Bin was falling asleep again.
He wasn’t bored. Mister Path’s lectures were exciting, especially in his class on artifacts and the effect time and legend has upon them. They were full of stories, and debates on the very matter of magic, something the young ogre mage desperately wanted to know more about.
In fact, Mister Path was in the middle of one such story now. “Imagine it, if you will. The great armies of the North, allayed against a single noble’s valley. Dwarves, elves, the treemen before they fell into legend, even humans, all struggled against the great frozen Valley of the Diamond Countess. Night after night they fell beneath her powers and that of her frozen necklace. Until, in one night it all disappeared.”
The centaur paused, and looked at his students, eyebrow raised. “There have been many legends of the Diamond Countess and her valley of ice. The fact that not a trace of her actual legacy is here for magical experts to identify has led to many different theories about what sort of horde may have existed, or may still exist.”
His tail swished out, catching Bin by the hair. The boy woke with a start and a yelp. “Forty-two!” He shouted.
Mister Path chuckled. “Yes, there may even be forty two items that are still around. But, perhaps you may be able to give an actual opinion of the Diamond Countess?”
Bin frowned, and wracked his brain. Diamond Countess, Diamond Countess…what class was he in at the moment? The young ogre was so far behind the rest of the apprentices, he had to spend every waking moment stuck in books. He must have been studying too long and forgot to sleep last night.
He couldn’t just stand there. The centaur didn’t like him already, and this wasn’t going to help. Mister Path was glaring at him, so something to do with older magic…the Valley! Third book of the evening, velvet with silver etchings.
“I think that we can’t just say that she had a hoard, Master.” He said. “Without any evidence of one, that is.”
“It would probably be better to ask what kind of magic she had access to…”
“In the second century after the Folly? A human ruler?” Mister Path scoffed. “Don’t be absurd. That race could barely weave a cantrip together at the time. Without relying on more ancient magics, it is impossible for the Countess to have amassed such power.”
The humans darkened, and glared at the centaur. Even millennia later, they were still treated as second class citizens. Mister Path looked back at them, challenging a response.
Bin’s head hurt. He needed to respond, but he couldn’t exactly think. Everything seemed fuzzy.
“No response, Bin?” Mister Path asked. “Or perhaps you did not do the reading.”
“I did the reading, sir.” Bin said. “It’s just hard…”
“Hard? To read?” mister Path smiled in sympathy. “Perhaps you need a few remedial classes, then.”
Bin stood up, and glared at Mister Path.
“What is your proof that the Diamond Countess had an artifact?” The mage demanded.
“Common sense.” The centaur shot back. “Something required of any true mage.”
“So nothing.” Bin said. “You feel it is true, so it has to be?”
“Idiot boy. Sit down.”
“No. I feel better elsewhere.”
Bin needed air. He was failing that class anyways. Mister Path was just one of the Masters who hated him.
Like most everybody else.
Bin had heard of the dreaded time of adolescence. When young mages of all races established their hierarchy. They made deals, clung to those with power, and dominated anyone who seemed even the slightest bit subservient. All in the name of social progress.
But the Circle of Bel Haven was not like that, supposedly. Beyond Bin, all of the apprentices were supposed to be mature students of the art of magic. Each individual was hand-picked and groomed for the honor of being at the Circle. They were above petty squabbles, and had long left childhood whimsical feuds behind.
So, when the elf slammed into Bin and sent him tumbling into a hedge, this was a calculated measure in a long war.
Bin bit back a cry. The branches tore at his golden skin, ripping tufts of his hair and poking holes into his clothes. He knew it had to be an elf. No one else in the building was brazen enough to hit him. And not just any elf.
The boy pulled himself out of the hedge, and looked around. Whoever had pushed him had disappeared, run off. One of a dozen faces that stared at the young ogre in confusion. Not the real perpetrator.
Bin’s eyes narrowed, and found Raemillin. The elf mage lounged from the edge of a window, the very picture of a student. Quill in hand, his eyes scanning through a spellbook for a difficult incantation. He mouthed the words, careful not to intone them lest the spell come out. It looked to the world like he was lost in the book.
Bin looked closer, focusing on the lips. Sure enough, even as he spoke, Raemillin smirked, letting Bin know he was behind it all.
That was enough. Bin ran up to Raemillin, and stopped right in front of the elf. “Well? You got something to say for yourself?”
Raemillin marked his place in the book, set both book and quill down, and straightened to fully regard the ogre. He smiled with a slow warmth that seemed more filled with poison than comfort.
“Why, Bin. What happened to you?”
Bin glowered. The last time he and Raemillin had tangled, he had waited until dark to pay the elf back. He had also made a promise.
“You want to do this now?”
The area was not empty. A fact that Bin was well aware of, since no one had said anything to help him. If he was going to get any respect, if anyone was going to leave him alone, he was going to have to make it happen himself.
Ogre and elf turned. A fairy waved his hand, and lighted next to Bin. Dressed in bright purple clothes, his teal skin and bright golden wings sparkled behind his four foot frame.
“Don’t tell me you two are at it again! What, has it been a week already?”
Raemillin darkened. “Nutrose. Where’s your little flock?”
Nutrose smiled, and pointed behind him. “Over there.”
Bin turned around. Five people looked back at them. A dwarf, another fairy, a troll, and two gnomes.
“And we saw everything.” Nutrose said.
Raemillin considered them all in turn. He scoffed, and turned away.
“Bellami,” He said. “Apologize to the young half-ogre.”
An elf appeared, and bowed to Bin. “My apologies. I didn’t look where I was going.”
Bin stuck his tongue out at Bellami.
“How quaint.” She said, before walking away.
“There’s been an apology. I hope you forgive her rudeness,” Raemillin said, though his head was directed to Nutrose rather than Bin.
The elf moved closer, and nodded to the fairy. “And I hope you and yours remember this day well.”
“Always, dear Raem.” Nutrose said. “Hope you enjoy the book.”
The elf stalked off, his fun ruined. Bin looked at him walk away. Maybe he shouldn’t let this go. Raemillin needed a good smack upside the head. Maybe twelve.
“Come on, Bin.” Nutrose patted him on the back. “Meet the gang.”
“You’ve probably seen each of us around the Circle, but we’ve never had a chance to introduce ourselves.” Nutrose nodded to each of them in turn. “The gnome sisters Pidella and Pidelle are usually in the Archives…in fact, this is one of the few times they’re not.”
“I’m Pidelle,” The first one said. she tossed her blue pigtails away. “That’s Pidella with the green ponytail.”
“It’s how people tell us apart.” Pidella said. “If we didn’t change up hair, we’d both end up searching for the same book for Mister Book or one of the other Masters.”
“And you both like the color.” The dwarf had a mohawk. So gray it almost seemed to shine, it hung on one side of his face, showing off the tattoos that danced around his scalp. They looked like bolts of lightning, colored blue and gold against the gray hair.
He wore a cuirass underneath a leather coat, sleeves ripped off to show the remaining tattoos. He extended a hand. “Call me Ona.”
Bin took the offered hand, and tried not to stare at the grip.
“The troll is…how did you describe it, Kleb?” Nutrose frowned. “On a blood oath?”
“A blood pact,” Kleb towered well over everyone else, well over six feet tall. He wore a cream suit that accentuated his purple hide and red eyes. His hair was black, and well-groomed. Kleb looked like he was about to run off to a meeting.
Kleb tugged at his neck, and pulled out a necklace. The silver chain that hung from his neck was decorated with rubies, dark as blood. “The ancestors needed another mage. I was chosen, and now I study.”
“Which makes you sound like another perfect student,” The last of the group, another fairy, said. He stared at Bin, and smiled, warm and loud. His golden skin, white clothes and shining wings almost blinded the ogre.
He bowed low. “My name is Goldmight, young Bin. Leader of this little group known as the Season Leaves. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“Um, likewise.” Bin frowned. “I’m sorry…this will sound weird. But why are you talking to me?”
Goldmight and Nutrose smiled. The golden fairy sat down, and nodded to the Hoppi.
“Well, Ruby Lawks here said that you were not exactly getting along with Raemillin. Something that was obvious when Bellami made the move for her master. Nutrose had to step in when they were being just horrendous to you. But that’s not the whole truth.
“We kind of need your help in an adventure.”
“Did you happen to just come from Mister Path’s class?”
Bin nodded, and ate his lunch. And continued to eat. The Season Leaves were paying, and he was making sure it was worth it.
“What did you think?”
His mother always told him to keep his mouth shut and count to thirty before badmouthing anyone of power. If he still wanted to retort, he had to count until he couldn’t count anymore. Bin was terrible at following this advice, but when he remembered, he tried to make up for it.
So Bin was eating, trying to keep his mind going after six hundred and thirty-two while enjoying some really good food.
The Season Leaves group sat around him, fascinated. Bin had such a reputation for anger, a hot head quick to shoot with both his mouth and his flames. To see him, face set, yet eating, displayed a level of control that some apprentices did not have, and many did not expect of him.
Bin cleared his plate, and sat down again. “I did. Mister Path was talking about artifacts.”
Goldmight smiled. “Exactly, artifacts. What do you think of them?”
Bin shrugged. “They’re good, I guess.”
“Would you use one?”
“Yes!” Bin said. “In a heartbeat!”
He thought about it, and his face fell. “I mean, after I studied it to make sure it was safe.”
The Leaves laughed, Goldmight loudest of all. “Relax, Bin. We’ve all been there. Wanted to be able to take advantage of the tools of the past. In fact, we just found out about one such artifact.”
“From Mister Path?”
The fairy scoffed. “Mister Path doesn’t want to believe that anything exists that the Masters don’t already know. Even any rumors in other libraries that are in Bel Haven are suspect.”
Pidella smiled. “Did you think that the Circle was the only place with information on magic in Bel Haven?”
Bin kept quiet. The answer was yes, but he didn’t want to say.
“Ever heard of Suffrn, the Caged?” Kleb asked. When Bin shook his head, Kleb continued. “Dwarf mage, specializing in lightning magic. Spent his entire life around his ancestral home, studying in quiet the storms that would plague the seaside mountains.”
Seaside mountains? If they were talking about mountains, then that could only mean… “You’re talking about the Glass Cliffs?”
Goldmight hugged him close. “Knew he was smart! Nutrose, didn’t I say that he was smart?”
