Spirit 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                1

 

 


To:   Title    ToC            2

Chapter 1

 

        He couldn’t help but yawn.

        Kyven was bored.  Desperately bored.

        The workshop’s schoolroom was quiet at the moment, all the apprentices huddled over their workbenches with their tools arrayed before them, the only sound the tink of hammer striking chisel or probe striking crystal.  Kyven sat at the master apprentice table watching them, as they were all arrayed in a terrace so he could see each workbench and watch them cutting crystals. Master Holm was out talking to a miner, leaving Kyven to watch over this lot, nine twelve year olds, which was, what was for them, one of the most nervewracking days of their lives.  The nine boys were taking the cutting test to see which of them would be taken on as an indentured apprentice, to learn the art of crystalcutting.  Each of them had been apprenticed here for a year, in one of the largest and most prestigious crystalcutting shops in Atan, which was a village known for crystalcutters and alchemists.  With the mines so close, many crystalcutters moved here, where they could get crystals right out of the mines, cut them, and sell them at a profit without paying for the crystals changing hands many times on their way out into the world.  The alchemists followed the crystalcutters, which turned Atan from a rough and tumble mining camp to a prosperous village, very nearly a town, with nearly five hundred permanent residents, quite a few buildings, and farms and a large cattle ranch out on the plateau east and south of the village that kept the village fed.

        Kyven remembered when he was sitting in one of those chairs, nine years ago.  A year of learning the basics, practicing on pieces of glass and crystal chips, the hand exercises, the hours of study at the feet of the senior apprentices as they taught them about the crystals and how to analyze them to determine how to cut them to make them reach their full potential.  It was intense for them now.  All that work all coming down to one moment, where you had to successfully diamond cut a crystal without shattering it, after picking a suitable crystal out of a bin that would accept a diamond cut and would enhance its natural potential.  It was a simple test, virtually no one ever cracked the crystal, and the two that did the best cuts would be apprentices to Master Holm, the most prestigious crystalcutter in Atan.  The others would probably try to apprentice to one of the less prestigious cutters, using their year of training at Holm’s shop as a bargaining chip.  Most of them succeeded in getting apprenticed elsewhere, since Master Holm didn’t even accept first years that wouldn’t be acceptable cutters.

        He’d be an apprentice for one more year.

        In one more year, Kyven would be freed of his indentured service and would be free to start his own shop, and he meant to do just that.  Kyv had taken up prospecting in his free time to start saving money towards opening his own shop, and had managed to find a few decent crystals by following the tips gleaned out of miners in the taverns at night.  Not all crystals were buried, and some miners were quite adept at tracking them down.  They were usually small and not worth much, but Kyven had an advantage there, because he could cut them himself and sell them at a much higher price than a raw crystal.

        Kyven was very good at what he did.  He was easily better at cutting crystals than Holm, and Holm knew it.  Holm had known he had a natural among his prospective apprentices when Kyven was placed with him by his miner father, for Kyven had agile, sensitive hands and exceptional hand-eye coordination.  Kyven had the hands of a master cutter, but Kyven’s true advantage was an innate instinct for crystal cutting.  When Kyven picked up a crystal, he just knew exactly which cut would release all the potential of the crystal, making it as potent as possible. Holm could do the same thing, but Kyven knew instinctively with just a touch, just a tertiary inspection of the crystal, where Holm had to examine a crystal extensively using a cutter’s glass to study its internal structure.  Crystals cut by Holm and Kyven were some of the most sought-after crystals in Atan.  Holm often called Kyven a born crystalcutter, and had taken Kyven aside and trained him personally, where most apprentices were trained by senior apprentices until they reached a certain level, where they took lessons from the master craftsman.  Holm knew that if Kyven managed to open his own crystalcutting shop, Kyven would be instant competition.  But then again, Holm was old.  When Kyven was free, there was the off chance that Holm might actually sell Kyven the shop, rather than try to compete with him.

        Holm was no fool.

        He blinked and looked at the nine boys.  They seemed to shimmer to his eyes, and then he saw a tiny little cat sitting on the workbench in front of one of them, staring up at the boy with curious eyes.  The cat had long, silky white fur, and was surrounded by a soft blue nimbus.  It reached out and put its paw on the boy’s wrist, and the boy seemed to calm down a little, his shaking hands becoming still.

        He shook his head.  Not that again.  He stood up and lightly slapped his cheeks.  Kyven sometimes…saw things.  It was a very rare occurrence, happening usually when he was either sleepy or drunk.  Things that weren’t there.  But they were consistent.  Since he saw that little cat, he knew it was there, watching him.  He turned his head, and saw it.  Watching him.  It was always watching him.  A large dark-furred fox, with a silver ruff and charcoal gray fur, and glowing green eyes with no pupils.  He’d been seeing that hallucination almost all his life, always the same, always watching him, always near but never close.  And it was always sitting.  Whenever he saw it, it was sitting, and it never stood.  It remained where it was until he got out of its sight, and once he couldn’t see it anymore, it would simply be there the next time he turned his head, sitting, watching him with those glowing eyes.

        It was his great secret.  If people knew that he saw things like that, they’d call him crazy, or even worse, Touched.  It could get him killed, so he kept it absolutely silent.  He’d been seeing these strange hallucinations for a very long time, the first time the night his mother died.  While his father held him in his arms, he saw the fox sitting in the window, just looking at him.  It was the only time he ever told anyone of it.  When he described what he saw to his father, his father explained just how dangerous it could be if people knew what he’d seen.  People would say he was crazy, or might whisper that he’d been Touched.  The Loremasters might even come for him, and he’d never see his father again.  So he’d never told another living soul about the vision.

        It was more than just seeing the fox.  Usually he saw other animals, like that little cat, or little flashes of light that surrounded people or mana crystals.  Rarely he saw entire scenes, like a stage play at the festhall, playing out a scene.  He saw things that sometimes made him laugh, sometimes scared the hell out of him, sometimes made him sad or angry.  But those kinds of visions were very rare, thank the Trinity.  They were terrifying after they were over, because they reminded him that he was different from other people, maybe a little crazy…maybe even Touched.

        And because of the visions, he was very withdrawn from other people.  He didn’t want to risk them finding out his secret, so he kept quiet around people, and wasn’t very forthcoming.  He kept to himself, didn’t associate much outside of the occasional drink in the tavern with the miners to learn more about prospecting, and was cordially distant with the other apprentices.  The only person that came close to being his friends were Master Holm and Aven, a rather well-known independent mountain man, prospector, and lone miner who had a nose for finding quality crystals, who lived by his own wits and roamed the mountains without fear, despite the threat of monsters or wild Arcans.  The other apprentices thought he was arrogant, too good to associate with them.  Holm thought he was just too shy.  Kyven was what most would call a ruggedly handsome young man, tall, very sleek and healthy because of his frequent trips out to prospect for crystals, with thick black hair and piercing green eyes.  And unlike many crystalcutters, Kyven was enormously strong, almost as strong as an alchemist, but it just seemed to be a natural strength.  Kyven didn’t swing a pick or shovel, didn’t hammer metals, didn’t push a plow or hoe crops.  He sat at a workbench and delicately cut and shaped crystals all day, and yet he was easily as strong as the alchemist apprentices, who spent long hours pounding hot metal and mixing liquid metals to produce alloys.

        He blinked as the cat faded from his vision, and sighed in relief.  I didn pique his curiosity a little, though.  He came around the bench and stepped up onto the row and peered down at the boy’s work.  He was about half done, having chipped out the excess and found the proper alignments in the crystal lattice to make the major cuts.  The milk crystal, a ruddy pink one that looked almost useless to him, would take good cuts along his planned cut lines, and would do fairly well to bring out the inner power of the crystal.  He’d get a little better results cutting along a different plane, but for a first year taking his apprenticeship test, it was pretty good.  He was doing much better than the boy beside him, who had chosen totally wrong plane lines to make his cuts, which wouldn’t bring out any power in the crystal at all.

        “Kyv!” Holm called from the door.  “No helping!”  Master Holm was a gray-haired, wrinkled, nearly toothless man, nearly seventy years old, and looking at retirement from active cutting.  His hands weren’t as steady as they used to be, and he left the cutting of the most valuable crystals to his two senior apprentices, Kyven and Timble, while he focused on appraising crystals and directing cutting.  Both of them were in their last year of indentured service, having survived being turned out or sold to other cutters to be the premier, the best of Master Holm’s apprentices and the next generation of crystalcutters that would give Atan a continuing reputation for excellent crystalcutters.

        “I haven’t said a word, Master Holm,” he answered.  “Just inspecting their work so far.”

        “Well, let’s take a look, then,” he said, hobbling up to the rows with his cane rapping on the wooden floor.  He said not a word to them, just looked at each crystal for about a second before moving on.  Holm could take in the entire skill of the apprentice in that one glance, even with them not being haflway done.  Some of them had planed their crystals the right way to prepare them for the final cuts, some had not.  Some had chosen crystals which were suited to the diamond cut, some had not.  Odds were, Kyven supposed, Holm would choose his two advancers before they were done by seeing how they’d done to this point.

        “Take the crystal bin back to the shop, Kyv,” Holm told him.  “Dump it in the box.”

        “Aye sir,” he said with a nod.  Holm didn’t play favorites.  Kyven may be his most senior and best apprentice, but he still swept the shop with the other apprentices after every day’s work, picked chips off the floor, and did other manual labor.  He didn’t do as much as other apprentices, but he did.  Holm himself still swept his personal work area and policed his own chips, for he was a firm believer in the moral character gained by manual labor.  Kyven picked up the small box of assorted milk crytsals, crystals tainted by other crystal types and less useful, and carried it into the main shop.

        It was busy.  The main shop was a large room filled with nearly thirty workbenches, where crystal-powered lights hung over benches with tool racks and small shelves and bins, soft cloths to sweep up every tiny crystal chip, and magnifying glasses and cutter’s eyepieces for inspecting crystals.  On the far side, behind a crystal-inset door that was all but impossible to open or break, were the stocks of raw crystals waiting to be cut, crystals sold to Holm by the miners, and Holm would sell to the merchants and alchemists when they were cut.  Kyven put his palm on the vault door, and it shuddered and opened of its own volition.  Kyven, Holm and Timble were the only people in the shop who had the authority to open the vault.  He stepped in as the door closed behind him, and dumped the small bin of milk crystals into a larger bin holding more, of various sizes and colors.  He ran his hand through it, feeling the tingles in touching them, the sense of power lurking in them.

        There were six kinds of crystal, separated by color, and each one contained within it a magical power.  Red crystals were the basic crystal, with a simple power that could be adapted to many uses.  Red crystal were the most common, and since they were so generic, the vast majority of all crystal-powered devices used red crystals.  A red crystal could literally do anything, but the drawback was that for a red crystal to mimic the function of another type of crystal, it had to be much larger, have much more power.  Most red crystals just weren’t large enough to mimic the ability of another crystal.  Blue crystals seemed attuned to light and sound, and were in demand among theater troops for props and set illusions.  Yellow crystals were attuned to nature, and were heavily in demand by farmers to make tools that enhanced the producton of their crops.  Green crystals were rare, and were attuned to the living being.  They were used by doctors to heal, and always fetched a high price.  Black crystals were for war, full of negative energy that created injuries that almost always killed.  They were fairly rare, and any miner that found one would have a hard time smuggling it past the Loremasters to sell to anyone other than the army.  White crystals were the rarest of them all, as versatile as a red crystal, but they were reusable.  A white crystal didn’t bond to its setting the way other crystals did, could be placed in any setting and power any device. In his whole life, Kyven had only seen one white crystal.  Holm had cut it himself some three years ago, spending an entire month to do so, and then sold it for an absolutely obscene amount of chits.  Milk crystals, like the ones that the first years were using, were mixed crystals that were combinations of other colors.  They tended to be almost powerless, good only for practice, crushing to make chit coins, the standard currency of Noraam, or for feeding tame monsters that ate crystals for sustenance, but they had the same lattice structure and energy patterns as normal crystals, so they were excellent practice crystals for apprentice crystalcutters.  Kyven had cut nothing but milk crystals for the first three years of his apprenticeship.  Holm certainly didn’t lose anything.  All the milk crystals his apprentices worked on were just sold to the Loremasters so they could crush them and make chit coins.  It didn’t matter if they were cut or not, it only mattered that they kept all the pieces, as the Loremasters bought milk crystals based on the weight.

        That power was enhanced by cutting, aligning the internal energies and focusing them to their maximum at the hands of a skilled cutter.  Each one was like a reserve of magic, like those electricity batteries the inventors had been experimenting with over on Stoat Street.  That was the job of a crystalcutter, to examine a crystal, determine how best to cut it to make it as powerful as possible, and then perform that cut.  Once a crystal was cut, it usually went to an alchemist.  Alchemists built settings and devices for the crystals that used that power, channelled it, brought it out, but the drawback was that once a crystal was mounted, it bonded to the device and couldn’t be used in anything other than that specific kind of device.  What a setting did depended entirely on how it was made, what metals and other materials it was made of, and how it was cured, bathed in the radiance of yellow crystals which were cut in a specific manner that caused them to radiate their power like a candle radiating light.  The crystal lights over the workbenches were an example of an alchemist’s work.  They had taken spiral cut red crystals and placed them in a setting of tin, copper, iron, and carbon in specific amounts, placed the crystal within its setting, then cured it for a specific amount of time.  The result was a common crystal lamp, which radiated a light that could be controlled by a small sliding lever on the side.

        Being an alchemist was hard.  They had to apprentice to an alchmist for three years as a kid, and after those three years, the alchemist had to recommend them to an alchemy academy in a city, like Avannar.  They attended the academy for years and years, learning all about metallurgy and chemistry, how to design housings from scratch to perform tasks, build them, and then they came back out to apprentice again for another two years.  After all that, they had to take a test.  If they passed, they were certified alchemists, and were allowed to open their own shops to build devices to sell to the public.

        It was the second most prestigious job in the world, but it wasn’t for everyone.  Four of the nine kids taking the first year test had been alchemy apprentices, but hadn’t made the cut.  But at least they’d washed out before they were too old to apprentice elsewhere, or they’d be looking at a life as a manual laborer or going back to their family farms to be farmers.  In a way, Kyven could see the use of either being really good or really bad at alchemy.  If you were really good, you made it.  If you were really bad, you found out early enough so it didn’t interfere with finding another pursuit.  But if one was just pretty good at it, they spent all that time learning, then they washed out and were left in a bad position.  Too old to apprentice, too young to strike out alone as a miner or hunter or join the army. All they could do was drift from odd job to odd job until they were old enough to try their hand at making it in the real world.

        There was a fortune in the vault.  Thousands of crystals of various sizes and colors, though most of them were red, and several sitting on stands that were quite large, waiting to be cut.  But strangely enough, Kyven had never once thought of stealing a single thing out of the vault.  He didn’t need to.  He was a good crystalcutter.  As soon as he was free of his indentured service, he could open his own shop and make good money.

        He left the vault and returned to his workbench.  He had a half-done crystal on his stand, held in place by a delicate bronze device that looked like an overturned spider.  It was a medium sized yellow crystal, being shaped into the double trapezoid cut, which was the optimum cut for this crystal.  The chips and pieces were saved, since some devices could use something as small as a chip the size of a grain of sand for power, if it was small or did something minor, like a child’s toy.  Though these chips probably wouldn’t be.  This was a yellow crystal, and its crystal chips and dust were too valuable to go into a toy.  The chips would be fused into an amalgam and used in common farm implements, like hoes and shovels, so they could nurture the soil in which they worked.  Only Kyven or Timble would be cutting a crystal this valuable, but he also wasn’t alone.  When he returned, the other apprentices came over to his bench to continue their lesson.  It was his job to instruct the other apprentices, and he did so in his customary quiet, direct manner, not speaking more than was necessary.  He’d already explained why he chose the double trapezoid cut for the crystal, and had been explaining how it was done when Holm had him watch over the test while he talked business with the miner.  The double trapezoid was an advanced cut, and they didn’t often get the chance to demonstrate it to the apprentices, since few crystals were amenable to it.  He explained the methodology behind the next step, then turned the crystal, selected his tools, showed them the plane he would use in the magnifying glass, and then executed the cut with a delicate tap of his soft-wooded hammer.  The wide-bladed, razor sharp chisel  sheared off a flat sheet of yellow crystal and left behind a perfectly smooth surface that shone in the light of the lamp.

        “Remember, a good cut isn’t about hitting it hard, it’s about using the lattice of the crystal to your advantage,” he told them, something he said about fifty times a day to bore it into the younger apprentices.  “A good cut leaves behind a smooth surface.  You know what a bad cut leaves, we’ve all seen it often enough.”

        “I doubt you ever had a bad cut, Kyv,” one of the middle-tenured apprentices laughed.

        “I was just as clumsy as anyone when I started,” he said, taking out what looked like a raw red crystal that had been cut in half, the size of a peanut.  “This was my first cut of anything but a milk crystal,” he told them.  “See how bad that is?  Holm was so mad he made me buy it, and I keep it right here to remind me.”

        “Well, I feel better now,” the apprentice laughed.  “Mine was about that bad too.”

        Kyven completed cutting the crystal, and then polished the cut crystal with a buffing blanket to remove any residual dust, which would be carefully collected out of the soft cloth and sold.  “And there we are, boys, a double trapezoid,” he said, holding the oblong, blocky yellow crystal up for them to see.  “I hope you learned something, because you won’t see this cut again for a while.”

        “Nice, Kyv, nice,” one of them said, and Kyven wrapped he crystal in a soft cloth, put it in a pouch, then put the pouch in a backpack and slung it over his shoulder.  That crystal was already paid for by Virren, one of the better alchemists of Atan, and now it was just a matter of  delivering it.  Virren’s alchemy workshop was only two doors down, and Kyven had made the run from one to the other to deliver crystals many times.  He poked his head into the study room and waved to get Holm’s attention, who then hobbled over to him.

        “I finished the yellow for Master Virren, Master Holm, I’ll walk it over to him.”

        “Be careful,” he said with a nod.

        “Always.”

        He went out the side door of the shop, which was a narrow alley that ran to the end of the block in one direction and ended at the door to Virren’s alchemy shop on the other.  This alley was the common delivery route for their two shops, and they kept the alley clean and free of debris so the courier could see and ensure that it was safe to make the quick journey from one to the other.  It was empty, as always, and it only took him about ten seconds to scurry down to Virren’s door.  He knocked once, and almost immediately a burly fellow wearing a chain jack and carrying a musket in his free hand opened the door.  He had a rough, wide face, small eyes set wide apart, and a shaved head.  His name was Bragga, and he was a pretty decent fellow despite his rough appearance.  “Hey Kyv,” he said with a nod, and let him in.

        “I have a crystal for Master Virren,” he said.

        “He’s in the foundry.”

        Kyven was over here so much he was almost an apprentice himself.  He knew his way around the large compound, moving from the stockroom where the alley door was into the secondary forge, where two apprentices were stoking a coal fire, then through an open-air courtyard and to the main foundry.  A huge blast furnace dominated the large chamber, dim and smelling of soot and smoke, so hot it made Kyven’s face tighten, and he took in the room.  Three first stage apprentices helped a second stage apprentice and Virren pour molten metal into an ingot mold, as an Arcan stood by with a pair of heavy tongs, waiting.

        Kyven gave this Arcan a second look.  He’d never seen this one before.  He was tall, but most Arcans were tall.  He looked canine, with a broad, wolf-like muzzle, brown eyes, and a pelt that was a thick, shaggy brown, a little bristly and ragged.  His chin was a tan color instead of brown, diving down his neck and disappearing under the only thing he was wearing, a leather smock to protect against beads of molten metal.  A pair of heavy leather gloves for holding the tongs was in his other big, clawed hand.  His hybrid feet, more animal than humanoid, held him up steadily, and his tail swished behind him.

        Arcans.  Kyven really didn’t pay them much mind.  They were animal-humanoid hybrids, mutants some would call them, which history said had been created by the Great Ancients at the height of the old empire to serve humanity as labor.  There were many different kinds of Arcans, but they fell into three basic types.  There were the huge, powerful, physical Arcans, who were often used for the most demanding labor.  Most of those Arcans were ursine, equine, bovine, or canine, powerful breeds built for heavy work.  There were Arcans like this one, the medium sized Arcans, who excelled at moderate labor because they were very strong.  Most of them were canine, feline, vulpine, deer, badgers and the like.  The third type were the servant Arcans, small, weak breeds who served most often in domestic capacities.  Some breeds of felines and vulpines, and most rodents were among those.  Breeds weren’t absolutes, that was for sure.  Some rodents worked the mines because they were powerful specimens, while some bovines served as cooks or maids because they were small or had a very placid nature.  It was just a generality.

        Arcans were, on the average, stronger and faster than humans, but they weren’t supposed to be very smart.  That was the great equalizer, and why humans maintained them as servants and labor.  Because humans were smarter than Arcans, they kept control over them, were able to make the collars that almost all tame Arcans wore that kept them from becoming dangerous.  Kyven didn’t know if that was true or not, because there were lots of conflicting stories.

        And then there were the Shaman.

        Kyven shivered just at the thought of that, and it blew a lot of the Loremasters’ stories about Arcans out of the water.  If they were so dumb, then how did they explain the Shaman?  Shaman were Arcans who could perform magical feats similar to what mana crystals could do, but they didn’t use crystals.  They could do the magic on their own, with no help from crystals at all!  And what was worse, they could also use crystals like magical batteries, producing magic by draining the crystal instead of doing it themselves.  Just the word Shaman made grown men shiver and kids squeal in fright.  Since the Shaman appeared two hundred years ago, it had caused humans to fear wild, uncollared Arcans, even caused the Loremasters to institute a bounty on Arcans by buying Arcan pelts for twenty chits a piece in hopes that the hunters would kill Shaman, or kill Arcans that might become Shaman.  Right now, Kyven supposed, there were hunters lurking in the forest outside of the village, hunting for wild Arcans to make a few extra chits by turning in Arcan pelts for the bounty.  They did come to Atan to look for food or steal, and the cattle ranch to the south had to keep armed guards, armed with muskets and crossbows, to protect the herds from them.

        In what to Kyven was a bit of grisly economic opportunism, some leatherworkers now bought the pelts from the Loremasters to make a soft form or leather or fur-lined clothing.  Kyven thought it was a rather disgusting idea, himself.  Not that he considered Arcans that highly, but because it would make his skin crawl to think that fur that had been on such a human-like creature, capable of speaking, was now up against his skin.  It would be like wearing tanned human skin aprons.

        Humans hunted wild Arcans to kill them or capture them for slaves, but they never seemed to make a dent in the wild Arcan population.  Arcans bred like rabbits, it seemed.  Every day he heard stories from the miners in the taverns about brushes with wild Arcans, but there was a good chance that quite a few of those tales were just embellishments, or a retelling of something that happened months ago.  If he believed the miners, there was an Arcan hiding behind every tree, trying to steal any tool or lunchbox left unattended.  In all the times he’d been prospecting both alone and with Aven, he’d never seen a single wild Arcan.

        “Kyv,” Virren called, wiping his hands on his smock and stepping away as his apprentices poured the metal.  “Bring something for me?”

        Kyven took off his backpack, and took out the pouch.  He pulled the crystal from it and unwrapped it.  “Double trapezoid cut, Master Virren,” he said, a little apologetically.  “Sorry, I know it’s a non-standard cut, but it’s what the crystal wanted.”

        “I understand, my boy,” he said easily.  “Not to worry, I can adapt my usual setting to the cut.  It’s always best to adapt the setting to the crystal, not try to adapt the crystal to the setting.  All that gets you is a weaker result.”

        “True,” he said, carefully handing the cloth to the alchemist.   “You there, take this to the vault,” Virren said, looking at the Arcan.  The Arcan set his tongs and gloves on a table near the foundry, then took the cloth-wrapped crystal and hurried out into the courtyard.

        “A new one, eh?”

        “Yah, just got him this morning,” he answered.  “Seems to work out so far.  He does what he’s told and seems to understand the need for speed.  Was hard to replace Old Gray.”

        “What happened?”

        “Broke his arm yesterday.  I took him down to the vet, they say he should heal up.  He’s back in his room right now, resting.  The old fool keeps trying to come out and sweep the floor,” he chuckled.  “Old Gray knows our business and he really works hard.  I’ll feel like we’re short-handed until he’s back on the job.”

        “I’m surprised you didn’t just sell him, or have him put down.  That’s what most people do.”

        “You don’t sell an Arcan like Old Gray, Kyv,” he snorted.  “And I could never put one down.  I don’t buy into that ‘they’re just animals’ bullhockey.  Anyone who can answer me in Noravi when I talk to them ain’t no animal.”

        “I’d have to agree with that,” he said.  “Anything I need to take back to the shop?”

        “Nah, just tell Holm I’m still waiting for that five point blue.”

        “Timble’s working on that one.”

        “Well, I’d like to get it tomorrow, so tell him to put you on it.  You’re faster than Timble and Holm put together.”  He glanced at Kyven.  “When are you gonna open your own shop?” he asked.

        “Soon, I hope,” he answered.  “I still have until next Midsummer indentured to Holm, unless I get lucky prospecting and I can buy out my contract.  After that, I hope to open my own shop, but it won’t be cheap.”

        “That won’t be a problem, man.  Don’t tell Holm, but there’s quite a few alchemists who are already floating the idea of loaning you enough chits to rent a shop and buy your tools.  You’re the best cutter in Atan, kid, hands down.  Holm’s not the only cutter who’s starting to get very nervous about the idea of you striking out on your own.”

        Kyven laughed.  “I couldn’t possibly cut enough to supply every alchemist in Atan, Master Virren,” he protested.  “There’s a shortage of cutters.  I wouldn’t make a dent in the business of the other shops.”

        “True, but if I ever have a really good crystal, like a twenty pointer or a green or yellow, I’d bring it straight to you.  There ain’t five cutters in Atan I’d trust with a crystal like that.  If I give it to you, I’ll get back something that made it worth the investment.”

        “Wow, thanks for the vote of confidence, Master Virren,” Kyven chuckled.

        Kyven returned to the shop, and immediately reported to Holm. “Master Virren said he’d like the five point blue finished by tomorrow, Master Holm,” he said.

        “Tell Timble to get it done.”

        “Yes, sir.  What’s next for me?”

        “You finished the twelve point yellow.  Just teach the others for now.”

        “Yes, sir.  Can I possibly finish early today?”

        “Oho, what are you up to, Kyv?  Already scoping out possible shop locations?”

        Kyven laughed.  “No sir, I’d just like to go talk to a friend of mine, he’s teaching me how to prospect for crystals out in the mountains.  I’ll start early tomorrow to make up for it.”

        “What, I’m not paying you enough, son?” he asked with a smile.

        “You pay me fine, Master Holm, but if I ever want to open my own shop, I’ll need more than that.  I’ve been trying my hand at amateur prospecting and cutting the crystals I find to sell myself.”

        “Well, that’s rather clever son,” he chuckled.  “Good business sense, I can appreciate that.  Go ahead and knock off an hour after lunch, and you can pay me back by taking in the new batch of first years in the morning.”

        “Ouch, you’re making me pay for it, sir.”

        “You bet I am,” he grinned. “Now get.”

        Kyven supervised the younger apprentices for the rest of the morning as Timble worked on the five point blue, then, after lunch, he cleaned up his workbench and just watched the others.  “What, you weasel some extra free time?” Timble asked him.

        “I traded the afternoon off for doing induction tomorrow,” he answered.

        Timble winced.  “Brother, you got the short end of the stick,” he said.  “Master Holm would have to pay me triple to do induction.”

        “Well, if I ever wanna take my own apprentices, I’d better be able to deal with the newbies,” he chuckled.

        “Eh, that’s true, I guess,” he said, adjusting the magnifying glass over the blue crystal, which was being oval cut. He was literally finished, Kyven saw.  He made one more tiny cut, chipping off a final burr, and left behind a perfectly cut crystal, cut to bring out its maximum power and potential.  Kyven could almost see the power pulsing inside the crystal, just yearning to be released.

        “Damn, nice work, Timble!” Kyven said honestly as he took a closer look at the small blue gem.  “Look at that sheen!  You’ve really brought it out!”

        “Thanks, brother, it really turned out nice,” he said.  “I hope I didn’t just jinx it,” he then laughed as he carefully cleaned it with the polish cloth.

        Kyv’s complement attracted attention, and the apprentices all gathered around Timble’s bench, which was rather rare.  Timble was an outstanding crystalcutter, but he did not work well with an audience.  He could cut to demonstrate well enough, but when he was doing serious work on valuable crystals, people watching him made him nervous, so he did that work alone.  So long as no one was looking over his shoulder, Timble was an outstanding cutter, one of the best.  Kyven didn’t have that problem, so Kyven was the one that did the demonstrations on crystals that were too valuable to damage with a bad cut.

        Timble inspected the blue crystal under his magnifying glass as the apprentices congratulated him, checking with a meticulous inspection for what Kyven could tell just by looking at it, that perfect alignment of crystal lattice combined with perfectly cut angles on its surface to focus the crystal’s power to its maximum potential.

        Kyven left Timble to bask in the adulation of his junior apprentices and went upstairs.  The apprentices lived above the shop, the first years in a large dorm on the top floor, the younger apprentices four to a room on the third floor, and the senior apprentices had private rooms on the second floor.  Kyven’s room was utilitaritan, spartan, and functional, a reflection of his sober personality.  The room held a bed, washstand, bureau, footlocker, and a writing desk, with no decorations on the walls.  To Kyven, his room was for sleeping, studying cutting manuals, and writing letters to the Guild, and nothing else.  He picked up his prospecting backpack, filled with outdoor gear, a hand shovel, a pick, and a sniffer, a little device that Master Verrin made for him that pointed to raw crystals within five paces of it, and headed for the Three Boar Tavern.

        Aven was sitting at his customary place in the tavern, at the end of the bar near the door, downing a tankard of ale.  The prospector was about fifty years old, with iron gray hair, a thick, bushy beard, and wearing rugged leathers durable enough to handle the rigors of the outdoors.  He had a Hudson musket leaning against the bar, and the handles of a pair of double-shot pistols were stuffed into the back of his belt.  The barkeep here was unusual in town in that he refused to emply Arcans in his inn.  He hated them with a passion, and always gave a free tankard of ale to any new face that showed up wearing Arcan fur.  “Aven!” he called excitedly.  “I got off early!  Are you ready to go?”

        “Lemme finish my tankard, boy!” he called roughly.  “You got my payment?”

        Kyven handed him a tiny two point blue crystal, one of his finds from last week.  Aven looked at it in the dim light from the lamp overhead, then nodded and pocketed it.  “That’ll pay for lessons all the way to winter, young buck,” he announced.

        “You’re letting this old swindler teach you anything?” the barkeep laughed.

        “His advice helped me find that two point blue,” Kyven said in defense of his prospecting mentor.

        “Beginner’s luck, cutter,” the barkeep laughed.  “What can I get you while you wait?”

        “Nothing, really.  I’m going to go on ahead, Aven.  I’ll meet you at the oak.”

        “I’ll be along in a bit, young buck,” he nodded.

        Kyven left the inn, then got on Miner’s Road and headed out of town.  The road wended up into the mountains, up a shallow gulley that led to a large, shallow valley between to long mountains.  There were literally hundreds of mines on the west ridge of that valley, burrowing into the side of the ridge at varying altitudes, and hundreds of filled-in holes along the base of the ridge from surface digging, looking for crystals.  The wide road was deeply rutted from carts and wagons, and at the top of the rise there was a large tent city where many miners housed their Arcan workers.  They weren’t allowed to stable them in town, so they kept them there, in a large communal compound surrounded by a rail fence and patrolled by armed guards that both kept wild Arcans out and kept the tame Arcans in.  It wasn’t unknown for Arcans to sometimes slip their collars and escape, at least the smarter ones.  The collars were usually set to zap any Arcan trying to take them off, but sometimes an Arcan was clever enough to figure out how to take them off by themselves.

        He wasn’t going all the way up there, though.  He turned up a narrow trail about halfway up, climbing a ridge that led to a small plateau on the top of the east side of the valley, which wasn’t as heavily mined because the main concentration of crystals were on the west side.  There used to be mines on the east side of the east ridge, but they’d played out all those crystals and moved their mining to the next ridge.  And when that ridge was mined out, they’d move to another mountain; there were already some mines on the next mountain over, prospect mines to check for rich concentrations of crystal.

        He reached the big oak, a small meadow in the forest that rustled in the warm summer wind, sending waves of white as the wind bent the blades of grass back through the tall grass of the narrow clearing, exposing their white undersides.  Hardwoods ringed the clearing, oaks and maples and birches and ashes, with a small trio of pine trees to the left of the big oak, a massive oak tree on the edge of the far side of the clearing.  He dug out his sniffer and turned the knob to engage its crystal and activate, then waved it around just for fun, though he knew that there was nothing in the meadow.  It had been played out long ago.

        Aven joined him a few minutes later.  “You ready, kid?” he asked.

        “I’m ready,” he nodded.  “Where are we going?”

        “Well, it was a pretty heavy rain yesterday, so we’ll go down south to Cougar Creek and pan the stream.  See if anything got washed down.”

        “Sounds like a plan.”

        Cougar Creek was south, over the ridge and down in the next valley.  They hiked down to the large creek, the water a little high from yesterday’s rain, and Aven pulled out his own sniffer.  “Alright, kid, you go one way and I’ll go the other.  Let’s see if we get lucky.”

        Panning a stream was something Aven already taught him.  Kyven moved slowly downstream as Aven moved upstream, sweeping his sniffer back and forth slowly along the bank, looking for crystals.  The sniffer was set to react to any crystal a tenth of a point or larger, which was the size of a tiny pebble, barely larger than a grain of sand.  With such a sensitive setting, the sniffer kept pointing to the bank, and Kyven spent a lot of time sifting through the dirt and mud on the bank with a small sieve, using the sniffer to find where the crystals were, scooping up the mud around it, then sifting until he found the crystal.

        He moved about fifty paces in an hour, and in that hour, he had managed to pan up about a point’s weight worth of crystal chips.  Most of it was red, but he did find a small black chip mixed in with it.  That black chip was worth almost ten chits all by itself, which made the day profitable.  He kept working down the bank, feeling the warm sun shine down on him, hearing the wind rustle the trees, and then a cloud passed over and dimmed the forest, making him glance up.

        It was there.

        The black-furred fox, the hallucination, it was back.  It sat sedately not ten feet from him, closer than usual, its unblinking eyes fixed on him.  Kyven blinked and looked away, rubbing his eyes.  Just focus.  It’ll go away, it’s just the same old thing.  Focus on what you’re doing.  He kept his eyes deliberately down, but something felt…different.  He looked up again.

        For the first time ever, the hallucination moved more than its neck.  It stood up on all fours, uncurling its tail from around its front legs, then turned away from him. It took several steps towards the hillside on the far side of the creek, then it stopped and looked back to him.

        Kyven was rooted to the spot.  What did it mean?  He’d never seen the hallucination move anything other than its head before.  Sure, other visions he’d seen moved, but never that one.  It had always been the same every time he’d seen it, but not today.  Today, it moved.  And not only did it move, but he’d seen it twice in one day, which was just as strange.  Did it mean something?  Did it mean he really was going crazy, or he was Touched?

        It looked right at him, still with its back to him.  It was waiting.

        It wanted him to follow.  Why?  It was just a hallucination, why should he follow a phantom, something that didn’t exist?

        But…there was something else.  The shadowed wood felt…forboding now.  Uninviting.  He didn’t feel safe, for some reason.  He looked around, but saw nothing among the trees around him, and the squirrels were still chattering away as they usually did.  Why did he feel this way?  Had this change in an old hallucination unsettled him?

        Maybe.  But the black-furred fox still stood there, its tail still and unmoving, looking back to him with unblinking, glowing green eyes.

        Waiting.

        He found his feet moving of their own volition.  He waded across the creek, his sturdy wool trousers and boots soaking in the cold water, moving towards the apparition.  It looked back ahead and started walking away from him slowly, deliberately, at a pace that let him slowly catch up.  He followed the animal up the hillside for a long moment, until it reached a large rock partially buried in the loam of the forest floor.  It stepped up onto the rock, turned to face him, then sedately sat back down and wrapped its bushy black tail with its silver tip around its forelegs, in that pose he knew so well, and then vanished.

        It had never done that before either!  Always before, he looked away from it, and then it was gone when he looked back.  But this time it vanished right before his very eyes!

        He rubbed his eyes and looked at the rock, but it was gone.  He advanced up to the rock, even touched it, but it was a rock.  Cool to the touch, covered with moss, probably had earthworms and rolley bugs under it.  It just proved what he already knew, that there was no fox, that it was just a recurring hallucination that he’d suffered for many years.

        Before he could even think about it, the sound of a gunshot ripped the air.  Kyven started and stood up, then he heard another one, a higher-pitched one that was clearly the sound of a pistol.  A musket and a pistol?

        Aven!

        Kyven charged back down the hill, to the stream, then ran upstream.  Kyven was tall and lithe, and he covered the ground quickly, jumping over the stream twice as it wound down the gentle rise.  He wove in and out through the trees lining the streambed, but he stopped abruptly, nearly falling over, when he found Aven.

        There was blood everywhere.  Spattered on the grass, on the rocks of the stream, mingling in the water.  Aven was laying on his side on the side of the bank, but one of his arms was laying nearly five feet away, oozing blood onto the rocks.  Laying face down on the opposite side of Aven from the strea, was an Arcan.  It was a naked Arcan, a canine of some kind, its leg twitching as blood spurted out of a huge hole in its side.  That spurt of blood pumped several times, then faltered, spurt one more time, and then ceased.

        “By the Trinity!” Kyven gasped, moving to rush to Aven’s side, but the injured old man sat up quickly, cradling a mangled stump of his left arm, the limb literally torn off just below the elbow.  Bloody stains were all over his front, and there was a clear bite wound on his right thigh.

        “No, kid!” Aven barked.  “Stay back!”

        “But—“

        “I may have been Touched!” he called.

        That stopped Kyven dead in his tracks.  He scrambled backwards, literally hiding behind a tree.  The Touch!  The most feared of all illnesses, so deadly that no man had ever been known to survive it!  Arcans could catch it too, but it made Arcans go blood mad, turned them into rampaging beasts.  It made humans go mad as well, but humans didn’t usually become violent the way Arcans did, they had hallucinations like the ones Kyven had endured most of his life.  It was known as the Touch because it was so virulent that one could catch it from a single touch from an infected person.  If Aven was Touched, Kyven could catch the disease from the lightest of contacts and not know it for months, until the disease set in…and that was too late.  By the time the symptoms began to appear, the person had been contagious for weeks and had probably infected the entire village.

        “Aven, what happened?” he managed to ask.

        “I never saw it, kid, it came from downstream.  I heard rustling, thought it was you, but then the bastard blindsided me.  I gave back more than I got, that’s for sure,” he said with a grim chuckle as his mangled stump dribbled blood on his buckskin trousers.  “Thank the Trinity he missed you, kid.”

        “I, I wasn’t at the stream, I was—checking something out up on the hill.”

        “That saved your ass, kid.  Now around wide and get to where you can see the dog’s mouth.  Don’t touch any blood anywhere.”

        Kyven quickly circled the pair, getting around to where he could see the Arcan.  Arcans infected with the Touch would have pink foam in their mouths, and any attack like that, with that kind of savagery, might be caused by it.  He went around a tree, then another tree, and got to where he could see the canine’s face.  The eyes were open, staring, and glazed, his tongue on the ground between his open jaws.

        And bloody pink froth oozed onto the moss under his head.

        Kyven’s shoulders slumped and he looked at the ground.  “Well, kid, I can see the answer,” he said, then for some reason, he chuckled.  He reached behind himself with this right hand, the only hand he had left, and pulled out his other pistol.  “All these years, to think I’d get it from a damned Arcan.  Ain’t life just a bitch sometimes,” he sighed.

        “Aven—“

        “Shut up, kid, and listen.  Go back to town and warn the Loremaster.  There might be another infected one running around, this kind of thing spreads through them the same as us.  They need to make sure the area’s safe.”

        “But what about you, Aven?”

        “I’m gonna skin myself a dog,” he said with a grim chuckle.  “Then I’m gonna watch the sun set.  Now get you gone.”

        “But—yes, sir,” he said, turning and hurrying off.  He didn’t even think about it, he was almost in shock.  The Touch, the Touch, and he was that close!  It could have been him!  Aven said the Arcan came from downstream, came from where he’d been.  If it was coming up the stream, then it must have went by him when he was up on the hillside.

        The fox.  Did the vision save him?  Had it lured him away from the stream to keep him away from the diseased Arcan?  That was silly.  The fox was a hallucination, a spectre, a waking dream.  He’d seen it for most of his life, from time to time.  It couldn’t—

        A gunshot ripped the air, making Kyven jump.

        He didn’t want to think about what it meant.  But he knew.

        He knew.

 

        There was only one Loremaster in Atan, the representative of the organization goverened most human settlements on Noraam in a loose coalition.  The Loremasters didn’t really interfere with the cities all that much, though.  The Mayor and city elders ruled Atan, and just kept the Loremaster informed of what they were doing.

        The Loremasters were everywhere on Noraam.  Some people didn’t like them, but some, like Kyven, he didn’t see anything wrong with them.  They didn’t really harm anyone, and they didn’t rule with an iron fist.  They were based in Avannar, about a hundred minars from Atan, a journey of nearly ten days on foot or three by horse.  The Loremasters were devoted to the study of the Great Ancient Civilization, their ancestors, humans who had achieved such technological mastery that it was said they built machines that could fly through the air without using mana crystals, and had buildings so high, so big, they looked like mountains.   There were billions of humans then, the Loremasters taught, a number so big that most couldn’t fathom it, filling the entire world.  The Great Ancient Civilization had been so amazing that they had even visited the moon and sent men out into the stars!

        But despite their advances, they were still human, and had human weakness.  The Great Ancient Civilization fractured and fell into war with itself, known to them simply as The War, a war so vast, so sweeping, so destructive, that it shattered the Great Ancient Civilization, completely destroying it, and scattering the few human survivors to leave them to fight for survival without their mythical technology.  The War had destroyed their ancient ancestors and wiped the knowledge of their wondrous technology from the minds of the survivors, leaving humankind to rebuild from the ashes.  The War had tortured the very earth itself, had been so destructive that it had caused the Breach, the titanic accident that, the Loremasters said, caused the Great Ancients to tap into the power of magic for the first time and without control, and caused a catastrophic explosion that had virtually wiped the humans off the east coast of Noraam, destroying the Three Great Cities, and starting the series of historical events that would end The War and force humanity to begin the long, hard road of returning to the glory of their ancestors.

        That was the goal of the Loremasters.  They were scientists at heart, historians, men and women of intelligence and vision, seeking to reclaim the technology and knowledge of the Great Ancient Civilization.  They’d started in Avannar nearly six hundred years ago, starting as a society in a college in Avannar that dedicated itself to recovering the lost secrets of the Great Ancient Civilization.  But over time, they’d also come to unify the different kingdoms and city-states of Noraam under a loose coalition, a confederacy that the Loremasters oversaw, to better undertake and coordinate their research and experiments.  Each of the Ten Kingdoms of Noraam were independent, but the Loremasters were there to keep the peace between them, acting as diplomats, and having men in every human settlement to allow swift communication across all of Noraam.

        Some men hated the Loremasters, saw them as overlords, a shadowy organization that killed anyone who crossed them, but Kyven hadn’t really thought of them that way. The Loremaster of Atan had always been a helpful and friendly man, always willing to stop and chat with people on the street, and was always willing to give a hand with any problem, even something as simple or silly as helping a child look for his missing cat.

        But this wasn’t a simple or silly problem.  Kyven tore through Atan, nearly knocking people over as he raced to the Loremaster’s office, a simple little cottage with the three interlocking circles symbol of the Loremasters embroidered on a flag that hung on a small flagpole on the front lawn.  He banged on the front door, paused only a second, then banged on it again.  He kept knocking until the door opened abruptly, opened by the Loremaster himself.  Loremaster Gint was a small, thin man in his thirties, with a small nose, large blue eyes, and sandy blond hair that was tied back from his face in a tail.  He wore the Loremaster’s Tabard, a surcoat of sorts over a day jacket, linen shirt, and sturdy brown woolen breeches, which was blue with silver lines along its edges and had the red, blue, and green interlocking circles in a triangular pattern emblazoned on its chest and back, a clear indicator to any who looked at him just who he was.  “Goodness, what’s wrong, citizen?” he asked in a calm voice.

        “Come quick!” Kyven wheezed, a little out of breath.  “It’s the Touch!”

        The man’s smile drained off his face.  “Did you—“

        “No sir, I was warned away!  Aven told me to come warn you!”

        “Calm down, young man, tell me what happened.”

        Kyven blew out his breath and told him in short, disjointed sentences, about hearing the shots while prospecting with Aven, running to him, and how Aven warned him off until he checked the dead Arcan.  When he told the Loremaster about the pink foam, the man’s eyes narrowed.  “Your friend Aven did the right thing, young man,” he said.  “Now take me there.”

        Kyven led him back to the scene, and the Loremaster stood at the edge of it as Kyven couldn’t help but stare at the still form of Aven.  Half of his head was missing; he’d put his second pistol to his forehead and pulled the trigger, and Aven liked overpriming his pistols.  The Loremaster reached into his jacket and produced a small bronze ball, separated into two halves.  He twisted it until Kyven heard an audible click, then he held it firmly in his left hand as he advanced into the bloody mess.  Kyven saw that the blades of grass around the Loremaster bent away from him, as if repelled by some invisible hand.  He squatted down by the dead Arcan, not putting his knees on the blood-spattered ground, and boldly reached down and rolled it over on its back.  Blood saturated the fur on its chest, and its eyes were still open and vacant.  The Loremaster leaned down to look at its jaws, then sighed and stood up.  “Your friend saved your life, young man,” he said simply.  “This Arcan is Touched.”  He took something else out from under his surcoat, what looked like an oversized dart with a black metal tip.  He twisted the bulbous body of the dart until the shaft seemed to begin to glow with a dark nimbus, then he drove it into the chest of the Arcan.  It quivered slightly when he let go of it, then he turned and hurried away.  “Quickly, citizen, we have to be away from here.”

        “What is that, Loremaster?” Kyven asked as he followed the Loremaster as he retreated quickly from the area.

        “An Eradicator,” he said.  “It will destroy the bodies of the Arcan and your companion, I’m sorry to say, and kill the Touch that infects the area.  But it’ll kill us too if we’re too close to the device when it goes off.”

        “I’ve heard of those.”

        “They’re very expensive, and can only be used once, so we only use them for the most dire of situations, like this one.  Those bodies would be contagious, and who knows who might come by to loot your friend or skin that Arcan?  They could infect the whole town!”

        There was a dull thudding sound behind them, then the loud crashing of a tree as it fell to earth.  The Loremaster stopped.  “There, that’s it, let’s go back.”

        They returned to a much different scene.  Aven and the Arcan were gone.  So was the grass.  There was a bare patch filled with gray dust, a perfect circle some ten paces across, extending over the stream.  There was a jagged hole in the ground, over which the smoking end of a fallen maple tree, the end of it blackened as if it had been burned.  The Eradicator, he realized, had destroyed the trunk of the tree in a circle around the dart, and the rest of the tree had fallen down when its bottom had been destroyed.  The only things left were bits of metal, the barrels of Aven’s musket and pistols, some metal tools, and crystals.  All that remained was that which wasn’t made of flesh, bone, hair, wood, leather, or cloth.  Only minerals remained.  “This may sound ghoulish, young man, but we should collect up what remains of your friend’s belongings.”

        “I—yes, sir.  We can’t just leave it out here.”

        “Naturally.  I’ll keep watch in case there’s another Touched Arcan out here while you gather it up.”  Kyven took off his backpack and took out a rolled burlap sack, and knelt down and began the sad task of collecting up what was left of his friend’s possessions. It was hard to believe that just a minute ago, Aven was laying here, but now there was nothing but this fine grayish dust.  It clung to his fingers as he picked up the pistol barrel and put it in the bag, then picked up the metal parts of the pistol that had been bound together with wood.  It had happened so fast.  It made him feel strangely vulnerable to think of how fast it had all happened.  One minute everything was normal, and then in the blink of an eye, it could all change.  It made him realize how fragile life was, and how vulnerable they really were.  There could be another blood-mad, Touched Arcan lurking out in the woods, looking for them, stalking them at that very moment.

        It was a little scary.  He’d never really felt afraid in the woods before, not because the large number of miners around around tended to scare off the monsters, animals and most Arcans.  But now he felt a little vulnerable, now that he’d seen that the woods weren’t as safe as he once believed.  He gathered up what was left of Aven’s gear quickly, putting it in the bag, then picked up his long musket barrel and stayed very close to the Loremaster, who was holding a small silvery ball in his hand, whose function was unknown to Kyven.  “I’m finished, sir.”

        “Alright, let’s get back so I can organize a sweep of the surrounding forest.  We want to make sure there’s no more Touched Arcans in the vicinity.”

        Kyven stayed very close to the Loremaster as they followed the trail back to Atan.  Kyven brought Aven’s things to his office, and then the Loremaster released him to his own devices as he hurried to the office of the mayor.  Kyven returned to the shop, quiet and unsettled, sitting at his bench as the other apprentices stopped to regard him strangely.  So close.  He’d been so close to being the one that was now nothing but a memory.  If the fox hadn’t lured him away from the stream, that Arcan would have attacked him, and if he survived the attack, he would have been the one asking to be left a pistol.

        The Touch was invariably lethal.  Better to die by his own hand than to suffer that agonizing death, and potentially take everyone he knew with him.

        “Kyv, what are you doing back?  I thought you went out prospecting,” Timble said as he came into the shop, carrying a small box of dulled chisels that would be sharpened by the younger apprentices.

        Kyven blew out his breath, then leaned over his workbench.  “I don’t think I’m ever going to do that again,” he said.  “Timble, Aven’s dead.”

        “What?  What happened?” he gasped.  “Did he have an accident?”

        “He was attacked by a Touched Arcan,” he said.

        The entire workshop stopped, and they all ran to him, asking him questions, clamoring fearfully around him.  “I wasn’t there when it happened,” he said over them, then he told them what happened.  “The Loremaster’s probably organizing men to search the woods right now,” he surmised.  “To make sure there aren’t any more of them.”

        “Wow, Kyv!” one apprentice gasped.  “I woulda fainted if it woulda been me!”

        “I almost did,” he admitted, shuddering.  “To think I was that close to the Touch,” he said, then trailed off.

        “What’s all this?  Back to work, the lot of you!” Holm’s voice boomed across the shop, which caused the apprentices to rush back to their own benches or duties.  But when he saw Kyven sitting at his bench, he hobbled up and leaned against it.  “You’re still working induction tomorrow, wether you take the time off or not,” he teased.  But his teasing smile faded when he saw Kyven’s fearful expression.  “What’s the matter, son?”

        Kyven repeated it to Holm, who frowed throughout.  “There hasn’t been a case of the Touch in Atan for twenty years,” he grunted.  “I’m sorry to hear about your friend, son, but be thankful in one way.  Your friend may have saved quite a few lives, and at least he understood that at the end.”

        “Yeah, he did,” Kyven sighed.

        “But don’t let it scare you either, son.  It’s been twenty years since something like this has happened.  Don’t think it’s going to happen every other day.  Keep on prospecting, son.  If you hide from it, the fear will gnaw at you.  Just jump right back on the horse.  As soon as the city watch sweeps the forest and says it’s safe, get back to prospecting.  You need enough to open your own shop and try to put me out of business, you know,” he grinned.

        “Maybe tomorrow,” he said, looking up at his mentor.

        “Well, get out of here, young’un,” he said, shooing him.  “Go relax or something.  I don’t want to see you until sunrise tomorrow.”

        “Yes, sir.”

 

        The village was all atwitter over news of the attack.

        Everyone knew now what happened, and that the old mountain man Aven had been killed.  Everyone was a little concerned, but Kyven saw that there wasn’t any panic, just concern.  The miners did come in from the mines, gathering in their camp in the clearing above the village, and most of the able-bodied men gathered in groups and did a thorough search of the area, led by dogs and hunters as they searched for any signs of other wild Arcans in the vicinity that might be infected.

        There was some fallout, though.  The vet who had a shop at the edge of town found a long line of men and women dragging Arcans with them, some on leashes, all of them collared, to have them checked to make sure they weren’t infected by the Touch.  It was an irrational idea, for if they were infected it was too late now, as it would have spread to anyone who had touched them.  But there they were, queued up and waiting for the vet to check their Arcans.  There was also a sudden glut of Arcans down at the kennel, fearful people who had sold their Arcans after hearing the news, probably selling them for a song, which the kennelmaster probably was happy to do.  He could just wait for the panic to settle down and sell the Arcans he bought at a tidy profit.

        There were a few other incidents that night, too.  Kyven was one of many woken by a commotion out on Gem Street, and he and the other apprentices came out to find three young men beating a small rodent Arcan with heavy sticks, a small female wearing a maid’s dress.  The Arcan was collared, huddled against a wall in a fetal position as they beat and kicked it.  Master Holm stormed out angrily and shouted them down…not for beating an Arcan, but for making such a loud issue about it.  Holm didn’t particularly like Arcans, and wouldn’t buy any to work in the shop.  Virren appeared as well, coming from down the street, wearing nothing but a pair of braes.  While Holm berated the three young men, thin spatters of blood on their faces, the alchemist collected up the shivering, whimpering Arcan and carried her back to his shop.  A squad of the watch arrived, and after talking ot Master Holm, they took the three young men and carted them up to the courthouse.  Attacking Arcans wasn’t illegal, but attacking a collared Arcan was an attack on another citizen’s property.  They’d have to answer for that, and pay the owner of that mouse restitution for the damage they caused.

        “Did you see the way its arm snapped like a twig when they hit it?” one of the younger apprentices said excitedly.  “It was so cool!”

        “I didn’t see anything cool about beating a defenseless Arcan,” Timble told the youth, a bit coldly.  “How’d you like three miners to drag you into an alley and beat you til your bones break?”

        “Timble, zone, zone, it’s just an Arcan,” the youth sniffed.

        “I hope nobody ever looks at you and decides that you’re just a cutter,” Timble told him, then stormed back into the workshop.

        “What’s his problem?” one of the other apprentices asked after Timble left.

        “Guess he’s one of those Arcan lovers,” the first boy snorted.  “They’re just animals, for the Trinity’s sake.  They’d be running naked through the woods if it wasn’t for us.”

        “Break it up, boys, and back to bed!” Holm boomed, shooing them towards the shop.

        But Kyven didn’t move.  He remembered the look on that mouse’s face, the blood, the fear in her eyes, and an image of the dead Arcan that had attacked Aven seemed to superimpose over it in his mind.  They were both Arcans, but they were…different.  One had been maddened by disease, violent, the other was just terrified.  But neither of them had any control over what happened to them.  The canine had been driven mad by the Touch, blood mad, violent, while the little mouse had probably been sent out onto the dangerous streets by an owner who hadn’t considered the heightened tension in town because of the attack.  One was dangerous, the other harmless, but both had been nothing but victims.

        Kyven found himself at Master Virren’s shop before he knew what he was doing.  The main door was open, and Virren was in his customer’s waiting room, where the wares that Virren’s shop created were on shelves in display for those looking to buy.  The burly alchemist had placed the Arcan on the counter, a large hand on her stomach to hold her down as she seemed to convulse, coughing up a copious amount of blood, smearing on the counter and into her gray fur.  He glanced back at Kyven just once, but a cry of pain from the Arcan caused him to look back to her.  She gasped, her back arching, and she grabbed Virren’s wrist in a powerful grip, then she slumped to the counter and gave a long, eerie sigh.

        Virren sighed and shook his head.  “Stupid, senseless people,” he grumbled as he reached up and used his fingers to urge closed the Arcan’s eyes.

        “Master Virren,” Kyven called, a little fearfully.

        “Such a waste,” he sighed.  “Since you’re here, run this up to the watch.”  He reached behind the Arcan’s head, and unfastened her collar.  That surprised Kyven, that he could do it without the owner’s key, but he was an alchemist.  Odds were, he made that collar, he would certainly know how to take one off without the key.  He held it out in a quivering hand.  “I’m not going to let them skin her like an animal and butcher her for meat,” he growled.  “She deserves a better end than that.”

