaw.  “He’s not a man to take lightly.  I caught him with his pants down, but he won’t make that mistake again.  Odds are, he’ll badger the High Command to let him come after us.  He doesn’t like to lose.”

      “So, we’re going around Rallan to the east,” Clover noted.  “That’s out of my territory, but I think we’ll send a message to Longtooth.  That’s his territory, and he knows those roads better than anyone.  He can give us detailed information of Carin, and that can help us move.”

      “Who has territory in Georvan?”

      “Several Shaman, but the wisest of them is Dancer,” she answered.  “Remember her, Kyven?”

      “Why would I?”

      “She’s the one that picked up the fledgling Shaman after you beached the ship,” she answered.  “The red fox.”

      “Oh yeah,” he mused, remembering.  “She was nice.”

      “I’ll send the message as soon as we’re done,” Clover said.  “By morning, I should know which way to go to avoid the most trouble.”

      “Sounds good,” Danvers nodded.  “As far as the Arcans go, we need to train them quickly, but we don’t have much time.  It’s going to be sessions when we stop for the day.  I’ll organize a schedule of training to the rifle and the musket, because those are the weapons we’ll be picking up along the way.  I hope they learn quickly.”

      “They’ll learn,” Clover said simply.  “They’ll also need to learn the basics of being soldiers.”

      “I’m already working on that,” he answered.  “Part of the rifle drill will be teaching them the art of being a soldier.  Discipline, teamwork, and staying alive.  But for now, them learning how to set camp and carry gear will suffice.  I just hope we can keep up with them,” he chuckled.

      “You mean keep up with the horses, General,” one of the officers said.

      Both Danvers and Clover chuckled.  “An Arcan can run a horse to death, Major,” Danvers answered with a smile.  “This will be the most mobile army ever put on the field, nothing but rifle cavalry and Arcans.  We’re going to need that mobility to outflank the traps the Loreguard try to put in front of us.  Speed is our greatest asset.”  He looked to Kyven.  “I’m afraid that what we set here won’t need your input, Shaman, and we need you out there.”

      Kyven stood up.  “I’ll get started immediately,” he said.  “I need the strongest horse you’ve got.  It’s going to earn its hay.”

      “I have just the horse,” he smiled.  “It’s not really a horse, though. It’s a monster.”

      “You have an Equar?” Clover gasped.  “I didn’t see it!”

      “It’s a very small one,” he answered.  “So small it looks like a large horse, but it can run all day without lathering.”

      “How did you tame it?” Clover asked in astonishment.  “Even the Shaman can’t convince them to do anything!”

      “I did it the old fashioned way.  I paid a fortune for a newborn colt and raised it with other horses.  He’s much smarter than the horses, but they managed to tame his wilder notions.  Mostly,” he said with a smile.  “I hope you’re tough, Kyven.  My Equar is…spirited.”

      “I’ll deal,” he said, looking at Lightfoot.  “Stay here this time.  The Arcans need you to teach them.”

      She nodded.

      “Get me that talker and let me pack some things and I’ll get started.”

      “What do you need?”

      “A map, the talker, some supplies.  And,” he said, a slow smile growing, “a Briton rifle, a keg of gunpowder, and a Loreguard uniform.”

      “I’ll have them ready in an hour,” Danvers said immediately.  “What’s the gunpowder for?”

      “I have to draw of the Rallan garrison somehow,” he smiled.

 

      The Equar was big.

      It looked just like a normal horse, but was nearly eight rods tall at the shoulder, where a normal horse was more like six rods.  It had a shaggy black coat streaked through with gray, and it had shaggy white fetlocks on its big hoofed feet.  It had a broad snout and stout muzzle, filled with teeth that weren’t completely horse-like.  Equars were omnivorious, so the wide front teeth one would expect were flanked by fang-like canine incisors.  Its teeth were built for eating anything, and its jaws were strong enough to shatter bone.  Danvers stroked its wide muzzle fondly.  “His name is Strider,” he introduced.  “He’s a very smart horse, Kyven.  But he’s young, so he’s a bit…playful,” he said with a slight smile.  “Strider, you’re going with Kyven,” he instructed.  “He needs you, and no horse can do it but you.”

      The massive animal snorted and stomped a foreleg.

      “He’s ready to go,” the general said as the grooms loaded the last of the supplies.  Danvers handed him a small copper box.  “The talker. It’s set to only communicate with mine, so don’t worry about any eavesdropping.  The map is in the saddlebag.  After you get to Penbrook, do what you need to do, and I’ll call you to warn you where we’re going next.”

      “I’ll do what I can, General,” he said, having to literally jump to get up into the saddle.  The Equar shifted under him.

      “Just be patient with Strider,” he said.  “He’s only a juvenile, so he’s a bit…rambunctious.”

      As if to live up to that reputation, the Equar suddenly reared, whinnying in excitement, then it turned and charged off to the south.  Kyven was so startled he nearly lost his seat, and found himself hanging onto the animal for dear life as it raced away.  “He loves to run,” Danvers’ voice came through the talker in his belt.

      “I noticed!” Kyven called, hanging on for dear life.

 

      Behind him, unnoticed, two Lupans followed along the trees.  The two animals followed the human with the unusual scent, a scent unlike anything they had ever smelled before.  The two wolf-like animals were intelligent, but ruled by their instincts.  And something about that human…intrigued them.

      He was going off alone, and the Lupans knew that these humans and the prey were doing something very big, and very important. The spirit-talker had said so.  It was never good for one to operate alone.  It was dangerous.  It went against the tenets of the pack.  And so, the lone human with the intriguing smell would not be allowed to go alone.

      The pack was all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    8      10

Chapter 9

 

      Strider was an interesting companion, and also quite an asset.

      Danvers was not boasting at all about his Equar.  The animal had Shaman-like endurance, capable of running at an open canter literally all day, eating up the minars like no other horse could.  In the ultimate complement, Kyven had to admit that the Equar would be able to match Kyven or any other Shaman stride for stride, and Shaman were so well conditioned that they could run virtually anything into the ground.  The Equar would give Kyven the same kind of mobility he’d enjoy if he stayed in his Arcan form all the time, which he could not, and it gave him the ability to outrun virtually anything that might chase him.  Strider wasn’t a race horse, but he could run fairly fast.  A faster horse may catch up to him, but after a couple of minars, the Equar’s indomitable endurance would take over and allow him to keep galloping along as the other horse fell behind.  Kyven felt utterly comfortable on Strider, and confident that if he couldn’t talk his way out of a situation, he could sure as hell run from it.

      And that was the way of his totem.  Fighting was the last resort for the shadow fox, and so it was the last option for Kyven.  And if he did have to fight, then attack by ambush and be done with it before the enemy knew what hit him.

      Much as Kyven would talk to his last horse, Spirit, and almost feel as if the horse was talking back in its own way, Strider proved to be just as smart as Spirit was.  Kyven rather liked Strider, and thankfully, the Equar seemed to like Kyven.  He was a bit playful, but most juveniles were, but he knew to settle down and be serious when Kyven told him to do so.

      Strider wasn’t his only companion.  Twice, Kyven had spotted two massive sleek shapes lurking far back in the trees.  At first Kyven thought that the Loreguard was shadowing him, then he thought that a monster had tagged his trail and was stalking him, but investigation showed that it was a pair of Lupans.  They were from the pack Clover had persuaded into the army, and Kyven wasn’t exactly sure what they were doing.  He doubted that Clover sent them, else they’d be traveling with him, not ghosting his backtrail and staying out of sight as if they were hiding from him as much as anyone else.  Either way, the two would help if only by keeping his trail clear of anyone that might want to follow him.  Two horse-sized wolves were a very formidable deterrent.

