A Friend In Need

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
this is a continuation of the dana illwind and sorcerer lord jayden that started with not quite a hero and includes idiot's graveyard, surviving fairytales and a fair deal. it's a blend of fantasy and comedy, and i hope you enjoy it.

Submitted: November 27, 2018

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Submitted: November 27, 2018

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Dear mom and dad,” Dana wrote as a man staggered by her and fell to the floor.He’d nearly gotten back up when an angry dwarf trampled him to get an elf on the other side of the bar.“I hope you are well.I’m doing fine.

“Keep your brawl away from the bar!” the tavern keeper yelled.“I swear I will end the tab of anyone breaking my glasses!”

I know I have been away from home for a long time, but I found a problem so big I had to do something,”she continued.That was a diplomatic way for saying she’d met the world’s only living sorcerer lord and was trying to keep him alive.It was a full-time job.“I will come home as soon as I can, but for now I have to keep trying to fix this mess help out.I have come into some money and am sending it back with this letter.”

Two more men barreled past her table and slammed into a third man, knocking him into a wall made of tree trunks stripped of bark.The floor was packed dirt covered in sawdust, while windows and fire worms kept in glass jars provided light.The air smelled of beer, unidentified grilled meat and sweat.

Such rough surroundings were common to the market town of Despre, a dingy little community in the mountainous north of the kingdom.Buildings were crude and dirty, the people rough and hardy, and the land equal parts rich and desolate.The barely tamed north had both endless resources of timber, fish, furs and copper, while being so newly settled that there were few people willing to face monsters, storms and bandits.

“Who are you writing to?” Jayden asked from across the table.They’d taken a corner booth and were out of the way of the brawl engulfing the tavern.Jayden’s reputation kept back men fighting nearby, and he ate a light dinner in peace.Dana had finished her meal before she'd started writing.

“My family.It’s been so long since they’ve seen me they must be worried.”Dana kept writing, “Please give my love to Emily and Rachael, and tell Lan to stay out of my stuff while I’m gone.I’m sure he’s already eaten all my chocolates, but if you’re not careful the little pest might put my old clothes on a pig.”

“He can’t be that bad,” Jayden told her.

Dana covered the letter with her left hand.“No peaking!This is a private message, thank you very much.”

A young troll only six feet tall staggered by their table, with three men grappling the scaly brute.The troll tossed one man aside before grabbing the other two and swinging them into one another.“Feel free to jump in any time, wizard.”

The tavern keeper frantically waved his hands.“The wizard stays out of this!”

“I don’t have a horse in this race,” Jayden told the troll.“I can’t say I understand the issue, either.”

The troll pointed at a nearby dwarf.“We started that mine and it’s ours.If the dwarfs want one they can get their own instead of muscling in on our turf.”

“We did get our own!” the dwarf yelled before he was hit in the head with a chair.

“Yeah, by digging a shaft a hundred feet from ours,” the troll replied. “It’s the same ore vein, stumpy.”

Dana pressed three silver coins onto her letter and folded it over them before stuffing it into a crude envelope.Dana was a girl of fifteen, soon to be sixteen. She had brown hair that was getting long, and brown eyes.  Her clothes were a mix of the thick dress and fur hat she'd had when she first met Jayden, with new boots, bags, knife and belt with an empty scabbard she'd gotten during her travels with him. Her father was the mayor of a frontier town a bit bigger than Despre and much more orderly.

The simple life she’d known ended when she’d called upon Sorcerer Lord Jayden, who sat across the table from her now.Jayden was in his thirties, handsome to behold in a roguish sort of way with his sardonic smirk, perpetually messy blond hair and black and silver clothes.Jayden carried some baggage but no weapons, as his magic was enough to keep smart enemies at a distance and deal with anyone stupid enough to challenge him.

Jayden was smart, strong, bold, charming when he felt like it, and had a near pathological hatred for the king and queen.Dana didn’t know the root cause for his rage, but in her travels with Jayden she’d seen ample evidence that such enmity was well earned.The royal couple had tried to seize the Valivaxis, a gateway to a world of dead emperors and living monsters.They’d hired an amoral elf wizard, banished the Brotherhood of the Righteous from the kingdom, killed an honest sheriff and replaced him with a cowardly fraud.Worse, they were planning a war against a neighboring kingdom, heaven only knew which one, which could kill tens of thousands.

Few men loved the king and queen, but Jayden’s hatred was so great he would do almost anything if it meant harming them or preventing their war. Dana tried her best to redirect him to helping the common man, but her efforts were temporary at best.Jayden wanted the king and queen gone.He wasn’t strong enough to end their reign yet, but he’d grown in strength in the few months they’d traveled together.It was only a matter of time until he was that powerful, provided he didn’t die first.

Dana’s train of thought was interrupted when a dwarf complained, “That scaly lummox isn’t being fair.There’s enough copper ore for decades of mining.”

The troll threw a table at the dwarf, missing by inches.“And it’s ours!Find your own claim!”

“How much longer do we have to stay here?” Dana asked as the dwarf threw a chair at the troll.

Jayden said, “Only until the dwarf I hired finishes making the chimera horn you brought from Pearl Bay into a proper weapon.He was almost giddy at the prospect of fashioning it into a short sword, and eager for the coins I paid him.I’ve seen his work and it’s splendid.He’s also one of the few swordsmiths not on the royal payroll, and can keep his mouth shut about jobs he does.”

