The same evening, Fly paid for six horses, three to ride and two to pull a wagon, and assembled the team at the northern gates of the city.

 

Rage rode in the wagon, while Lain McNealy drove them from the seat up front. Fly, Markus Trent, and Akimaru rode the three free chargers.

 

Rage kept the company’s belongings in the back of the wagon with him, in order to let the others be unencumbered, should they run into trouble.

 

Onward and northward they rode, keeping a mild pace that Lain’s two-horse team could match.

 

They made about ten miles before Fly called a halt for the night, and built a fire with which to make the evening meal.

 

Lain had kept her come-ons to a minimum since departing from the city again, but she continued to give Fly subtle glances. Now, she inched close to him before the fire.

 

“So,” she whispered in his ear. “You want to use the back of the wagon tonight, just you and I?”

 

He felt his blood rush to his nether regions, boiling over to the bursting point. But no, he thought, he had to restrain himself, at least for the time being.

 

“Not tonight, Lain.” He felt lame as he tried to think of an excuse. What was it the Human women always said? “I’ve, um, got a bit of a headache.” He looked over at Rage, who seemed in a bit of a funk as Akimaru explained why the gods had to take even the littlest kittens from their mommies sometimes.

 

During their stay in Desanadron, the big green bruiser had come upon a small family of strays, and one of them had been laid out by illness and fleas. Rage couldn’t understand why the gods would kill such a cute little kitty, and he’d brought it back the Guildhall. Lain had admonished him for bringing it into the building, but she’d been understanding. Now, with his teacher distracted with the Headmaster, the dim-witted Berserker sought answers from Akimaru.

 

“It’s not fair.” The Orc pounded a huge, gnarled green fist on the ground.

 

“Got news for you, big guy.” Trent picked at his food. “Life isn’t fair.”

 

Rage shot him a look full of acid, but Akimaru put one steadying hand on his broad left shoulder.

 

“Never mind him, Rage-sama,” Akimaru said. “I am sure that if you ask the Headmaster nicely, he’ll let you get a kitten from a pet shop when we return to the city.”

 

Rage positively beamed, and looked hopefully across the fire at the Black Draconus, who rolled his eyes but shook his head yes, he could have one. The fire burned down some more, and Lain, Rage, and Akimaru all covered themselves in their bedrolls, falling asleep before Fly and Trent. The Human Ninja fed some more small twigs to the fire, intent on talking a little with his Headmaster, who was also presently his jailer.

 

“Fly?”

 

“What is it Trent?” He poked at the fire a little himself, but his eyes felt like they were weighted with bricks. He hoped Trent would keep whatever was on his mind brief and to the point.

 

“What made you do it?” Trent clearly referred to the death of Fly’s sensei.

 

Fly poked the fire with his small stick again before dropping it into the wreath of flames. He looked up to the starry sky above, and heaved a heavy sigh. Perhaps it was time, after all, to explain himself to his right-hand agent. After all, he had promised answers, and hadn’t he already spoken of this to Anna Deus?

 

“Mostly, it was pride, Markus,” he began. “It was also a deep desire to truly belong. I wanted to show the elders that I was worthy of being a member of their council, and slaying one of their number seemed just the thing to do. I couldn’t say if I really thought it over.” He looked ahead into the fire once more. “I don’t think so, or I would’ve realized what sort of fate awaited me when the deed was done.”

 

A strange silence developed between the two former Obura Clan Ninjas, and each added a few twigs to the fire.

 

“So you wanted to prove yourself by killing an elder?” Trent finally ventured, almost a quarter of an hour later. Fly made no reply, his mind drifting toward sleep. “Not much different really than me trying to kill you, to take command.”

 

Fly’s attention snapped back to Markus Trent, and he remembered in an instant why he always waited for Trent to fall asleep first. If he didn’t wait, he’d never wake up again.

 

“No, I suppose not.” Fly let the admission hang in the air. “I suppose that’s why I haven’t killed you in all these years. You may not like me very much, Markus, but you need me around, to better yourself.”

 

He lay on the grass, hands behind his head. “I think some day you’ll be good enough to kill me. Until you are, think on this. Do you really want to make the same mistake I made?”

 

For the first time in many years, he allowed himself to fall asleep first.

 

He was pleased beyond measure when he woke up the next morning.

 

* * * *

 

Morning and early afternoon of that day passed swiftly under the stampeding feet of the Midnight Suns’ mounts, until they came to the cooler stretches of the northern plains.

 

The lands a day or so north of Desanadron on horse were barren, devoid of life, mostly as a result of the illness that seemed to have taken permanent root when Richard Vandross had assailed the city thirty or so years before. Not even the wildest of animals could be seen here, but this was more boon than bane for the Midnight Suns. They could reach the mountains before nightfall if they continued on their mad pace.

 

However, at around five in the afternoon, Markus Trent exclaimed in surprise from Fly’s right.

 

Thaddeus Fly looked to the east, and spied two strange figures, one riding a stamprous, one of the strange beasts born of the Desperation, and the other flying toward them like a large, horrid insect.

 

Dean Masters flew through the air swiftly, his hornet’s wings buzzing loudly as he sliced through the cold breeze with acrobatic grace, while his companion, Bergeon, rode the tamed stamprous slightly behind him.

 

The Sidalis and Lizardman had spotted the Midnight Suns and knew them as prisoners. Though Reynaldi hadn’t ordered them to do so, each felt that justice needed to be dispensed on these heretics and murders. Bergeon’s beast, tired from days of stomping ceaselessly west, shuddered beneath him.

 

“Corporal, you’re going to have to stop them or fly me over there.” The Lizardman drew his katana from its sheath.