      Thanks to Strider’s inexhaustible canter, Kyven pulled well ahead of the army, cantering down back roads marked out for him by Clover that would connect with Tobacco Road about five minars north of Penbrook.  But it was still a journey of days, and those days gave Kyven time to ponder things, both in the world and in his personal life.  The war had started, and that saddened him.  The Shaman understood the futility of war, but they also understood that there was a time when it was necessary to protect life.  Madmen like those commanding the Loremasters were not men with whom could be bargained, and they had either power-hungry sycophants or men who were blindly loyal to their cause forming their armies that would fight for them.  The Loremasters had, at its core, a noble idea, to restore the great ancient civilization, but the means they were using and their plans for afterwards went against everything which those ancient people believed.  They wanted to rule, they wanted absolute power over Noraam, even if they had to crush the kingdoms under their heel to get it and get thousands of men and Arcans killed.  They also had committed the mortal sin of not learning from the past, or having so much arrogance that they believed they were better than the very ancient civilization they wanted to emulate.  The crystals were running out, and they believed in their arrogance that they could control the machine that created the crystals in the first place, either not understanding or not caring that that machine had destroyed the civilization they wanted to restore.

      The lust for power had destroyed men, started wars, and had once destroyed the world. Truly, he felt that the Arcans had the right idea in their approach to such things.

      He wondered how Danna was doing, adjusting to being an Arcan.  Knowing her…not well.  He could almost imagine hearing her rant and curse and yell at everyone around her, making them suffer for the indignity she felt, lashing out because she felt helpless.  He knew that feeling only too well himself.  He also wondered what the shadow fox wanted from her.  She had to have a reason to take Danna; if anything, his treacherous totem was methodical and thorough.  She did everything she did for a reason, and it was all part of her grand plan, a plan so intricate and convoluted that Kyven couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  The fox wanted something from Danna, that was abundantly clear.  A simple answer was the fox wanted her obedience, forcing her to command the armies of Haven, but that was a bit too simple.  No, the fox was more subtle than that.  Yes, making Danna an Arcan gave her a very personal motivation to fight against the Loremasters, since the Loremasters would enslave her just like any other Arcan, but there was more to it than that.  With his treacherous totem, there was always a game within a game, a lie behind a truth, a hook hiding within every piece of bait, an ulterior motive behind every act.

      And now he, Kyven Steelhammer, the quiet, honest young man who was raised to be honorable and forthright, was a Shaman of a spirit of deceit, and had taken to her ways so quickly that Master Holm would be ashamed of him.  Perhaps that was why the fox picked him, some kind of malicious satisfaction in taking an honest man and turning him into a scoundrel, but the truth of it—if there ever was a truth where he and the fox was concerned—was that the events of the day required scoundrels more than honest men.  The Loremasters surely weren’t being honest, and he had proven just how useful a scoundrel could be if he was in the right place at the right time.  Shario was certainly every bit as much a scoundrel as he was, but Shario did it with a panache and flair Kyven couldn’t quite match.

      There were enough men out there to fight for truth and honor, meeting on the field of battle and letting courage and conviction carry the day.  Kyven was a soldier in another war, a dirtier war, a war of cunning, guile, deceit, and ruthlessness.  And, he had to admit, it was a task for which he was well suited.  The fox had utterly corrupted him in those regards, had taught him well when it came to skullduggery and the occasional necessity of cold-blooded murder, but that too was the lie within the truth.  That was not who Kyven was, even though it was a way in which he had to act.  To him, that was just a job.  He felt much more like a Shaman when he helped someone who needed him than he did when he assassinated a faceless enemy on the streets of Avannar, felt far more the Shaman in the smile of one who needed him than the terror in the eyes of a man he was about to kill.

      And this new task of his, this was a waste of his talents, and also made him ponder what the fox was up to.  She should have left him in Avannar, left him to pick over the Loremasters at his whim now that he had learned how to shadow walk, for he would be unstoppable.  Yet she did not.  She pulled him out of Avannar and attached him to the army.  Admittedly, it was doing something very important and could use his help, but what he was doing could be accomplished by Lightfoot, for that matter.  No, there was another game here, he could smell it.  The fox had her own plans for Kyven out here, and in her usual style, she was leaving it up to him to understand exactly what it was she wanted him to do.  She wouldn’t come out and just tell him what it was; that wasn’t the way it worked between them.  If Kyven couldn’t figure it out for himself, then he would lower himself in her eyes.  He was a full Shaman now, a walker of the path, and he should be wise enough to understand what his spirit wanted him to do.  Much as in the vision where she started him towards her desired goal but left it up to him to understand what that goal was, what was going on here was similar.  The fox had ulterior motives for putting him out in the field, and he had to figure out what it was she wanted him to do.  If he couldn’t figure it out, he was sure she’d be very short with him the next time she manifested and told him what he wasn’t wise enough to see for himself.

       As they neared Penbrook, he pondered just what she might want him to do out here.  What could he do that no other Shaman could?  What could he do that was so important to her that she wanted him out here instead of in Avannar, where he could be feeding Haven all of the Loremasters’ plans?

      The only thing that made Kyven different from other Shaman was who he was, and what he could do.  He was weak as Shaman went, barely capable of what most of them considered simple uses of their magic.  But in the one realm where he could use his power, it made him a match against any other Shaman.  No other Shaman could equal him in the sphere of illusion, because of the blessing of his totem, his aspect of being a totem Shaman rather than a free Shaman.

      That was thinking about it too much.  The simple way to think of it was that Kyven was human where no other Shaman was.  On his way to Danvers’ plantation, the fox had silently nudged him into being very visible, very open.  Her reasoning was to tell the Loremasters he was out of Avannar, but that didn’t mean that it was true.  Far from it.  She wouldn’t tell the direct truth like that.  Maybe she wanted the humans of Noraam to know that there was a human Shaman.

      Hmm.  That certainly had possibilities.  The bias against Shaman cultured by the Loremasters held its strongest basis in that Arcans weren’t people possessed of souls, that the evil that created Shaman made Arcans different from people.  If the common man found out that humans were Shaman too, well, that would certainly cause a major shift in their thinking.  It would stir things up, make it even harder for the Loremasters to move on their plans…or it would cause a backlash against Arcans where humans thought that they were somehow infecting humans with Shamanism.  No, that was a subject too complicated for a simple man like him.

      A wise man understood his own limitations, and admitted them, even as he worked to transcend them.

      His arrival at Penbrook lent itself its own problem…Strider.  He was a terrific animal for distance, but for a man who needed to be untrackable from one city to the next, riding a massive Equar, the biggest horse most men had ever seen in their lives, lent itself to a certain notoriety that would allow people to track him.  That could be a problem…or it could be a means by which he concealed his true identity, if he did things right.  Say…for a horse rancher come to Penbrook to look over local land for a new ranch.  A horse rancher would be expected to be riding a good horse, and a rich rancher would be riding a magnificent animal.  That cover would also allow him to assess the ranches west of the city as Danvers wanted.