The troll knocked a dwarf into a table before swatting aside a man.More men, trolls and dwarfs joined in until the brawl spilled over into the street outside the tavern.Struggling to be heard over the noise, Dana asked, “Is it always like this?”

Jayden smirked.“The local baron issued the license for this town to act as a marketplace for small communities around it.He doesn’t care what happens here so long as he gets a monthly fee.Half the trade here is smuggled goods.You’d be shocked how much the baron is involved in smuggling, and a sad testimony to our kingdom that even a nobleman has to do so.”

“And how does he feel about you visiting?”

“We have an understanding.I don’t cause trouble in his backyard and he lets me do business here the same as everyone else.”

A glass flew over Dana’s head to shatter against a wall.The tavern keeper pointed at a man and yelled, “I saw you throw that, Biff!Do you have any idea how much those cost?That’s it, say goodbye to your tab!”

More softly, Jayden added, “There is another reason why we came to Despre. The king and queen are preparing for war, with the kingdoms of Kaleoth, Brandish and Zentrix the obvious targets. Three weeks travel from here is the only bridge over Race Horse River to Kaleoth. Destroying that bridge leaves only a few shallow sections of the Turtle River to ford, areas easily bottled up by defenders.”

“Destroying the bridge would shuts down trade to Kaleoth,” Dana said.

“I assume trade would end when the war starts,” Jayden pointed out.

“You’re also assuming the army is going to invade Kaleoth.If it goes after Brandish or Zentrix then destroying the bridge doesn’t do any good.”

“True,” he admitted as men, dwarfs and trolls intensified their fight.“Sparing one kingdom the possibility of invasion is worth the risk.The king and queen won’t be ready to launch an invasion for many months, giving us time to close down one avenue of attack.”

Dana frowned as people fought around her.Rough as the fight was, it was thankfully bloodless as no one drew swords or daggers.She was willing to accept that meager blessing.

Jayden saw her expression and said, “I should have made arrangements for us to stay outside town.There are times I forget your peaceful upbringing.”

“This is normal for you?”

“It didn’t used to be, but circumstances have forced me to adapt.Try not to hold this against them.At heart these people aren’t evil, even if they are crude.”

Dana did her best to ignore the fight as most of the brawlers moved outside. The tavern keeper grumbled as he set the tables and chairs upright.Thankfully the building and furnishings hadn’t suffered noticeable damage.She was surprised when a young man in wool clothes entered the tavern and took a seat not far from her and Jayden.

Smiling, the youth said, “Quite a fight going on, eh?”

“I’ve been in worse,” Jayden told him.

The youth’s smile faded as he said, “I guess nothing could be as bad as the underground lake.”

Jayden’s eyes narrowed, and he shifted in his chair to face the youth. “There are three people alive who know the relevance of that statement, and you aren’t one of them.Explain yourself while you can still breathe.”

“A friend of yours sent me,” the youth replied.

“I have one friend in this world, and she is sitting across from me.” Jayden stood up and spoke strange, arcane words to form a black sword rimmed in white in his right hand.The youth yelped and jumped up from his chair as Jayden advanced on him.“I’m giving you a second chance to avoid a closed casket funeral.Explain yourself.”

The youth held up his hands as he backed up against a wall.“Hey, wait a minute!”

The tavern keeper rolled his eyes.“You kill him, you clean up the mess.”

“I can explain,” the youth said hastily as Jayden drew near.“The guy with the cat hired me to get you.He said you’d understand the reference.”

Jayden paused.“What cat?”

“Big, black, evil, that cat.He keeps it with him all the time, and heaven help the man who gets closer than ten paces, because that ball of fur and hate goes right for your face.”

The answer must have been sufficient, for Jayden lowered his sword. “I will listen to you.If this is a trap, I assure you the cat is the least of your worries.”

The youth rolled up the sleeve on his right arm to show six inches of his forearm covered in fresh bandages.“The cat is bad enough.The guy showed up outside town on a river barge three days ago with five men and that furry psychopath.He hired me to find you and bring you to him.He said you two have worked together, and he needs help.”

“Doing what?” Jayden asked.

“He didn’t say.”The youth looked down and added, “I was given five copper pieces to deliver this message and promised another five if you come back with me.I need the money, and this guy made it sound like you’d get some kind of a reward.”

“This merits further examination,” Jayden replied.“I’ll go with you, but if there is any sign of betrayal you can count this as your last day.Dana, given the risk involved it’s best if you not come with me.”

“Leaving me here is safer?” she asked.As if on cue, there was a bang on the wall behind her, followed by a groan of pain from outside.

Jayden frowned.“That is a valid point.”

The youth hesitantly raised a hand.“I know I’m already not your favorite person, but Despre has ten men for every woman.I don’t think anyone here is stupid enough to attack the lady, but she’s going to get a lot of attention if you’re not around.”

“Too late,” Dana said as she held up three letters.“I’ve already got admirers.”

“When did you get those?” Jayden asked.

“One was handed to me when I was served lunch, another got slipped into my pocket, and I have no idea where the third came from.”Dana got up from her chair and joined Jayden.“If the guy knows things about you that no one should then it’s probably not a trap by the king and queen.Besides, who else would want to hurt you?”

Jayden chuckled.“That list goes on for quite some time.”

“So,” the youth began, “we can go meet the man with the cat, I can get paid, and you can hopefully put the nasty black sword away?”

“The black nasty sword stays in my hand until we meet your employer,” Jayden told him.