 

The mutant, Masters, responded by waving his left hand in front of him, creating an invisible barrier around the fleeing Suns, who wanted no trouble until they got into the mountains. “Don’t worry, and slow your beast, friend Bergeon.” The hornet-man descended to the ground, standing still as the Lizardman brought his beast under control.

 

The stamprous, an odd hybrid of alligator and ostrich, skidded to a halt about twenty or thirty yards away from the Midnight Suns, watching the spectacle that Masters had provided.

 

The thieves’ Guild members and their mounts charged forward, and when they came in contact with the invisible barrier the mutant had erected north of them, they blinked out of existence, reappearing one hundred yards south of the termination point of the barrier.

 

“Are they aware of the trap,” the Lizardman asked before kneeling to pray for Oun’s good grace.

 

“Not yet,” buzzed Masters in his high-pitched drone. He drew the spear from between his translucent wings. “They will be, though, if the one dressed in the gray tunics keeps looking this way,” Masters said.

 

“Hm. Right. Then for honor, for glory, and by the grace of Oun our god, let us go and destroy these heretics,” hissed Bergeon.

 

* * * *

 

Fly shouted the order to increase their pace, and the Suns drove their horses hard to the north.

 

After a few minutes, he wondered if perhaps Trent had done something to him in the night after all.

 

The mountains got closer for a few minutes, and then seemed to shrink back from the company.

 

A few minutes later, this optical illusion played out before his eyes again, and he shook his head as he tightened his grip on his mount’s reins.

 

The creature beneath him suffered from the hard pace, and if they continued on like this, the beast might just drop to the ground, with him pinned beneath it.

 

Once more his eyes played tricks on him, and the horse he rode shuddered, whinnying madly and rearing up on its hind legs, almost throwing him to the ground.

 

He looked around, panic driving a swift steed of its own down the narrow track of his spine. Akimaru’s mount had tossed him off, as had Trent’s, and Rage and Lain McNealy had abandoned their wagon and mounts. Thankfully, Fly saw, Rage had possessed the presence of mind to grab their travel gear before bailing out of the wagon.

 

“Everyone, center.” He collected the members of his company together. “All right, what the hell is going on around here?”

 

“I don’t know, but those two gentlemen are getting closer with each passing minute.” Trent pointed east.

 

Fly followed Trent’s finger. The two approaching figures were both afoot, but one had left a harnessed stamprous behind him. Even at this distance, Fly saw that the two men were a Sidalis and a Lizardman. They didn’t appear to be much of a threat to the five Midnight Suns, but as harsh experience had instructed him, looks could be deceiving.

 

“So they are. Rage, I want you to go give them our warmest regards,” Fly said.

 

When the Orc Berserker detached himself from the group, Fly thought he heard a muffled ‘pop’ to the south of them. He looked south, and saw to his mounting horror the maddened horses stampeding toward them.

 

Hadn’t they fled north. He screamed out a warning. “Wait, Rage!”

 

Too late. The Berserker had been given an order that involved violence, and he didn’t even turn as the first of the chargers slammed into him, bearing him to the ground with its massive hooves.

 

“Raaage!” Lain McNealy made to run to the flattened Greenskin, but Akimaru had her by the wrist, keeping her clear of the path of the other horses as they ran right over the bulky form of the Orc Berserker.

 

Fly’s eyes were not watching this gruesome spectacle—they were locked on the Lizardman with the katana.

 

Had the reptilian warrior created the trap they were so neatly ensnared in?

 

No, Fly thought, he appears to be a mere swordsman. The mutant, however, could be capable of it. The Sidalis all had their own brand of powers, granted to them by their strange, freakish nature.

 

He smiled a wicked, half-moon sickle of a smile. He wondered if these hostile strangers had any idea what sort of powers they themselves were up against?

 

* * * *

 

“Oh my, I think that must have hurt very badly,” Masters whispered over at Bergeon. His buzzing, droning voice took on a hint of cruel pleasure as the last of the horses trampled over the Greenskin warrior. “Don’t you think so, Bergeon?”

 

The Sidalis looked over at his companion, but the swordsman was locked in a staring contest with the Black Draconus who was still astride his mount.

 

“Hello? Earth to Bergeon,” the mutant chided, waving the head of his trident-headed spear up and down in Bergeon’s field of vision.

 

The Lizardman seemed to snap out of his trance, and looked into the bulbous, insect eyes of the corporal.

 

“Sorry, Dean. I was just wondering what sort of trouble we just got ourselves in.” The reptilian swordsman took a few cautious steps backward.

 

Dean Masters had never been afraid of any mortal man in his life, and the Order of Oun was only too glad to have him on board, though he didn’t worship their deity. So why was his friend worried about a band of thieves?

 

When he looked from Bergeon’s face back to the west, he watched the Orc Berserker rise from the ground, bloodied and battered, but smiling as evilly as any warlock in history ever could.

 

When the first of the panicked horses came toward him again, having passed into the cycle barrier to the north, the Orc let out a howl of primal fury and stuck a meaty arm out, letting the horse clothesline itself.

 

It toppled end over end to the ground, where the Orc decapitated it with a swift blow from his steel war axe. Blood dribbling down his forehead and his axe, Rage of the Orc clan Porag stalked toward the Order of Oun agents, smiling that horrible smile.

 

Dean Masters had finally met a man to fear.

 

* * * *

 

“I thought he was dead for sure,” Lain McNealy breathed softly, her mouth a surprised O.

 

Fly guttered harsh laughter and shook his head. “Hardly, my dear Ms. McNealy.”

 

The remaining horses had calmed, mostly due to exhaustion. Having witnessed one of their kindred be slain by a creature they had tried to trample to death, they agreed to be docile.