      And so, to the residents of Penbrook, a rather handsome middle-aged man rode into town on a huge dark horse, dressed in fine leather chaps and denim trousers, with a rugged cotton shirt and a battered old wide-brimmed felt hat atop his head.  The man was polite if a bit terse, and the first thing he did was ride up to the tavern, slide off that huge animal, and walk in with confident steps without even tying up his animal, with nothing but a pat on the shoulder and a request the animal not wander.

      The man was obviously rich, friendly if a bit short-worded, and was interested in the ranches west of town.  Penbrook had nearly as many horse ranches as Avannar did, and there was a bit of friendly rivalry between the two regions, if not a little animosity with the tobacco farmers who saw all that prime farmland going to waste feeding horses.  The people of Penbrook were only too happy to answer every question the handsome man asked, even about things that had nothing to do with farming and horse ranching, such as how many Loremasters were quartered in town, if there was a Loreguard detachment there, and how often the Loreguard patrols came through town on the single road through town, which connected to Tobacco Road about half a day to the east on a wagon or walking horse.

      And like all travelers, he was a harbinger of news and rumor from more populated areas.  Penbrook had heard about the attack on Riyan through the Loremaster stationed there, who had heard it through alchemical devices that kept him in touch with the rest of them.  The visitor too knew about the attack, but knew more than the villagers knew.  The rumors said it was a very large band of robbers who had executed a daring attack on one of the warehouses on the east side of town, but got caught and shot their way out with heavy losses.  “They weren’t bandits, they were Arcan thieves,” the visitor told them.  “The Loreguard had hundreds of Arcans in a pen there in town, and the bandits stole them.  From what I heard, the Loreguard was chasing them east, towards Stinger Bay.  I’ll bet they have a ship anchored somewhere around there, and they’re gonna get the Arcans out to sea before the Loreguard can catch up to them.”

      “Given what Arcans are going for right now, that would be worth some chits if they pull it off,” one of the tavern occupants noted.

      “That’s probably why they did it.  With all these soldiers running around, I guess the usual bands of highway robbers can’t make any money.  They’re getting desperate, so near as I can figure, a bunch of them all got together and came up with that crazy idea.  Crazy enough to actually work,” the man chuckled.  “I don’t think anyone would have believed anyone would be crazy enough to attack Riyan when they have thousands of soldiers there, yet they did it, and they got away with all the Loreguard’s Arcans.  I guess they caught the soldiers napping.”

      “I wonder how they got past the collars,” someone speculated.

      “Yeah, that’s the part that’s got me curious too.  I don’t see how they did it, but all the word I heard coming down said they did it.  They must have had a master key or a grounder or something that got them past the collars…or maybe someone in the Loreguard was in on it and helped them steal the Arcans for a cut of the profit.  There’s no army in Noraam that doesn’t have at least a couple of scoundrels in it, even the Loreguard.”

      The villagers believed the visitor’s story without much consideration, because it mostly made sense to them.  And so, they were comfortable thinking the bandits had gone east instead of south, and as such would be unprepared when those same bandits showed up in Penbrook.

      The rich visitor rode west, out to the ranches, and looked over a few of them.  The ranchers realized that this rich man didn’t know the business as well as most, he probably had a foreman that managed things like that for him, but he knew enough for them to see past his lack of knowledge and see only the chits the man obviously had to have, given his fine clothes and the gorgeous horse on which he was riding.  He knew just enough to be taken seriously.

      The only odd thing the residents of Penbrook noticed about the man that he didn’t stay the night.  He came in, spent an hour or two at the tavern, then spent half a day surveying the horse farms west of the village.  When he came back from his inspections, he bought some supplies from the general store and then mounted up, obviously leaving town.  When the resident Loremaster inquired as to why he wasn’t spending the night, the wealthy rancher’s answer was somewhat curious.  “I have other sites I want to look over before heading home, and I want to get that done soon.  Something is going on.  The Loreguard has thousands and thousands of men in Riyan, and you don’t muster an army that big unless you intend to use it somewhere.  I’m checking out some new sites for a ranch in case something happens up in Avannar and I have to move my herds.  Between what’s going on in Riyan and what happened in Avannar, I don’t feel comfortable keeping the majority of my stock that close to it.”

      “What happened in Avannar?” one of the residents asked.

      “They had a Shaman up there stirring up trouble,” he answered.  “He killed a few ranking Loremasters and set fire to their headquarters.  When they caught him, they found out he was human.  A human Shaman.”

      That caused quite a few whispers and gasps through the residents.  “Are you sure?” someone asked.

      “Heard it from a Loremaster friend of mine myself,” he answered in a sober tone.  “A human Shaman.  That’s why I’m looking into moving my herds south.”

      “Well, they caught him, didn’t they?” someone chuckled.

      “I don’t care about the Shaman, or if he’s human or not,” the rich man noted darkly.  “What I care about is that army in Riyan.  When it marches, I’m moving my herds away from Avannar in the other direction.  Unless I don’t remember my history, all the nations of Noraam are supposed to be friends.  Ain’t no reason for the Loremasters to assemble an army that big unless they mean to use it somewhere, and there ain’t nothing to attack but one of the nations of Noraam.  I’ll bet old Smoke here that that Shaman attacked Avannar because of that army in Riyan,” he declared, patting the huge horse just in front of the saddle.  “Even the Shaman can see what’s coming, and they tried to do something about it and failed.  The Loremasters are off their rocker, and I don’t want my herds anywhere near their capitol.  I don’t want my stock anywhere near Avannar when the rest of Noraam attacks the Loremasters for them breaking the alliance.  It sure as hell ain’t my fight.  If that army marches south out of Riyan, I’m moving my herds to Phion.  If they march north, I’ll drive my herds right by ‘em and settle them either here or maybe somewhere near Rallan, which is where I’m going now to look over some land.”  He tipped his hat to the villagers.  “And I need to be on my way so I can get that much closer to Rallan by sunset.  So pardon me if I seemed short or unfriendly, I just don’t have much time left to get my stock somewhere safe.  Good day to you all.”

      And then the rich rancher rode resolutely out of town, leaving behind him a firestorm of hushed whispers and speculation.  None of the villagers had looked at things quite that way before, and now that the rich rancher had laid things out in a different light, it had a logic to it that none of them could deny. Why was that army in Riyan?  The rancher was right.  They’d all heard about it, heard that it had thousands and thousands of men in it, but no explanation from the Loreguard outside of a story that they were going to march that army west, to explore the rolling foothills west of the Smoke Mountains.  But if that was the case, why did they need such a huge army?  Wouldn’t a few hundred men be better, and cheaper?  Why assemble that many men in one place unless they were going to be used somewhere?  And where could they be used if not against one of the kingdoms of Noraam, who were all supposed to be in an alliance of mutual friendship?

      And the villagers started to wonder.

 

      Kyven contacted Danvers that night after making camp in a clearing not far from the road, near where an old wagon track would lead south according to Clover’s map.  He relayed everything he’d learned in Penbrook, reporting that the village had no Loreguard garrison, just a sheriff, and there was only one Loremaster.  “There’s about ten ranches west of the city, and I’d say there’s about a thousand head of horses out there,” he told Danvers.  “The only thing you have to watch for is the Loreguard patrols.  The villagers said there’s two or three visits from them a day as they patrol the road from Tobacco Road all the way out to the village at the end of the road.  If they get that many visits, then there must about five patrols on that road riding back and forth.  According to my map, Greenfield is a little over thirty minars from Penbrook, and it’s about twenty minars from Penbrook to Tobacco Road.  The rumors in the village say that there’s a lot of Loreguard patrolling Tobacco Road right now, so there’s a chance that the army might be engaged if they get warning from the Loremaster and they have enough men close to the Penbrook road.”