“Can’t put anything past you, Bin.” Nutrose beamed.
“Less than a week’s journey away is a hidden cache of artifacts from one of the best mages in the country,” Goldmight said. “And we just might have been the first to hear about it in…centuries!”
“A week’s journey…” Bin shook his head, and bowed his head. “But, there are classes. And I’m already behind.”
“Bin, Bin…” Nutrose shook his head. “The Masters don’t care about attendance. The only thing they ever care about is aptitude. Just prove that you can do the work come exams, and you’re set.”
“We’ll tutor you.” The gnome sisters chorused.
Bin’s eyes bugged out. Two smart gnomes, willing to help him study? And a chance for a relic?
Goldmight smiled. “All right, all right. Let’s not crowd the boy into a decision he might regret later. Come on, shoo!”
Goldmight handed Bin a piece of paper. “We’re leaving by coach at this time tomorrow. Be at the trading post then, and we’ll be off. If not, no hard feelings.”
Goldmight tussled the ogre’s hair. “But it could be fun!”
Zibnizik wasn’t at the room.
Bin checked around, confused. He knew the gnome was not at class, and he usually preferred to do his experiments in his personal lab. Zib must have been out doing…something.
Bin didn’t know what to think about that. He would have liked to have talked with Zibnizik, ask the gnome’s opinion. Sit down in a chair and talk about his day, while the gnome grunted and continued on with his own life. Then again, if Zib were actually in the room, he might hear what Bin was considering, and even try to stop him.
This seemed like a bad idea. Missing his classes struck a fundamental chord for Bin. He was there to go to the classes, to study and become a better mage. He couldn’t go to class and be a week away at the same time. He hadn’t learned that spell yet.
But there were struggles. He didn’t know how to get through the massive vocabulary that the Masters just assumed he knew. And the theories were so far beyond what he was used to. It was not another language so much as another body that Bin was being asked to inhabit. Some help from those two girls would be really great.
Bin welcomed the distraction of packing. Even if he decided not to go, the very act of packing might help him for studying later. However, he barely had a chance to weigh the pros and cons before, he found himself finished.
He took stock of the small bag filled with clothes, foodstuffs, and a single notepad. It wasn’t just a bag filled for the week. Even after months of classes, Bin could fit his entire life into that bag.
Not again. That wasn’t him anymore. Not the little boy who was always ready to move, ready to get out of the way for someone else who might have a problem. He had gotten into the Circle not by being questioning, by being unsure. He had looked at the problems he had, and bowled over them.
The young ogre was without friends. There were more waiting for him. He was lacking in respect. A lost relic would help a long way in getting it. He was going to be the greatest mage the world had ever seen, and the greatest mage knew what he was doing.
The future greatest mage in the world had one last bit of preparation to do. It involved the kitchen’s stupid and spoilt foie gras, some eggs, milk, and a bucket. Raemillin would find it in the morning, wedged above his door. Hopefully he knew how to dodge.
Goldmight and the rest of the Leaves found Bin asleep in their carriage, with a blanket settled over his face and a disgruntled driver demanding an explanation. When the fairy could stop laughing, the driver was paid, and they were gone.
“No, no, no…ha ha! No, I’m completely serious. He now has goat ears, and while he is trying to find a counterspell, he has been wearing those ridiculous hats!”
The Masters burst out into laughter. Lady Mist always knew the best stories to tell to make these weekly meetings more bearable. The Hoppi mage bounced on her feet, helping her tale along. Poor Mister Book was rolling on the floor, feathers aflutter in his humor.
“Ah, me.” Lady Mist sat down. “I could have told him something. But you know some minotaurs just need to take life by the horns.”
Lady Rune looked through her notes for the meeting, and coughed. Mist nodded, and sat down. The room remained relaxed, but ready to take in the weekly meeting.
The Masters needed this get-together. It was the best way for everyone to share their evaluations of the apprentices and their struggles. New strategies were discussed, books that might be better or a more physical test for a promising student.
Rune wasn’t in charge. She just pushed everything along so she could get back to her own work.
She looked through her notes again, and nodded. “I have several apprentices that need to spend some more night classes crafting under the next full moon before I’m confident in their abilities. Mister Moon, can you spare them from astrology?”
Mister Moon blinked, and looked at the list. It was rather early for the wolf. He nodded, and padded away for a nap. He had nothing to contribute that was worth more than a nap.
Lady Hilt looked at some of the other Masters. “I’m also going to remind some of you…Book, Rune, Oak, Path, that I need more time to find our best candidates for the Crystal Tournament. Stop throwing projects at the students. If they’re too exhausted to train, they are worthless in two years.”
A few of the Masters bristled at the words. Hilt stared at each of them in turn, daring a response.
Path finally laughed, and shrugged. “I have a few apprentices that ran off in search of buried treasure. So I’m sorry, but the Season Leaves won’t be present to be beaten by our resident…swordmaster.”
Hilt nodded, and sighed. Happened every year. Someone poked through the archives, and seemingly found the secret to eternal life and great power. Then it was off into the wilderness to expand their minds better than those silly Masters ever could.
Still, Goldmight’s little group was capable, after a fashion. And the Masters generally turned a blind eye to the whimsical trips. They usually were learning experiences, and a fashion that all the Masters agreed could not be learned in the classroom.
Mister Book looked at Path. “And what is the great relic they are searching for?”
Path shrugged. “Suffrn, the Caged.”
The Masters shrugged. Book and Hilt, however, paled. “They are going to the Glass Cliffs to find that maniac’s work?”
“What of it?”
Hilt stood up, and started to leave. “I hope you aren’t as slow in giving information as you are incompetent, Path. I will be gone for a week or two, take care of my classes.”
“The Archiwrecks are reported to be in the area, you idiot.” Hilt growled. “And if they hear of Circle apprentices tracking lost magic, they’ll kill them.”
Path glowered. He sneered, and burst out laughing. “Have fun with your little pet project, then.”
He waved his hand at the departing Master. “Bin Tract is also with them.”
Rune cursed at Path as Hilt left. Damn him. And damn Bin.
The reason Zibnizik had not been in his room last night was unusual, unprovoked, and rather chilling for himself. He had actually been in Bel Haven, picking out the appropriate attire. How did one prepare for a luncheon with a beautiful woman?
Zibnizik was a normal, rational, studious person. He did not go out on romantic excursions often…ever. It was both a matter of choice and not. He found so much pleasure in his pursuit of potions, that he rarely felt the need to go out in a social manner. It was only in the dark corners of the night that he remembered that he was so often alone.
And so when this woman out of nowhere asked him to come to a performance, he had to say yes. If nothing else, it was a wonderful experience far beyond the norm.
And so he found himself in a rather nondescript part of town. He clutched at the sparse directions that had been meant to guide him. He had passed through Melody, extremely grateful that she had not asked him to attend there. The music would have driven him mad. Instead, he was at what she had called Counterpoint, a close-held secret of the town. The bouncer for the entire cul de sac had looked him over thoroughly, but still let him through.
Zibnizik sat at his table, pulled out a book, and began to read. She had chosen a wonderfully quiet place, though there was no performer as of yet. No matter, even if he had been stood up, this place was an absolute joy. And the vintages were sublime, he made a note to return more often.
Zibnizik looked up, and saw his date on the stage. An elf, young for her race. Zibnizik had done the calculations, adjusted his already long lifespan with her own, and figured that they were only a few years apart in human terms. Still, she looked taller up there, confident. Her lute was in her hands, already finding her fingerings.
“My name’s Yuva, and tonight I brought something a little quieter for you today. I have a new friend, and I didn’t want to scare him off immediately.”
Yuva the elf struck a chord, and light poured out of the instrument. Brown, it looked like her hair had started to glow. It became trees, green with foliage.
Come walk with me, come talk with me/Through the trees, through the trees.
Don’t close your eyes, it will be all right/In the trees, in the trees.
The gnome’s eyes almost bulged out of their sockets. Yuva looked straight at him, walking through the new forest.
I have come so far, to find where you are/Feel the ease, find the trees.
She walked off the stage, and settled down right next to Zibnizik.
There is time to talk, on this magic walk/Through the trees, through the trees.
Oh, no. A lightness in his head. The shaking of his hands. Zibnizik could only watch in horror as she played on. Yuva was singing, and performing magic, and that lute music.
Dear, he couldn’t be enraptured with someone, could he?
Yuva played on for a while longer, and put the lute away after the song. There were a few groans, and mutters about ruining an evening, but Counterpoint customers knew how to treat musicians. They were happy she came by, and thanked her for her time.
“I promise some more songs later,” Yuva said as everyone returned to their drinks.
Zibnizik nodded appreciatively, and smiled. “You play amazingly Yuva.”
The elf blushed. “Thanks. I’ve played here a few times, so it’s easier to get through my nervousness.”
“It shows. I didn’t get any sense of worry from you.”
Yuva just smiled again. “So, what have you been up to, Zibnizik?”
The gnome shrugged. “Deciphering some older formulae. I have a few aromatics that are in the work that could help combat depression or anxiety.”
“That sounds amazing!” Yuva said. “Like soothing?”
“Not exactly,” Zibnizik said. “At the moment they’re too powerful. The recipes I’ve found need to be diluted, or they wipe away all of the negative emotion.”
“But isn’t that a good thing?”
“What’s life without anxiety?” The gnome asked. “It is the nagging feeling at the back of your mind that you have not done enough, that you still need to accomplish something, even if it is unknown. Remove it, and you could very well remove your very need to take your next breath.”
The elf stared for a moment. And then she looked down, depressed. “I’m sorry. I was just thinking about test preparation and the like.”
“And that could be great,” Zib said. “I just need to find a way to dilute it.”
They sat and drank in silence. Zibnizik wondered whether this was normal for a date. A silence so long it bordered on comatose. Yuva was a very nice girl, and beautiful. But she seemed…distracted. Like she was considering something, or anything, else.
“Something on your mind?” He asked.
“It doesn’t seem fair,” Yuva said. “To do this to you.”
“Do what?” Zibnizik asked.
“Ask you here. You’re obviously busy…”
“I’m happy to be here.”
“When I wanted to check on Bin.”
“Oh…” Zib’s face fell. Well, he might as well remove his own anxiety. This wasn’t a date at all. It was something bordering on a check-in from… from what?