 

The wagon had come apart during the mad, looping retreat to nowhere, but Fly didn’t really worry too much about it. Rage would just have to pack mule for them, a function he was used to serving.

 

“A few horses stomping him into the ground isn’t going to keep Rage down.” Fly dismounted, and gave his steed a warning stare.

 

“Maybe not, but those two don’t look like amateurs, sir.” Trent grimaced as their green companion closed to within ten yards of the strangers.

 

“You may be right, Markus Trent.” Akimaru squinted his frosted eyes to better see the confrontation that would soon take place. “Perhaps one of us should go help him.”

 

“No,” Lain said. “He’s on the brink of a Berserker fury, and he’ll just as soon attack us as let us help him. A Berserker has no allies, and cares only about killing everything in sight. It often doesn’t end there, either.”

 

“How do you mean?” Trent realized that he knew little of the Midnight Suns’ heavyweight enforcer, and found that he actually wanted to know more. Perhaps he isn’t so useless after all, he thought as Rage began the combat with the strangers.

 

A fast, deadly blow of his axe was deftly knocked askance by the Lizardman’s katana.

 

“Well,” Lain said. “There’s two kinds of warriors that Necromancers like me don’t care much for following. First off, there’s Paladins, and that’s for obvious religious reasons. But secondly, there’s Berserkers. It’s difficult to raise an undead servant if the main body has been diced into more pieces than a man can count on all of his digits.”

 

Markus Trent turned to look at the combat, and pray for the outcome to be in Rage’s favor.

 

* * * *

 

Bergeon had seen the angle of the initial attack at the last possible second, deflecting the path of the war axe with his katana and stepping aside. Loose soil flew in all directions, bits of blasted soil striking Dean Masters in the side of his face. No sooner had he kept a rock from his eye than he was whirling his spear in a swift circle in front of him, warding off several hard, fast blows from the Orc.

 

Ye gods, Masters thought, he’s fast. Far faster than any Greenskin, be it Orc, Goblin, Ogre or Hobgoblin should be. But the speed and strength of the attacks didn’t disturb his usually cool demeanor so much as the widening smile on the man’s face. How could he be so enthusiastic about a two on one battle?

 

“Masters! Your barrier,” Bergeon cried.

 

The mutant flicked his left wrist, tearing down the barrier that held the Midnight Suns from getting further north.

 

Another flick of the wrist, and the barrier became smaller, more focused, right in front of him. He eased back, holding his spear at the ready, as Rage attacked again.

 

The Orc seemed to bounce away from the barrier, but he continued to hack away blindly at it.

 

Bergeon, meanwhile, had positioned himself on the Orc’s left flank, trying to get in his peripheral vision. Bergeon’s code of warrior conduct disallowed backstabbing, and he would not disgrace himself for the sake of the Order.

 

“Face me, Orc! I am your opponent now!”

 

Rage stopped mid-swing, shifting his feet and pivoting his hips, bearing down on the Lizardman swordsman with an ease that made Bergeon quiver. However, saw the angle of the attack much earlier than the first strike, and he ducked and rolled forward, coming up against Rage as he stabbed the Orc in the stomach, driving his sword in to the hilt.

 

The bloodlust should have gone out of this Orc, Dean Masters thought as Rage grabbed his companion by the snubbed snout and tossed him aside like a child’s plaything.

 

Rage pulled the katana free from his body, and tossed it aside like a twig, taking no notice of the dark, crimson blood flowing down his stomach. The Orc pounced toward Masters, who flapped his wings as he darted aside, the axe barely missing his left wing.

 

He buzzed over to Bergeon, who had reclaimed his katana and sheathed it.

 

“Come on, sergeant, we’ve got to regroup.” The mutant put an arm under the stunned Lizardman and carried him back toward the stamprous.

 

Rage made no move to follow, and when the agents of the Order of Oun disappeared to the north, in the very direction the Suns would be heading, the Greenskin warrior passed out.

 

* * * *

 

The world came back into focus, slowly but surely.

 

When the Orc Berserker tried to sit up, but was gently held down by the coldest hands he’d ever felt.

 

“Geez, where’d you guys get the icepacks,” he asked groggily.

 

Akimaru looked up at Trent, who actually graced him with a sardonic grin.

 

“No icepack, Rage-san,” the white clad Ninja said. “Ask no questions, for a time. Ms. McNealy is preparing bandages for your stab wound.”

 

Rage tenderly moved his right hand over the wound, and it came away bloody and wet.

 

“Ah, this is just a flesh wound,” the Berserker said, though he knew full well this was a lie. His body felt sore and battered, like he’d been dropped down the side of a mountain. “Why do I feel so bad?”

 

“Well,” he heard the voice of the Headmaster say. A moment later, Fly’s upside down face blocked the noon sun.

 

“There’s the matter of the horses trampling you, combined with the stab wound and the exertion you put yourself through on our behalf. We are very thankful to have you along, Rage-san.” Fly walked away from the wounded Orc as Akimaru and Lain saw to him, and Trent joined the Black Draconus, only moving about seventy yards north. Fly had decided to ride his mount in all directions as soon as the mutant and the Lizardman had fled, and discovered that the queer barrier the mutant had used before was back in place.

 

This time, however, the Midnight Suns appeared to be trapped within a bubble of the Sidalis’ force. No matter where he rode, he found himself coming back on the company from the south. When he rode south, he found himself turned around without his notice, completing the trap.

 

“We’re in trouble, Headmaster,” Trent said bluntly. “This is the mutant’s power—to create barriers that can hold things within it or without. We know not the range of his powers, and they may be miles away before this barrier fails him. They are only two men! How did they hold Rage at bay?”