      “I think we can manage that,” Danvers’ voice came from the talker.  “Did you disable the Loremaster’s communication gear?”

      “I didn’t really try, because they’d have time to repair it before you get there, and that would put them on guard,” he answered.  “Just send in Clover or Lightfoot first.  They can deal with it.”

      “True, true.  Alright, just go due south from Penbrook and survey the plantations due south from there and report back what you find on them, particularly how many Arcans there are.  We’ll be moving as fast as we can.”

      “Pursuit?”

      “Ayah,” he said, almost sounding Alamari.  “Between what I have and what you got, I have enough enemy talkers to pick things up.  They’re sending about half of the army at Riyan after us, just as we expected.  Clover eradicated our trail to hide where we went, but she didn’t destroy all of it.  They know they’re dealing with an enemy force of about five thousand men, so they’re sending twice that after us, which is tactically sound.  You never willingly go into battle unless you outnumber the enemy two to one.  They see an enemy force running amok in the Free Territories to be important enough to split their forces.  They’d better be thankful over on the other side of the mountains, what we’re doing for them,” he grunted.  “There’s a garrison of about ten thousand men at Rallan, and then there’s the major garrison in Lanna of about thirty thousand men,” Danvers told him.  “That’s the force we’re trying to lure to Cheston, so the Flaurens can come up behind them and we can pincer them.  We just have to get past Rallan.”

      “Is that general coming after us?”

      “Tag?  Nope.  They’re sending him out west, and they’re marching as we speak.  They left yesterday.  The attack on Riyan spurred them into moving, maybe before they were ready.  But the soldiers are gonna be pissed, they’ll have to do all the work themselves,” Danvers chuckled.  “No Arcans to do the heavy work for them, and all those men they hired to do the labor haven’t reached Riyan yet.”

      “I’m sure they’ll manage,” Kyven said dryly.  “Maybe digging ditches and erecting fortifications will show them how Arcans live.”

      “Clover sent word ahead of them.  The reply makes it clear that when Tag gets to Deep River, he’s going to be in for a shock.”

      “They’re on the move?”

      “They’re only about twenty days out, which means Tag will beat them to Deep River by about two days,” Danvers answered.  “Just enough time for him to settle in his men and rest them before continuing on west.  They’ll probably allow the entire host to settle into Deep River, and then cut them off.  They have enough soldiers to put men on both sides of the river, which will strangle the Loreguard from their supply lines.  They’d have to cross the river again to protect those lines, and that is not a river you can just ford.”

      “I know, I’ve crossed it before.”

      “Then you know exactly what I’m talking about.  To try to clear out their overland supply lines they’d have to try to execute a river crossing against a hostile force.  Tag’s not stupid enough to try to cross the river with a hostile force on the far bank of a very wide river, not when there are no bridges.”

      Kyven pondered that information.  Clearly, the Loremasters felt that securing a place to build that machine was still their highest priority.  They had intended to build the machine well west of the mountains, at the point where the Snake River and Deep River joined, where they could build a stranglehold on the crystal trade and still have access to two major rivers to move their crystals to the rest of Noraam.  Taking Deep River was just a leg of that plan, securing the beginning of the planned supply train that would have both overland and water routes.  Overland first, until the Loremasters secured their planned city site at Snake River, then move supplies by river.  An overland army moving to that point would go faster by going in a straight line, which the river did not do, and for that they needed an overland supply train leaving from Deep River, the only known settlement that far west.

      For the Loreguard, they would have few options once Danna surrounded them at Deep River.  They didn’t have the manpower to hold both banks, not when it would fatally divide their forces, and while Danna vastly outnumbered them, they would have an advantage in being in a defensible position.  But Danna didn’t have to fire a single shot to win that war.  All she had to do was encircle the Loreguard, wait for winter, and make sure not a scrap of food got inside.  Danna had the numbers to do that, even if her forces weren’t very well armed.  The Loreguard would have muskets, maybe some artillery, and quite a few alchemical weapons at their disposal, but they’d do them no good if the opposing army gave them no targets to use them without abandoning their defensive positions and had more than enough men on the opposite bank to ambush and capture any supplies trying to reach the Loreguard forces besieged at Deep River.

      But not every man that left Riyan was going to Deep River.  As Kyven recalled, part of this first phase for them was to take over all the mining villages in the Free Territories, the last substantial crystal-producing areas left, so they had control over the production of crystals.  The garrisons of soldiers located in cities throughout Noraam would be the ones that would respond to any nation moving to do something about it, with a larger defensive presence in the Free Territories to defend Avannar.  It wouldn’t take many soldiers to take over the mining villages, since the villages has no militias or standing armies of their own.  A force of 30 Loreguard could take over and hold Atan…at least at first.  Timble and Virren had all kinds of plans for the Loreguard that came to Atan, since Kyven’s history with Atan would cause them to come in and try to sweep out all the unfavorable elements.  Atan would be treated like a conquered city, its citizens harassed and abused, and the Masked wouldn’t allow that.

      Despite Kyven unearthing their plans, they were going through with them.  He figured that they thought that they would have the advantage, since most people wouldn’t believe the Loremasters were going to do what they were doing until it was too late.

      “Alright, I’ll report in tomorrow afternoon,” Kyven said.  “I’ve adopted a persona that seems to work rather well, and I’ll work my way south using it.  I—“ he stopped, and realized something.  Rallan was the capitol of Carin, and though the king of Carin was weak, he wasn’t stupid.  Maybe that was what the fox wanted him to do.  Kyven was the weakest of all the Shaman, but he was human, and as such he could probably get in to talk to the king where no other Shaman could.  And since he was human, he’d be taken much more seriously than if, say, Clover tried to talk to him.

      The fox knew there was a war coming, and now the Loremasters knew about Haven.  It wasn’t a secret anymore.  And since that was the case, then Haven needed to make contact with more than Flaur and explain some things, reveal the duplicity of the Loremasters personally.  If Kyven was going to go that close to Rallan anyway, it cost him little to stop by the palace and have a little chat with the king of Carin without the Loremasters knowing about it.  Kyven still was needed by the army to warn them what was in front of them, but he could also spare a day to try to smooth the way for the army in another fashion.

      “I’ll be stopping by Rallan for perhaps two days,” he continued.  No reason to tell Danvers about what he intended to do.  In some ways, Kyven was very much like his totem, and his totem wouldn’t reveal any information that didn’t need to be revealed.  “I’ll do what I can to keep the Loreguard at Rallan off of you.”

      “Something wrong?”

      “I just spotted something, that’s all.  I think a couple of Clover’s Lupans are following me.  That shadow was way too big to be anything but a Lupan.”

      “Hmm, now that you mention it, I’ve only seen a couple of them since we started moving.  I think you might be right,” Danvers agreed.  “I’ll leave you to it, Kyven.  Good luck out there.”

      “You too,” Kyven answered, and he turned off the talker.

      After he put his things away, he practiced shadow walking.  He limited his practice time as the fox warned him, working to understand the shadow world better.  She had told him that understanding that world was his defense against its malevolent denizens, so his time inside the shadow world was spent studying it…such as he could.  The place was an assault to the senses, from the shifting nature playing tricks on the eyes to the constant vertigo threatening to make him vomit any second.  It existed as a kind of wavering parallel to the real world, where elements of it appeared and vanished depending on if they were in shadow, and those places not in shadow just shimmering voids of boiling darkness, like a fogbank of shadow.  Shapes and images floated through the place in a chaotic jumble, because there was no true time here, no true distance.  Shadows of the present, past, and future jostled together with shadows from all over Noraam.