“Why do you want to know?” Zibnizik frowned. She was an elf, after all. Could Raemillin be trying another stunt? He wasn’t going to stand for it. “If Raemillin put you up to this…”
“No!” Yuva looked around, scared. “If Raemillin found out what I’m doing, I could be expelled from the Circle.”
Which could only mean that she cared about Bin. Curious.
Yuva sighed, and waved her hand. “This, this place. And even my magic, was because Bin was trying to be kind. And he got in trouble because of it. I just want to make sure he’s ok.”
“He’s probably fine,” Zibnizik said. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
“Okay,” Yuva relented. “I was just worried because he’s going to be relic hunting with the Season Leaves.”
“What?” Zibnizik frowned. The Leaves weren’t exactly exclusive or unknown, but they had a reputation for doing things a bit more recklessly. “Where, exactly?”
“The Glass Cliffs.” Yuva looked at Zib as the gnome sank into his chair, worry plain on his face. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m actually going to have to be a good friend to this kid…” Zibnizik said.
“That boy is going to get himself killed.” Hilt muttered. “Because I’m going to be the one to do it.”
“Hilt!” Book exclaimed. The sphinx ceased pacing, throwing her a look.
“The Leaves?” Hilt asked. “Those rainbow castoff wannabee rebels? They’d find a way to muck this up even without a criminal organization in the area.”
“And to top it off, Bin.” Book did a mental check of what he would need in order to leave. Draft a letter of recess for several of his classes, and personal apologies to their parents. Perhaps Ruby Lawks would be able to…no, she was with that insane group.
“I may need to dip into my spellbooks for a quick copy charm,” he said absentmindedly.
“You won’t need it.”
“I cannot simply abandon my classes,” Book said. “The first years alone would riot in Bel Haven.”
“They won’t. because you’re not going.”
Book fixed her with a stare. “I beg your pardon?”
Hilt kept walking, straight for the armory. “I’ll be faster on my own, and can get a hold of Bin easier if you stay here.”
“Ah, yes.” Book settled on his haunches, his tone dry. “I forgot how much faster two legs are compared to four. Less feet to worry about.”
“If I have to wait for five hours while you compose your little apologies to each individual student…”
“It is to protect both the apprentices at home and to ensure that they know where I am abroad!”
“It’s being a ninny!”
“Neither of you should go.”
Hilt and Book turned to look at Rune. The dwarf looked up at the sky, and shrugged. “The ogre made his decision. Why not respect it?”
“Because it’s stupid,” Hilt retorted. “And we don’t let apprentices experiment with dark wizards just for a rite of passage.”
“Quite right,” Book agreed. “He can be abrasive, but Bin is one of our charges.”
“And the only one you believe cannot take care of himself?”
“None of those fools can take care of themselves,” Hilt muttered. “But most of them are smart enough to stay put when an area is about to become a feeding frenzy for dark magic.”
She pointed at Rune. “And if you weren’t still angry with him over an idiotic dye job, you’d be coming with us too.”
Book winced. Bin had recently been banned from Rune’s classes over Yuva arriving at Counterpoint with pink hair. The ban was both to protect Yuva’s standing with the elves, and teach Bin a hard lesson in the pitfalls of academic politics. Rune was admired for her integrity by some, while other’s questioned her cold demeanor toward the young ogre. The fact that Book had helped with that decision was not public knowledge, and he knew it had been painful for Rune to do.
Rune stared at Hilt for a while, and shrugged. “And this has nothing to do with you considering the half-breed a replacement for your own loss?”
Hilt turned on her heel, and slammed her leg right below Rune’s throat. The dwarf went flying, crashing down to the floor. Rune wheezed, trying to breathe.
“I told you once before, never speak like that again,” Hilt murmured. “And I said I’d never give you another chance.”
She glared at Book. “Now or never, bookworm.”
Book mouthed sorry to the dazed Rune Master before he padded off after the psychopathic swordswoman.
There was rain in the trees. The soft downpour pittered down on the leaves, dabbing tears on the forest canopy. Beasts and birds flew away. They tried to find shelter and warmth from the weeping sky.
One shelter moved slowly onwards. A carriage, with just over a half-dozen passengers, rolled over the dirt paths. The wheels churned through mud that was well on its way to becoming more water than earth.
The carriage rolled to a stop, and refused to go any further.
Goldmight poked his head out of the carriage, and looked at the driver. “Hello? We stopped?”
“Stopped for the night,” The driver replied. He reached into his bag, and drew out a box. He started to pull out additions to the carriage that seemingly had no business being kept in such a small container, including a room.
“It’s the middle of the day!”
“Not for me.” The man stepped into the new room that was now next to the carriage. “When we can’t go any further, we stop.”
“It’s just a little rain.”
“Then you go on.” The driver closed the door behind him.
“But…shelter!” Ruby Lawks shouted. “We’re just in a little wagon, and it’s raining! Can’t you at least share?”
If the driver heard her, he ignored her.
Goldmight fumed, and slammed his hand against the door. “Paid good money to him, and this is how he treats us. I’m going to complain to the union, see if he ever gets work after ignoring someone from the Circle.”
“That’s what you get, working with humans.” Kleb muttered. The troll burrowed further into his coat, and tried to find some more warmth. “What do we do now?”
Pidelle and Pidella looked through their tomes. “We could try constructing some hardlight dwellings. But in this cloud cover, it will be a bit more difficult.” Pidelle said.
“Maybe if we look at Haricross’ tome on dwellings?”
“That could take too long, and Haricross only wanted permanent dwellings. Maybe Bumdeedee…”
Nutrose looked outside. “Maybe we could just enjoy Bin’s fire while you girls just get us a tent put together.”
Bin looked up at the sound of his name. He was working on adding another log to the fire, a short way from the wagon, drying it with his own magic before setting it ablaze.
Goldmight laughed, and took a long gaze over the fire. “It seems someone was a lot more proactive than we thought.”
Bin smiled. “I’m used to wet nights. It’s one of the reasons I learned fire so quickly.”
Pidella adjusted her ponytail, and examined closely. “There’s no weaving of runes, no latent spoken essence, and certainly not a tome to be seen. How did you do it?”
Bin grimaced, and waved his hand. His fingers were engulfed in flame.
“So you are a mere practitioner, with no higher study of the intricacies of conflagration?”
“Pidella, do be quiet!” Ruby scolded. She jumped out of the carriage and all but ran to the fire. “The boy has fire, and if you’d look behind him, you’d see he has roots and berries.”
The Hoppi gathered up her skirts and settled down next to Bin. “Now, you can run a seminar on fire magic in the carriage where it is cold and wet, or you can say thank you.”
Pidella blinked. “I didn’t?”
The gnome bowed her head. “I’m sorry, Bin. I don’t speak well.”
“None of us do,” Goldmight said. “We’re the Leaves.”
Goldmight floated apart from the group. He smiled,and put his hands out to the fire. He basked in the warmth for a time.
“You’re a lot like us, Bin.” Goldmight said. “The Leaves aren’t the best, or the most popular. We’re together, because we’re better that way.”
“That’s a stupid way of putting it.” Pidelle said. she was enraptured in her books, making notes of a cobbled spell for a tent.
“Is it?” Nutrose said. He pointed to the gnome sisters. “How often do you two get pushed aside, too brainy for your own tongues?”
Kleb grunted. “Or a troll that is too refined to participate in the older rituals of the tribe. I can’t enjoy a good glass of wine or a piece of art without it being considered a freakish hobby.”
“We’re actually cousins,” Goldmight said, hugging Nutrose close. “A couple of fairies who no one takes seriously because we’re too colorful.”
Ona set down his cuirass. He tapped it twice, and then rubbed a hand over his inked right arm. The cuirass expanded, and folded over itself, becoming a makeshift dwelling around the campfire. He sat down next to Bin, and shrugged.
“Look at me.”
“I can’t.” Pidelle shouted from the carriage. “You shut off the light!”
“Get in here, then!” Ona roared back. He grinned at Bin. “Gotta love a good chance to be together with friends.”
Bin nodded. He pretended to understand. He knew that was a thing that most people could.
Goldmight wasn’t fooled. He laid a hand on Bin’s shoulder. Bin looked up at him.
“I don’t have any friends.” Bin said. “Since I got here, everyone treats me like I’m not good enough, or in their way. Only Hilt is willing to give me any time and not sound like it’s a burden.”
“And she’s scary in her own right.” Goldmight said. “Well, look at you now!”
He spread his hand forth. “In just two days, you found six more.”
Bin smiled, and nodded.
“So can you maybe scrounge up something else for us to eat?” Goldmight grinned. “We’re not exactly the best at outdoor life, especially as dark is getting on.”
Bin ran out of the dwelling. His arms were engulfed in flame, lighting his path through the woods. Squirrels, birds, all the wooded creatures ran away, but he didn’t care. He had friends!
And friends needed food. He had seen some mushrooms, and even more of the berries. And the root vegetables. This place had food aplenty. Not the bark he had had to live on for a few days that time. He dug up a few tubers, and set to finding something better. Maybe even a rabbit…
That was probably insensitive to Ruby. Maybe something else, but bigger than squirell…
“You’re too nice, you know that?”
Bin looked up. Nutrose was perched up in a tree. He held a few birds, geese by the looks of them. Throats slit with a minimal cut, blood dripping down on the ground.
“You found food.” Bin said.
“You too.” Nutrose said. “Thought I’d help. Everyone else seems to just be content with letting you do everything.”
“They don’t know how to…”
“Goldmight doesn’t want them exerting themselves.” Nutrose waved his hand. The dead geese floated down next to him. “He knows that the Glass Cliffs are too important to waste energy on something like food.”
“Then why me?” Bin asked.
Nutrose smiled. “You’re a nice kid. In a stupid way. And you got us some fire without any fuss, so I’ll give you some free advice. You need to top trusting everybody.”
“Right.” Nutrose looked out in the dark. “Everyone at the Circle has their own agenda. And for the most part, no one cares what happens to anyone else. If you don’t watch out, you’re going to end up on the short end of someone’s little scheme.”
“You guys invited me here,” Bin said.
“And why did we do that?” Nutrose asked.
Bin didn’t have an answer.
“Food for thought.” Nutrose said. he laughed, and gathered up and shook the geese. “Better get these back to camp.”