 

“They’re skilled, Markus.” Fly decided to make himself useful and collect scraps of wood from the wreckage of the wagon to build a cooking fire. “Did you see the way the Lizardman stood, how he held his blade to the side, horizontally?”

 

Trent nodded, and took a seat on the brown, dried out grass.

 

“He’s a true swordsman, that one. As for the mutant, I think if you strip him of his powers, he’s just a pikeman.”

 

“With wings,” Trent added with a derisive chuckle. He looked over to Lain, Akimaru and Rage. “It was a little frightening, seeing him like that again. I’ve only seen him go off like that twice, but never with that much expectation. You knew we’d need him, didn’t you?”

 

Fly didn’t meet Trent’s stare, but he nodded as he took an iron pot from the travel gear and set it over the fresh fire he’d struck with his flint and steel.

 

“To deal with Stockholm, or something like those two strangers?” Trent continued.

 

“Yes.” Fly’s stomach growled for food. “You may think it cruel of me, but I brought him along basically as a tool. When someone or something faces Rage, they leave themselves bare for reading. I think I know exactly how to combat the swordsman at this point, and I’m pretty sure I know how to deal with the mutant.”

 

Trent sat and stared at Fly expectantly, waiting for an explanation.

 

“Be a good little prisoner and fetch me Lain,” the Draconus said levelly.

 

Trent groaned, but moved to do as he was asked.

 

Lain McNealy and Trent swapped places, and she hunkered down on her haunches, adding a few spices and herbs to the stew that Fly was cooking for the company.

 

Fly looked over at Rage, who had fallen back to sleep. “How’s he holding up?”

 

Lain just shook her head, her lips set in a tight, grim line.

 

“It’s not good, Headmaster,” she said softly. “Akimaru laid hands on him, and explored his wounds with his chi, I believe you call it.”

 

Oh, if only you knew, Fly thought.

 

“The sword didn’t go all the way through his body, but it pierced his stomach and may have ruptured his spleen. He’s bleeding inside, and badly.”

 

Fly nodded, his mind acknowledging that they might lose the Berserker before this trip was through.

 

“Akimaru says he can heal him, but he needs a great deal of time to do it. The Hoods may stumble upon us if we don’t get free of this bubble before long. So, do we give Akimaru his time?”

 

“Yes,” Fly replied without a moment’s hesitation. “We cannot lose him if it’s avoidable.” He knelt before the cooking pot, and Lain inched closer to him, wrapping an arm around one of his.

 

For once, he didn’t pull away.

 

* * * *

 

That same morning, Anna Deus led her company of Hoods agents out of Desanadron.

 

Fly had kept his promise, leaving enough horses in the northern stables for them to purchase, and the six of them rode north on five horses.

 

Stockholm’s mount had been the largest stallion available for sale, but it still labored beneath his massive frame. They made poor time, and by noon had only traveled an eighth of the distance Fly and the Midnight Suns had.

 

They broke for lunch a little after later, each member of the company refreshed from their time in the Guildhall.

 

Norman and Lee had resolved their differences, a fact Anna was most grateful of, and rode together on the smallest charger. Now, gathered around the fire, they appeared to be all smiles, with the exception of the Chief.

 

She decided to get all tensions and doubts out in the open.

 

“All right everyone, listen up.” She stood and addressed the group as a whole. “This whole business of the Glove of Shadows has gotten us harassed, attacked, arrested, and frustrated. So let’s get all of our issues out of the way, right now. We’ll go around round robin, and you can all lay down your problems and doubts concerning this journey. Let’s start with age before beauty, with Styge.”

 

All eyes turned to the elderly Illusionist, who was busying himself with a sketch.

 

“No worries here, young man.” He didn’t look away from his drawing. “I only wish I had an extra pillow for my saddle. That thing’s chaffing my old behind something fierce.”

 

Anna hadn’t figured Styge would complain much, because he only griped about the little things.

 

“Still can’t figure why you’ve got me along on this goose chase, though. Can’t see what good I’ll be to you all. I’m just an old man, after all,” he said.

 

“You’ve already proven yourself,” Norman offered. “Without your magic, you and I’d still be enjoying the hospitality of Fort Stone.”

 

“Okay, you’re next, Lee,” Anna said.

 

The Pickpocket looked up from his whittling, and just beamed a smile at her.

 

“Oh, no complaints here, though your bill for my services is gettin’ up inta triple digits bucko,” he said.

 

Ah, dependable, greedy Lee Toren, she thought.

 

“Very well. Norman?”

 

The Gnome Engineer was watching Stockholm ladle out food into earthenware bowls with hungry greed in his eyes. He looked up at Anna after she cleared her throat noisily.

 

“Oh, well, just a few issues I suppose.” He took a bowl from the Red Tribesman. “I’m sort of useless in most confrontations. Plus, we’re heading into the mountains, right?”

 

She confirmed this briefly

 

“I hate the cold. That’s just a minor complaint, though. Otherwise, I guess I just wonder what we need the Glove for.”

 

“Are you kidding?” Flint spewed soup on the ground at his feet. “It’s the Glove of Shadows! We could steal anything we wanted if we had it, right out from under people’s noses yet! It’s like a dream come true!”

 

“Sure, fer folk loik you an’ me,” Lee said around a mouth full of broth. “But Norman’s got no use fer it, since it doesn’t beep or boop or anyfin’ loik that.”

 

From Flint’s response to Norman’s statement, she decided to skip over him, and go on to Stockholm.

 

“What about you, Chief? Any issues to get out in the open?” She expected Ignatious to remain mostly silent, as he often kept his thoughts closed to those around him. Instead, he spoke, and at great length.