      Understanding that world is your defense against it.  That was what the fox told him.  But this world simply made no sense to him.  It was like a world with no rules—

      No, it had rules.  What he had to do was learn those rules, learn how this world worked.  That was what the fox wanted him to know.

      Alright, so.  What did he know about this world?  Well, it had no sense of time, and distances were entirely arbitrary, even while there was definitely distance in here.  After all, he had to physically walk from one point to another to move through the shadow world, but that distance wasn’t set.  A single step could take him further than twenty in this place, and he already understood that it was his conscious that helped determine that distance.  This world reacted to his will, that was another thing he needed to remember.  He remembered how he had tricked the creatures in here by stretching things out so he seemed far away, and he recalled now that he always moved to the exact point in the real world he wanted to go despite the shifting nature of this place, which was caused by his intent to go to that spot.

      Danna.  He tried to find her in this shadowy realm on an impulse, and to his surprise, her Arcan face appeared among the undulating images around him.  He walked five steps towards her face, but it came no closer.  That told him that great distances were represented here, else he’d have reached her in those five steps.  He focused on her face and kept walking towards it, mindful of the sensation in the back of his mind that the things in here were getting closer to him, seeming to track him down faster when he was moving than when he was standing still.  No, that wasn’t right.  The fox had said that his disruption of their natural habitat by forcing his will on this place was attracting them to him, like a beacon in the darkness.  He reached Danna, who looked annoyed, but still quite handsome despite wearing fur and a muzzle now.  Her eyes were the same, and even in the misty, shifting image before him, they were beautiful.

      He stopped moving, then before he knew what he was doing, he converged a gateway out of the shadows and stepped through it even as he willed it to move around him.  The shifting shadow world yielded to a shadowy glade filled with tents, and Kyven was standing under a large tree just at the edge of it.  A pavilion tent was being erected not twenty paces from him, and standing not five rods in front of him were Danna, Hardstep, and Firetail.  Danna was blatantly Arcan, wearing a short-sleeved cotton shirt and a pair of curious leggings that only reached her knees, leaving her Arcan shins and feet bare.  She retained her blond hair, her white-tipped ears poking out of it, and was still sleek and toned.  She almost looked like a girl on a picnic, but the heavy leather belt hanging cocked off one hip, which held two pistols and what looked like a shockrod, belied her casual appearance.  It was warm and muggy wherever they were, which explained her light clothing, and the sun was peeking over the trees behind him, casting the large clearing in rosy, shadowy hues.

      Firetail’s tail rose, and she sniffed at the air experimentally.  Then she laughed.  “Come out, my brother,” she commanded.  “And explain how you got here!”

      “I never could hide from you, Firetail,” he said ruefully, which made Danna literally jump in place.  He stepped forward as she whirled around, and he saw that even as an Arcan, she was still a very handsome woman.  Her muzzle was perhaps a bit shorter than his when it was his turn wearing that fur, a little narrower, but her dazzling eyes had not changed.  The image in the shadow world was a reflection of a fine, fine reality.  But the way she looked at him wasn’t what he expected.  She seemed horrified at the thought of looking at him, and she took a step back when he approached.  “Hello, Danna,” he said in a gentle, wistful tone.

      Then, to his shock, she turned and bolted, fleeing towards the far side of the camp as fast as her two Arcan legs would carry her.

      “Danna!” he called in surprise, taking a step forward.

      “I think you startled her, my brother,” Firetail told him calmly.  “And unlike you, she detests what she is.”

      “Well, I’m not letting her do that,” he said bluntly, bulling past the aged Shaman and running after her.

      Danna was in shape, but she was nowhere near as conditioned as a Shaman.  If she were to run on all fours, she could run faster than him, but her refusal to do so let him catch up to her about a hundred paces into the forest, where she slowed to a stop and leaned against a tree.  She jumped again when he grabbed hold of her shoulder, and his grip on her wouldn’t let her break free.  “Danna,” he said sternly.

      She dropped to her knees before the tree and put her hands over her face.  “Don’t look at me!” she said in a strangled tone, on the verge of tears.

      “Stop being silly,” he told her in a gentle yet firm voice, kneeling beside her.  “I didn’t care when you looked at me when I was an Arcan.  Do you really think I care now that things are the other way?” he asked grabbing hold of her wrists and gently prying them away from her face.  She snapped her head to the side, refusing to face him, refusing to look at him, so he put his hands on her shoulders and turned her body towards him.  “I’m sorry I startled you, Danna,” he apologized, “but this day was going to come eventually.  I knew you were an Arcan, she told me, and that didn’t stop me from coming, did it?” he asked.  “I came to see you, you silly girl.  And whether you’re covered in fur, or you’re human, you’re still Danna to me.  Now look at me.”

      “No,” she answered in a quavering voice.  “I’m ugly!”

      “For an Arcan, you’re quite handsome,” he told her.  “You wear that fur well.”

      She snapped a teary gaze at him, but now her eyes were full of sudden anger.  “I’m wearing it because of you and that Trinity-damned spirit of yours!” she said with sudden heat, pushing at him chest.  “Look at what she did to me!  Look!”

      “You don’t want me to look at you, then you do?” he asked with a smile.  “Well, if you take that shirt off, I might be able to see more.”

      She gave him a wild look, and he couldn’t help but laugh helplessly when she started smacking him with her hands, almost like an angry little girl rather than a trained soldier.  Despite slapping him like an angry child, she was still strong enough to knock him on his butt, where she lunged and tackled him, continuing to slap at his shoulders, chest, and head.  He covered his face with his forearms, then gave out a whooshing cry when she slammed both hands down on his lower chest.  “Phwah!” he gasped, then he grabbed her hands and held them, felt her tail lashing against his knees.  “Alright, miss mood swing, think we can get over this, sit down, and talk a while?” he asked.

      Kyven had gained wisdom in more than one way.  His goading of her, then his sudden peace offering, made her blink and look down at him, then the fur on her cheeks ruffled when she realized she was sitting on his stomach.  Kyven knew Danna well enough to know how to get through her emotional wall and get her to be a little more rational.  And his ploy worked.  She quickly scrambled off his stomach, then sat down beside him, her face pensive and nervous at the same time.  “I’m…I’m sorry,” she told him, looking away.  “I didn’t expect to see you.”

      “I should have warned you I was coming,” he offered.  “Where are we, more or less?”

      “You mean you don’t know?” she asked in surprise.

      He shook his head when she looked at him.  “I came looking for you.  I found you, but I have no idea where you are.  So I don’t know where I am,” he chuckled.

      “We’re about twenty days northwest of Deep River, about to come out of the forest and out into those grasslands they tell me cut the forest in half through this region,” she answered him.  “How did you get here?”

      “I’ve learned how to shadow walk,” he told her.  “I’m sure Clover told Firetail about it when she sent back a report.”

      “Something like that, but we didn’t think you could go so far,” she said.  “Clover just said you’d learned how to move through the shadows, and you use it to get past obstacles.”

      “Distance doesn’t mean that much in there,” he told her.  “How has it been?”

      “Well, they try,” she said.  “I can’t fault the Arcans for that.  The conscripts aren’t very good at it, but they work hard.”