“Everyone has an agenda…” Bin reasoned. “Including you?”
“How did you forget the tent?”
“I thought you were bringing the tent?”
“Why would I be bringing the tent? Did you at least remember sleeping bags?”
“I thought we had a spell for that.”
“I think so?”
This had gone on for two hours. Zibnizik wasn’t sure if he was still enraptured with Yuva, though he did know he wanted to scream.
They currently were huddled underneath a piece of conjured tent. Their fire blazed next to them. The crackle was far merrier than the two campers felt.
Food, however, was a success. Zibnizik had pulled out a couple potions, and handed one to Yuva. “Want a vegetarian meal, or steak?”
“Sorry,” Yuva said. “I don’t really like simulated meals.”
“This is not a simulation,” Zibnizik popped the cork. A cranberry scent wafted out, making Yuva’s mouth water. “This is my own design. It is a dinner, waiting to be drunk. It is real to the taste buds, and gives the same health benefits as eating a full meal.”
Yuva looked warily at the glass container. “Seriously?”
Zibnizik took a drink. Right, this was a vegetable chowder. Too much onion, but there were benefits to that.
His eyes bulged, and he rushed for his potions chest. The gnome scrambled at the clasp, breaking it open.
“What is it?” Yuva rushed up behind him. “Misplaced magic, wrong ingredients? Poison! Oh, no, you’re poisoned, I need an antidote…”
Zibnizik popped a cork, and downed the bottle. He sighed, and slumped to his knees.
“Quick thinking,” Yuva said. She looked down at the bottle. “What was that. A cureall?”
“Water,” Zib said. “I put too much cayenne pepper in that one.”
Yuva stared. She collapsed to the ground, laughing hysterically. “You’re serious!” She shouted. She clutched at her side, feeling the laughter ache into her ribs.
“It wasn’t that funny…” Zibnizik filed his potions away.
“Sorry.” Yuva snatched the onion potion from him, giggles dying down as she caught her breath. “I haven’t had anything to eat all day.”
“Careful, the pepp…”
Yuva took a long drink, and sighed. “Been eating peppers for decades. The hotter, the better. One of the few cooking thrills that aren’t risqué for an elf in high stature.”
Zibnizik sighed, and made another note in his book. An acquired taste, then.
Yuva looked around, and smiled. “That just made today better, don’t you think?”
The gnome shrugged. “We’re still wet, and alone, and tired.”
“And sober,” Yuva said.
Zibnizik pulled out a flask and two containers.
Yuva stared at him openmouthed. “How did you…why?”
“Potion expert?” Zibnizik said. He cocked an eyebrow. “It would be a crime to not always have alcohol on hand.”
The night was getting better. The rain eased off and ended. After a few drinks, they looked at each other.
“Bed time?” Yuva asked.
“Um…yes,” Zibnizik managed to not stammer. He spun and rolled onto his side, curled by the dying fire, trying to close his eyes. Yuva settled on the other side of the fire, quickly drifting off to sleep.
The gnome’s mind was not letting him sleep. He didn’t know what was going on with Yuva, or Bin. Was he being a good friend? Is this what friends did? And was he charming with Yuva, or just asinine?
He didn’t even notice the blade as it pressed against his throat.
No one expected Ona to save them all. Ona least of all.
Ona was not a rustic creature. He enjoyed his life in the big city. While he was finding the outdoors to be kind of rad, they were missing some essentials. Like plumbing, or a decent coffee. He was cursed to be morose the entire day without his customary intake of caffeine.
Figuratively cursed, of course.
Regardless, Ona had spent most of the night tossing and turning in his makeshift dwelling. The rain had ended some time after night-fall. The gnome sisters were holed up in the carriage with Ruby Lawks, Nutrose was off in the trees, and Bin had fallen asleep outside. Which left the tattooed dwarf to deal with the snores of a refined troll and their musically dense leader. Just after midnight, Ona stumbled out of the dwelling, promising retribution.
Ona had been having nice dreams too. Of lightning, the relic in his own hands. The power, the legacy…
He tripped over the first enemy, and accidentally knocked out the shadowy figure before he was even aware they were under attack.
Three approaching Archiwrecks froze in place, surprised as well. They had watched the makeshift camp for hours, and had been certain all were asleep. The snores and rumbles from the dwelling must have been from an army, not merely two city folk. To have someone walk up on them, well…no one quite knows exactly who screamed first. Only that it was far higher pitched than it should have been.
“Get!” The first enemy shouted underneath Ona’s bulk. Get he did, and clasped his arm. The dwarf murmured a quick spell. His marks flared to life, light blinding his enemies.
“Attack!” He shouted, and lashed out with his fist. Even half-asleep, the blow knocked a human Archiwreck unconscious. The third enemy blinked the light out of her eyes, and tried to reach for her book in a bag at her side.
The girls stumbled out of the carriage. Ruby pointed a wand at the third. “Hax!” she screamed. White light lanced forth, and sent the enemy back into the trees. The gnome sisters threw their books out, and raced next to the dwelling.
Ona turned, but the other two were gone. Vanished. “What just happened?” he asked.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” Goldmight said. he flit out of the dwelling, followed by a bleary-eyed Kleb. “Who were those?”
“Archiwrecks,” Pidella said. She looked to her sister for confirmation, who nodded. “They were wearing a crest, a temple arch broken in half.”
Ruby looked at them. “Archiwrecks?”
“Outsider mages,” Pidelle said. “A group devoted to tomb raiding and stealing magical artifacts for power. Though they were supposed to be further south…” She trailed off, and looked at her books. “Am I not current?”
“You didn’t read last month’s warnings?” Pidella asked.
“There was a paper in one of Book’s classes, you know how I can get swamped with requests.”
“They said Archiwrecks were sighted near the Glass Cliffs.”
The sisters paled, and looked at each other. “We need to do more joint coffee sessions for regrouping,” Pidelle suggested.
“Later.” Goldmight waved his hand. Dust shimmered off his wings, bathing the clearing in a pale golden light.
“They’re coming back, with reinforcements.”
Pidella was correct. The crest was there on all two dozen of the Archiwrecks. The broken arch could be seen clearly as they walked into the clearing.
Archiwrecks. The name inspired fear in Ruby Lawks’ ears. Her Lady had had to deal with the raiders before. They lived for the ways of old, trying to bring forth the greatest magics and powers long lost to history. The members held no mercy for the living, so consumed with a need to live in the past.
They arranged themselves around the Leaves, in no hurry. They outnumbered the group at well over three-to-one, and knew it. They wore grey hooded jackets, gear able to plumb the depths of the mountains while striking fear in the hearts of a half-dozen students on an adventure.
“Turn back,” rasped the leader. He held a pickaxe in his gloved hand, his face hidden beneath the cowl. “Go back to your little Circle, mages.”
Goldmight puffed himself up, and looked at them. “We’re mages with the Circle of Bel Haven…”
“They already know that,” Kleb hissed.
“And if you know that, you know that we’re on an expedition to the Glass Cliffs.” Goldmight pointed at the Archiwrecks. “Let us pass.”
“The Glass Cliffs are ours now.” The leader said. “As is the treasure of Suffrn the Caged.”
Ruby looked at the gnome sisters. They looked back, bewildered. How could they possibly know they were looking for Suffrn?
There was a crack, and the Leaves looked back. The carriage, helmed by that traitorous driver, tore back down the road towards town.
“Coward!” Goldmight called back at him. He looked back to the leader. “How much did you pay him?”
“Nothing.” The leader waved its hand. “There was no need with you brats mouthing off to every tavern in Melody about your excursion.”
Kleb bowed his head. That was probably him.
“I say again,” the leader said. “Turn back.”
“And if we refuse?” Kleb asked. “We are not exactly powerless.”
“But you are outnumbered.” The leader said. “Gather up your belongings, and head back. I say one last time…”
A snore broke his threat. The leader looked down in surprise. What was the source of that sound?
Bin Tract rolled over in his sleep. There was a smile on his face, and good dreams. He had friends, they were off on an adventure. This was going to be great.
The leader looked at Kleb. “Is he yours?”
The troll’s eyes flashed. He growled, reaching into his magic. “Bin’s an ogre, I’m a troll.” He spat. “Racist bastard.”
Bin’s eyes popped open. “Hu-wah?”
The leader cleared his throat. “I say, for the third time…”
“Fourth.” Pidelle said.
“He was interrupted on the fourth, sis,” Pidella explained.
“His intention was already clear. So even if he was interrupted, it counts.”
The leader roared. “Thrice I have said, and this time I swear. If you shall not leave by your own hand, we shall make you.”
Bin let out a yawn and looked up from his rest. He stretched out as he stood up. “What’s going on?”
“Bad guys.” Ona pointed at them. “And they want us gone.”
“Cool.” Bin leaped forward. He shot a blast of flame down at the Archiwrecks’ feet. They stepped back hastily.
Bin spun around, sparks gathering around him. He clapped his hands together, and shouted. A bolt of lightning coursed out of him. It struck the leader, sending the Archiwreck flying out into the wilderness.
“Fun time.” Bin said, smiling.
Bin stepped forward, readying his stance. He winked at the Archiwrecks.
“Let’s go then,” He said. “Mage battle, twenty-to-one.”
“Seven,” Kleb corrected.
“Right. You guys get some too.”
The Archiwrecks looked at each other. They hefted pickaxes, swords, even a few wands. But they did so cautiously. If the lone child of the group was so skilled, and the dwarf accidentally neutralized three others, what could the rest of the group be like?
The leader burst out of the trees. The hood was torn from his face, showing that he was human, though riddled with welts and bruises. He screamed aloud, and looked at the group.
“What are you waiting for?” He howled. “Kill them!”
Some tried. Others held back. And as Nutrose watched from a distance, hidden in the eaves of a poplar tree, he could see that the Archiwrecks were very much an open-vision gang of evil. It was a group made up of those who wanted power, and the rumor of old wealth appealed greatly to them. For some, joining up was to conquer, and for others a way to feel less small.
Those who charged forward already felt they had strength. Whether it was working mines, or construction, or growing out of local gangs, they had proven strength the old-fashioned way: by beating up anyone who came close to them. A few even had staffs, and the gnome sisters were hard at work countering any spell that came close to the dwelling.