 

“The Glove of Shadows is an artifact of another age,” he began, chewing his food and letting his thoughts linger on the past. “I first laid eyes upon it when I was studying the arts of a Knight, many centuries ago. This was before the Fall of Mecha,” he said, once again confirming Anna and Flint’s suspicions regarding his general age. “I was learning the path of Knighthood from an aged Half-Elven Knight, in the city of Povernham.”

 

“Where’s that,” Lee asked, taking a sip from his hip flask.

 

“It no longer exists on any map,” Stockholm said, shaking his head. “What is left of it lies in ruins in the south, near the shore. The city thrived on technology, you see. There was a weapon of massive power kept deep underground. When the world’s mecha started to malfunction and fall apart, the weapon ignited itself, and blew most of the city and its inhabitants into the ocean,” he said softly, shaking his shaggy head. The company looked at him with great respect and awe in their hearts. “But that’s a tale for another time.

 

“The Glove of Shadows came into the possession then of a man named Clinton Murdock, a Gnome collector of such artifacts. He had no idea what the Glove was, or what purposes it could be set to, but one of his collector friends did. A Wererat, named Shadrack Tulane.” He finished his soup and sett aside his bowl. “I had been in the company of my instructor several times when Murdock invited him over to view his new purchases. On one such visit, I noticed that the Glove of Shadows had gone missing.

 

“Tulane turned out to be the thief, we learned, and he had taken it with him to the southwest, deep into the forest of the Elven Kingdom. He and other bandits he kept company with had a lair underground in the Kingdom, though few ever discovered where exactly it was. We searched, my instructor and I, for their hideout, but never did we find them, or hear from them again. Nobody is certain what happened, but during those days, the Elven Kingdom was rife with the seeds of the coming civil war that would leave the dark Elves as a separate people, the Illeck.”

 

On this note, Flint thought back to all of the history books he had read. That civil war had taken place approximately two hundred and twenty years before the Fall of Mecha. If what Stockholm said was true, then the Red Tribesman was somewhere in the range of a thousand years old. Cripes, Flint thought, he looks good for his age,

 

Stockholm continued his narration, capturing their attention again.

 

“It is suspected that the Illeck, in their attempts to find a home for themselves, came upon the hideout, and thus slaughtered the Wererat and his friends, taking up permanent residence. The Glove of Shadows became something in tales told by one thief to another. But let me tell you this.” Stockholm looked into the face of every person around him. “That Glove is a cursed thing. When we returned to the Gnome Murdock, his home had been set on fire by wild Pyromancers. My instructor and I followed the path of ownership back to a tradesman who lived in Arcade, who had owned the Glove as a showpiece for a year. Shortly after he had sold it to Murdock, his wife slit his throat in the night. She claimed to not know why she had done it.

 

“Before the tradesman, the Glove had been in the possession of the great Pickpocket, Toby Samson. One night, while he was out on the town with some friends, he picked up a prostitute, who took money from his pouch after he had fallen asleep.”

 

“That doesn’t sound so bad.” Flint puffed away on a cigarette.

 

Stockholm gave him a creepy, gentle smile. “She replaced the money with a copperhead snake. It bit him the moment he fished in his pouch for money. The woman took the Glove of Shadows as well, and was found the next week with a spear through her head, pinning her to her headboard.”

 

“So you’re suggesting we leave it be,” Anna said, not making it a question, but a matter of fact.

 

Stockholm grunted, but said nothing otherwise in response to her statement. “Chief, is that what you’re suggesting?”

 

“No,” he said, laughing a little. “I’m suggesting that if we get a hold of it, we lock it away someplace where nobody can get at it. It’s cursed, Will, like I said. We don’t want to go using it.”

 

“Is that the secret, though?” Flint lit another cigarette with the end of his previous one. “Do you have to use it for it to curse you?”

 

“It would appear that way. I didn’t remember all of this when Lee brought us his information.  I had to drudge up several of my old journals from my old storage unit in the city.  When you’ve been around as long as I have, you tend to forget some things until they rear their ugly heads.  I would have said something before, but as I’ve said, I couldn’t quite remember.”

 

“Hell of a thing to have to remember,” groaned Lee.

 

Stockholm hitched up and got ready to move out again. “Each owner who has tested it out, and wound up dead for their troubles. The only owner my instructor and I came upon who had owned it and not suffered such a horrid fate was a Minotaur from the northern mountains. He had come upon it completely by accident, he told us. He had found it on the outstretched hand of someone crushed by an avalanche.”

 

The company rode north again, but now they looked forward not to owning the Glove of Shadows, but to sealing it away, perhaps forever.

 

We should have left it to the Paladins, Anna thought bitterly as they rode along.

 

* * * *

 

Evening fell upon them, but still Thaddeus Fly could not get free of the barrier around them. He did, however, learn the dimensions of the trap, and could estimate how much room they had to work with.

 

Akimaru finished healing Rage, and promptly fell over on his side, limp and seemingly lifeless. But Lain checked his pulse and reported that he was simply drained from the effort.

 

Rage remained in a deep sleep, and the two men were covered with wool blankets for the cool night.

 

Probably an empty gesture for Aki, Fly thought.

 

On Fly’s orders, Markus Trent rode a horse through the cycle of the barrier trap, letting the animal canter along at a slight jog to reserve its energy.

 

He brought the horse up short and dismounted a few feet away from the Headmaster and Necromancer, his face screwed up in barely controlled anger. “It’s no good! Either they’re still very close, or the barrier can be left on its own.”

 

“They’ll have to sleep some time,” Lain offered. She had a loose plan forming in her mind, but the plan required an expenditure of magic that would render her feeble, like Akimaru. Still, she decided, it’s better than rotting here. “There is something I can try,” she said.