      “No, Danna.  How has it been?”

      She looked away.  “I hate this,” she growled, picking at the fur on her forearm.  “I feel like everyone is staring at me all the time.  I can’t walk very well.  It took Firetail weeks to teach me to speak right.  The fucking tail always seems to get in the way.  And I feel like I’m a prisoner.  Do you know what that bitch wants from me?” she said with sudden heat.

      “No, she didn’t tell me.”

      “She wants me to have babies like this!” she said with a strangled scream afterwards.

      “What?  How?  There are no males.”

      “I have no idea,” she growled.  “But that’s her price for giving me back my humanity.  I have to have Arcan babies and give them to Umbra so she can raise them.  Well I won’t do it!” she declared hotly.  “I won’t be her brood sow, no matter what it costs me!”

      “That’s your choice, Danna,” he said carefully, thinking it over quickly.  Clearly, she had more in mind than just him and Umbra.  But the how of it was what he couldn’t figure out, unless she intended to wait for Umbra’s children to be old enough to father children…if she had a male child.  That could very well be it, but he doubted it.  The fox had to strike while Danna still hated being an Arcan, where she would swallow her pride and submit to a male to escape her Arcan state.  Kyven knew from experience that an Arcan body was something one could get used to having, and Danna might very well mellow into it…or become resigned to it.  “But either way, it won’t bother me all that much.”

      “What the fuck does that mean?” she snapped.

      “I’ve been there and done that,” he said.  “I know it’s a little worse for you since you’d have to get pregnant and carry the baby to term, but I was in your shoes not too long ago.  Remember what Umbra was created to do.”

      Danna frowned with a snarl, showing her fanged incisors.  “You certainly didn’t seem to mind fucking that little whore.”

      “I can’t deny that it wasn’t fun,” he admitted.  “But I’m a guy.  Our responsibility kinda ends as soon as we pull out, at least when it comes to what I had to do with her.”

      She gave him a look, then settled back on one hand.  “And is that all you feel about it?”

      “Honestly?  No,” he answered.  “Even if they are Arcans, they’re still my children.  I can’t help but want to get to know them, even if I’m not the same race as them anymore.  I don’t know if I can be a father to them the way I’ve always imagined it, but I do want them to know who I am.”

      “Well, you’re a better person than me,” she growled.  “That fox bitch will just have to deal with disappointment.  I’m not as weak as you.  I won’t give in, even if I have to stay like this.”

      “That’s between you and her, Danna,” he told her mildly.  “I have no say in the matter.  I guess I’ll have to get used to fur, though.”

      She gave him a strange look.

      “You think I care?” he asked.  “At first I was attracted to your face and body, I’ll admit that.  You’re gorgeous, Danna.  But after I got to know you, I came to like the person behind the face.  Think this matters to me?” he asked, reaching over and pinching the fur on her forearm.  “You were Danna before, and you’re still Danna.  You look a little different, I can’t deny that, but it doesn’t dissuade me at all.”

      She gave him a startled look.

      “Lightfoot calls me a pervert.  Guess I am,” he said lightly, leaning back on his hands.  “I don’t think you’re ugly, Danna.  In fact, you’re strangely attractive like that.  But you wouldn’t be half as attractive if it wasn’t you under that fur.”

      She was quiet for a long, long time.  He heard her tail slashing behind her as she stared at the hand not holding her up.  “We’ll be in Deep River after they get there,” she said, changing the subject.

      “What are you planning to do?”

      “Let them settle in, then surround them,” she answered.

      “No, Danna.  What are you planning to do?”

      She looked at him, and sighed.  “I, I don’t know.  I don’t want to fight my own people, Kyv.  You know that.  But what the Loremasters are trying to do, even if you don’t believe that machine bullshit, we can’t let it happen.  If they establish in the Snake River valley, there’s gonna be a war, and the Arcans will lose.  And…well, I have to admit.  I think the Arcans deserve Haven.  They need someplace that is theirs.  Even despite that, we can’t let the Loremasters take over Noraam.  That wasn’t what I enlisted into the Loreguard to do.  I served to help people, not conquer them.”

      “The truth will win out,” Kyven noted, pondering her position.  “How many Loreguard would desert if they knew the truth of what they were doing?”

      “I don’t know.  I know the men in my unit wouldn’t like it, but we’re not really soldiers in the classic sense.  I solve crimes, Kyven.  That’s my job, or at least it used to be.  The men in my unit are detectives, not soldiers, even if they have military rank and training.  The rank and file, who knows?”

      “Hmm, I might have to talk about that a little bit with her.”

      “Do me a favor and kick her in the face.”

      Kyven chuckled lightly.  “I can’t touch her, but she can touch me.  So my foot would go through her head, and she’d probably be pissed off that I tried to kick her in the face and do something about it.”  He held out his arm to her, showing her a faint trio of scars on his forearm from her claws.  “I have a few more of those in various places.”

      “Why do you follow her, Kyven?” she asked suddenly.  “You’re human again.  You owe her nothing!  Leave her and follow another spirit!”

      “I know she’s evil, Danna,” he sighed, leaning back and laying down on the forest floor, looking up into the canopy.  “But she needs me.  And I need her, because I can’t be a Shaman without her.  It’s hard to explain.”

      “I think you have time,” she said frostily.

      “Alright,” he said, collecting his thoughts a moment.  “I know you know what a totem Shaman is.”

      “Yeah.  Most other Shaman aren’t attached to just one spirit, but you are.  To her.”

      “That’s part of why I stay with her.  She’s my totem, Danna.  All of my power comes from her.  I have no magic without her.  And in what’s going on over there on the other side of the mountains, they need me, Danna.  Not to brag, but I can do things nobody else can do.  They need me for what I can do.  And because they need me, I will be there for them.  That is the Shaman way, Danna.  When we are needed, we will serve.  They need me.  The shadow fox needs me.  And I am a Shaman, Danna.  I may be human, but I’m just as much a Shaman as Firetail or Clover or Hardstep.  It is who I am now.  The shadow fox  needs me.  The spirits need me.  The Arcans need me.  The humans need me too.  I am needed, and I will serve.

      “That’s why I stay with her, Danna.  Despite everything she’s done to me, despite the fact I know I mean nothing to her.  I’ll endure that abuse if it means I can make a difference for the Arcans, and for the humans too.  We didn’t want this war, but we have no choice.  Now, I’ll do everything I can to end it as quickly as possible and with as little damage as possible to both sides, and afterwards I’ll work to keep the peace between the humans and the Arcans.  Do I like it?  No.  I can’t say I entirely hate my spirit, but I certainly don’t like her all that much.”

      “How can you not hate her?” she demanded.

      “That’s hard to explain,” he said, scratching his shoulder.  “Sure, I hate her in a way, but there’s, well, more there.  I hate her, but I respect her.  When she commands, I obey.  I bow to her wisdom, because she’s wiser than I am, even if I don’t like her personally.  And when she’s happy with my work, I feel pride.  Not because I’m trying to please her, but because I know if she’s complementing me, then I must have truly done well.  Anyway, that’s why I stay with her, Danna.  Despite what she did to me, despite how I feel.  She needs me.  And Shaman go where they are needed.”

      “You sound like them.”

      “I am one of them now, Danna,” he told her calmly.  “I’ve finished my Walk.  I’m a Shaman, I now walk the path.  This is now who I am.  Is it so bad to you?”

      She was quiet a moment.  “No, I guess not.  It’s just not really the same.  You’re not the man I got to know in Haven.”