If the Archiwrecks were made up of killers, the adventure would have ended this evening. But far more of the group were scholars, and not particularly good ones at that. They had grown up frail, or without magic, or human. Beaten down by the world, the Archiwrecks were the only ones that seemed to offer them a true path to becoming more than the nothings they saw themselves as.
Nutrose saw this, and tucked it away. And he noted, as the fighting broke out, that Kleb fell to an axe strike.
The troll screamed, clutching at his side. His shirt was in tatters, and underneath blood flowed. He passed out, crashing to the ground.
“Enough!” Goldmight shouted. He flew up into the air, and pointed at the leader. “Blood has been spilt, the blood of mine. Return to whence you came, or suffer my wrath.”
“We do not take orders from dandy little pixies,” The leader shouted.
“Dandy?” Goldmight glowed. “I am a student of Luxar, the Light. I can call down the very sun upon your heads, or the moonbeams howling through your ears. Last warning, human. Turn back or die.”
Goldmight smirked. “That’s my line.”
He sang. A pure, long note. The clearing filled with light, golden light of the midday sun. Archiwrecks cried out in pain, and clutched at their eyes. They couldn’t see, what was that fairy doing to them? What had he done?
Too much, it seemed. For his own party spent the next ten minutes blinking the spots out of their eyes as the nighttime darkness returned. The Archiwrecks were gone, all fled. Where the leader had stood, only a spot of blood and ash marked the land. From the look on Goldmight’s face, it did not indicate victory.
Even if it had, there was Kleb. He was pale, and shivering. The troll scrabbled around with his hand, and found Bin’s own.
“Kid,” Kleb said. “You know what to do.”
Bin nodded. His hand lit with flame. He sealed the wound. Kleb cried once more, and passed out.
“Is he ok?” Ruby looked on in horror.
Bin shook his head. “No. He’s in really bad shape. He needs medical attention.”
“No,” Goldmight said. “We go on.”
“Kleb’s in trouble!” Ona protested.
“And we can’t carry him anyways,” Nutrose said, emerging from the trees. “But closer to the Glass Cliffs is a small inn, where healers often travel.” He patted Ona on the head. “If you can get him there, he should be fine with rest and a little tending.”
Nutrose perched on the dwarf’s shoulder. “We all keep our promises,” he whispered. “You keep yours to Kleb, and I’ll keep mine to you.”
If any noticed the exchange, they did not make mention of it. In the middle of the night, the rest of the Leaves too shaken for sleep, they moved on into the darkness.
“Pitiful, absolutely disgraceful.”
Hilt squatted over Zibnizik. She looked at her blade, poised over his throat, and tutted.
“Zibnizik, if I were in a grading mood, I would fail you on the spot. No perimeter guard, no wards to speak of, and not even someone keeping watch. That is a failing grade.”
“Lady Hilt,” the gnome said, not taking his eyes off the weapon. “Pardon my rudeness, but I’m not in classes with you.”
She tapped him on the head with the flat of her blade. “No reason to not study the basics.”
Book nudged Yuva awake with his paw. The elf blinked, and awoke.
“Mister Book?” She rubbed her eyes. “What are you doing here?”
“I am on a quest,” Book said. “For that ever-elusive prey, the roaming cup of coffee. Hilt assures me that if I just keep looking, late into the hours and around wandering students, I shall find the cup that shall finally soothe my soul.”
“Sometimes I just hate you.”
Book shrugged – an impressive gesture on a sphinx. “I’m an evening person.” He flicked his tail, and the fire roared awake.
Yuva raised a hand. “Um, Masters? What are you doing here?”
“Same as you,” Hilt said. “Looking for Bin and the Leaves before they go and do something incredibly stupid.”
“Like charge into Archiwreck territory looking for a relic?” Zibnizik asked.
“Exactly like that.” Book drank from a cup of coffee. Zibnizik frowned, and checked. There wasn’t a coffeepot around, and the fire had just been lit. Book patted his bag, and smiled.
“This is truly wonderful.” The other three had to wait several moments as the sphinx enjoyed his mug. After several gulps and a long sigh, Book set the mug down by the fire, and smiled again.
“Now that we are properly awake, Hilt and I also have to tell you that things are far worse than they appear.”
“The Leaves aren’t going after just anyone’s work,” Hilt said. “They’re trying to find Suffrn’s cache.”
Zibnizik and Yuva stared ahead, confused.
“Suffrn?” Book asked. “Suffrn the Caged? Dwarf mage, specializing in lightning?”
He gave a long look at Zibnizik. “I seem to recall a few lectures I gave in your classes about dwarven magic in the third millennium. Given your interest in history…”
“I’m certain the memory has just been misplaced.” Zibnizik failed to mention that Book’s lectures on magic could stretch on for days if he could not hear the hourly bell tolls. He was most likely back in his room at the time, studying from history books and paying a first-year to take notes.
Book gave a long sigh. “Suffrn was known primarily for lightning, something that, while remarkable, is not completely extraordinary. But he became known as the Caged because of his ability to capture electricity, and harness it to his will.”
“That seems extraordinary,” Zibnizik agreed.
“Indeed. It was rumored he could ball up lightning, make a house of storms, and even create golems of electricity that remain on guard to defend his resting place to this day.”
Yuva and Zibnizik stopped breathing.
“Reports of this may be exaggerated,” Book admitted. “But since no one who has investigated the rumors has ever returned, who can tell?”
How does one know they are experienced? Simple, they have explored life.
And how does one know how exploration is done? Nutrose knew that there were several answers to this, but still found himself rolling the question over in his mind.
Was it by knowledge gained? Than the two Sarrofop sisters, Pidelle and Pidella, were the greatest explored of all. They dove deep into exploration on a daily basis, all while never leaving the comfort of the Archives as they delved down in the darkness.
However, the two girls could not help but be frightened. Looking around, they could find no solace, nothing familiar. All around them the trees beckoned, treacherous and inviting them to misery. No, their exploration was sheltered, displaced from reality.
How about distance travelled? Nutrose’s gaze found Ruby Lawks. The Hoppi girl had most likely exceeded the entire company of the Leaves combined with her own travels. Her Lady demanded a busy social life, one that traveled the width and breadth of Europa. But even considering that, one knew of the luxury that Lawks most likely held at her fingertips on those journeys. Pampered servants for even more pampered lords and ladies. She didn’t experience life to the fullest, merely to its most extravagant.
But then there was Bin. Broken Bin, the Ogre Mage. The kid who was too stupid to know how wretched his lot was at the Circle. Or perhaps he was smart enough to hide his own weaknesses. Doubtful. Regardless, he was young, and apparently easy to manipulate. Experienced he was not.
Ona and Kleb weren’t there. As for Goldmight and himself… well. They were something different.
Why did he have to think of all this? They were on their way to adventure. They’d fought off the Archiwrecks, held them at bay. Soon they would face their greatest test, and be the stronger for it.
Fools. These weren’t adventurers. They were students, glorified library rats. They all lived in the safety of school, every last one of them. No one had taught them what couldn’t be taught. Real pain, real sorrow. And the true meaning of fear.
That was what awaited them at the entrance into the cliffs. It was a small, stone door, broken in half. The handle was scattered in powder around the bare earth in front of the hole. The door itself lay inside the entrance, the pieces moved out of the way to let the Archiwrecks in. What was left of them, anyways.
All of the cowards that Nutrose had seen earlier were dead. They hung from trees around the entrance. Their throats had been slit. They stared out with dead eyes.
Ruby cried out, and looked away. Goldmight stared ahead, grim. He patted Ruby on the shoulder, the Sarrofop sisters trying their best to console her. She sobbed, soon joined by Pidelle and Pidella.
Nutrose stood next to Bin. The child looked up, and said nothing. A tear rolled down the side of his face. It was one of confusion, of sorrow with no understanding for why it was going on.
“This was a message,” Nutrose said to Goldmight. “A warning that the Archiwrecks aren’t to be messed with.”
“Mmhmm…” Goldmight looked up at one of the men. “But was it for their enemies, or any Archiwreck who might be thinking of showing mercy?”
“We go on.” Goldmight said. he moved into the cave. Bin followed behind, and then the girls. They had nowhere else to go.
Several of them might die here today, Nutrose thought. But they might also become the stronger for it.
He almost laughed. More a fool was he. This wasn’t a test. It wasn’t even real life.
This was power. Reality caught up to power, and experience explained why. That was truth.
This didn’t seem so fun anymore to Ruby Lawks.
The young Lady-in-Waiting was not, exactly, part of the Season Leaves. She was actually doing her duty. Her Lady had demanded that she experience what the Circle had to offer. Speak with anyone and everyone, and see what could be seen. It wasn’t even a demand, but rather an order. The Lady had ordered her to grow.
The Season Leaves were about as different from her normal life as could be expected. And it was easy enough to ingratiate herself into their good graces. They seemed to welcome new company, and this was exactly how she had been told to approach the Circle. Make new friends, and learn from them. Make them learn to respect you, and they will show you new ways to learn.
So when Goldmight had said there was an artifact to be found, she thought of that silly little ogre who was willing to run through a brick wall. They’d go to the Glass Cliffs, do a little excavation, and perhaps even get some shopping done before they returned home by the weekend.
Maybe she should have expected the dank. Or the dust that clung to cobwebs, threatening to ruin what was left of her tattered clothes.
But she could not have been meant to see the bodies. To see death, brought on indirectly by her own actions. That shook her. It made her question what she was doing for her Lady.
She wanted to go home. She wanted a bath and then to spend a few hours brushing her fur, and her ears. Anything to get away from this…horror.
She did not say any of this, of course. That would be rude, and her Lady was most explicit on that.
They came to a large room that buzzed with energy. It was lit up with a vibrant blue light, but such strange light it was. Blue lines coursed throughout the edges of the room. It criss-crossed through the floor, making a checkerboard pattern on the surface.
At the far edge of the room was a single door. It was a dark velvet blue, flanked by two golems. Each plated with iron. The fairies and the gnomes each took a sharp intake of breath.
“Right, dwarf mage.” Goldmight shook his head. “Suffrn had no problems working with iron.”
He looked warily at the area, and frowned. “This doesn’t make sense. The Archiwrecks are here, but we didn’t run into them on our way in.”
“Maybe they left for dinner?” Ruby asked hopefully.
“Without a single guard?” Nutrose responded. “That doesn’t seem likely.