        “Master Virren?” he asked in confusion as the burly alchemist collected up the Arcan, blood smearing on his chest, his hand stroking her fur and gray hair almost gently from her closed eyes.

        “Just do as I said, son,” he said, cradling the dead Arcan almost gently.  “Now get you gone.”

        Kyven couldn’t do much else.  He walked along dark streets in his undershirt and trousers, on bare feet, taking the collar to the watch building.  It was a small building by the courthouse the twenty men who made up the watch used as their headquarters.  The town’s jail was in the building, which was usually only used to hold a miner who had a little too much to drink, but did see its share of real criminals.  Since there were so many crystals and artisans in Atan, it attracted drifters and thieves who came to prey on the town’s residents.  Right now, the jail were said to hold four such thieves, waiting for the Loreguard to come on their monthly visit to cart the thieves off to Avannar to serve their sentences, a deal that Atan had had with Avannar for nearly fifty years.  Avannar had the Black Keep, a prison on an island in the middle of the city where the city housed prisoners from several outlying towns and villages in addition to their own, providing the towns a means to punish lawbreakers without straining their own resources.

        “What is it, fella?” the watchman said as he came into the main hall of the watchhouse, a room lined with benches in the front and tables behind a gated waist-high fence in the back.  The three young men who’d been carted up here sat at those tables, where uniformed watchmen wrote on loose papers on the desks across from them, taking their statements or something, he supposed.

        “Uh, Master Virren told me to bring you this,” he said, offering the watchman the collar.  “The Arcan those men attacked died.”

        “It did, eh?  Not a surprise, they must have torn its head off if the collar came off.  Cevik, change it to destruction of property and theft by deprivation!” he called back to the men behind him.  He took the collar from Kyven and put it on the desk.  “I’ll make sure this gets back to whoever owned it.  Have Master Virren bring the body to the watchhouse.”

        “He said he’d take care of it, sir.”

        “What does that mean?”

        “I think he was going to deal with the body, sir.”

        “Well, he’ll owe the owner for the pelt and the meat,” he grunted, making a note in his little book before him.  “Virren, you said?  The alchemist on Gem Street?”

        “Yes, sir.  That’s him.”

        “I’ll have a watchman go talk to him in the morning so he can settle with the Arcan’s owner.”

        “Thank you, sir,” Kyven said with a nod, then padded out of the watchhouse on bare feet.  He sighed and hooked his thumbs on the waist of his trousers, pondering what he’d just seen.  It seemed, well…silly.  Why would three men beat up an Arcan like that?  She was too small to be any threat.  Sure, he was no Arcan lover like Virren, but he also just didn’t see any sense in being that way.  Torturing Arcans for fun was no fun in his eyes.  He was a decent man, he didn’t inflict pain on others, be them human, Arcan, or animal, just for his own amusement.  People who did were just sick.

 

        Induction.

        No matter how unsettling yesterday had been, it wasn’t much better than this.  Standing in the warm pre-dawn at the front door of the shop, where a large crowd had formed.  It was a ritual of sorts all through Atan on this morning, the Monday before Midsummer, where the parents of children formally presented them to artisans in hopes of having them taken as apprentices.

        Some shops simply interviewed all comers and tested the children to select that year’s round of apprentices.  Some shops, like Master Holm’s, had already carefully screened the applicants to find the kids with the aptitude, and the money had already changed hands.  All these boys had already been accepted.  Some had a mixture of those extremes.  In almost every shop, though, it was the same.  Parents would pay the artisans to apprentice their children.  After the first year, if they were taken as indentured apprentices, they were literally the property of the artisan.  Kyven and Timble were owned by Holm, who could pay them whatever he wished, treat them however he wished, even sell their contracts to another crystalcutter and pack them off to another shop.  When an apprentice was indentured after the first year, the apprentices had to earn their keep, be it either with manual labor or with producing goods for the shop.  Holm set a yearly amount that represented the money it cost him to feed, house, clothe, and train his apprentices, and each apprentice had to earn enough money to meet or exceed that amount through work.  Some apprentices, like Timble and Kyven, earned the shop far more than what the shop paid to support them, so they didn’t pay Holm, they were instead paid by Holm a percentage of the difference of those sums.  Not every shop did it the way Holm did, but Kyven had to admit, Holm’s system was fair.  Holm didn’t have to pay them a single chit for their labor, but he quite fairly allowed them to profit from their hard work and dedication to the shop.

        Kyven was a private man, and having to face some thirty or more faces unnerved him a little.  He didn’t mind speaking to the other apprentices when he taught them, because he knew them.  But these were strangers, people he didn’t know, more people that might discover his secret and think he was crazy.  “Good morning,” he said nervously to the nine families, nine eleven year old boys and their parents, and even a few older and younger children who had also come, all of them dressed in their Sunday church best.  “I’m Kyven, one of Master Holm’s senior apprentices.  Please, step inside, all of you, and go down the hall to the schoolroom at the end.”

        He remembered being on the other end, holding his father’s hand as the grizzled miner led him into the schoolroom, feeling nervous and afaid.  Kyven had known that he’d be separated from his father then, that he’d be living here, and that idea had scared him.  His father had been his only family, and to be separated from him was almost traumatizing.  He remembered his father kneeling before him, holding him by his shoulders, and telling him in that voice damaged by mine dust, “ya do yer best, squirt.  Master Holm’s a fair man and a good crystalcutter, one of the best.  He can give ya a future here, train ya to be more than I ever could, far better than ya wasting out yer lungs in the mines like yer old man.  I’m not leaving ya here because I don’t want ya, I’m leaving ya here because I love ya.  Can ya understand that, squirt?  Good.  Now, I’m gonna get out of here so I don’t distract ya.  Just do yer best and remember to write every week.  I lova ya, son.”

        He could still hear that voice, just like it was yesterday.  And it was the last time he’d ever heard his father’s voice.  His father died in a mine accident six months after Kyven began his apprenticeship…which put even more pressure on him at his first year test.  If  he’d failed that test and been put out, he’d have been homeless, with nowhere to go.  There was no telling what would have happened to him if he would have failed to win an apprenticeship with another crystalcutter.  He’d taken that first year test literally with his life on the line, and thank the Trinity, he’d passed it.

        That memory made him a little more tolerant of the fussing parents as they hugged and gave encouragement and instructions to their nervous, frightened sons than Holm had been at his own induction.  Holm had been surly and a little scary, yelling at them, banging his cane on the floor, scaring them into doing as he commanded.  “Everyone take a seat when you get free of your parents!” Kyven called.  “Parents, wrap it up, it’s not like we’re tossing them in a dungeon!  You can see them next Sunday!”

        Kyven sat on the teacher’s table as the parents and siblings fussed with the apprentices for a few more minutes, then filed out, blowing kisses.  When they were all gone, when it was nothing but Kyven and the apprentices, he was silent a moment.  He blinked when the light in the room seemed to shimmer from the lamps, and then he felt it.  He felt the eyes.  He looked to the door leading to the front showroom, and it sat there in the doorway, glowing green eyes unblinking, just watching him.  He shook his head and blinked, then looked back, to see it was gone.

        Thank the Trinity.

        “Good morning, then,” Kyven called.  “My name is Kyven Steelhammer, I’m one of the two senior apprentices in Master Holm’s cutting shop.  Today, you will hear me talk more than you will hear me talk for the next ten years put together,” he said, which made the onlooking apprentices who know him laugh in agreement.  “There’s only one man in this shop that speaks with a larger voice than me and the other senior apprentice, Timble Longbranch, and that’s our Master Holm.  Let me explain what we do here one more time, because I’m sure you were too nervous to fully appreciate it.  Myk,” he called.  A fourteeen year old hurried over carrying a small box, handed it to him, then left.  “Boys, what we do here is take this,” he said, taking a raw red crystal out of the box, a fairly large nine point crystal, “and then turn it into this,” he said, taking another nine point out, cut in the Princess cut, a heart-shaped crystal that was slightly oval.  “This is a crystal, boys.  A mana crystal.  These are the backbone of all those nifty little gadgets and devices you use around the house, the army uses to keep us safe, and so on and so on.  We cut the crystals they mine out of the mountains, and then the alchemists use them to power the devices they build.  Each crystal is unique, boys.  Each crystal holds inside it the power of magic, but it’s not refined, not focused.  It comes to us raw, and we inspect it, study it, analyze it.  We study its structure to understand how the magic in it flows, and then we cut the crystal to maximize that power.  Each crystal needs to be cut to bring out that power, so every cut is different, unique to that crystal.  We use basic cutting patterns as a guide, but every crystal’s cut is unique.  No two are ever cut exactly the same.  Our job, boys, is to make each crystal as strong as possible.  The better we do, the stronger they are, and the longer they last when they power things like that,” he said, pointing at the lamp hanging from the ceiling.

        “Cutting is a job that requires two skills, boys,” he said to them.  “The first skill is appraising.  You have to see what kind of potential a crystal has, and by appraising it, you know how best to cut it to bring out the crystal’s maximum potential.  After you appraise it, you move to the next skill, and that’s making the actual cuts.  You’ll learn both of these skills, and here, at this shop, you have to be good at all both of them.  Some men are good appraisers, but can’t cut.  Others are good at cutting, but can’t appraise.  You won’t find them in this shop.  To make it here, you have to prove you can take a crystal from beginning to end, take a raw crystal, appraise it, then cut it.  And remember one more thing, boys.  This is not a game, but there is competition.  In one year, you’ll take your first test, and only two of you will be moving into indentured apprenticeship.  If you want to not worry about it, then don’t.  I don’t think any apprentice that wasn’t picked didn’t go on to get apprenticed at another shop, but that’s because Master Holm is the best.  He only takes the best to be his apprentices.  So, the seven of you who don’t make it, don’t panic.  You’ll apprentice to another cutter and go on to make a good living.  But if you want to be here for more than to make a living, if you want to be the best, then work for it.  Work to be one of those two who makes the cut.

        “You’re going to be very busy for the next year, boys.  First, we’ll teach to read.  We teach you to read because being a good cutter requires you to be able to read and study books and draw up cutting diagrams if another cutter is doing the cut.  And you’ll study lots of books.  Master Holm has an entire library on books about crystalcutting, and you’ll read them all.  While you study books, you’ll work with us, the older apprentices, and we’ll teach you the art of crystalcutting from the beginning to the end from the practical side.  You’ll watch us appraise and then cut crystals, and you’ll learn the method behind the craft.  We’ll teach you the skills, while the books teach you the theory and the science behind cutting.  But, since you are just started, be ready to work.  You’re going to be doing a lot of sweeping, scrubbing, washing, and cooking for your first year…but I’m sure you knew that.”

        The boys chuckled a little and nodded.  “When you prove you’re good enough, you’ll take lessons from Master Holm himself.  But that’s a privilege you have to earn.  At first, you’ll be working with the middle apprentices, the fourth and fifth years, and our tutor, Mistress Henna.  She’ll teach you to read, they’ll be teaching you the basics.  Once you learn the basics, you’ll be taking lessons with the sixth, seventh, and eighth years.  They’ll teach you the basic skills that the senior apprentices, me and Timble, and Master Holm will refine.  If you think it’s strange that you’re not being taught by us, consider this.  Part of being a crystalcutter is being able to teach your own apprentices when you finish your apprenticeship.  As you learn from your seniors, your seniors learn a skill you’ll practice yourself when you’re at their level.  And since we taught them, and we’ll be watching them, be assured that they won’t teach you wrong.”

        One boy raised his hand, then stood up when Kyven nodded to him.  “Sir, if you were taught by apprentices in your first year, doesn’t that mean you taught them when you were their age?  I mean, how can we learn to be the best if the Master doesn’t seem to be directly teaching us, and leaving our instruction to his own students who aren’t masters?  No offense, sir.”

        Kyven laughed.  “I asked that same question at my induction, kid, so no offense taken at all,” he smiled.  “It’s a valid question, and it deserves an answer.  Yes, I was teaching first years in my fourth and fifth years.  But it’s not a matter of filling glasses over and over with a pitcher until the water’s gone, kid.  It’s like pouring the same water down the line from glass to glass.  Each glass gets filled to the same amount.  Yes, Master Holm won’t be giving you direct lessons until you’re in your third year minimum, but remember that he taught the people that taught the people that are teaching you, and he wouldn’t allow us to teach you if he didn’t believe we could teach you right.  He won’t be teaching, but he will be watching.  Master Holm is the best, boys, and that means he demands we live up to that standard.  You’ll learn more from our fourth year apprentices than you’d learn from the masters in other shops in Atan.  But you’re going to work, boys.  Trust me, you’re gonna work for it.  Does that answer your question?”

        “Yes, sir, thank you, sir.”

        “Don’t call me sir,” Kyven snorted.  “My name is Kyven.  You can call me Kyv.  Any other questions?  Yes, stand and speak,” he nodded to a blond boy in the front row.

        “Mister Kyven sir, my father said we’d learn numbers and the law, too.  Do we?”

        “Yes.  Master Holm will teach you everything you need to know about running a cutting shop, and that includes being able to do numbers to keep your books, being able to run a staff that keeps your shop going,  and understanding the laws of Atan concerning cutters and the rules of the Crystalcutter’s Guild, which you’ll be allowed to join when you start your own shop.  But you won’t start taking those lessons until your eighth year.”

        “Thank you,” the boy said, then he sat back down.

        “Any other questions?” he asked, and they were silent.

        “Alright then, let’s begin by showing you where you’re going to sleep for the next year.  Now, everyone pick up your things and follow me.  I’ll show you to the first year dormitory.”

        Kyven took them up and had them pick beds in the attic, which had two rows of four beds facing each other and a lone ninth bed by the stairs.  Each bed had a footlocker and a small desk against the wall behind it, where the first years could practice reading, writing, or practice using the cutting tools.  They had a brief moment of interaction with the other apprentices that had taken the test yesterday.  It was an awkward moment.  Seven of those nine boys were leaving the shop today at noon sharp, and the two who passed would be moving one floor down.  They were looking at their replacements, looking at that feeling that they were just cogs in the machine.  Kyven singled out the boy who had asked him about learning from Holm and had him take the bed by the stairs. “Listen everyone,” Kyven called.  “For now, this boy is your dorm chief,” he told them.  “He’ll hold this position for the first week, until Master Holm interviews you and chooses who will lead the first years.  So, at least for this week, you obey him up here in your dorm.  It’s his responsibility to make sure the dorm is clean and orderly, but how you keep it clean and orderly is your own affair.  When I was in my first year, we all met and drew up a schedule of chores that rotated every week so everyone did a little instead of a few doing everything, and nobody got stuck doing a job they hated all year.  It worked for us, it may work for you.

        “Look around, boys.  See how clean this dorm is?   See how all the beds are made, all the walls are clean, and how every footlocker and desk is polished?  This is a clean and orderly dorm.  This is how it has to stay.  Think about what you need to do to keep the dorm clean, how you want to do it, then meet and do it.  We won’t tell you what to do, and it’s your first test as an apprentice.  We all work together here, boys, you have to prove that the nine of you can work together to keep your dorm clean and orderly.  You have an hour to unpack and meet each other, boys.  Put your things away, get to know each other, and I’ll be back in an hour to take you to breakfast.”  He tapped the dark-haired boy on the shoulder.  “Remember, kid, it’s your job to keep order, but don’t make them angry with you.”

        “Yes, sir!” he said, putting his rucksack on the bed and opening it.

        That was the start of a long day.  Kyven basicly herded the new apprentices around the shop all day.  After breakfast, He gave them an extensive tour of the five floors and basement of the shop.  He showed them every room that concerned them, and introduced them to the only three servants in the shop, the three women who served in the kitchen to do most of the cooking.  Every one of them would spend time in the kitchen themselves as their chores, helping Amva, Shii, and Surry cook the large meals required to feed the some twenty men and boys that lived and worked in Holm’s shop.  He showed the schoolroom where they’d learn to read and take other lessons, then took them into the workshop, where the apprentices and Master Holm did the actual work of the shop, cutting crystals.  The clever dark-haired boy looked around curiously, then raised his hand to ask a question.  “Excuse me Kyven, but where are the other apprentices and their benches?  I mean, if there’s two a year and we’re here for nine years, shouldn’t there be eighteen benches?  I only see twelve.”

        “You’re a sharp one, kid,” Kyven chuckled.  “Just getting past the first year test isn’t a guarantee.  There are only ten apprentices here right now besides you first years. Master Holm has dismissed or sold off nine of them, and bought the contract of one apprentice in return.”

        “Sold off?” another boy asked.

        “Master Holm holds the contract for your services, kid,” Kyven explained.  “He can sell that contract to another crystalcutter who needs apprentices, and believe me, kid, masters need apprentices.  We’re the ones that do most of the work.  Since I’ve been here, Master Holm has sold five contracts to other shops,  three apprenctices were dismissed, and one died in an accident last year.  That’s why there’s only ten of us, instead of eighteen.”

        “Why would he sell a contract and send us to another shop?”

        “He may not like you,” Kyven shrugged.  “He’s gotten rid of a couple of apprentices that just got on his nerves.  You may not be making it at our level, but are still good enough to be a competent cutter to work in another shop, doing easier work.  We’re the best, kids.  We cut crystals they won’t dare risk taking to other cutters.  This shop has cut crystals worth tens of thousands of chits, and if they’re cut wrong, they’re worthless.  Some of you may not be up to that kind of pressure, but be good cutters.  And you’ll find plenty of work, cutting smaller, less expensive crystals.  The last apprentice to be sold had that problem.  He was a great cutter, but he got nervous, and he couldn’t seem to be able to handle cutting anything that was valuable for fear of ruining it.  He works over at Master Jevik’s shop now, and he’s doing well.  He’s happier over there.”

        “Wouldn’t a master like Holm rather buy accomplished apprentices from other shops, then, instead of taking us in from the beginning?”

        “You’re smart, kid,” Kyven laughed.  “He has bought a few apprentices like that.  Merik, a seventh year, started over at Master Torvan’s shop.  But Merik was an exception rather than the rule.  Merik came in his second year, his first indentured year, so he hadn’t really learned enough for us to have to undo and retrain.  Master Holm prefers to control every aspect of his apprentice’s education, so he knows beyond any doubt that you were trained and educated the right way.  With an apprentice from another shop, you never quite know what they’ve been taught, or what bad habits they’ve been taught you have to undo.  In a shop like this, working with the crystals we do, that’s a risk Master Holm doesn’t like to take.  He’d rather go through fifty apprentices to find the one good one rather than buy promising-looking apprentices from other cutters and have to retrain them.  After all, Master Holm is already quite wealthy and established.  He can afford doing it his way.”

        “I understand, Master Kyven.”

        Kyven laughed.  “If Master Holm heard you call me that, he’d whip your bottom red.  Never call another apprentice Master.  We haven’t earned that title.  If you don’t want to call me Kyv, then call me Senior Kyven, because I’m the Senior Apprentice.”

        After the tour, they were introduced to Mistress Henna, a gray-haired spinster who made her living by teaching reading and writing, which were rare skills outside of government and the clergy.  After that introduction, Kyven explained the chores they’d be doing.  He then fed them lunch, took them back to the schoolroom, and Master Holm met them.  He gave them a speech about what he expected of them and what he would teach them, then he sent them to their dorm and called them down to his office, one at a time, to interview them and test them.  All of them had already been given tests in coordination and dexterity or Holm wouldn’t have even accepted them, but he liked to give them a second test in stressful conditions to see how they handled the pressure.  He would make them cut an intricate pattern out of a piece of paper with a razor blade while he was screaming, yelling, banging pots and pans, and throwing things at them.  While they were interviewed one by one, Kyven got their names and wrote them on a slateboard at the head of the stairs of their attic dorm, and assigned them their shop chores for the first week.  After the first week, the dorm chief would assign those chores.  After the interviews, the first years were introduced to the rest of the apprentices again, more formally, at dinner in the main dining room.  “Get used to it, boys, because tomorrow you’ll be doing the serving!” Holm told the first years with a laugh as Surry ladled stew onto their plates.

        Kyven leaned on his hand and played with his stew a moment, feeling exhausted after herding the new kids all over the compound, glad that the day was over.  He saw the light shimmer a little around the table, as if the crystal in the lamp over them was about to fade, and he blinked, then looked around.  There was a strange light around that clever dark-haired boy, the one that had all the questions, like a soft glow, and there seemed to be a golden hawk perched on his shoulder sedately, looking down at his plate.

        Not again.  Why had it been happening so much in the last few days?  He blinked and turned to look behind his chair, and there it was.  The fox.  Sitting sedately, silver-tipped tail wrapped around its front legs, watching him with those glowing green eyes.  He looked away deliberately, staring at his plate, blinking his eyes.  He looked back to make sure that the hallucinations were gone, and saw that he could no longer see a hawk on the new boy’s shoulder, but then realized that the fox had not vanished.  The fox still sat there, still watched him, and it did not go away.  It persisted all through dinner, as Kyven kept glancing behind his chair, ruining his appetite.  He left the table first, going around the fox, who again moved.  It turned its head, watching him, and when he was behind it, it stood up and turned around.  As Kyven walked down the hallway towards the stairs, it followed.  He turned and started up the steps, looking behind himself, but it didn’t follow him up.  It simply stood at the base of the stairs, looking up at him as he looked down at it.

        Then it barked.

        That sound startled him into missing the step.  He fell against the stairs, sliding down a few steps before catching himself, then he got up on his knees on the stairs and looked back down as his elbows throbbed in pain from having the skin stripped off of them by the corners of the steps.

        He’d never heard it make any sound before.  Its bark sounded vaguely like a dog, but different at the same time, deeper, throatier, more forceful.  It stood at the base of the stairs and just looked at him.

        By the Trinity, was he really going crazy now?  Before, it had never been like this.  It had never moved anything but its head, but now, in the span of two days, this recurring vision had moved, twice, and now he heard it bark?  He got back to his feet, but the fox barked again, making his jump and nearly fall down again.  He looked back and saw it standing there, not sitting there, but standing there, its tail bouncing slightly behind it.  It took a single step back, then turned sideway to him, and then barked again.  It took a couple of steps down the hall, then it barked once more and looked up at him…expectantly?

        It wanted him to follow it.

        Kyven immediately thought of what happened yesterday.  He had followed it yesterday, and it had literally saved his life.  What harm was there in following it again?

        Plenty of harm.  To follow it was to acknowledge it, to acknowledge that it was there, and face the fact that he was going crazy.

        But crazy or not, it had saved him yesterday.  He owed it to the fox to follow it now.

        He started down the stairs.  It vanished around the corner, walking down the hall, and he saw it down by the alley door when he reached the landing.  He started when the fox walked through the door like it wasn’t there, but then recalled that though it always looked solid, it really was just a figment of his imagination, and was therefore not bound by the laws of reality.  Kyven rushed down to the door and opened it, then looked out into the narrow alley.  He saw the fox walking away from him, moving up towards the dead end, where the door to Virren’s shop was located.  It stopped, turned, and sat down by Virren’s door, and watched him.

        He was startled.  That was it?  It brought him out into the alley?  Why?  Maybe he really was crazy.  It certainly made no sense.  He turned away and was about to go back in, but he heard a door open down the alley, and he stopped and turned partially around to look.

        The fox was gone, but behind where it had been sitting, Virren’s door opened.  Virren himself stepped out, and he seemed to look down the alley.  He stopped and stared at Kyven in surprise, and moved to step back into his shop, but a small figure behind him literally walked into him from behind.  It was covered in a cloak, a full, deep cloak.  Virren turned and urged the figure back into the shop, and when it turned, its cloak rose up just enough for Kyven to see its foot.

        A gray-furred Arcan foot.  The tip of a pink mouse tail ghosted down by that foot, and then slipped back up under the cloak.

        It made Kyven stop as he realized what he was seeing, and fully comprehend what was going on.  That small figure behind Virren was the Arcan that he thought had died in his shop last night.  Virren had saved it, somehow, healed it of its injuries, and now he meant to…to what?  Keep it?  Clearly he was taking it somewhere.  What did he mean to do?  It didn’t seem to be, well, legal.  He was slipping the Arcan out the back of his shop at sunset, when most people were eating dinner.  And now that he thought of it, he’d taken the Arcan’s collar off it last night, made Kyven take it up to the watchhouse.  And the watch was going to come down and make him pay for the worth of the Arcan’s body since he’d kept it.  So what was the reasoning here?  Had he paid for the value of the Arcan’s pelt and meat, just to try to steal the Arcan?  That wouldn’t work, the town was too small.  Someone was going to visit his shop and see the mouse, and word would eventually get back to the original owner that Virren had stolen the Arcan.  He couldn’t keep it, he didn’t kill it and sell its pelt and meat…so what did he mean to do with it?  Sell it?  He couldn’t sell it to anyone in town, and couldn’t sell it to the kennel, so was he going to sell it to a merchant?  Was he going to meet a merchant to sell it to him?  If he was meeting the merchant like this, the merchant had to know the Arcan was stolen, and there was no guarantee the Arcan itself would keep quiet if it had been fond of its former master.  Dealing with stolen Arcans was a dangerous business, especially since Arcans weren’t all that expensive.  Kyven had enough chits and raw crystals saved just from prospecting and his pay to buy an Arcan, if he wanted to.  It would be an untrained one, maybe a wild Arcan or an older one, but he could buy one.

        Very weird.

        Bark!

        Kyven started, whirling around.  The fox was back.  It stood in the mouth of the alley, at Gem Street, then turned and started slowly walking away.  Kyven only hesitated a second before moving to follow.  He was curious now, very curious, and illusion or no illusion, now he wanted to see what else it meant to show him.  He followed the fox as it padded through town and left on the Avannar Road.  It went just out of sight of the village, then turned down a hunting trail.  Kit followed it, not paying attention to the fact that it was getting dark as it led him down to another section of Cougar Creek, near a ridge where Cougar Creek had a small, five rod waterfall as it drained down into the Blue Valley.  Kyven followed it to the top of the waterfall, then it sat on a flat rock near the edge, its back to him, wrapped its silver-tipped tail around its front legs, and looked down.

        He had never seen the back of it like that before.  Its fur was thick, a little shaggy, and dark, almost black.  The tips of its ears and the tip of its tail was silver, just like the ruff under its chin.  Kyven seemed mystified by his old hallucination, and crept up behind it.  Its ears twitched slightly, but it did not look back to him.  It looked down, down to what Kyven knew was a little meadow at the base of the irregular waterfall that wasn’t entirely vertical, merely very steep.  He advanced to near the edge, and saw someone down there.  For some reason, he didn’t know why, he knelt down out of sight, then realized he was so close that he could reach out and touch the fox if he wanted to.  He resisted the urge to try, for he knew it wasn’t really there.  It was just an illusion, a hallucination…but maybe, maybe it was more.

        For the first time in his life, Kyven pondered the possibility of a third option.  Maybe he wasn’t crazy, and maybe he wasn’t Touched.  Maybe…maybe this fox was, was real.  Maybe not real like the real world, but maybe it was real in some way he didn’t entirely understand.  He had always thought it was nothing but an image, but the last two days had proved to him that it was more.  It moved.  It could even bark.  And it seemed to know things.  It had warned him of the Touched Arcan, had lured him away from the creek and to safety.  And it had lured him into the alley to show him Virren, but Kyven didn’t understand what that meant.  And now, now it had lured him out here, to the top of Cougar Fall, where a shadowy figure stood in the clearing at the bottom in the darkening evening.

        Kyven leaned forward just enough to look over the mossy rocks of the edge.  The figure was still there, a bit gloomy in the twilight murk as the dimming light compounded the shadows of the surrounding forest, a very tall figure that looked…wrong.  It wore a cloak, and he was looking at it from above and behind, so it was hard to pin down why it didn’t look right, but it didn’t.  It seemed, well, not standing right.  When it turned, he realized why it seemed that way.

        It was an Arcan.

        A muzzle appeared from the hood of the cloak, and then it pushed the cloak back to reveal the hilt of a sword as a faint rustling tickled his ears.  A rust-colored furry paw gripped the hilt of that weapon, and the shape of the muzzle hinted that this was a canine Arcan…a coyote, or perhaps a wolf.  Kyven saw a shadow at the edge of the small clearing, and two shapes appeared from the deepening gloom.

        It was Virren and the mouse Arcan.

        Virren stood up and raised his empty hand, and the cloaked canine released the hilt of his sword and stepped up.  Then they clasped wrists in some kind of greeting.  “Thank you for coming so quickly,” Virren told the Arcan.  “Any trouble from the sweep?”

        “Luckily no,” the Arcan replied.  “We saw it coming when we found signs of a Touched Arcan in the area.”

        “Was it anyone I know?”

        “No, we’d never seen him before.  It was a roaming feral Arcan.  Who did he kill?”

        “Aven, a mountain man, no one of consequence,” Virren answered.  “Come now, my dear,” he said gently to the cloaked mouse, “this is Shard, the coyote I told you about.  He’ll take care of you from here.”

        “I’ll take you far from the human lands,” the coyote told her, holding his paw out.  “You’ll never be a slave again.”

        “Never?” she asked in a disbelieving voice.

        The coyote opened his cloak.  “Do you see a collar on me, mouse?” he asked simply.  “I’m a free Arcan.  Come with me, and you can be too.”

        “Free?” she said in a small voice, then she buried her face in her paws and dropped her knees, weeping.

        “There there, dear, there there,” Virren said comfortingly, reaching down and picking her up, keeping his hands on her shoulders.  “It’s going to be alright now.  But you do need me to give me my cloak back,” he said with a gentle smile.  “I may need it again.”

        “Of—Of course,” she said, sniffling.  She unfastened the cloak and gave it to him, revealing that she was wearing a wool shirt and a pair of leather breeches much like the clothes that Virren’s apprentices wore.

        Unbelieveable!  Virren was a sympathizer!  They were humans who hated the fact that humans enslaved the Arcans, and worked to free them.  He’d heard of humans like him, but had never believed he’d know one, because their beliefs were both radical and considered illegal by the laws of many coalition governments, including Atan.  What Virren was doing could get him hanged!

        Amazing!  What a cover Virren had, for he owned Arcans himself, used them in his shop!  Nobody would ever believe for an instant that Virren was a sympathizer…and maybe that was exactly why he kept Arcans.  But it fit.  It fit that off-handed remark Virren gave him about how Arcans couldn’t be animals because they could talk.  It explained why he was angry at the young men who had beaten her, and why he wouldn’t let them take her body.  He had saved her, and now he was risking his own life to hand her over to—

        To who?  An Arcan, but a free Arcan?  Kyven had never heard of a free Arcan that was, well, intelligent.  The Arcans that were free were wild, feral, acting like animals.  Sometimes they were captured and tamed to be used for labor, but those Arcans were never quite like Arcans who were born into it.  Tame Arcans were intelligent, they could speak, and could follow directions and perform complex tasks.  Was this coyote once a tame Arcan, but had slipped his collar and fled into the wilderness to the west of the Smoke Mountains?  There were no organized governments over there, just frontier settlements and mountain men eking out their own livings off the land.  Was he just one of many escaped Arcans who had banded together into one of those mythical Arcan villages that the mountain men liked to tell stories about, places were only Arcans lived, imitating the culture of the humans they had served?

        It was entirely possible.  This coyote, he knew Virren.  Virren had obviously summoned him here, somehow.  And he was dressed.  He wasn’t nude like what Kyven would expect from a wild Arcan, and he said he’d take the mouse far from human lands.

        There was a glint of movement.  The fox, who had been sitting so close to him, stood up.  Kyven watched it as it padded back towards the path to town on silent feet, its dark fur melding with the coming gloom until Kyven could see it no longer.  Was he supposed to follow it?  It didn’t turn to look at him.  Maybe this was what the fox wanted him to see, and now that he’d seen it, it was done?  Possible. He backed up from the edge so he wasn’t seen if he stood up, then turned and crept back to the path as quietly as he could.  He heard them talking as he retreated, but with the fox gone, he wasn’t sure he felt entirely safe.  If that coyote heard him or smelled him, it could catch him and kill him to protect Virren, who was obviously his friend.  One on one, he was no match for an Arcan.  Because of the shape of their legs, with that third joint in them like other quadripedal mammals, they could drop down on all fours and run as swiftly as any horse, but were just as nimble, agile and mobile as any human when standing upright because their thighs were just as long as a human’s thighs, which gave them stability and agility while moving on two legs.  Their legs were only different from the knees down, but they were different enough to give Arcans a way to chase down any human with ridiculous ease.  They were faster than humans, stronger than humans, and more agile than humans.  According to legend, Arcans were created to work and to fight, and that gave them distinct physical advantages over humans.  Kyven would stand no chance against him, especially since he had a sword and Kyven had no weapon.

        Kyven retreated from the falls as quietly as he could, and spent nearly an hour moving very slowly and very carefully along the path because it was now dark and Kyven had brought no light.  He had to literally feel his way along the path until he reached the road, and then the dim lights of the town guided him back to the safety of Atan.

 

        The town was the same, but he knew he was different now.

        It was different.  Kyven went to the Three Boars and sat at a table near the fireplace, with a tankard of ale in front of him, lost in thought.

        What he’d learned today…it made things different.  He’d discovered a dark secret about Virren, a secret that could get him hanged if Kyven ever revealed it.   But he’d never do that.  Virren was a good man, a good alchemist, and Kyven had always rather liked him.  What he’d learned about him tonight didn’t make him hate Virren, not at all.  Virren was following his heart, doing what he believed was right.  Kyven didn’t have much of an opinion about Arcans, so Virren’s beliefs didn’t impact him very much.  It did show Kyven that Virren was a very kind man, though, to care so much about the Arcans, so much he was willing to risk his very life for them.  And it was definitely a risk.  Virren wasn’t the only man that lived at the shop.  He had apprentices, servants…did they know about Virren’s secret?  Were they in on it?  It was impossible to know, and because Kyven could get arrested for aiding Virren’s activities if they found out he knew about them but didn’t report it, he wasn’t about to try to find out.  It was a secret that would never pass his lips, both for Virren’s protection, and his own.

        He learned something about himself, too.  The fox…it couldn’t be just a hallucination.  If it was, then the only way it could have led him away from the stream, led him to Virren’s secret, was if he had known about them himself, and that was quite impossible.  If it was a figment of his own imagination, then how did he know about that Touched Arcan?  How did he know Virren’s secret?  No.  The fox was not a mind image, not a hallucination, not a part of himself.  It was…external.  It knew things he did not.  The fox, it was real.  It wasn’t real in body, but—it was hard to comprehend.  The fox was something not part of him, but at the same time, it seemed to be something that only he could see…and not even all the time.  All these years, he always thought it was some sign of insanity, something he had to ignore.  But yesterday, the fox had taken action, forced him to recognize it as something other than a hallucination, and that saved his life.  And today, it had shown him Virren’s secret, for some reason he couldn’t quite understand, but it had.  Was it…proving itself to him?  Proving to him that it was real?  Or was there some undiscovered reason for why it wanted him to know about Virren?

        Questions, questions, and more questions, and no answers for them.  He took another drink of his ale, grimacing a little.  He hated the taste of ale, because he rarely drank it.  He’d always been afraid to get drunk, afraid that he might tell people about his secret when the alcohol loosened his tongue.  So he was always careful to keep control of his mental faculties all the time.  But tonight, after the revelations that were shaking his life, by the Trinity, he needed a drink.

        A figure came up to him, looming at the end of the table.  He didn’t look up, but he did when the figure sat down across from him.  It was Virren.  The burly man set a pewter tankard down with him on the table and looked at Kyven with hooded eyes.  Kyven could sense his…reservation.  Somehow, Virren knew he knew.  He didn’t know how much Kyven knew, but he knew he knew about the Arcan.

        “Ale?  That’s not like you,” Virren said, a touch nervously.

        “I needed it tonight,” he answered, then looked right at him.  “I never knew you had a girlfriend,” he said directly.  “She must have a brother that doesn’t like you to slip her in and out the alley door.”

        The aged man gave Kyven a long, searching look.  “I think I might break it off with her.  I enjoy her company, but it would be the scandal of Atan if we became common knowledge.  The old crones would talk about it for years.”

        “Well, they’ll never hear it from me, Master Virren.  When I have my own shop, I’d like to have you as a customer.  I can’t poison a business relationship before it even starts, you know.”

        Virren gave him a long look, then chuckled.  “I guess not.  And don’t call me Master Virren when we’re having a drink.”  He gave him a close look.  “What’s wrong?”

        “I had a nasty shock earlier today.”

        “Over what?” he asked nervously, but trying to sound casual.

        “I learned something about myself today, something that surprised me.”

        “What is that?”

        “I’m…not the man I thought I was.”

        “That can be good or bad, depending on what you discovered.  Might I ask which it was?”

        He looked to the fire, which burned despite the warm night, illuminating the tavern’s common room along with the crystal lamps.  “All my life, Virren, I’ve seen…something,” he said, tracing the lip of his tankard with a finger.  It spilled out of him, then, something he had never told anyone before, but something…something he just needed to say.  Something he had to admit.  “An animal.  A fox, but it’s not a fox.  It looks like a fox, but it has glowing green eyes that aren’t natural.  It watches me, all the time.  Sometimes, I can see it.  Sometimes, I can’t…but I know it’s there.  It’s watched me since I was a little boy, since the day my mother died.  Nobody else can see it but me.  I always thought it was a hallucination, that I was going crazy, but it never seemed to get any worse, and I got used to it.  Until yesterday.  Yesterday, for the first time, the fox appeared to me, and then left.  It walked away from me, then it looked back at me and…I just knew it wanted me to follow it.  It had never done that before.  I didn’t understand why, so I followed it.  I found out why just a few minutes later.  It lured me away from the creek, away from the Touched Arcan that killed Aven.  If not for the fox, that Arcan would have came across me first, but it went by me and attacked Aven instead.  It saved me, Virren.  I didn’t want to believe it, so I just went on, put it out of my mind.  But tonight….”  He took a long drink from his tankard.  “Tonight it showed me that it’s not a dream.  It’s real.  I know I’m crazy for saying it, but it is.  It showed me something that convinced me that it’s not a figment of my imagination.”

        “What did it show you?” he asked seriously.

        Kyven looked him directly in the eyes.  “That I can trust you with my secret,” he answered, then he looked into the fire.  “I don’t really know what to do with myself, Virren,” he said in a low tone.  “I don’t know if I should be happy I’m not crazy, or scared to death that I’m not.  Or maybe I really am, and just don’t know it.”

        “I don’t think you’re crazy, Kyv,” he said after a moment.  “Sometimes, we all see things that others miss.  We see things that others don’t, and they think we’re crazy for it.  I understand, my friend.  Probably more than you know.”

        “I guess,” he sighed.  “Thanks for the company, Virren.  I…I think I needed it tonight.”

        “Hey, a chance to get the most notoriously silent man in Atan to talk?  Who would pass that up?”

        He chuckled in spite of himself, and drained his tankard dry.  “I have just one question, Virren.  You don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to.”

        “What is that?”

        “Your girlfriend.  Will she be alright now that you’ve broken off your relationship?  Some women take that kind of thing very hard, you know.”

        Virren gave him a long look, then nodded.  “I think she will be.  She has friends to help her through it.”

        “I’m glad to hear that.”  He looked to the fire again.  “I’m going to head home, Virren.  Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.”

        “Oh, I think you might.  I managed to get my hands on a seven point green, Kyv, and it needs to be cut.  A crystal like that, who do you think I’m bringing it to?”

        Kyven laughed.  “I might not have hands steady enough for a crystal like that tomorrow, Virren.”

        “I wouldn’t put it any hands other than these, Kyv,” he said, patting Kyven’s wrist with his large, scarred hand.  “These are hands I can trust.”

        “Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Kyven chuckled, standing up.  He put a single chit on the table, an amber disc that shimmered with red flakes that made it sparkle in the firelight.  The Loremasters made them, mixing crystal dust with some special combination of tree resin and chemicals that hardened the resin into a material with the composition and hardness of amber.  It was inscribed with its value, one chit, which meant that the disc was worth 1/100 of the value of a pointweight of red crystal.  “We’ll see if my hangover lets me do any work tomorrow.”

        “Then I’ll wait,” Virren told him, then waved as Kyven left the bar.

 

        Virren leaned back in his chair, then waved to the Arcan barmaid, a slender mink whom the innkeeper kept naked to tease the patrons, wearing only a waist apron.  Though her breasts were covered with fur and they could see nothing, the fact that they were very handsome breasts that would do any human woman proud kept them coming back to be served by her.

        “Drink?” she asked in a meek tone, her words clear, but it was well known in the bar that her language skills didn’t go much past “drink.”  She could understand what drinks one wanted and was smart enough to be able to bring the right drinks to the right people, but that was about it.  She was cute, in an Arcan kind of way, pleasant on the eyes to humans because of her female curves, but she was as dumb as a box of rocks.

        But that’s all they were meant to see.

        “Another drink,” he said, looking right into her eyes.  He tapped his finger on the table, and made a single hooking motion, then turned his eyes and looked directly at Kyven as the young man left the inn.

        The mink’s blue eyes widened in surprise, and she nodded and hurried away.

        At the bar, she held her tray out to the male rat who was drawing from a large cask on a stand.  “Drinks,” she said to him.  She made the same hooking motion with her free paw on her tray, then looked the rat in the eyes.

        “Ale?” he asked.

        “Ale, ale,” she answered.  He put a full tankard on her tray, and she leaned forward, checked the location of the innkeeper, then brought her muzzle close to the rat’s ear.  “Kyven,” she whispered.

        The rat gave her a startled look, then nodded and turned to fill another tankard.  He put it on her tray, then put two fingers on the lip of the tankard, which caused her to nod imperceptibly.

        The mink brought the tankard to Virren’s table and set it down.  She put two fingers on the lip of the tankard and tapped it once.  He handed her a chit, and tapped it in her padded paw two times before releasing it to her.  She bowed to him and moved off to wait on another table.

        Virren leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on the table, and drained half his tankard in one long draw.

        Amazing.  Simply amazing.  Almost unbelieveable.  If he hadn’t heard it from Kyven’s own mouth, he’d wouldn’t have believed it…but he did.

        Kyven could see spirits.  The spirit had saved him, and from the way it sounded, had guided Kyven to Virren to show him that Virren was a man he could trust, had guided Kyven to the one man in Atan that would understand his cryptic confession for what it was, and see the truth.

        Kyven wasn’t crazy.

        Unless Virren was crazy himself, Kyven was a Shaman.  A human Shaman.  Just the thought of that seemed ludicrous, impossible, absolutely insane, but what he had heard from Kyven was just impossible to deny.

        In two days, they’d find out if his hunch was true or not.  In two days, the Masked would send a Shaman to check and see if the impossible had indeed come to pass.

        In two days, they’d know.

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    1      3

Chapter 2

 

        His mind just wasn’t in it.  However, years of doing what some said he was born to do took over.

        Kyven’s hands slid over the small green crystal, about the size of a paddleball, oddly spherical and very, very valuable.  It had a strange radial lattice structure, a kind of spiral swirl of lattice within that focused the power of the crystal quite naturally, giving the crystal more innate power than other crystals its size.  This kind of unusual energy pattern in the crystal made it difficult to place any basic template on cutting it.  This would be completely freehanded, because a crystal like this required an absolute minimum of cutting to express it.  He’d barely do more than shave the rough outer shell off the crystal, chipping it away at natural faults within the crystal that inhibited the power within from flowing smoothly and efficiently.  The result would be a nearly round green crystal, looking like a dimpled ball.

        He held up the crystal to the light, looking at it, looking into it…looking through it.  It was how he appraised crystals.  He didn’t need a magnifying glass like the other cutters.  He could see that it had no internal flaws at all, a truly perfect crystal that must have cost Verrin a bloody fortune.  A green crystal was rare enough, but one this big with no flaws?  Usually, the bigger the crystal, the more minor internal flaws it had, which diminished a crystal’s increase in power compared to size after they went past fifteen points, but even smaller crystals usually had at least a few very minor flaws in them that a cutter had to identify and cut to make the crystal’s power flow around it.  This seven point green crystal was flawless.

        He set it on the stand and begun, though his mind wasn’t on what he was doing.  His hands worked by themselves, slicing off the rough exterior of the crystal along natural planes as his mind still whirled from the last couple of days.  Not only was the fox not a hallucination, but he’d told someone about it.  But, at the time, it seemed the right thing to do.  Something inside him just opened the floodgates on impulse, and his deepest secret had spilled out of him before he knew it.  But even now, he didn’t really dread what he’d done.  Some part of him told him that he’d done the right thing.  He knew Virren’s dark secret, and knowing it just seemed to bring it out of Kyven.  Virren knew how to keep a secret.  Virren wouldn’t tell anyone, just as he wouldn’t tell anyone that Virren was a sympathizer.

        But to know that the fox wasn’t an illusion, to admit it to someone else, which admitted it to himself…he couldn’t stop thinking about it.  The main question, the one he couldn’t answer, was how.  If the fox was not part of him, not a figment of his imagination, then what was it?  If it truly was external, then why was he the only one that could see it?  If he was the only one that could see it, didn’t that mean that it was a figment of his imagination?  But it wasn’t a figment of his imagination, because it had proved it.  Those two paradoxical thoughts just tumbled over and over in his mind, as cyclical as the chicken and the egg.  It couldn’t be an illusion because it knew things he did not, but it couldn’t be external because nobody else could see it but him.  If it really wasn’t a part of him, then what was it?

        He had absolutely no idea.  He couldn’t even venture a guess.  He just had no idea, no inkling.  It was a question so far beyond his understanding that he wouldn’t even try.  It was something he could not explain or understand, and he had to leave it at that.

        There had been no help in the books he’d read at the Loremaster’s library this morning.  There was no mention of anything like it.  The only thing that came close was some theology book that talked of demons and angels.  This fox didn’t seem like it could be some kind of religious being, so he discounted that.  Besides, the book said angels were winged human-like beings that were part of the religious lore of the Trinity, while demons were scaly, ugly beings with horns and frightening visages.  This wasn’t anything like that.  Yes, it was definitely not natural, but it was no angel and it was no demon.

        He kept going around and around in his mind, lost in thought as his hands continued to work on their own, until he blinked and saw that it was done, and he’d worked through lunch, finishing just as the other apprentices were returning.  The crystal was cut with a myriad of tiny facets around its surface, producing a scillinting jewel that sparkled with green gleams and flashes whenever it was turned or moved.  It was cut with such small facets that it almost looked round, hundreds of them.  He carefully buffed it with a polish cloth until it all but dazzled in the light of his lamp, then wrapped it in a cloth and put it in a backpack.  He warned Master Holm he was delivering the crystal, then snuck the some twenty paces down the alley to Verrin’s door.  Bragga let him in and sent him to the forge, where Verrin and three of his apprentices took turns striking a piece of glowing red metal with heavy hammers while that canine Arcan held it steady and still with a pair of tongs grasped in paws covered with heavy leather gloves.  Kyven just stood back silently and watched and listened as Verrin explained the consistency of the alloy to the apprentices and told them that this alloy would be used for medical devices, for healing.  He quizzed the apprentices on why, and when none answered, he told them that iron was the metal most attuned to the body.

        Little wonder why he was forging alloys for healing devices given the crystal that Kyven had just cut for him.

        “Stoke it,” Virren commanded to the Arcan, and the canine turned and thrust the cooling metal back into the forge.  Another apprentice took up the tongs as the Arcan began working the bellows, tending the metal carefully as the Arcan stoked the heat of the forge.  “You’re finished already, Kyv?” he asked.  Kyven nodded and took off the backpack, then the pouch, then removed it from the pouch and unwrapped it.  Virren took one look at it and nodded in satisfaction.  “Old Gray!” he boomed.

        An aged, gray-furred coyote scurried into the room.  He wore a cast on his left arm, the arm caught up in a sling.  He wore nothing but a pair of thick leather breeches, a scarred leather apron, and a collar, and his arms and upper chest showed dozens of tiny little bald patches in his fur, burns from the molten metals with which the Arcans and alchemists worked.  “Take this to the vault,” Virren ordered, pointing to the crystal in Kyven’s hand.  “Put it in the double-locked chest.”

        The aged Arcan nodded and waited as Kyven wrapped it back up and put it in the pouch, then handed it over.  The Arcan held it close to his chest as he hurried out of the room.

        “I see he didn’t stay in his room long,” Kyven noted.

        “I couldn’t make him sit still,” Virren sighed.  “So I put him to some of the apprentice’s chores, things he can do with one arm.  The apprentices didn’t mind until I made them do an inventory of all our stocks.  Feeling better today?”

        “Some.  My mind’s just not been here today.  It’s a good thing my hands can work without it.”

        Virren chuckled.  “I know that feeling.  Hung over?”

        “Not really.  Just too much to think about,” he sighed.

        “It gets better.”

        “It has to.  If it gets any worse, I’ll end up in the Black Keep.”

        Virren chuckled.  “I heard that the miners are back to business.”

        “Yeah, Master Torvik was over this morning to talk to Master Holm, they were talking about it.  Master Holm thinks they’ll be moving the mines soon.”

        “Yeah, I’ve heard.  Smaller and smaller crystals, and they’re working harder to find them.”

        Kyven nodded.  “Looks like Cougar Ridge has almost played out.”

        “I think they’re going to try Maple Ridge next, a lot of the ground prospectors have had good luck there, and the exploratory mine they dug looked promising.  They found lots of shocked bedrock.”

        Shocked bedrock was the telltale sign that crystals were nearby.  The presence of the crystals altered the rocks around them, producing a kind of stone called shocked bedrock.  The shocked stone was more brittle than the stone around it, which was a boon to mining the crystals as well, but also required significant shoring and reinforcement when the mine had hit a major pocket of crystals, since cave-ins were such a danger when mining crystals.

        “Maybe we’ll start seeing some good crystals soon,” Kyven said.  “Master Holm’s business has dropped off.  He’s had some of the younger apprentices cut many more mainstream crystals than usual to keep up the profit margin, though he’s been telling them it’s just so they can get some extra practice.”

        “As rich as he is, he can afford a dry spell,” Virren chuckled.  “Does he still have those big raw crystals in his vault?  The ones he keeps on the stands?”

        “I don’t think I should be telling you what’s in Master Holm’s vault, Master Virren,” Kyven said simply.  “It’s not my place.”

        “True, true, forget I asked,” he nodded.  “Feel up to a tankard after you’re off, Kyv?”

        “No thanks, Master Virren, but thanks for the offer,” he said politely.  “I need to get back, I have a seven point red to double radial cut.”

        “A rare cut.”

        “I’m going to teach the cut to the youngers, it’s so rare they’ve never seen it done before.  There’s only so much you can get out of studying cutting plans in a book.”

        “Well, have fun with that,” Virren told him.  “See you later.”

        Kyven slogged through the training session, as all the youngers crowded around his bench and observed as he explained the approach behind the double radial cut, then did some cuts and then paused for them to see, and repeated that process all afternoon as they watched, took notes, and asked questions, until he chipped off the final burr at about their usual quitting time and polished it, then allowed them to examine it under his magnifying glass.  He sat quietly through dinner as the brand new first years served it, something of a tradition in the shop, and he left the table after barely touching his food and headed outside.  He walked aimlessly in the warm summer afternoon, without direction or purpose, as his mind was lost in thought, still consumed by the revelations of the last two days.  It was a sobering thought to discover that you’re not crazy, but that discovery leaves you with no rational way to explain what the hell is going on in its wake.  He felt powerless, impotent…stupid.  He just couldn’t explain it, and it was driving him nuts.  What was it?  What was it?  If the fox wasn’t an illusion, but only he could see it, then what was it?  Was it a ghost?  Was it some kind of phantom?  Was it some kind of crystal-eating monster that no human had ever seen before, and it had somehow latched onto Kyven since he was a kid, following him around like some kind of pet?

        It was getting close to sunset.  He looked up from the ground and realized he was quite a ways from town, on the Avannar Road, halfway down into the Blue Valley.  Cougar Creek bubbled merrily out of his sight, behind a stand of trees and a curve in the road where an old wooden bridge crossed over it, the last time anyone on the road would see Cougar Creek as it turned south and the road continued to the east.  He was nearly a half hour’s walk from town.  Had he really lost track of time like that?  He needed to get back.  It was almost the new moon, and the moon wouldn’t rise until late tonight, which meant that it would be a dark, uncertain trudge back up the road if he didn’t get there before dark.  He turned around and started back towards town.

        Bark!

        Kyven stopped dead in his tracks.  It was the fox.  He remembered that sound.  He turned just his head and shoulders, looking behind him.  It was sitting in the center of the road, tail wrapped around its front legs, glowing green eyes unblinking.  Kyven almost ran away, but he was almost paralyzed by those eyes, those pupilless, glowing green eyes, twin pools of emerald radiance that looked at him with calm reserve.  He stared at it over his shoulder for a long, long moment, and then it uncurled its tail from its front legs and stood up.  It turned towards the side of the road and padded over to it, then stopped and looked at him expectantly.

        It wanted him to follow.

        Again, he found himself moving towards it almost against his will.  To follow it was to recognize it, and to recognize it only drove him insane with confusion as he struggled to understand this absurdity, tried understand that which could not, should not exist.

        And yet he followed.

        It led him down a narrow game trail to the creek, then along the creekside for nearly twenty minutes.   Kyven jumped the creek again and again as the fox padded along in a straight line in front of him, walking along the bank, and what made his eyes widen the first time he saw it, on top of the water.  It proved that the fox wasn’t there, wasn’t real…and yet it was.  It looked solid, looked real, but there was nothing there.  It was just an illusion, a spectre in his own mind, but it was something with an external intelligence that was not part of him.  At the base of the valley, nearly two minars south from where the road was, the fox finally stopped at a steep bank of the stream as it turned fully south and followed the base of the ridge, nearly three rods from the water to the top of the muddy wall, nearly, so high that the grassy top of the bank was just over Kyven’s eyes.  The fox then walked out over the top of the water, went to the far side of the slow-moving, deep area of the curve, and started pawing at the surface of the water almost as if it was digging.

        There was…something there.  He could feel it.  There was something there it wanted him to find.  It had brought him here to show it to him.  But what?  What was he here to find?  He approached and stopped at the edge of the stream, then realized that whatever it was, it would require him to get wet.  He pulled off his clothes, putting them on the bank and standing nude before the fox as it continued to paw at the water’s surface, then he waded into the stream, felt a cold chill go up his spine as the cold water collided with warm skin, and felt the muck ooze between his toes as he stepped out into the streambed.  The fox stopped pawing and moved, then sat down and curled its tail around its front legs a few paces upstream of where it had been as Kyven reached where it had been pawing.  The water was thigh-deep where the fox was, and when he knelt down to put his hands down to the bottom of the streambed, the water lapped at his chin.

        He had no idea what he was looking for.  He felt around among smooth rocks half-buried in the mud at the bottom of the stream, his fingers probing, and at one point brushing up against something cold and slimy that flinched and retreated from him.  His fingers probed down into the mud, searching for…what?  A rock?  Some special piece of mud?  A buried stick?

        No.  That.  He felt a strange tingle against his pinkie, a tingle he usually only felt when working with crystals.  They had a tingle to them, the tingle of the power in them, a tingle he was so used to feeling when he did his work that he really paid it little mind.  He carefully shifted his hand until he felt the tingle between his thumb and middle finger, then carefully and gently squeezed them together.  He felt something small between them, something that was secure in his hand as he pulled it out of the mud.  When his hand was free, he swished it in the water vigorously to clean the mud off his hand, then pulled it out of the water and looked.

        He almost dropped it.

        There, between his fingers, was a white crystal, a two point crystal, about the size of  large pea, and his fingers tingled at the touch of it.

        He couldn’t believe it.  It was…it was…it was a treasure!  This tiny crystal was worth—By the Father’s grace, it was worth a bloody fortune!  Even though it was only a two point crystal, it was white. With that one tiny crystal, he could buy out his contract with Master Holm and have enough left over to buy his own tools, even put a down payment down on his own shop!

        He could buy out his contract.

        He could buy out his contract.

        He looked to the fox.  Its form seemed to meld with the deepening shadows of the forest, until only its eyes were visible, and then those vanished.

        He was alone.

        He sighed.  But, it was more proof that it was no part of himself, no hidden side of his mind.  It had known about the white crystal and led him to it, led him to a crystal so valuable he could free himself of his indentured service to Master Holm.