Jayden, Dana and the youth left the tavern to find the streets of Despre a battlefield.Men, dwarfs, elves, trolls and even gnomes brawled across the town in a fight that seemed to have no sides or end in sight.Dana and Jayden worked their way around the edge of the melee and to the edge of town. Most people stayed clear of them, and the few who got too close saw Jayden’s sword and gave him a wide berth.

“Where are we going?” Dana asked.

“There’s a river an hour’s walk from Despre,” the youth explained as they walked by exhausted fighters.“The river barge is moored there.”

“I’m told the wilderness is dangerous, yet you’re going with us unarmed,” Jayden pointed out.

The youth shrugged.“We have fewer problems since an ogre clan moved into town.They’re great lumberjacks, pretty good builders, and they ate the nearest monsters.You have to go pretty far to find trouble.”

The ogres in question were nearby building a barn.The furry brutes stood eight feet tall and favored kilts.One ogre was setting up a sign that read, “Clan Arm Breaker Traveling Contractors: You’ll fall before the house does.”

“I can see where they’d deter most problems,” Jayden remarked.The ogres saw him walk by and nodded, a show of respect ogres rarely gave.

The land outside Despre was hilly with fields in the places flat enough to farm. Here and there rocks jutted up from the ground, and tree stumps were common.Farther out were dense forests of pine trees.Despre’s lumberjacks had already taken a heavy toll, but despite their damage the forests seemed to stretch on forever.

“Not much farther,” the youth promised.“The river is just ahead.”

Sure enough, there was a distant roar of swift water crashing into stone. They soon came to a wide river with rocks on both shores.Not far upstream was a river barge tied to the far shore.Flat-bottomed boats like that were a common sight transporting good across the kingdom.They also saw men standing on the barge and fishing off the side.One of them smiled and waved as Jayden drew near.

“Ah, I knew you’d come.Jayden, it’s been too long.”

Jayden’s response was more subdued.“I must admit your presence surprises me, and I find it a touch disturbing that you found me.”

The man walked down a gangplank to shore and hurried over.He didn’t look like much, average height, a few too many pounds on his stomach, brown hair and eyes, and a thick mustache.His clothes were well-tailored leather, common enough. There was a twinkle in his eyes and a ready smile on his face.

“Allow me to introduce myself to the lady.I am Sir Reginald Lootmore of the Kingdom of Zentrix.You weren’t exactly hard to find, Jayden.Tales of your deeds flow as fast as this river. Wherever Sorcerer Lord Jayden goes chaos is sure to follow.It may surprise you to learn that you are credited with dozens of acts of violence committed a hundred miles from here, some of them on the same day.”

“Then why haven’t the king and queen found us?” Dana asked.

Lootmore smiled.“They have men looking for you, but few try very hard after what happened to the elf wizard Green Peril.Word is he found you and fled the kingdom the same day.The king and his loving wife will find someone more up to the task eventually, but for now your pursuers aren’t interested in finding their quarry.It helps that dear Jayden has the good sense to avoid more prosperous and populated parts of the kingdom where defenders are stronger and more numerous.”

Lootmore stopped in front of them and smiled at Dana.“This must be the young lady I’ve heard you travel with these days.I was wondering when you’d take an apprentice.”

“Dana Illwind,” she replied and curtsied.“I’m Jayden’s friend, not apprentice.”

“She’s trying to keep me from getting killed,” Jayden added.

Lootmore smiled.“Ah, a woman who likes challenges.”

Dana blushed when Lootmore kissed her hand.Jayden rolled his eyes and pointed at the men on the barge.“And who might they be?”

“Men who have long served the Lootmore family,” he explained.“You may trust them as you do me.”

Dana wasn’t sure how to address Lootmore.He called himself a knight, but he had no weapons or armor, nor the arrogance she’d seen in the few knights she’d met years ago.Instead he looked like the sort of man who any second might offer to sell her insurance.Strangely, Jayden lacked Lootmore’s enthusiasm about their meeting.She dearly wished she knew what had happened between them.

“Why did you hire that boy to get us instead of coming in person,” she asked.

“A fair question, young lady,” Lootmore conceded.“While there is currently no conflict between our kingdoms, my presence risks drawing unwanted attention and potentially causing a war. For that reason I have been careful who knows I’m here.In locating you he lived up to my every expectation.”

Jayden frowned.“Yes, you’ve found me, now kindly tell me what this is about.”

“Soon enough,” Lootmore said.He dug through his pockets and came up with copper coins for the youth who’d led them to the river.“Five copper pieces as promised.Be a good boy and never mention this to anyone.”

The youth pointed at Jayden and a black cat following Lootmore.“And get either of them mad at me?Thank you, no.”

Dana smiled as the cat came closer.It was a healthy animal, big with yellow eyes and a shiny, thick coat. “Ooh, she’s adorable.What’s her name?”

“His name, actually, and it’s Jump Scare,” Lootmore answered.“Best keep your distance before—”

There was no hiss or growl before Jump Scare leapt at Dana’s face.She didn’t have time to cry out or back away. Jayden snatched the cat out of the air and threw it into the woods, where it landed on its feet and scampered back to Lootmore.

“He does that,” Lootmore said.“My apologies.”

Jayden folded his arms across his chest.“Why do you insist on bringing that animal with you?”

“I left him home once when I went on a mission,” Lootmore replied. “Injuries were extensive.But that is neither here nor there.I am on an important mission and need help carrying it out.Of the three people I fought along side at the underground lake, only you were close enough to call upon.My task is risky, but the rewards equal the danger.”