      “We all change, Danna.  Hopefully, I’ve changed for the better.”

      “Well, I didn’t,” she growled, balling her clawed hand into a fist.

      “It’s not all bad, you know,” he told her sagely.  “You’re a shadow fox Arcan now, Danna.  That means you have the same shadow powers I do.”

      “I thought about that.  I haven’t really tried to use them.”

      “Well, they’re very handy.  And if you decide to help the Arcans fight, I’d kinda like you to be able to use them.  They make you very, very hard to kill, and I’m sorta personally interested in you staying alive.”

      “You said nobody could teach you how they work.”

      “Nope. And I can’t really teach you either.  It’s something you need to learn for yourself.  But, I can show you, so you know what you can do,” he said, looking at her and raising a hand.  A small cloud of misty shadow formed around it.  “I may be human, but the fox let me keep my shadow powers, so I guess I’m not entirely human anymore. That’s are how I shadow walk, not Shaman magic.  With practice and work, you could shadow walk too.”

      That seemed to pique her curiosity.  She sat up and looked at him.  “Well, you can’t teach me, but show me what you can do.  Everything.  Even the stuff you didn’t show Umbra.”

      “Umbra’s not capable of half of what I can do,” he said honestly.  “Not because she doesn’t have the power, but because she just can’t understand it.  And you have to be able to understand it to do it.”

      And so, he walked her through everything he’d learned to do, from hiding within the shadow, to creating shadow, to manipulating shadow, all the way to shadow walking, though he didn’t demonstrate that to her.  “It’s dangerous,” he told her when she protested.  “Where I go isn’t empty, Danna.  There are, well, things in there, and they see me as an invader.  I’m not going to walk just to show you because it’ll tell those things where I am, and that means they’ll be closer when I go back in there to go back to my camp.”  He smacked his head and laughed.  “I hope my horse didn’t wander off,” he laughed.  “I didn’t plan on coming here.  I was practicing my shadow walking, thought of you, and well, here I am.  I really should get back there.  My camp is empty, and Strider is probably getting impatient.”

      “You’re leaving?”

      “I think I should.  Tell Firetail I’m sorry for not visiting with her, but you needed my company more than she did.”  Her cheek fur ruffled slightly.  “But I can come back tomorrow.  In fact, I think I should.  I’ll give Firetail a detailed report, and I’m sure she wants to catch up.  And I’d like to see you again.”

      “I hate you seeing me this way,” she admitted, looking away from him.

      “Danna, it does not bother me at all,” he said gently.  “Because even though you’re a little different, you’re still Danna.”  He leaned over, put his hand on her shoulder, and startled her by kissing her on the side of her muzzle.  “Be safe, Danna.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”

      She looked at him as he stood up and walk away, and then her eyes widened when shadow seemed to converge around him, and he was gone.

 

      Getting back to his camp turned out to be a lot more exciting than Kyven intended, because the beings within the shadows were waiting on him to reappear when he returned to the shadow world.  They were so close to him when he entered that he almost turned around and went right back out, but he couldn’t afford to be trapped with the army with Strider unattended.  So, he turned towards camp and literally ran within the shadow world, charging through misty shapes and through voids, ignoring the vertigo as best he could by focusing on one point, his camp, and running for it.  Though distances meant little within the shadow world, the distance he had gone to see Danna did translate into quite a sprint to get back, and when he got there he could literally see the creatures.  They were…chaos.  That was the only way to describe them.  Their forms were shadows like everything else, but they were darker, more distinct, more real.  But the substance of their forms shifted, undulated, swirled and flowed within their forms like liquid, and their forms seemed to be as mutable as their interior.  They were amorphous, changing shape by the second, and each of the five reached out for Kyven with a multitude of writhing tentacles.

      It startled him, but he reacted without fear, by exerting his will against the shadow world to alter its dimensions.  He pushed the things away from him by increasing the distance between him and them, making their tentacles reach further and further and further without getting any closer to him.  Almost immediately, he felt the intense pressure and resistance of the shadow world to this wholesale alteration of its natural state, and he was forced to exert almost all his concentration on pushing the creatures back even as he split his attention enough to focus on the shadows to converge a gateway leading back into the real world, which he had to do because the tentacles kept coming and coming as if the creatures could stretch them into infinity.  He backed into the gate even as he pulled it around him, never taking his eyes off those writhing entities, and he could almost feel their fury when he fell out of their world and escaped them once more.

      Fell happened to be literal.  He appeared from the shadows nearly five rods above the ground, and turned head over heels to land roughly on his stomach in the grass next to his unlit fire pit.  He climbed to his hands and knees and shook his head to clear out the stars of the hard landing, inwardly relieved.  That was close.  Too close.  The fox had said that if he could see them, he was in serious trouble, and now he understood why.  If they could see him, they were in striking distance of him.  Only his nearly reflexive response to their attack saved his life.

      He rolled over and sat down, blew out his breath, and silently counted his blessings even as he made sure he didn’t break his nose.  It was bleeding quite liberally from being plowed into the ground, forcing him to lay back down on the grass to keep from dribbling blood all over his clothes.  He turned his head towards where Strider had been picketed—though it was more correct to say where Kyven asked him to stay, since the Equar was strong enough to pull a tree out of the ground if he was serious about getting free of his tether—and saw a rather curious scene.  Strider was there, and flanking him were two massive yet sleek canines, one ebon black and the other charcoal gray.  The Lupans.  They were all clustered around a carcass laying before them, the carcass of a rather large cow or bull of some kind, almost too big to be a cow but too small to be a Tauron, sharing it with the Equar.  That seemed a strange sight, but Equars were omnivorous, not herbivorous like horses…but what was strange was that the Lupans were sharing their meal with the Equar instead of trying to eat the Equar.

      Then again, if he was a Lupan, trying to kill an Equar would be high on his list of things not to do.  Strider was frolicsome and playful, but he was a powerful, powerful animal, and unlike horses and other animals of his ilk, Strider was not afraid of a Lupan, which was smaller than he was.  He would fight before he ran, and his massive size, steel-hard hooves, deadly fanged maw, and great strength meant that anything that wanted to eat him wasn’t going to get his meal without getting severely injured.  Besides, the Lupans had seen him riding Strider, and Clover said they were actually rather smart.  Hopefully they saw Strider as Kyven’s companion, and as such was not on the menu.  Perhaps them sharing their kill with Strider was something of a peace offering.

      “I hope you saved some for me,” Kyven called, pinching his nose shut with his fingers and sitting back up.  He channeled enough heat to light his fire, then became very still when the ebon Lupan padded over to him.  He felt like a child looking up at a mastiff, for the Lupan towered over him with him sitting on the ground.  It leaned in and sniffed at his face, then a tongue the size of a bread pan slurped over the side of his face.  He laughed and flinched away from the tongue, but stopped laughing when a huge paw pushed against his chest, trying to push him down, and it was not gentle.

      This was not play.  This was a test of strength.  Kyven pushed back against the huge animal, using his Shaman-honed strength, then bulled up to his feet.  The big canine reared up and put his paws on Kyven’s shoulders, but Kyven held up against the weight, even used the hand not keeping his nose from bleeding to push back against the Lupan’s chest.  The Lupan continued to paw and lick at him for a good minute, never hostile but not quite friendly, which Kyven endured without much difficulty, proving that he was neither threat nor weakling.