        It truly was something outside of him, some external consciousness.

 

        He knew he should feel giddy, ecstatic, but he just felt…lost.

        It was a long, slow walk back to Atan, in the rosy light of the morning sun.  He’d sat on the muddy streambank until well after sundown, and then only got  up to move to the dry, warm sand of the sandbar facing the steep bank.  He’d sat on the riverbank as the sounds of the night washed over him, passed through him, as he just thought.  He thought about the fox, what it was, what it meant.  He thought about what was happening to him, why it was happening to him, but he could find no answers.  For long hours in the dark, he sat there, naked, and could find no answers.  He didn’t understand.  He knew it was impossible, it was crazy, it was insane, but he knew he wasn’t going crazy.  What had happened, what was happening, no one would tell him he was crazy if they knew all the facts, but they’d say it was a crazy situation.

        That was the dilemma.  That was the paradox.  It was an impossible thing that could only be explained by an equally impossible answer.

        Over the night, he could only come to one conclusion, but that conclusion gave him no comfort.

        Perhaps there was more to the world than he’d been taught.  Perhaps there was more to the world than people knew.

        As far as the crystal was concerned, he knew what he needed to do with it.

        As the sun rose the next morning, he finally decided to move.  Besides, Master Holm was probably worried sick when he realized that Kyven didn’t come home last night, for someone would have come to wake him by now and would find his room empty.  He put his leather smock and woolen pants back on, slipped his feet back into his soft boots after cleaning the sand off of the bottom of his feet, then went back up the game trail to the road and started the climb up the gentle, zigzagging ridge to return to Atan.  People looked at him curiously when he came up the Avannar Road nearly an hour after sunrise, but none of them really knew him well enough to talk to him…and that was the way he’d arranged it.  Kyven was an enigma in Atan, a gifted crystalcutter who was intensely private and very reserved, rarely saying more than two words to anyone with whom he didn’t interact at work, or didn’t pester in the bar to learn about prospecting.  They didn’t know him, though they knew of him.  A crystalcutter of his ability was a common point of conversation in a town filled with crystalcutters, miners, and alchemists.  Some of the girls had tried to catch his eye, hoping to marry someone who would clearly be a wealthy man once he established his own shop, but none had yet to get him to say more than ten words to them, even though they could tell that he enjoyed their attention and seemed to like their company.  The girls often speculated that he either preferred men, which was highly scandalous behavior, or he had some kind of dark secret for him to be interested in girls yet not accept their invitations to court them.

        If they only knew how right they were.

        He returned to the shop and came in through the customer’s door.  Mistress Henna gave him a surprised look when he came in through the schoolroom, interrupting her lesson of teaching the first years to read, and then ignored all the calls, jokes and questions from the workshop when he arrived tremendously late.  He went straight to Master Holm’s office, and opened the door without knocking.  Master Holm was sitting at his desk, a lamp above illuminating the room as he wrote in his ledger, tallying the costs and profits of the day before.  “What’s the matter, son?” the old man asked in sincere concern after taking one look at him.  Holm knew Kyven well, and Kyven could rarely hide anything from him.

        Kyven closed the door and came in, then sat at the chair opposite the desk. “I…I’m sorry I’m late.”

        “Kyv.  Son.  I’ve been your mentor and your friend for nine years, I’ve known for days now that something’s been bothering you.  Is it Aven?”

        “It—well, that’s just a part of it, Master Holm.”

        “Son, that was just an accident.  It wasn’t your fault.  It was blind luck, and you shouldn’t kick yourself over something you had no control over.”

        “I know.  It’s more than that, though, Master Holm.  Things are changing for me.  Things are…different.”

        “Son, these things happen.  You’ve been a damn fine apprentice, a good worker, and one of my few friends.  If you need some time away from the shop, it’s yours.  Your good health is more important to me than the bottom line.  Your workbench will be here when you get back.”

        “I appreciate that, Master Holm,” he said, reaching into his belt pouch.  “But I could never do that to you.  Last night, while I was walking, I found myself down at the east end of Cougar Creek, where it turns south and goes down into the valley.  Well, I didn’t really know what I was doing there, and well, when I was looking around, I found, I found this.”

        He put the white crystal on the desk, on top of Holm’s ledger.

        The old man’s eyes gawked in shock.  “By the Trinity, boy!” he gasped.  “You found this prospecting?”

        He nodded.  “In the streambed,” he answered.  “Master Holm,” he said with a cleansing breath, “I want to buy my contract.”

        “Good heavens, son, you could buy out both yours and Timble’s contracts with this!  You could buy your contract and buy your own shop with what’s left over!  You need to take it to the bankers immediately!”

        “No,” he said, putting his hand over the crystal.  “You’ve been a good man to me, Master Holm.  You taught me more than you’ve taught anyone else, even Timble, and you’ve always been a good friend.  I want to repay you for that.  This is for you, to buy my contract.  Take what’s left over and just hold it for me for now.  I trust you with it.”

        “Hold it for you?  What are you talking about, son?”

        “I, need a few days to think over some things, Master Holm,” he said.  “With what happened with Aven, and finding this crystal, and a couple of other things, I’ve had a lot on my mind, and I think I need to take a few days or maybe a week and think things through.  And when I’m ready to come back, well, Master Holm, you have been talking about scaling back, maybe retiring.”  He took in a breath.  “I want to buy your shop, Master Holm, buy a stake in it for now, and work to pay you the rest of it once I work through this and am back at work.”

        Holm gave him a long look, then laughed.  “Done!” he said immediately.  “Son, I was planning to offer to bring you on as a partner after you finished your contract with me, both you and Timble!  You think I want to try to compete with you two?  You’re nuts!  I’m too old to try to work that hard!  I’d rather have you as a partner than a competitor!  As long as you agree to keep Timble on as a journeyman until he can buy in as a partner, I’ll take that offer!”

        “This shop wouldn’t be the same without Timble, Master Holm.”

        “Don’t call me that anymore, boy,” he grinned toothlessly.  “I’m just Holm now.  You’re not an apprentice anymore.  I’ll send a letter to the Guild by lunch, Kyv.  By the end of the day, you’ll be an artisan crystalcutter.”

        Despite his problems of the last couple of days, he couldn’t help but feel a little pride at that declaration.  He’d been working to earn that title for ten years, after all, to go from apprentice straight to the owner—or part owner, in this case—of a shop.  That was the difference between a journeyman cutter and an artisan cutter.  Artisans were shop owners, journeymen worked in them.  Usually, the Guild would require that Kyven take a test to prove his cutting skills, but that would be a silly thing to do in his case.  Holm’s affirmation that he was good enough was all they’d need, and Kyven’s cutting skills were well known in the village.

        Holm reached his hand across the desk.  “Congratulations, Master Kyven,” he said with a broad smile.  “You just bought yourself a stake in the shop.”

        “Thanks, Ma—er, Holm,” he said, then he chuckled as he shook Holm’s hand. “It’s going to take a while to get used to that, after nine years.”

        “It won’t take long,” he said, picking up the white crystal and standing up.  He went past Kyven and into the main shop, then banged his cane on the floor.  “Listen up, everyone!” he boomed.  “I have an announcement!”

        The apprentices stopped what they were doing and looked to him.

        “Today, Kyven has bought out his contract, and is no longer an apprentice!” he announced with a broad smile.  “Our little prospector went out and found this,” he said, holding up the white crystal to show them.

        Everyone gasped, and every single one of them asked “where did you find it!”

        “On Cougar Creek, down in the Blue Valley,” he answered them.

        “Needless to say, Kyven has bought out his contract, and I’ve offered him a partnership here at the shop,” he said.  “So don’t call him an apprentice any longer!  He’s Master Kyven now!”  He reached out and clapped Timble on the shoulder.  “And when you finish your contract, son, you’re welcome to join us, too.  I was going to offer both of you partnerships, but Kyven’s lucky find forced me to spoil the surprise,” he said with a chuckle.

        “Congratulations Kyv!” Myk said, and Kyven accepted several handshakes and claps on the back.

        “No more work today!” Holm shouted.  “Today we celebrate!  Leo, wrangle up all the first years and send them to the kitchen, and tell Surry to cook us a feast for tonight!  Tim, Kyv, come with me.  We’re going to the banker, and I don’t want to walk the streets alone with this!”

        Timble and Kyven escorted Holm to the banker in the center of town, by the watch house, and the old man revealed his plans to them.  “I was going to tell you during the Yule,” he told them.  “When you were six months from finishing your contract.  Keep you on as journeymen, let you earn enough to buy in as partners, then let you slowly take over for me.  I’m getting old, boys, and I wasn’t planning on staying in business much longer after I set you two loose, cause I won’t be able to compete with you, so the only way to do it is to sell you my own shop rather than have you run it out of business between the two of you,” he chuckled.  “But Kyv got lucky, and I didn’t want you to think things were going to change too much, Tim,” he told the young blonde man.  “You two have been like sons to me, and I’ve never trained a better pair of apprentices.  Kyv bought out his contract, and put down a payment on his share of the shop.  When you’re released, Tim, you’ll be on as a partner too, but you’ll have to earn it.  You’ll start as a journeyman until you have enough to buy in, then you’ll be a partner.  Is that a problem, son?”

        “It’s only fair, Master Holm,” he said simply.  “You taught us to be fair and honest in all dealings, especially with each other.  I don’t mind at all, because I know I’ll make it.  I can easily earn it.”

        “Good lad,” Holm told him with an approving nod.

        They entered the bank, which was a recent institution out of Avannar.  The bank held onto money that people left with them, a safe place to keep it, and it was backed by the word and bond of the Loremasters.  Most people in the village had an account with what was simply called the bank, and in the four years it had been there, the bank had thus far been honest and forthright.  It gave back any money its customers had on deposit when they asked for it.  If they didn’t, the Loremasters would come down on them like an avalanche, so they were always very careful to be totally honest and fair in all their dealings.  The bank was a large building by the watch house, with stout, barred windows and a thick door, beyond which was a large common room split in half by a large counter, behind which bank workers stood and helped customers.  Each worker had before him a ledger, a scale, and a crystal glass for examining crystals in detail.

        The banker almost had a stroke when Holm set the crystal down on the counter.  “Weigh it,” Holm ordered.

        “I—I can’t help you with this, it’ll take a manager, Master Holm,” the young man said, keeping his hands away from the crystal like it was a live snake.  “Master Jenkan!  Master Jenkan, your assistance please!” he called urgently, waving towards the desks at the back of the room.

        Master Jenkan was one of the original five men who came to open the bank.  He was about sixty, with a bald head he kept hidden under a brimmed hat and a dark woolen suit.  The old banker in his dark suit nearly had  stroke when he saw the crystal.

        “Weigh it,” Holm demanded with a smug smile.  Jenkan took it with a shaking hand and put it on the scale, then added tiny weights to the other side.  “Two and one eighth points,” he said, almost reverently.

        “What’s the going rate for white crystals?” Holm asked.

        The banker turned and consulted a slateboard hanging in the back of the large room.  “The stated rate is twenty thousand two hundred fifty chits per point,” he said.  “At two and one eighth points, that’s forty three thousand thirty one and one quarter chits, sir.”

        “Then I’ll take all but five hundred chits on deposit in the shop account and take five hundred in cash,” he stated calmly.  “Bring me my money and write me a receipt.”

        “At once, sir,” he said, carrying the crystal away.  He called over a burly armed guard, and the guard escorted him through the back door, towards the bank’s vault.

        “Where did you find it?” the young teller asked in amazement.

        “Cougar Creek, down in Blue Valley.  Kyven found it.  Got it panning the bank, he said,” Holm told him with a grin.  “Boy’s bought into my shop, he’s a partner now.”

        “Wow, congratulations, Master Kyven,” the teller said.  “Cougar creek, you say?  Whereabouts in Blue Valley?”

        Kyven laughed.  “Down where it turns south after coming down off the ridge.  Good luck.”

        “Hey, you found one, maybe I will too,” he said with bright eyes.

        The banker, Jenkan, returned with a small pouch and a written receipt.  “A receipt, sir.  The balance has been credited to the account of your cutting shop, as noted here.  Five hundred chits cash,” he said, pouring twenty amber coins out onto the counter and tallying them, twenty twenty-five chit coins.  “However did you come across such a find, Master Holm?” he asked curiously.  “Did a miner sell it to you?”

        “Kyven found it prospecting,” Holm chuckled.  “Used it to buy out his contract and buy into my shop as a partner.”

        “Congratulations, sir!” Jenkan said.

        “Thank you,” Kyven said with a nod.

        “Where did you find something like this?” he asked curiously.  “I would think that it would have been found long ago, given how many miners and villagers prospect the region.”

        “Pretty far out from here,” Kyven told him.  “Down where Cougar Creek comes off the mountain and turns south into Blue Valley.  I guess it got washed down after that last storm.”

        “Odd, quite a few pan that area.  I guess you got lucky, sir.”

        “Very lucky,” Timble laughed.

        Kyven left the bank with his new partner and friend feeling…free.  He wasn’t indentured anymore, he was a free man, and now a partner in Master Holm’s shop, working for himself rather than for someone else.  The shop’s profits were his profits, and the shop’s problems were now his problems.

        “Aright, boy, let’s go celebrate while the youngers take advantage of our absence to have fun,” Holm chuckled.

        Holm rarely went out, but when he did, he went to the Crystal Chimes, an upscale festhall on the east side of town.  Unlike the Three Boars, this tavern, inn, and festhall catered to the artisans, not the miners, so the furniture was better made, the place was much cleaner.  The common room was fairly large, with tables and benches arranged in neat patterns, a hearth on the right wall, a stage in the back left corner, and a bar dominating the remainder of the back wall.  The near left corner had targets on a wooden post for darts and knives, which were highly, highly popular games among crystalcutters.  The young, pretty daughter of the innkeeper, whose name was Junni, curtsied to them as they came in.  There were only two other people in the common room when they arrived, giving Junni very little to do.

        “Good morning, Master Holm!” she said brightly.  “Would you like some breakfast?”

        “I want a platter of spiced potatoes and bottle of blood wine, we’re celebrating today!” he said.

        Junni giggled.  “Isn’t it a bit early for blood wine, Master Holm?”

        “Usually yes, but it’s not every day you release an apprentice!” he answered.  “So bring me a bottle, some paper, and a pen.  I have a letter to write before I get too drunk!”

        They were seated and brought a bottle of blood wine, wine made from a type of grape called the blood grape that produced a sweet, delicious ruby wine, and the Crystal Chimes’ famous spiced potatoes.  They were strips of potato glazed with a glaze of piquant spices and baked in a brick oven, which were among the most famous special dishes served in Atan.  Master Garva, Junni’s father and the owner, had rejected multiple attempts by merchants and competitors to either buy or steal the recipe for his spiced potatoes.

        “Kyv, let’s have a turn at the posts before we can’t aim!” Timble offered.

        “You just have a deathwish today, eh?” Kyven asked.

        “Brave words when you’re using the house’s knives!” he laughed.  “Five chits a game!”

        “Your money,” he shrugged.

        Timble procured six throwing knives from Garva and held them out, fanned in his hands.  Kyven waved his hand, and Timble split them into two groups of three and handed Kyven one set.  “The back line,” he said, pointing.

        The game was called Posts, which was related to darts.  The board and throwing lane was up against the left side of the wall, in front of the small stage, where two posts were set, each with a pair of large round targets.  One of those targets on each post was a horsehair dartboard, while the other was a spongeboard, a spongy kind of wood with a tiny crystal-powered device that caused it to repair punctures from the knives.  Where dartboards were set up in a radial pattern, wedges divided by three sets of rings to create the double and triple score areas and the two inner bull’s-eyes, postboards were a series of concentric circles, some twelve of them, divided into four quadrants of north, south, east, and west.  Each ring had a value from twelve to one, with the outermost ring being the most valuable and the innermost ring worth one…but the center bull’s-eye was worth ten.  The idea of the game was to play eight rounds of three knives each and score as much as possible.  On each round, a sector of the board was worth double points going clockwise around the board from north.  The trick of the game wasn’t the bull’s-eye, but the outermost ring.  But the danger of the outermost ring was that if one missed and the knife went out of bounds, then all scoring for that entire round was lost.

        This was the game of choice among almost all cutters, because their highly developed manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination naturally translated to throwing knives and darts.  It was all about control, and cutters had control of their hands.  And Kyven was a great posts player.  His natural dexterity made throwing knives totally natural for him, and he was the best posts player in the shop.  He could very nearly be the best posts player in the village, but he almost never played in public.  He didn’t like to draw attention to himself, because he’d always feared getting too friendly with people and blurting out his secret to the wrong person.  Usually he wouldn’t even play posts here, but there were only two people in the place besides them, and they both looked too hung over to really care about two apprentices playing posts.

        But Kyven and Timble both had taken it past that.  Master Holm was a fairly deadly throw at the posts himself, and Holm had expanded beyond posts to learn how to throw knives and daggers in self defense, and he taught that skill to his apprentices.  Kyven and Timble both could throw nearly any dagger or knife, even ones that were unbalanced, and sink them into almost any target, even from very long range.  Kyven and Myk were the best knife throwers in the shop, with Timble being a very, very close third.

        And the silly part was, Kyven virtually never carried a knife around with him when he went out.  It was a bit silly to be so highly trained with a weapon, and never carry it around with him.  He never carried one because he never felt particularly threatened anywhere in or around Atan.  He almost never went out after dark, when it was most dangerous, and he avoided places like the Three Boars when things got rowdy.

        “Age trumps,” Timble prompted.

        “Yeah, by two weeks,” Kyven snorted as he carefully weighed and hefted the throwing knife in his hand, balanced for throwing.  He then took it up by its blade, stepped up to the furthest line, which was some twenty feet from the posts, took aim, and threw.  His knife sank solidly into the north ten, which was worth twenty points.  His second knife slithered in just above it, on north eleven, and the third hit above that, on north twelve. A good posts player could get two knives into one ring sector, but it took a great posts player to put all three in the same ring, not without hitting another knife and possibly losing all points for a throw by either bouncing off the other knife or knocking one out of the board.  A knife that didn’t stick in the board counted as no points, unlike hitting out of bounds, which killed all points for all throws that round.

        “Ooh, Kyv’s too jumpy from his find to be good today,” Timble teased as he threw his three knives at his own postboard on the other post, and scored four points higher than Kyven.  “All that excitement at me having to call him Master Kyven,” Timble laughed as Kyven took his place at the line.  East and west were Kyven’s specialty, where most other post throwers preferred north and south.  He sank all three knives into the twelve point ring in east, then gave Timble a cool, amused look.

        The competition really began then.  As Holm wrote his letter and savored a glass of blood wine before many men had their first break of the day, Kyven and Timble were engaged in a fierce posts war.  Kyven took the first two games, but Timble roared back and took the next three, Kyven won the next three, then Timble took two in a row.  “No, this is too easy now!” Timble laughed, backpedaling and jumping up onto the stage.  “Come on,  Kyv, let’s make it a challenge!  Ten chits a game!”

        “You’re on,” Kyven told him, coming over and jumping up on the stage himself, then deliberately walking all the way to the back, as far from the posts as he could go.

        “You’re on!” Timble grinned and joined him.  “Back foot stays against the wall!”

        The “back foot against the wall” idea didn’t pan out as it didn’t give them enough room, so they decided on a line made from a piece of rope a pace from the back wall, which gave them enough room.  Kyven was first up, and he measured the increased distance and height change almost absently, took up his knife, and hurled it.  It whistled across the common room and sank into the target on the nine ring of the north sector.  He adjusted his aim and threw the second, hitting the eleven ring, and the third just barely hit the twelve ring.

        “I hate you, Kyv,” Timble laughed as he took up his knives.  The hate didn’t last long, though, for he scored a ten, ten, and eleven.

        Now they attracted a small crowed.  Several more patrons had come in for early lunch while they’d been playing at the line, but now that they were throwing from all the way across the common room, and still scoring highly, a few people wandered over to watch from the relative safety of the foot of the stage.  “Damn, Holm what do you teach those boys in your shop?” One of them, Master Torvik, asked with a laugh when Kyven threw his next three and scored eleven, eleven, ten.  “They must not have time to cut if they spend all their time playing posts!”

        “They have enough time to keep our profit margin higher than yours!” he teased back.

        “It sounds like we need a little friendly competition here, Holm,” Torvik told him.  Such a statement wouldn’t offend him at all; he and Holm were old friends.  “Why don’t I put my boys up against your boys in a little posts competition?  Each side puts up fifty chits, winner’s team walks away with it all.”

        “You’re on,” Holm said instantly.  “Tournament rules.  We’ll divvy them up by age.”

        “Hey, I’ll put my boys in on that action!” another cutter artisan, Master Yevn, called with a laugh.  “Not only do we have a little healthy fun, we give our boys some quality time to rub elbows with others in the craft.”

        “We’ll be happy to take your money, Yevn,” Torvik grinned.  “When do you wanna do it?”

        “Tomorrow is open for me,” Holm said.

        “I can bring my boys by tomorrow as well,” Yevn agreed.

        “It’s set, then,” Torvik agreed, clapping Yevn on the shoulder as Timble made his throws.  “No ringers!” he added with a laugh, “including these two!  I have no apprentices their age.”

        “Then you can throw against them yourself,” Holm offered.  “I’m a bit too old for posts anymore, one of them can represent the honor of the shopmaster against you two.  Say, whoever wins this game of theirs is my champion,” he grinned.

        “Hey, I like that idea!” Yevn said with a grin as Kyven made his throws.  “I wouldn’t mind throwing a set or two in a friendly tournament myself.”

        “That’s a deal, Holm,” Torvik agreed.  “We’ll have to add a new game to the tournament, though.  Hell, gentlemen, now I want to try a game of posts from the back of the stage!  That looks like great fun!”

        “It’s pretty challenging, Master Torvik,” Timble chuckled as he stepped up to make his throws.  He sent his knife spinning across the room, and it solidly drove into the eleven point ring.  “Just aim at eleven, that way you don’t blow your round if you miss,” he laughed, then threw his next knife, scoring a twelve.

        “I may have to aim at the bull’s-eye,” Yevn said, which produced quite a few laughs.

        It was a tight game, with Timble up by two points coming into the last round.  Kyven threw first, scoring ten, ten, eleven, and then Timble threw, scoring ten, eleven, eleven.  After they tallied it up, Timble laughed at the slateboard.  “Tied!” he announced.

        “Then play a tiebreaker game of Ladders,” Torvik urged.

        “Ladders from here?  This should be interesting,” Timble laughed.

        Ladders was a different knifethrowing game that was fairly simple and straightforward.  Whoever hit all twelve rings and the bull’s-eye won, but the catch was, if you hit the same ring twice, you lost credit for that ring and had to hit it again.  A game could be over in thirteen throws, or go on forever if they were bad knife throwers.  And from so far away, the control required to play ladders would make it a long game.

        It wasn’t as long as it could have been, but it wasn’t short.  The tricky part was the two, one, and bull’s-eye.  Both Timble and Kyven cleared the outer rings quickly, but when they got to trying for the bull’s-eye, they kept having to redo the inner rings.  Timble finally eked out a victory, to a round of cheers from both the patrons and the innkeeper, and they handed the knives over the Torvik and Yevn to let them try playing from that distance so they could go get something to eat and drink.

        “That was fun,” Timble laughed.  “I don’t beat you often, Kyv.”

        “I’ll definitely be looking for revenge,” Kyven chuckled.  They watched as Torvik and Yevn tried their first round, which was almost funny.  Yevn put two knives out of bounds on the first throw, and Torvik put two in for scores and completely missed the entire board with the last throw.  They both laughed at their performances, and Yevn defended himself by saying that they’d tried from the back  of the stage without warming up, and using house knives.

        “I think it’s a good idea to have the tournament,” Holm said as he sipped at his fourth glass of blood wine.  “The cutters should be more friendly with each other like the miners and the alchemists.  That we’ll win it is just an added bonus,” he all but purred.  “We should have an alchemist make a little trophy for the winning shop, so we can put it in the showroom for everyone to see,” he mused.  “Kyv, go talk to Virren about it.  While you’re on the way, drop this off at the Guild,” he added, handing him the letter.

        “Uh, sure, Mast—uh, Holm,” he said, which made Holm laugh.

        “Keep practicing,” he chuckled.  “Now get you gone.  You may be my partner, but I’m still the boss.”

        “Yes, sir,” he laughed, taking the letter and leaving the tavern.

        The posts game had done much for his mood.  He didn’t feel half so mopey or worried now that he’d spent a morning with one of the few friends he had.  Him and Timble had been together since their first year.  They’d passed the first year test together, and had survived eight years while other apprentices were sold, dismissed, or finished their contract and were released but not taken as journeymen at Holm’s shop.  Some of them were the premier cutters in other shops, two had opened their own shops, and the rest had left town to establish their shops in a village with less competition, or moved to Avannar where there was a demand for good cutters.  Atan and Avannar were the two places were a cutter could get a job quickly and earn a good living so long as he wasn’t a bad cutter.

        Word had already gotten out.  When he dropped the letter off at the Guild, the first large building coming into town on the Avannar Road, people kept stopping him in the street and asking him where he found it.  Everyone in the Guild building congratulated him, and asked him where he found it.  And when he came out of the Guild building after delivering the letter, he noticed quite a few miners and prospectors heading down the Avannar road instead of up into the mountains.

        Typical.  They were going to see if they got just as lucky.

        But in Kyven’s case, luck had nothing to do with it.  He’d been guided to that crystal by the fox, for the fox, for some mysterious reason, wanted him to have it.  Did it know he’d just use it to buy out his contract and try to buy a partnership in Holm’s shop?  He hoped so, for that was exactly what he did with it.  Free of his contract, he now worked for himself, and thank the Trinity that Holm let him buy a partnership with him.  Kyven didn’t really want to leave the shop.  It was his home.  But, he wouldn’t have been comfortable with anything but being a partner, having control.  He couldn’t be a journeyman in Holm’s shop, he had to be a partner, an artisan.  It was either own a share of Holm’s shop or strike out on his own and start his own shop.  He couldn’t be subject to someone else, not after nine years of working for another.  He was too good of a cutter to do that.  He could make it on his own, so that was exactly what he was going to do.

        He wouldn’t be back at work immediately, though.  He did want to take a couple of days and think it through, try to understand what the fox was and why it was helping him, try to find some answers to those questions that seemed to have no answer.  The fox wasn’t part of him, so he had to try to figure just what it was.  He couldn’t be all mopey and downcast over it.  He had to approach this like a cutter.  A cutter analyzed the crystal, took it in in its entirety, then carefully studied it to plan out exactly how to go about achieving the perfect cut.  That was what he had to do here.  He had to study the situation in its entirety.  He had to learn as much as he could, see the whole, then plan out his approach to achieve his perfect cut…which in this case was learning what he wanted to learn.

        He wanted to know just what the fox was, since it was clearly not a figment of his imagination.

        He wanted to know why he was the only person who could see it.

        He wanted to know why it was helping him.

        He had to come up with a plan to find out those three things, but it wouldn’t be easy.  And since it wouldn’t be easy, it was best if he didn’t have to worry about working for a few days as he tried to learn what he wanted to know.

        He entered Master Virren’s shop through the front door, like any other customer, and had the greeter, a paid servant who did only this, go fetch Master Virren or one of his senior apprentices.  Virren himself answered the call, wearing a burned leather apron and carrying thick gloves.  Kyven’s eyes lingered on the passage, though, because there was a strange shimmering behind the alchemist, in the hallway.  It was almost like how he saw things shimmer before he started seeing the fox or other things, but nothing came of it.  The shimmering faded away, and he didn’t feel the fox’s eyes on him.  “Kyven, I heard about your good luck.  Congratulations.  What did you do with it?”

        “I bought my contract and used what was left over to buy a stake in Master Holm’s shop as a partner,” he answered.

        Virren chuckled.  “Well, seems Holm’s smarter than I thought,” he said.  “If I was Holm, I wouldn’t dare let you try to compete with me.”

        “I’m glad he did.  I’d rather stay at the shop.  It’s home, you know?”

        “I can understand that.  What brings you by?”

        “Holm wants you to make a little trophy,” he chuckled, and explained what was going on.

        “Ah, I can do something like that.  Tell him it’ll run him thirty chits.  I can use a lampcast base and just make it pretty.”  He laughed.  “And tell him the honor of the alchemists must be represented.”

        “I think they’ll probably draw the line there, Master Virren,” Kyven chuckled.  “Maybe the next time, but it’s shaping up to be a battle of the cutting shops.”

        “Maybe the alchemists could arrange a similar little tournament, playing a better game,” he mused.  “We don’t obsess over posts the way you cutters do.”

        “Hey, it’s a game that plays to our strengths,” Kyven chuckled with a shrug.  “I’ll go let Master Holm know.  When will it be ready?”

        “By closing time, I can put my first stage apprentices on something that simple,” Virren said with a wave of his hand.

        “I’ll let him know.”

        “Well, Kyv, now that you’re a Master, what are you going to do?” Virren asked curiously.

        “Right now?  There’s a few things I want to think over,” he said, glancing back to the passage leading into Virren’s shop again.  He still could…almost see something, a dark shimmer, but there wasn’t anything there.  He blinked a few times and looked back, and the passage was back to normal.  “Important things.  After I work that through, I’ll be back at the shop cutting, but as a partner instead of an apprentice.  I still have to fully pay off my share to buy in.  Holm’s shop is valuable, so I have to pay quite a bit to fully buy in.”

        “How much?”

        “We didn’t discuss specific numbers, Virren.  When I’m bought in, Holm will tell me.”

        “Son, that’s not good business sense,” Virren chuckled.  “He could just milk you.”

        “We are always honest with each other, Virren,” he said simply.  “Besides, I have a long way to go.  It cost me five thousand chits to buy out my contract, and personally, I’d value buying into Holm’s shop at a fifty thousand, minimum.  Holm’s shop is the best shop in Atan, and it’s easily worth three times that.  I got a little over forty thousand from the crystal, so after you subtract  buying out my contract, I’m still a long way off from that fifty thousand.  It’ll take me about a year to pay off my share of the buy-in if I work hard, but I’ll make it.  I want to be completely bought in as quickly as I can, so Master Holm can feel like he’s free to retire.  He’s old, Virren, he’s earned it.  His pride in his shop is the only thing that keeps him going anymore.  He can retire and both me and Timble will be slowly buying out the rest of his interest, until he’s totally out.”

        “Timble too?”

        Kyven nodded.  “Holm actually was planning on offering at the Yule, but I found the crystal and ruined his Yule present,” he chuckled.

        “Well, I’m glad you did, son,” Virren told him.  “It means you’re totally free.”

        “In a way,” he corrected.  “I’ll see you later, Virren.”

        “See you soon,” he said as Kyven left the shop.

 

        Virren took a couple of steps back, near the door leading back into the shop, then leaned against the wall by the doorframe.  “That’s him,” he said quietly.  “Guess it was good luck he wandered by right now.  what did you see?”

        “He has potential,” came the reply from the hallway, a deep, rough, ominous voice.  “It’s subdued.  He denies his power, so it makes it hard to assess him.  I’m…amazed,” the voice said.  “A human.  What has the Great Spirit done?”

        “Remember who you’re talking to before you keep going with that line of thought, Stalker,” Virren said, a bit sharply.

        You are not bad, Virren,” came the unapologetic reply.  “For a human.  You risk your life to help my people, and for that you have my respect.  But your race has much to answer for, and until they are worthy of my respect, they will get nothing but my scorn.”

        “Then you’d better put that superior attitude back in your pants, because who do you think might have to take him back if he agrees to go with you?”

        The unseen figure growled, an inhuman sound.  “Not until I’m sure it’s worth our time,” came the answer.  “He has potential, but if the limit of his ability is to see spirits, then he’s best left here and unaware of the truth.  I will take a measure of him,” the voice announced.  “I will force him to show me if he is worth my time.”

        “I’ve never interfered with the Shaman before, Stalker, but I’d like you to listen to me.  Kyven has a neutral attitude towards Arcan, but he’s afraid of Shaman, like most other humans.  If you attack him to try see if he has any ability, you’ll poison any attempt to take him in and train him.  If he expresses any ability, it’s going to traumatize him.  He won’t be able to handle it.  He’s already walking a fine line just over his ability to see spirits.  I got him to talk to me, Stalker, and he thinks that he’s going mad.  If you drop something like that on him so abruptly, he might convince himself that he is.  Take my advice this one time, please.  That young man could be a tremendous asset to the Masked, if he sides with us.  That young man will not side with us if you try to scare him into showing his potential.  He’ll either be too afraid of you to go with you, or too afraid of himself.”

        “I will take a measure of him in any way I see fit,” the voice called, a bit coldly.

        “Which would you prefer, Stalker?  Having him as an ally, or scaring him to the point where you destroy his life?”

        “As it goes,” the voice called nonchalantly.  “After all, he’s only a human.”

        “He might also be your brother.  I don’t know much about the Shaman, but don’t you frown on fighting amongst yourselves?”

        “No Shaman would consider a human to be a brother,” the voice snorted coldly.

        “And if he is a Shaman?  Then what?”

        There was a long, uncomfortable silence.

        “Hold onto that feeling.  That’s how he’s going to feel.  It’ll be as shocking to him as it is to you.  Remember, he’s been taught that Shaman are evil, and he’ll be facing one, and facing the fact that he might be one.  How would you react to news like that?”

        “That…is an approach I can understand.  Very well, I will treat him like a cub.”

        “That’s the best thing you can do.  When will we approach him?”

        “We?”

        “It’s best if he greets you with someone he knows and trusts,” Virren told him.

        The voice snorted.  “Tonight,” he announced.  “I will go attend Old Gray for you right now.”

        “Don’t destroy the cast,” Virren warned.  “The village knows he broke his arm, if he shows up days later fully healed, people will talk.  Either I wasted valuable healing crystal on an Arcan, or Old Gray must be a Shaman.  Either rumor will cause me problems.”

        “I will leave the cast,” the voice assured him.

        Virren scratched his cheek.  Clearly, the spirits were moving.  The spirit that had attached itself to Kyven had saved his life, led him to Virren, now he’d bet that it had something to do with Kyven’s lucky find.  It was just too convenient for Kyven to find a crystal like that when a Shaman was coming to investigate him, that freed him of his indenturement and basically freed him up to be allowed to be taken to be trained.  And what was a masterful stroke for the spirit, had set it up so Kyven would return to a place of prominence, where he would be of tremendous use to the Masked.

        He was a little worried though.  Why did they send Stalker?  Clover or Coldfoot would have been much, much better.  They didn’t have Stalker’s attitude towards humanity, and were much more sociable and kind.  Clover could have sat down with Kyven and charmed him out of his fear with her charisma and wit, and Coldfoot could have used his gentle wisdom to debate away all of Kyven’s fears with kind words and logic.  Stalker…was not like them.  He would be harsh, abrupt with Kyven, because Stalker wouldn’t see a potential Shaman, he would see a human.  Stalker’s bigotry could do some real damage here.

        If he wanted a Shaman to come and deal with Kyven, he’d send for Clover or Coldfoot.  If he wanted someone killed, he’d send for Stalker.

        He just hoped they knew what they were doing.

 

        The shop celebrated Kyven’s good fortune all day.  Kyven, Timble, and Holm came back to the shop well after noon to something approaching a party in the workroom, as the apprentices played musical instruments, talked, and enjoyed themselves.  Kyven wasn’t in as much of a celebratory mood, however, and Holm had other things to do.  As the others celebrated, Kyven and Holm sat in his office and talked.  Holm showed him the books, they haggled over a final price for buying into the shop—seventy thousand chits—and Holm urged Kyven to talk about what had him so unsettled.

        It was different with Holm.  Kyven had just known that he was ready to reveal his dark secret to Virren, but he had no such similar feeling with Holm.  And without that powerful compulsion to push him into it, he held back.  It made it harder to convey what had him so upset without revealing that truth, but he finally managed to struggle through with half-truths and disjointed statement that let Holm draw his own conclusions.  Holm concluded for himself that the brush with death, the death of his friend Aven, and finding the crystal had converged in his mind to create a feeling of powerful uncertainty and unease.  His entire life had turned on its ear in the last three days, and since Kyven was a young man and quite domestic, used to a predictable life, this interruption in the daily routine had him a little jumpy.  It wasn’t the truth, but it was close enough for Holm to understand why Kyven wanted to take a few days away from his bench to come to grips with it and then get back to work.

        Word of the upcoming posts tournament had caused Kyven and Holm to come back out to an all-out posts practice session.  All eight of the other apprentices were taking turns at the four postboards they had, bringing them down into the workshop and pacing off the lines, then taking turns throwing using their own personal knives.  Holm gave everyone a set of their own posts knives for Yule in their third year, but the two second-year apprentices had bought hand-me-down posts knives from the older apprentices once they started earning enough money to buy their own set.  Holm’s gift knives were good, but a good posts player picked out his personal set himself, and the serious ones had them made. Kyven and Timble’s posts knives were made for them by Virren, specifically balanced and weighted to best suit their hands.  It took them both over a month to save for those knives.

        In the apprentice’s world, where they had little money of their own and little to actually buy since Holm fed, clothed, and housed them, posts knives were one of the few external luxuries and expenses.

        Kyven didn’t feel like joining them, however.  He excused himself from the others and took a walk about town, trying to think things through…but with no luck.  He simply couldn’t understand it.  Whatever was happening to him, it was far beyond him, and beyond everything he’d read so far to try to learn about it.  He just wandered aimlessly, without a destination, for most of the afternoon, trying to come to some kind of understanding.  Kyven was a bright fellow, and now that the shock of it had had a chance to sink in, he turned his sharp mind to the problem at hand.

        Point.  The fox was an independent entity, apart from him.  It knew things he did not, and seemed possessed of an external personality.  It seemed aloof, proud, because it had always simply watched with decorum and propriety.  It didn’t jump around like an excited puppy.  It was sober and serious.

        Point.  The fox was not an enemy.  It had saved his life, and led him to the crystal, which was of great personal gain to him.  It seemed interested in him, both in his life and in his welfare.

        Point.  The fox was not real.  It was a figment of his imagination, in a way.  It was independent of him, but it also at the same time did not exist.  It had no physical body, it could not be seen by anyone but him.  That made it more like a ghost than an animal, but a ghost that only he seemed able to see.

        Point.  Given all of that information, he could therefore state with some authority that he was not going crazy.  The independent actions of the fox led to rational results; following it had, thus far, saved his life, shown him a secret of Virren’s that it seemed he needed to know, and had led him to a highly valuable crystal worth over forty thousand chits.

        Counterpoint.  The fox was a figment of his imagination that he was simply assigning a sense of external personality to convince himself that he really wasn’t going crazy.  It was his hallucination, after all…perhaps he’d gained some semblance of control over it, allowing him to cause it to do things.

        Counterpoint.  The fox, being a figment of his own imagination, was being some kind of external indicator for things he couldn’t explain.  Perhaps years of working with crystals had finally caused a touch of Crystal Fever in him, a common illness among miners, cutters, merchants, and alchemists, people who handled bare crystals, an illness that produced a physical allergy to crystals that made the sufferer sick to be around them.  It went away after a few days of having no exposure to crystals, and lessened over time.  Apprentices and new miners and merchants were most susceptible to Crystal Fever, but once they built up something of a resistance to it, it caused very few problems.  Kyven had never suffered from it, nor had Timble or Myk…perhaps he’d finally suffered his first case of it, and one of the reactions was to cause his old hallucination to do new tricks.

        Counterpoint.  The fox truly was not real.  He was rationalizing his own hallucination by assigning an external personality to it, to keep from having to face the fact that he was going crazy.

        Counterpoint.  Given all that information, he could conclude that, if looked at from another point of view, he was crazy.  Perhaps he’d heard the Arcan and not realized it, and moved of his own volition.  Perhaps his many visits to Virren’s shop to deliver crystals had set a foundation for him to believe that the mouse hadn’t really died, which led him to watch and see what Virren would do, and lead him to learn Virren’s secret.  Perhaps he’d come across that crystal like any other prospector did, just blind luck, and his sensitivity to the feel of crystals, the sense of them he could feel when he touched them, had been what allowed him to find it.  White crystals were very powerful, maybe he could somehow detect it from a distance.

        So, among those points and counterpoints, he had to ferret out the truth from the fiction…and that wasn’t easy.  He wandered until dinner, when he returned to the shop and ate with the others, partaking in a huge feast, and being toasted several times by his friends and Holm for his good fortune.  He ignored their praise, for the most part, absorbed in his contemplations.  After dinner, he returned to his idle wandering, walking to help him think as he enjoyed the midsummer evening.  People who had heard of his luck stopped him in the street and congratulated him, and not one failed to ask where he’d found the crystal.

        Kyven figured the east run of Cougar Creek would be very crowded for the next few weeks.

        The one person he didn’t expect to come across was Virren.  The burly alchemist stopped him near the courthouse and shook his hand in greeting, but he seemed less friendly than usual.  “Kyven, I’ve been looking for you,” he said.

        “What, did I cut that green badly?” he asked in concern.

        Virren laughed.  “No, no, I just have a little business with you, that’s all.  There’s someone I’d like you to meet. He might have an offer to make you.”

        “What kind of an offer?”

        “I think it’s best for him to tell you about that,” he said seriously.  “Are you interested in talking to him?”

        “I—sure, why not,” he said.  “I’m not doing anything I can’t postpone.”

        “What are you doing, anyway?  People have been gossiping about you, you know.  They say you’ve just been wandering around town all day.”

        “Basically, yeah, I have,” he said.  “Walking helps me think.”

        “Ah.  Say no more,” he said with a nod as he led Kyven away.

        Virren was silent as he led Kyven out of town on the Avannar road, and he quickly realized that he was taking him to Cougar Fall.  He started getting very curious, and a little nervous, for he remembered the last time Virren came here.  Was Virren looking to introduce him to someone from those Arcans?  Was Virren leading him out here to try to recruit him, or—

        Was he bringing him out here to kill him?

        He took stock.  He was carrying a few chits, and praise the Trinity, he had his posts knives with him, still in their sheath stuffed into the back of his belt, from when Timble had talked him into one game before dinner.  It would take a while to get them out, but at least he was armed.

        There was nobody at the creek when they arrived, though.  Kyven stayed close to the trees, a few paces behind Virren.  “What kind of a business meeting takes place out here, Virren?” Kyven asked.

        “This isn’t the usual kind of business meeting, Kyv,” he answered.

        “He brought you to see me.”

        Kyven’s eyes snapped up to the top of Cougar Fall.  Up there stood an Arcan.  It was a huge Arcan, nearly seven rods tall, and his black fur seemed to meld with the twilight shadows.  But his eyes all but glowed in the shadows, two yellow slits that were quite dramatic.  The figure seemed to flex, and there was a dark blur, and then the huge Arcan was standing not a rod from him!  He was a rod taller than Kyven, a wolf Arcan with a strong muzzle and gleaming white teeth, a solidly built frame, stocky and burly, but he moved with sinuous grace.  A clawed hand rose up and scratched the underside of that ebon muzzle as the huge Arcan stared down at him in manner that made Kyven very afraid.  Almost like he was…prey.

        There was more to it, though.  This close to him, a strange, shadowy kind of nimbus seemed to surround him, an aura, and it was an aura that made him afraid.  It was black and menacing, just as black as his fur.

        “Kyven, this is Stalker.  As you can see, he’s an Arcan that I’ve had…dealings with in the past,” Virren said by way of introduction.  “When you confessed to me about what you saw, I thought you needed to meet.”

        “You see spirits, human,” the huge wolf told him in a narrow kind of voice, those glowing yellow eyes boring down on him.  “You see what other humans cannot.”

        “That’s why you’re the only one who can see it,” Virren told him.  “When you described what you’ve seen, I recognized the sense of it from your words.”

        “Stop dancing about, human,” Stalker told him, glancing back at Virren.  The wolf drew himself up in front of Kyven, towering over him, and Kyven shrank back from that intimidating sight almost reflexively.  “Talking around the issue is pointless.  Virren says there is no easy way to explain this to you without saying the truth, so let’s get straight to the truth,” the wolf told him.

        “Stalker—“

        “This is not your affair,” the wolf snapped, interrupting Virren and making him visibly flinch from the cold tone in his voice.  “There is more to the world than what humans believe,” the wolf told him.  “There is a world behind that world, the world where the spirits dwell.  The spirits are the souls of our ancestors and the forces of nature and the land, who watch the mortal world.  There are some who can sense this other world, can sense the spirits, and can harness the spirit energy that flows from that other world.  You, Kyven Steelhammer, have at least some minor ability.  You can see the spirits, and you might have a deeper connection to the spirit world, if you seek to explore your ability.”

        “Spirits?  What do you mean?”

        “The fox Virren described is a spirit, human,” the wolf told him.  Kyven felt a little fearful when the wolf leaned down, almost nose to nose with him, his glowing yellow eyes boring into his own. “It is the Shadow Fox, the fox of the midnight fur, a being of intelligence, cunning, and guile.  It is here, now,” he said, pointing to the top of Cougar Fall with a clawed finger.

        Kyven followed that finger, and it was there.  Seated sedately at the top of the rocky ridge, it looked down upon them with unblinking, glowing green eyes.

        It was here…and this wolf Arcan could see it.

        “So you are not crazy, human, though I think the spirits have lost their minds,” he said with a growl.  “You see the spirits, and if you can see the spirits, then you are Shaman.”

        Kyven’s jaw dropped, and he took a step backward from the wolf as he eyes stared at him disbelievingly.  “S—S—Sh—Shaman?  Me?  That’s, it’s, ridiculous!  Impossible!”

        “I would agree with you if I wasn’t looking at impossible with my own eyes,” the wolf said steadily, staring down at him.  “But it is undeniable.  The Shadow Fox shows herself to us as proof, and her presence incites your ability, for she is your totem.  I know you can see her, human.  It shines in your eyes.  You have the eyes of a Shaman.”  The wolf took one step back and produced something in his huge furred hand, and held it up.  “See the truth for yourself.”

        The wolf held a small mirror, and it showed his reflection.  He could see it clearly.  His eyes seemed to be lit from within with a faint emerald radiance, very faint, almost undetectable in the twilight, but he could see it.

        It was absolutely impossible!  He couldn’t be a Shaman, he was human!  But his eyes…they were glowing.  What did it mean?  Was the wolf right?  Or was this all some kind of sick joke?  Was the wolf—

        The wolf was a Shaman!

        Kyven gasped and literally fell backwards to the ground, gaping up at the wolf in near-terror.  A Shaman!  He was a Shaman!  By the Trinity, what had Virren done to him, bringing him to a Shaman?  Sheer terror took over as he gaped up at what the Loremasters said was the most dangerous thing alive, a monster in the flesh, a demon on earth.

        “You’re a Shaman!” Kyven gasped, scrambling back away from the wolf.

        “You just now realize that?  You are denser than I expected, human,” the wolf said with a grim kind of amused voice.  “I walk the path of the spirits.”

        Kyven acted out of pure panicked impulse.  He squirmed back on the forest floor even as his left hand reached behind him and grabbed his sheath, then came up holding his sheath in one hand and a drawn posts knife in the other.  The wolf Arcan—the Shaman!—took a single step back, his eyes narrowing as the radiance within them seemed to blaze forth, becoming noticeably brighter, literally illuminating his muzzle with amber light.  “Little human, do not make the last mistake of your life,” the wolf said in a deceptively calm, soft voice.  “Shaman or not, you will only try to kill me once.”

        Bark!

        The fox jumped down from the rocks and bounded to him so fast it was almost a blur.  It went around him, circled him, then sat down with its back to him, facing the wolf.  It then sat down and wrapped its tail around its front legs sedately.

        “Sister!” the wolf said, almost sounding scandalized.

        Bark!

        The light within the wolf’s eyes began to dim.  He sighed, then nodded and took a few steps back on his hybrid legs, then stood by Virren, dwarfing the shorter, burly man.  The fox then turned its head, looked at him from the corner of its eye, and cast upon him a discouraging stare.

        He lowered the hand holding the knife, which was ready to throw.

        It nodded calmly, then turned its gaze back on the Arcan and Virren.  The Arcan gave a surprised look, then, to Kyven’s surprise, dropped down literally on all fours, sitting on his haunches.

        The fox then stood up and turned around to face him.  It advanced on him, and he took a fearful step back, caught his foot on a root, and tumbled to the ground.  He rose up on one elbow and found himself almost face to face with it, so close its nose was almost touching him.  It was staring at him with those unblinking, glowing eyes, then sat down sedately and stared down at him, its gaze wavering and slightly reproachful.

        It was angry with him, he could tell.  Why?

        Because he was afraid.  The fox had saved his life, and helped him, and he was afraid of it.  That was very…inconsiderate of him.  He had no reason to be afraid of the fox, not after what it had done for him, and he knew it. But he just…couldn’t help it.  It was so strange, so new, so alien to him, went against most everything he learned when he grew up.

        “I’m, I’m sorry,” he apologized.

        The fox nodded once, then turned to look back at the wolf and Virren.  Kyven sat up, but he remained seated on the ground, simply pulling in his legs.  The fox had calmed them down, and it seemed to want him to listen to them.  It had saved his life, he owed it that much, to listen to what they had to say.

        “Let’s slow down and talk this over,” Virren offered.

        “What do you want from me?”

        “We want nothing from you,” the wolf told him, much calmer and reasonable in tone.

        “Kyv, you have a special gift,” Virren told him.  “It’s so special that no other human we’ve ever heard of has it.  You can see the spirits, you have the potential to be a Shaman.  That’s literally unheard of for a human.  What we hope is that you’d be willing to explore that gift more, to find those answers you said you were seeking.  Stalker can explain everything to you, and at least with us, nobody will think that you’re crazy.

        “Shaman aren’t what the Loremasters say they are,” Virren explained.  “They’re not demons or practitioners of witchcraft.  They don’t drink the blood of children to fuel their power,” he said with a snort.  “They use the same power that we tap using mana crystals, they just use it directly from the source.”

        “Just so, human,” the wolf said.  “The power of crystals is spirit energy trapped in the mortal world.”

        “So they’re doing nothing more than what we do, they just have the power to touch that power directly instead of using the sciences of crystalcutting and alchemy,” Virren finished.  “Why the Loremasters say those things is because up to today, the only known Shaman are Arcan.  They couldn’t allow people to believe that Arcans could be anything other than slaves and animals, so they have poisoned the people against the Shaman.”

        “The Loremasters are our enemies,” the wolf told him.  “They seek to keep my people in perpetual slavery and treat us as animals,” he said, his voice rising with anger.  “We are not animals to be worked to death, then skinned and butchered like cattle!”

        “They seek to restore us to the glory of the Great Ancient Civilization, Kyven,” Virren told him, “and while that can be a noble pursuit, they seek to restore every facet of it, not just the wondrous technology they possessed, but also their customs and practices.  They believe the Arcans were created to serve man as slaves, so they try to maintain that practice across Noraam, to retain a facet of the society of our ancestors.  But some of us believe differently.  How can he be an animal, Kyv?” he asked, pointing at the wolf.  “He may look like an animal, but he is intelligent.  He has feelings.  Doesn’t that make him more than the Loremasters teach?”

        Kyven looked fearfully at the two of them, his mind racing.  He was a Shaman?  Him?  A human?  It seemed impossible!  But…he saw his eyes in the mirror.  They were glowing!  He felt like he wanted to panic, but another part of him told himself to take a step back and look at this from the big picture, not to seize on one little part of it and go flying off on a tangent.

        The logical part of Kyven’s mind had taken in what they had said, and could admit that it was possible.  Nobody knew where the crystals had come from or how they worked.  It could be quite possible that they were linked somehow to Shaman…after all, it was well known that Shaman could tap crystals themselves.  How could they do that if they weren’t somehow related to their power?  He knew what the Loremasters taught about Shaman, yet if he was a Shaman, then they had to be wrong…since humans were Shaman.  So how wrong were they about other things?  If they were wrong about one thing, it was only reasonable that they were wrong about others…maybe even everything, though he highly doubted that.

        The fox stood up, continuing to stare at him.  Kyven was so close he could reach out and touch it, and looking at it—no, her, it was a her—looking at her seemed to…calm him.  She was a friend.  He was sure of it.  She had saved his life, saved him from the Touched Arcan, and led him to the crystal that freed him of his servitude to Holm, and she also seemed to be tied up with Virren’s activities.  He wasn’t so sure about Virren, and he really wasn’t sure about that wolf, but the fox…he could trust her.  She didn’t save his life just to hand him over to the wolf to kill or torture.  The wolf could see her, after all.  Kyven had thought his entire life that she was just a figment of his imagination, but she was not.  Here was another person who could see the fox, had pointed right at her, and had called her by a name that made it abundantly clear that he both could see her and also knew of her.  The wolf had called her shadow fox, and if there was ever a term to describe her, that was it.  Her dark fur melded with the night, melded with the shadows, making her to seem as a shadow herself.  Only her eyes, the silver ruff under her chin, and the silver tips of her ears and tail were easily visible in the summer night.

        He’d wanted to find the truth.  He’d wanted to come to understand the nature of his condition, to understand just what the fox was, and why only he could see her.  He’d wanted to know…and here, presented before him, was a means to discover the answers to those questions.  Virren had understood Kyven’s confession and summoned an Arcan Shaman to come tell him the truth.  He had come to tell him that he was not crazy, that the fox was real…it was just invisible to most people, hiding itself from them.

        He’d wanted to find out the truth.  Here, before him now, was an Arcan who could answer those questions.

        “I…want to know more,” Kyven said after long moments of silence.  The fox dipped her head to him, then stepped up until her nose was almost touching his own.  He looked into her glowing eyes uncertainly, but she made no other moves.  She turned away from him, then padded into the darkening shadows, her form melding with the night until she vanished from view.

        “See, it works when you approach people the right way,” Virren chuckled to the wolf.

        “My way worked well enough,” he snorted darkly.  “It caused him to show his eyes to me.  I cannot believe it, though.  A human Shaman.  What insanity possessed the spirits to grant their greatest gift to one of you?”

        “I feel so appreciated,” Virren sighed.

        “Uh…what now?” Kyven asked.

        “This is not something we can discuss here,” the wolf told him.  “You will come with me.  I will take you from this place, and you will find the answers you seek.”

        “Leave?  Leave Atan?” Kyven asked in surprise.

        “Why do you think the fox led you to that crystal, Kyv?” Virren asked simply.  “She was preparing you for this.  She freed you of your obligations, and now you can search for your answers without worry.”

        “How did you know—“

        “It wasn’t that hard to put together,” Virren told him simply.  “The fox brought you to me, knowing I could summon a Shaman, and you find that crystal so quickly afterwards.  She was preparing you for this.”

        “There is little more for this,” the wolf snorted.  “Take him and prepare him, Virren.  I will come for him tomorrow at sunset.”

        “Wh-Where are you taking me?”

        “I don’t know,” the wolf shrugged.  “The way of the Shaman is not found in a book, human.  The way of the Shaman is the path of wisdom, for the spirits are wise.  You do not find true wisdom in a book, you find only knowledge.  I will teach you the way of the Shaman while the spirits guide us to where they wish us to go.  When we get there, they will show you wisdom, and you will grow.”

        “I don’t understand.”

        “And so you must walk the path, to come to understand,” the wolf said simply.  “In that understanding you will gain wisdom, and that is the path of the Shaman.”

        “Get used to it, they all talk that way,” Virren said with a sigh.  “The Noravi version without all the mystery is this:  Stalker teaches you the basics, but you learn the rest by yourself.  Clover calls it the Spirit Walk.  Your fox, your totem, will guide you to places and show you things, in hopes that you learn from them.”

        “Totem?”

        “Sometimes spirits take special interest in someone, sometimes even humans who don’t know that they’re there.  When they do that, it’s said that the spirit is your totem.  The fox has been your totem for quite a while, Kyv.  You said yourself she’s watched you for years.”

        Kyven pieced that together immediately.  The other spirits he’d seen in his life, the ones interested in other people, they were acting much like Virren described.  The cat that had calmed the apprentice during the test, the hawk on the shoulder of the new first year, they were spirits that seemed especially interested in those boys, even though the boys had no idea they were there.

        “Do not confuse the human,” the wolf told him.  “Take him.  Prepare him.  I will come for him at sunset tomorrow, so he may begin his journey.”