“This is the first time I’ve heard of you having a partner,” Dana said.

“You never told her about me?” Lootmore asked.He clapped a hand over his heart and looked away in mock shame. “The horror, to learn I’ve been edited out of your life’s story.What sin have I committed to be considered so low?”

“Being overly dramatic, and owning a cat that by all rights should be tormenting condemned souls in the netherworld,” Jayden said.“May I remind you how our one and only job together went?”

“We were all nearly killed, but I believe if you review your no doubt excellent memory, you’ll recall it wasn’t my fault,” Lootmore answered.“And you came away from that caper richer and with a stone tablet containing a spell of the old sorcerer lords.”

Jayden didn’t look convinced, so Lootmore waved for them to join him at his barge.“I have the details for the job over there.I think you’ll find it worth your while.”

Jayden frowned before following Lootmore to the barge.“I’m going to regret this.”

Dana followed them onto the barge.It was as nondescript as its owner, a simple vessel, fairly old and beaten up with little cargo.The men onboard were young and wore wool clothes.There were no weapons in sight, no armor, no money.If Lootmore was a knight, he hid it well.

“On to business,” Lootmore said eagerly.He unrolled a map of the kingdom and pointed to the northern regions. “We are here, far enough away from proper civilization that the authorities don’t know of our presence.Downriver is an estate owned by Baron Scalamonger, a man known for his vineyards and his loyalty to the throne.In three days he is expecting Commander Vestril of the royal army to bring a caravan of soldiers, two knights, and this is the important part, supplies.”

“What sort of supplies?” Jayden asked suspiciously.

Lootmore smiled.“The best kind.Spies in my homeland have noticed your beloved king and queen amassing weapons, hiring mercenaries, training soldiers and so on.The forces and materials they need to wage war are currently scattered across the kingdom. Last month the order went out to bring them together.It’s war, Jayden, and soon, a war the Kingdom of Zentrix might not survive.”

Jayden stared at the map.“I thought I had more time.”

“We both did.”Lootmore drew a line across the map with his finger.“Those forces are converging on the capital.From there they will train, take on more arms and prepare for a war Zentrix officials think will come in early spring.Most of these caravans are too large or far away to attack, but this one is temporarily vulnerable.”

“Temporarily vulnerable why?” Jayden asked.

“Commander Vestril is going from town to town picking up manpower and supplies. In two weeks he’ll have enough men that the caravan will be too strong to take.Until then there is a window of opportunity to attack it.The commander knows this and is being very careful, stopping at night in every town or manor he passes, going around areas known for bandits or monsters, and he’s avoiding any place you’ve been seen.”

Jayden perked up at the news.“Really?”

“I thought you’d like that.In three days Commander Vestril will visit the estate of Baron Scalamonger.The baron traditionally pays his taxes in the form of wine, and he’s known to be a very good host to visiting officials.”

“He gets them drunk,” Dana said.

“Roaring drunk,” Lootmore told her.“If I’m right, Scalamonger’s contribution to the war effort will be wine. Vestril will stop his caravan for the night, load up a copious amount of alcohol and enjoy the baron’s hospitality, leaving him and his soldiers too drunk to be a threat.This leaves us an opening.”

“How can stealing wine prevent a war?” Dana asked.

“I’m not interested in the wine.”Lootmore pointed to a town on the west of the map.“Commander Vestril stopped here a week ago and picked up eighty suits of chain armor from another baron.I’ve been sent to steal it.Less armor for the enemy and more for my people won’t prevent the war, but it tips it ever so slightly in our favor.”

Lootmore rolled up the map and put it away. “Jayden, you’ve been trying to hurt the king and queen for years. Taking this armor does that.But if you’re undecided, I can sweeten the deal.”

Lootmore reached down to open a secret compartment hidden in the barge’s floorboards.He took out a black granite tablet with writing in white marble.Jayden’s eyes lit up at the sight of it.

“I’ve been nearly as busy as you since our last encounter,” Lootmore said. “In one mission for my kingdom I came across what looked very much like the spell tablet you found in our too brief partnership.The writing is shorter than the one you found two years ago and seemed so excited by.I was rather hoping it’s a spell you don’t already have—”

“I don’t,” Jayden said.

“And might want,” Lootmore continued.

“I do.”

Lootmore held onto the tablet.“I also know you are addicted to destruction.I don’t see the appeal, but I haven’t lived the life you have.Hopefully I won’t offend you when I say you might be tempted to destroy the armor or dump it in a lake rather than let me take it.So I propose a deal.I give you the tablet here and now.In exchange you help me complete this mission, including stealing the armor.”

Jayden’s eyes were locked on the spell tablet.He made no move to take it.“I promise to do whatever is possible to help you, but I can’t guarantee results.If it comes down to letting Commander Vestril keep the armor, I’ll have no choice but to destroy it.”

Lootmore handed him the spell tablet.“I can’t ask for more.Let’s be on our way.The trip will use up most of the time we have left, and I’ve seen worrying signs in this part of the kingdom.”

Concerned, Dana asked, “What kind of signs?”

Lootmore addressed his men before he answered her.“Break down our camp and throw evidence of our visit into the river. Were I a fearful man I would call them ill omens.I saw what looked like footprints, each one two feet long and half as wide, with a stride four feet long.Stranger still, there were no toes or heel on the prints.”

Dana covered her face with her hand.“Not again.”

“Excuse me?” Lootmore asked.