      When the Lupan reared up and then backed up enough to return to all fours, returning to its meal, Kyven pondered just how he knew what it was doing.  Maybe it was related with his unusual understanding of wild Arcans, some kind of curious affinity for wildlife.  Kyven just knew how to approach wild Arcans without them attacking him, and now he just knew how to respond to the Lupan’s test of him.  Was it something to do with the shadow fox, or something else?  Maybe it had to do with him being a Shaman.  Either way, it was something to ponder some other time.

      After he got his nose to stop bleeding, he decided to test his acceptance by the black Lupan, which was dominant over the gray one, by approaching the kill.  The two Lupans, and even Strider for that matter, gave him a cool, not entirely friendly look as he knelt by the back of the big cow, but his eyes were resolute and his body language was not passive.  None of them did anything when he set his knife to the carcass and peeled away the hide to get at the flesh beneath, then he settled down and started eating, joining them in an ancient tradition of acceptance among carnivores, the sharing of a kill.

      Perhaps they didn’t care because what Kyven could eat from their kill was barely two mouthfuls for any of the three of them.  Kyven ate his fill and returned to the fire, unrolling the map Danvers gave him and plotting his route through the southern marches of the Free Territories.  There were no large cities until he reached Rallan, just a series of small farm villages where tobacco was brought to be sold, and the efforts of the farmers were financed by merchants who catered to their needs.  The army behind him would veer to the east to avoid Rallan, probably at Lake Char, which was considered the border between the Free Territories and Carin.  At that point, Kyven would go southwest to Rallan, to speak to the king and also to see if there was any way he could delay or divert the Rallan garrison of Loreguard, who by now had undoubtedly received word of the attack and knew that the attackers had fled south, towards them.  He expected to see quite a few Loreguard patrols on the road, searching for the attackers, just as they were doing along the Penbrook road.  That many patrols was not normal, they were searching for any sign of the men who had attacked Riyan.  But what the patrols didn’t expect was that the attackers were coming cross country, moving along long-forgotten back roads, natural trails, and voids between plantations.  Danvers’ tactic of sending out parties and sacking every plantation within a day’s ride made it impossible for the Loreguard to plot plantation attacks and use them as a means to find the army, even as it concealed the true numbers of the army from the Loreguard.

      The two Lupans warily approached the fire, giving it furtive looks, then they sat down flanking Kyven, looking down at his map with impassive eyes.  “So, I wonder what brought you two into the camp, given you’ve been following me ever since I left the army,” he told the two of them absently.  “Wouldn’t be because I vanished from the camp and you couldn’t figure out where I went or how I did it, was it?  Then Strider gave you a lesson in manners when you came in to investigate, no doubt,” he chuckled.  “So you brought him your kill to get on his good side so you could see where I went, eh?”

      The two large animals remained silent, then the gray laid down beside him.

      “Were you a mean Equar, Strider?” he called to the animal, who was still at the carcass.

      Strider gave a passive snort and returned to his meal.

      “Well, I don’t really expect you two to hang around,” he said, mainly to himself.  “Now that you know where I am, you’ll probably wander back into the forest during the night.  But, just so you know, I’m going that way,” he said lightly, pointing south.

      Both the gray and the black Lupan raised their heads, sniffing at the slight breeze.  Then the gray stood up.  Kyven looked back to Strider, who had his head up, his ears pricked.

      That tore it.  There was someone out there.

      He rolled up his map, quickly kicked off his boots, and then hunkered down and enacted the power of his foxhead medallion.  He felt that icy cold sensation flow through him, like his bones turned to cold water, and he took Danna’s shadow fox body and gave her his human one.  He couldn’t meld to the shadows in his clothes, but the Arcan form lent itself a different set of senses.  Once he was settled into the Arcan body, he lifted his muzzle and tested the faint breeze for unusual smells.

      Human scents.  Very faint.

      The two Lupans quickly loped into the forest on silent paws, leaving Kyven to consider how he wanted to go about this.  He was camped pretty well off the road, but his fire’s smoke and light in the twilight may attract them.  They could be Loreguard patrollers or just locals on their way home, but either way they were moving in his direction.  He decided to be passive about it, returning to his human form, then shivering the goosebumps away as the cold washed through him.  He left his boots off, wrapped himself in the illusion of the horse rancher, and leaned against his saddle.  “Steady, Strider,” he called softly.  “I know they’re there.  Let’s wait and see what they do.”

      A few moments later, he found out.  It was a patrol of Loreguard, twelve of them, and they had moved into the forest to investigate the fire, it seemed.  They were on foot, but Kyven could hear horses stamping their feet nearby, no doubt wary at the smell of blood and the proximity of two Lupans, who preyed on horses.  They came through the forest from the road, which was to Kyven’s left; he knew better than to put his bedroll on the far side of the fire, where its light would blind him to their approach.  “Good evening, gentlemen,” Kyven called amiably.  “What brings you here?”

      “Investigating your fire, traveler,” the officer among them answered.  “We weren’t sure if it was man-made or a small forest fire just starting.”

      “It’s been dry enough for them,” Kyven said calmly.

      “Might I ask—what the hell is that?” the officer gasped when he saw Strider.

      “It’s an Equar, Lieutenant,” Kyven answered calmly.  “My horse.”

      “I thought they were too wild to ride.”

      “Not if you get them as newborns and raise them with regular horses, they’re not,” Kyven answered.  “I suggest you keep your distance.  He’s a bit snippy when he’s eating.”

      As if to prove the point, Strider gave the twelve men a flat, challenging look, then rather aggressively buried his nose in the carcass.  The sound of snapping bones was clearly audible from within the ribcage of the dead cow.

      The officer gave the Equar a long look.  “Who might you be, traveler, and what business are you pursuing?”

      “I’m Van Steady, a rancher out Avannar way,” he answered immediately.  “I’m on my way to Rallan to look at some potential ranchland.  I just came through Penbrook and inspected some land west of there, but I don’t think it’s what I want.”

      That information seemed to satisfy the officer, whose body language was much less aggressive now.  “Well, we need to set up ourselves, and this looks like a good place.”

      “Not if you have horses,” Kyven answered immediately.  “And not if you have itchy trigger fingers.”

      “Why?”

      “Because I don’t want you shooting my wolves,” he answered.

      “Wolves?”

      Kyven’s illusion nodded simply.  “I don’t travel alone, Lieutenant.  I raise wolves as well as horses, and I have some with me.  They’re why I knew you were coming.  They’re back in the trees a bit, which is why those horses I hear are skittish.  My Equar is used to wolves.  Your horses aren’t.  So, you’re welcome at my fire, but you’ll have to put your horses somewhere else and kindly not shoot at my wolves if they come up close to camp.”

      For some reason, the very word wolf was enough to make even a grown man fret, and these Loreguard seemed to be no different.  The men in the patrol started looking into the forest, and Kyven was quick to use his shadow powers even as he channeled an illusion, making the shadows beyond the trees shift and take on lupine shapes, which then prowled the very edge of the lit perimeter of the small clearing.

      The patrol leader looked around, looked at his men, then took a step back.  “That cow there wasn’t from a farm, was it?”

      Kyven’s illusion shook its head.  “There’s a bunch of wild ones around here.  A couple of Tauron too, if you’re of a mind to chase them down.  Tauron sell pretty well at the cattle fairs.”

      The officer nodded.  “I think we should set up far enough away that your wolves don’t keep our horses from getting any rest,” he reasoned.  “Do you need anything, Master Steady?”