        The wolf turned from them and gave one bounding leap that vaulted him up to the top of Cougar Fall, then glanced back before vanishing into the darkness.

        Kyven felt a little strange.  He was leaving Atan.  He’d left before, he’d been all the way to Avannar before while on a trip with Master Holm, some Guild business that required him to go to the Guild’s headquarters in Avannar.  But he’d be leaving for a while, maybe never coming back, and that was a bit daunting.  He was a very domestic person.  He’d lived all his life in Atan, first in a tiny cottage near Miner’s Road, then at the shop.  He’d never hunted before, had slept outdoors only four times in his life; twice on the way to Avannar, and twice on the way back.  He knew how to ride a horse, but he wasn’t used to it.  This would be new to him, very new.  And he’d be going with only an Arcan for company…and an Arcan that didn’t seem to like him very much.

        “Don’t worry too much at it, Kyv,” Virren told him.  “Stalker will explain it all to you.  And if you find that it’s not the life for you, you can always come back.  We’ll just make sure you set it up with Holm that you expect to return, you just don’t know when.”

        “How?”

        “Easy.  Tell him that you’re going out to the frontier settlement over at Deep River, both to think things through and to play at prospecting.  You’ve already bought him, and Holm likes you.  He’ll let you go as long as he’s sure you’ll come back.”

        “But what if I don’t come back?”

        “I think you will,” he said simply.  “If you decide to join us, Kyven, you’d be the most help right here in Atan.  The Masked have a very strong presence here, and you here would make this place a bastion for us.”

        “What do you mean?”

        “I’m an alchemist, Kyv,” he explained as he took out a small bronze device and twisted it, which flooded the area with brilliant light, illuminating their path as they went back.  “I build a lot more than what the people of Atan see.  There’s also a miner that’s one of the Masked, hiding where I get my crystals from.  But those crystals still have to be cut, and it’s hard to explain where I keep getting such perfect crystals from, so having a cutter among the Masked would be very helpful to us.”

        “What is the Masked?”

        “We’re an organization that works for the welfare of the Arcans,” he answered.  “We try to help them as much as we can without giving ourselves away.  One of the ways I help is by building alchemical devices that we use.  That’s how I healed the mouse, Kyv, using a healing bell.  That crystal you cut yesterday was to replace the crystal I used in the bell.”  He laughed.  “With you here, our miner friend may not even be needed.”

        “I don’t understand.  I’m no miner.”

        “Kyven, Shaman can create mana crystals,” Virren told him.  “They draw the power from the spirits and manifest it into our world in the form of a crystal, just like the crystals we mine.  You can’t tell a Shaman made crystal from a natural one unless you’re someone who works with crystals for a living.”

        “I…yes.  That crystal you gave me, it was just perfect.  No internal flaws, no planar faults.”

        “That crystal was made by Clover,” he said simply.  “She can make them with flaws inside them, but she hates doing it.  She thinks it’s a waste of effort to not make something the best you can, and I have to keep explaining to her that if she keeps giving me perfect crystals, I’m going to have to start explaining that fact to the cutters that cut them.”

        “Why can’t she make one that doesn’t need cutting?”

        “They can’t.  They have control over the power that forms the crystal, but it still has to be created in a natural state.  It has to have a rough exterior to allow them to build the crystal inside it, kind of like the shell of an egg.  Think about it, Kyv, why do you never cut a crystal until you use it?  Why are all those crystals sitting in your vault uncut?  To make it hold its power as long as possible.  Once you cut it, the magic inside begins to bleed out, fade away.  It’s locked in by its imperfect exterior, by its shell.  Honestly, I could put an uncut Shaman-made crystal into almost any device and it’d run, but cutting still maximizes that power.”

        “I knew crystals degraded over time, but I never heard it explained quite that way.”

        “Alchemists are much more concerned about that kind of thing, Kyv.  We use those crystals you cut, once you cut them and sell them, you’re done with them.  A crystal begins to degrade after it’s been cut.  It takes a long time, years, but it still happens.  That’s why I never bring you a crystal I don’t intend to install in a device within the month.”

        “That makes sense.  So, I could make crystals?”

        “It’s possible.  Not all Shaman can do it, though, and not all Shaman can make all kinds of crystal.  Stalker can’t make blue or green crystals.  Clover can’t make black crystals.  Coldfoot can only make red crystals.  None of them can make white crystals.”

        “Why?”

        “I have no idea,” he shrugged.  “It’s some Shaman thing they don’t explain to us normal people.”

        “Oh.”

        “You’re pretty calm about this,” Virren chuckled as they reached the road.

        “You said it yourself, Virren.  They have the answers I’m looking for.  I want to know.  I want to know what it means.  I want to know who I am, what I am.  I just want to know that I’m really not crazy.”

        “I can understand that, friend.  I really can.  Now, I’ll leave you here, I have someone to go talk to.  Get ready to go on a journey, my friend.  Pack for the road, and buy a horse and the provisions to make it look like you’re going prospecting tomorrow.  You’re going to need it.  Do you have enough chits for that?”

        “I think so.”

        “Come by my shop if you run short, I’ll spot you.  Come by my shop in the morning no matter what, tell me how it goes with Holm.”

        “I will.  Night, Verrin.  And thank you.”

        “Any time, my friend.  Any time.”

        They separated, leaving Kyven with his thoughts.  He was…afraid.  He could admit that.  He was going to go off with a Shaman, a figure he’d been taught all his life to fear, because that Shaman had answers to questions that only he could answer.  Kyven wanted to know.  He wanted to know about this spirit world, he wanted to know about the fox that had watched him all his life.  He wanted to know why the fox was so interested in him, why she was now helping him when always before, she had done nothing but watch him.  What had changed?  Why had she decided to take an active role in his life?

        She.  Yes, the fox was a she.  He wasn’t quite sure when she went from it to she in his mind, but she had.  She wasn’t some mind image, some hallucination anymore.  She was truly something outside of him, possessed of her own personality and soul.

        And he wanted to learn more about her.

 

        Holm, it seemed, had almost expected something like this.  He went to his former master after returning to the shop and quietly told him what Virren had said, but in his own words.  “I need a little time to think, Holm,” he explained after telling him his plan.  “And to be honest, this might be my only chance ever to try something like this.  I’ll be in the shop from here out, limited to trips to Avannar for Guild business.  I’d like one chance to go out and see a little of the world before my whole world becomes this shop.”

        Holm grinned at him.  “I’m glad to hear you say that, son,” he said with a laugh.  “Now I feel very comfortable with selling out to you.  Go out there and see something of the world, have your own little adventure, then come back to us.  I did the same thing myself you know,” he grinned.  “I spent a year on a ship after I finished my apprenticeship as a sailor, just to see something of the world before I spent my life huddled over a workbench.  It was a very happy and exciting time for me.  I came back home missing a tooth and with a nasty disease I caught from a frisky barmaid in Gorveon, but eh.  A trip to the healer cured the little bug, and I got used to the missing tooth.  Your bench will be here waiting for you when you get home, my boy.  And to be honest, the time away’ll give the other boys time to adjust to the idea of you being a Master and not an apprentice.  I can get them used to the idea of it while you’re gone.  It’ll also give me time to get Timble ready to take his place as a journeyman in the shop.  Just do me a favor and be back before he’s free of his contract, if you can.  I’d like you to be here to establish the new order when Timble’s done with his contract, and I can start teaching you and him so I can start pulling back and getting some rest.”

        “I’ll do my best, Holm,” Kyven said, visibly relieved.  “I’m just glad you’re alright with it.”

        “You’re a young man, Kyv, and there’s a whole lot of world out there.  The shop can make it without you for a while, and it’s something that all young men should do at least once in their lives.  You love to prospect, so go on an adventure!  Go prospect the frontier, far from here, where everything is new and exciting!  And when you’re done, you can come back home and reap the rewards for nine years of hard work.  Who knows, you may even come home with some money in your pocket,” he grinned.

        “Thanks, Holm.  You’re a great friend.”

        “Thanks for the vote of confidence, my boy.  Now, you need to gear up for your prospecting trip, so get going!  Be sure to talk to the other miners to get a good idea of everything you’ll need.”

        Kyven slept fitfully that night.  He had unusual dreams, but dreams he couldn’t remember all that well when he woke up.  They were foreboding, though, foreboding and ominous.  He chalked it up to his uncertain feeling about what he was doing, but his determination was unwavering.  He was willing to do this, to leave Atan in the company of an unfriendly Arcan if it meant that he would get his answers, and would come to understand the mysterious fox that had lived in the shadows of his life ever since he was a little boy.  He would put up with it for that chance, the chance to find the answers to his questions.

        It was a strange thought.  He was a Shaman…or he could be.  He remembered both of them make that distinction the night before.  They said he had the potential to be a Shaman.  A human Shaman.  A thing that was supposed to be impossible.  But every time he thought about how impossible it was, that this all had to be some kind of insane dream, he remembered seeing his own eyes in that mirror, eyes that glowed from within with an emerald radiance.  That one thought, that one image, it told him beyond all doubt that they were correct about at least that.  He had some kind of strange, unusual ability, and it was related to being able to see the spirits that no other human could see.

        He remembered the light of the wolf’s eyes from the night before, how it seemed to intensify when Kyven threatened him with a knife.  Was that radiance an indication of a Shaman’s power?  His eyes hadn’t been glowing this morning when he looked in the mirror after waking up.  Did they only glow when he could see spirits, or did the proximity of spirits cause his eyes to glow?

        No reason to get ahead of himself.  He’d learn about it from that intimidating wolf that didn’t seem to like him…oh, that was going to be so fun, traveling with someone like that.  But the wolf could answer his questions, so he’d endure dealing with someone that seemed to blame him for the ills of the world.

        Kyven made several stops that morning.  Atan was a mining town, so it had everything he needed to make it look like he was prospecting.  He bought all the gear he’d need to both pan and dig for crystals, remembered to buy two sniffers for hunting for them, then bought all the survival gear he’d need to camp outdoors for extended periods of time.  He ended up with so much stuff that he needed both a riding horse and a pack horse.  Kyven knew little about horses, but he did know that one of the stable masters had a reputation for honesty and fairness, so he relied on the man’s reputation and had him sell him a riding horse and a pack horse, tack and saddle, and a pack saddle.  He bought three pairs of sturdy leathers for hard travel, rugged clothing that would handle the wild, and stopped in at Virren’s shop under the auspice of buying the alchemical devices that would make living in the wild less dangerous and more comfortable.  Virren met him in the showroom, and discussed several devices that he might find useful, from lamps to weather shields to excavators to rock cutters to water generators to bug repellers to a healing bell.  Virren made a show out of discussing the various devices that many frontier prospectors used, and when a few other townsfolk came into the showroom to buy devices themselves, they haggled over the prices of the devices they’d discussed.

        When they were alone, though, Virren immediately switched to the real matter.  “As soon as you’re set up, head out,” he said.  “It would look suspicious if you try to leave in the middle of the afternoon, but not so strange for you to head out as soon as you’re geared up.  That’ll look like youthful enthusiasm.  Take the Avannar Road and stay on it.  He’ll catch up with you later.”

        “The Avannar Road?  Why not the Miner’s Road?”

        “That’s the way you want to go if you’re heading for the frontier,” he answered.  “You’d have to go north to get to the Podac River to get to the Cumman Gap, and it’s a lot easier going up through the Blue Valley than it would be to go along the ridges.”

        “Alright.”

        “How far along are you?”

        “I have prospecting gear, clothes, camping gear, horses, and now I’m buying stuff here.  I just have the food left to buy and I’m done.”

        “Not quite.  You’ll need to buy a weapon.  You’ll look very strange if you leave for the frontier with nothing but posts knives.  Go to the gunsmith and buy a musket at the very least.  I’d buy a pistol too, if I were you.  Almost all frontiersmen carry both, and the better off ones also carry an alchemy weapon like a shockrod or firetube…but I don’t think you need to get quite that exotic.”

        “Alright.”

        “You have enough chits?”

        “I’m not sure, I’ve never bought a musket before.  How much do they run?”

        “A musket will run you about three hundred chits.  A pistol will cost about four hundred.”

        “I’m short then,” he said with a grimace.

        “No problem, I’ll give you a thousand chits to cover it.  Remember to buy powder and ammunition for it too, and make sure you buy a musket and pistol that uses the same size shot, so you only have to buy one kind of shot for both.”

        “Alright.”

        “Remember, buy it, pack it, head out.  He’ll meet you on the road, probably after you camp for the night.  He doesn’t like moving around in the daytime.”

        “Got it.  I guess this is goodbye, Virren,” he said.

        “Only for a while,” Virren smiled.  “I told you, this is where you’d do the most good, so I fully expect to see you back here soon.”

        “I hope so.  This is my home.  I’m going to feel strange leaving it.”

        “Just be happy, Kyv.  Find your answers, and then make your decisions based on it.  You might walk the path, you might not, just do what you think is right for you.”

        “I will.  Thanks Virren.”

        “Good luck, Kyven,” he said, clasping his hand in a firm grip.

        Kyven did as Virren ordered.  He bought two week’s worth of provisions from a grocer, a musket, and a pistol, and packed it all on the pack horse as best he could, given he’d never done that before.  His result looked a little bulky, but at least he was careful to balance the two sides so the poor horse wasn’t pulled in a circle from a lopsided load.  After he had everything loaded up, he returned to the shop and had a first year watch his horses while he went inside to say goodbye.  He shook Timble’s hand and got an actual hug from Holm, as well as a round of farewells from the younger apprentices, wishing him good journey and good luck on his prospecting trip.

        He didn’t get out without a gift, though.  Holm handed him a wrapped bundle.  He unfolded the leather flaps, and found within five throwing daggers in separate sheaths, all perfectly balanced.  “These make no noise, son, and you don’t have to reload,” Holm told him.  “A pistol can stop a man coming after you, but you only get one shot and you tell the whole world where you are.  Remember, son, a posts player knows how to throw a dagger, and they’re just as deadly as a pistol at close range.  Carry them with you at all times.”

        “I will, Holm,” he said with a nod, feeling the balance of each one.  They were literally made for throwing.  He put a dagger in each boot, and tucked the remaining three in his belt.  “I’m going to go ahead and get on the road, Holm.  The sooner I get out there, the sooner I get back.”

        “Too true, son.  Be careful out there, and enjoy your trip.”

        “I hope I do, Holm.  I really hope I do.”

 

        He felt…strange.

        He rode out of Atan about an hour after noontime, gnawing on a beef sandwich in the saddle as he got used to the strange sensation of both riding a horse and knowing that he was riding away from his old life and riding towards a new, uncertain one.

        What would he find out there, in the real world?  What would it be like to learn about the spirits?  Was he really a Shaman, could he do real magic?  Could he really create mana crystals?  Or was he simply some kind of mutant, some kind of freak, born with the ability to see spirits and nothing else?  What kinds of answers would he find to his questions?  He wasn’t sure.  All that he knew was that after so many years of living with the fox in his life, he was ready to do this to find out about her, and everything that went along with it.

        He could accept the idea that he might be a Shaman, because it answered some of his questions.  It explained why he could see the fox, and that he wasn’t the only one.  But it left the one question unanswered, and the one that was the most important.

        Why.

        Why the fox had stayed with him all these years.  Why the fox had saved his life.  Why the fox wanted him to do this now.  Why the fox was so interested in him.  And in a way, why he felt like he owed this both to her and to himself.

        He wasn’t entirely looking forward to this.  The idea of being a Shaman didn’t excite him, it terrified him.  He would become what the Loremasters said was the epitomy of evil, and he’d be turning his back on the entire human race to become what they most feared.  But he had to go through with it.  He had to know, he had to know if he really was crazy, he had to know who the fox was and why he seemed to matter so much to her…and why he was beginning to feel that she meant something to him.

        He was willing to travel with the wolf Shaman and learn from him, so he could find the answer to those questions.  If he didn’t, they would haunt him for the rest of his life, haunt him every time he saw her sitting, watching him, forever lament that he gave up his chance to learn the truth.

        He knew that if he didn’t do this, if he did not leave Atan and learn about this newly revealed part of himself, he would regret it for the rest of his life.  So, he was willing to ride away from Atan, ride away from his comfortable life, ride away from everything he thought he knew to find the answers he sought.

        He just had to know, no matter what it cost him to find out.

        He had to know why.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    2      4

Chapter 3

 

        Kyven was introduced to the first little joy of the road that day…saddlesores.  He didn’t ride horses often, though he knew how, and after four hours in the saddle, that fact became painfully apparent as so long sitting in a jostling saddle began to take its toll on his backside legs, and lower back.  He knew there were coming, though.  The time he’d gone to Avannar with Holm, they’d taken an extra day both ways because neither of them were used to riding, going slow and stopping often to minimize the saddlesores.  Kyven mirrored that behavior now, riding at a slow, plodding walk for the horse—which it seemed not to mind—and stopping often so he could dismount and stretch.

        At first, it didn’t seem like a long journey as he came down the Avannar Road into the Blue Valley, for he was in familiar territory.  He came across quite a few miners, prospectors, and even some townsfolk, who had heard of Kyven’s lucky find down on the east side of Cougar Creek and were now flocking to the area to see if the lucky coin would flip once again in their favor.  He even saw Master Torvik down there with a couple of his older apprentices, crossing the road in front of him with a sniffer in his hand as his apprentice told him in a snarky tone that he’d told him the creek was on the other side of the road.  But, when he came down into the Blue Valley and continued east, then the enormity of it began to make its mark when he passed the fallen maple that had been cut to clear it from the road, and moved beyond the normal boundaries of the Atan region.  He moved out into what most called frontier land, area dotted by individual settlements, farms, and mills, areas beyond the governmental authority of any village or town.  This place was basically lawless, where anyone could do anything without fear of legal retribution.  However, despite that fact, it was still an orderly and safe place, for the many farms cut large tracts out of the forest, the farmers and millers all knew one another, and they made sure that the area was kept safe.  Any bandits or raiders that set up in the area quickly found themselves being chased off by a posse of farmers armed with muskets, crossbows, firetubes, and shockrods.  There was no law here but the farmers, who enforced their own version of the law…and that was do no harm.  It was a pretty free-wheeling place, where people were allowed to live any way they pleased, so long as they did no harm to others.  But the instant they did that harm, assaulting road travelers, raiding farms, attacking families, the farmers gathered together and hunted them down.  And they were not merciful.  They killed the offenders without hesitation or remorse.  That threat of swift and fatal retribution kept the bandits away from this section of the Blue Valley.

        This was the area through which Kyven rode.  He passed farms spread out along the roadside, sometimes spread across it, the road cutting through a farm, was often waved to by farmers and workers as they toiled the fields, to whom he waved back cordially.  He stopped by a small brook for an afternoon meal, taking a good rest.  Just as he was packing up to continue on, a merchant train pulled up, four wagons  coming to a stop in the same grassy field by the brook, and he shared space with them as they moved to water the horses and take a short break for a meal.  “Ho, traveler, come from Atan?” one of the men called.

        “Aye,” he answered.

        “I do love seeing this restover,” the short, wiry-haired man chuckled.  He wore a leather vest over a cotton shirt, and he wore the strange knee-length white cotton trousers that marked him as a Flauren, from the southern kingdom of Flaur.  It was very hot down there, but both men and women wore shortened breeches, leaving their lower legs bare.  It was said that the women wore much shorter knickers than the men, leaving most of their thighs bare as well.  It was entirely possible, Kyven supposed.  Miyan women often went topless, a custom not very common in the northern kingdoms.  If a woman showed her bare breasts in Atan, it would be a scandal that would cycle through the old women for years.  But different climates created different customs, Kyven supposed.  Flaur, Miyan, and Lewa were very hot places, and wearing a lot of clothes would be unbearable.  “When I see this spot, I know I’m just a couple of hours out from Atan.  We should roll in just at sunset.  On the way to Avannar?”

        Cumman Pass,” Kyven replied.  “I’m heading out to Deep River.”

        “Oh, a frontiersman!” the man said with a laugh.  “Good luck, friend, you’ll need it.  That’s a hard life.”

        “I’m going to go see what kind of life it is,” Kyven answered, in his usual distant manner, unwilling to get too friendly with a stranger.

        “Pretty wild,” he chuckled.  “I’ve done a few merchant trains there.  Frontier towns like that are magnets for outlaws and rough types.  You can get on fairly well as you remember the three rules.  Be polite, be fair, and be dangerous.  Don’t piss nobody off, and prove you’re too dangerous to get into a fight with, and you’re fine.  As long as you’re an honest and fair man, you earn respect.”

        “I’ll remember that.”

        “Not the talkative type, eh?  You’ll fit in fine there,” the merchant laughed.  “Just don’t let them confuse your silence for weakness.  But, we can help each other.  You know the road the way I’m going, I know the road the way you’re going.  Anything up ahead I should know about?”

        “No, it’s fine.  A crowd at the base of Cougar Mountain, but nothing wrong with the road.”

        “A crowd?  What’s goin’ on?”

        “Someone found a white crystal panning the stream at the base of the mountain, so now everyone is prospecting the area,” Kyven told him.

        The merchant laughed.  “Lemmings,” he noted.  “They won’t get the same luck, believe you me.  Welp, going your way, they had a tree fall across the road last night about five minars up, so there’s a little rough spot there where they had to clear it, but outside of that the road is dry and smooth running.  You’re not gonna make The Red Inn, which is the usual inn that serves people comin’ a day out from Atan, but there’s a few farmsteads out past the Blue Forest that’ll put up a lone traveler if you pay ‘em.”

        “Thanks for the advice,” Kyven told him as he clumsily pulled himself up into the saddle.  “Safe journey to you.”

        “To you too, my quiet friend.  And good luck prospecting!  I hope you come home richer than you were when you left!”

        Kyven continued on for the rest of the afternoon, until he reached the Blue Forest.  It was an area of unplowed land on a small irregular set of low but rugged hills within the valley, not so high that they broke up the valley but steep enough to make farming them a rough prospect.  The area was wild, natural, steep rises and falls of the road as it followed ridges up and down with flat plateaus atop the hills.  He realized that if the wolf was going to catch up with him, then a place like this was the best place to stop and wait for him.  He couldn’t go stay over with a farming family with a Shaman coming for him, so finding a place away from the road here in the woods was the best idea.  He came across a small, clear-running brook in a valley between two hills, and turned upstream rather than follow the road, following the rather smooth running along the stream and moving up and away from the road.  He went about a minar up, until he found a rather flat area with a very small clearing that the stream bisected, little more than a gap between several very large trees and the stream, a place that showed signs of being camped by others a while ago.  It had a very old burned spot where someone had set a fire.

        Well, if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for him.

        He set up camp.  He unsaddled his horses first, and picketed them with some hay and enough rope to drink their fill at the stream and graze on the small patch of grass that grew on one side of the clearing.  It took him a while to erect his tent, since he’d never really done it before, but he finally managed it.  He then collected some firewood and used the firestarter he’d bought from Virren to light it. It was a small bronze tube, the size of a child’s finger, and when pressing the button at the end, it produce a steady flame from its open end, which made it perfect for lighting pipes and starting fires.  He locked the button so it couldn’t be pressed by accident and put it back in his pocket, then pulled out the brand new cooking pans he’d bought from the outfitter and tried them out with a bit of salted bacon.  Kyven did know how to cook, thanks to spending his early years in the kitchen doing chores, so he had no trouble cooking the bacon and toasting slices of black travel bread, then cutting up some onion and potato and frying them in the pan using the grease of the bacon to give them flavor.  He ate in silence, with only the wind and the sounds of the forest touching his ears, and he leaned on the ground using his saddle as a backrest and read from the only book he’d brought, a rather cheesy adventure book called Frontier Jack, about a dashing hero saving damsels and fighting villains in the wild frontier lands known as the Snake Prairie, the prairie lands on the far side of the Snake River, which was far, far to the west of Atan.  People used to live out there, but a series of wars and plagues had driven people away centuries ago, and only now were they beginning to come back…but not many.  There was little in the way of crystal mining out there, so without crystals, there wasn’t much in the way of civilization.  Those few who did lived truly rough lives, without crystals or with only a bare few essential crystal devices, like a firestarter or a water purifier.  It was a life that was bare and stark, and couldn’t be easy…which was why so few lived west of the Smoke Mountain Basin and the Deep River.  The southern kingdoms of Noraam didn’t have many crystals either, but they did have the ocean, so ships plied the seas laden with other goods, and they traded for them using cotton, rice, sugar, and other goods one couldn’t get in the north.  Beyond the sea and the natural crystal-producing areas, there weren’t very many people, and no major kingdoms or settlements.

        Atan was just one example of a mining village.  Mines were scattered all over the Smoke Mountains all along its entire two thousand minar range, from the northern end in the kingdom of Acadan to the southern tip in Georvan, the kingdom north of Flaur.  Crystals were mined all along it, though the biggest deposits were mainly to the north, from Mevia to Augen.  The region around Atan was known for smaller deposits, but good quality crystals and the occasional rich deposit of large crystals, which was why it attracted so much mining.  The worst mining was at the southern tip, in Georvan, where the crystals were small and the deposits scarce, but people still mined it just because even small crystals were worth money.  The northern kingdoms were crystal producers, and the southern kingdoms generally produced goods not available in the north to trade with them.

        As sun set, Kyven started getting anxious.  That wolf would be here soon, and when he arrived, then his entire world was going to change. He was going to learn about this mysterious other world that he was able to see, and learn about something that had haunted him his entire life.  What would he learn about the fox?  What kind of creature was she?  Why was she so interested in him?  He’d find out, and learn more about himself.  He’d find out if he really was a Shaman…and if he was, what he’d have to do about it.  The idea of being a Shaman frightened him, but there was also a, a, curiosity there.  What if he really could learn to do magic without crystals?  What if he really could create crystals?  That did interest him.  If he could, well, he could just create his own crystal, then cut them, then sell them.  The shop in Atan would be just fine, and would always make money.

        He was there.  Kyven just knew it.  He closed the book and stood up quickly, then turned to see the wolf appear from the darkening twilight shadows, tall and menacing.  He was topless now, having shed his shirt, wearing only a pair of dark leather trousers that ended at his knees.  “You have made good time, human, and chose your campsite well.  I’ll give you that much,” the wolf stated.  “Untie the horses and release them.”

        “What?” he asked in shock.

        “You will not need them.  You cannot walk the path of the spirits riding on the back of a horse.  It must be made with your own feet, and with only what you may carry.  Release them.”

        “Virren never said anything about that,” he complained.

        “The human does not know our ways,” the wolf replied.  “Release the horses.  Go through all this junk and decide what you may carry with you.  Leave the rest.”

        “We’re not staying here?”  The wolf leveled a chilling stare on him with those glowing yellow eyes.  “Uh, what do you suggest I bring?”

        The wolf nodded, seemingly in approval.  “Your personal effects, and whatever is important to you.  Leave behind all else.  The land and the spirits will provide all we need.”

        Kyven wasn’t too sure about that, but then again, the wolf was carrying nothing.  He didn’t even have a belt pouch, all he had was that pair of ragged leather trousers.  Perhaps Kyven needed to be just as spartan.  After untying the horses and removing their bridles, freeing them, he went through his things, abandoning virtually everything he bought for the journey.  He kept only what he could easily carry, what wouldn’t weigh him down if he had to walk on his own feet.  He ended up with just his bedroll, and wrapped within it was his clothes, two waterskins, and a wrapped bundle of cheese in case they couldn’t find any food.  He decided to leave the musket and pistol behind—waste of money, that was—and rely on the daggers that Holm had given him to defend himself.  Besides, they were a gift, and he would keep them.  He tied his bedroll with a length of thong, then slung it over his back.  “Alright, I’m ready,” he announced.

        The wolf nodded.  “You chose wisely.  Perhaps you will make a good Shaman, human.  Now let us go.”

        “But it’s dark,” he protested.

        “You have the eyes of the Shaman, human,” the wolf snorted.  “That is your first lesson.  The ability to see the spirit world also provides the ability to see what others cannot, and see beyond.  To a Shaman, there is no darkness.  Open your eyes, human.  Open your eyes, and the darkness will lift.”

        The wolf then bounded into the murk, vanishing in seconds, without explaining exactly how to do it.

        Kyven stood there a long moment, a little frustrated and confused, then he blew out his breath.  “Okay then,” he sighed, closing his eyes.  He knew what it felt like when he could see the fox, and he did notice that when he could see the fox, that light seemed to shimmer, and things brighten.  But there had still been darkness, he recalled.  The fox had melded with the shadows last night.

        He was drifting here.  He needed to see, to force himself to see what was there.  He kept his eyes closed and groped for a way to make that happen, then opened his eyes and tried to concentrate.  He concentrated on the shadows around him, trying to look into them, look through them, look for something he knew he could see, but was escaping his vision.

        It was then he realized one of the answers to his questions.  The fox had incited this in him, or more to the point, the proximity of spirits.   When they were near, it triggered his ability to see. But now he was trying to see without them here, trying to consciously trigger his sight, and he wasn’t quite sure how.  He just kept concentrating, peering into the gloom, trying to see what he knew he could see.

        The forest around him seemed to shimmer just slightly, and the shadows retreated from him.  He suppressed giving a cry of triumph when the forest seemed to illuminate to the level of twilight, still full of shadows, but he could definitely see.  He could see every tree around him, see the stream, see both up and down the hill, and when he looked in the direction the wolf had gone, he saw him standing far ahead, looking back to him, his glowing yellow eyes easily visible to him.  He did notice, though, that he had trouble seeing the ground, like it was still covered in shadow, and the water in the stream was…patchy.  He could see it quite clearly in some places, and it seemed dark and indistinct in others.  Kyven ignored that, however, hurrying up the hill to where the wolf stood, waiting for him.  When he reached the wolf the black-furred Arcan simply nodded.  “You have consciously touched your power for the first time, human,” he announced.  “You forced yourself to use your eyes.  Always before, the spirits incited it in you, but you have proven you can control your eyes when need be.”

        “Uh, was that a complement?”

        “You will get no such coddling from me,” the wolf snorted darkly.  “I merely state fact.  Now come.  We will run.”

        “May I ask why?”

        “The magic you will use is not kind or gentle, human,” the wolf told him.  “It takes a strong body and a strong will to control it.   It taxes the body and wearies the mind.  You are soft.  You would be burned out trying to channel a lick of flame.  I must strengthen you, make you ready.”

        “I understand.  You will teach me as we run?”

        He nodded.  “Now come, and remember, I do to you nothing that was not done to me, so do not think I am tormenting you just because you are human.  But, since you are human, and I am not sure how the spirits will respond to you, I will assist you,” he seemed to grunt while saying it.  “Will you accept that aid?”

        “Huh?  Uh, sure.  Why, though?”

        “Because it would take me years to strengthen you if we do this the natural way,” he answered.

        “No, why ask?”

        “Because the type of magic I will perform cannot be done to those who are not willing,” he answered.  “You must accept the aid freely.”

        “Oh.  I understand.  What exactly are you going to do?”

        “Give you a blessing that will cause your body to rebuild much stronger than normal once it is worn down by exertion,” he answered.  “I will run you until you literally collapse.  When you recover, you will be able to run much further the next time.  Using this blessing, I will build you to an acceptable level in weeks rather than years, but it will be very hard on you.  I will work you beyond exhaustion, human, for the further down you are broken, the stronger you will rebuild.  The harder you work, the faster it will be.  Do you understand this?”

        “I understand.  I’ll do my best.”

        “That is all you should ever do.  Your best,” he said simply.

        For the first time, Kyven saw real magic performed.  The wolf raised his clawed, furry hands, and Kyven could…see something coalesce around them.  A kind of pattern of glowing, cloudy energy.  It flowed into his large hands, and then the wolf reached out and put his hands on Kyven’s shoulders.  He felt a strange, tingling vitality flow into him, saturate his entire body, and then it faded and he felt it no longer.  “Come, then.  Let us begin.”

        And so, through the moonlit forest, they ran.  Kyven struggled to keep up with the wolf, who literally ran on all fours ahead of him, whose voice called back to him as he explained the very basics of the spirits and the power the Shaman could call forth.  “Behind the world you can see is another world, human,” he began.  “The spirit world.  It is the world you see in shape and form, but it populated by the spirits.  Life in the mortal world intrudes into the spirit world, for life is spirit and spirit is life, and what you see now, through your eyes, is the spirit world.  You see the trees around us, you see me, you see yourself, but you do not see that which has no life.  Look at the ground.  All you see is a dark mass, for you see not the dead leaves and the rocks, but you do see the life that lives upon them, hiding their forms while also showing you they are there.  In the light, you can see both the spirit world and the mortal world overlaid atop each other, but here, in the darkness, all your eyes can see is the spirit world.”

        Kyven could see that he was right.  The trees were sharp and distinct, probably because he could see the life of them, but the forest floor was dark, murky, unfocused.

        “Look at me.  What do you see?”  Kyven looked at him, bounding ahead of him.  With this strange new sight, he looked just as he did before, tall, dark, menacing—wait.  His pants were gone.  He appeared naked, his fur curiously flattened around his hips, with a strange kind of dim glow around his hips and upper legs.  When he relayed what he saw through a winded voice, the wolf glanced back at him.  “Astute.  The trousers I wear are dead, so you cannot see them.  You see what lives, though for some strange reason we do not understand, we can also see hair and fur and claws, which are not technically alive.  Clover suspects it is because though they are dead, they are attached to a living body and are thus included within the aura.  You see me without my trousers, though you see the tiny life that is too small to see that lives upon the trousers, which is that ghostly outline of my trousers that you see.  When I see you, I see you without your clothes in a similar manner.”

        “Well, that’s disturbing,” Kyven chuckled breathlessly.

        “Indeed.  Humans are bald, and it is ugly,” the wolf growled.  “Practice will allow you to make out the nonliving things people carry, to penetrate your spirit sight into the mortal world.  I can see the daggers you carry because I know what to look for.”

        “So you could see my clothes if you wanted to?”

        “Yes.  They would not hide what lays beneath, they would be like a phantom around you, but I could see their color and shape.  Seeing the non-living through Shaman eyes is not easy and it is not perfect.”

        “But you can see just fine in the daytime?”

        “Indeed.  With the light, I can see just as any human, but I still see the spirit world at the same time.”

        They ran on.  The wolf described the world he could see through his eyes, explaining how life intruded into the spirit world.  Life was a solid thing in the spirit world, and the spirits could interact with it as if it was solid to them, if they so wished it.  Spirits could pass through life of the mortal world, or they could interact with it…which explained to Kyven why he saw that hawk sitting on the shoulder of that first year.  Spirits could touch people and living things like they were solid, if they wanted to, but humans and other things that existed in the mortal world couldn’t feel them when the spirits touched them.

        For long hours, through the night, Kyven ran, and listened.  He ran until he was out of breath, until his heart was pounding in his chest and in his ears, until he could no longer hear the wolf explaining his vision, until the entire world focused down on following the wolf as he bounded effortlessly ahead of him, and continuing to put one foot in front of the other.  The wolf did not slow down, but Kyven would not slow down.  The wolf said that the harder he pushed himself, the faster and stronger he would be when he recovered, so he would not give up.  He kept pushing himself, beyond exhaustion, still running even when his muscles felt like water and his breathing was so labored that he sounded like his lungs were bursting.  He ran until blood started seeping from his nose, stopping only twice, once to vomit and once to gulp down water from a stream…and only because the wolf had stopped himself to drink.  The wolf did exactly as he said, pushing Kyven by making him run, intending to literally run him into the ground.

        That happened around midnight.  Kyven tripped on a root and crashed to the ground, and lay there a long moment panting, feeling pain shoot through his chest.  He struggled to his hands and knees, then gritted his teeth and staggered to his feet as the wolf continued on without looking back.  He would not be left behind!  He lurched forward, running on weak, unsteady legs.  He stumbled through a thorn patch that the wolf had gone around to make up ground, feeling the briars pull on his clothes and tear through his skin, but he could barely feel the pain.  He pressed through them and broke into the clear, feeling burning stings all over him as sweat poured into scratches and caused pain, but he wouldn’t give up.  He pressed on, knowing that the harder he pushed himself, the better off he would be, and that drove him.  It drove him beyond pain, beyond exhaustion, even beyond thought, as it seemed that his brain shut down to focus on pushing him beyond his physical limits.

        But it couldn’t last forever.  The wolf crossed a stream with a graceful bound, and Kyven’s legs slowed from the water while the rest of him kept going.  He fell into the stream, the cold water assaulting him, shocking his muscles, and for a frightening moment he couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, and couldn’t lift his face out of the water.  His body was paralyzed from exhaustion, and he literally lacked the strength to save himself.  But survival overrode exhaustion as his lungs began to burn, and he barely managed to lift his face from the water as he took in a ragged breath, inhaling a little water.  He coughed, and that cough caused him to retch violently, heaving an empty stomach in painful spasms that racked his torso.  He leaned forward and collapsed on the rocky streambank, his head and shoulders out of the water with the rest of him submerged in the cold water.  His brain was swimming in a haze of pain and weariness, but his will drove him forward, caused him to start weakly, shakily crawl out of the water, trembling arms and legs trying to carry his weight.

        A large black foot, toes tipped with claws, appeared to him in the darkness, for he could no longer see the world as he had been.  It was just before his nose, and it took him a long moment to comprehend that it was the wolf’s foot.  He felt himself being physically hauled off the streambed, out of the water, then he was tossed quite roughly onto a warm sandbar beside it.  He rolled over on his back, his chest heaving for long moments, then he rolled back over on his hands and knees and tried to get to his feet.  He rose up off his hands, his knees trembling violently, then he collapsed back to the ground.

        “Rest,” the wolf told him calmly.  “You can go no further.”

        “N-No,” he wheezed.  “Must…go…on,” he said through clenched teeth, trying to rise up onto his hands and knees again.

        A foot came down on his back, and drove him to the sand, hard.  His breath whooshed from his lungs, and he couldn’t breathe for several terrifying seconds before his lungs and diaphragm seemed to remember how to work, allowing him to draw in a ragged, raw breath.  “I will not be gainsaid, human,” the wolf growled.  “I told you to rest, and you will rest.  Do not disobey me again.  Now rest.  You will eat when you are recovered.”

        Kyven stayed down, breathing heavily for many long moments as the wolf loomed over him, foot resting lightly on his back, almost as if daring him to try to get up again.  He could only feel that foot on his back as he closed his eyes and tried to recover his strength, but then his head collapsed to the sand and he passed out.

 

        It was daylight.

        Kyven opened his eyes blearily to find himself laying on a sandbar near a stream, covered head to foot in sand.  It was in his hair, in his ear, caking his skin, even in his pants and shirt.  It took him a moment to remember where he was, what he was doing.  And when he did, he suddenly felt like someone had carved out a hole in his stomach, he was so ravenously hungry.  He scrambled to his knees, swiping sand off of him as he blinked and looked around.  He was alone, the wolf was nowhere to be seen, but a dead buck was laying near the bar, a small red stain in the sand under its neck.

        He had no idea what to do with it, but it was food.  He knew that it had to be skinned and cleaned, and he wasn’t entirely sure how to do either of those things, but he was hungry enough to take a try at it.  He scrambled over to it on his hands and knees, but recoiled when he saw its belly, saw that it had literally been torn out, a gaping hole from its ribs to its back legs.  The flesh around that gaping hole showed clear signs of being torn, and the visible spine inside was scratched and nicked.  Something had eaten it.

        He was too hungry to care.  The buck wasn’t rotted, it was fresh, and he was starving.  He’d never eaten raw venison right off the carcass before, but he was about to try.  He drew one of his throwing daggers, which had razor-sharp edges in addition to a sharp point, and used the dagger to slice away at the bloody meat at the edge of that gaping hole.  He sliced off a small handful and did not hesitate to tear into it with his teeth.  It tasted salty, tangy, but if the idea he was eating raw meat nauseated him, he’d have to wait until he felt like he wasn’t dying of hunger to think about it.  The meat just unleashed an avalanche of almost uncontrollable hunger that caused him to attack the carcass like a starving animal.  He barely managed to make sure he didn’t get a mouthful of fur or hide as he sliced mouthful after mouthful off the carcass, systematically stripping all the meat he could easily see from it, leaving it skeletonized from the neck to the hind legs.  He then cut new holes in its shoulder and hindquarters to harvest the flesh beneath to try to sate his hunger.  His hunger didn’t allow him to register that he’d eaten more than three times a man could normally hold in his stomach, and still his stomach felt completely empty.  He continued to feast on the raw deer, for over an hour, until he finally felt satiated after stripping most of the flesh off its shoulder, hindquarter, and most of the two upper legs.

        He leaned back and sat on his heels, wiping blood from his mouth.  He didn’t feel sick or nauseous at what he’d done at all.  The wolf had clearly left it there for him, and he was too hungry to figure out how to do it the normal way, so he ate it as it was.  He’d eaten plenty of venison in his life, just never raw, and right off the deer.  It was what he needed, and so it was done.

        He washed off in the stream, having to remove his shirt because of the blood on it, cleaned the blood off his face and hands, cleaned his dagger, and then moved upstream just a bit to drink his fill.  He felt…fine.  Now that he was no longer hungry, he didn’t feel tired or sore or exhausted in any manner at all.  He felt quite lively, in fact, spry, energetic.  He felt…good.  Strong.  Very robust.  He stood up and stretched, and his legs were rock solid, no quivering at all, and he felt like he could wrestle a bull.  By the Trinity, that wolf’s magic spell really worked!  He said that it would make him recover much faster and much stronger than before, and he truly felt that way!  He put a hand on his stomach and felt how much leaner he was; every bit of fat that had been on him was gone, leaving nothing but lean muscle behind.  Tests showed that he was no stronger physically, but he felt as if he could run all day and not be winded at all.

        Amazing!

        It proved to him that Shaman really were magical, that they really could do magic without crystals.  Whatever the wolf had done, it had been damn effective.  Kyven had run until he literally passed out, and he woke up much stronger than he’d been when he fell asleep.

        He stood up and considered what he’d learned last night, about vision.  He closed his eyes and concentrated, and then opened them again.  He wasn’t sure if it was working, but he did seem to sense a bit of shimmering in the light, and the trees looked a little more sharper, clearer, more vibrant, where the forest floor, the rocks, and the water looked, well, like they always did.  He looked down at his own legs and saw his pants, as he expected, but he also seemed to see a very faint sense of his own legs through them, almost like a shadow lurking behind it.

        It was working!  He could see the spirit world!

        He looked around, and was a little disappointed.  He saw nothing out of the ordinary, nothing unusual, nothing magical.  He saw the forest, and up in the canopy his eyes seemed automatically drawn to a squirrel that seemed to stand out among the trees, sharp and clear.  He went to the stream and looked down, and tiny minnows what blended with the shadows within the brook just jumped out at his eyes, almost blatantly visible.  He even saw a faint, ghostly silhouette under a rock, a crayfish lurking under the nook.  Truly, just as the wolf said, the non-living was invisible to the spirit world, and he was literally looking right through the rock to see the crayfish!  True, his normal vision saw the rock and interfered, but the spirit sight of the animal still bled through, allowed him to see its outline very faintly through the rock.  It moved and vanished to his spirit-sensing eyes, and he realized that it moved under a patch of algae on the rock, and that living thing was hiding the animal underneath.  He recalled that the wolf said that living things were solid to the spirits, if they wished them to be, so he saw that he couldn’t look through one living thing to see another.

        But still, this was literally the ability to see through a stone wall and see if there was anyone on the other side.  What a useful ability!

        He continued to practice with this newfound ability for over an hour, examining both living things and dead things, trying to see the tiny tiny things that lived on dead things that made them apparent, and wondering if he could see them if he used a magnifying glass…if this ability was truly based on his eyes, or was magical in nature and couldn’t be augmented using a technological device.

        No, it wouldn’t.  The spirit sight wouldn’t see the glass, therefore it would have no effect.  At least that was what he thought.  It certainly seemed, well, logical to assume so.

        But he came across an unforeseen issue with looking at the spirit world…it tired him.  His vigor waned over the hour, just barely, but he began to notice it, to feel it.  What he thought was just a different way to see with his eyes turned out to be something that required his active participation, it was work.  He realized that he’d been exhausted both ways last night, both from the running and from forcing himself to use this spirit sight.

        By the Father’s grace, the wolf wasn’t joking.  If just using this spirit sight was noticeably tiring him, what would trying to use actual magic do to him?

        He closed his eyes and did what he’d done so many times when he’d seen the fox over the years, pushed that idea out of his mind, willed it to go away.  He opened his eyes and blinked and saw that the forest looked…normal to him.  He didn’t see the minnows sharply in the stream, and knew that he’d done it.

        He was proud of himself.  He couldn’t say that he’d mastered this trick, but he could make it work or make it go away.

        Uncertain of what to do, Kyven decided to wait for the wolf.  He cleaned the sand out of his bedroll and put on a clean shirt, then sat down and rested, figuring that that was what he was supposed to do.  He listened to the sounds of the forest as he watched the minnows dart about in the water for nearly an hour, as the sun seemed to be lowering as the shadows in the forest elongated, until the wolf returned.  He made no attempt to move quietly, bounding into camp in that curious way that Arcans ran on all fours, skidding to a halt by the carcass and then standing erect like a human.  He kicked the carcass and flipped it over, then nodded absently.  “I see you did as you needed,” he announced.  “It was important to eat it raw.  I was unsure you’d think to do that.  You surprise me, human.”

        “I didn’t eat it raw because I knew I had to, I did it because I was starving,” he answered.

        “Which is against your human ideals,” the wolf said to him.  “You are thinking outside the cultured bounds of your race,” he said with a derisive snort.  “Have you practiced?”

        “I was until I realized that using my eyes that way took effort.  You told me to rest, so I stopped.”

        “You obeyed me.  Again, you surprise me, human,” the wolf said, almost grudgingly.  “It makes me wonder why you disobeyed me last night when I told you to rest.”

        “You said I had to go until I couldn’t go anymore,” Kyven answered.  “I had to keep trying until I couldn’t.  I thought I could keep going, so I wanted to try.”

        “A commendable attitude, but I am your teacher.  You must listen to me.”

        “I was trying to do what you said, that’s all,” he said mildly.

        “Well, from now on, obey my words as I say them, not as I’ve said before.  Things may change.”

        “I will.”

        “Are you hungry?”

        “No.”

        “How do you feel?”

        “I feel fine.  Healthy.  Your, uh, whatever you did, it really worked.  After I ate, I felt…amazing.”

        “That is a false feeling,” the wolf warned.  “It’s an after-effect of the blessing after it does its work.  That false energy fades quickly once you start working again.”

        “I’ll remember that.  What do we do now?”

        “Since you feel up to continuing, we work.  Last night we worked on your endurance.  Today, we work on your strength.  Each day we will alternate between them until your body is ready for the rigors of working with the magic.”

        “Then lead on.”

        The wolf led him into the forest, again used his magic to grant him that magical spell, and they began.  He looked through the world with spirit sight, as commanded, as he carried heavy stones and logs up and down a hill, and was made to stack them up over his head on a rock face.  Kyven was actually a very strong man despite his lack of a heavy labor profession, and seemed to surprise the wolf with his raw strength as he moved the first heavy rock.  But the kind of work he was doing was designed to wear him down.  He lasted much shorter than he did running, getting to the point in a mere hour where he literally could not pick up anything, for his hands were so tired that he couldn’t keep his grip.  The wolf led him back to the sandbar, him on quivering legs, and ordered him straight to the bedroll.  He laid down on the bedroll with every muscle in his body screaming at him, trembling, yet he stayed awake, just laid there and rested while he maintained his spirit sight, trying to absolutely and utterly exhaust himself so he’d come back stronger the next day.  The wolf noticed this as he hunkered down by the carcass, ripped off one of its legs, then began to gnaw at the flesh hanging from it.  “Rest,” he ordered.

        “May I at least try to keep the sight going until I’m too tired to?”

        “You may do that,” he said after a moment.  “I must admit, human, your dedication surprises me.  I thought you feared Shaman.”

        “I do.  But—it’s hard to explain.”

        “I am not stupid, human,” he said dangerously.

        “No, it’s not easy for me to put into words,” he said.  “All my life, the fox has been with me.  It’s—well, I want to know why.  I want to know why she’s so interested me, why she’s helped me.  She’s been there, watching me, for over half my life.  It’s like she’s a part of my life, though a part that I’ve always tried to ignore or reject when I thought she was a symbol of my own insanity.  But now that I know I’m not crazy, and she’s real, well, I owe this to her.  She’s stayed by me for half my life, and I just have to know why.  This is the only way I can learn the answer.  I, I just have to know.  If I don’t find out, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.  Every time I’d see her, I’d know she offered me this chance to know her, and I passed it over, and I’d feel like I’d done her wrong.  You know?”

        “I do understand.  She is a part of you, a part you don’t understand, and you must know her to know yourself.”

        “Exactly!” he said animatedly.  “You’re very wise, wolf.”

        “I would hope so,” the wolf grunted.  “Now rest.  I’ll go hunt another deer.  When you wake up, you’ll need it.”

 

        That was the routine for many days, so many that Kyven lost count.

        One night, they would run.  They would run in silence as Kyven chased the wolf, almost came to hate the wolf for his inexhaustible endurance.  He would run until he literally collapsed in midstride, and then the wolf would drag him to a suitable campsite, where he would sleep like the dead.  He would awaken to whatever meal the wolf had captured while he was asleep and eat like a starving animal, eat it raw, until he almost came to enjoy the taste of raw, bloody meat, oftentimes still warm and freshly killed.

        On the next day, he would exercise his muscles.  The wolf would make him carry progressively heavier and heavier objects further and further, tearing down his muscles so his magical spell would allow him to build back up stronger when he recovered.  He would stagger back to wherever his bedroll was weak as a newborn kitten, but would awaken, eat, and then feel much stronger than the day before.

        And the cycle renewed itself.

        The wolf was even more silent than he was.  Hours would pass in total silence as the wolf seemed to barely tolerate him, and Kyven was too intimidated by him to ask questions or engage him.  He’d spoken much about spirit sight on that first night, but since then had barely spoken at all, except to issue commands.  And he had not taught him anything else, anything new, only told him to continue looking through the world using spirit sight and observe, come to understand it, and practice being able to switch back and forth until he could do it at will.  He did so, usually only while he was resting after a strength building exercise, as being able to maintain his spirit sight for long periods was as much a part of his endurance training as the physical side of it.

        Days flowed into weeks, and Kyven sensed that well over a month had passed as they roamed the forest in the Blue Valley and along the ridges forming it.  But that time had had a dramatic effect on him.  In that time, his endurance increased by almost unbelievable amounts.  He went from collapsing after just a couple of hours of running to being able to run the whole night, finally able to keep up with the wolf, and not collapse in exhaustion when the sun rose.  And though he hadn’t become superhumanly strong, he was as strong as he could possibly be without his muscles ballooning, giving him a sleek, fatless, panther-like build that was fast, agile, nimble, enormously strong, and as durable as stone.  His clothes, however, did not fare half as well.  His shirts were destroyed by the running, and his leather breeches had holes and tears in them from his boots to the waist, making them look like they had the pox.  His hair grew shaggy, and he’d have grown a beard if not for the fact that his throwing daggers were so sharp that he could literally shave with them.  He ceased looking like a clean-cut, urbane villager over those time and came to look like a lean, lithe, bare-chested, shaggy-haired mountain man, tall and sleek and dangerous-looking.

        The night he managed to keep up with the wolf until sunrise, he felt enormously proud of himself.  He was winded when the wolf bounded to a stop by a very small stream, but he felt he could still run more.  The wolf rose up on his hind legs and looked down at Kyven with those glowing eyes, then simply nodded.  “You are ready,” he announced.  “Make camp here.  Rest.  I will bring food, but tomorrow, you learn to hunt.  Tomorrow you must feed me.”

        “I’ll do my best,” he said pantingly as he pulled off his bedroll and threw it on the ground, then sat down on a soft bed of leaves near the stream.  “Why are you teaching me?”

        “A Shaman must be self-sufficient,” he said darkly.  “And you are pathetically inept.  Without me, you would die out here.”

        “I can’t disagree with that.  I spent my whole life in the village.  I’ll learn whatever you teach me.”

        “As it should be.  Rest.  I will be back soon.”

        The wolf dragged a huge buck carcass back to the camp not twenty minutes later, and they ate.  Eating along with the wolf had taken some getting used to, for the Arcan ate like a wolf, with his jaws and claws.  While the Arcan tore into the belly of the buck, Kyven used his dagger to cut off one of its hind legs, and used weeks of practice to expertly skin the hide off of it and begin to eat.  The weeks had gotten him not just used to eating raw meat, but actually preferring it.  The wolf wouldn’t let him cook it, telling him it was better for him raw, and he had developed a taste for it.  He ate enough to satisfy him and left the rest for later, for he knew he’d awaken ravenously hungry, after the blessing that magically augmented his body’s recovery used up his vital energies, and forced him to eat like a starving animal to replenish it.

        And it was so.  When he woke up a few hours after sleeping, he was starving to death, and the buck was there and waiting for him.  He attacked it with desperation, consuming far more than he’d normally be able to eat, literally stripping it to the bone since both of them had eaten off of it previously.  When he was done, he washed himself up, then stood up and stretched languidly, waiting for the wolf to return.  The wolf had said that when his body could handle the stresses, he’s start teaching him about how magic worked.  Well, it seemed that they were there, so he was starting to look forward to it.  Finally, he would start learning about the spirits, and about magic.  He’d learn about the fox that had been with him since he was a kid, learn who she was, why she was interested in him, and learn why he mattered so much to her.

        Then again, it was nice to be able to just think after waking up, not to be dragged straight to some hillside to carry heavy rocks as soon as he finished eating.

        The wolf bounded in on all fours, then slowed to a walk and rose up onto his legs.  Even though he saw it every day, he was still quite amazed and impressed by that Arcan ability.  Their legs were just as long as human legs, actually a little longer, but what looked like a third joint in them let them fold them down short enough to be able to run on all fours, and run fast.  He’d seen the wolf sprint before, and he was sure that he could chase down a sprinting horse.  He’d never seen him hunt, but he guessed that the Arcan simply ran his prey down.  They couldn’t outrun him.  Nothing in the forest could outrun the Arcan.

        It wasn’t a third joint, though.  It was actually his ankle, and everything below it was his foot.  His foot was elongated, just like in a normal canine, and what Kyven would call a foot would be just the ball of his foot and his toes if he related it to a human foot.

        “Sit,” he ordered, as he dropped down on all fours, literally sitting on his haunches by Kyven’s bedroll.  Kyven did so, sitting on his heels facing the wolf, who lifted his hands off the ground and put them on his legs.  “You have toughened up to where I feel you can handle magic,” he proclaimed.  “For a human, you’ve done well.  I expected you to quit weeks ago, or die.”

        “I’m no quitter.”

        “I hope so, for you are about to put that to the test,” he said bluntly.  “Walking the path of the Shaman is not for the weak, human.  The spirits are demanding.  If you are to walk with them, you must prove yourself to them.  That is why even the most basic and simplest of magic is so demanding and taxing.  They demand strength of body and strength of will, and they demand it from the youngest cub as much as they do the oldest Shaman.”

        “That’s why I have to do the walk,” he realized absently.  “It’s not just to gain wisdom.  It’s a test.”

        “You are wise,” the wolf said with a nod.  “They will test you in the Walk, test your body, your mind, and your spirit.  Those who complete the Walk are much changed.”

        “What if you fail?”

        “Most don’t survive if they fail,” the wolf said simply.  “Do not believe that the Walk has no danger in it, human.  It will be the most dangerous thing you have ever faced.  But that is in the future.  Before you can begin the Walk, you must learn about Shaman magic.”

        The wolf raised his hand, which had pads on his palm and fingertips, and short, sturdy claws.  “There are three different realms of Shaman magic, human,” he began.  “Each is called upon the same way, however.  There is the Blessing, there is the Summoning, and there is the Invocation.  The blessing is magic done to ourselves or to another that enhances or aids them in some manner.  For example, I blessed you to recover much faster and much stronger than what is normal for you.  That is a blessing.  You can also be blessed to run with great speed, or gain supernatural strength, or see or hear beyond your normal abilities.  Anything that enhances the body or senses is a blessing.  Blessings are not used often, but they can be very useful when you do.