“How many times do we have to kill it?” Dana asked.

Jayden held up his empty hands.“Twice didn’t do the job.”

Lootmore gave them a long-suffering look.“Doubtless there’s a story here.Feel free to share it.”

“It’s the Living Graveyard,” Jayden explained.“We found it guarding a castle on the coast and killed it to retrieve a rich treasure.The Living Graveyard doesn’t die easily, or permanently.We killed it a second time outside Fish Bait City.It reassembled itself, again, and followed us here.It seems we have two good reasons to leave quickly.Dana and I can come back later to get her new sword, which should be finished by then, but for now we should be on our way before that monstrosity finds us.”

“Then let’s begin our adventure, and may it have better results than our last one,” Lootmore said.

“It could hardly have worse,” Jayden muttered.

* * * * *

Dana, Jayden and Lootmore spent the rest of the day sailing downstream.They left the wilderness behind and entered more settled lands.There were farm fields and ranches, and occasionally small towns.Their passage drew no attention, for there were other boats engaged in fishing or trade on the river.

Lootmore stopped his barge in a small tributary where few people lived and made camp among trees growing along the river.Lootmore and his men settled down on the riverbank while Jayden stayed on the barge.

“You’re not going on shore?” Dana asked him.

“Too many people live here who are loyal to the throne or live in fear of it. Lootmore is unknown in these parts and won’t attract attention, so he can sleep where he pleases, but I have to be more careful.You may sleep on shore if you like.”

Dana settled down next to him on the barge.“I think I’ll stay with you.One of Lootmore’s men already asked if I was seeing anyone, so I’ve got my own reason to keep my distance.So, what’s the story with you and our new friend?”

Jayden kept his eyes on the shore while he answered.“Two years ago I was desperate for funds and magic.I’d heard of a cave so large there was a lake in it, and what sounded like ruins of the old sorcerer lords as well.It sounded promising, so I went there and began exploring. I wasn’t alone.”

“There were monsters in the cave?”

“Were I only so lucky.News of the cave had reached more ears than just my own.The king and queen had sent an expedition to loot the cave of valuables. There were too many men for me to fight alone, when to my surprise I met Reginald Lootmore.He’d been sent by his queen to take whatever riches were within the cave.Lootmore had already secured the aid of the famous archer Ian McShootersun.Less wisely, he’d also partnered with the alchemist Suzy Lockheart.”

Dana gave him a mischievous smile.“Were you two romantic?”

“What?That giggling lunatic nearly killed us all.”Jayden waved his hand like he was shooing away a fly.“Lootmore made a deal with me to share rewards equally and I’d get any spell tablets, a fair trade for my services.We snuck past the expedition, explored the ruins and nearly escaped when they caught up with us.It was a close fight that nearly ended in disaster when Suzy Lockheart decided a large cave with an unstable roof was the perfect place to set off explosives.”

Jayden shuddered.“It was pure luck that we weren’t crushed by falling rocks.The expedition wasn’t so fortunate.I left with a small pile of treasure and one spell tablet, and we parted company shortly thereafter.Lootmore had to report back to his queen, McShootersun had heard of better opportunities far to the north, and quite frankly I didn’t care enough to ask where Suzy Lockheart was heading.I’d assumed that was the last I’d see of them.”

“Wouldn’t it have made sense to keep working together?” Dana asked.Jayden gave her a dark look, and she hastily added, “Not Lockheart, obviously, but what about the other two?You could do so much more with help.”

“It wouldn’t have worked.”Jayden turned his attention back to the shoreline before he spoke again. “Lootmore’s loyalties are to his homeland.That’s no discredit, but he has to be careful what he does as a knight of Zentrix.His actions could start an international incident if he’s caught, meaning there are places he can’t go and deeds he can’t do. As for the other two, McShootersun is a braggart with no cause to live for except the next payday, and Heaven only knows what madness run through Suzy Lockheart’s diseased mind.”

“She came onto you, didn’t she?”

“It didn’t happen like that,” he said firmly.

“You accept help from me,” she pressed.

“That’s different.”

“How?”

Jayden looked at her and said, “I’m trying to overthrow the king and queen because of the harm they’ve done.I’ve taken great risks for little reward or none at all because I truly believed I’m making the kingdom a better place.Lootmore, McShootersun and Lockheart have no interest in that because this isn’t their homeland.They don’t love it, fear for it, dream of it, and they won’t sacrifice for it.This is your homeland.You love it, you fear for its future, you want what’s best for it, and you’ve already proven you’ll sacrifice for its wellbeing.When, not if, the worst comes to pass, I wouldn’t be able to count on them, but I can count on you.”

Dana blushed.“Thank you.”

“Now be a dear and duck.Lootmore’s cat is back.”

Dana dropped to her knees as Jump Scare made another attempt on her life. Jayden caught the hissing ball of rage as it went for her face, but this time he threw it in the water.The cat yowled and splashed to shore before heading into the camp.

“Sorry,” Lootmore called out.

“Get the cat under control or you are going to lose it!” Jayden yelled back.

* * * * *

It took another day to reach the estate of Baron Scalamonger.The soil was rich and had many farms and vineyards. There were no cities, only three towns and many scattered farmhouses.The baron’s manor was a wood building three stories tall surrounded by vineyards, and located miles from the nearest town.Lootmore stopped his barge at dusk in a spot where the river was flanked by trees.