“Not a single guard,” a voice called out. A body dropped to the floor, and then a second. Two more limp forms collapsed behind the group, and Pidella cried out. A fifth tumbled unceremoniously from the ceiling.
Lady Hilt strode out of the shadows, her hand on the hilt of her blade. Book floated down from the ceiling, carrying Yuva and Zibnizik.
“Five,” Hilt muttered. “Five guards to alert them to any apprentices stupid enough to try and steal a mage’s treasure trove.”
She pointed straight at Bin, eyes narrowed.
Goldmight spread his arms wide. “Masters…”
Book laid a paw down on the ground. “Goldmight. I should have known this was all your doing. Luxar has written about the possibilities of this cache for years, and yet nothing came out of it. Is that why you were willing to put everyone in danger?”
The fairy gasped in shock. “Danger? I would never!”
“Really?” Hilt looked around. “You seem to be missing Ona and Kleb.”
“They had a prior engagement,” Nutrose said quickly.
“With a doctor?”
The Leaves fell silent.
“I thought so. When we passed them trying to stumble their way back into town, I would have thought some of you would have turned back. But the possibility of the treasure that eluded the Sorcerer of Light was too much for his apprentice to resist.”
Goldmight protested. “This isn’t some vanity! Suffrn’s work has been lost for centuries, rotting in here. And no one at the Circle has ever been willing to investigate?”
Hilt slashed her sword at a wall. Gravel flew into her waiting hand. She threw the rocks straight at the door. The golems came to life, and slashed at the gravel. It disintegrated in an instant.
“That’s why. No one has even gotten past this first defense. And trying to tunnel in elsewhere sets off the lightning Cage that Suffrn was so famous for. We are not risking our lives just for someone else’s work.”
“Well, we are.”
Hilt spun around, sword in hand. The leader of the Archiwrecks bowed his head, and smiled from the entry-way.
“Lady Hilt. And Mister Book. Two Masters from the Circle of Bel Haven. I am honored that you came to inspect our site.”
Two dozen Archiwrecks appeared behind him. No weapons this time, just spell books. They chanted in a low voice, adding their power to his own.
“But this is a private dig, and you are trespassing. Leave.”
Book glared at Goldmight and pointed at the Archiwrecks. “Also, you were rampaging through a known bandit guild’s territory. Perhaps not a good idea.”
The math seemed certain. Four from Lady Hilt’s party, six from Goldmight’s, against twenty-five Archiwrecks that had just purged the weakness from their ranks. Any attack would be merciless.
Bin snuck a peek back, and spotted Zibnizik and Yuva. He waved, and smiled weakly. If they were there, it might have been his fault. He couldn’t imagine Zib getting out of the Circle for much. He was going to have to make it up to him.
Hilt held up her sword, and sheathed it. “We just wanted to collect our apprentices,” she announced. She moved towards the Leaves, and bowed. “Let us go, and we will leave immediately.”
“Don’t be absurd,” Nutrose muttered, loud enough for everyone to hear.
“Nutrose,” Goldmight said. “Don’t.”
“Why?” Nutrose looked around. “It’s obvious they can’t allow us to live. We’ve seen the defenses, and most of their faces. We know who they are, and where they’re stuck. If we leave, the next thing that comes is an expedition from Bel Haven. With security forces.”
The Archiwrecks’ eyes widened.
“Besides, they’re ruthless enough to try and kill us when our backs are turned,” Nutrose said. “It just makes sense.”
Goldmight spun around him, and shouted. A lance of light flashed from his fingertips, and struck a mage about to throw her own spell.
“Oh, no…” Zibnizik moaned. “Conflict.”
Fighting is unexpected.
Warriors are born in instants, and die the same way. Hilt showed two of the Archiwrecks just that. She was upon them in instants. In two strokes, their throats were slit. That was all she could get before the remaining sorcerers threw her back with their magic.
Book entered the fray then. Three more Archiwrecks fell, disintegrated to nothingness. The Master did not like death to be sloppy. Like his books, his spells were methodical, well-researched, and concise. When he obliterated his enemies, he did so with an intelligence that the Sarrofop sisters could only envy.
The Archiwrecks tried to hold on against the combined attack. But there was a great difference between hardened criminals and learned battle experts.
The leader grimaced, set himself, and howled. A wall of red force sprang up between them and the Circle mages.
Book frowned and looked at Hilt. The Archiwrecks were gathered, and prepared. His spell work was being blocked. Intricacy might eventually overwhelm force, but not before they were themselves consumed.
“Just kill them!”
And that’s when Zibnizik found himself inexplicably involved.
The gnome was never really a fighter. If it were up to Zib, he’d rather be cooking his potions. But when the rest of the Archiwrecks attacked, he had no choice. And when gnomes got in fights, they never played fair.
Three bandits attacked him. They brandished spell books, knives, and more anger than he had seen before.
He held two potions. Zib had palmed them since the Archiwrecks first appeared, suspecting this might happen.
“Are we sure this cannot be resolved peacefully through debate and rhetoric?” He asked.
They glared back at him.
“Fair enough.” The gnome slammed the first potion, filled with a swirling gray liquid, to the ground. A mist burst forth, billowing out in great clouds around them.
Zibnizik readied his hotfoot potion. The best he could come up with on short notice, nothing lethal. But the Archiwrecks looked at him in fear, their eyes trailing from his hand to the mist flowing in all directions.
“No!” One of them screamed. “Don’t let that touch the door!”
Too late. The mist billowed against the blue velvet door. With a screech, the golems crackled and sparked. The iron-clad copper bodies wreathed themselves in lightning, and looked around. The two golems took in the room, and glowed in recognition.
“Don’t worry,” Pidelle said. “If we have a temporary ceasefire it is possible that victory can be achieved. We can fight them together!”
Pidelle did make sense. Until four more golems burst into the room in bolts of lightning.
“You were saying, sister?” Pidella asked.
One of the constructs rumbled towards the bandits. It slapped aside the red forcewall, dismantling it in a gesture.
“Circle, to me!” Hilt shouted. A golem threw its hand forward, lightning coursing toward Hilt. She caught it on her blade, and sent it towards the Archiwrecks.
“She might find a way to save us by just killing everyone, won’t she, Yuva?” Zibnizik asked.
Unfortunately, Yuva was nowhere to be found.
Yuva was actually not nowhere to be found. She was actually off in a far corner of the room, guarded by the fairies and Bin. Ruby Lawks huddled next to them, thankful to be out of the way.
“Why couldn’t you just stay at the Circle?” Yuva asked.
“Pipe down!” Nutrose hissed. “Those golems might not be able to see us, but I don’t know if they can’t hear us.”
Bin, Yuva and Ruby looked at each other. They looked back at the fairies, confused.
“And just why can’t they see us?” Ruby asked.
“Because I’m bending the light around us,” Goldmight muttered. “And if you keep moving around, there’s not a thing I can do about it.”
He looked at the three behind him, then back to the room, and nodded. “We need to figure out how to get that door open, or none of us are leaving here alive.”
Ruby whimpered. “We’re going to die.”
“Hey!” Goldmight looked at the Hoppi, and pointed a finger. “Everyone else is out there, trying to survive. If we can’t figure this out, you’re letting them die for you.”
His gaze softened. When he spoke again, it was earnest and kind. “I believe you can do it, Ruby. You and Yuva are two of the smartest people I know. If you put your heads together, there’s nothing you cannot do.”
The elf and Hoppi looked at each other. Them? Figure out a trap that none had in centuries?
“You are our one hope,” Nutrose said. He moved away, towards the fight. “I’m going to help give the others cover.” The fairy disappeared in a haze of darkness, and someone cried out nearby.
Yuva closed her eyes. She couldn’t think, she could barely breathe. She took a deep breath, and tried to block out the noise. Block out the sound of sword clashing against magic. Remove the chants, and the panting footsteps. The clank of the golems. All that was left was the beat of the lights.
Yuva frowned. Lights shouldn’t be beating so…rhythmically. Thrum thrum thrum. Thrum thrum thrum. It was a pulsation that almost felt like…
“It’s a waltz,” She said. she looked at Ruby, and smiled. “This entire room is supposed to be a dance.”
The Hoppi looked at the golems with new eyes. Sure enough, their pattern of movement seemed almost…melodic. Step, bow, strike. Move left, swing step. Their lumbering movements disguised the rhythm.
“Suffrn was a recluse,” Goldmight protested. “He would never even leave the front door.”
“And those are the ones that look at society with the most longing,” Ruby muttered. She glanced down at Yuva’s lute. “Can you?”
Ruby grimaced. “There’s just one problem,” she looked at Goldmight. “You’re…way too short to be a dance partner.”
“Can’t you just waltz alone?” he asked.
“Commit such a sin, to a dancing spell?” Yuva asked. “Do you want this done or not?”
“Well, the Archiwrecks aren’t exactly the best dance partners,” Goldmight muttered. “And everyone else is busy.”
Ruby sighed. She laid a hand out, and placed it on Bin’s shoulder.
“Bin?” She asked.
“May I have this dance?”
Book shouted something at Hilt. She couldn’t really hear it over the spells being thrown in her direction, or the golems. She assumed he was angry she had killed another of the Archiwrecks.
If so, he was an idiot. They were Masters of the Circle. If they tried to sugar coat everything, it would only leave the apprentices unprepared for the real world. Also, they were trying to kill her first. She was sure that explanation would fly in the debate class.
She was trying to fight her way through to the leader. Perhaps if she removed his head, the rest of the Archiwrecks would realize they did not stand a chance. But every time she cut one of his sycophants down, two more placed themselves in his path.
It would be noble, if she didn’t suspect he was controlling them all through magic. She paused as another rushed forward, and examined the leader. Relaxed stance, not fearfully looking at his back, shouting orders without any sense of urgency. He was confident that everything was in his control.
Hilt hated him even more now. Leaders in the field should never give orders they themselves would not follow. That included putting their life on the line. To see this leader sending fodder in her way just so he could turn tail and scamper back off into his hole, it bit at her heart. She took that rage and focused it. Used it to slide her next stroke in through a pathetic defense and cut down another underling.
“Coward!” She shouted. “Face me!”
“Kill her!” He screamed, suddenly fearful. He had thrown man after man at Hilt, and she had shrugged them away with ease.