        The second kind of magic is Summoning.  That is calling spirits to you.  When you Summon, you are asking for help.  You must know exactly what you want from them, which spirit you call, and be prepared to pay the price.  Spirits exact a toll from you for calling them like that.  But in return, they will grant you knowledge, carry messages, or grant you special favors if it pleases them.  Summoning magic is very dangerous, human.  It is always the last resort.  If you anger the spirit, it will avenge itself against you, and it very well may kill you.  As I said earlier, the life of a Shaman is not an easy one.

        “The last form of magic is the most common, and the one you will learn from me.  It is Invocation, the drawing of magic from the spirit world and manifesting it into the mortal world.  You are invoking the might of the spirits and using their power as an agent, a proxy.  The vast majority of the time, you can accomplish your task using Invocation, or what we call channeling.  When you cast a spell, you are forming a bridge between the spirit world and the mortal world, human, and you are the bridge.  You call the power from the spirit world and channel it through you, and then it manifests into the real world.  Channeling can do almost anything you need to do, human.  It is the way you will attack your enemies, confuse them, learn about what you cannot see, aid your allies, and many other things.  Blessings are actually channeled spells, but we separate them because they don’t have the same restrictions as normal spells.  Virtually anything you have seen an alchemy device do, we can do, and many more.”

        “Does channeling follow the same basic types?  You know, red, blue—“

        “Yes and no.  Crystals are trapped forms of spirit energy.  We can access all types of spirit energy, but the energy we call on will be that form of energy to perform that task.  We would call on what you would call green energy to heal, for example.  Actually, it is just energy from different spirits.

        “Some spirits represent a type of energy.  Some do not.  Some shaman, like you, have a totem, a spirit that has claimed you as its own.  Some Shaman do not.  I have no totem.  That gives me certain advantages, such as the ability to use any Shaman magic I please.  But when a Shaman has a totem, the Shaman is restricted by the totem’s own preferences.  Your totem is the shadow fox, and her energy is blue.  She is a deceiver, a trickster, a being of stealth and guile.  You will excel at spells of deception, confusion, and illusion, for that is what your totem excels at.  The shadow fox is also a spirit attuned to healing, which will allow you to heal.  And as any spirit of healing, she rejects the black, the energy of death, and she will deny you any access to that magic.  If you call on that power, she will block you.  When you have a totem spirit, you gain power in one area, but lose power in another.  Or, in your case, completely lose access to some parts of Shaman magic.  A Shaman like me, who has no totem, can use any spell, but the spells in which your totem specializes will be stronger than my own.”

        “That’s the trade-off for having a totem,” Kyven mused.  “Can you gain a totem if you want one?”

        He nodded.  “I could go on a spirit quest to beseech the spirits for a totem if I wished it, but I do not wish it.  I prefer the versatility of no totem.  Some Shaman, like you, have had a totem spirit who has attached to them by themselves.  The shadow fox has taken an interest in you, and she has already claimed you to be your totem.”

        “If I angered her, could she get rid of me?”

        He nodded again.  “She could abandon you and remove her favor.  You would be without a totem.  Her favor would be taken from you, and you would lose the enhanced ability to cast her spells, but you would also regain the magic she denies.  But that is rare.  Spirits almost never abandon a Shaman like that.  If you anger the shadow fox to that degree, she would probably kill you rather than release you.  That is one of the drawbacks to having a totem, human.  But for you, it won’t be much of a disadvantage in what she denies you in return for what you gain.”

        “Why is that?”

        “She only denies you the magic of death, but you gain much stronger spells of deception in return.  The shadow fox, at heart, is a stalker and a skulker, human.  She prefers to flee rather than fight, and your magic will reflect her nature.  You will be a hard Shaman to trap and kill, but she will deny you the power to directly kill in return.”  The Arcan smiled ominously.  “But there are other ways to kill,” he added.  “She will deny you death magic, magic that directly kills.  She will not deny you other spells that kill indirectly.  You will not be able to kill using death magic, but you will easily be able to channel a spell that burns your enemies to death.  The spell does not kill, the fire does.”

        “I, I understand the difference.”

        “You are wise to do so.  Now that you understand the basics behind magic, let’s get down to the heart of the matter.”

        Kyven swallowed, and steeled himself.  This was it.  He was about to take that fatal last step that would bind him to this path, by becoming a Shaman.  He would be abandoning the teachings of the Loremasters, would be embracing this new path, a strange, unknown path filled with hidden dangers and which would make him a target for death if the Loremasters ever found out about him.  He wanted to know about the fox, learn why, and this was it.  By learning Shaman magic, he hoped to become closer to her, and learn the answers to those questions.  He hoped that by doing as she wished, he would finally know why.  “I’m ready,” he said seriously.

        “We shall see,” he said, sliding down until he was sitting on the ground, his tail sweeping the ground behind him.  “Channeling is a very simple concept, human.  You act as a bridge, a direct link between the spirit world and our world.  All magic comes through you, and so it follows the same basic limitations as alchemic devices’ effects.”

        “Line of sight.”

        “Correct.  It originates from the device, so if it has some kind of physical effect, that effect has to travel from the device to the target, like the lightning from a shockrod.  Shaman have the same restriction, but for a different reason.  What is the first ability you learned?”

        “Spirit sight.”

        “That is the core of Shaman ability, human.  Sight.  We must be able to see to use our magic.  If you were to somehow lose both your eyes, have them torn out or damaged beyond repair, you’d lose most of your powers, because your eyes are part of what allows you to act as a bridge into the spirit world.  Do you understand this?”

        “It makes sense to me,” he nodded.

        “So, simply put, human, Shaman usually can’t channel against targets they can’t see.”

        “What about spirit sight?  Couldn’t I cast—uh, channel at someone on the other side of a wall if I can see them that way?”

        The wolf grinned.  “Very wise, human.  Yes, you can hit a human on the far side of a wall with a spell using spirit sight, but only if the spell won’t be blocked by the wall.  You couldn’t channel a cone of fire against him because of the wall, but you could use a spell that clouds his vision, since it affects him, it doesn’t have a physical effect.”  Kyven nodded in understanding.  “That is the first limitation.  But also remember that spells that produce physical effects can be unleashed against anything despite being able to see, since the effect originates from you.  All you do is aim it where you want it to go.  Channeling lightning and hurling it at a wall means it doesn’t matter what’s on the other side of the wall.  You don’t have to see it to affect it that way.  There’s only one exception, human, and that’s Blessings.  Blessing spells can be channeled on a target you can’t see, like yourself, or someone or something you are physically touching.  If you’re not touching it, though, you do have to be able to see it.  All Blessing spells can be channeled like normal spells, but when you use them on yourself, they don’t follow the sight restriction.  Some Blessing spells are fairly obvious, like healing.  All spells of healing are Blessing spells.  Some, though, aren’t quite so obvious.  Basically, any spell that you cast on an ally to heal or help is a Blessing.  Blessings are never negative.  In order to use them on yourself, they must be positive.”

        “Alright, that makes sense to me too.  How do you make the magic?”

        The wolf smiled.  “It is easy, human.  You ask for it.  The spirits will hear your call and respond.  They supply the magic.  Your mind and will shapes it into the spell, gives the energy purpose and function.”

        “That sounds almost too easy.”

        “It is very easy.  But there are two things you must remember, human.  First, the spirits are very fickle in responding to your call.  You could, right here and now, call upon all of their power, and they will respond if only to teach you a lesson.  But if you call on them to grant you power to do something they find ridiculous or degrading, they will ignore you, maybe even punish you.  You are dealing with sentient beings, human, who are greater than we.  They grant us their power so long as we remember our place and treat them with respect.”

        “That makes sense.  I understand.”

        “The second thing is that the power is very demanding to use,” he continued.  “Had I allowed you to do this the first night, to touch this power, it would have killed you.  Because of that, it is usually best to do something with your own paws before you resort to magic when you first begin.  I guarantee you, after you manage to channel your first time, you will all but collapse from the effort, even after these six weeks of preparation for it.”

        “Does it ever get any easier?”

        “Yes.  As you gain experience, and you continue to strengthen your body, you’ll be able to channel more easily.  But when you first begin, it is extremely hard on you.”

        “I understand.  What spells will you teach me?”

        “I will teach you only two spells,” he answered simply.  “The first spell will be the spell that teaches you how to channel.  The second spell is the spell of Summoning.  Since you already have a totem, the shadow fox will be the one to answer your call when you use it.”

        “But, but I thought you were going to teach me!”

        “My task was to prepare you,” he corrected.  “The task of teaching you is not mine.”

        “What?  I have to teach myself?” he gasped.

        The wolf shook his head.  “When you go on your Spirit Walk, the shadow fox will guide you, and it is from her that you will learn your magic.”

        “Oh.  I, I guess that makes sense.  And it will answer my question.  If she guides me, then I’ll learn about her, learn why she’s interested in me.  That’s the whole reason I’m here.”

        He nodded.

        “Since you don’t have a totem, who taught you?”

        “Many different spirits,” he answered.  “One would take me and lead me to a place and teach me, then another would come and take his place.  But since you have a totem, she will be the one to guide you on your own Walk.”

        “I understand.  Alright, wolf, show me what I have to do,” he said, putting his hands on his knees and staring into the wolf’s glowing yellow eyes directly.

        “First, open your eyes,” he ordered.  Kyven responded immediately, opening his eyes to the spirit world.  The light shimmered to his eyes, and then the wolf and trees became sharper to his eyes, as he opened his eyes to spirit sight.  “Remember, human, you must always open your eyes to channel magic.  Always.”

        “I understand.”

        Now, it is a simple matter, human.  I will teach you the most basic of attack spells.  It sends a blast of lightning at your enemy.  First, focus your mind,” he intoned.  “I will be your target.  Don’t worry, you won’t harm me,” he said quickly.  “Focus your mind on the task at hand.  Do you know what you have to do?”

        “Create lightning and send it at you.”

        “Yes, just so.  You must imagine every step of it, human.  You will call forth the power, but you must know from where it will originate.  Will it manifest from your hand, or from your chin, or from your elbow or chest?  Wherever it comes from, though, it must come from you.  Remember, you are the bridge.  The magic can come from nowhere else.  Once you know exactly where it’s coming from, focus all your concentration on that point.  Do so.”

        Kyven raised his hand.  He imagined that it should come from his open palm, so he focused himself on his palm.  He focused all his concentration right on that one point, could almost feel the skin on his palm in minute detail as he focused his attention on that point.

        “Now, imagine what you must do.  Imagine what you would see, how it would sound, even how it would smell.”

        Lightning.  He would create lightning.  It would be brilliant, bright, a jagged bolt of lightning that would emanate from his palm rather than from the sky.  The flash would illuminate the area around him, and there would be a smell of ozone in the air after it was unleashed.  It would flash from his palm directly at the wolf, a very short distance.

        “If your imagination isn’t detailed enough, this will fail,” the wolf warned.  “When you think you are ready, nod.”

        Kyven took stock.  He felt that he had everything he needed here.  He imagined the way it would look, the brilliant flash, the way it would arc from his hand towards the wolf, and the smell of ozone.  There—no, wait.  Thunder always proceeded lightning in a storm, so there would need to be some kind of sound that would go with it.  He thought that since it would be a much smaller bolt of lightning, the thunder that accompanied it would be much less as well.

        He nodded.

        “Call to the spirits.  Open your heart to them and ask them for aid.  If they feel that your need is just, and your use of the power is both justified and correct, they will grant it to you.”

        Call on the spirits?  He didn’t know how to do that.  He wanted to close his eyes, but he knew he couldn’t do that.  He had to be able to see to do this.  He raised his palm towards the wolf and tried to cast his thought out into the void.  Shadow fox, please help me, he thought sonorously.  I’m trying to do what you wanted.  I need your help.  I need—

        It came in a torrent.  A surge of the same tingling power he’d always felt when he touched crystals raged into him, saturating him with power, the power of the spirits, the power of the shadow fox.  It roared into him, infused him, then poured into the point of focus, into the palm of him hand.  The power was shaped by his mind, forced to conform to his expectations, but it was limited by his body’s ability to channel that power.  He could feel so much power trying to pour into him, yet only a tiny fraction of that power could actually manage it, and the power surrounded him even as the power that flowed into him found a gateway into the mortal world.  It coalesced into his palm, and then issued forth as a bright flash of light and a jagged blast of raw electricity, lancing and arcing as it thundered across the small distance between him and the wolf.  There was a loud sound like a gunshot, or the crack of a whip, and the lightning struck the wolf.  It danced around his body, but didn’t seem to go into him.

        After the task was complete, the power withdrew from him, but when it did, it sucked what seemed like every iota of energy out of him, draining it away.  Before the report of the lightning even finished echoing off the trees, Kyven’s hand sagged, and for a terrifying moment he felt his heart falter from the sudden exhaustion.  But it then picked back up to a normal pace, leaving him drained and weak.

        “Holy Father!” Kyven gasped, his shoulders slumping as he felt barely able to move.

        “That is the price,” the wolf said to him simply.  “Had I not prepared you for this, that would have killed you.”

        “I can believe it,” he panted.  “Will it be like this every time?”

        “No.  Every time you do it, you will feel slightly less weak.  It is like a muscle you must train, human.  Resisting the drain the spirits demand of you is something you can increase.  When you reach the point where you can cast lightning and then run immediately afterwards, you will be ready for your Walk.  Now rest.  You will find that though you feel exhausted, your strength will return very quickly.  When you are rested, I will teach you to hunt.”

        “How am I going to hunt?  I left the musket, and I can’t chase down—uh, nevermind,” he said, a bit sheepishly.  Why else would be taken out to hunt if not to use what he just learned?  He would hunt using this spell he’d just learned, killing with lightning.

        The wolf gave him a smirk.  “Such a human,” he noted.  “But you seem more wise than most humans, I will give you that,” he added as he regained his feet, towering over the exhausted Kyven.  “Perhaps that is what the shadow fox sees in you.  Rest.  I’ll scout about and return in about an hour.  You need to move as soon as you’re able to get up.  Rest for a short time, then push yourself.   That allows you to recover faster.”

        “I will do as you say.”

        The wolf nodded, then dropped down onto all fours and loped off into the warm, sunny forest.

        Kyven laid back and put his hands behind his head, trying to recover from his bone weariness.  He had done it…and it had been so easy.  So easy.  He succeeded on his first try, he had touched the power of the spirits. He had felt the power of the fox that had watched him most of his life, felt it touch him, felt it flow through him and do as he asked, then retreat from him to leave him so weak he couldn’t even walk right now.  He felt nothing in the power that answered any of his questions, though.  The power had been just…power.  There was no sense of emotion in it, no intimacy.  It was merely the answer to a call, nothing more, nothing less, leaving him a little curious.  She had answered his call, so she was still interested in him, but the touch of her power answered no questions other than the fact that though he had not seen her since that night he met the wolf, she was still there.

        He wondered how she felt about it.  Was she happy that he had touched his power for the first time?  Could she even be happy?  He thought so.  She had been angry when he recoiled from her in fear, so it only stood to reason that if she could be angry with him, then she could also be happy with him.  And the wolf had said that it was entirely possible to anger the spirits if one called on them and tried to use their power in a demeaning or ridiculous way.  So, the fox had emotions, as did all the other spirits…which again made him wonder if she’d been happy he finally used his power, if she was proud of him for his accomplishment.

        But there was another issue.  He had done it.  He had used Shaman magic, he had crossed that line that he knew was there that separated two sides in his mind.  He had used Shaman magic, and now the Loremasters would consider him to be a Shaman too, evil, the scourge of the earth.  But they were wrong.  He knew it now, now that he had used that power.  There was nothing evil about it.  Though there had been no sense of emotion in that power, it felt exactly the same as the power he’d always felt lurking within mana crystals.  Virren was right, the power of crystals truly was the exact same power that Shaman used, they just used it directly from the source, directly from the spirits that granted it.  Instead of using a cut crystal in a device where the shape and metallurgical signature of the device shaped and harnessed the crystal’s power to produce an effect, he had instead called directly on the power behind the crystals and used his own mind to shape and produce the effect.  It was a different method, but it produced the exact same result.  What he did was no different than the function of a shockrod.  Shockrods zapped targets with a blast of lightning, just as he had done.  In a way, he had learned to mimic the magical effect of an alchemical device using the power directly.  The only difference was he was the crystal, and the alchemical device that created the magical effect was his own mind and body.

        Why did the Loremasters think Shaman were evil, then?  They had to know that the Shaman were just tapping directly into the same power that created the crystals.  It seemed that a group that pursued science and knowledge as its main goal couldn’t possibly miss something so obvious…well, unless it was something they didn’t want to know.

        What was it that the wolf said?  Or was it Virren?  That the Loremasters were working to restore humanity to the glory of the Great Ancient Civilization, which wasn’t a bad thing, but they thought that Arcans were supposed to be slaves…which was.  Oh, he didn’t have the same fanaticism that Virren did, but he could agree that after spending so long with the wolf, that it was wrong to think of Arcans as nothing but slaves.  Some Arcans were little more than animals, and that was fact, but ones like the wolf, well, that was a different story.  He actually didn’t have much opinion of it one way or the other.  The stupid Arcans, the ones that were basically animals in an Arcan body, those needed to be controlled.  But the intelligent ones, that was a different story.

        He was starting to feel like his body didn’t weigh a ton.  He struggled to a seated position, remembering the wolf’s command.  He had to move around as soon as he could, the wolf said, move around to recover.  He slowly rolled up onto his knees, and felt like he had a mountain strapped to his back.  He then struggled to his feet, his shoulders slumped, his head bowed, and gritted his teeth and deliberately began to move.  One step.  One step.  One foot in front of the other.  His foot shuffled forward like it was tied to the ground, but it did move.  He did it again, feeling like he was dragging a ship behind him, but he did as he was told, he got moving.  He walked in unsteady circles around his bedroll, but then something strange began to happen.  He felt warmth starting to flow through him, started to feel better, started to feel his energy coming back.  It was like moving around got his blood flowing, the activity restored his energy.  Every step he took made him feel a little better.  He shuffled around his bedroll, then he was trudging around his bedroll, then he was walking around his bedroll, then he was marching around his bedroll.  He stopped and jumped into the air a few times, shaking his hands before him, and felt just fine.  The exhaustion that came with using that power seemed to be very temporary.  It was debilitating right at first, but it also abated quickly.

        Within minutes of forcing himself to his feet, he felt completely recovered.  He felt so recovered, in fact, that he decided to try again.  He repeated what the wolf had taught him, he focused his mind completely on what he was about to do and where he wanted the magic to go.  He focused on a mossy rock about five paces from him, half buried in the ground.  He then imagined the lightning lancing from his open palm to that rock, remembering what he’d seen, felt, and heard the first time, and then called out to the fox within his mind, calling into the spirit world.  Shadow fox, please—

        KRAK-KOW!

        A jagged lance of lightning blasted from his palm and struck the rock, incinerating the moss on the rock and leaving it smoking.  Kyven felt the energy retreat from him, and when it did, he literally collapsed to the ground.  He panted heavily, feeling like a mountain was pressing down on him, keeping him from moving.  But he knew know that it was just temporary, and that, after a moment of rest, he had to move, he had to shake off the lethargy.  He lay there and just rested…but this time, he realized, he wasn’t recovering quite as fast.  He realized then that it really was like training a muscle.  He hadn’t worn the “muscle” down all the way yet, so it had not recovered stronger than before.  He’d have to keep practicing, keep working, to build up his ability to shake off the crippling fatigue that came after using a spell.  Ready or not, he knew he had to move.  He struggled back to his feet and began slowly pacing around his bedroll, and felt warmth and energy begin to flow back into him like blood reawakening a leg that had fallen asleep.

        He heard very faint rustling then.  He thought it was the wolf, but the wolf wouldn’t be skulking about out there, he’d just bound in.  He had no idea who it was, but there was definitely someone out there, several hundred paces away from him.  He realized that he had no weapons, and besides, nobody would really be out here that might be entirely friendly.  It was best to lay low, be quiet, and try to evade detection until the wolf returned.

        Kyven was no outdoorsman, but he was light on his feet, lithe, and agile, and that gave him the natural ability to skulk.  He moved on silent feet to the nearest big tree, creeping carefully through the underbrush, staying out of clearings and being careful not to rustle any underbrush.  He opened his eyes to the spirits, because that caused living things to become much sharper and clearer to his eyes, and glanced out in the direction he was hearing the rustling and movement.  They were still too far out.  He couldn’t see them.  But from the sound of it, they were moving in his direction.

        There was sudden movement.  The rustling charged towards him, and then it erupted from the trees.  It was a deer!  A young buck, racing at an angle that would take it about ten paces to his left, having been spooked by something.

        The wolf said he had to hunt for their food, and here was dinner, coming right at him!

        He moved quickly.  He was already open to the spirits, so he quickly formed the image in his mind and concentrated on both his palm and the deer.  He would send a bolt of lightning from his hand to the deer, aiming at its head so as not to ruin their meal.  He collected himself and gathered his concentration as it rushed towards him, at an angle, then he turned and called to the shadow fox just as it bounded between two trees and was open and visible to him.  Now, please help me before I lose sight of it! he pleaded.

        The lightning blasted forth from his palm and sizzled across the thirty paces of open space between him and the young buck. It hit the buck in the neck, not the head as he’d aimed, but it hit it nonetheless.  The deer gave a bleating cry and crashed to the ground in a spray of dead leaves and dirt, then it rolled into a young tree, making the tree shudder violently from the impact.  Kyven felt the magic retreat from him, and he again literally collapsed where he was standing, panting as if he’d just run a thousand minars.  His mind swam in an exhausted haze for a long moment, then he found himself staring up into the glowing eyes of the wolf, looking down at him with a slightly amused look on his face.  “You heard it coming!  Six weeks in the forest has done well for you.  I am impressed, human.”

        “Th—Thanks,” he wheezed.  “Dinner.”

        “You have fed us this day.  You have done well.”

        Despite the complement, the wolf was his usual self.  He grabbed Kyven by the back of his breeches and all but dragged him back to camp, then tossed him on his bedroll.  He then went and collected the buck, dropping it in the tiny clearing as a tiny wisp of smoke wafted up from a blackened patch on the side of its neck.  The strike had been fatal, but it had also broken its back hitting the tree, which would have killed it anyway.  “I heard another strike besides that one while I was out.  Did you do that?”

        “Yes,” he panted.  “You said…to push myself.  I figured…that was…pushing myself.”

        The wolf simply nodded.  “I will sleep now.  You do the same.  You still have more work ahead of you.”

        “I’ll try,” he said as the wolf laid down on the forest floor next to the kill.  He put his muzzle on the back of his wrist, and then closed his eyes.

        Despite it being the middle of the day, channeling three bolts of lightning had taken their toll on him.  When his breathing regulated, instead of getting up to renew his vigor, he instead closed his eyes and quickly fell asleep.

 

        Over the next several days, Kyven practiced that spell what had to be a thousand times.

        The wolf was right, though.  Every evening when he woke up, he was more tolerant of channeling the magic than he’d been the day before.  His ability to withstand the draining after-effect of using the magic increased.  Over the first few days, he could barely move after using the lightning, going to where he could just barely manage to stay on his feet.  Then, over the next couple of days after that, he could walk slowly after using the spell, until he was capable of using the spell and then moving, albeit not very fast.  Then, after the next few days after that, he was able to use the spell and then walk steadily, and then he was able to use it and then jog.  Then, two weeks after his first use of the spell, he was able to channel lightning and then run immediately afterward.

        It was still very taxing when used consecutively, though.  His ability to withstand the drain of the magic was strong against one use, but if he used the spell three or four times quickly, it all but put him on his knees.  But that too seemed to improve over time.  He was able to use the spell more and more often, and it tired him out less and less by the end of the day.  It truly was like a muscle, a muscle he was strengthening with constant practice.

        During that time, the wolf reverted to old training.  He would run or move heavy stones between uses of his magic, maintaining the level of fitness that the wolf had instilled into him, but the wolf also taught him some basics of hunting.  He couldn’t use the wolf’s skills, since he used his nose and his Arcan speed, but the wolf taught him some very basic woodcraft.  He showed Kyven what to look for to find deer, taught him the importance of approaching upwind of it, and showed him some very basic tenets of tracking so he could hunt for his own food.  It was the most the wolf had spoken in the entire time they’d been together, and the wolf didn’t seem to like it. Despite over two months of working together, the wolf still kept his distance from Kyven, and he could sense all kinds of animosity lurking beneath the wolf’s furry ears.  The wolf didn’t like him, but Kyven could not say that the wolf did not treat him fairly or fail to teach him well.  For that, at least, Kyven had a great deal of respect for the wolf.  The wolf was his mentor, his teacher, and he gave him that respect he was due because of it.

        Kyven wasn’t necessarily the one that fed them over those two weeks, but he was the one that brought down the game.  The wolf would flush the deer to him, and then Kyven would hit them with lightning, giving him practice hitting a live, moving target.

        The day after Kyven managed to channel lightning and be able to run afterward, the night of the full moon, the wolf woke him from a nap around midnight.  The weeks with the wolf had been a major change for him, for the wolf was nocturnal.  He’d been sleeping during the early and late afternoons and staying up all night and through some of the morning.  Kyven napped quite a bit, but so did the wolf, actually.  His favorite activity when not training Kyven, hunting, or eating, was sleeping.  The wolf riled him from his nap and had him sit on his bedroll, then sat down in front of him.  “This is our last night together,” the wolf told him bluntly.  “Tonight, I will teach you how to Summon.  You will Summon the shadow fox to you, and then she will guide you from here.”

        “I understand,” he said with a nod.

        “Summoning is a very simple thing to do, human.  In fact, you probably understand how to do it already, if you stop to think about it.”

        Kyven was quiet just a moment before answering.  “I just call out to the spirits,” he said.  “No spell.  Just call.”

        The wolf nodded simply.  “Call.  But you are calling a specific spirit, human, not just any spirit.  Summoning requires you to know exactly which spirit you are summoning.  But as I have said before, you must be prepared to deal with the consequences.  Spirits do not like to be summoned for frivolous reasons.  If you summon a spirit, you had damn well better have a good reason for doing so, or you will anger them.  I cannot make that more clear.”

        “That’s completely clear,” he said seriously.  “So, do you want me to try?”

        “Yes.  Open your eyes, and then call out to your totem.  If it pleases her, she will respond.”

        Kyven opened his eyes to the spirits, but then he closed them, and then bowed his head.  Shadow fox, he called in his mind, but casting it out away from him as he did when he beseeched the fox to grant him her power, shadow fox, the wolf bids me summon you so you may take over from him, he called out.  If you think I’m ready, then please come.  I…want to see you again.

        He felt it almost immediately.  He opened his eyes and turned his head, and she was there, seated sedately near a tree, her tail wrapped around her front legs, her glowing green eyes unwavering and unblinking.  He felt…happy to see her.  Excited.  She had returned, and if she was here, then she must be pleased with him, with his progress.  He was excited because now he would finally learn what he had come out here to learn.  He wanted to know about her, to learn why she had stayed with him, why she had saved him, and why he felt obligated to her.  He had undergone this training just to learn the answers, and he was willing to follow her now, learn from her, to understand why he felt so adamant about this.  He just had to know, so badly that he had directly defied everything his people taught about Shaman.  He had turned his back on his own people to learn Shaman magic just to be nearer to her, just to learn why.  It was nearly an obsession for him, a consuming drive that clouded all his other judgment.

        “Sister shadow fox has answered your call, human,” the wolf told him simply.  “And our time together is done.  You impressed me, human, I must admit.  I never believed you’d live to reach this point, or you would have given up long ago.  Clearly, humans are not as weak as I first thought.”

        “Thanks…I think,” he said uncertainly.

        The wolf chuckled.  “With your permission, sister, I leave him to you,” the wolf said, nodding his head to the fox.  She nodded back, quite gravely, and the wolf stood up.  “Our time is ended, human.”

        “Thank you, wolf,” he said honestly.  “You were a good teacher.  I wanted to kill you a few times, but I can’t complain that you didn’t do your best with me.”

        “As it should be,” he said simply.  “Fare well on your Walk, human.  May the spirits guide your steps and grant you wisdom.”

        “Be careful, and thank you,” Kyven said in reply.

        The wolf nodded, then turned, dropped to all fours, and bounded off into the dark forest, lost quickly among the trees.  Just like that, Kyven was alone, alone with the fox.

        Kyven looked at her.  What would she show him?  Where would she guide him?  He didn’t know.  He stood up and rolled up his bedroll and tied it up, then slung it over his shoulder.  “I’m ready,” he told her simply.  He really didn’t know what else to do.  The wolf hadn’t told him what would happen next, but if he was about to begin his Walk, then he needed to be ready to, well…walk.

        The fox looked to him with…amusement?  She didn’t seem quite so grave.  She stood up and looked to her right.  To Kyven’s amazement, an image appeared there, a map of central Noraam, showing Atan and the Blue Valley, and the piedmont leading to the sea.  It showed the cities of Avannar and Chardon, Avannar up the Podac River from the sea, and Chardon on the road to Avannar, past the Blue Valley.

        Amazing!  She could create images in the very air! But then again, he remembered that the wolf said that the shadow fox’s specialty was deception and illusion.  This had to be an illusion, a visible image of something that wasn’t real.  She urged her muzzle towards her image.

        “You want me to go…where?  Chardon?”

        She shook her head.

        “Avannar?”

        She nodded, her eyes serious.

        “You want me to go to Avannar?” he said in surprise.  “But…but what I’ve learned.  The Loremasters will think I’m a Shaman.  Won’t it be dangerous?”

        She nodded, her eyes locked on him.

        “I…understand.  I’ll go to Avannar as you wish,” he said with a nod.  “Do I have to walk?”

        Her mouth opened and her tongue lolled out, which Kyven took as laughter.

        Kyven felt a bit sheepish.  “Well, can I at least resupply?  I’ll attract attention if I go looking like this.”

        She nodded. She stood up as the image of the map faded away, and she nudged her head at him.  He knew it meant she wanted him to follow, so he fell into step behind her.  She led him for nearly a half an hour, led him to a large stream, almost a river, then padded upstream for nearly five minutes.  She stepped out onto the water, then stopped in a shallow, slow-moving area and pawed at the surface meaningfully.  He knew immediately what she meant.  He waded into the stream and then knelt down and dug around in the silty bottom, until he felt the tingling in his fingers.  He grabbed it and pulled it up, then washed it off to reveal a surprisingly large red crystal, a good nineteen points.  It would easily allow him to buy new clothes and some traveling gear, as well as a couple of little ideas he had in mind.

        His lightning was indistinguishable from the effect of a shockrod.  Well…what if he bought a shockrod tube and carried it with him?  Wouldn’t people think he was using a shockrod as long as they didn’t see his eyes?

        The fox nodded to him, her eyes quite pleased.

        “I’m glad you think it’s a good idea,” he said modestly. “Do you think it’ll work?”

        She nodded.

        “I’ll do it, then,” he said, standing up.  “Will this stream lead me to the road to Avannar?”

        She shook her head, and nudged towards him with her muzzle.

        “Oh, upstream?”

        She nodded.

        “Alright.  I’ll go to Avannar.  Will you go with me, or will you meet me there?”

        In answer, she stood up and walked away from him, then stopped at the bank and looked back to him.

        “I understand.  I’ll feel, strange, being alone.  I’ve never been completely alone before.  But, the wolf prepared me for it.  He showed me how to find food, and taught me the lightning spell so I can protect myself.  I think I’ll be alright.”

        She just stared at him, her glowing eyes steady.

        “Shadow fox,” he called.  “Just one question.”

        She paused.

        “Why?” he finally blurted.  “I’ll learn why eventually, won’t I?  You’ll tell me?”

        She gave him a long look, then bowed her head.  The she turned and walked into the night.  Despite his spirit sight, her form seemed to merge with the darkness, and she vanished.

        He stood there in the stream, feeling both humble and strangely thrilled.  She was proud of him!  And she was going to answer his questions!  It wouldn’t be immediate, he could sense that, but she would show him the answers he sought.

        He would find out why she was so interested in him.  He would find out why.

 

        It took him almost a full day to reach the Avannar Road.

        He’d had no idea they’d gone so far, but then again, after thinking about it, the wolf had run him for hours every other night, for weeks.  They’d traveled hundreds of minars, maybe thousands, staying within the Blue Valley the whole time.  The wolf had actively avoided all human settlements, keeping them in the forest, keeping them alone and keeping them isolated.  When he reached the road, after talking to the first traveler he came across, he found out he was nearly a full day out from Chardon, on the other side.  He’d be going back the way he came to go to Chardon, but he had little choice.  He needed to buy some supplies and sell his crystal, and he’d not have another chance until Avannar if he didn’t go to Chardon.  Trying to sell it to some merchant in an inn along the way wasn’t going to work.

        He was broke and without any kind of provisions, but he could run.  It was a day on foot if one was walking, but the wolf hadn’t spent all that time building him up just so he could skip along at a leisurely pace.  He put that toughening up to immediate use, settling into a steady, ground-eating pace that ate up the minars.

        The whole time, he thought.  He thought following the river to the road, and on the road to Chardon.  He’d done it.  He was on his Spirit Walk now, learning the wisdom that the fox wanted to teach.  He knew that she would lead him to places and show him things in an effort to teach him wisdom, let him grow and become wiser, even as she taught him new spells and molded him into the kind of Shaman she wanted him to be.  In the course of that, he felt, he would learn the answers he so desperately wanted to know, so much that he had devoted himself to this path just to find those answers.

        Shaman.  He was a Shaman now…or at least he was on the path to become one.  A human Shaman.  It seemed impossible, yet here he was, on his Spirit Walk, about to embark on a journey of experience that would make him a wiser man and worthy of what the fox would teach him.  He knew it would be a test as well, no doubt as the fox tested his fortitude, tested his determination, tested his courage.  He figured that was why she was sending him to Avannar, to the headquarters of the organization that thought he was evil incarnate, a test of loyalty and bravery.  She was sending him into the bear’s den, and seeing if he could kiss the cub and escape without losing his face to the mother’s claws.

        He would do it.  To find out, he would do it.

        He arrived in Chardon in a warm summer rain, close to sunset.  Chardon was a small town, a little bigger than Atan, built in a flat area of the Blue Valley that had rich, fertile soil and plentiful water, making it an ideal place for farms and ranches.  Farmers brought their harvest to Chardon, ranchers sold cattle and horses in Chardon, and over the years, a town sprang up from the commerce.  The town separated the ranches from the farms, with farms to the south and cattle and horse ranches sprawling to the north, and from what Kyven remembered hearing about this place, the ranchers and farmers actually didn’t get along.  There was always a little tension in town, as the ranchers patronized their taverns, and the farmers patronized theirs, with the occasional fisticuffs unfolding on the streets between them.  The shops of Chardon served the ranchers and farmers, each shop serving mainly one side or the other.

        Those sitting on sheltered porches watched him as he padded into town, soaking wet…but he was used to that.  He’d not seen shelter for almost two months, and had actually gotten used to the rain.  He’d slept in it right along with the wolf, ran in it, worked in it.  After his shirts were destroyed, and he tore all the holes in his breeches, being wet didn’t really mean all that much.  He came up to a covered porch of a house where an older man and woman sat on chairs.  “Pardon me, but where is your alchemist or crystalcutter?  I have a crystal I’d like to sell.”

        “A prospector all the way out here?  Well, that’s new,” the man said.  “Two streets down, there’s a crystalcutter in the big building on the right.  He’ll buy it.”

        “Thank you,” he said with a nod, then turned and walked back to the street.

        The crystalcutter’s shop was a large affair where the older man had said.  Kyven dripped water on the floor of his receiving room as the apprentice minding the store fetched the shop’s master.  The master was a rather old man with a bald pate and knobby, big-knuckled fingers.  The man blinked, then laughed.  “Why, by the Father’s grace, Kyven Steelhammer!” he exclaimed.  “They think you’re dead!”

        “Huh?” he asked in confusion.

        “Boy, I heard it from Master Torvik, coming from Atan.  They found your horses roaming the Blue Valley some six weeks ago, and here you turn up!  What happened?”

        “Oh.  Oh, well, I kinda lost the horses, they bolted in a thunderstorm and I never did find them,” he admitted.  “I’m just glad I was camped when it happened, so I didn’t lose my gear.  After that happened, I went on on foot and just stayed closer to home.  Ever since then, I’ve been prospecting the Blue Valley from here to the Podac River.  I found something, too,” he said, taking his soaked bedroll off his back and digging the crystal out.  “I came in to resupply.  Most everything I had was either lost, broken, or used up.  Now that I’ve found something worth selling, I can regear and head back out.”

        “Good for you!  And they’ll be happy to hear that you’re just fine up in Atan, too.”

        “Could you send the word?  I hate the idea that Master Holm thinks I’m dead,” he said sincerely.

        “I’d be happy to,” he said with a nod.  “I’ll even use the Guild Talker, just for you.”  The Guild Talker was an alchemy device that allowed people in different towns to send messages to each other.  They used up crystals at a frightful rate, however, so they usually were only used in emergencies.  That the cutter would burn a crystal just to send word to Atan that Kyven was still alive was a very generous gesture.

        “I appreciate it, sir,” he said with a nod.  “Would you buy this crystal from me?  I need the money,” he laughed.

        “I surely will, son!” he said with a broad grin, taking the crystal, the size of a child’s fist.  “Nineteen points!  A good find!  This can get you all geared up easily, my boy.  How about four hundred chits for it?”

        “That’s just fine, sir.”

        “Done!  Would you like to stay here tonight?  We have a spare bed.”

        “Ah, no thank you, sir.  I need to get my gear bought and get back out there.  I think I could come back with a few more like that one, and I want to get back and see.”

        “Ah, think you’ve found a spot everyone else missed, eh?  Well, it’s possible,” he noted, turning away.  “Honey!  Go to the vault and pouch up four hundred chits!” the master shouted down the hall.

        “Aye sir!” came a reedy response.

        “You’re lookin’ awful thin there, son.  How’s the wild treatin’ ya?”

        “Much better now that I’ve learned how to hunt,” he admitted with a laugh.  “It was very rough going there for a couple of weeks.  After my stores ran out, it was learn to hunt or starve.”

        “That’s always a good motivator,” he nodded.  “I don’t see no musket, son, how you doing it?”

        He drew one of this throwing daggers from his belt and showed it to him.  “If I can get close enough to use this, I eat.”

        “Ah, true, true,” he nodded.  “You sick of rabbit yet?” he grinned.

        “When you’re hungry, you don’t care,” he said simply.

        “I can believe it,” he said.  A young female Arcan scurried in, a young canine with golden fur and a boxy, long muzzle, wearing nothing but a collar, her form slender, lithe, and with small fur-clad breasts and narrow hips.  She had hair, chestnut hair that was tied behind her ears in a pair of tails.  She handed a leather pouch to the cutter with a little bow.  “Take that crystal to the vault,” he commanded of her, pointing to the crystal in Kyven’s hand.

        “Aye sir,” she said with a little bow, holding her gold-colored paws out.  Kyven gave it to her, and she turned and hurried away.

        “I’m not used to seeing Arcans in a cutting shop.  Holm won’t buy them,” Kyven noted.

        “They’re very handy, and can be quite fun,” the man said with a glance back at the Arcan as she hurried back into the shop.  “I just got that one last month.”

        “And you let her into your vault?”

        “I have a special collar on her,” he answered.  “She’ll get zapped if she carries any crystals outside the boundaries of this shop.”

        “I’m sure the women complain about you keeping her like that.”

        He laughed.  “They can go to hell,” he answered bluntly.  “She’s my Arcan.  If I want to keep her naked, I’ll keep her naked.  I prefer the female ones that way,” he said with a chilling smile.  “What they got between their legs don’t look no different at all from what’s under the dresses of those women out there, once you get past the fur, and I love to look at it.  It’s all the same equipment.  It works the same too.”

        “That is a disturbing thought,” Kyven said.

        “Pshaw, don’t knock it til you try it.  Wanna try it?”

        Kyven shuddered involuntarily.  “I’ve never heard of that.”

        “Of course not, you’ve been apprenticed to Holm.  He hates Arcans.  Why do you think female Arcans are more expensive?”

        “Because they can breed,” he said immediately.

        “Well, there’s that too,” he noted absently.

        Kyven was genuinely surprised.  He’d never heard of human men having sex with Arcan females before, but he figured that there were men out there depraved enough to try it.  After all, he’d heard stories and rumors of men who had had sex with animals, and Arcans were somewhat similar to animals in appearance.  And he was right about one part; Arcans were identical to humans in most respects.  The wolf had the same equipment between his legs that Kyven did, there was virtually no anatomical difference between Arcans and humans in their genitalia.

        “Well, if you wanna get back to that deposit, you’d better head out, boy. Unless you wanna give Honey a ride,” he said with a frighteningly eager smile.

        “No thanks,” he said mildly.  “I need to get my gear and get back.  Have a good day.”

        “Good luck, Kyven.  I’ll make sure Holm knows you’re alive and well.”

        “I appreciate that, thank you.”

        Kyven left the shop with his eyes opened just a little wider about the true nature of the world.  It seemed that there was a lot more out there than he expected, and finding out that a human man was using an Arcan female for sex had been both shocking in one way, and not too much of a surprise in another.  It was something he honestly had never considered, but upon further consideration of the nature of the human man, it was something that was entirely possible.  It made him wonder if there were human women out there who had had sex with Arcan males.

        He shivered at that thought.  Arcans were stronger than humans.  A female was one thing, the man could control her, put her in a position where she couldn’t use that strength, but an Arcan male—well, that was a different story.  A human woman had better be pretty damn careful, and maybe a little crazy, to ever try something like that.

        Probably, though.

        Kyven didn’t waste much time, putting the cutter and his disturbing revelation out of his mind for the moment, because he had to get to the shops before they closed.  He was committed to the story that he was restocking for prospecting, so he bought a pick, a shovel, two sifting pans, and a sniffer to keep up that appearance, then bought what he was really after.  He needed to keep it light, because he’d be running, so he bought a small pack, two new sets of sturdy leather clothes, and a new bedroll.  He then went to the alchemists and talked him into selling him a shockrod without a crystal, just the rod itself.  “It’s useless, fella,” the alchemist protested.

        “Not really.  It looks like a shockrod, sir, and if someone sees it on my belt, they’ll think I’m armed.  It may make them leave me alone.”

        The alchemist chuckled.  “Well now, that’s actually pretty clever. I’ll sell you one for twenty chits, then, and keep yer little secret to boot.”

        He also bought a new firestarter and a little miniature lamp for those occasions he might need visible light at night, then decided to take a short break at one of the local pubs for some cooked food before starting out.  He wasn’t sleepy at all, still attuned to a nocturnal cycle, and was planning to run tonight if only to distance himself from Chardon and anyone who might follow him to see where he was going to “prospect.”

        That, of course, was a tricky proposition in Chardon.  If one went into a rancher’s tavern, they were hated by the farmers.  If they went into a farmer’s tavern, they earned a bad reputation among the ranchers.  The only safe place in Chardon for a neutral party to get a drink or a bite to eat was the Stand Off Inn, an inn just outside Chardon on the Atan side, where merchants and travelers often stayed rather than get embroiled in the local politics.  Kyven went there himself, and saw that it looked more or less as he recalled when he and Holm visited some three years ago.  The common room had a very low ceiling, so low that he had to resist the urge to duck under the support beams that were just fingers over his head, and the walls were painted black.  The furniture was black, too, and it lit by lamps that gave the place a closed-off feeling, like a dungeon or tomb.  The place was populated by a pretty good crowd of merchants and their servants, so much that there were no open tables at which to sit, forcing Kyven to the bar so as not to intrude himself upon others.

        “What’s ready to eat right now?” Kyven asked the surprisingly tall woman behind the bar, with long, thick blond hair, wearing a sturdy gray shirt and leather breeches…which surprised him a little bit.  Women didn’t usually wear breeches.

        “A side of beef,” she answered.  “Boiled corn ears and boiled potatoes.”

        “I’ll take a serving of all three,” he said, going for the pouch holding what was left of his money.  “How much?”

        “Five chits,” she answered.  Kyven was a little surprised at the expense, but he put down a five chit coin for it.  She picked it up and bounced it off the bar, the chiming sound it made revealing its authenticity, and called through a window in the wall behind the bar.  “Beef, corn, potatoes!”

        Quickly, he got his entire five chits worth.  A small cat Arcan with dark fur, a collar, and wearing nothing but an apron, brought a laden platter out from the back.  The woman pointed to Kyven, and the little female cat set it down in front of him wordlessly.

        It had been a long time since he had anything other than raw meat.  He attacked the generous helping with enthusiasm, finding the meat to be surprisingly bland after weeks of the rich taste of raw venison, but absolutely swooning over the corn and the potatoes.  The woman behind the bar watched him for a moment, throwing a rag over her shoulder and then filling a few tankards for another Arcan, a male ferret that was carrying a serving tray and was also wearing nothing but an apron and a collar.  Kyven wolfed down all the potatoes and was halfway done with the ear of corn when someone shouted from the common room.  “By the Trinity, Bella, put some pants on that that Arcan!” came a man’s voice.  “That’s not something I want to see when I’m eating!”

        “I don’t hear you complain when I have the other one on the floor, Vral,” the woman shot back, which produced a few laughs.

        “Well, at least that one looks nice!”

        “Well, his ass looks better to me than hers does,” she answered immediately, which made the common room erupt in laughter.  “Besides, clothes cost money, and I’m not gonna waste money on fuckin’ Arcans.  Don’t like it?  Go wade through the fistfights in town to find a new tavern, or close your fuckin’ eyes.”

        “That’s our sweet Bella alright,” Kyven heard a man at the table behind him chuckle.  “Sweet as the summer rain and as ladylike as Queen Mera.”

        “How much for more potatoes?” Kyven asked the sharp-tongued woman.

        “Two chits,” she answered.

        “I’ll take it,” he said, digging more chits out of his pouch.

        “Potatoes!” she boomed through the window.  The cat Arcan brought a plate of them and set them before him when the woman pointed to him, and he handed over the chits to the woman.  She kicked the Arcan in the backs of her thighs when she didn’t get out of the way, and she was not gentle.  The cat squeaked in surprise and pain and hurried back into the kitchen.

        It was treatment he’d seen before, but after spending so long with the wolf, Kyven looked at it through new eyes.  Was it really right for people to kick Arcans like that?  She didn’t really do anything wrong, after all.  Why be so rough with her?

        “You got a problem, buddy?” she asked, giving him a direct stare.

        Kyven blinked.  “Huh?”

        “You give me a look like that, you either got a problem with me, or you’re about to,” she said belligerently.

        “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he protested.

        “Nobody gives me fuckin’ dirty looks in my own tavern,” she said, her handsome face twisting into a snarl.

        “Fine,” he said simply.  He took out his pouch and put a five chit coin down on the counter.  “For the plate,” he said, picking up his plate and turning his back on her and walking for the door.

        “Don’t turn your back on me, you smug son of a bitch!” she shouted angrily.  He turned around to see her literally jump over the bar, and he saw quite a few patrons clear out from around Kyven.

        “By the Trinity, what’s your problem, lady?” he asked, in a little exasperation as she stormed up to him.  He expected her to stop and yell at him or something, so when she reared her fist back, he was genuinely startled.  He wasn’t so startled not to react when it came at him, though.  Kyven was very fast, and weeks of conditioning gave him lightning reflexes as muscles were toned and hardened from heavy labor caused his hand to let go of the plate and whip out.  There was a loud smack as her fist was intercepted by his open palm, stopping it instantly, and then his fingers closed over her fist, trapping it.  “You tell me to get out, and then you try to start a fight with me for doing what you wanted?  Why don’t you stop trying to walk down both sides of the street, lady?” Kyven protested as he squeezed her fist in his hand, making her gasp in pain and try to pull away.

        The woman raised a foot to kick him, but a vice-like grip on her hand made her wince, gasp, and bend to the side as Kyven yanked her sideways to keep her from keeping enough balance to do it.

        “Not much fun to be the one manhandled, is it?” he asked her simply as he yanked her to the other side, then back again, keeping her off balance, almost on the edge of falling down.  “Keep that in mind the next time you kick someone in the butt just because they don’t get out of your way fast enough.”  He let go of her hand as he pushed her away, making her stagger back from him, then turned and walked towards the door.

        “I shoulda known, a Trinity-damned Arcan lover,” the woman spat.

        “Think whatever you want, lady, your opinion means as little to me as mine does to you,” he told her, a bit flippantly, as he reached the door.  “Like I’ll ever see you again, and may the Trinity bless me to make it so.”

        A throwing knife slammed into the door, not a rod from his head.  Kyven flinched a little at that, but covered it well.  He pried the knife out of the door, looked back at her as she pulled another knife from her belt, blew her a kiss, then slipped out the door with her knife.

        He knew she wouldn’t let it go.  He sprinted a good ways from the door and skidded to a halt, took measure of her knife in his hand, found its center, then deftly flipped it into a throwing position.  When the door opened, he flung it hard and true.  The woman charged out, but squeaked in surprise when her dagger embedded itself in the frame of her door, not half a rod from her head.  She flinched violently, which gave Kyven the chance to take a few more steps backwards, still holding his plate of potatoes in his left hand.  “There’s your knife back, and I paid you for this plate.  I’m out of your inn, so just go back inside and leave me be.”

        “Arcan loving bastard!” she snapped at him, stepping up and hurling her knife at him.

        By the Trinity, she really meant to hurt him!

        But from that distance, he easily saw it coming.  She had good aim, but Kyven had quick reflexes and an eye trained for detail.  He saw the knife coming at him and was able to sidestep it, almost easily, heard it bounce on the dirt of the road behind him.  “Good lord, woman, what’s your problem?” Kyven demanded.  “Are you crazy?  What the hell did I do to you?”

        “You probably embarrassed her, and Bella doesn’t like to be upstaged in her own inn,” a calm voice called behind him.  He glanced back and saw a tall, middle aged man wearing the white surcoat with the three circles that marked him as a Loremaster.  He was probably the village Loremaster, their envoy to the organization in Avannar.  “That’s enough of that, Bella.  Go back inside,” he said in a mild voice, but a voice dripping with authority.

        The woman gave him a dark look, made a rude gesture with her hands, then stormed back into the inn.

        “Sheesh, I just wanted something to eat that didn’t involve a ten minute grilling over if I’m a farmer or a rancher,” Kyven growled.

        “What happened?” the man asked.

        Kyven gave him a look.  This was a Loremaster, a man the wolf said were the enemies of the Shaman…and he was on the path to becoming one.  But the man didn’t know that, for humans weren’t supposed to be Shaman, which gave Kyven a unique position of being able to look him in the face without fear.  “She said I gave her a dirty look, so I paid for the plate here and left.  She jumped the bar and tried to punch me, so I stopped her without hurting her.  Then she threw a knife at me while I was leaving.  I gave it back to her,” he said pointing at the inn’s door with his free hand.  “I she always so violent?”

        “Yes,” he sighed.  “She rails against the bars in town for the enmity between the farmers and ranchers, but will do the very same things herself if she thinks someone slights her or insults her.  And she has a vile temper.  Odds are, she’ll take it out on her Arcans tonight if nobody in the inn gives her satisfaction.”

        Kyven frowned.  He never meant to do anything like that.  He realized that he’d just caused those poor Arcans trouble, and since he was on his Spirit Walk and was supposed to be learning and gaining wisdom, maybe this was something the fox wanted him to do.  Maybe he was here to do something about Bella, or help her Arcans…but even if he wasn’t, he just couldn’t let the Arcans pay for his mistake when it wasn’t their fault.

        Just as he was thinking about what he might be able to do, the door slammed open again.  The woman, Bella, appeared, and she dragged something out behind her.  When she was out on her porch, he realized that she was dragging the cat Arcan by the foot, the cat still and limp.  She pulled it off the porch, the cat’s head bouncing sickeningly off the steps.

        His eyes widened when he realized that the cat had left a bloody streak on the wood behind it.

        “So you like fuckin’ Arcans, do ya, you bastard?” she said with a cold, brutal smile, leaning to the side and hurling the limp body out in front of her.  She crashed to the ground on her back, and when her head rolled to his side, he saw her eyes were open and glazed, and her throat was cut.  “Here, take this one!”

        “Bella!” the man said reproachfully.  “That was a very silly thing to do!”

        “It’s my money, old man, so shut your fuckin’ mouth,” she sneered.  But that sneer faded off her face when she saw the cold, almost emotionless stare Kyven leveled on her, and then she gasped in surprise and scrambled back into the inn.

        He saw the shimmer around his vision.  He was using spirit sight!  He closed his eyes quickly and got himself back under control, before the Loremaster saw his eyes and realized what he was.

        “I swear, at the rate she goes through Arcans, I’m amazed she has a single chit to her name,” he said, then tutted.  “Too bad, that was a cute one.  I rather liked her.  Oh well,” he said, then he turned and walked off, leaving the Arcan laying dead on the road.

        Kyven didn’t move.  He was furious, he was outraged, he was appalled, and he felt not a little bit of honest guilt.  That vile woman had killed that poor Arcan just because he made her angry.  Her death was his fault, his responsibility.  He had to do something, both to atone and to get revenge against this Bella woman.  He clenched his fists and forced himself to turn around, and slowly walk away.

        He wasn’t leaving Chardon yet.  He had business here.

        He sensed her.  He turned his head and saw her sitting between two houses, her tail wrapped around her front legs.  The fox, huddled in the shadows between the two houses, gave him a single, eloquent nod.

        Now he knew that he had permission.

        He started towards the east side of town, to leave and make them think he was gone for good, drop off his gear, then circle back in the darkness and tend to this little bit of business.

        His first task on his Spirit Walk had begun.

 

        It was dark.  The inns and festhalls were all closed, and the moon was all but set, but not everyone was asleep or still in Chardon.  Several ranch hands were staggering up the north road towards their ranches, while the farmers had all returned home hours ago; some few of them were about to awaken and get an early start on the chores.

        But there was one more moving than drunken ranchers.  Kyven stalked along the edge of town, circling the buildings on his way back to the Stand Off Inn, the town visible to him with spirit sight and allowing him to see where everyone was.  He already knew exactly what to do, for he’d had plenty of time to think it through, while he took turns walking in circles in fury and mourning the fact that he’d caused the death of the Arcan cat.

        He was not only contemplating, but planning, murder.  He was about to kill another human being, and he knew it.  But that fact didn’t shock him half as much as what he’d seen earlier that day.  Yes, he was going to kill that woman, Bella.  By the Trinity, she deserved it, and he had the blessing of the fox to do it.  Perhaps this was his first test, to see if he had the nerve to execute another human being for crimes which more than warranted such a punishment.

        The way he felt right now, oh, Trinity was he capable.

        He reached the inn.  His sight allowed him to look through the walls and take stock of the location and race of every person in the building.  He saw fifteen humans and eight Arcans, two of which were huddled together in the cellar of the inn.  Those had to be Bella’s Arcans, for the others were all upstairs, probably the property of travelers and merchants.  Bella seemed the kind to him that would put her Arcans in the cellar.  He couldn’t tell which of those humans he could see was Bella, but he was betting that it was that one right there on the third floor, the lone female that was still awake, sitting on something his spirit sight could not make out…probably a bed or chair.  He circled around to the back of the inn, to the stable, and encountered his first task.  Quietly, probed the door with a throwing dagger, having trouble seeing the non-living object in the darkness, but finally got his dagger tip in enough to throw the latch and open the door.  He slipped in silently, carefully navigating using the faint, ghostly radiance of those microscopically tiny living things that lived on the chairs, tables, counters, and walls, letting him see them just enough to barely make out their outlines and navigate around them.  He crept through the kitchen and found a barred door leading to the cellar, then opened it silently and crept down the narrow steps.

        The two Arcans were indeed Bella’s.  He recognized the ferret, and saw once he got closer that he had blood matted in his fur on his head and neck.  Bella must have beaten him.  The other Arcan was a female ferret, and just one look at her told him that she was pregnant.  Bella had a breeding pair…and the idea of letting that female give birth to children under Bella’s roof filled him with fury.  Both of them were still awake.  From what he could see through the wall that separated their room from the stairs, the female was tending the male, cleansing his fur with something he couldn’t see in her paw.  He slipped down to the base of the stairs and came up to the door separating the cask room where he was with the tiny cell in which they were kept, and found this door also barred.  He unbarred it, which caused the two inside the scramble back into the corner, but he didn’t open the door.  He did not want them to see him.   “Wait three minutes, then run like hell,” Kyven whispered through the door.  “The back door is open.”