 

Fly and Trent looked to one another, and then back at her.

 

Fly made a hand motion, telling her to get on with it.

 

“Well, you know the dimensions of our imprisonment, Headmaster. Direct me to the edge of the barrier to the north, and I can raise a body from the soil outside of the barrier. I have sensed the dead here, and I can hear their moaning in the soil.”

 

A brief shiver to ran up Trent’s spine. Like Akimaru, the woman gave him the heebie jeebies.

 

“Once raised, I may place my consciousness in the creature, and take control of its body. It will be awkward, but it may be that through its eyes and ears, I can find the strangers who attacked and trapped us here.”

 

Fly knew there was something she wasn’t telling him, and he worried that they might finally get free of the barrier, only to find three of their five members incapacitated. However, it was a course of action, and he didn’t want to sit around and do nothing. “Very well. Make it so, Lain, but hear me well. Only do what you must. Take no unwarranted risks. If you find anything, return to your body and inform me. I’m going to tuck in for now. I’d suggest you do the same, Markus.”

 

Trent unfurled his bedroll, and tucked in, fully aware that Fly wouldn’t actually go to sleep.

 

Fly led Lain to the northern border of the barrier, and left her there to her work. She was frightened of the consequences of leaving her physical body behind—animals could prey on her if the barrier dropped, the weather could become inclement, or a host of other evils could beset her deserted body. “Got things to do,” she whispered to herself.

 

She steeled her nerves, sat on the ground, and focused her power.

 

She wove a complex set of hand movements through the air, almost separate from her own thoughts. She had memorized these motions so thoroughly that she didn’t even pause to think about them. She had also performed this ritual several times, which helped facilitate the process.

 

She sent her consciousness wandering through the earth, searching for a suitable and, preferably, freshly buried body. Murder victims constituted the majority of her findings out in areas like this, but sometimes she got lucky and found an old battlefield. This was no such case, however. After a few minutes’ searching, she found a reasonable specimen—the corpse of a freshly buried timber wolf.

 

Someone had crushed its skull, she could see, and attempted a decent grave out of respect for the animal. She decided a probe of the creature’s brain and memories would be in order once she raised it.

 

Kalatos mansos, kalatos mansos, kalatos mansos,” she chanted, over and over again for five minutes.

 

Humanoids typically offered less resistance than animals, particularly when the head was damaged to slay the formerly living host. Animals, however, were hardwired differently, and damage to the brain couldn’t necessarily leave her an easy path to control. Instincts for an animal weren’t always seated in the gray matter in their skulls, and instincts could live on for many years after death. Time to see how useful this beast might be, she thought. “Kalatos, lupino servantes,” she said.

 

The ground rumbled slightly, and her mind brushed against the undead wolf’s.

 

Muscles stretched as the animal dug its way free of its grave, bones popping back into place for the first time in nearly a year.

 

Yes, Lain thought, a year dead.

 

The undead wolf burst from the ground, snarling and snapping at the air as maggots and worms spilled out of their former meal. It looked in her direction, and she felt the malevolence of the animal locked inside the dead body.

 

This will do beautifully, she thought.

 

She stared into the one remaining eye in the creature’s head, and it bowed low on its front legs.

 

“Good boy,” she whispered, closing her eyes once more.

 

A moment of concentration, and she felt her body go limp. Her field of vision blurred, twisted, and came back into focus from the undead wolf’s point of view. Only the right eye could see, and the world was bathed in shades of gray instead of color. Her nose, however, seemed capable of identifying a thousand different odors, each cycling through her newly acquired mind.

 

Interesting, she thought, trying to mouth the words but finding that firstly, the lungs had decomposed. Secondly, a wolf’s mouth really wasn’t shaped to allow for speech. How did the Werewolves manage?

 

She looked at her own limp form, sprawled forward in a half-kneeling position. Her one working eye could just make out the aura of the barrier, the power unlike any magic she’d ever seen in corporeal manifestation. Sidalis powers tended to be like this, however, magic-like but not quite really magic.

 

How do I proceed? She sniffed the air with her servant’s nose.

 

Hmm, she caught a familiar scent, something the wolf had smelled often in life.

 

Hornets. She caught the mental image of a swarm of the stinger-bearing insects flying toward the wolf. The image dissipated, and she took a moment to pour over the creature’s mind in search of its final memories.

 

Its mind was a horrible mess, thanks mostly to the caved-in skull and brain damage suffered in its final moments of life. There were glimpses of rolling grasslands passing either side of the wolf as it ran along with its pack. Brief olfactory memories brushed through her Human mind like a pulse of force she never knew existed in the world. The timber wolf had several thousand words to describe these odors, and each scent was overwhelmingly vivid, even in memory. No terms regarding color co-related to her Human language, but that was just fine for her.

 

As soon as she turned the wolf’s body toward the north, Lain McNealy knew it had been an alpha male of a large pack. Even after a full year in the ground, the beast was physically sleek and powerful, and probably faster than any zombie she could raise from a humanoid corpse.

 

She considered keeping the creature around after she was done here with it, but wondered if its current power was a result of her abilities as a Necromancer, or the fact that her own mind was sharing space with its own.

 

Never mind, she thought, running on all fours to the north, sniffing at the air.

 

The mutant was still relatively close, within olfactory range.

 

After a full ten-minute sprint north toward the mountains, it became clear to her that she and the wolf varied widely in their ability to gauge distance with their noses. It was another fifteen minutes before the odor of the hornet-man became so overpowering that the wolf’s one eye started to dart around on its own, trying to seek out the source of the smell.