“And shut off that infernal music!”
Book looked in the direction of the sound. He squinted, because it was unusual. There was nothing. No smoke, no lightning. It was an absence of anything that was supposed to be there.
And the golems seemed enraptured by it. They stared at the piece of air, silent. Their lightning still, not making a motion towards anything.
Luxar. This looked like a light illusion. Bending the light, it was something that wretched fool excelled at. That means that it had to be Goldmight, putting on a little show for the golems. But what was he up to?
The door clicked open.
“Now, Bin!” Goldmight shouted.
Quicker than anyone could blink, the young ogre was through the door. It slammed shut behind him.
“No!” The leader shouted. He ran towards the door, and slammed against it. “Suffrn’s hoard is mine!”
But whatever means had unlocked the door, it seemed that key was only good for one. The lightning golems looked in unison toward the Archiwreck leader, still an intruder in their midst.
Lightning coursed through his body, sending him crashing to the floor. He struggled in vain to rise, and collapsed, dead.
The Archiwrecks, without their leader, turned and ran. Hilt considered chasing them, but decided against it. Look to the students first.
Yuva looked at the door. She slammed her hand down, trying to figure out what happened.
“No! We played the dance, we did the waltz, why is Bin the only one in there?”
Ruby Lawks looked around. “I, I don’t know.”
Zibnizik readied another potion. “Okay. Now that we just have lightning golems to contend with. Then you can try the door again.”
“No!” Goldmight said. he flew in front of the crowd, and held his hands up. “No one, no one is to go near there.”
“Why not?” Pidella asked.
“There is one more trap,” Goldmight said. “The last curse of Suffrn is in there. We have to wait it out or we could all die.”
“What do you mean, we could all die?” Pidelle asked.
Goldmight collapsed on the ground, exhausted. The lightning golems looked at everyone, but made no move to attack. For now, they were content to watch.
“Suffrn’s guards were supposed to be unstoppable. And if you look at these golems, they are. We haven’t made a scratch on them.”
“We’ve been a bit busy,” Hilt said. she looked at the constructs appraisingly. They didn’t seem too tough. But then again, the lightning could be called up at any second. She could not deflect two different attacks at once, or even one for an extended period.
“They do look incredible,” Book and the Sarrofop sisters looked at the golems closely. “It seems copper beneath the iron plate, but there is another layer underneath. Perhaps stone for the runes?”
“I don’t know,” Goldmight confessed. “Luxar could only find a reference that this was Suffrn’s lesser work. Binding lightning to golems was a hobby, and a security measure.”
“A hobby?” Zibnizik asked.
Goldmight ignored him. “The real test was Suffrn’s life work. Living lightning. He pulled himself out of his body, transformed it into energy. It is still here.”
“What?” Hilt looked at him. “Living lightning?”
“Suffrn lives,” Goldmight said. He laughed, delirious. “The great Suffrn the Caged has spent centuries trapped in the Glass Cliffs, defending his treasures. And if someone breaks in and manages to get rid of him, it’s all his.”
Zibnizik ran over to the fairy. He picked up Goldmight, and shook him.
“Get rid of him? You mean kill him!” He shook the fairy some more. “Is that what your stupid master told you? Is that what you want Bin to do? Is it!”
Goldmight could only laugh.
“That boy is out of his mind trying to help you. And you sent him to either be a murderer, or dead!” Zibnizik shouted. “What kind of friend are you?”
“A friend?” Goldmight scoffed. “He’s just some idiot half-breed. When Ona told me that he knew where the caves of Suffrn were, I knew that Luxar’s stories were true. All that power, right at my fingertips!”
“That fool Luxar,” Book muttered.
“Luxar is dead!” Goldmight screamed. “Faded away into one of his little light magics, but he never came back. Just one day, poof, all gone! Left without even letting me know what was going on. But I’ve got his last work, and a lackey stupid enough to do the dirty work for me!”
Hilt howled, and dove at Goldmight. The fairy winked out, and disappeared in a flash of light. The rest of the group huddled together, all eyes searching for him.
“Where did he go?” Hilt said.
“With his magic?” Book asked. “We could be staring right at him and not even know it.”
Yuva tried to listen to the beating of his wings. But the only ones she could hear were Nutrose’s, whirling away in anticipation. Or fear.
“Stop it!” She snapped at Nutrose. “I can’t hear a thing.”
Hilt slammed her foot to the ground. “He’s gone.”
Book settled in. “He’ll be back. His treasure is here.”
Pidella looked at the door. “But what about Bin?”
Bin walked through the door, and was amazed by a web of dazzling light. The blue lighting continued on from the previous room. It followed down a well-kept hallway, stretching on for a few moments.
Bin waited for the door to open again. Goldmight should be there in just a second, just like Nutrose, Ruby, and Yuva. And Zib and Hilt and Book and all the new friends! They were in this together, finding the treasure wouldn’t be the same without them.
But for whatever reason, the door remained closed. He heard a bit of commotion on the other side, but the door muffled everything. He considered going back… but the treasure… Perhaps they were all busy. That must have been it. The Archiwrecks were still there, and they were taking care of it.
Which meant he had to find the treasure for them. Bin made his way through the hall.
The hallway came abruptly to a dead end. Bin stopped, and frowned. Where there should be a door, there was only a magic circle. Runes were carved into the stone, glowing the same electric blue as the lightning magic before.
“Hello?” He asked. “I’m Bin Tract, and we’re looking for Suffrn’s relics?”
“Suffrn’s relics?” a voice asked.
The circle brightened, and a head appeared out of the floor. It was a dwarf head, followed by a dwarf body. Hale and hearty, with a thick beard around his jowls, looking to be only in his mid two hundreds. But still, he seemed off. He glowed blue and, how best to say this? He crackled. Bits of him were missing from one moment to the next as if he flickered in and out of existence.
The dwarf folded his arms together, and looked Bin up and down. “I’m Suffrn. What’s left of him, anyways.”
“Hello.” Bin said. He extended a hand. “I thought you were dead.”
“I am, of a fashion.” Suffrn looked at the hand, and smiled. “The gesture is good, but I’m afraid you would only be shocked with my response.”
Bin shrugged, and stuck his hands in his pockets.
“Bin Tract. Why are you searching for my relics?”
“We just are.” Bin said. “You know, for history, and power, and stuff.”
“Power?” Suffrn darkened. “You seek my life’s work to conquer? To command?”
“Nah,” Bin said, oblivious to the danger in front of him. “That doesn’t sound too much fun. And when Ona said he had a map to finding your home, I thought it would be a good way to make friends and learn more about magic.”
Suffrn looked at the half-ogre, perplexed. The lightning ghost could sense energy, could sense that the golems were still there. They had witnessed a battle, while they stood guard over his lab. And yet this child had beaten his locks, discovered the musical key, and now stood before him without showing the least bit of interest. Why?
Pressing further, Suffrn asked “Ona? Who is Ona?”
“Ona’s a friend from the Circle. I think he’s a friend. He’s a dwarf, like you.”
“I see. Did he touch you?”
Bin recoiled. “We didn’t hold hands, if that’s what you’re thinking. He’s cool, but we just clapped each other on the back.”
That was enough. Suffrn had been more energy than material long enough to sense its traces. He could see the dwarf’s electricity on him. It was faint, and the remnant fainter, but it was there. A relative of his.
“Where is Ona?”
“Taking care of our friend Kleb,” Bin said. “He’s a good guy. And has the coolest tattoos!”
Young people. Suffrn wondered what the world was coming to in his absence. However, this must be the case. He had sworn a vow to his kin, and would uphold the promise.
“Well, Bin. You are the first to find me. What would you have of me?”
Bin stared quizzically, perplexed. “I’m sorry?”
“Bestow wealth? Power? Death to your enemies?” Suffrn clasped his fists together, and bowed his head.
“Say the word, and it is yours.”
“What do you mean?”
Suffrn smiled. “The legends say that I never left the cliffs. That I spent my entire life in this hall, trying to master my magics. That much is true. For centuries I tried to discover the secrets of lightning and energy, to unlock them for the greatness they could bestow.
“But it was possible only because of my family. While I wasted away in this range, they would visit me with stories. Of the great balls under the mountains, the trade routes with humans and elves, or a curious tale told by a traveling minstrel. They kept me sustained as much as my own studies. I loved them like no other.”
Suffrn turned away. “Looking back on it, I may have made the wrong decision. When I discovered my last secret, I knew the cost. I would be confined here, trapped in my own spell. It did not seem like such a hard price. But I never again saw my family. Or perhaps they could not see me. But I promised, swore even, that at the first news of my kin, I would grant a boon to the messenger.”
The dwarf smiled. “And my family is alive. Centuries later, we are still strong. Thank you, Bin Tract. Now what is your desire?”
Bin smiled. “To be the greatest mage ever!”
Suffrn bowed his head. The air crackled and sparked. The lights flared and dimmed, and the ghost floated above the ground. “So be it. I shall confer all my power, the knowledge of lightning, upon you. You shall become the greatest lightning mage in an age. This I swear!”
Suffrn looked at Bin. “Excuse me?”
“No thank you. I’ll do it on my own.”
The ghost sank to the ground. “But, my vow. Your greatest wish is within my power, young one.”
“Your power,” Bin said. “Not mine. If I become the greatest just because of you, is it really me? Or is it because of you?”
“I understand your reasoning.” Suffrn gave him a pained look. “But I cannot be forsworn. You must allow me to grant you a boon.”
Bin nodded. He scrunched his eyes shut, and thought about it for a moment. How to be a good friend? How?
His eyes snapped open. “Make sure my friends outside are safe? And that I can tell Ona about you?”
Suffrn nodded. “It is done. Anything else?”
“Yup.” Bin reddened. This one was hard to say, it had to be worded carefully. “I know you are a great mage, and I don’t want you to just give me power…”
“But maybe, you could…I don’t know. Help me become better?”
Suffrn smiled. He waved his hand. A portion of the hallway wall fell apart, to reveal a cavern of rock. The ghost pointed at the rocks scattered on the ground. “Pick one.”
Bin did. A small, smooth blue-flecked rock, with a crack like a lightning bolt running through the center.
“My promise is fulfilled, and I may pass on.” Suffrn bowed his head. “Thank you, Bin Tract. May fortune follow you.”
The ghost faded away.