        “We can’t leave, the collars won’t let us!” the female whispered in reply.

        “Damn.  Then stay here, I’ll be right back,” he answered, which made her face start in surprise.  He stalked away before she could say anything, then lightly navigated the stairs and hallways leading up to the third floor in the darkness, watching with spirit sight the people in the rooms, sliding past their doors quietly.  He ascended to the third floor, and now that he was closer, he saw that the lone female was indeed Bella.  She was naked to his eyes, with an admittedly handsome figure, in the act of laying down on what had to be a bed.  He reached the door and realized that she was awake, the door was locked, and any attempt to open it would alert her.

        He needed magic here.

        The door was in the way.  Any attempt to hit her with lightning would fail, because of the door.  He needed some other way to get at her that either let him get past the door or allowed him to get to her despite it.

        It came to him, almost like a brilliant flash.  He knew exactly how to do it.  He formed the intent in his mind, imagining exactly what it was he wanted to do.  He focused all his concentration on his palm, and joined his palm to the figure of Bella, forming the path the spell would travel when it channeled into the mortal world.  He put his palm flat against the door, and then called on the shadow fox.  Please help me, shadow fox.  Help me avenge that Arcan and end this woman Bella, in a manner that befits you.  Guile and deception.

        The power roared around him, surging from the fox into him, and then it channeled through him, taking the form he held in his mind.  The spell formed in his palm, and then went through the door, settling itself like a sheath around Bella’s head.  And there it remained for so long as Kyven could concentrate on holding it in place, a spell that dulled all sounds and left him free to throw the latch without its sound warning her.

        The fox was a spirit of guile and deception.

        He moved quickly.  He used his dagger to all but cut the latch of the door, then pushed it open as she turned her head away, quickly sliding into the room and closing it before her eyes caught the motion in the gloom.  Once he was inside, he crept up to her bed, looming over her. She opened her eyes and moved to gasp, but Kyven’s hand slammed over her mouth before she could make a sound.  He drew a dagger from his belt as she tried to struggle, then her body shuddered when the dagger drew over her neck, slitting her throat.  Hot blood spurted from the wound as Kyven deliberately stared into her eyes balefully, letting her see his glowing eyes and know that she had died at the hands of a Shaman, died for her cruelty.  The hand over her mouth pulled away when she stopped struggling, and the glow of her body to his spirit sight then shimmered, flared with a brief light, and then quickly dimmed and vanished.

        She was dead.

        Justice was done.

        He wasn’t done yet, though.  He quickly rifled through her room, until he came up with what he wanted, the crystal-tipped silver probe that was a collar key.  After pocketing it, he took his firestarter from his pocket and set a tiny flame on the edge of her covers, a flame that would not go out and would grow to consume the bed, and ultimately the entire inn.  He knew he had to move quickly now.  He silently left the room and rushed back down to the cellar as quickly as he dared, and as he moved, but as he moved he realized that he may not be doing those ferrets any favors.  He couldn’t take them with him…did they know how to survive in the forest alone?  The female was pregnant.  Was it right to force them to flee, or was it right to give them that chance?

        It was right to give them the chance, but only if they were willing.  That was the proper thing to do.

        He returned to the cellar silently and quickly, until he was again by the door.  “Listen,” he whispered.  “I can get you out of here, but if I do, it means you’re on your own.  I can’t help you out there.  You’ll have to escape on your own and survive out there on your own.  I leave that choice with you.  You can remain here and hope for a better master, or I’ll take off your collars and you can try to escape.  But you have to choose quickly!” he said in a hiss.

        “Let us go!” the female said immediately.

        “Shama, you’re with child!  Maybe—“ 

        “And live the rest of my life knowing we might end up with another one like her?  How many of us has she killed in the four months she’s owned us, Mrau?  Do you want our baby to end up like poor Shii?”

        There was a tense silence within.  “Let us out,” the male said resolutely.

        “Turn your backs to the door.  Do not look at me,” Kyven ordered.

        “But—“

        “It’s for both our sakes.  If you don’t know who freed you, then you can’t tell anyone if you’re caught,” Kyven told him bluntly.

        “I understand.”  Both of them turned and knelt with their backs to the door.  “Go ahead.”

        Kyven moved swiftly. He opened the door and used the key on their collars, touching the crystal tip to the crystal on the collars, which caused them to come apart.  The collars dropped to the cellar floor with metallic clinks.  “Count to twenty, then run,” he whispered.  “The back door by the stable is open.  Run and don’t look back.”

        “We will.  Thank you,” the female said earnestly.

        “I hope you find happiness,” he told them, then turned and bolted up the stairs.

        As swiftly as a flying hawk, Kyven made his way out of the inn and bolted for the trees.  His spirit sight allowed him to navigate the darkness flawlessly, and when he reached the trees, he hunkered down and looked back. He saw the two ferrets quickly emerge from the back much later than he expected, as flames began to appear in the third floor window of Bella, carrying what looked like a tablecloth filled with goods.  Clever, clever Arcans, bringing food with them!  The ran straight for the forest, and then vanished into the trees without looking back.

        He wished them well.

        He waited several more moments, watching the fire.  It spread out of Bella’s open window and took hold on the wood of the exterior, and licks of flame began to appear between the tiles of the roof.

        That was it.  They wouldn’t put it out now.  And if they did, Bella’s body was already most likely charred beyond recognition.

        He stood up and took in a deep breath, then yelled “Fire!  Fire!” as loud as possible.  He didn’t wait to see what happened.  He turned into the forest and ran, then ran across the open area of the south road and open fields where the farms bordered the village.  He ghosted through the forest on the far side until he was well out of sight of the village, then came out onto the road and ran at a ground-eating stride that would put him far, far from Chardon by dawn, far from the scene of his first act on his Spirit Walk.

        Justice.

 

        In Chardon, the shadow fox watched from the road as the Stand Off Inn burned out of control, seated sedately with her tail wrapped around her legs, as the guests scrambled out carrying whatever they could hold and villagers rushed to look on, but helpless to do anything about it.  She watched as the inn burned, and everything that had mattered to the woman Bella was consumed in the pyre of vengeful flame.

        Justice was done.

        Her Shaman had done well.  He had understood the need for justice, but also saw the truth of the ferrets, that saving them was not truly saving them, and it would have to be their choice to face death in the forests of Noraam, or the chance the luck of the draw in the pens of the stablemaster.  He had seen the truth, a truth that many would blindly ignore with false hopes that everything would just be fine once the collars were removed and they were liberated.

        He had gained wisdom.  And so his first task was complete.

        The first task of her Shaman was complete, but there were many more tasks ahead, and many lessons for him to learn.

        She nodded in satisfaction, then stood up and padded away on silent feet, invisible to all around her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    3      5

Chapter 4

 

        If they suspected him, they’d have a hard time proving it.

        Kyven was almost a horse’s ride away from Chardon by the time he stopped to rest, picking up his gear and running through the rest of the night.  He was so far away that nobody would ever believe that a man on foot could have set the fire.  It was his defense if the Loremaster investigated the incident and found arson and remembered his altercation with the woman, the fact that he was just too far away to have done it should the Loremaster use communications to send word to locate him.  If anyone investigated, they’d get reports of farmers seeing Kyven minars away from Chardon, far beyond where he could have theoretically circled back to start the fire.

        All those weeks of endurance training had served him well.  Most people would never consider that he could run so far, so fast, almost at the pace of a horse.

        The running gave him time to think, think about what happened.  He felt absolutely no remorse at his act of murder, none at all.  That woman deserved to die, and he was simply the instrument of execution.  He did feel remorse, though, for that cat.  She had died, and died for no reason.  It was an empty death, and she had suffered the woman’s wrath for the anger that Kyven instilled in her.  It was Kyven’s fault that she died.  He felt remorse for that, felt far more than he would have felt for the woman herself.  Killing Bella the Innkeeper was a pale shadow compared to what he’d done to that poor cat, and it taught him a bitter, bitter lesson.

        He knew now that one man’s acts could have dire consequences far beyond himself.  He knew that a man had to consider all options before taking a course, both the obvious ones and the subtle ones.  Had he known that angering Bella would have led to the death of the cat, he would have been much more careful.  But he had not, and his acts had started a chain of events that eventually killed the Arcan.  He had to be much more careful, much more prudent.  It was alright to feel as he felt, but he had to keep it to himself.  Even though he was no sympathizer, his time with the wolf had opened his eyes to the…humanity of the Arcans, and now that point of view was bleeding through to others.

        As unpleasant at it seemed, he would have to pretend to be of no opinion over them, as he used to be.  And that applied to all things.  He had to carefully consider things before he made any opinion…even before he said a single word or raised an eyebrow.  If only because in this world, where the value of life was not given equally to all things, even the most absently given word or comment might lead to the death of another.

        It was wisdom, he realized.  The fox wanted him to learn wisdom…and he had learned.  But he found, then, that those lessons may leave a bitter taste in his mouth.  It had taken the death of the Arcan to open his eyes to things, a death he had caused indirectly through an act he didn’t even realize he had performed until it was too late.

        He had to be more careful.

        He stopped at dawn for a meal of cheese and bread, then practiced.  He still had to practice, to build up his tolerance to channeling, and he also needed to practice with the shockrod to make it seem that he was using it rather than his own abilities.  In the daytime, he had a better chance of getting away with this, he knew.  His eyes would still glow, but it wouldn’t be so blatant as it would be at night.  He moved well off the road and into the woods, and then he practiced.  He found that he could still channel the lightning from his palm, and that it would travel up the metal rod of its own volition to erupt from the tip.  The shockrod was made of a special alloy that made it highly resistant to the damage the lightning could cause most other metals, so he wasn’t worried that repeated lightning strikes would melt it or damage it and ruin his deception.  He channeled magic for over an hour, again and again to wear himself out completely, until he could barely even raise his arms, then he collapsed onto his bedroll and slept like the dead.

        When he woke up, he took another meal of cheese and bread, but found that it did nothing for him.  He was still hungry, famished, and it took him only a moment to realize that it was because there was no meat.  The wolf hadn’t been bringing him meat just because it was the most readily available food.  He needed meat, needed it to recover.

        It was time to hunt.

        He used everything the wolf taught him about looking at tracks, looking for signs, and listening.  He kept the wind in his face as he moved, so his scent didn’t warn any prey, and moved both swiftly and silently on nimble feet as he stalked the forest, acting very much like the fox who was his totem.  Foxes were stalkers, skulkers, striking from ambush and surprising their prey.

        An hour of patient work paid off.  He came across a small herd of deer grazing in a very small meadow, shadowed by trees on all sides.  He looked through them and picked out the smallest of them, the one that would be the least waste, and struck.  Weeks of practicing the lightning spell allowed him to use it quickly and efficiently.  Lightning lanced across the small clearing, striking the yearling squarely in the side of the head, and it dropped twitching to the grass.  The other deer scattered as the thunderclap rocked the clearing, leaving the yearling to its fate.

        Without hesitation, Kyven took his prize.  The lightning had killed it, which wasn’t always the case and required him to finish them with his dagger, so he collected up the deer and slung it over his shoulders, then carted it off.  He would leave the clearing clean of blood so the deer wouldn’t avoid it.  He carried the deer to a nearby stream, then immediately started eating.  As he ate, eating the most nutritious organs first like the liver and kidneys, he foresaw a slight problem if he went into a city.  Wearing himself out using Shaman magic triggered this hunger, a hunger that only raw meat seemed to satisfy, which would make people talk when he was in a city.  Eating raw meat wasn’t too common, after all.  So, if he went into a town or city, he’d need to be careful not to get to where he needed meat to recover.  Well, that, or try cooked meat, he hadn’t tried that yet.  He could, see if it did anything for him.

        He rested a bit, collected some firewood, butchered a portion of the deer into small strips he could roast over the fire, then again completely wore himself out with multiple channels of lightning, wore himself to the point where he couldn’t even lift his arms.  He collapsed and rested for a while, as evening began to darken the sky, and woke up some time after dark.  He was starving, totally starving, so he quickly started a fire and roasted chunks of deer meat on makeshift spits over the flames, feeling like he was dying of hunger waiting for the meat to brown.  He finally couldn’t wait any longer and took the thinnest strips down and burned his mouth tearing into them.  The meat tasted…strange when it was cooked.  It had been so long since he’d had cooked venison he forgot what it tasted like.  He wolfed it down in cycles, clearing a spit and putting more meat on it, and found that, while the roasted meat did begin to sate him, it took much more of it.  He could use cooked meat, but he’d have to eat a truly obscene amount of it.  Somehow, cooking it made it less effective for giving him what he craved out of it.

        But, that was good information to know.

        He continued to cook the meat and eat it, mainly because it was too much to carry, he didn’t know how to preserve it, and he didn’t want to waste it.  He systematically consumed virtually everything edible off the deer, everything but the intestines which Kyven just couldn’t stomach because of their vile taste, then wrapped what little was left in a piece of the deer’s own hide and stowed it in a bag.  He’d have to eat it quickly before it turned bad, but that wasn’t a problem.  He returned to the road and again ran, remembering that he had to keep himself in shape to use the magic, continuing on to Avannar in the dark of night, when the road was deserted.  He did pass by people, though, merchant trains that had not made inns who were camped in fields near the road.  A few of their guards seemed to notice his passage, but he was gone before they could focus crystal lamps or spotlights on him.

        His eyes.  They had seen his eyes.

        His eyes were becoming more and more of a problem, he noticed, so much so that he pulled in that morning and took stock of the situation.  He had to use his spirit sight as much as he could, the wolf said so.  The more he used it, the better he would get at it, eventually start being able to see the non-living in his sight as the wolf could.  The episode with Bella had shown him that not being able to see the non-living could be a real problem, when he’d been unable to see the door and latch without a great deal of effort and trouble.  He needed to get to where he could at least make out the non-living without using the faint shimmer of tiny living things on them to give them away, which often was almost impossible to make out if there was something living behind it.

        But, humans didn’t have eyes like his, so they would give him away that he wasn’t normal.  So, that was the problem.  He needed a solution that would hide his eyes from people, yet allow him to continue practicing using his spirit sight.

        The answer was obvious…a blindfold!  It would hide the light of his eyes as long as it was tight enough, and since it would be non-living, his spirit sight would see right through it.  It would also throw people off.  If they thought he was blind, well, he could use that to his advantage in one way, but on the other, it would be hard to explain how he was able to navigate the streets of Avannar flawlessly without his eyes.

        That other problem, well, he’d have to think about that.  But out here, while he was running the road, a simple leather strap tied over his eyes would take care of the glowing eyes problem.  He didn’t need normal sight in the dark of night, when it was spirit sight that guided him.

        It was how the fox would do it, he reasoned.  If his totem was a spirit of guile and deception, then tricking people by feigning blindness would be right in line with her.  He had to think like a fox too, and a fox would seek to deceive enemies with guile and cunning, stealth and misdirection.

        Tending to his disguise was easy enough.  After a quick breakfast, he approached the first farm he found on the way to Avannar, where quite a few men, women, boys, girls, and several Arcans were busy toiling in the fields.  It was a very large farm, proof of the farmer’s success, so much success that he even had Arcans to aid the family in their daily labor.  “Hello, the farm!” Kyven called as he approached from the road.  “Might I talk to you about buying something?”

        “You may!” came an answer, as the oldest of the men working in the field, a field of tobacco.  Beyond the field was the farmhouse, barns, and storehouses, with fields of corn and potatoes beyond that.  Kyven met him at the edge of the field and took the man’s hand in greeting, a hand that was dirty from working in the earth.  “A prospector, eh?  On your way to Atan?”

        “Actually on my way back to Avannar,” he answered.

        “Really?  Did you hear that they had a fire in Chardon?  An inn burned down, the merchants have said.”

        “It happened after I left,” he answered.  “Anyway, good farmer, I need a good length of wide leather strap, about yea long,” he said, holding his hands about three rods apart.  “Soft and pliable, but at least this wide,” he said, holding his finger and thumb about five fingers apart.  “Do you have something like that?”

        “I should.  Come to the farmhouse,” he said, then he looked back to the field.  “Divan, the water bucket’s empty!” the man shouted to the other workers.  “Go refill it!”

        “Sure thing, pa!” the youngest boy called, setting down his hoe and hurrying off.

        Kyven followed the middle-aged farmer to the farmhouse complex.  The house and its buildings were all freshly whitewashed, and quite a few animals were roaming in pens in and around the two barns, as well as a number of chickens roaming the farmyard freely.  A hound laid lazily on the porch of the farmhouse, raising his head to look at the two, then setting it back down and going back to sleep.  “Would you like something to drink, traveler?” he asked.

        “Kyven,” he said, “and if it’s no bother.  Where’s your well?”

        “Bother that.  May! May, could you bring some water out for a guest please?”

        “Aye!” came a voice from the house.

        “Wait right here, I’ll see what I have for you,” he said, motioning to the porch.  Kyven nodded and sat down on the steps, near the dog, and absently reached out and scratched him on the head.  The old hound’s tail thumped on the porch in contentment.

        “Water,” a voice called.  Kyven looked up and was surprised to see a small dog Arcan, with brown fur and a dark streak that went up her muzzle and over and between her eyes, disappearing into her brown hair.  She wore a very simple, worn, slightly frayed wool dress with a stout apron over it.

        He nodded and took it.  The Arcan limped, he noticed, limping back into the farmhouse on a bad left leg, her left foot turned in towards her right.  He found the water to be surprisingly cold, clean, and refreshing, and he drained the large tankard quickly.

        The farmer came out from a barn and came over, holding out a six rod long length of leather.  “Think this’ll work?” he asked.

        “I think so,” he said.  He took it and put it to his forehead, then tied it loosely behind his head and pushed it up so it drove up his bangs, keeping them out of his face.  The leather seemed wide enough, and if it wasn’t, well, there was more than enough to wind it twice around his head.  “Yup, this works.”

        The farmer laughed.  “I wondered what you were going to do with it!” he grinned.

        “My hair is driving me crazy,” Kyven said, with a little honestly.  “I can’t wait to cut it.  How much?”

        “For that?  Nothing,” he snorted.  “Nothing but a moment’s conversation while I head back out.”

        “Well, I think I can pay that,” Kyven chuckled as he stood up.

        “So, heading back from prospecting, eh?  Any luck?”

        “A little, but not much.  I wasn’t doing it to make money anyway,” Kyven answered.  “I was just having a little adventure before I go back to work.”

        “How can you manage that?”

        “I’m a crystalcutter,” he said.  “I just bought out my contract and was offered a position in a shop, but I want to see a little of the world before I’m chained to my workbench for the rest of my life.”

        “I can understand that,” the man said.  “A cutter, eh?  Say, think you might do me a favor?”

        “Sure, I can do something for you.  What is it?”

        “Well, from time to time we dig up crystals while we’re farming,” he said as he turned them around, heading back to the farmhouse.  “Usually when we clear new land.  And the kids sometimes find things by the stream.  Anyway, this spring we cleared some new farmland out by the creek, and we turned up a very unusual crystal.  Could you appraise it for us?  I don’t know much about raw crystals, and I’m not sure what to ask for it.”

        “I can do that for you, if you trust me to do it,” he said with a nod.

        “Oh, I think I could,” he chuckled.  “Wait here, I’ll bring it out to you,” he said when they reached the porch.

        Kyven nodded and sat back down on the steps, and the old hound sat up and nudged his hand, begging for more attention.  He chuckled and petted the old dog, making his tail thump the porch as he scratched him behind the ears and stroked his back and flanks with a gentle hand.  The farmer returned with a small red cloth pouch, and sat down beside him and upended it into his hand.  Out of the pouch came a nearly spherical eight point black crystal.

        Kyven’s eyes widened as he saw it.  It was a very large for a black crystal, far larger than what they usually found in the mines.  He took it from the farmer and looked into it, his fingers tingling as he sensed more than he saw.  The internal structure of the crystal was dense and well organized.  This crystal was very strong, would take a very good cut, and was worth quite a lot of money.  He handed it back to the farmer immediately.  “Well, is it worth anything?”

        Kyven pointed.  “I see your barn’s a little old,” he noted.

        “My grandfather built it,” the man chuckled.  “It’s an original building of the farm, been there for over a hundred years.”

        “Well, when you sell that, you’ll be able to rebuild it, and maybe a couple more just like it,” he said honestly.  “That’s a black crystal, friend, and they’re rare.  Add to that it’s large, and it has no internal flaws.  You could sell it for five thousand chits easy, but you can’t sell it to just anyone.”

        “Five thousand chits?” the man gasped.

        Kyven nodded.  “That’s what I’d say it’s worth.  That’s what the Loremaster should offer for it.”

        “What do you mean?”

        “Black crystals are regulated by the Loremasters,” he answered.  “Send for a Loremaster and show it to him.  The Loremaster will buy it from you.  Do not show it to anyone else.”  He was quiet a moment.  “And a word of suggestion.”

        “Yes?”

        “Tell him your children found it in the stream,” he warned.  “If the Loremaster finds out it was buried here, you might find people digging up your farm looking for more of them.  If you tell him it was in the stream, they’ll think it washed down from somewhere else.”

        The man’s eyes widened, and he nodded.  “Yes, I can see that.  You really think it’s worth that much?”

        “At least.  The Loremaster will offer you at least that much, maybe even more.”

        “I…wow.  Just wow,” he breathed, putting the crystal back in the pouch.

        The dog Arcan returned to the porch, holding two more mugs.  “Water,” she said, holding them out.

        Kyven looked at her, and then realized that she had no collar.

        “Thanks, May,” the farmer said, taking them from her.  “Go inside now, hon.  And sit down a while!”

        The Arcan limped back into house, and the man offered Kyven the other tankard. He took it and took a long swallow as the man talked.  “Well, I thought it might be worth a few hundred, but that much?  I, I don’t know what I’ll do with it. I could—well, I could get May’s leg looked at by a better vet than the traveling vet that usually comes,” he said.

        “What happened to her?”

        “Broke her leg in a fall,” he answered.  “It didn’t heal back right, cause that quack didn’t splint it the right way.  I could buy a healing bell for her!” he said, his eyes brightening.

        “That’s a lot of money.”

        “Worth every chit,” he said immediately.  “May’s been with us for forty years.  My grandfather bought her.  After all she’s done for us, least we could do for her.”

        “That’s old for an Arcan,” Kyven noted carefully.

        “That just means she knows what to do,” the man shrugged.

        “And not wearing a collar.”

        The man looked a little uncomfortable.  “Well, collars cost money, and she’s too old to run away,” he noted.  “She’s lived on this farm almost her whole life, it’s what she knows.  She’d run the day pigs fly.”

        “Well, it’s your money if she does,” Kyven noted absently, setting his mug down.  “Thanks for the water and the leather, friend.  I appreciate it.”

        “Thanks for the honest appraisal of the crystal,” he answered.

        Kyven left the farm, and spent a moment looking back.  He saw the Arcans toiling the fields right along with the humans, and saw that the young man bring them water.  They took it from him with a nod, and a pat on his shoulder, and then they returned to work.

        A human serving an Arcan.  The farmer had better have a talk with his kids about doing that kind of thing in public.

        It seemed this was another lesson for him.  He had seen the worst in people in that woman Bella, and here, in this family, he saw the best.  These people were not cruel their Arcans.  They were very kind to them, even willing to spend a great deal of money to help heal an old female long past her prime.  These were good people.  They may even be sympathizers.

        These would be the kinds of people Verrin would approach to join the Masked.

        The ferrets.

        This was a place where he’d feel more than comfortable bringing those two ferrets.  They too were his responsibility.  He freed them from a murderous mistress, but he had left them in very precarious straits.  They were uncollared Arcans, fair game for any hunter or farmer if they could be captured, and they were domesticated, having no idea how to survive in the forest alone.  Here was a decent man who would treat them well, and if they had to survive, have a stable place where the female could have her baby, this could be it.

        Shadow fox, this is where the ferrets need to be.  What do I do?  Do I go back for them, or continue on to Avannar?

        She was there.  He turned to see her, sitting sedately in the road, facing him, her glowing green eyes steady and unwavering.  She looked to her left, then to her right, then back to him.

        I don’t understand.  What do you want me to do?

        She shrugged, then her form seemed to melt away, until she was gone.

        It was his decision.  She was telling him that it was his decision.

        He considered it.  On one hand, he felt it was the right thing to do to go back for the ferrets, to fulfill his responsibility to them by offering them this chance to come live with this kind farmer.  But, if he did so, he’d have to track them down, which was something he wasn’t that good at doing, and it would cost him time.  On the other hand, the fox wanted him to go to Avannar, and he didn’t want to disobey her by getting so bogged down in his search for the ferrets.

        He understood then.  This was a test.  She was testing his personal desires against his obedience.  But which was the correct decision?  Did she want him to go back for the ferrets, or go on to Avannar?

        There was a third option, he realized, that would allow him to perform both tasks at the same time.  His responsibility to the ferrets didn’t mean that he had to fulfill it personally.  He could ask for help.  Maybe the spirits would see his predicament and help him.  He was willing to pay their price for their assistance.

        It was time to Summon, to formally ask a favor of his totem in exchange for paying her price.

        He continued on down the road towards Avannar, until he was in a strip of forest between two farms.  He moved off the road and sat down in the forest, out of sight of the road, and then opened his eyes to the spirits.  He called out then, called out into the spirit world with his thoughts.  Shadow fox, he intoned.  I need help.  I have two duties that conflict, and cannot satisfy both at the same time.  One duty is to you, the other is to my own conscious.  I would beg your aid so that I might be true to your wishes while also living up to my obligations.  I’m willing to pay your price.  Please help me.

        She was there.  She was sitting not two rods from him, seated, as always, her glowing eyes regarding him soberly.

        “Can you guide them here?” he asked.  “I know I shouldn’t ask it of you, but—“

        She stood up, cutting him off.  She padded over to him, so close he could touch her, and then she leaned in and licked him on the side of the face.  The touch of her tongue against his cheek was like a thousand crystals pressed against his skin.  It was the first time she had ever made physical contact with him.

        In that touch, there was also communication.  You knew to ask for aid when it is needful.  You could see that the presented options were not the only options you could follow.  You have seen that there is more than the obvious ways to approach a problem to find its solution.  This is the way of wisdom.  You have passed the test, her very thought seemed to mingle in his mind.  Continue on to Avannar as I have commanded.  Leave the ferrets to me.  I will take up their burden and deliver them safely to this place and see that they are cared for and content, if you pay my price.  My price for this boon will be taken at a later time, for there is always a price when you ask for aid thusly, even of me.

        “I understand,” he said with a simple nod.  “I will pay the price.”

        She put her nose against his cheek.  Her fur was soft, warm, tingly, and in that contact there was further communication.  It is not wise to agree to pay a price without knowing the price, she warned.  I could take anything, even your very life, and yet you agree blindly.

        “But I trust you, fox,” he told her calmly.  “You’ve watched over me most of my life.  I trust you.”

        That is of no moment.  I could have merely been baiting you into just such a thing.  You have no inkling of what I could do to you, human, what payment I could exact, which would make you beg for death.  I may be doing that very thing right now, she noted dryly.  I am, after all, a spirit of guile and deceit.  And yet you will blindly take any offer I give?

        He swallowed, and nodded gravely.  “There comes a time when a man just has to trust someone, with his very life.  I decided to walk this path to follow you, to know you, and to understand you.  I will pay your price, because I trust you.  I believe that my trust in you is not misguided.”

        Indeed, she noted, with light amusement.  So be it, then.  I will bring the ferrets here.  In return, you will pay my price at a later time, when I exact it.  Thus will you learn the danger of summoning the spirits, she warned ominously.

        “If I come out of it wiser for my trouble, then isn’t it just another lesson?”

        She withdrew from contact with him, turning and walking away.  She turned and looked back at him, her face…amused.  Then she padded away, her form melting into the shadows and disappearing.

        It was done, and there was no backing out now, but he wasn’t too worried about it.  He had no doubt she would do something moderately awful to him to show him how a spirit could be vengeful or cruel, but he trusted her.  He would endure that lesson gladly if it helped him atone for getting the cat Arcan killed, by bringing those ferrets to a place where they would be treated kindly and well.

        But now that it was over, and now that he had heard her speak, he saw the trap she set for him.  She baited him into doing this.  She manipulated him into summoning her formally, she had tricked him.  He’d fallen for it like a newborn babe, too.

        She was a spirit of guile and deceit, even with Shaman she took to be their totem.

        Clearly, he needed to be a touch more careful around her.  Perhaps that, too, was a part of this lesson…not to trust too blindly, even his own totem spirit.

        Water under the bridge.  It was done, he did it, and he wasn’t sorry.  She had taught him his lesson, and when the time came to pay her price, he wouldn’t whine or snivel or beg.  He made this deal, he would honor it like a man.

        He stood up and fiddled with his new leather headband, its tails reaching all the way to his waist; it was nearly as long as he was tall.  He then headed back for the road, and put the entire affair out of his mind.  He’d worry about it later.

 

        It took him nearly two more nights of travel to reach Avannar, the City of History.  Avannar was reputed to have been built on the ground that was once one of the mighty capitols of the Great Ancient Civilization, but even despite that legend, Avannar was definitely the greatest city on Noraam.  It was huge, sprawling over both banks of the wide, slow-moving, brown waters of the Podac River, with the legendary fortress called the Black Keep on one of the two islands in the middle of the river.  The other, larger island was called Loremasters’ Isle, and held the large, glittering towers of the Towers of History, the headquarters and main repository of the knowledge of the Loremasters.  Avannar was literally two cities.  On the south bank of the river was Old Avannar, the original city, filled with old stone buildings, narrow and crooked cobblestone streets, and a great deal of history.  After they built the bridges over the Podac River some two hundred years ago, New Avannar sprang up.  On the southeast corner of Old Avannar and New Avannar both were the docks, where ships from the sea sailed up the Podac River and stopped.  This place was chosen probably for the same reason the Great Ancients chose it, because the river was very wide, deep enough to support docking seaworthy vessels, and the land around the river here was flat and conducive to building a city,  New Avannar, across the river, consisted of larger, more comfortable looking buildings of wattle-and-daub, brick, and timber, with wider, more spacious streets and many warehouses.  Old Avannar was the merchant quarter and abode of the poor, and New Avannar was the abodes of the middle and upper classes as well as the place where the Loremaster’s College and all the Guilds had their headquarters.

        Kyven had been here once before.  They’d stayed at an inn in Old Avannar near one of the two bridges across the river, called the Beggar’s Bridge because of the beggars that commonly gathered at its bases and along its wide length.  The other bridge connected the Loremasters’ Isle to the city, while the Black Keep had no bridges, only boats that ferried people back and forth.  They’d been here for two days, as Holm did business with the Guild of Crystalcutters on behalf of the entire village of Atan, and then they went home.  Every year, actually right about this time, a bit after Midsummer Festival, one of the artisans from Atan traveled to Avannar to discuss matters, do business, and keep up to date on any new discoveries or issues.  He recalled the cutter in Chardon saying that he’d heard from Torvik that they thought he was dead, so it must have been Torvik that had come to Avannar this year to represent Atan.

        He walked into the city of Avannar from the Atan Road right around noon, sharing the road with merchants, travelers, and farmers and others using the road to access the many farms and horse ranches to the south and west of the city.  Avannar was also known for its horse ranches out west, ranch after ranch built in the grassy piedmont to the west and northwest of the city proper, in a nook created by a wide curve in the river.  He was following loosely behind a wagon caravan that had come up the south road, where it merged with the Atan Road, the south road going to Freeburrough some fifty minars to the south.  He waited outside the walls of Old Avannar, wishing he’d have crossed the river and come from the north, for there were no walls around New Avannar.  The old city was built back in the violent times, before the Loremasters came to control Noraam, when each city was its own nation and they warred upon each other.  Though guards no longer stood at the gates and challenged every visitor like they used to, the walls throttled travel into the old city down to two gates and sometimes backed things up.

        He wondered why the fox had asked him to come here.  He couldn’t think of anything he could learn here, really, unless she was simply showing him how the Loremasters treated the Arcans.

        And there were many Arcans here.  He remembered the last time he was here, remembered seeing all the Arcans wearing rough clothing scurried about the streets of Old Avannar, all of them wearing collars, and some of them wearing a strange white uniform that had the symbol of the Loremasters on its front and back.  Those were owned by the city and the Loremasters, he remembered, who swept the streets and did other similarly distasteful jobs.

        Kyven passed the caravan and threaded his way through the slow-moving traffic and through the gates, into the city, and up a street known as The Walk, an infamous street that led to the landing from the west gate and all the way up to the Black Keep, straight and wide so people could watch as the criminals were marched to prison.  There were many inns, festhalls, and taverns along the old street, and there was an open marketplace through which the street cut near the river, he remembered.  Until he understood why the fox had sent him here, he’d find a room near the river, and also make contact with an alchemist to make something for him, a little something that would work quite nicely with his headband.

        Guile and deceit.

        He went all the way to the river and immediately started looking for inns.  Inns near the river were more expensive, but also safer, he remembered Holm tell him.  Kyven still had two hundred and fifty left from selling that crystal, and besides, in a place like Avannar, he could easily get spot work in the Guild.  He was an enrolled member, he could show up at the gates and ask for a spot job to make some chits if he ran out of money.  The first inn he tried was literally on the corner of The Walk and the river within sight of the foreboding black stone fortress of the Black Keep, a large, bright, clean, and very orderly sort of place that would cater to well-to-do merchants and other wealthy people.  It was staffed almost completely with Arcans, rodents, cats, and small canines all wearing matching blue dresses or waistcoats and knee pants, all of them with their fur immaculately combed and preened.

        He asked the small marten Arcan by the door who greeted him who he had to talk to about rooms.  The Arcan gave him a speculative look, then he pointed him in the direction of a very tall, rather fat man sitting at a table near the fireplace, playing chess with a small, wiry man wearing a powdered wig and wire-rimmed spectacles.  “Excuse me, I’m wondering if you have any rooms available?” he asked politely.

        The fat man gave him one cursory glance.  “The squatter’s inns are by the wall,” he said absently.

        “If I wanted to stay in a run-down inn where I’d have to barricade myself in my room, I’d be looking there, sir,” he said simply.

        “You’re a drifter, sir, a prospector.  I take much more risk bringing you into my inn than you would at a lower establishment.”

        “I’m a crystalcutter, sir,” he said in retort.

        “Carrying a handpick?”

        “A man has to have a hobby, sir,” he said simply.

        The man gave him a look, then laughed delightedly.  “I’m afraid I have to protect the reputation of my inn, sir.  Please look elsewhere.  Good day to you.”

        Kyven nodded simply.  He wasn’t about to argue with the man, it was his inn and it was his decision who he allowed to stay in it.  “Good day, sir,” he said in return, and turned to leave.

        “Hold.”

        Kyven stopped and turned around, and saw the fat man giving him a speculative look.  “You have manners, sir, and I am always a gentleman to a gentleman.  If you seek the safety of the river quarter and don’t mind what accommodations you are given, I have a spare room in the building where I house my Arcans.  If that does not bother you, it is yours for five chits a night, under condition that you do not visit the common room until you have more proper attire.  Waistcoat and breeches at the minimum.”

        “Done, sir,” he said with a simple nod.  He took out a twenty-five chit coin and put it on their chess table.  “For the next few days.”

        “Take him there,” the man ordered of the slender male mouse standing by the bar.

        “Follow me, please,” the mouse said urbanely, bowing to him.

        Kyven fell into step behind the shorter mouse as he was led through the kitchen and into a courtyard behind the inn, a gated area holding a stable and a short, squat rowhouse building.  It was there that the mouse took him, leading him down a long hallway with doors on each side.  Some of those doors were open, some were closed, showing him that the innkeeper owned twice as many Arcans as he saw in the inn.  He must have bought enough for two full shifts of workers, and all of them were small, physically attractive Arcans, or at least attractive to a human.  The mouse opened a door at the very end of the hallway, holding a very small room, barely more than a closet.  It had a bed in it and a small chest, and that was it…and there was barely room for those.  There couldn’t be two rods of open space between the edge of the bed and the wall.  “It’ll work, thank you,” he said to the Arcan calmly, nodding to him.

        “A word of warning,” the mouse said quietly.  “Some may not appreciate your presence. Be careful,” he warned.

        “I just want a quiet, safe place, I won’t cause anyone trouble,” he answered as he stepped into the tiny room.

        The mouse nodded, and closed the door behind him.

        It was worth the money to have a secure place where he didn’t have to worry about thieves and bandits.  Old Avannar was rampant with them, despite the presence of the Loremasters, as any large city would be.  He sat down on the bed, musing that it was going to feel very strange sleeping on a bed after two months in a bedroll on the ground.  But it was clean, it was in a good part of town, and it would be relatively safe.  That was what mattered to him.  He dropped off his gear, setting it on the bed, and then realized when he got up and opened the door that the door had no lock.  His gear was open prey to anyone who lived in the building.  Well, there wasn’t anything in there that was really valuable anyway.  Just some clothes, a bedroll, prospecting gear he never used.  He carried everything valuable on his person.  He went back down the hall and out, then to the back door by the kitchen.  He knocked and waited for one of the kitchen workers to take notice of him, who came over to the door.  She was a rather tall canine Arcan wearing one of those blues dresses and a white apron.  “You’re that human that rented a room in our building?” she asked curiously.

        He nodded.  “I’d like to buy a meal, but I’m not dressed to sit in the common room.  May I buy one and eat it out here?”

        “Certainly,” she said with a nod.  “Three chits, sir, and I promise you won’t be able to eat it all.”

        “Done,” he said with a nod.

        “Wait here.”  She scurried off, then returned a couple of minutes later carrying a very large bowl of beef stew and a tankard of ale.  “There’s a table and stool there by the stable,” she said, pointing.  He followed her finger and saw it, under a short roof built out to the side of the stable’s open front area.

        “Thanks,” he nodded, then carried the food over to the table, sat down, and began to eat.  The stablehands, all Arcans, gave him strange looks from inside and near the gate, waiting for guests to ride up, but he ignored them.  Here, he was the strange one, and he knew it.  He had to respect the fact that he was invading their personal space.  He was a human among Arcans, and he had to be sure to be as respectful to them in this, their area, as they were forced to be to him because of law and custom.

        Despite the Arcan’s boasting, he managed to eat the whole bowl of stew, though it did fill him up.  He took the bowl and tankard back to the kitchen and returned to the room he’d rented, and immediately laid down.  He was very tired, and this was usually the time that he’d be sleeping ever since he started this training.  He needed a short nap, then he’d go see an alchemist about his little idea.

        Training.  Strange to think that here he was, a human learning about Shaman, about to go to sleep in the home city of an organization that hunted Shaman as a matter of policy.  Why was he doing this?  He had a nice life back in Atan.  He was the best cutter in the village, he had nothing but good fortune in his future.  But no, he’d given it all up to chase…what?  A fox?

        A truth.  He was chasing a truth.  The fox had been part of his life since before he was a cutter, and chasing her was actually chasing himself.  He wanted to know why the fox was interested in him, why she helped him, but the wolf had been too right about him.  He was searching for himself.  He was a human that could see the spirits, and that made him different from other humans.  He had to find out why, he had to explore this other side of himself to understand it, and then decide where he fit into the world.  Would he go back to Atan and live out his life cutting crystals in his shop?  Or would he wander the land as a Shaman, doing the bidding of his totem?  If so, what would she have him do?  As a human, he was certainly capable of much more than the other Shaman.  He could go places they couldn’t, do things they couldn’t.  Was it coincidence that the spirit that had adopted him and made him her totem was the shadow fox, a spirit of guile and deceit?  With her as his totem, he would be a great spy, the wolf had hinted.  He said her spells of illusion and trickery were stronger than Shaman who had no totem, which would give him the ability to fool people.

        But what would he do with it?  Serve the Masked as a roving spy, a human mole that would penetrate the Loremasters and learn their secrets?

        Possible.  Doubtful, but possible.  Kyven didn’t have the sense of dedication to the Masked to try something like that…or at least not yet.

        He couldn’t see the use of it, personally.  The Loremasters controlled all of Noraam, how would a small number of Shaman and their human associates bring down the government?

        He’d probably be more use just keeping track of what they were doing.  He was a human Shaman in a human city, and if what he was thinking would actually work, well, he could get away with using his magic within the city walls.

        Guile and deceit.

 

        He was up and about after a couple hours of light sleep.  The bed was clean, but it was soft, and he wasn’t used to soft after two months of sleeping on the ground.  He was true to his word with the innkeeper and stayed out of his common room, going out through the stable door.  It didn’t take long for him to find an alchemist in a city as big as Avannar, all he had to do was ask the first man who wore the uniform of the Loreguard, the private army the Loremasters kept, to pass by.  The fellow directed him to an alchemist’s shop along The Walk, so he wouldn’t get lost, and Kyven made his way there through a busy, crowded throng.  The Walk was the biggest and most used street in Old Avannar, and he had to share it with quite a few people, dressed from rich merchants in their finery to the roughest manual laborers in smocks.  Arcans were also all over the street, most of them being led by humans but a few roaming of their own volition, and all of them were wearing collars.

        Again, he wondered why he was here. Why did the fox send him to Avannar?  What would he learn here, other than the fact that there were lots of Arcans?  So far, the first two lessons he’d learned had involved Arcans, he figured that since all the other Shaman were Arcan, she wanted to make certain points about them, maybe so he could relate to the other Shaman better…or something.  He really had no idea.

        The alchemist’s shop to which he was sent was huge.  The showroom itself was nearly the size of their workroom back in Atan, a cavernous place with shelf after shelf filled with displays of alchemical devices.  Weapons like shockrods and firetubes and force beads sat on a small rack on one shelf, while lamps hung from the ceiling, and self-rotating fans circulated air through the large room.  There were tiny little things like crystal-driven watches so small they could be put in a pocket to the largest, an alchemical self-propelled carriage, the wheels turned by crystal power.  The carriage was made of brass, bronze, and steel, and had two seats and wooden wheels covered with metal bands.  That thing had to cost something like fifty thousand chits.  The place was busy too, so busy that four men were behind the counters, talking to people who visited the shop.  Kyven actually had to wait for about half an hour before one of the men could talk to him.

        “I’m looking for something, unusual,” Kyven began.  “I’m basically looking for a little toy, but I don’t think anyone’s ever made one before.”

        “Ah, a custom order?  What did you have in mind?”

        “Nothing fancy,” he said simply.  “My brother’s child is afraid of the dark, but he can’t sleep if there’s too much light.  What I was looking for was something along the lines of a small broach or medallion he could pin to his clothes that gives off a very soft light, just enough for him to feel like there’s light but not so much that it keeps him awake.”

        “Why would he need to pin it to his clothes if he’s sleeping?”

        “So he can’t lose it when he’s not using it,” he answered.  “He’s very bad about losing things.  If you don’t pin it to him, it’ll be gone by suppertime.”

        “Ah, now that I understand.  Something like that would be quite easy, quite easy.  I could adapt a simple glowsetting with a pin backing and muffle it so it’s not quite as bright.  But I’m afraid it’ll be colored light.  If you like, I could make you something with normal light, but it’ll take longer.”

        “No, no, colored light is fine,” he said easily.  “What colors?”

        “Green, blue, and red.”

        “He likes green, let’s go with that.  How much would it cost?”

        “A glowsetting is only forty chits.  Add on ten chits for the custom work, and we’ll call it fifty chits.”

        “It’s a deal,” Kyven said immediately.  “When can I pick it up?”

        “Something this easy?  Tomorrow afternoon.  Let me fill out a form for you, and I’ll have the shop get to work on it.”

        The money changed hands, and after the clerk filled out a form explaining exactly what Kyven wanted and who he was, he left the shop feeling quite satisfied.

        He wasn’t quite sure what he was supposed to do, and he couldn’t practice magic in the city, so he decided to go stand by the rail near the bridge at the river and just watch for a while, spending some quiet time as the beggars who gathered by the bridge plied their trade, seeking to wheedle chits from passers-by.  They were a rather sorry lot, dressed in rags, filthy, emaciated from hunger, a perfect example of the dregs, the forgotten, and the lost.  Some of them were old.  Some of them were young.  Some…he couldn’t tell.  He watched the well-dressed people hurry past them, refuse to look at them, and then they all scattered when a detachment of the Loreguard marched by.  Once the guards were gone, they slowly slinked back to the bridge, huddled along its sides, holding their hands out to anyone who passed them.  One fellow kicked a beggar that got too close to him, sending the young boy running away screaming, then he laughed about it to his companions.

        The joke would be on him, though.  Kyven’s eyes were sharp and attuned to detail.  He saw that young boy slip his hand into the man’s pocket when he got close to him, and the man must not have noticed.

        Guile and deception, eh?  Those were the perfect aspects of a thief.  And Kyven had very, very nimble hands.  He wondered if he could pull off something like that.  Maybe he should try…or maybe not.  Getting thrown in the Black Keep probably wasn’t what the fox had in mind by sending him to Avannar.

        But he’d bet he could do it.

        He leaned on the rail as the sun set to the west, quiet and introspective.  He pondered what he was doing here in Avannar, he pondered the fox, he though about what he’d done in Chardon, and still felt no remorse for Bella, but felt remorse for that poor cat who had died because of him.  He ignored the people around him, but he was keeping his eyes open, and every time the beggars tried to approach him, a little too quietly, a direct stare quelled them and sent them back to the bridge.  But then again, he wasn’t dressed as a well-off townsman, he was wearing rough, simple outdoor clothes; between his leathers and his shaggy hair, he looked every bit the prospector or miner, in no way someone who belonged in Avannar.

        She was there.

        He turned to look, even as he felt her nearness to him incite his spirit sight, cause him to open his eyes to the spirit world.  He turned his head and saw her, seated sedately before him, her tail wrapped around her front legs, watching him.  He nodded to her, and then turned to face her.  She dipped her head meaningfully, and he took that to mean that she wanted him to kneel down.  That would look a little strange, so he instead turned and sat down against the rail, bowing his head and closing his eyes.  He sensed her come up to him, and then felt her nose touch his cheek, sending a throb of tingling power through his face.  Instead of communicating with him, instead, there was a flash of…inspiration, in his mind.  He realized that she was teaching him a new spell, and he opened himself up to her instruction.  The spell was a simple spell that attacked the senses of the victim, a blazing blast of light that would blind anyone who was near him for a short time…including himself if he was looking at it when it happened.  But the fox knew what he was planning to do with the blindfold, and so the spell wouldn’t affect him…which was probably why she was teaching it to him.

        He understood how the spell worked.  She maintained the touch on him for a brief second, but did not directly communicate.  Maybe she only did that when he formally summoned her…he wasn’t sure.  She drew away from him, and he opened his eyes and regarded her.  She gave him a simple nod, then took a single step back.

        “What am I supposed to do here?” he whispered to her.

        She looked past him.  He followed her gaze, and saw that she was staring at the Loremasters’ towers on the island.

        “There?” he asked in surprise.  “What am I supposed to do?”

        She shrugged her shoulders, then turned and padded away from him.  Her form seemed to melt into the shadows, and she was gone.

        He had to go there?  To the towers of the Lorekeepers?  Why?  What purpose did that serve?  Unless the purpose was nothing other than to go there.  Maybe the fox wanted to see if they could tell he was a Shaman.  After all, he was human, he was unique.  If that were the case, well, he’d do it, but he wouldn’t be too happy about it.

        But then again, he’d much rather know that they couldn’t detect he was a Shaman before it might really matter if they could.  Maybe that’s what this was all about, to see if he was undetectable to the Loremasters.

        Either way, he had his orders, and he would obey them.  The fox wanted him to go to the towers, and so he would go to the towers.  It would scare the life out of him, but he’d do it.

        Tomorrow.  He’d do it tomorrow after he picked up his little piece of trickery.

 

        He could tell he wasn’t welcome.

        It wasn’t just the typical Arcan behavior around humans, either.  The Arcans in the fat man’s inn weren’t forward enough to be openly hostile to him, because he was a human, but they did not like him in their building, not one little bit.  They wouldn’t speak a word to him, and whenever he appeared in the stable, he could tell that word passed quickly that the human was back, and their private domain was being invaded.

        This, Kyven more or less expected.  Arcans had little reason to like humans, in the first place, and at least out here in the stable yard, they had their run of it as long as there weren’t any guests back here either arriving or departing.  Kyven’s presence in their dormitory was like an invasion to Arcans who had actually become accustomed to a little bit of dignity and status.  The fat man clearly treated them well.  They were well fed, well clothed, and were even given their own private rooms in the dorm behind the inn, which was quite unusual.  The Arcans were used to a little taste of dignity, and Kyven’s presence in their private area was an affront to it.

        He understood, and didn’t blame them at all.  He stayed in his room when not actively eating, coming, or going, didn’t speak to them, but also was not rude to them.  He was sure they gossiped all about him, because he kept very odd hours, staying out most of the night and sleeping through most of the morning, then coming in and napping again after coming back.  They wondered what he was doing, he’d managed to catch one little blurb through his wall as the Arcan in the room beside his talked in hushed whispers.  He’d been out almost all night, and they suspected that he was some kind of drifting pickpocket or thief who had made a big score somewhere else and had come to Avannar to hide, but still liked to lurk in the shadows with other thieves, and was spending all night out in the seedy bars and festhalls in the southern reaches of Old Avannar.

        He wouldn’t tell them the truth.  He’d been out all night the night before testing his blindfold, and had found that it was a smashing success.  The blindfold did not in any way hinder his spirit sight, allowing him to see perfectly well.  By wrapping the two tails of the leather around his head as well, it completely hid the green glow of his eyes.  He’d used a stick and pretended to be blind as he wandered the streets of Avannar, and nobody saw or suspected a thing.  Quite a few people tried to help him, and quite a few also tried to rob him, too, taking him to be helpless.  Those were the recipients of the new spell he’d been taught, the blinding flash, which Kyven hid by using a little trinket he’d bought in a general store, a clear glass ball connected to a brass base, which he used as a prop to pretend that it was a kind of alchemical device.

        The night taught him much.  It showed him that people did not believe in any way that he was anything but normal, if a little creepy since he seemed aware of things he couldn’t see.  He realized that by using magic in Avannar, the Loremasters didn’t seem to notice, or perhaps they couldn’t distinguish Shaman magic from the use of mana crystals, since they were both the same kind of energy.

        That was a very useful little piece of information.

        He’d returned to the compound in the morning, eaten out in the stableyard, and got some sleep as the Arcans changed shifts.  There were two shifts of them to staff the inn at all hours of the day and night, which made the inn very popular with many about town as a place where a gentleman could go at any time and get a meal or a tankard of fine ale or glass of fine wine, as well as conversation with other men and women of means.  After sleeping, he again left the inn and made his way to the alchemy shop to see if they’d finished his order yet.  The same man who’d helped him the day before helped him once again, and though it wasn’t done, he offered to have them finish it for him while he waited if he so wished.  He did so, standing silently in the corner as he listened to customers and saw what they bought.  There were quite a few toys bought, from blinking lights to a little top that spun endlessly on a stand.  Some weapons were bought, shockrods being the most popular because they didn’t set fires when used, and he even saw the sale of a healing bell, a device to heal wounds and cure diseases, going for nearly five thousand chits.  Using rare green crystals, it was the crystal that made it expensive, not the construction.

        After about an hour, they were done.  The clerk brought it out to him, showing him an oval frosted glass plate that glowed with a soft green radiance that had a pin on its back, allowing it to be attached to clothing.  “Perfect,” Kyven said with a nod.  “Thank you very much, sir.  My brother’s child will enjoy it very much.”

        “Glad to be of service, sir,” the clerk said with a nod.

        The device changed the game.  Kyven ducked into an alley, pinned the device to his headband, and then wrapped the two tails over his eyes to form the blindfold, leaving.  He stepped out and into the crowd now looking like a blind man, but the glowing device pinned to his eye wrappings gave the appearance that he was blind, but being guided by an alchemical device.  Most alchemists, cutters, and probably Loremasters would know that such a thing would be impossible, but the average person might not.  And nor would those that would know not know exactly how it worked; perhaps it only warned him if he was very close to something, and he was simply very good at navigating using its crude warnings.  Either way, it would give people a convenient excuse to believe that he had some means of moving around other than his eyes, and that was all it took to keep his eyes hidden and allow him to use spirit sight, and Shaman magic, without detection.

        He walked around for quite a while to see how people would react.  He got quite a few strange looks and stares, but nobody openly challenged him.  He even walked right past a pair of women wearing the surcoat of the Loremasters.  Both women gave him a long, searching look, but allowed him to pass by unchallenged.

        It worked!

        He hoped that the fox was pleased.  She was a spirit of guile and deceit, and he was following in her footsteps.  The device was both guile and deceit, using trickery and supposition to make people believe he could see without his eyes, which was only a front for giving him the ability to hide his eyes so he could use his magic without being found out.

        Now that he knew it worked, he found a quiet alley where he was alone and took it off.  He had to go to the headquarters of the Loremasters, and he would take no chances.

        It was time to do as he was ordered.  He made his way to the bridge leading to the island holding the building that headquartered the Loremasters, a wide bridge with granite blocks serving as the footstones of the bridge.  A detachment of ten Loreguards stood guard there, armed with muskets, swords, and shockrods, who stopped anyone carrying a weapon and turned them away.  Kyven was carrying a shockrod and daggers, so he was forced to turn back like the rest of them, making him go back to the inn and leave them in his room before he could get past them.

        The headquarters of the Loremasters was open to visitors, so Kyven was just one of many who filed over the ornate, elegant stone and metal bridge that connected the south bank of the city with the island.  The gleaming white stone of the towers loomed over him as he approached, four towers on each corner of a huge building that almost looked like a cathedral, a building that took up nearly the entire island.  Only a garden in the front, where the two bridges joined the island to both banks, and the far side were open, and the far side was supposed to be a small training area for officers of the Loreguard.  Kyven was just one of many, many of which wore the surcoat of the Loremasters, coming down off the bridge and into the huge, well tended garden…a garden tended by human gardeners.  A sign at the foot of the bridge explained why, for it read Final Warning!  No Arcans Permitted.  Any Arcan Found On The Island Will Be Terminated With No Reparation To The Owner.  Arcans weren’t allowed on the island, which Kyven found, unusual.  Why forbid Arcans when the Loremasters saw Arcans as laborers and slaves?

        Shaman.  Of course.  They were afraid of Shaman.  And since they couldn’t detect him, then that meant that they couldn’t detect Arcan Shaman either.  They kept any possible Shaman off the island by forbidding all Arcans from setting foot here.

        Kyven joined a line of people in normal dress who entered the ornate front doors of the huge building.  He stepped into a huge, grand atrium, bright sunlight pouring down from a massive glass ceiling of huge glass panes in a framework of black metal grids.  Loremasters walked alone or in pairs or groups through that huge mezzanine, moving to and from the series of doors in the back, as uniformed workers sitting at desks to both sides talked with citizens who had business here.  And just as on the bridge and in the garden, Loreguards armed with muskets and swords stood guard within the mezzanine, a militant presence that ensured that order was kept.

        He stepped out into the mezzanine, gawking up at the glass ceiling along with a few other people, feeling very, very…insignificant.  This was the headquarters of the people who basically ran Noraam, and just their entry room was massive, grand, epic in scale and design, where hundreds of Loremasters filed in and out, and who knew how many there were on the far sides of those doors at the other end of the mezzanine.  He stood there and considered that there was a Loremaster in every village and town on Noraam, and any of them could make contact with Avannar at the speed of alchemy and summon troops or assistance, or call in reports.  The enormity of the place hit him like a hammer, and he realized why the fox wanted him to see this place.

        To warn him.

        She was warning him.  These people were the enemy of the Shaman, sought to eradicate them, and Kyven being human would make no difference. Hell, they’d probably come after him even harder than an Arcan Shaman, because he was human.  He was unique, something unheard of, and if the Loremasters fought the Shaman because they represented a twisting of the ideals of the Great Ancient Civilization, Arcans who were supposed to be slaves who had real power and could resist, then how would they approach Kyven?  He was an unknown, something beyond their experience, and human beings did not react well to such things…that was an established fact.  People feared what they didn’t understand.