 

As soon as that one eye fell upon the Sidalis, the memory of the wolf’s death played out in her mind. It had led its pack into the woods that skirted the mountains to find fresh food. Lain had never smelled deer before, but now she knew the scent as easily as she knew her own name. The sound of the thrush and bushes being trampled and forced aside only slightly ahead of her long snout filled her ears along with the jackhammering of the wolf’s heart, pounding rapidly in her temples. On it ran, faster and faster, until suddenly its pack mates had been left in the dust.

 

Turning sharply to its left, the wolf caught sight of the deer, or rather, what it had thought was a deer. As soon as it came in sight of the animal, the wolf stopped, watching with a mixture of confusion and fear as the animal before it stretched out and changed shape, the sound of snapping bones and rearranging bodily fluids filling its ears. Before it now stood a creature covered with scales and coarse, black fur.

 

Lain knew of the wild, vicious shape shifters—Troke, they were called, a Race that were capable of civility and culture. Most, however, were still wild. They had existed in the mountains and the Allenian Hills for hundreds of years, and the origin of their species was widely unknown.

 

The Troke smiled and barked harsh laughter just before bringing its right hand, metamorphed into the shape of a mace, down on the wolf’s skull.

 

Before the beast could devour the wolf’s limp form, however, a pack of Werewolves, who had also followed the scent of deer, sprang on the Troke, stabbing and slashing it to bloody shreds with short pikes and spears.

 

The lycanthropes, respectful of their kindred species, had buried the wolf in the open plains. A ceremony of sorts had been performed to set its spirit at ease.

 

Fat lot of good it did, Lain thought bitterly, her own emotions beginning to blend with the instincts of the beast she inhabited.

 

The Sidalis, along with its companion, came back into focus up ahead. Apparently, neither had yet seen the rotting wolf, and so Lain stalked slightly closer, using a rock outcropping as cover.

 

There she listened in on the two strangers.

 

“—need to rest,” she heard, tuning into the conversation part way through.

 

“If I do that the barrier around them will falter.” This second voice was high pitched and droning, a buzzing monotone.

 

The Sidalis, she thought.

 

“We should push on into the mountains tonight, make sure we leave those criminals in our dust.”

 

“Lord Reynaldi ordered us to find the thief and the Glove of Shadows, Dean,” the Lizardman, rasped. “We shouldn’t even have concerned ourselves with those murders. We keep ourselves tucked in here, we wait for sunlight, and then we move out.

 

Lain heard the low moaning of a beast, most likely the stamprous she had seen earlier. She risked a quick look around the rocks, keeping the wolf’s head low, and saw the strange animal. The Lizardman was stroking its head gently, like a loving owner.

 

“You rest, then, Bergeon.” The Sidalis poked the ashes of a fire with his spear. “I’ll not give those criminals the chance to get ahead of us or find us.”

 

The Lizardman shrugged his shoulders, and tucked himself into a bedroll.

 

The mutant stared straight ahead, into the fire.

 

So, Lain thought, he needs to remain conscious to keep the barrier up. There had to be another way to disrupt the power, of that she was certain. Perhaps if the barrier had a larger number of occupants, it could be forced to burst.

 

Running the wolf back toward the company, she decided that more work yet had to be done this night. Onward and onward she ran, with no extent of stamina to worry about, since the creature she inhabited required no air or food to keep moving. As soon as the wolf saw her limp form with its one good eye, she left its mind and body, returning to herself.

 

Lain yawned and stretched, relaxing the muscles in her arms and legs. They felt stiff and overused, lingering sensations from having taken the undead wolf with her own mind.

 

Lain McNealy started to raise the dead en masse.

 

* * * *

 

Morning came, and with it, the release of rain from the skies above.

 

Anna’s company had made poor progress the day before, with Stockholm’s steed being overtaxed from carrying his heavy frame.

 

Today, he took the animus form of a long, sleek red wolf, and ran alongside the company.

 

Despite the rain and the muddy ground, the Hoods made much swifter progress, with Stockholm’s free mount charging at the head of the group.

 

Upon Flint’s suggestion, Anna and the others took their group slightly west of the course they had set for themselves the day before, opting not to follow the exact same path the Midnight Suns had. The Wererat’s reasoning for this change of plans had been sound. “Don’t want to run into any of the same trouble they might, boss,” he’d said at dawn. Anna had agreed wholeheartedly.

 

Their two respective styles of command, she and Fly, meant they were more apt to handle situations differently. An issue that Fly might deal with swiftly with violence might take many hours of her diplomatic reasoning to get past, and though a truce was on, she didn’t want to clean up the Draconus’ messes. Besides, she thought, the truce just means we aren’t going to attack each other. We never agreed not to set traps for one another.

 

They traveled north by northwest until noon, when they stopped for a brief meal and to rest the horses.

 

As soon as the company had dismounted, Norm set to work with one of his strange contraptions, scrutinizing some sort of readout on its glass display.

 

Anna smoked one of Flint’s cigarettes and stretched her legs, which eventually led her to the Gnome Engineer. “What’s on your mind, Norm?”

 

“Well, for starters, I was hoping you could get one of those off the Prime for me,” Norm said with a smile.

 

Anna bummed another smoke off of the Wererat, who grumbled under his breath that it was a good thing he’d brought two extra packs with him.

 

He handed her one, and one of the spare packs.

 

She stuffed the pack into her denim jacket pocket, and handed the spare cigarette to Norman, who struck a match and inhaled deeply.

 

“I really should have stopped cold turkey on these things,” he commented before returning to his device. “William, there appears to have been several dozen plots of disturbed soil here last night.” He waved the device over the ground.

 

“Zombies?”

 

Norman shrugged, unsure of what to make of his readings.

 

“Or perhaps skeleton warriors?”