“Allow me to introduce our target,” Lootmore said.“I have an old floor plan of questionable accuracy for the building. Reports say the baron has a dozen guards and can call upon fifty militiamen.There are no tamed monsters or magic weapons.It seems the baron had a bad experience once using an Industrial Magic Corporation levitating wand and has since sworn off magic.”

“Which begs the question why you need my help,” Jayden said.

“If all goes well we’ll be in and out undetected.If there is a hiccup in the plan, we’re going to be badly outnumbered. Firepower can balance the scales.” Lootmore brought out a map and showed it to them.“The estate—”

“Has a basement floor not shown on your map,” Jayden interrupted.“It also leaves out a small treasury on the third floor and an armory on the first.”

“You’ve been here before?” Dana asked.

“A very long time ago,” he replied.Jayden found a quill and inkpot among Lootmore’s supplies and drew new details on the map.“You’re missing several walls, too.”

“Are the remaining details correct?” Lootmore asked.When Jayden nodded, Lootmore said, “There is a barn outside the main building where Baron Scalamonger keeps livestock, and where he’s sure to place the oxen and wagons when they come.The caravan is scheduled to arrive tomorrow night.Once it’s dark we climb over the brick wall around the manor and barn, steal the wagons cargo and all, drive them here and load the armor onto the barge, leaving the wagons and draft animals behind.With any luck no one will notice our intrusion until morning, giving us hours to escape.”

Jayden finished fixing the map and handed it to Lootmore.“Your plan depends on our enemy being too complacent and inebriated to effectively guard their property.If nothing else, though, it means we don’t have to enter the manor where most of the guard will be stationed.”

Lootmore studied the new and improved map.“This is why I like contracting local help.Thank you, Jayden.There may have been changes made since your visit.We have time until Commander Vestril arrives, so I intend to scout out the area and ask questions from lowly underpaid residents who’d appreciate free drinks and heavier wallets.”

“Who’s there?” a woman called out from the shoreline.

“Jayden, keep back,” Lootmore said.

“I’ve got this,” Dana said.She ran over to the barge railing, smiled and waved.The woman on shore was middle aged and carrying a load of firewood. “Hi!We’re heading through the province and had to stop for the night. Sorry if we surprised you.”

“Oh, no worries,” the woman replied.She squinted as Lootmore and his crew got between her and Jayden.Jayden grumbled as they provided cover.The woman turned her attention back to Dana and said, “I was hoping you had goods to sell, but it doesn’t look like you’ve got much cargo.”

“Temporary situation,” Dana said cheerfully.

“Say, are you looking for work?” the woman asked.“Because I know fifty people who could use a hand.You could earn money to buy cargo.”

Dana’s brow furrowed.“We’re not going to be here that long.”

“You’re sure?” the woman pressed.

“Quite sure, but it was lovely to meet you,” Lootmore replied.

The woman shrugged and left.“If you change your mind, throw a stone and you’ll hit a person who can pay for help.”

Dana looked at Jayden and asked, “Is it just me, or was that weird?”

“It was a first for me,” Lootmore told her.

“People have tried to hire me before, but never as a day laborer,” Jayden added.“Lootmore, how secret does your mission have to be?”

Lootmore frowned.“As much so as possible.Why?”

Jayden pointed upriver, where an older man gave them a curious look before ambling closer.Lootmore frowned at the sight and said, “I did not anticipate this.”

“Perhaps you could introduce him to Jump Scare,” Jayden suggested.“A few grievous injuries should deter further visitors.”

The cat seemed to like the idea and jumped up onto the railing.Lootmore grabbed it before it could attack.“Don’t give him ideas.”

“Say there, young fellas,” the old timer called out.“Any of you picked grapes before, because I could really use a hand.”

It took half and hour to convince the man that they weren’t looking for a job, and another twenty minutes to explain that to the next person to walk by. Lootmore never got the chance to scout the area and looked frustrated to the point of madness, while Jayden simply rested and Dana scratched her head at their warm reception.Strangers coming to her hometown were treated with wary politeness, since they could be thieves as easily as merchants, colonists or laborers. They could earn her people’s trust, but it took time.She couldn’t see why Baron Scalamonger’s people were so quick to accept them.

It was late at night when the last farmer gave up on hiring them.They were settling in when Lootmore grabbed Jayden by the shoulder and shook him.

“Get ready, all of you.The caravan is early.”

Dana had nearly fallen asleep and needed a moment to get her bearings. “Wasn’t it supposed to come tomorrow?”

Lootmore pointed to lights on the horizon, where four wagons pulled by oxen slowly made their way toward the manor.Spearmen followed the wagons, and two knights on horseback followed them. The caravan moved glacially slow, finally stopping outside the manor’s outer walls.A cry went out and a gate opened to admit them.

“Hurry,” Lootmore said.He and his men opened secret compartments on the barge and took out swords, daggers, pry bars, rope and black clothes.They put on the black garments and coated their weapons in coal dust to hide any glimmer of reflected light, then followed by smearing coal dust around their eyes.

Worried, Dana whispered, “Jayden, what kind of knight dresses like that?”

“Lootmore is a knight by birth and thief by training,” he replied equally softly. “His kingdom sends him when they need work does discretely.It isn’t glorious and won’t win the love of his peers, but Lootmore has saved many lives and ended terrible threats.”

“You’re being more diplomatic than normal,” Lootmore said as he picked up his cat and set it on his shoulders.“Five generations ago my ancestor stole a crown from an enemy king and presented it to the King of Zentrix, who was so pleased he offered any reward my ancestor asked for.My ancestor asked to be made a knight.”