        Or maybe they wouldn’t.  After all, he was unique, and he was human.  They might see his unique abilities as an asset…an asset to control.

        No.  The Loremasters were not his friends. They were his enemies, and the wolf Shaman was right to call them so.  They were enemies to the Arcan because they sought to keep them in slavery, and they would be Kyven’s enemy because of who he was.  They would either try to kill him because he was a Shaman or use him, because he was a Shaman.  Either way, they would try to control his life, and he wouldn’t stand for it.

        That was what she wanted him to see.

        He turned and left the building.  For some reason, the place gave him the chills now, where before it was nothing but a building.  It was like looking into the opening of an angry wolverine’s den, and he could hear it growling inside.  He hurried through the gardens and over the bridge, and didn’t feel safe and relieved until he was nearly a block away from the bridge leading over the river.

        She was there.

        He turned to face the river and saw her, seated sedately near the rail that kept people from falling into the river, seated sedately with her tail wrapped around her legs, and she nodded once, eloquently.  He had seen what she wanted him to see, he reasoned.  He was certain now that the Loremasters were no friends of his, where before he only assumed it.  It was something he knew now.

        She stood up and turned and walked away, stopped, then looked back at him.  She wanted him to follow.  He did so after covering his eyes and putting on his deceiving device so he could use spirit sight without his eyes giving him away, and she seemed to nod when she saw what he did.  When he was done, he followed her as she padded through the streets of Old Avannar, taking to a small building by the city wall and near the gate.  She sat down by the porch of the small building and nudged her head towards it, giving him and expectant look.  He nodded to her and took stock of it.  The sign out front, and the two women sitting in the windows of the second floor who were beckoning to him with promises of giving him a good time, made it abundantly clear that this was a whorehouse.

        “Here?” he asked in surprise.

        She gave him a direct, steady look, slightly amused, and still expectant.

        What wisdom could he learn in a place like this?  Did she mean for him to actually hire a whore?

        She nodded once.

        He gave her a surprised look.  “Why?”

        The look she leveled on him was…strange.  Though there was no direct communication, he seemed to take from that look that she was serious about it.  Kyven wasn’t a virgin, so it couldn’t be about some kind of rite of adulthood among Shaman or something.  He, like many young men in a mining village, had availed himself of the local whorehouse more than once, which had sprang up to service the miners working the mountains nearby.  Holm didn’t frown on it, and it was one of the few things that the older apprentices could spend their money to get that they couldn’t get at the shop.  So there wasn’t really anything he could learn here that he hadn’t already experienced earlier in life.

        But she seemed quite serious about it.  And he wasn’t going to disobey her.

        He stepped up onto the porch, removed his blindfold and tricking light, and then entered a dark, stale-smelling receiving room where several women either wearing elaborate costumes or very little at all were standing near the far wall or talking with a few men who had also come to enjoy the services the place had to offer.  An older woman wearing a frilly red dress approached him and gave him a false smile.  “Welcome to Salina’s,” she said.  “Which of yon ladies most takes your fancy, young man?  I dare say they probably won’t mind a frolic with a handsome fellow like yourself.”

        Kyven looked at them.  Tall, short, fair skin, dark skin, and everything in between, the nine ladies standing in line shared only thinness among them and at least a passingly attractive face.  Being pretty was no requirement for a prostitute, but the prettier ones would certainly do better than a place like this.  So while the nine weren’t ugly, none of them were particularly pretty either.

        He wasn’t quite so sure about this.  What was the fox up to?  She wanted him hire a whore…why?  What lesson did it teach?  What would he learn?  Nothing, that’s what.  He’d been to whorehouses before.  This wasn’t anything new to him.  He wasn’t even particularly in the mood.  But, since he was male, the sight of half-dressed women was starting to make him consider it. It had been a few months, after all.

        He looked them over, regarding each one in turn, but one of them…stood out.  That was the only explanation he had.  She stood out.  She was just on the good side of plain, with a moderately attractive face, shoulder-length brunette hair, and brown eyes.  She was thin, with small breasts and narrow hips, almost waifish, wearing a red dress that tried to show off what cleavage she had.  She looked to be about seventeen or eighteen, and looked as falsely interested in him as all the other girls, nothing but a front so they could earn a little money.  “Her,” he said, singling her out.

        “Marya, eh?  Twenty chits for a turn of an hourglass, or fifty chits and you can have all the fun you want with her,” she offered.

        “I think an hour would do it,” he told her, fishing the chits out of his pocket.  He paid the madam, and the girl took his hand with an empty smile and led him to the stairs in the back.

        “Hi, I’m Marya,” she introduced as she took him upstairs, and brought him to the first door on the left.  It was a spartan place with a single small window framed by faded curtains, with nothing but a rickety-looking bed.  “Anything in particular you like?  I’ll go down if that’s what you fancy,” she told him as she closed the door behind them.

        “Uh, no, that’s alright,” he said to her as she pulled her dress over her head without any pretense, showing him a thin, almost bony back, very slender waist, and small rear end.  She turned and faced him, and he couldn’t help but pass his eyes over her small breasts and that inviting patch of dark hair down under her navel.

        He wasn’t entirely in the mood, but he could bring himself to manage it.

        “We don’t have much time here, tiger,” she said with a cute little smile.  “Think you might wanna take your clothes off?”

        Kyven blinked, then laughed.  “Yeah, that might help,” he agreed, reaching for the tail of his shirt.

        Sex with the thin girl was like sex with any whore, which was generally fake.  She wasn’t really interested in him, but she also didn’t want to seem bored, so she went through the motions of being excited when he undressed, played with him just long enough to get him ready, and then laid back and spread her legs in invitation.  Despite not being in the mood when he arrived, months without any sex had finally got him in the mood once he was looking down at a naked girl with her legs spread, showing him her vagina, and her finger crooking at him in invitation.  He climbed on her and did as the fox wished, had sex with her, mechanical, unemotional sex that simply allowed him to satisfy physical desire.  She moaned as he penetrated her, but he wasn’t sure if it was honest or fake, since Timble often noted that the whores at The Pink Crystal would moan like they were blind with lust if you so much as touched their petticoats.  She continued to moan through it, low, long moans as she lay there and allowed him to thrust into her.  He was as distant as she, not caressing or kissing, just leaning over her and having sex.  His lack of real excitement or arousal made it take a while until he finally climaxed, and even that wasn’t entirely fulfilling or noteworthy.  He was doing this because he was told to do it, and it certainly showed in his performance.

        After it was over, he rolled off of her and laid on the bed to recover, and she rolled over on her side and looked at him curiously.  “Not much zest there, tiger,” she said with a surprisingly cute smile.  “What was that about?  The only part of you that was really enjoying that was your dick.  You could have had as much fun with your hand, and it would have been free.”

        “To be honest, I’m not sure why I came,” he told her sincerely.  “I guess just because it’s been a while since I’ve been with a woman.”

        “Well, you look like the loner type.  Miner?”

        “Prospector.”

        “Ah.  How long?”

        “A few months.”

        “Well, I won’t deny that it wasn’t fun,” she told him honestly.  “It could have been more fun if you’d have been a little more enthusiastic.  You didn’t play with my tits or anything.”

        “I thought whores thought it was just business,” he noted.

        She chuckled.  “A girl can’t fuck every day and not enjoy it sometimes,” she said honestly.  “It depends on the man.  You’re a fairly handsome man, young, you have a nice body, and you weren’t rough.  I really was enjoying it there, hon, those moans weren’t fake.”

        “I thought you weren’t all that enthusiastic when we came in.  You just pulled your dress off and got to the point.”

        She laughed.  “Well, you only have one turn of the glass, and it’s not a full half hour, it’s more like fifteen minutes,” she admitted.  Salina uses a short-timed glass to milk more money out of the customers that don’t buy the fifty chit session.  You know, make them run out of time right in the middle of it and make them buy another half hour.”

        Kyven chuckled.  “Clever.  Devious, but clever.”

        “I wanted to hurry because I wanted to give you your money’s worth,” she winked.

        “Well, thank you, I appreciate that.”

        “Sure you don’t want to buy a little more time?” she asked with an inviting little smile.  “A girl couldn’t do much better than that sweet dick of yours and the fact that you both know how to use it and you don’t get off on slapping girls around.”

        He laughed.  “I’d be even less in the mood a second time,” he said with complete honestly.

        “Well, you know, now that I’ve had it and found it enjoyable, I’d be much more enthusiastic the second time,” she said with a naughty little smile.

        She was here.

        Kyven looked away from the girl and towards the door, and saw the fox sitting in front of it, tail wrapped around her front legs, giving him a calm, measured look.   She motioned at him with her muzzle.

        What did that mean?

        There was a knock at the door.  “Time’s up!” the woman Salina called.  “If you want more time, either buy another half hour or pay fifty chits for a full session!”

        The fox nodded once, staring right into his eyes.

        Again?  Why?

        She only gave him that amused look, and then her form seemed to meld with sudden shadows, causing her to vanish.

        “Come on, dear, pay up or get dressed!” Salina called.

        Kyven stood up and fished his pouch from his pants, then counted out fifty chits, then opened the door just enough to hand them out to her.  “I’m having too much fun for just another half hour,” he said to her dryly, pouring them into her hand.

        She gave him a sweet smile.  “That’s what we’re here for, dearie!  Have fun now!” she said as she closed the door for him.

        The whore, Marya, gave him a surprised look.  “What changed your mind, tiger?” she asked curiously.

        “Well, I can’t very well just walk off without seeing if it’s really possible for a whore to orgasm,” he noted.

        She laughed.  “You gotta work for it,” she teased as he sat back down, then slid back onto the bed.

        She was a much more sensual once he recovered, and her responsiveness made him responsive as well.  He touched, kissed, and caressed as they coupled for the second time, fully sexually aroused, doing more than just going through the motions.  He touched her, kissed her, tasted her, experienced her, and it was actually pleasurable the second time, so much so that they were both drenched with sweat and the bed was banging against the wall as she groaned and clutched onto his shoulders with her small yet strong hands, then she cried out and dug her nails into him, either climaxing or doing a good job faking it.  He climaxed quickly after her, then collapsed on top of her and tried to recover his breath.

        “Now that had zest, tiger,” she said with a breathless laugh.  “I’m glad you bought a second try.  Was it more fun than the first?”

        “That’s a silly question,” he said between breaths.  He wasn’t sure why the fox made him do it a second time, but he had to admit, he actually enjoyed it that time.  “So, did I do the impossible?”

        She laughed.  “You can go brag to all your friends that you made a whore come,” she told him with a lusty sigh.

        He laughed.  “I feel honored.”

        She gave him a teasing little kiss, then slapped him on the backside as he rolled off of her and sat on the edge of the bed.  He reached for his trousers, but she reached between his legs and took firm yet gentle grip of his genitals.  “Third time’s a charm,” she invited, kissing him on the cheek.

        “I’m afraid it’ll have to wait for some other time, I’m about done,” he admitted.  “But I did have fun, so thank you for that.”

        “Hey, you bought a good time, just glad I could give it to you,” she grinned as she let go of him.  “Think you might come back and see me again soon?  I don’t have many customers that can make me come.  I’d like to keep them.  It makes this job worth doing, you know.”

        “I don’t know when I’ll be through Avannar again.”

        “Well, next time you do, wander by, I’d be happy to see you again.  Girls do like to come when they fuck.”

        “Such nice language,” he laughed.

        “I’m a whore, sweetheart, and if you didn’t notice, this isn’t exactly a high class establishment.  I don’t think you should expect much gentile veneer.”

        He laughed even louder.  “True,” he agreed.  “But I’m not used to hearing it quite so…directly.  In the village where I’m from, the women in the whorehouse try to be, well, ladylike.”

        “Pretenders,” she grinned.  “At least I’m an honest whore.”

        “I’ll give you that.”

        He finished dressing, then left the place without much more chat.  What was that all about?  Some kind of reward for good behavior?  Some need to make sure he wasn’t a virgin?  He didn’t know.  But, either way, he wouldn’t argue with the fox, nor would he disobey her.  It wasn’t like he was dragged into that room at knifepoint, and besides, he did have a good time.

        He still wasn’t sure what lesson he was supposed to learn from it.  Maybe it wouldn’t become apparent until later.

 

        The fox sat on the bed and watched the thin whore put her dress back on, humming to herself.  She pulled her dark hair back from her face, then gave a little sigh and went out and back downstairs, thoroughly satisfied by what was a more pleasant client than usual.  The girl’s body was bright to those who could see the spirit world, bright and vibrant, the aura of one much more closely attuned to the spirit world than most other humans.

        The girl was just below the cusp that would have made her Shaman, more sensitive to the spirit world than other humans, but lacking the ability.  Had her Shaman looked at her with his spirit eyes, he would have seen it.  But regardless of that, he could still sense it, feel it, which was what made him choose her rather than the others.

        This was an investment of time and effort that would take time to blossom and grow.  In nine months, the fox’s investment would bear fruit, and it was an investment best not revealed to her Shaman.  It may interfere with what lay ahead.

        He thought this was some lesson to him whose meaning escaped him, or a reward for good behavior.  It was best to simply let him think thusly.  She would have to lead him to other women in the future to maintain that false impression so he was not suspicious in the times she honestly wanted to breed him.

        After all, she was a spirit of guile and deceit, and her Shaman was not exempted from her nature.  If her Shaman could not appreciate that fact, he would be in for a rude awakening.  She would deceive him when it suited her purposes.

        Her form joined to the shadows and melted away.

 

        The tryst with the whore were largely forgotten by the time he got back to his tiny room, for he was faced with a rather challenging problem.

        Someone had stolen his shockrod and daggers.

        While he was frolicking with that girl, someone, perhaps one of the Arcans, maybe the innkeeper himself, had come into his room and taken the only valuable things he’d left here.

        Kyven sat down on the bed and considered how to go about doing something about this.  The obvious thing to do was go to the innkeeper and report the theft.  The innkeeper was a gentleman and a courteous man, so he rather doubted that it was the innkeeper who had done it.  Kyven had been nothing but polite and obedient while staying in the room the man gave him, and so the odds were, the innkeeper would return his stolen goods.

        But that act carried with it possible unforeseen consequences.  The cat Arcan was fully in his mind when he considered that, that his report of the theft might get the perpetrator sold off, or maybe even killed or otherwise savagely punished.  The innkeeper was a fair and decent man to other men, he had no idea how he treated Arcans.

        So, given he couldn’t control what happened, and he didn’t want to get another possibly innocent Arcan killed through his own actions, he considered other possibilities.  He could search for his missing items himself, which wasn’t a guaranteed outcome since he couldn’t see them with spirit sight, and would therefore have to search the inn like any other thief, or he went to the Arcans himself and demanded his items back from them.  He sat on the edge of his bed for quite a while, considering his options, and then made his decision.  He packed up his gear, then went back out into the yard and made his presence known at the kitchen door.  “Leaving?” the male mouse Arcan that had first shown him the room asked when he came to the door.

        “For tonight,” he answered.  “I have a message for you, though.”

        “For the master?”

        “No, for you,” he said.  “I will say only this.  I will be back tomorrow morning.  If what was taken from me is returned, I’ll be on my way without saying a word, no questions asked.  If what was taken from me is not returned, then I’ll have to take the matter up with someone of authority.  Do you understand me?”

        “Are you accusing me of stealing?” he demanded hotly.

        “Did I say it was you?” he returned simply.  “I’m just giving you the message.  How you use it is your affair, but mark my words, I will do exactly as I’ve said.  Either I get back what belongs to me tomorrow morning, or your master will be dealing with the Crystalcutters’ Guild and the Loremasters.”

        The mouse’s ears wilted.

        I’ll come to the stable gate at dawn tomorrow,” he said.  “Just have them laying on that table,” he said, pointing to the little table where he usually ate his meals.  “That way, not a word need be said, nobody you may care for gets in trouble, and everyone leaves happy.”

        The mouse gave him a strange look.

        “Good day, sir,” he said simply, then he turned and walked across the yard and out of the stable gate.

        Kyven left the inn behind, not sure what to do now.  He still wasn’t entirely sure what task the fox had for him in Avannar, unless she brought him all the way here just to prove to him that the Loremasters were a danger to him.  He put on his blindfold and decoy as the sun began to set, and decided to spend the time practicing.  Once the sun went down and night took over, it was the perfect time to practice spirit sight.  It was a passive ability, but it still took time and training to master what he was seeing.  In the city, where he could see the people but could not see the walls or buildings or ground and what might be on it, it was the perfect place to work on seeing what was not living, as the wolf said was possible.  The wolf said he could see his clothing and his daggers, where Kyven couldn’t see them…so that was something to practice.  He spent almost the entire night lurking the streets, watching people, trying to see the non-living even as he worked to be more natural moving around using nothing but spirit sight.  It was certainly educational, if only because he could see all the people, all the rats, and all the bugs.  These people had no idea how many rats were living in the sewers under their feet, but Kyven could see them as a swarming mass of vaguely visible life deep under the ground, having to see them through the dark mass that the ground presented to his eyes.  He could only see it when he was standing directly over the sewer tunnels, a shimmering life under his feet, under the cobblestone streets.  Kyven saw the thieves moving about, saw more than a few watching him, casing him, but they didn’t understand that he could see them through walls, so they could not ambush him or sneak up on him.  He was also much more adept at moving through the darkness than they were, and all it took to lose them was to drop into the nearest unoccupied dark alley and then mimic his totem, vanishing into the shadows by deactivating the glowing green light pinned to his headband with a single touch, and dropping back into the dark shadows, vanishing from sight.

        Over the night, he felt that he’d gotten a little better.  Seeing the non-living was a matter of paying attention and perception, he guessed, so he tried to focus on what wasn’t there rather than focus on what was.  He could see what was there, so it wasn’t what he had to worry about.

        It was strange.  Ever since he’d started down this path, he’d been staying up at night, usually all night. He’d literally become nocturnal since taking up Shaman training, and he didn’t mind it all that much.  He felt…comfortable in the night.  With his spirit sight, he could see perfectly well, and it gave him all the advantages.  And since he could just cover his eyes to hide their glow, it wouldn’t give him away.

        It did cause him to do a little work, though.  About two hours before dawn, he was wandering the crooked back alleys of the oldest part of Old Avannar when he came across two men carrying a third figure, a living one, one that struggled and thrashed between them as they toted it through the dark alleys.  He couldn’t see how the figure was restrained, but it was a rather young woman, maybe sixteen, her feet being held by one young, rail thin man and her shoulders behind held by the other, with her arms folded and pressed up against her chest.  She had to be tied up or in a bag or something, but she was obviously in need of help.

        He stopped and took stock.  First, he asked if he could help her, then he asked if he should help her.  He was certainly capable of helping her; he could easily deal with those two hooligans and spirit her away.  Since he knew that he could help her, he wondered if he should.  There was a lot of bad and injustice in the world, and he couldn’t stop it all.  He wasn’t even sure if that’s what he was supposed to do.  It was the human reaction to want to help, for he’d been raised a law-abiding, honorable man.  But his totem was a spirit of guile and deceit, and those traits didn’t mix well with an upstanding, moral person.  After all, he’d already killed another human being, so he’d lost his moral high ground forever.  So, should he help the girl?  It was, after all, no concern of his.  No one would ever know if he did nothing.

        But he’d know.

        He quickly got ahead of them.  He didn’t have his daggers with him, but there were plenty of other options…and he could always improvise.  He waited just in the corner of an alley, looking through the building as they approached, and when they got near him, he boldly stepped out and called out.  Both of them looked at him, dropping the girl and going for something at their belts, but it was already too late.  They were looking at him.  He channeled the spell of blinding light, centering it in his palm that was outstretched towards them, creating a cone of instantaneous, blinding like a hundred times brighter than the sun.  Both men staggered back, hands over their faces as they cried out in alarm, and Kyven made his move.  He bulled into the nearer man, making sure to avoid his hands and whatever might be in them that he couldn’t see, then reared back and decked the other man with a closed fist, knocking him to the ground.  As both men struggled, flailing about blindly and unable to see, Kyven grabbed for the woman.  He felt canvas when he put his hands near her stomach, but couldn’t see it; all he could see was her naked body.  He grabbed the canvas and pulled, then bodily slung her over his shoulder and raced back the way they came.  He turned the first corner and went down a crooked street, using the peculiar angular patterns on the ground where he knew street met building as a guide to stay away from the walls, then turning down a narrow, crooked alley that had nothing but cats and rats in it.  He was too far from the two ruffians to see them, too many buildings between them with their faint glows all built up on each other to create a background that hid them, but he’d see them if they came too far up the street he’d just used.  “Be silent, woman,” he hissed as he heard her give a muffled grunt, struggling on his shoulder.  “If you make too much noise, they’ll find us!”

        The woman fell still.  He stayed quiet a moment, but saw no pursuit.  He knelt down and lowered the woman to the ground, and noticed that she was rather pretty.  Pretty, round face, thick blond hair, attractively thin without looking underfed, nice breasts, sexy little triangle of blond pubic hair crowning what her tightly pressed legs concealed, no doubt due to the bag around her.  The nice part about spirit sight was that he didn’t see her clothes, only her, and got to appreciate her nudity fully.  To his eyes, she was laying there totally nude; he couldn’t even see the bonds that were tying her up, nor the bag concealing her.  That could be a curse when looking at an ugly person, but it was a blessing when looking at someone like her.

        He fumbled around until he found the mouth of the bag, tied off with a rope, and worked the knots free.  He opened it and pulled her to a seated position, then grabbed the seeming nothing in his hands and pulled it down.  She didn’t look up at him, in fact, her eyes had been closed the whole time, so he figured she must have a blindfold.  The way she held her mouth and jaw, she was obviously also gagged.  “Listen,” he said in a very low voice.  “I’m going to take off your gag.  Don’t scream, don’t make any loud noises or they’ll find us.  Nod if you understand.”  She nodded vigorously.  “Alright.  Just zone a second.”  He looked at the back of her head and followed the peculiar way her hair was pressed down to puzzle out the location of the knots of her blindfold and gag.  He found the knot of the gag, then used his sensitive fingers and natural dexterity to undo it without being able to see it.  She made a spitting sound as he pulled the invisible cloth away from her head, then took a cleansing breath.  “Untie me!” she whispered.

        “I can’t see your bonds,” he whispered to her as he pulled the bag down to her waist.  He slid his fingers along her arms and down to her wrists and felt the ropes, keeping only her hands tied.  He worked out the knot with his fingers, all but straining his eyes to try to see that which was not living, but unable to make anything out.  She tore her hands apart once he had them free, then reached for her blindfold and tore it off before he could stop her.  She opened her pretty blue eyes and looked around, peering uncertainly, then looked up at him, trying to focus on him.  “Who are you?”

        “No one of consequence,” he said in a hushed whisper as a quartet of men came up the crooked street.  He put his hand over her mouth suddenly and hunkered down into against the wall.  “Someone’s coming,” he said in a whisper, which quelled her resistance to his silencing hand.  Her eyes became fearful as Kyven waited in tense silence, as a tall, burly quartet of men closed on them.  All four of them were holding something in their hands, and the brilliant red light at the base of them, under their hands, told him that whatever they were, they were alchemy.  There were other red lights on them, three more each, which had to be other alchemical devices.  He was seeing the crystals that were in them, a pair of nine point red crystals in those devices in their hands…nine points. Nine points.  Shockrods?  Possibly shockrods, maybe firetubes.  He’d bet shockrods though, firetubes posed too much risk of setting the city on fire.  Were they the city watch?  Maybe.  Whoever they were, they were heavily armed and carrying some alchemical devices.

        Kyven let go of the girl and stood up, and while she seemed to turn towards they alley, he realized that they had to be carrying lights of some kind.  He’d bet that they were the watch.  And if they were the watch, then Kyven did not want to explain to them how he stole the girl away from the kidnappers.  He backed up, backed into the shadows, then turned and padded back to a corner of the alley and looked through the wall.  The four men reached the mouth of the alley, and the girl gave a squeal and called out to them.  “Loreguard!  Loreguard, help me!” she called.

        Kyven was right.  They were Loreguard.

        The four men came over to her and saw her in the state she was in.  One of them knelt by her as the other three looked on.  “What happened, girl?”

        “I was abducted!” she told them with a relieved voice.  “Please take me home!” she asked as she stood up and pushed at nothing, then gasped and pulled it back up over her waist.

        The men chuckled, and the kneeling man reached out and grabbed that nothing.  “Well now, I think we could do that…if you give us something in return,” he said, yanking heavily on that nothing and pulling it down.  The girl gasped and was pulled off her feet, falling on her side in the alley, and the men started to laugh as the kneeling man grabbed the girl and pulled her towards him as he pulled at something at his waist.  Kyven realized that the man was freeing his erect penis from his trousers.

        Kyven was stunned.  He watched as members of the Loreguard, defenders of the law of Noraam, stood by and watched one of their own rape that girl.  Kyven had a sickening front row seat, watching as he forced himself on her, pushing her face into the stone of the alley as he penetrated her from behind.  He saw the girl’s face contort in pain as she whimpered when the man forced himself on her, then grab her by the hips and violently thrust into her.

        This was what the fox brought him to see.  This showed him who the Loremasters really were.  Thugs.  Brutes.  No better than the animals they said the Arcans were.  But they were also almost countless in number, controlling the entire continent of Noraam, and not someone that he could fight.

        He was torn by a moment of indecision.  There were four of them, and they were heavily armed. He was just one man, and if they discovered he was a Shaman, he’d be chased to the ends of the earth.   He debated what to do furiously as the man continued to rape the girl, as she choked and sobbed with her face pressed against the stones of the alley

        That moment cost him dearly.  The man raping the girl leaned over her, then drove his hand forward.  The girl’s entire body seemed to shudder, and she slumped forward.  Her body seemed to flare with a sudden light, then quickly dimmed and vanished from his sight.

        The bolt of lightning raged out of nowhere, a blinding flash that illuminated the alley for a split second.  That instant showed Kyven at the end of the alley, the lightning connecting his palm to the rapist’s head.  The man was thrown back, a blackened mar on his forehead, his eyes open and glazed.  The other three men raised those things in their hands, and a trio of jagged blasts of lightning roared back down the alley, but they found nothing but the wall.  Kyven retaliated by putting only his hand out around the corner, and channeling the blinding flash of light, sending the light of a thousand suns raging back down the alley.  The men staggered back, bowing over as they shook their heads, and heard one of them scream those dangerous words.

        “Shaman!  It’s a Shaman!”

        Kyven pulled up the blindfold so he could see with his normal sight, and was around the corner in a heartbeat.  He punched the nearest one dead in the jaw, dropping him. He grabbed the shockrod of the dead man and used it like a club, smashing it into the face of another blinded man, then deliberately jammed the butt of the shockrod into the last man’s hand and channeled the lightning spell through it, blasting him directly with a killing electrical attack.  The man dropped twitching to the cobblestones, smoke wafting from the stomach of his white surcoat.  He channeled it one more time through the rod, striking the man he’d punched in the back of the head with the blast, killing him instantly.

        He wanted to do something more.  He was furious, he was absolutely furious.  He couldn’t believe it.  He just couldn’t believe it!  He saves the girl from the kidnappers, just to watch her die at the hands of the Loreguard?  But what could he have done?  Should he have stayed and then tried to explain, using deception to talk his way out of it?  Or was the right thing to do to back off, as he had done, and attack them the instant the rape began, attacking three men whose attention wouldn’t have been on him?

        He felt absolutely sick.

        She was there.

        He dropped to his knees.  He didn’t want to look at her.  He felt shamed.  He felt as if he had failed her.  He had failed, the girl had died, he’d tried to save her but he couldn’t.  He felt her right in front of him, then felt her paws come to rest on his shoulders.  He opened his eyes and looked at her, saw her reared up on her hind legs and staring down at him.  She stared right into his eyes, her own unwavering and sober.

        Thus do you learn that sometimes, there is no correct answer, she seemed to communicate to him.  There is no perfect solution.  There is no happily ever after for every person.  There is only the path that causes the least pain.

        “This is wisdom?” he choked, looking down at the ground.  “This is cruel!”

        Life is cruel, she answered immediately and without emotion.  Learn that lesson quickly, Shaman.  Thus do you learn, and thus you gain wisdom.

        “Is this the price I have to pay?”

        You will know when I exact my price, she communicated to him.

        “I could have saved her,” he whispered emotionally.

        Had you tried, you would be dead.  The murder of the girl so surprised the onlookers that they were unable to respond to you.  You have avenged her.  And know that had you not rescued her, her death at those who took her would have been slow and agonizing.  What she received here was a mercy by comparison.  Take comfort in that small thing.

        “It’s not much consolation,” he sniffed.

        Wisdom is not a thing gained easily, she told him sagely.  Claim the objects of these men as your prizes.  You will have need of them.  In the morning, after you recover your things from the inn, leave this place.  Go south.  There is more for you to learn.

        “Just answer me one thing.

        Proceed.

        “Will all this be worth it?”

        That depends entirely on your point of view.  Now do as I have commanded.  Time is short, others will be here very soon.

        She took her paws off him and turned and padded away, her form vanishing into the shadows.

        Kyven knelt there for a long moment.  He—it was just indescribable how he felt.  Sick.  Betrayed.  Angry.  Useless.  He did learn what the fox had to teach, but it had been a bitter, bitter lesson.  For a man like him, young, kind, compassionate, maybe a little naïve, the harsh realities of the world were a cruel, rude awakening.

        Perhaps, sometimes, there really was no right answer.  There certainly hadn’t been one this time.  If the fox was right, then either the girl would have died alone, or he would have died with her.

        Maybe it would have been better to die trying, but then again, the way he felt right now, that was just the coward in him talking, the coward that didn’t want to face the truth.

        He had begun this journey to learn about the fox, to find his answers.  But now, now…he wasn’t sure if he had made the right decision.  But it was too late now.  He was committed to this path.  He could not run now, not after this.  He had to persevere, even if it caused him pain, because he had to know.  And some dark, small part of him, a part not moved by what he had just experienced, that part of him was telling him that the fox was right, and that there was more to learn from her.

        And not all of it would be bad.

        She seemed to care about him. She had saved his life, after all, and she had sent him to the whorehouse as some kind of reward.  He couldn’t believe that she had enjoyed making him do that, making him learn that bitter truth.  It was what had to be done, or he would never gain the wisdom she wished to teach him.

        He just fervently hoped that this was the last of such harsh lessons.  Watching people die like that was something he could never get used to seeing.

        He stood up, and moved to do her bidding, stripping the men of their alchemical devices, then melting into the night before people came out of the buildings around them.  He knew people had looked down from windows, but the alley was dark, and he was hidden by shadows, so he was sure that they’d never catch him, he would be long gone from Avannar by the time they started looking for him.  He took their shock rods, their other items, then vanished into the night.  He had survived Avannar, and survived to learn the lessons the fox had to teach him in this place.

        But he would never feel the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    4      6

Chapter 5

 

        The running scoured it all away.

        One foot in front of the other, over and over, hours on end.  Kyven ran south from Avannar just after dawn, and he ran to put it out of his mind.  It had been a veritably brutal lesson that the fox had taught him, a stark lesson about life, death, and the choices that one made that could lead to either.  The lesson was that sometimes there was no choice that could prevent death, or the death of another, so the wisest course was to minimize the damage.  But the other lesson in that to him was get over it.  She was toughening him up, it seemed to him, showing him the worst aspects of life first to teach him how to cope with the harsh reality he’d never seen in the village of Atan and the comfort of his shop.  He must seem naïve to her, immature, maybe even too idealistic, but it was just who he was.  Kyven was a kind soul at heart, more willing to help than harm, even strangers.  Perhaps she saw that as a negative trait, and sought to strip it out of him.  Perhaps she saw it as a positive trait, and sought to help him hold onto it despite seeing how ugly the world could be by getting the worst out of the way right up front…because he didn’t think it could get much worse than that, saving that girl just to watch her die.

        The running was almost therapeutic.  Surprised merchant trains watched him pass them up as he ran steadily south, roving detachments of Loreguard saw him pass them and wondered just where he was going so quickly, but did not chase him down.  He lost himself in the running, almost feeling like he was training again, running through the night as he chased the wolf.  But there was no wolf now, just him, and the forest was split by a road, and it was daytime instead of night.  He ran hard, as hard as he could run and maintain his pace for at least three hours, putting as much distance as possible between him and Avannar.

        He never wanted to go back there again.

        At least his subtle threat issued to the mouse had been effective.  When he returned to the stable at dawn after hiding to wait out the night, his fake shockrod and all five throwing daggers were sitting on the table for him.  The Arcans had decided to take his offer and just return his things and leave it at that.

        He had real shockrods now.  Four of them, in fact.  He’d taken a total of sixteen items from the Loreguard, four from each of them, and each of them carried identical items.  The first item all four carried was the shockrod.  The second was a small portable light, directional rather than a lantern, shining a beam of light in a very narrow cone in one direction.  The third item was a little item Kyven had heard of, but had never seen, a talker.  It used another alchemical device on the other end that allowed two people to talk in real time across great distances, and Kyven had yanked the crystals out of those things almost as soon as he realized what they were.  The Crystalcutter’s Guild headquarters in each town had something similar to it, but that device sent a message to all devices to which it was connected.  This device was selective; the controller on the other end picked which talker he wanted to talk to, and only that talker could then communicate with the master device.  Each of the four devices he’d taken had had a number stamped on it, probably its identifying number so the controller knew who had which one.  The fourth device was a signaling device, that would send a brilliant red flare into the sky when activated, a signal to all nearby Loreguard to converge on that point.

        Those devices might be useful.

        Kyven ran hard and fast as long as he could, then he stopped, rested, took a meal, and took a much more steady pace that he could hold literally all day, stopping only to drink and to relieve himself.  Freeburrough was fifty minars south of Avannar, a trip that usually took three or four days on foot.  Kyven reached it by midafternoon, and ran right through.  He ran until he was utterly exhausted and literally could not run anymore, almost collapsing in midstride.  He had just enough energy to stagger off the road, find a place that was somewhat sheltered and hidden to keep curious travelers from rifling through his things, and then slept.  He slept like the dead, but when he woke up, at least he didn’t have that overwhelming hunger that he’d had when under the blessing the wolf cast on him.  It was just normal hunger…but he had acquired a taste for meat.  Specifically raw meat.  He attended that taste quickly when he woke up in the middle of the night, tracking down and killing a deer, then going through his practice session to exhaust himself using Shaman magic.  He slept again afterward, then woke up with that familiar dreadful hunger…as well as unwelcome visitors.  A pair of large wolves were working up the courage to rush in and grab the carcass and drag it off, but they backed off when Kyven woke up and realized they were there.  They didn’t run away, lurking nearby as Kyven attacked the carcass and ate as much as he could, but he then took only a small amount of meat, wrapped it, and left what was left for the hungry wolves to enjoy.

        He was starting to feel a little better.  It was going to be a wound in him for a long time, but it wasn’t raw and bleeding now.  He still had more to do, more to see, and he had to focus on the task at hand, not dwell eternally on the past.

        It was one hundred minars from Avannar to Riyan, the next good sized town to the south of Freeburrough, a journey that would usually take six or seven days on foot, but Kyven managed it in two, the pace of a cantering horse, arriving late in the afternoon.  Riyan was built on a wide yet very shallow and rocky river called the Rushing River.  It was a city of about five hundred buildings, fairly large, supported by huge tobacco farms on the south side of the river.  Riyan was the tobacco hub of northern Noraam, where tobacco was grown, bought, sold, and made into pipe tobacco to be sold all over Noraam, even shipped across the Angry Sea to Eusica.  Tobacco from the lands south of Riyan was also shipped up here by wagon, from the tobacco growing kingdoms of Cedon and Chaton, sent to the tobacco capitol of Noraam.  Once it arrived here and was processed along with the locally grown tobacco, it was packed into small wooden barrels here in Riyan and then shipped down the Bay Road to Stinger Bay, the main port city for central Avannar.  Like Atan, Chardon, Avannar, and Riyan, Stinger Bay was a free city, independent, not part of any kingdom, as was the way of things in central Noraam.  The kingdoms existed to the north and south of what was called the Free Territories by those who hailed from outside of the region.

        Riyan had had city walls long ago, but they’d been torn down and used to build warehouses and shops and houses as Riyan expanded quickly after the Loremasters unified Noraam, leaving behind buildings made of stone that were made of randomly different colored blocks that gave the place a rather unusual look.  Riyanners were a rather tolerant lot, all about the business of tobacco, so much so that they didn’t grow enough food to feed themselves.  Food was shipped in from Freeburrough and Avannar to cover the deficit, because farmers could earn much more planting tobacco than they could planting corn or wheat or beans.

        He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to stop here for a while, the fox didn’t tell him where to go, but he did want to lay over for the night.  He was tired, and didn’t particularly relish the idea of waking up to find a pack of wolves looking down at him.  There were plenty of inns in Riyan, and he availed himself of the first one he came across.  It was called the Layover, and it was staffed mostly by humans, with only one Arcan, a rare male skunk Arcan; skunks were rare because they shared the same defensive abilities as normal skunks, and most humans didn’t care to own an Arcan that could spray them with musk.  Because they were rarely bred, most skunk Arcans were captured from the wild, and so they tended to be stupid and edgy…which made people not want them.  This Arcan wore only an apron and a collar, pushing a broom across the common room’s polished wooden floor.

        Kyven came up to the bar in the crowded common room, full of merchants, caravan hands, and guards that escorted them to protect from the rare instance of a wild Arcan or monster attack, and got the attention of the steel-haired, tall, thin man tending bar.  “Who do I talk to about a room?” he asked.

        “That’d be me, fella,” he answered.  “Just for tonight?” Kyven nodded.  “Well, I’m pretty much well booked up, but I have a little room off the stable if you don’t mind it.  If not, there’s quite a few inns downtown that’d be happy to take you.”

        “As long as it’s clean, I’m more than happy to take it,” he said simply.

        “Five chits and it’s yours.”

        “Done.”

        “Rooms here come with a meal, so come back to the common room and get yourself something to eat.”

        “I’ll be sure to do that.”

        “Stripe!” the man shouted.  The skunk came over immediately and set his broom aside.  “Take this man to the stable room,” the man ordered, but Kyven wasn’t listening to him.  The skunk felt…strange to him.  Different.  Not normal.

        The skunk nodded, then motioned to him to follow.  Kyven did so, giving the skunk a penetrating look.  He didn’t look any different, but…he was. He just was.  He just, well, stood out, and the closer he got, the more apparent it was.

        The skunk led him out the side door and into a large, fenced in yard on the side of the inn, holding a very large stable and an exercise corral for horses.  The skunk looked meekly at the ground as a trio of merchants passed them, then glanced back at them as he led Kyven towards a building beside the main stable.

        “The spirits said you were coming,” the skunk said in a very low voice.

        Kyven gasped.  You?” he declared.  “You’re a—like me?”

        He nodded.  “You have things you took from Avannar.  They say you are bringing them to us.  Things taken from our enemies.”

        The fox did say that he needed them.  Was this why she wanted him to take them?  “I have them.”

        “Leave them in the room when you move on.  I’ll take care of it.”

        “I’m surprised.  I didn’t think, you know, I’d meet another.”

        They reached a door on the side of the building, and it opened to a very small room holding a bed, stand holding a wash basin, and a small table and chair near the window just down the wall from the door.

        “There are some of us who watch over the humans,” he whispered.  “And watch over our brothers and sisters.  So long as we don’t do anything, our enemies cannot find us.  I’m happy to have met you, human.  To know that a human shares our gift actually gives me hope.”

        “How so?”

        “If you begin to be more like us, then there’s hope that they will not see us as animals,” he answered.  “It’s a small hope, I know, because most humans are fearful and narrow-minded.  But if they understand the spirits as we do, then maybe they will change.”

        “Possible.  But to be honest, if they learn of the spirits as I have in the last week, they’d hate you.”

        “You are on the Walk,” the skunk said, then he shivered uncontrollably.  “It is a…difficult time.  I remember mine.  Some nights, it still haunts me,” he said honestly.  “Wisdom is not something you gain easily, and the first lessons are often the harshest.”

        “Amen,” Kyven sighed.

        “Not all are suited for such wisdom,” the skunk said simply.  “But the spirits demand it of us, if we are to be their messengers.  They will only accept those who see that which most others do not.”  He put his furry paw on Kyven’s shoulder.  “Just persevere, brother.  Soon the Walk will be over, and you will take your place among us.”  He leaned close.  “How many spells have you been taught?”

        “Three,” he whispered back.

        “Three already?  I was on my Walk for two months before I was granted three,” he said in surprised, hushed tones.  “Your spells are your rewards.  When you are given a new one, you have gained wisdom.  They come slowly at first, but then they come quickly, until you know all which the spirits wish you to know.”

        “I hope that’s a good sign.”

        “A very good sign,” he whispered with a nod.  “Fare well, brother.  Remember, leave them here.  I will take care of them.”

        “I will.”

        The skunk left him, and left him feeling a little more hopeful.  If he was ahead of schedule, as it were, then maybe this wouldn’t be as bad from here out as it had been so far.  The skunk said that the harshest lessons came first, and his first two lessons had certainly been very harsh.  Hopefully there weren’t many more like the last one, or he’d probably go insane.

        He had trouble sleeping at night now.  He went back for dinner and then wandered the city randomly as darkness fell, watching drunken men, whores, and thieves replace the merchants and farmers on the streets.  He again put on his blindfold and trinket and pretended to be blind, using his spirit sight to keep an eye on things and also to practice with the ability.  He’d gotten quite adept with it, was starting to make out outlines of clothes, weapons, and other things by the aura of tiny things that lived on them, while he simultaneously both enjoyed and was cursed with the ability to see those around him as they looked without clothes.  It was a boon when looking at the more shapely whores, but a bane when fat, slovenly men staggered past drunkenly.

        Just the punishment that came with the reward, he supposed.

        He came across her deep in the city, at a major intersection of the Tobacco Road with the Stinger Bay Road.  She was seated sedately in the middle of the crossing, tail wrapped around her legs, and it seemed she was simply waiting for him.  He wasn’t entirely happy to see her.  The last time had been traumatic.  But if that fact mattered to her, it didn’t show in the slightest.  She looked directly at him, then nudged her muzzle to her left, motioning at the Stinger Bay Road.

        That was the direction she wanted him to go.

        He nodded to her, and she stood up and approached him.  He wasn’t sure what he should do, back up, hold his ground, or what.  After Avannar, he was a little afraid of her.  But she was his totem, she was still the spirit that had watched over him most of his life, and he had to keep his faith in her, his trust in her.  He couldn’t believe that she enjoyed making him learn those lessons any more than he liked going through it.

        He decided to hold his ground.  It might look strange if he knelt down to her level out here in the middle of the street, since nobody could see her but him.  She reared up on her hind legs and put her front paws on her chest, and in that touch, there was communication.

        She was teaching him another spell!

        The spell she taught him was fire.  It produced a blistering cone of fire, a spell that mimicked the function of a firetube…or a firetube mimicked the function of this spell, either way.

        Strange.  She was a spirit of guile and deceit, yet so far she’d only taught him two spells that really served those roles, the silencing spell and the flash of light.

        Most of my spells require you to maintain them, and you are not ready yet, she communicated to him simply, through that contact.  Your body is not ready.  Continue to practice.  When you are capable of casting maintained spells, then you will learn the magic I wish to teach.

        He remembered that silencing spell, how he had to actively maintain it, and how it continued to channel magic through him while he did.  He hadn’t been able to hold it for very long.

        He nodded to her in understanding, looking down at her, as she looked up at him with her glowing eyes.

        Do as the skunk Shaman asks.  Leave the items from Avannar with him.  He will make effective use of them.

        He nodded again.  She pushed off of him and lowered herself to the ground, then turned and padded away from him.  She seemed to meld with the shadows, and she was gone.

        So, he was going to Stinger Bay.  He wondered what she had to teach him there.

        Trinity, he hoped it wasn’t anything like he’d learned in Avannar.

 

        Kyven left the items in his room when he left the next morning, as he was told.

        And Trinity, not a moment too soon.

        Riyan was all but invaded at dawn by an army of Loreguard.  They marched in after he left the inn and moved on his way, but he was stopped and detained by them along with every other man and woman on the road.  They rounded up anyone moving, anyone at all, then took them to their encampment north of town.  Kyven was a little worried about this, because he had no idea what was going on, right along with everyone else, and he had a much bigger reason to be afraid.  But when he was put in the middle of a field surrounded by Loreguards, he realized that they did not take his weapons, nor anyone else’s.  Men and women wearing Loreguard surcoats were sitting on chairs at little folding tables as they talked to townsmen, and men were pulled from the throng to replace men who were allowed to get up and leave the encampment.  Clearly, the Loreguard was asking questions, and nothing more.  But over what?

        He found out quickly.  He was herded to a small table and told to sit opposite a young, rather pretty woman with blond hair, but she wore a chain hauberk and was carrying both a shockrod and a pair of mahogany-handled pistols.  The woman had high cheekbones, a pert nose, a slightly squared chin, and handsomely sloped eyebrows, with long blond hair tied away from her face with tiny braids that were done at her temples and pulled back, capturing the rest of her hair like a leather thong.  It was hard to get a sense of her figure under that chain jack, but she looked to have nicely proportioned breasts and a slender waist.  She was quite an attractive young woman, older than him but couldn’t be any more than twenty-five, more handsome than pretty and looking quite serious and sober.  But Kyven found her to be very, very attractive.  She put a piece of paper in front of herself on the table and took out a pencil from her surcoat.

        “Name?” she asked bluntly, in a mellow, rich voice.

        “Kyven Steelhammer.”

        “Profession?”

        “Crystalcutter.”

        She gave him a searching look, frowning, then nodded.  She didn’t believer him, but was taking him at his word?  Or did she have some kind of alchemical device that would tell her if he was lying?

        He had to be careful here.

        “Have you been to Avannar within the last week?”

        “I was.”

        “Do you know anything about the murder of four Loreguard?”

        So that’s what this was about.  Kyven weighed his words carefully.  “Know anything?  No.”

        It was true.  He didn’t know anything, he knew everything.  So he gave a correct, truthful answer…given the wording of the question.

        “Have you been approached to buy a shockrod or other alchemical devices in the last three days?”

        “No.”

        “What’s a crystalcutter doing with mining gear?” she asked curiously.

        “I’ve bought out my indentured contract and bought a stake in a shop in my home village, and I did it with money I earned prospecting in my spare time.  But taking over in the shop will pin me in that place for the rest of my life, so before I go spend the rest of my life there, I’m out to see the world.”

        “Ah.  Thank you, you may go.”

        He both couldn’t resist and also wanted to check something.  He stood up and waited for her to look down at her paper and write on it, in some language he’d never seen before, and then he pulled his trinket out of his pocket.  He activated it at the same time as he opened his eyes to the spirits, immediately turned his glowsetting back off, and looked this young lady over.  Now that the table and her clothes were no longer blocking his view, he saw that she was carrying no less than six alchemical devices, including black crystals in her pistols.

        And she had really nice breasts under that chain jack, a slender, sleek waist, and a pert little triangle of pale blond pubic hair.  Too bad she wasn’t in that whorehouse.  She was the first woman he’d seen in quite a while that had produced that kind of response out of him, but she was a Loreguard, and thus was a woman who was out of reach.

        As quickly as he opened his eyes to the spirits, he closed them.  It wasn’t just to ogle the woman, it was to see if they could somehow detect it if he used Shaman powers.  Nobody outside of the Shaman yet knew that a human had Shaman ability, so he was putting the Loreguard to the test in a daring experiment to see if they could detect his powers.

        His question was answered quickly, as one of the devices under the woman’s surcoat suddenly let out a high-pitched whine.  She jumped up and glared at him, a hand going to her pistol, and he staggered back with a feigned surprised look on his face.  “What did you do?” she demanded, drawing her pistol and aiming it at him.

        “Do?  I don’t understand.”

        “You used an alchemy device!”

        “Oh.  Oh!  It’s just this,” he said, holding out the glowsetting.  “It’s hard to tell if I have it turned on in the daytime.  I was just checking it.”

        She snatched it from his hand and inspected it, seeing that it was nothing more than a glowsetting, then gave him a look of disgust and pushed it back at him, then holstered her pistol.

        “You should know better than to use things like this around the Loreguard!”

        “Uh, we don’t have any Loreguard in my village,” he told her.  “Just a Loremaster.  I’m sorry, nobody’s ever told me before.”

        “Move along, citizen,” she grunted, sitting back down.

        It told him much.  The Loreguard could detect Shaman powers, but only when they were actively used.  They also couldn’t distinguish them from when mana crystals were in active use, and he also learned that not all Loreguard carried such devices.  Those four Loreguard he killed certainly hadn’t been carrying them.  They must only be carried and used by officers like her, or Loreguard who had need of them.

        He left the Loreguard camp with no one the wiser that the man they were looking for was slipping through their fingers.  Kyven left with a better understanding of his Loreguard foes…and also left just a little turned on by that sexy Loreguard officer.

        Well, the fox made it clear that she didn’t mind him satisfying those urges.  Hell, she’d sent him to a whorehouse herself.  He’d have to do something about it once he got to Stinger Bay, because he wasn’t too keen on the idea of staying here in Riyan with the Loreguard searching for him.

        He made his way through Riyan, left town on Stinger Bay Road, and then stepped out into a loping run that only a horse could hope to match for any length of time, putting Riyan behind him.  He knew the Loreguard would appear in Stinger Bay as well, but given how long it might take them to go through Riyan, he felt fairly certain that he’d be done with whatever the fox wanted him to do there before the Loreguard caught up with him.

 

        Back in Riyan, the Loreguard officer sat in her chair, not yet calling for a new person to interview.

        Something about that man seemed…well, off.  But he had told the truth, her diviner had not heard a lie.

        He was prospector, but he was in Riyan.  That was possible if he just got off a boat in Stinger Bay and was on his way west…but he’d been in Avannar within the last week.  Why was a prospector going south?  He should be going west, not south, unless he was a stupid prospector.

        He was a crystalcutter, not a prospector.

        Strange, though.  He clearly knew nothing about the attack in Avannar, yet he seemed, well…unusual.  And that little episode with his glowsetting, that seemed, well…staged.

        And the way he looked at her, it was like he was checking her out, was—

        She flushed slightly.  Well, he was cute.

        Maybe she’d try to track him down after she was off duty.

        Well, he was prospecting.  Maybe she’d better make sure he was about when she was off duty.

        “Sergeant,” she called.

        A tall Loreguard hurried over to her and bowed.  “Yes, Captain Pannen?”

        “That man I was talking to.  Find him.”

        “Is he under arrest, ma’am?”

        “No.  I just want to ask him a few more questions, not related to this case.  He’ll be treated with courtesy, sergeant.”

        “Of course, ma’am,” he said with a bow, then he turned and hurried off, barking orders to a quartet of soldiers stationed nearby.

        She returned to her duties, interviewing several more men, but she kept glancing towards the road, looking for the black-haired man with the handsome green eyes to come back.

        But he never did.

        She called the sergeant back to her table after about an hour and asked about her order.  “I still have men looking for him, ma’am, but I think he’s no longer in Riyan.”

        “Well, he did look as if he was detained while getting ready to leave town,” she reasoned.  “He had all his gear with him.  Thank you, Sergeant.”

        He bowed and left, and she stood and considered it a moment.  She was intrigued, she had to admit it to herself.  Kyven Steelhammer, he said his name was.  A crystalcutter, bought into a shop but going on a bit of an adventure before he took up his place there.  A strange happenstance, for they usually had their adventure to try to find money to buy into the shop after they finished their indentured service, so these circumstances were unusual.  That would make him fairly easy to track down, at least in the records.  The Guild of Crystalcutters would have him in their rolls, would tell her exactly which shop he worked at, since they’d have him listed as one of their artisans.  So, she’d know where to find him once he finished his adventure and returned to his shop.

        There was something teasing her about that man, and it wasn’t just his sleek, handsome body and handsome face.  It was the way he looked at her.  She’d glanced up and caught him…ogling her.  She was actually used to that, since she was a passingly handsome woman and her work kept her in shape.  But there was something strange about it.  She’s not gotten more than the barest of glances, but his eyes were, well…strange.  Captivating, but strange.  The sunlight was in his face, making his skin glow and all but illuminating his eyes—

        Eyes!

        She gasped.  His eyes had been glowing!

        That was what was strange about it!  She remembered it quite clearly now!  It was just the briefest of glances, and the sun in his face made it very, very hard to see, but she was a detective, an investigator for the criminal investigation office of the Loreguard, and she was trained to notice small details.  He owned an alchemical device the likes of which she’d never seen before, something that made his eyes glow like that, and he’d used it when she wasn’t paying attention to him, using it to…what?  Look at her?  Check her out?  His eyes hadn’t been on her face, that was for sure.  He was looking down, looking at her chest.

        He was ogling her.

        Well, not that that didn’t flatter her a little bit, but it was still just damn strange.  What did that device do?  Who had built it?  It wasn’t illegal to own alchemical devices of unusual or non-standard design, but the Loreguard liked to know what was out there, how it worked, and who built it.

        Now she was very curious.  She’d never heard of an alchemical device that one could hold in the hand that affected the eyes.  There were special goggles that could let one see in the dark that were alchemical, but they had to be worn over the eyes.  Whoever had built it had to be a genius of an alchemist.

        Avannar.  He had to get that in Avannar.  She looked over the scene again in her mind, with her unique ability to recall what she’d seen recently in great detail, a trick of memory that she could use on any memory that was less than a day old.  She focused on his hand, and saw that the device had been brilliantly, almost immaculately clean, and had no scratches or mars that came when one had owned a device and carried it around with him for weeks and months.  That thing was new, and he’d been to Avannar, a place famous all over the world for the advancement of its alchemists.  Someone in Avannar had built that thing, and not told the Loreguard, was selling it under the table.

        She had no idea what it did, but now it was going a little beyond curious and was becoming a matter of honest interest to the Loreguard.  She needed to find out what that device did, and who had made it for him.

        And in the course of her investigation, surely, she’d learn more about that mysterious man.

        She turned over his report form and began to sketch him.  Danna was an accomplished artist, it was her other true skill outside of being a very good investigator, and she often used it to earn extra money by selling her drawings and paintings.  She could have been a professional artist, like her parents, but she was more interested in investigating, learning the answers to things, than she was drawing and painting.  Her eidetic memory, coupled to her natural artistic talent, gave her the ability to reproduce amazingly detailed scenes and the faces of people on paper.  That combination of talents was of use to her now, as she put down on paper an amazingly detailed drawing of the face and body that was still fresh in her mind, and would serve to keep that memory fresh by allowing her to look at it whenever she wished.

        “We are working, Captain,” her commanding officer said with a mildly amused tone, coming over to her table, who had no citizen at it for her to question.

        “This is work, Major,” she answered.  “I have reason to believe this man has a unique alchemical device.  After we complete this investigation, I’m going to look into it and see who made it for him.”

        “Ah.  Carry on, then.”

        She’d look into it, alright.  Then, when she found it, and found him, she’d use it to ogle him and see how he liked it.

       

        Stinger Bay was a hundred and thirty minars from Riyan, which was a distance that Kyven traversed in a little under three days of constant steady running.  The fox had told him to practice, but he was afraid to slow down enough to do that with the Loreguard behind him, afraid that they’d catch up to him, so he instead worked to increase his endurance by pushing himself to reach Stinger Bay in three days.  It was going to take them a day or two to finish in Riyan, and then they had to march to Stinger Bay, so that gave him a few days at least to figure out what he had to do there and move on before the Loreguard reached the port city.  They’d also be slowed down a little by stopping in the villages that Kyven had went through, which made him confident he’d leave them far behind.

        Stinger Bay got its name because of the jellyfish. They drifted in on the tides and got caught in the Great Blue Bay, named for the blue crabs for which the bay was famous, until they were all but everywhere in the water during some times of the year.  It was said that during high tide in the spring, one couldn’t fall into the water and get out without at least ten stings from jellyfish.