 

“Can’t be sure for certain, boss,” he said. “I know this, though. If the critters had just come up on their own, without assistance from a Necromancer, the ground would have been torn apart all around us. I think we may have a spot of trouble if we run into a Necro who could raise so many so easily.”

 

Anna thought about Lain McNealy, the pale Human woman whom they had rescued from Fort Stone. One of the Midnight Suns, Anna knew, but Stockholm and Flint had both reported no signs of the Suns along their route. Was it possible that she could raise the dead from such a distance?

 

“Well, give it no mind, Norman, but keep an eye out just the same. There’s a lot of Necromancers who live outside of cities like Desanadron, and there’s the Tivursky brothers to the east.” The Tivursky brothers were a trio of Vampires who lived in the woods to the north of Desanadron, a strange bunch who weren’t actually brothers. They were three independent Vampires who had vowed to never drink from the throats of the living, and often raised corpses to keep guard over their squat cottage in the woods. Peaceful though they might be, crusaders from all over still tried to stake them.

 

“You think those blokes would really call guards up from all this way away,” Norm asked.

 

“Probably not, but it’s something to keep in mind.”

 

Anna sauntered over to Styge, who was once again deeply involved in his sketchbook, adding the smallest of details to a picture of a Blue Dragon he’d been working on since the company had first left Desanadron. She stood behind him being careful to stay out of what little light he had.

 

Tarps had been stretched across tent poles they had packed with them, keeping each member of the company and their cooking fire out of the rain’s direct downpour.

 

“Whatcha working on, old timer?”

 

Styge looked up and gave her a wicked grin. His Mohawk stood up stiff and straight, gelled to the hardness of cardboard. “Just something I’ve been holding in reserve, sort of a last ditch weapon, young William.” He held the pad up to her, and she took it cautiously, looking over the fine lines of the scales of the dragon. Styge had created an incredibly realistic depiction of a Blue Dragon—one of the kinder breeds of dragon in the known lands. They mostly inhabited the mountains they were about to head into, keeping to cold or cooler environs. Peaceful creatures though they were, if angered, they became volatile, hostile casters of magic—mostly water and ice-based spells.

 

She handed the pad back, and Styge continued drawing in the scales and spines on the whip-like tail. If Styge were forced to conjure this drawing into a physical manifestation, they’d all have to take cover, because the creature’s countenance was pure rage and fury. She shuddered to think of the old Illusionist bringing that drawing to life. Not only would it pose a risk to everyone around him, bringing it into a manifested force might kill him. Norman’s machines had been enough to render him weak and feeble—what amount of magic would be required to do the same with a dragon?

 

Anna made a decision lightning-quick; she would have to have Flint or Lee steal the sketchpad away before they entered the mountains. Before the old man had a chance to kill himself trying to protect the company. Unfortunately, she would forget about that before entering the Dwarven territories.

 

* * * *

 

The previous night, perhaps five miles east of the Hoods’ lunch spot in the rain, Lain McNealy had focused all of her considerable force into raising undead minions from miles around.

 

And so for miles around, she felt the draw of the undead creatures she raised as they came to see their new master, their creator. The first moans could be heard after only a minute or two, and Fly, Trent, and Akimaru all awoke to find their company surrounded by dozens, possibly scores, of shuffling zombies and skeletons. Trent immediately drew two throwing knives, and Akimaru started making motions with his ungloved hands, but Thaddeus Fly put up a hand to stay them.

 

“What the hell is she doing, holding a convention,” Trent spat as he approached the Headmaster.

 

Fly looked at the pale Human girl. Despite his awkwardness, he could come to enjoy her company, perhaps even in the capacity she wished for.

 

“I think she’s got a plan, Markus,” Fly said.

 

Akimaru had strapped his gloves back on, and was moving Rage’s massive body away from a pair of undead dogs sniffing too close for comfort.

 

“Don’t make a move unless you have to. And for the gods’ sakes, Trent, get over there and help Akimaru.” Fly pointed to the struggling white clad Ninja.

 

When they’d dragged Rage a safe distance away from the dogs, Fly looked around, and tallied the total number of undead entering the barrier trap.

 

After ten minutes, the total was somewhere around sixty-seven.

 

Ye gods, he thought, how many can she summon? How far is her power reaching? The number continued to climb, until an hour after she had begun, nearly two hundred shuffling, moaning zombies and skeletal warriors milled nearby.

 

There was a sudden, audible explosion of force around them, and Fly, Trent and Akimaru all covered their ears and dropped to the ground.

 

When Fly opened one eye to look over at Lain McNealy, he saw she was smiling. She stood and walked to where the barrier should have flipped her back to the barrier’s southern edge.

 

She stepped through empty space, and laughed.

 

* * * *

 

Just before dawn, Dean Masters shoved on Sergeant Bergeon’s shoulder, hard and quick. “Come on, sergeant, we’ve got to move.”

 

“Dean, calm down! What’s the matter?” The Lizardman rolled out of his blankets and splashed water from a tin cup on his scaled face.

 

Then he stared straight ahead, shaking his head and rubbing his eyes. What he saw before him, stretched out in uneven ranks for about two hundred yards to the south, almost made him scream.

 

That’s what’s the matter.” Dean Masters got his wings beating.

 

Bergeon looked over at his faithful steed, and knew he would have to leave it behind. He swiftly strapped his swords on, and was lifted up and away from the campsite. Below him, rapidly fading from view, a hundred or more undead creatures fell upon his stamprous and the remains of their camp, clawing at everything they could. His steed let out one final, anguished cry as the zombies tore greedily at its throat and face, searching for fresh meat to feed on.

The Necromancer woman had to die, he decided.

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