Lootmore was no longer the harmless looking man Dana had met.Now he was an ominous shadowy form, armed and terrifying to behold.The men he’d brought were almost as terrifying (they didn’t have Jump Scare). When Lootmore spoke, it was with the anger of a long-suffering man.

“My ancestor dared to rise above his station, an offense worthy of severe punishment, but he had his king’s promise.His king granted the request and at the same time showed his anger for such presumption.My family was made knights with the surname Lootmore.Loot more, Ms. Illwind.Knights shouldn’t desire loot, and my family was cursed with a name that ensured no one would ever forget how we essentially bought our knighthood with a stolen crown.I have lived with that shame for my entire life, as has five generations of my family.”

Lootmore waved his hand at the distant manor abuzz with activity.“For five generations we have been knights assigned the tasks of thieves, providing plausible deniability if caught.My superiors despise me, so they can blame me for any misdeed I commit for our country.‘Lootmore?Doesn’t surprise me he committed a crime.The whole family is bad to the core.’They send me out again and again to save a kingdom that despises me.”

Dana stared at him in horror.“Why do you do this if your own people hate you?”

“Because I love my country.Because there are a few men who love my family, and that number grows with each generation of Lootmores.And because I know that many kings have conquerors at the base of their family trees and criminals of the worst sort scattered among their branches.One day my family will be respected, if takes another five generations.”

Dana might be moved to tears, but Jayden wasn’t.“If I’m not mistaken, I’m here for plausible deniability as much as for my magic.Your being caught here could start the war you fear.But if Sorcerer Lord Jayden was involved, a man who hated the king and queen, the blame could be put on my shoulders if we’re seen.”

“True,” Lootmore admitted.“Be fair, Jayden, when have you ever shied away from taking credit for your actions?”

“I’ve avoided the spotlight once or twice when the situation called for it,” Jayden replied.“This isn’t one of those times.”

Lootmore looked at the manor where men brought in the caravan.“We should set out.Everyone inside will be exhausted and drunk by the time we arrive.”

They headed out on foot, a slow trip because they had to climb over fences heavy with grapevines.Fortunately no one was present to hear the noise they made.By the time they reached the manor, the men from the caravan had gone inside while the oxen, horses and wagons were in a barn. Lanterns lit up the ground between the manor and outer wall, and they heard constant loud noise from inside.

“There are no guards stationed outdoors,” Jayden said.

“Baron Scalamonger is far from hostile borders and monster infested woods, and his wine barrels are too large to easily steal,” Lootmore replied, and scaled the wall with his men.

Dana was reasonably good at climbing, but this looked beyond her. There wasn’t much space between the bricks in the wall and no vines growing on it for her to grab onto.Her hesitation gave her the time to see posters glued to the wall by the gate.There was enough light to read them thanks to the lanterns in the manor.

Several were handwritten posters on cheap paper advertising employment.She couldn’t figure out why so many landowners and businesses were short of workers.One poster was larger and made of better quality paper, and judging by its faded colors it was it was also the oldest.

Good citizens, come to the defense of the crown! The King and Queen call upon any man of good health to consider military service to protect the kingdom.Uniforms and weapons will be provided, with three meals a day.Recruits with criminal records will have them erased after one year’s service. Spearmen get 10 silver pieces per month! Archers get 20 silver pieces!Officers get 50 silver pieces!

Jayden walk up alongside Dana, and she heard him growl, “Protect the kingdom?”

“That’s rich,” Dana replied.“They’re the ones going on the warpath.”

Lootmore reached the top of the wall without difficulty and lowered a rope for Jayden and Dana.They climbed up and dropped down to the ground next to the barn.Lootmore and his men were already working on a lock sealing the barn door.Jayden began to cast a spell, but Lootmore waved for him to stop.In thirty seconds the lock was open and they went inside.

“Jayden, light,” Lootmore said.

Jayden cast a spell forming a small glowing globe to illuminate the barn.They saw the knights’ horses, four wagons and sixteen oxen.The animals gorged on fresh hay and drank deeply from water troughs.Lootmore climbed onto the nearest wagon and froze.

“The armor isn’t here,” Lootmore said.His men checked the other wagons and shook their heads.“I saw Commander Vestril load it with my own eyes.Where is it?”

“You described Commander Vestril as being careful to the point of paranoia,” Jayden said.“Baron Scalamonger must feel safe to not post guards, but it seems the commander is taking no chances and brought his cargo inside the manor for safekeeping.”

Lootmore climbed down from the wagon.“That must be it.Our task is more complicated and riskier, but not impossible.You said the manor has a basement.That would be the place to store so much armor.We’ll break in, get the armor and load it onto the wagons.”

“Without being seen?” Dana asked.“There are dozens more people inside the manor besides the baron’s usual staff and guards.How are we going to get eighty suits of armor out without them noticing?”

Lootmore petted his murderous cat perched on his shoulder.“I know a few ways.”

Jayden dispelled his magic light and they left the barn for the manor. There were ten windows, a main entrance in the front and a servant’s entrance at the back.All were locked, but that was little problem for Lootmore.The knight/thief picked the lock on a window and peered in.He waved for Jayden to come closer.

“It looks like a servant’s room,” Lootmore said.“Your additions to my map showed the entrance to the basement across the hall from this room.We’ll go across and take out the armor a suit at a time.”