        Stinger Bay was a port city, and its entire focus was based on the ships that came and went from its natural harbor.  Wooden sloops, caravels, galleons, clippers, and schooners shared space with military ironclads, hulking metal behemoths that moved by means of alchemy engines that turned propellers under the water, designs that were said to be recovered from the Great Ancient Civilization itself.  The military ships looked like floating narrow villages, steel platform on which little buildings reached higher, its sides made metal plates which were welded together using alchemical welding machines, and then painted over to protect the metal from the corrosive effects of salt water.  Metal naval ships were absolutely essential in the modern world, given that the enemy ships would be armed with cannons and alchemical weaponry that could burn the ship, serving both as armor against cannonballs and presenting a hull that alchemical firecone projectors couldn’t burn.  The lack of sails protected the ship from being crippled by grappling shots fired from cannons or fire.  The metal hull also reduced the effectiveness of shockrods, he’d heard from rumor, the metal interfering with the path of the lightning and making it very hard to aim them.

        Stinger Bay and Avannar were the main ports for trade in the Free Territories.  Avannar’s docks served the northern territories, and Stinger Bay served the south.  The docks here moved goods and freight from all over the world, sending it down the Riyan Road and out into the Free Territories, but the main staple commodity that moved in and out of the city was tobacco, loading it on ships and sending it out to the rest of Noraam, and the world.  Other goods were bought, sold, and traded in Stinger Bay, but here, tobacco was king, just as much as cotton was said to be king in the southern kingdoms of Noraam.

        Kyven stood on a very gentle rise overlooking Stinger Bay.  It was a sprawling city with no wall, dominated by huge warehouses, between which smaller houses, shops, and businesses were squeezed, with all of its streets wide and spacious to accommodate wagons passing each other side by side.  It had to be twice as big as Avannar, but had far fewer buildings, and it looked much different than the old, packed streets of Old Avannar.  Even from there, he could smell the tobacco.  Most of those warehouses down there were filled with either loose leaf tobacco or barrels of pipe tobacco, the results of the first round of harvests of the growing season.

        He wondered what he was doing here.  He jogged down to the outskirts of the city, weaving in and out among wagons and carriages and horses, one of the few foot travelers.  He walked down a cobblestone street once he entered the city, lined with cast iron lamps, and a look up at one of them gave him a start when he recognized the stamp of Virren’s shop on one of them!

        It shouldn’t be a surprise.  Atan was a craft village, devoted to the mining and refinement of crystals and the production of the devices that used them.  The cutters were there because of the mines, and the alchemists were there because of the cutters…and most of the things they made were bought by merchants and shipped out of the village.  Avannar too had many alchemists, but they paid more for the crystals than the Atan alchemists did because they had to pay the increased prices levied by the merchants that brought them from the mines.  There were alchemists in almost every town and village, and usually at least one crystalcutter’s shop, if only to have someone there to replace crystals in devices once the crystals in them were used up.  But Atan was a production village, where alchemists produced quite a few items, far more than could be used by the village itself.  There were probably devices made in Atan in just about every city in the Free Territories.

        There was one thing he did want to do first, though.  He got directions to the office of the Crystalcutter’s Guild and went there, then filled out a message and asked them to forward it to Atan.  It was a letter to Holm, apologizing for not keeping more stable communications, telling him that he was fine and that he was in Stinger Bay to maybe try out sailing as Holm had done, since he’d not done very well at prospecting.   He didn’t know if that was what the fox wanted, but he was in a port city and not out in the hills prospecting, so he had to give Holm some kind of viable reason why he’d be there.

        That done, he explored the city of Stinger Bay.  It was dominated completely by the tobacco trade and sailing, with warehouses, warehouses, and more warehouses, between which were squeezed shops and homes.  The wealthy merchants lived on the west side of town, away from the harbor, while the area around the harbor was coated with inns, festhalls, and other businesses that looked to glean chits from the sailors who made port here.  Some businesses supported maintaining the ships, and the rest supported the citizens with their daily needs.  The streets were very wide and paved with cobblestones and bricks, where wagons moved back and forth between warehouses and the harbor.  The place was pretty crowded, with lots of merchants and citizens on the west side, and a large majority of sailing men to the east.  The Stinger Bay Watch moved in units of six men, armed with black clubs that Kyven identified as stunsticks, black metal rods that were alchemical devices that stunned the men they hit and immediately incapacitated them, no matter where they were struck by the rod.  A glancing blow on the finger rendered a man senseless.  They were non-lethal but highly effective.

        It said something more to him that the Watch in another city carried non-lethal weapons, but the Loreguard carried lethal weapons when they patrolled Avannar.

        Here, as in other cities, there were Arcans.  They rode in wagons with humans, scurried along on the streets both with people and alone, and all of them were wearing collars, but strangely, none of them were wearing clothes.  Not a single Arcan anywhere, not even the males whom many at the very least gave pants because, unlike females, the fur didn’t hide their genitals.  Well, it didn’t hide female genitals either, but at least a female had to spread her legs to show someone, where a male just had to be facing forward.

        Again, Kyven avoided the seedier side of town, but his money was starting to run low.  But it was worth the cost in his eyes to avoid having to worry about defending his possessions.  He chose a small, modest inn sandwiched between to warehouses, an inn that had no stable, which was named The Hideaway…and it was exactly that, not easily seen from the street.  The innkeeper was a surprisingly young man with brown hair and a scar on his cheek, and two fingers missing from his right hand.  He had two barmaids employed, and owned two identical-looking female canine Arcans, with gray fur and short, thick hair of the same color curled around their ears and head.  They, like all other Arcans he’d seen in Stinger Bay, were naked.  They weren’t even wearing aprons.

        “Rooms are three chits a night, with food extra,” the innkeeper told him.  “My rooms are clean, and what you do in it is your own affair just so long as you leave it in the same condition as you found it.”

        “Fair enough,” he said with a nod, fishing enough to stay for three days out of his increasingly lighter and lighter purse.  Soon, he’d have to either find work or find some way to get some money.  “This is my first time here, so answer me a question.”

        “Sure.”

        “Why are all the Arcans here naked?”

        “City law,” he answered.  “Dates back to back when Stinger Bay was the main Arcan trading city.  Arcans kept escaping from the ships and pens and putting on clothes to hide their necks and manacles, so the city outlawed all clothing on all Arcans.  Well, the hub of the Arcan trade moved down to Rellah, but there’s still a few Arcan trading operations in town, and the old law remains cause we’re all basically used to it around here.”

        “Oh.  Guess that explains it.”

        “I don’t see why people put clothes on Arcans in the first place,” he snorted.

        “Where I come from, it’s the practice to keep male Arcans in pants,” Kyven noted.  “Because they look like people, and the women find the idea of looking at something that looks like what they’d see on people to be scandalous.”

        The man snorted.  “Foolishness,” he growled.  “Why don’t they make their dogs go around wearing clothes, then?  God forbid they see a dog’s balls. It amounts to the same thing.”

        Kyven chuckled.  “Guess it’s a matter of perspective.”

        “Where are you from, anyway?”

        “Atan.”

        “Atan?  That’s a mining village.  I figured it’d be more rough and tumble and not so stuck up.”

        Kyven laughed.  “Well, we have a lot of craftsmen there, too, so the wives like to keep some semblance of proper society about town.  But go up Miner’s Road, out of sight of the women in the village, and the culture deteriorates rapidly.”

        The innkeeper chuckled.  “Good.  This ain’t no prim and proper place. Like I said, what you do in your room ain’t no concern of mine so long as you leave it the same way you found it.  What happens in the common room also ain’t my business unless you start breaking stuff.”

        “Doesn’t that kind of policy cause problems when the patrons paw your barmaids?” he asked with a slight smile.

        “Go grab their asses and see what they do,” he said with a rough chuckle.  “They’ll either tell you to grab harder or hit you with their serving trays.  Learning which does which is half the fun of it.”  He handed Kyven a key.  “Oh, and the Arcans bite.”

        “I’m sure I wouldn’t be grabbing them.”

        “Well, some men do.  Sick fucks,” he growled.  “May as well go fuck a sheep as fuck an Arcan.  First door on the left upstairs, fella.”

        “Thank you.”

        She was in his room, waiting for him.  He started when he saw her on the bed in the surprisingly large, clean, and well appointed room, with a bureau, washstand, foot chest, wardrobe, and fairly large bed.  All this for three chits a night?  It seemed that he’d finally gotten some good luck in inns.  The shadow fox sat on his bed, not in her usual pose, but instead hunkered down on her legs, laying down with her legs all tucked up under her and her tail swishing back and forth on the bed behind her.  It seemed strange to see her so, almost…informal.  She was relaxing, not her usual self.  He wasn’t quite sure what to do about it, how to approach her.

        He let her initiate things, as she always did.  And she didn’t disappoint, raising her head and looking at him.  To the left of her, another of those magical illusions appeared.  It was a large clipper ship, with its four masts and spiderweb of rigging, its sails down and water spraying around its bow as it cut the waves.  This ship was sailing, on the move, not anchored in the harbor.  She beckoned to him with her muzzle, and he approached her.  She bowed her head meaningfully.  What did that mean?  Did she want him to touch her?  He’d never done that before.  She was the one that always initiated contact with him, but it was fairly clear to him what she wanted of him.  He reached out with a tentative hand, and then touched his fingers to the fur on the top of her head, between her ears.  In that touch there was communion, and she seemed to communicate her instructions to him.  This ship will arrive this afternoon, and intends to leave in three days.  You will leave upon it.

        “Where is it going?”

        Where it goes is irrelevant.  That you sail upon it is what matters.

        “I understand.  I’m almost out of money.  How do I do this?  I don’t think I can buy passage.”

         How you do it is your own affair.  Consider it a test, my human.  You will be on that ship when it leaves in three days.  Find a way.

        “I will.”

        She pushed her head against his hands, her ears twitching.  Not knowing what else to do, he scratched at her fur, and found it warm, tingly, soft, and almost luxuriantly thick.  It was the first time he’d ever touched her, and the first time he’d ever even thought of it.  He stroked her fur tentatively, running his hand down the back of her neck, felt the muscle beneath it.  Though she was a spirit, she seemed to feel like a real animal, complete with muscles and warmth.  He looked down at her, looked carefully, and could see the individual hairs in her coat, saw the black fur of her feet which were usually concealed by her tail when she was seated…and saw she had claws, almost like a cat.  They were long, curved, and sharp, but not retracted the way a cat’s would be, since her paws looked more canine than feline.  She had put those paws on his shoulders and chest before, but had never noticed them.

        A gray fox.  She was a gray fox, or at least patterned to look like one, but with different coloration, the same way silver foxes were just red foxes with different coloration.  Gray foxes were great climbers, easily able to climb trees, and with claws like that, he could see why.

        Observant.  But incorrect.

        “I’m sorry—“

        I would be a poor totem to punish you for curiosity, given I consider it to be an admirable trait, she communicated with light amusement.  Do not assign such traits to the spirits.  We appear as we wish to appear.  I am the spirit of the shadow fox, and it was by my will that the shadow foxes came to be in the world.

        “I’ve never heard of them.”

        They are there.  They hide, for your kind would call them monsters.  They shun most areas settled by humans, but there are some few who live near Atan.

        Monsters.  Animals touched by the power of the crystals and changed, mutated.  Some were benign, like the Taurons that had mutated from cows and were becoming more popular as a staple livestock.  Some ranchers were starting to favor them over normal cattle, because of very mild dispositions which made them very easy to handle, but they required more food and water because they were about twice the size of the average cow, which required vast amounts of grazing land to support a herd of Tauron.  There were no Tauron around Atan, but the ranchers at Chardon herded Tauron in addition to regular cattle.

        Some monsters, however, were very dangerous and had crystal-based abilities.  They ate crystals and used them to power their abilities, which made them a double scourge.  Not only were they dangerous, but they consumed the most precious natural resource to the human world.

        Your people have never seen one of my children, she added lightly.  They have the power to meld with the shadows, making them invisible in the night.  That is how they hunt.

        “A sensible way to go about it,” he noted.  “Do they eat crystals?”

        No.  They absorb the energy to grant them that power from the spirit world.  It is a minor power and does not require so much energy as a crystal holds to enact.  It is for them the same as spirit sight is for you, a passive ability.

        “Ah.  I understand.  Does that make you a powerful spirit?  I mean, you created your own breed of fox.”

        She seemed amused.  Again, do not assign such things to the spirits.  Such an observation would be extremely offensive to some.  We do not measure ourselves against one another in such ways.  We all merely are.

        “Ouch.  Thank you for telling me that before I really embarrassed myself.  I will treat all spirits with equal respect, except for you.  You are my totem, I must be especially respectful to you.”

        And thus do you gain wisdom, she intoned lightly.  And the gaining of wisdom must be rewarded.

        She taught him a new spell.  It was a simple spell that was the opposite of the cone of fire, a spell that generated an intense blast of cold.  Or, if used very lightly, it could chill water and make it delightful to drink.  It was a spell that had uses both in and out of combat.

        A spell such as that might be useful to you on a boat, she communicated to him quite seriously, which made him take notice of it.  If there was ever a flat warning, that was it.

        “I understand.”

        She slid out from under his hand, then jumped down onto the floor.  She looked back up at him, her eyes sober, then walked directly through the wall and was gone.

        Well, he knew why he was here now.  He was here to catch a boat.

        He considered his options.  He had no idea what kind of ship it was or what it did, but odds were, if he tried to buy passage on it, they’d do it.  So, his most obvious option was to earn money.

        Earn.  As much as he’d need, steal was a more correct term.  Such an act wouldn’t be seen as a bad thing to the fox, since she was a spirit of guile and deceit.  If Kyven could steal the money he needed, she wouldn’t care.  If he could do it, it was actually a testament of his ability to use guile and deceit.

        He considered the options.  He’d need hard currency, and a lot of it.  That was high risk, meaning he’d have to go after—

        No.  It was very simple.  A shockrod was worth quite a bit of money, as were most alchemical devices, because of both the device and the crystal it contained.  The Loreguard had plenty of them, and they had to have some Loreguard here.  The Loreguard was his enemy.  He just needed to waylay a Loreguard and strip him of his alchemical devices, pull the crystals, and sell them.  If he felt comfortable selling the items themselves, he could also sell those, provided he could find buyers that didn’t care that they’d been stolen from the Loreguard.

        Actually, it was even simpler.  The fox wanted him to show wisdom, and wisdom was not flying off the handle.  Yes, plan for eventualities, but the wise man would investigate the ship first, then decide how to go about getting on it.

        So, planning for eventualities, Kyven left the inn and investigated the city.  He found that there were indeed Loreguard stationed in the city, and after blindfolding himself, he investigated the building using spirit sight.  He saw quite a few crystals inside, including a large concentration of them in a room in the cellar.  He saw about twenty men and women inside, some laying down, some sitting down, some on the move, but he only saw six standing in what looked like guard positions.  That may change at night, when there was a greater threat of robbery…if they believed anyone was crazy enough to steal from the Loreguard.

        That was exactly why it was such an inviting target.  People were either too afraid or too respectful of the Loreguard to try it.

        Kyven leaned against the wall of the warehouse facing the Loreguard building and concentrated.  He could see the people, but he needed to be able to see the layout.  He focused on the faint borders and patterns, and then, to his surprise, a ghostly kind of layout began to emerge to his eyes, which then almost immediately seemed to dim.  That surprised him, so he shook his head and tried again, tried to focus on the non-living, trying to see what the wolf said he could see.  Again, he started just making out hazy, shadowy textures, and then everything seemed to darken, blank out.

        The blindfold!  Of course!  If he was trying to see the non-living, then the blindfold would interfere with it since it was a non-living thing covering his eyes!

        That put a damper on the idea of seeing the non-living, at least for now.  So instead, he focused completely on the ghostly borders that were the microscopic living thing that lived on the walls, and thereby betrayed the layout of the building.  By carefully peering at sections of the building, he was able to get an idea of the layout of the place.  He could see that the guards were positioned in strategic intersections that made it impossible to get between major sections of the building without having to go past them.  And to get to that concentration of crystals in the basement, he’d have to get past all three stations of guards.

        Very well done, he had to admit.  Maximum use of minimal resources.

        By the time he was done casing the Loreguard barracks and went down to the harbor, he saw the ship.  It was already docked, but it was definitely the ship, he recognized its dark paint and the flag of Flaur that he’d seen on the mast.

        A Flauren clipper, and to his shock, when he reached the quay, he saw what it was carrying.

        Arcans.

        It was an Arcan trader.  A long line of naked Arcans of multiple breeds, all chained together by the ankle, was being marched off the gangplank under the watchful eyes of several sailors who were holding alchemical devices he’d never seen before, long, red, cane-like devices that had a thick handle.  The Arcans didn’t resist, however.  They marched along at a slow, despondent pace up the quay, and then they stopped when commanded and were traded off to a group of men who threw a rope coil over the head of the lead Arcan and dragged him along as they went into the city.

        The procession went right by Kyven. The Arcans didn’t look anywhere, just kept their heads down with numb, resigned expressions on their faces.  No doubt they’d all done this before.

        Such was the lot of a slave.

        Kyven watched as three more chained groups of Arcans were brought out of the ship, and then were marched into the hands of the men at the docks and then marched away.  Two men from the ship talked with one of the men from the group that took the Arcans, a few papers were signed, and then a heavily guarded wagon came up to the ship on the dock and transferred a chest up onto the ship.

        The payment.

        From his vantage point near a hawker’s platform, Kyven observed the ship and its crew.  It had thirty-six men crewing the ship, twenty-nine sailors and seven officers.  Kyven memorized the faces of every single sailor and officer as they did tasks aboard the ship for nearly three hours after arriving.  As the sun began to set, the sailors scattered into the city to begin their shore leave, and Kyven took off his blindfold and went off after them.

        He had to learn what was going on and how to go about this, but talking directly to the officers may not be the best way.  If he asked for passage and was denied, then he’d have to figure out how to explain how he ended up on the ship when it left port.  No, it was best to learn from the sailors, and sailors, like all men, were very talkative when they were drunk.

        It was time for guile and deceit.

        Kyven tracked down men from the ship in the nearer taverns, then began.  He put on a friendly face and struck up conversations with them, got them chatty, and bought them round after round of drinks.  His purse emptied out quickly over the night as he plied four men from the ship with drink, and got them nice and talkative.

        “I’ve always thought about trying out sailing,” Kyven said with feigned disjunction, acting much drunker than he was, since he’d only had one tankard of ale.  “What’s it like on your ship?”

        “Easy, easy!” one of them, Karl, laughed.  “We’re an Arcan runner, my friend, we ship Arcans where they’re needed.  We just brought up miners and farmers for the Free Territories, and we’re taking back breeders for the Arcan breedpens in Alamar.”

        “Strange lot, those breeders,” the smallest of them laughed. “Why do they breed what you can catch in the wild with enough patience?”

        “Cause bred Arcans are smarter than wild ones,” the third sailor snorted.  “Remember when we ran that pack of wild Arcans to Cheston?  Shee-boy, what a mess!  Blood everywhere.  It took us a week to clean out the pens!”

        “Wha-what happened?”  Kyven asked.

        “Why, wild Arcans’ll fight each other, friend,” the fourth man said urbanely.  “Makes for a bit of sport, usually, but it’s not quite so much fun when you have to clean up after them.”

        “What would they want wild Arcans for in Cheston?” Kyven asked.

        “The Pens, boy, the Pens,” Karl grinned.  “Cheston’s where the Pens are!”

        “What is that?”

        “An Arcan fighting arena,” the urbane one answered.  “They find big, wild Arcans and have them fight each other for the audience.”

        “That doesn’t sound like anything I’d ever watch,” Kyven said honestly.  “Then again, I don’t much see the sport in dogfighting or cockfighting either.”

        “You’re just a softie, friend,” the tall one grinned at him.

        “So, anyway, I want to learn sailing, and you guys are—are my friends,” he hiccupped, “mebbe you can put a word in for me on a ship somewhere!”

        “Too bad you can’t crew with us, mate,” the urbane one sighed.  “But we’re overmanned as it is.  Usually Demond isn’t too picky about his crew.  After all, look at these three,” he snorted, motioning at the other three, which made them laugh.

        “Maybe—Maybe I could buy passage on your ship and just watch you guys and learn, then try to get hired on with another ship—ship—ship when we get there.”

        “Demond won’t take boarders because of the Arcans,” the urbane one told him.  “He used to, but his passenger wandered down into the hold and got himself killed by the Arcans.  Gods, Demond had a fit.  Killed the whole cage of ‘em and we all lost money cause we didn’t deliver the quota,” he growled.

        “Bad luck, friend,” Kyven slurred.

        As the four men, Kyven dropped his head on the table and feigned being passed out, but he actually was thinking furiously.  Alright, so, he couldn’t buy passage, and the ship was overmanned.  That meant that he wouldn’t be able to get hired on as a deckhand.

        How was he to get on the ship, if the captain wouldn’t take passengers, and the ship already had a full crew?

        Simple.  Remove the competition.  The captain would hire new deckhands if he didn’t have enough men to crew his ship when it came time to sail.

        And that was the test, he saw.  The fox was teaching him about the cruelties of the world.  Well, in this case, he wouldn’t be learning about the cruelty, he would be dishing it out.  There were too many men in his way for him to get on that ship, so the only choice he had was to get rid of the men standing in his path to his objective.

        By any means necessary.

        He understood her lesson.  Sometimes, ruthlessness was required to accomplish a goal, and now he had to prove that he could be ruthless.  He had to either kill or incapacitate enough men to force the captain to hire new hands.

        Did he feel remorseful about it?  Actually, not particularly.  Months of killing for his food, and the lessons he’d already learned, taught him that death was sometimes the result of conflict, be it the conflict of hunter and hunted or the conflict of evil and innocence.  These men were basically slavers, and showed little remorse or pity for the Arcans they transported.  He found he would have little trouble giving to them what they gave to others.

        He could kill them.

        And he would have to start with the four men at his table.  They’d talked to him, and if they remembered that he said he wanted to crew their ship, they might point fingers at him when their crewmates started to die.

        And so, for the second time in his life, he sat there and plotted out premeditated murder.  It wasn’t the angry reaction to the brutality of the woman Bella, it was a cold, calculated plan to eliminate enough men to allow him to accomplish the task which his totem had given him.

        That was the lesson.  To be able to act in an evil manner if it was necessary, but not lose sight of the goal, and not lose his humanity.  The fox said that life was cruel, and that sometimes, there was no correct answer that made everything have a happy ending.  Well, this was one of those times.  In order for him to accomplish his objective, he had to kill.

        So be it.

 

        Kyven was an intelligent man.  He understood his objective, and hoped that he did the fox proud in his approach to the problem.

        The problem was that there were too many man manning the ship he needed to board, and he could board it no way other than to serve as a crewman.  The solution was to eliminate them so the captain had to hire more men to crew his ship, and wouldn’t necessarily be picky.

        The objective was simple enough, but the execution of that plan was what was both simple yet cunning.  Kyven would have to compete with men who had experience when the captain went looking for new crewmen to man the ship, but he knew that sailors were superstitious men, so he engaged in a war on terror.  The deaths of the men themselves would be easy enough to do, but he knew that he had to kill as many as he could on the first night, for they’d be too afraid to leave the ship once they realized how many of them had died.  The simple yet cunning part of his plan was to draw the fleur-de-lis in blood on the body of each victim.  The fleur-de-lis was the symbol of Nurys, the city at the mouth of the Great River far soutwest of where they were, which was an old, bitter rival of Flaur.  By making the attacks look like some old bitter feud between Flaur and Nurys, it would frighten men from wanting to hire on to the ship—or any Flauren ship in port, for that matter—fearing that they’d be next.  By scaring the sailors away from Flauren ships, Kyven greatly increased his chances of getting on board that clipper.

        It was simple.  It was devious.

        It was effective.

        That night, under cover of darkness and using spirit sight to stalk the men, Kyven killed twelve of the ship’s crew, starting with the four men he’d used to get information.  He simply ambushed them after they left the tavern and entered a stretch of street where he knew there was nobody near or looking—easy to see since he could see through walls—and killed them, one by one, with his throwing daggers.  They didn’t even notice when the tallest one dropped dead to the cobblestones.  The other two did notice when the short one toppled over, but they joked that he was too much of a lightweight to hold his grog.  When the third one went down with a dagger through his eye, the last one gasped and staggered off in a drunken version of a run, but he barely got ten paces before a dagger in the back of his neck dropped him like a poleaxed cow.

        And now Kyven was a mass murderer.  But it had to be done.

        He moved quickly, collecting his daggers, then cutting their throats and drawing the fleur-de-lis in blood on the chests of all four men, then he slinked back into the night.  He tracked down eight more members of their crew over the night, since he knew all their faces, and executed them in a similar manner.  He ambushed them in desolate stretches of street, when nobody was nearby, killing them with his daggers with expert throws that made death virtually instantaneous and silenced any potential screams.  Two of them he caught along, but the other eight had been in groups of two or three, moving about for mutual self defense out of habit, but not knowing that they’d been singled out for execution.

        Kyven returned to his room in the morning, tired, emotionally drained, but resolute.  He had killed twelve men, men he did not know, but men who stood between him and his goal.  He felt…evil in a way, but he also had been hardened and prepared for this by the fox, who had shown him that sometimes, brutality was necessary to accomplish an important task, and that sometimes there was no happy ending for the innocent.  He felt a little empty inside, feeling that he had done something beyond redemption, but that ended the instant the fox visited him.  She walked in through the wall and sat down by the bed as he undressed to get some sleep, and simply nodded to him gravely.  She then rose up and put her paws on his bare legs, and taught him a new spell…and that proved to him that she felt he had gained wisdom from his actions.

        It was a healing spell!  She taught him a spell that instantly eradicated diseases in the person he touched, and it could even cure the Touch!  And he could use it on himself!

        What a useful spell!

        It was itself a lesson, he realized.  She had told him to kill, now she was teaching him spells to cure.  She was showing him the light at the end of the tunnel, and that all of her lessons wouldn’t be about death.

        The effect was immediate and dramatic.  News of the murders spread through the entire city by sunrise, and it had the effect that Kyven intended.  The Flauren ship’s crew was terrified to come off the ship, as was the crews of every other Flauren vessel, and word in the taverns near the docks was that people were afraid to be next.  When the ship’s captain came off the ship and got up on the hawker’s platform and shouted that he had four openings on his crew, there was nothing but dark muttering and whispering.

        Kyven was ready, though.  He was standing on the quay leading to his ship, and stopped the man, a tall man with graying blond hair and dark, weathered skin.  He had brown eyes, large and clear, and a missing front tooth.  “If you’re willing to take on someone who’s never sailed before, I’m interested.”

        “Why would I do that?”

        “Because I can work every man you have to death if they try to keep up with me,” he replied simply.  “I’m not afraid of heights, I have fast hands, I learn quickly, and I absolutely guarantee you I’m in better shape than any man in your crew.”

        “Be that as it may, I’m not taking on someone I have to train,” he said bluntly, then filed past towards his ship.

        Oh yes you will, Kyven thought simply.  When nobody will hire on with you.

        That didn’t require any additional murders, thankfully, but it did take some work.  That next night, since the place was in an uproar and watchmen and Loreguard were everywhere, Kyven opted to simply stir the pot.  A little of his own blood formed fleur-de-lis painted on doors and walls around the docks kept them all in a tizzy.

        By noon the second day, nobody would even set foot on the same dock as the Flauren ship.  Nobody but Kyven, anyway.  He again tried to talk a position out of the captain, and was again rebuffed in favor of experienced sailors.

        Another night of pot stirring basically sealed the deal.  The entire city was in an uproar by morning, as fleur-de-lis were found painted in blood all over the city.

        It would have killed Kyven to put that much of his own blood up, but a bucket of cow’s blood worked just as well.

        Kyven placed himself in one of the taverns that morning, and when the captain again tried to recruit sailors, pleading with them that the ship was leaving that day and they’d be safe, nobody took him up on it.  Kyven said nothing, just looked at him as he went out, and then Kyven finished his ale, paid his last chits for it, picked up his pack, and then headed out of the inn.  He didn’t follow the captain, he instead went out to the dock, leaned against a post, and waited.

        She was there.  He looked down the dock, and she was sitting there, not five rods from him, tail wrapped sedately around her legs.  She gave him a single nod, a knowing look, and then the shadows seemed to rise up from the quay and melt her into nothingness.

        Clearly, she approved.

        The captain returned about two hours later, storming back to the ship with only his own officer with him.  He stalked past Kyven, then slowed to a stop, sighed, and turned around.  “You receive no pay,” he said.  “We will feed you and teach you to sail, but you receive no pay.”

        “Done,” he said simply as he picked up his pack and approached the captain, then went past him.  “You won’t be disappointed.  I don’t scare easily.”

        The captain gave him a strange look, but said nothing.

 

        The name of the ship was Veyonne, which meant lovely in Flauren.  It now had only seventeen men manning it, six officers, the captain, and Kyven himself.

        It was a slaver.  It smelled of Arcans, the smell had permeated the ship, and the ship was specifically designed for it.  The deck of the clipper was perforated with multiple holes, and under it were lines of large cages on two sides of an aisle, where the Arcans were kept.  The only cargo the ship could hold was food, but not much.  The Arcans they’d carry would basically be starved during the trip, relying on the Arcan endurance to hold them over until they reached land.  It freed up even more cargo space to carry more Arcans, and the lack of food made the Arcans much less likely to rebel, revolt or otherwise cause trouble.  They would barely have more than a mouthful a day until they reached their destination…unless an Arcan died during the trip.  Then they would skin and butcher the dead, keep the pelt, and feed the meat to the other Arcans.

        Much of the food for Arcans almost anywhere was the Arcans themselves.  Tame Arcans had eaten the flesh of their own many times in their lives, for that was what they did with the meat of the dead.  It was cheap, most humans wouldn’t touch it, and it was used either as food for other Arcans and pets like dogs and cats, or as fertilizer.

        It was a delicate balancing act for an Arcan slaver, Kyven had been told.  They had to keep them hungry, starving, to keep them weak, but not starve them so much that they’d kill and eat each other.  When the Arcans were packed into the ship, they’d be carefully sorted by size, to keep large Arcans out of the same cages as small Arcans to prevent them killing each other and costing the ship money.

        Kyven was given a hammock below decks, in the small hold off the Arcan pens and introduced to the crew and the officers.  That introduction was quick and to the point.  “This is the only man brave enough to sign on,” the captain announced on deck.  “He has no experience sailing.  He boasts he can work any man on this ship to death,” the captain said with a snort.  “Be sure to show him how wrong he is.”

        Clearly, the captain was annoyed enough to put Kyven on a bad foot forward with the rest of the crew.

        The second officer was a tall, swarthy Flauren with a very bad temper, and took to ordering Kyven around and being generally as obnoxious as possible from the onset.  He was put to work sweeping out the pens to prepare them for the next load of Arcans, which Kyven performed quickly and efficiently.  The second mate stormed down and gave the place a thorough inspection, and could find nothing to scream about, so he ordered Kyven up to the deck to perform any number of simple menial tasks, from coiling rope to moving water barrels.  The other sailors were doing no work, lounging on the deck and basically chattering at each other in Flauren, which Kyven couldn’t speak.

        He ignored them.  He was where the fox wanted him to be, on the ship, no doubt so he could move on to his next lesson.

        Then the Arcans arrived.

        There were a lot of them. All of them were female, of every breed Kyven had ever seen before except for skunks, brought in on long chained lines.  They were like the ones Kyven had seen taken off the ship, defeated and numb, with hopeless expressions of ones who saw no other possibilities in life.  They offered no resistance to the humans carrying those strange red rods, which, after Kyven dared a second of spirit sight, saw were definitely alchemical.  The crystals that powered them were embedded in the bases.  Chained group after group were brought in, and Kyven was tasked to help one of the sailors take one of the groups down into the hold.  He followed the other sailor as the first mate had them unchained, then separated them by size and had them push them into cages, about fifteen per cage.  Kyven was careful not to show any emotion or favoritism, handling them with indifference, which the first mate seemed to notice and approve of with a single nod.

        He was tasked to escort another group down, then another, and then the last group, and while he was stowing the chain that had kept them all bound, he glanced their tally sheet.  He couldn’t read Flauren, but Flaurens used the same number symbols as they did, so he saw that they had nearly three hundred Arcans stuffed into those cages.

        “You,” the captain said.  “Are the lowest man on the ship, so these animals are your duty,” he said.  “In addition to your normal duties, you will clean their cages and water them twice a day.  You said you could work my men to death, so let’s see how much you enjoy that boast,” he said with a cold smile.

        “As you command, captain,” he answered calmly.  “I don’t boast or brag, sir.  I told you what I’m capable of doing, and I’ll back up my words.  I’ll take any man you put up against me, and I’ll run him into the ground.  If he dies, that’s your fault.”

        “I’m almost willing to take you up on that bet, Freelander,” the first mate laughed.

        “I’ll keep this hold as clean as it is right now, sir,” Kyven told them simply.  “Because that’s what you hired me to do.”

        The captain gave him a look, then spoke to his first mate and left.

        “The cleaning supplies are hanging on the far wall,” the first mate told him.  “How you handle them when you clean the cages is your affair, but you must clean the cages at least once a day.  They get watered twice a day, at sunrise and at sunset.  The water for them is in the hold at the far end of the cages.  That water has to last them until we reach Chedon to resupply, which is six days.  Stretch it however you see fit.”

        Kyven nodded, and the man headed for the stairs.  “Oh, and one more thing.  Usually the man in charge of the Arcans is docked for every Arcan that dies on the trip.  But, since you’re not being paid, I’m sure the captain will probably give you one lash for every one that dies.”

        “If you want them alive, they’ll stay alive,” he said simply.

        “Take a few minutes to take stock of them.  Show them who’s boss,” the first mate chuckled.  “Then come up on deck.”

        “Aye, sir,” Kyven answered.  The first mate went up, and Kyven immediately wrapped his eyes so the Arcans couldn’t see him use spirit sight.  He knew they were listening, he knew they were probably watching from the open deck above, so he knew he had to be careful here.  “My name is Kyven,” he called loudly across the hold, which made more that a few of the Arcans look at him.  “I will be responsible for you during this journey.”  He began to walk down the center of the aisle, and more than a few of them—as well as a few sailors above—realized that he was blind with the leather covering his eyes.  “I’m sure you’re wondering what I’m doing, walking down here with my eyes covered,” he said, his eyes darting back and forth to watch them, to see which ones were truly cowed and which ones thought to take a swipe at him.  “It’s to prove a point.  I’m not afraid of you,” he told them bluntly.  “When I bring you water and clean your cages, I will come into your cages with you.  I will not chain you up or beat you, because I believe in a simple rule.  I will treat you fairly, and you will treat me fairly.”  He reached the end of the cages, then turned around and walked back up the other way.  One large wolf Arcan reached her arm out through the cages as he approached, then reached for one of his daggers on his belt.  The wolf cried out in pain and recoiled, blood spattering the floor as she fell back, and Kyven calmly shook the blood off his dagger and resheathed it.

        “Now then.  You will receive water twice a day, at sunrise and sunset,” he said calmly.  “I will clean your cages twice a day, as I can when not performing my other duties.  If you feel sick, let me know.  If you get hurt, let me know.  I will—“

        He stopped.  A very young cat in the cage facing him, she looked much different than the other Arcans to his spirit sight.  She was…brighter.  Much more distinct, much sharper.

        He understood, everything.  This Arcan was a Shaman.  The fox had put him here because she was a Shaman, and now he understood his task.

        That Shaman could not reach her destination.  He had to save her.  He had to get her to the other Shaman.

        That was his task.

        He closed his eyes to the spirits and removed the blindfold, then moved on.  “I will treat you as you treat me,” he told them, going to the cleaning supplies and finding an old rag.  He tore off a piece of it, picked up the keys, and went back down the line.  He came to the cage holding larger Arcans, including the wolf that tried to steal his dagger, and he unlocked the door.  They all cowered from him in the back of the cage when he opened it and came in, including the wolf.  He went right up to her and grabbed her by the scruff of her neck, then dragged her into the middle of the cage.  She whimpered and began to pant in fear when he grabbed her wrist and yanked her arm out roughly, but then she gave him a surprised look when he knelt down beside her and began to wrap the rag around the gash he put in her arm.

        “You may not like me, but I’m not here by choice any more than you are,” he told her calmly.  “Be fair to me, and I’ll be fair to you.  When you leave this ship, you may be hungry, but you will be alive and well, so long as you behave.  Do you understand?”

        She hesitated, looking at him with fearful amber eyes, then nodded.

        “Good.  Now rest, all of you,” he called to them as he went back out and locked the door.

 

        Kyven’s little speech and stunt had had its intended effect on both sides of the ship.

        The Arcans were afraid of him, and a little awed by him.  He heard them whispering when they thought he was out of earshot, how he’d known the wolf was reaching for him even with the blindfold, and that he was no one that they’d better upset.  His absolute fearlessness around them just reinforced that, for he was true to his word.  The first time he came to clean their cages, just before sunset, he opened the cage, went in and left the door open, and then proceeded to sweep and mop the grilled floor of what didn’t fall through into the bilge below.  They all stayed against the walls, away from him, moving as he cleaned from the back to the front, but not one of them dared to go out that door, not even without them wearing collars.  They were afraid of his retaliation should they disobey him.  He cleaned each cage, leaving each door open almost as a taunt, then allowed them to leave their cages for a little exercise as he stood by the stairs leading to the deck, watching them, cage by cage.  After exercise, he went to the water barrels and took stock, then saw that each Arcan would get little more than a single cup if he wanted to stretch it out for six days.  He determined the best way to ration it, then brought the Arcans out one cage at a time and had them line up by the water barrel, then gave them their cup of water and sent them back to the cage.  Once they were all watered, he went up on deck and exercised.

        And that was the other half of it.  The sailors were very nervous around him.  They must have thought he was an easy mark, someone to harass and aggravate during the trip, but his walk down the aisle with the blindfold and his fast reaction with his dagger made them take note that though he was young and was not a sailor, he had fast reflexes and he was very alert, and he couldn’t be snuck up upon.  He was not a man to try to blindside.  And then, as the men reclined on sailcloth and rope bundles on the deck drinking rum and playing dice, they watched him exercise and saw that he had not been joking.

        Kyven’s exercises demonstrated to the men that Kyven was every bit as tough and strong as he hinted.  He carried very heavy weights around the deck.  He used the rigging to do chin-ups.  He ran in circles around the deck well into the night, running at a very fast sprint so it would tire him out, but doing it for a period of time that astounded the sailors.

        It was a message to them.  That, combined with what they’d seen him do in the hold, told them do not mess with me.

        Once he had everyone firmly in hand, he considered the problem the fox gave him.  Kyven had another Shaman on board, one that didn’t know she was a Shaman, because she was barely more than an adolescent.  He had to save her.  But, the question was, how to go about that.  He saw several options.  One, he could pretend an interest in her and buy her, but he had no money, which would require him to steal it from the other sailors.  He could kill off the rest of the crew and ground the ship and free all the Arcans, which was an option.  He certainly had no love for any of them.  He could smuggle her off the ship when they made port; that actually had the best chance of success.  But the captain didn’t trust him, often watched him like a hawk at all times, even when he was watering the Arcans and cleaning their cages.  The only other option he could really see was going overboard with her when they reached the Cape of Hope, where the sailors all said they’d come relatively close to land.  But that was iffy at best, because though he was sure he could swim it, he didn’t know if she could.  Kyven’s exceptional conditioning would let him swim literally all day…and he had the feeling that the captain was aware of that fact.

        But he certainly gave the captain no overt reason to hate or fear him.  That first day, he did exactly what he was told quickly and efficiently.  He only spoke when asked a question, and he was quick to offer assistance to any other sailor.  There was a creepiness about him that unnerved the others because of his silence and his physical conditioning, but he did his job.

        That basically all went out the window late that night.  Kyven still had trouble sleeping at night, he wasn’t entirely comfortable sleeping around strangers, and wasn’t used to sleeping in a hammock, so he woke up often in the night.  During one of those waking periods, he heard very faint, muffled cries, and immediately wrapped his blindfold and opened his eyes to the spirits.  That allowed him to see everywhere on the ship.  He looked and saw the few men working the dogwatch up on deck, the captain and officers asleep in the cabins, and a look out towards the hold showed him the masses of Arcans in their cages, though he couldn’t see past the first cage.  Then he saw two sailors come out into the central aisle, dragging one of the Arcans out by the hair.

        Oh hell no.

        He was up and darting down the companionway separating the small crew room from the main hold on bare feet, and the picture became more clear.  The female Arcans watched on from the cages as the two sailor struck the Arcan they’d picked out, which caused her to stop struggling, and the other one grabbed her hands and pulled them up over her head.  The other one climbed up on top of her.

        Images of the girl killed by the Loreguard swirled in his mind, causing him to react with more force than was probably tactful.  He charged into the hold on silent feet, unnoticed by the two men, but they sure as hell noticed him when the metal haft of his shockrod slammed into the temple of the man holding the Arcan by the hands, sending him crashing against the bars of the cage and dropping to the deck, screaming in pain and kicking his feet against the deck.  The other one gasped and rolled off the Arcan and scrambled back, coming up with something in his hand that Kyven couldn’t see because it was non-living.  “Oi, what the fuck, man?” he demanded fearfully, then he took several steps back when Kyven leveled the shockrod’s tip at him.

        “These Arcans are my responsibility,” Kyven said in a low, dangerous voice.  “You will not beat them or abuse them unless I give you permission.  That includes fucking them.  If you want a piece, you talk to me, you don’t come down here and drag them out of the cages and beat them into submission.  Is that abundantly clear?”

        “Listen, puppy, you ain’t got the right to—“

        The man jumped when a lance of lightning blasted across the hold and hit the wall behind him, going between his legs.  The man swallowed when Kyven raised the shockrod just slightly, aiming it right at the man’s genitals.  “I said, is that clear?” he asked intensely.

        The man’s eyes widened.  “I—It’s clear,” he said fearfully.

        “Take that man to the doctor and get out of the pen,” Kyven commanded.  “And the next time I catch you in here when you have no reason to be, I’ll feed you to them.”

        The man put whatever it was in his hand away, then circled wide of Kyven, collected up his companion, and helped him back down the companionway.  Kyven holstered the rod and closed his eyes to the spirits, then reached up and untied his blindfold.  He went over to the Arcan, a small mink Arcan, who was laying limply on the deck, her breathing fast and shallow.  She hand her paws over her face fearfully, but she offered no resistance when Kyven pulled her arm away.  Her cheek was already swelling up, and there was a little blood oozing out of her mouth.  He urged her to open her mouth, and saw that she’d bitten her tongue enough to draw blood.  “Looks like nothing that won’t heal,” he told her.  “Alright?”

        She nodded fearfully.

        “Alright then, back in the cage with you,” he ordered.  He looked and saw that the key was still in the door.  He’d think that one of them might try to take it, but then again, this was a ship at sea…where would they go?  Trying to escape was basically impossible.  These men had no care for their lives.  They’d slaughter any of them that showed any resistance.

        Kyven took the key, locked the cage, then went back to the sleeping quarters.  He knew he’d poisoned any friendships with any of them by now, so it was time to make certain declarations.  He picked up his pack, then moved into the pen.  He spread his bedroll in the corner, sheltered from the open ceiling, and pocketed the key rather than hang it back up, to keep the men out of the pens as much to keep the Arcans in them.

        As he expected, the captain came raging into the pen within minutes of the two sailors leaving.  He had two of his officers with him, one of them carrying a pistol in his belt, and they took up a position at the only way out of the pens.  “What in the bloody hell is going on?” the captain demanded.

        “You told me to take care of the Arcans, sir.  I’m just doing my job.  Two men had dragged one out of the cage, and I was afraid they might kill it.  I don’t think getting them to Alamar dead is the plan, sir.”

        “I think you far overstep your authority, rookie,” the captain said heatedly.

        “Not at all, sir.  The first mate told me that them reaching their destination alive and unharmed was my responsibility.  I’m only doing what I was told to do.  I had no problem with the other men enjoying themselves with the Arcan, until they started beating it.  I was afraid they might kill it, so I had to intervene.  I called out in warning but they didn’t respond, so I had to resort to force.  I was doing nothing more than protecting the ship’s profit.”

        The captain turned to the first mate and chattered at him in Flauren, which made the man flush slightly and reply in a slightly embarrassed voice.

        “I do not allow brawling aboard my ship,” the captain told him.  “Touch another man, and I’ll have you flogged.  Is that clear?”

        “Abundantly clear, sir.”

        “Give me the shockrod and your daggers,” he said, holding out his hand.

        Without hesitation, Kyven pulled his fake shockrod and his five daggers and offered them to the captain.  “You’ll get these back when we reach Chedon,” the captain told him.  “Where you will be put off.  You don’t have the temperament to be a sailor on this ship.”

        “Understood, sir.”  He glanced up over them, where faint pink began staining the sky visible through the holes in the deck above.  “It’s sunrise, sir, I have to begin my duties.”

        “You do that,” the captain said coolly, turning and walking out.

        The Arcans didn’t quite know what to make of him, other than he was not someone to upset.  He had protected one of them from the sailors, but from what they heard, it was only because it was what he was told to do.  And yet he treated them with, with respect, entering their cages without chaining them as he cleaned them, turning his back to them, even allowing them to move about in the hold freely after receiving their water ration.  Yet he maintained steely control at all times, swiftly and forcefully breaking up a fight that erupted between a wolf and a red fox Arcan while they were allowed to exercise by hitting both combatants in the stomach, knocking the wind out of them.  His booming voice ceased all commotion caused by the fight, and when he ordered them back into their cage, they complied.  The sailors that watched overhead, including the captain, were a little startled that they’d obeyed him, sure that the fifteen females would attack the lone, unarmed human, but they did not.  When all the Arcans were in their cage except for the two who had fought, Kyven came up to them.  “Who started it?” he demanded.

        They were both silent.

        Kyven kicked the fox Arcan in the stomach, making her roll over on her back, then he put his boot on her neck threateningly.  “I said who started it,” he demanded.  The fox gazed up at him fearfully and pointed to the wolf.  The wolf pointed at the fox.  “One of you is lying,” he said dangerously.  He looked to the pens, pointing at a large cougar Arcan.  “Who started it?” he demanded.

        “The—The wolf did,” she blurted.

        “In the cage,” Kyven commanded the fox, who rolled over and literally crawled into her cage.  The wolf slithered back on the floor, her eyes fearful, but she made no move to resist when Kyven grabbed her by the scruff of her neck, then literally dragged her down the aisle.  He pushed her down to the deck on her hands and knees, pushing her face to the deck.  “Don’t move a muscle,” he ordered as he let her go.  She stayed right as she was, her butt sticking up in the air but her tail tucked against her legs as he locked the cage, then came back to her.  She was panting, almost shivering, and she yelped when Kyven grabbed her tail and pulled it up.  That yelp turned into a surprised howl when Kyven smacked her hard on her bottom.  The howling continued as he literally spanked the Arcan, spanked her until she was crying, then he grabbed her by the scruff of her neck and dragged her back to her cage.  He hauled her in and dropped her on the floor, and she quickly crawled to the other females and tried to huddle with them, but they didn’t want any part of her.  “That was the nice warning,” he shouted in an unemotional tone.  “The next time one of you disobeys me, I’ll drag you to the deck and let the other men take turns with you.  Now behave,” he called, then he left the cage, locked it, and went up on deck.

        He was a pariah on deck, but that’s what he expected.  Nobody wanted anything to do with him, and the man he’d laid out with the shockrod had a bandage around his temples, and wouldn’t stop glaring at him.  It suited him just fine.  He didn’t want to get to know any of these men.  He still wasn’t sure how he was going to free the Shaman, but it might require him to kill these men in order to free her.  He took orders from one of the officers to do menial tasks, coiling rope, then swabbing the entire deck by himself, but he did all he was told to do without complaint and he did it quickly and efficiently, outworking the other sailors.  He swabbed the deck from bow to stern faster than it would have taken four men, because he was focused completely on the task at hand and he didn’t waste time.

        Afternoon brought rain, a heavy rain that soaked the ship, but without thunder or high wind, merely rain.  Kyven set the empty water barrel for the Arcans out when the rain began and let the rain refill it, and he saw the Arcans in the hold below drinking the rain that poured in through the grills of the deck above, soaking their fur but also slaking their building thirst.  Kyven napped through the late afternoon, then bent to the much easier tasks of cleaning the cages and watering the Arcans, for the rain had done much of the work, and had also helped clear out the building smell of waste coming from the cesspool bilge below them.  The rain flushed the waste out through sloughways on the sides of the ship, leaving the ship smelling better than normal.

        Kyven was alert that night.  He wasn’t entirely sure that the man he attacked was going to let it go, and they were afraid to try anything when he was on deck and in sight of the officers.  He wasn’t liked, but the captain seemed to at least accept his reasoning for attacking another crewman, and he was still doing his job if only because the ship was undermanned.  He tied his blindfold to hide his eyes, moved his bedroll and pack to the far side so anyone coming in would have to come down the aisle to get them, hung his pack high on the wall, tied a length of old sailcloth over the open area where the water barrels were kept to keep those above from being able to see, then sat down on the water barrels.  That allowed him to see quite easily all the way across the pens, for the Arcans were all laying down, and also allowed him to keep track of every man on the ship without the Arcans interfering with his line of sight.  The Arcans that were awake kept glancing at him in the darkness and whispering to each other.  From what he could hear, they knew that Kyven was in trouble with the rest of the ship’s crew, he was protecting himself from them, and they weren’t quite sure what to do about it.

        Hmm.  Perhaps that was the answer.

        He considered it the rest of the night, a night passed in quiet calmness.  Perhaps killing the crew at sea was the best way to go about it.  He had no idea how to sail, but there was one thing for sure; he’d not be wanting for help trying.  He wasn’t alone on this ship.  He had nearly three hundred Arcans here with him, who would probably help him.  Surely they could figure it out enough to turn the ship back towards land and run it aground, then swim to shore and make a run for it.

        There were too many of them for him to try to kill by himself.  If someone raised an alarm, they’d have a huge advantage.  He could probably kill quite a few of the crew as they slept using magic, but picking off the men on dog watch and the officers wouldn’t be quite as easy.  He’d get one or two of them, but then they’d know what was going on, and he’d have to kill men who would fight back…and Kyven wasn’t the only man that knew how to throw a knife.  He’d have to deal with men who had muskets or alchemical weaponry.

        Again, the answer stared him in the face.  The Arcans could help him take the ship.

        The captain was pacing up on deck.  The captain didn’t trust him, and Kyven was sure that even now, the man was pondering him, and might be worried that he seemed to have so much control over the Arcans. Maybe he was considering the same thing.  They put him down here because it was the worst job on the ship, but he made the job much easier with his control over them.  No doubt other men chained the Arcans or moved them from cell to cell when they cleaned, used a whip or rod when dealing with them, but Kyven did not.  He controlled them completely just by giving them orders, and they were too afraid of him to even try anything.  But then again, he saw them for what they were, defeated, spineless creatures who had been slaves for so long that they didn’t know anything else, or were so afraid they wouldn’t dare do anything.  They would do what they were told because it was all they had ever known, and he knew it.  By showing them no fear, he cowed them, made them afraid of him, and they were slaves to that fear just as much as they were slaves to the men who controlled them.  There were three hundred of them and only one of him, and yet they were so broken, so afraid, that they didn’t dare try to revolt.  In their eyes, they saw no reason for it.  All that would happen was that they would die, either killed by the crew or starving to death on a ship they didn’t know how to work.

        That was an important lesson in life, he realized.  He could not be controlled by fear.  Else he would become like them.

        The next day, he took careful note of what was going on, without looking like it.  As he swabbed the deck, he watched the sailors and saw how they brought the sails down, saw how they turned them to catch the wind.  That was what he’d have to do.  Drop the sails, then turn them to catch the wind so they’d go.  He saw how the wheel worked when he swabbed the deck up there, how one had to turn it left to go right and right to go left.  He did everything he was told, but he also got a basic idea of how the ship worked from it, enough to feel confident that he could move the ship if it was necessary.  He saw how the men moved through the rigging, how they kept the ship going, he saw everything he needed to know in order to move the ship.

        By sunset, he knew he had everything he needed, but he also knew that they were watching him like a hawk.  Men had been keeping an eye on him all day, men armed with pistols, and there was a man on dogwatch sitting in the low rigging looking down into the hold, watching him as he cleaned the cages and then gave the Arcans their evening water.  He treated them no differently than any other day, moving about with confident silence as he cleaned their cages, then brought them out for their water and gave them a few moments to move about outside the cramped confines of their cages.  There were no fights this time, the females conducting themselves with quiet propriety as they stretched and enjoyed a few moments of extra space and the ability to move around without stepping on someone else’s foot.

        He then stripped nude, unlocked one of the cages, and grabbed a coyote Arcan from the cage, one that he knew could talk.  He pulled her out, locked the cage behind her, and dragged her over to his bedroll.  He threw her down on it, on her back, and climbed on top of her.  She struggled only feebly, until he grabbed her hands and pinned them to the deck, pressing his weight down on her.  She didn’t excite him at all, so when he started thrusting his hips against her, there was nothing happening but a flaccid penis flopping against her crotch…but that couldn’t be seen by the man watching from the deck above.  To his eyes, their dangerous new crewman was availing himself of the available female Arcans.

        He leaned down close to the coyote’s head.  “I’m from the Masked,” he whispered to her as he continued to fake sex with her.  “Tomorrow night, after I give you water, I will not lock any of your cages.  But I need you to stay inside them.  When I leave the hold in the night, wait for about five minutes, then I need some of you to make a commotion without leaving your cage that takes the attention of the men who watch us from the deck.  I need a distraction.”

        “Wh—What are you going to do?” she asked in a whisper.

        “Kill the crew and take over the ship,” he answered.  “If you can hold the attention of the men on the dogwatch, I can get most of them.  Even if I fail, you’ll be unlocked and there won’t be enough of them to stop you from taking over the ship yourselves.  Do you understand?”

        “I understand.  We stay in our cages, but a few minutes after you leave the pens, we make a lot of noise to keep the crew’s attention on us.”

        “Right.  When you see me on the deck overhead, then come out of your cages.  That’s when I may need you.”

        “Why are you freeing us?”

        “I’m here for only one.  Someone important to the Masked.  But I’ll free all of you, so you can do as you will.  Try to run for freedom, let yourself get captured, whatever you want to do.  I can’t help all of you, but I will give you a choice to do what you will.  Do you understand?”

        “I understand.”

        “Good.  Spread the word among the others when I put you back in the cage,” he said, faking an orgasm, pressing his hips against her, and actually feeling an Arcan vagina pressing up against his penis…and it truly did feel like a human.  But that still didn’t really do anything for him, because he felt the fur on her legs and belly against his skin, and her tail kept swishing against his knees.  He stayed on top of her for a moment, then climbed up onto his knees and grabbed her by the scruff of the neck. He climbed up and dragged her back to the cages, unlocked it, then pushed her in  She fell in with the others, who had been watching the whole thing, and she immediately started whispering urgently with them as Kyven got dressed.

        The plan was set.  Now came the waiting.

 

        Strangely enough, the word of Kyven’s seeming abuse of the Arcans he protected seemed to change the crew’s opinion of him.  The first one to talk to him, while he was swabbing the deck, was a short, wizened sailor with his front teeth missing.  “Figured you were one of them there Arcan lovers,” the man snorted in laughter.  “Guess you really are!”

        “I do my job. No more, no less,” Kyven replied simply, then deliberately turned his back on the sailor.

        That was a repeat of many episodes through the day, as Kyven did the chores the officers set for him, including his first assigned trip into the rigging along with some of the other sailors.  His demeanor didn’t change among the men, for he was still silent and reserved, talked only when directly asked a question, but the men didn’t glare at him quite so much.  The only thing close to socializing he did was to get challenged to a game of posts, which he squelched almost immediately by telling them that it was time for him to care for the Arcans.  “Come on, rookie, one set!” a sailor laughed.

        Kyven took the three knives he was offered, weighed them with the briefest of holds, then sank all three into the north twelve ring.

        “One set,” he said simply, walking past them.

        “Where did you learn that?” one man laughed.

        “I was a crystalcutter’s apprentice. If  you can’t do that, you won’t make it as a cutter,” he answered as he moved to the stairs leading to the hold.

        There was tense quiet in the hold when Kyven appeared.  He did not break his habit, getting the cleaning bucket and mop and broom, then coming down to the first cage and unlocking it.  The females all looked at him speculatively as they stayed out of his way, and then they seemed to gasp and sigh when he locked the door when he was done.