Bin pocketed the stone, and looked up.
Goldmight burst into the room. His eyes were alight, and grin wide when he saw the ogre was unharmed.
“Bin!” Goldmight crashed into the boy. He tussled Bin’s hair, and laughed. “You did it! You cracked the seal!”
Bin nodded. “Is everyone ok?”
“Everyone’s fine.” Goldmight passed him by, and looked around. “Archiwrecks are dead, or about to be. That’s not too important. No, no…it’s this!”
“Suffrn’s hoard.” Goldmight looked Bin over. “Did you meet it? The Living Lightning?”
“Living Lightning?” Bin asked. “Do you mean Suffrn?”
“Suffrn? Of course! He transferred his own consciousness, brilliant!” Goldmight floated down to the magic circle. He ran his hands over the runes, muttering the language out. “Maddening, and isolated to be sure. But Suffrn was always crazy.
“But where is it?”
“Suffrn?” Bin asked. “He went away.”
“Not Suffrn, you dimwit.” Goldmight looked around the room, and the rocks. His voice rose. His eyes were sharp, hungry. “That stupid little ghost is long past. His hoard, you fool. Where is his hoard!”
Bin took a step back. This wasn’t the Goldmight who had patted him on the head and wished him well. This one was…all too familiar. It reminded him of too many at the Circle, or back home. Someone wanted something from him, that was why they showed interest.
He did what he always had before. Kept quiet, and looked down.
“Where? Where!” Goldmight flew up to Bin’s face, the fairy’s face red with rage. “Suffrn’s secrets of a bygone age. This is the only place they could be, and their last secret is held by a dumb halfman!”
“You never liked me,” Bin said. He almost cried, and realized how much work he had missed.
“Liked you?” Goldmight slapped Bin’s face so hard, the boy fell to the ground. “You fool, this is about the power of a great mage. The finest light magic is here in this spot. What is like compared to that?
“Tell me where the hoard is!” Goldmight screamed.
Bin lashed out without thinking. Flames shot out of his hands, engulfing the fairy. But they were gone as quickly as he conjured them.
“You wretch,” Goldmight hissed. “I’ve been practicing with light for ten of your lifetimes. Your fire and lightning is nothing compared to my power.”
Swords of light appeared in each of Goldmight’s hands. Curved, and ready to strike. Bin stood and took up his stance, ready to fight. He might lose, but if the others were all right, maybe someone would help.
“Last chance to tell me, Bin,” Goldmight said. “Before I carve the secret out of your head.”
A blast of dark magic lanced through Goldmight. The fairy dropped, silent.
Bin rushed to the fairy. A wound through his chest started to bleed. Golden light spilled out. Goldmight stared up in rage and confusion, gasping, trying to understand what had happened.
“Nutrose? You… we could have done it,” he whispered. Then, so soft, Bin didn’t know if he just imagined it. “Together…”
Nutrose watched his cousin die, and laid a hand on Bin’s shoulder.
“I am so sorry,” he whispered. “Goldmight was about to hurt you. I just, I didn’t know what to do.”
“I’m sorry.” Bin said. “It’s my fault.”
“No!” Nutrose lifted Bin’s head up. “No, you were a good friend. And Goldmight was too, til the end. He just… this meant a lot to an old mentor of his. The closer he came… He was too involved.”
“More than Ona?” Bin asked.
Nutrose smiled. “Ona…did you find his kin?”
“Suffrn says hello. And thanks to his family.”
“Good,” Nutrose said. “Good.”
“Bin?” Hilt’s voice called out. “Are you okay?”
“I’m okay, Lady Hilt!” He called out.
“Then you are in big trouble!”
Bin winced. Nutrose laughed. “Go and tell them everything.”
Bin nodded, and ran off.
Nutrose watched Bin disappear down the corridor. He looked at his cousin, and tutted. He passed Goldmight by, into the small cavern of stone. There, in the center of the room, was a stalagmite. The fairy shuddered, and looked around.
Iron. There was a lot of iron for a lightning dwarf. Damn Ona and his promises.
He pulled at the top of the rock formation. The rock shuddered, and slid off. A single ring, smooth stone, filled Nutrose’s hand. He slipped it into his bag.
“You always were stupid,” Nutrose muttered. He gathered up Goldmight, put on his best sadness, and went to greet the rest of the Leaves.
“And Suffrn was just there, and he was blue!” Bin said. “And he said he was lightning, but not exactly. And he liked dancing, and the golems were his idea, and he was actually really nice!”
“Incredible.” Book said. “Suffrn lasted throughout all these years.”
“Right?” Bin squirmed. Ruby and Yuva and Zibnizik were taking turns hugging him. It was uncomfortable, but if he strayed too far Hilt was going to scold him again. So he suffered through the three picking at his hair, skin, and clothes.
The golems were now inert. Suffrn’s magic ended with his passing. The Sarrofop sisters had already pulled out books and were sketching the golems. One tome was already filled with notes and comments they’d compiled with Book while they waited for Bin to return. Pidelle and Pidella were just waiting for Book’s assent before they would go searching through the entire complex for new magic.
“And Goldmight?” Hilt finally pulled him aside. “Did he make an appearance?”
Bin stiffened, and looked away. Hilt’s brow furrowed, and her grip tightened. “What happened?”
“I killed Goldmight,” Nutrose said. He floated out of the hallway into the main room, a limp form in his arms. The Sarrofops gasped, and looked at the corpse in Nutrose’s hands. Ruby held tears in her eyes.
“He was ranting about Suffrn’s hoard, convinced that Bin knew where it was.” Nutrose’s tears fell on his cousin’s face. “When he was about to strike at Bin, I just, I just reacted. I’m so sorry.”
Hilt gripped her weapon, looking at Nutrose warily. “Murder with magic is forbidden by all the Circles…”
“But given the extenuating circumstances,” Book interrupted. “We might expect a lighter sentence, if any. Especially if what he says is accurate, Bin?”
Bin nodded, and turned away. He didn’t want to look at Goldmight ever again.
“Suffrn’s hoard?” Pidelle asked. “Did you find it?”
Nutrose shrugged. “There’s a magic circle, and a room that only has a large amount of iron. If there are any other secrets, who knows?”
“The Archiwrecks will,” Hilt muttered. “They’ll be back. And if Suffrn is gone as you say, Bin, then this place’s security may be done.”
“We seal the entrance,” Book offered. “Collapse the door, and the corridor behind it if need be. By the time the Archiwrecks have it excavated, we could have the might of three kingdoms on their doorstep.”
Hilt agreed. “This is going to take some work. Why don’t the apprentices start making their way back to the Circle, and we shall catch up?”
“But Ona…” Bin said. “This is his family’s home.”
“And it will be again.” Nutrose promised. “The Archiwrecks aren’t just getting to take it over. Not if our Masters have anything to say about it.”
“You’re making me cry,” Hilt said. “Now get out of here.”
The apprentices gathered up their tools, and left.
“Nutrose!” Hilt shouted.
The fairy turned back. Hilt nodded. “Good work.”
Nutrose bowed, and left.
Zibnizik led the way, an exasperated sigh already on his lips. “You are going to make me see the world, Bin,” he muttered. “Or put me in an early grave.”
“Thank you for coming.” Bin said. “You’re my friend, too.” And he hugged the gnome for good measure.
“Grah,” Zibnizik said. Though he did not sulk as much as he would say later.
“You all are,” Bin said. “Thank you for being good friends.”
Pidelle and Pidella looked uncomfortable, but nodded. Ruby and Yuva smiled, touched by his words. And Nutrose looked towards the south.
“You are my friend, too,” He promised. “I swear.”
Bin awoke with a start. Master Path sneered openly at him.
“I may not be a secret treasure trove,” The centaur hissed. “But perhaps you could not fall asleep in my class?”
Bin grinned in response. The centaur took a step back, shocked. Usually the ogre looked guilty, trying to stammer out an answer.
“I was thinking about the Diamond Countess,” Bin said. “And maybe she did have relics. Maybe even forty-two.”
“Well,” Master Path muttered. “At least you are paying attention in class.”
“But does it matter?” Bin asked. “If there were relics?”
He looked at Path. “She gave peace to her valley for years. Who cares if it was her own power or a relic?”
“The historical relevance of the artifacts,” Master Path began.
“True,” Bin said. “But what about her friends? Did she hold the Valley by herself?”
Master Path stopped. That was not a path that had been explored.
“I’d think that even a great relic, or a great mage, needs a few friends to help.” Bin said. “Maybe instead of looking for her relics, we should be trying to see how she found friends that stuck together with her through the hardest parts of life.”
And having nothing else to add, he left the class again.
He almost ran into Raemillin. The elf had been lying in wait, trying to catch him in another sticky trap. Since Bin had left twenty minutes early, Raemillin had no time to prepare, and could only look dumbly at his foe.
Bin looked up at Raem, and smiled. “You’re mean.”
“You,” Raem muttered. “Are insignificant.”
Bin shrugged. “But I’ve got good friends. And you do too.” He smiled. “Aren’t we lucky?”
“Bin!” Ruby shouted. The ogre laughed, and ran past Raemillin to the Hoppi.
“You left class early? Again?!?”
“Wasn’t anything else to learn.”
Pidelle and Pidella looked up from their books. “Not true, there area still vast areas of the Diamond Countess’ life that are unaccounted for.”
“And I’ll learn them,” Bin agreed. “From you.”
Pidelle sniffed. “Let’s go to the Archives, then, you insufferable child.”
Raemillin could only stare in wonder as Bin disappeared with the Leaves. Nutrose looked back at the elf leader, and winked.
“What’s our next adventure?” Bin asked.
Kleb grunted, and winced. The wound was not healing as fast as he had hoped. Even with Ona tending to him nightly, it was taking its toll.
“There’s a tavern,” Ruby offered. “It’s reported to be haunted.”
“That’s great!” Bin said. “I’ll get Zib involved.”
“To scare him?”
Bin winked at Ona. “For drinks of course.”
Ona nodded. He looked at Nutrose, the dwarf rubbing a hand over his new ring. Nutrose glanced down, and up, and nodded.
He then dumped a glass of water on Bin. The two bolted through the Circle, laughing as they chased each other out into town and beyond.
Friends. They did so love to torment each other.
And now Bin knew that.
copyright 2018 Jack Holder