Lootmore picked up his cat, whispered into its ear and set it on the floor. The cat went to the door and waited for him to open it, then walked casually down the hall.Dana, Jayden, Lootmore and his men then looked out the door.

There was constant noise as the baron’s staff and guests ate and spoke. They saw serving girls walk by carrying plates of food.Once they were gone, Lootmore snuck across the hall to the door leading to the basement. He opened it briefly before returning to the others.

“I spotted the armor.It’s loaded in crates and two men are guarding it.They’re watching the stairs and will see anyone who tries to go down.We need to deal with them before they raise an alarm.”

Dana watched more serving girls walking by.They wore regular clothes rather than uniforms or maid outfits. Dana had also gotten a good look at the map when Jayden had been correcting it.

“I can handle that,” she told the others.Before Jayden could stop her, she left the room and headed down the hall.

The kitchen wasn’t far from the servant’s quarters.Dana peered in from the doorway and saw an older lady preparing one plateful of food after another.Two serving girls took them as fast as the old woman set them on a table.

“Get moving, girls, and watch those soldiers,” the old woman warned.“Men like that have roaming hands.”

The girls giggled and left with the meals.Dana had to slip into a closet to avoid them, and when she came out she found the old woman had already filled the table with more plates loaded with food. Dana grabbed two plates when the woman wasn’t looking and hurried off to the winery.The winery had horizontal wine racks containing hundreds of bottles of wine, many of them covered in dust.Dana took the dustiest one, cleaned it off on her dress and took it with her.

She came back to the entrance to the basement.Smiling, she opened the door and walked downstairs.The basement was larger than her house in her hometown, and it included multiple rooms with barred doors.The rooms must not have been enough, for crates were stacked up on the floor.Two spearmen stood next to the crates.

“That’s close enough, girl,” one of them said.“Staff isn’t allowed in the basement until after we leave.”

“I’m bringing your dinners,” Dana said.She set the plates of food down on the nearest stack of crates and put the bottle next to them.“You must be hungry.”

“Roast pork!” the second man exclaimed.He set down his spear and snatched up his meal.“I haven’t had meat in weeks.”

The first man set his spear aside to eat.“That’s very generous.”

“Baron Scalamonger appreciates the sacrifices you make on behalf of our kingdom,” Dana said.She curtsied and turned to leave.

“Uh, miss,” the first man began.“You left the bottle and didn’t pour us cups.For that matter you forgot our cups.”

Dana smiled at him before she went back upstairs.“Two grown men can’t finish one bottle of wine?”

Both men cheered up at the news, and the second shouted, “We get the whole bottle?This keeps getting better!”

Dana left and slipped back into the room where her friends were hiding.She looked at Jayden and said, “I gave them the oldest wine I could find.Give them time to drink it and we can get started.”

“That has got to be the most…” Lootmore began before turning to Jayden. “I see why you work with her.”

Jayden smirked.“She’s one of a kind.”

The next hour was spent is silence as they waited for their opportunity. Voices outside their room grew louder and more cheerful as men sang drunkenly.It looked like the baron was trying to buy good faith with good wine, and it was a rousing success.

Two serving girls walked by, and Dana heard one say, “I don’t know who served them, but the guards downstairs are fed and got their hands on a full bottle.”

“They’re not allowed to drink on duty,” another servant replied.

The first girl laughed.“Good luck getting it away from them.”

Jayden and Lootmore eventually left the room and checked the stairs to the basement.Moments later they waved for the others to follow them.They found both guards passed out on the floor and snoring loudly.

Lootmore pointed to two of his men.“You keep watch and you harness the oxen in the barn.The rest of you load armor onto the wagons.Stop work if you see or hear anything suspicious.”

Working quickly, they carried one crate after another out of the basement to the servant’s room, then through the window and to the barn.They had to stop work twice when servants walked by, but they were otherwise undisturbed as the soldiers partied and drank.It took an hour to remove the twenty crates they could see. Jayden opened one of the barred doors to find thirty more crates stacked up.Removing those took another hour.

“We have thirty more to go and it’s getting late,” Jayden said.

“There’s still time to finish the job,” Lootmore replied.

Lootmore’s men were about to unbar another door when they heard a cough through a different door.Everyone froze.Dana was closest and pulled the bar off as Jayden came up behind her and cast a spell to form his black sword.Dana opened the door only an inch and peaked in.Worried, she looked to Jayden.

“We have a problem,” she said, and opened the door to reveal fifteen girls. Dana guessed their ages between ten and thirteen.The girls wore dirty dresses, and they blinked at the sudden light.Many of them crept to the back of their makeshift cell, while others clutched at one another.

Jayden looked shocked as he stepped in among the children.He let his sword dissipate and knelt down to look the nearest girl in the eyes.“Who are you?”

The girl looked down and mumbled, “Misty Rokath, sir.I hope we didn’t upset you, sir.We tried to be quiet.Are you our owner?”

Dana came in alongside Jayden and put a hand on his shoulder.She didn’t know what was going on, but the expression on Jayden’s face looked ominous.

“Slavery is illegal here,” Jayden said softly.“What made you think I could own you?”

Misty looked confused.“We were bought, sir.The harvests were poor in Skitherin Kingdom.Our families couldn’t pay their taxes.My father, he said he was sorry, but this way I’d be fed, and my owner would be kind if I did what I’m told.”

Another girl dared to speak.“We won’t cause you any trouble, sir.We’re good with a loom, and we learn fast.You’ll get your five guilder’s worth.”

“Five guilders,” Jayden began.The girls gasped and backed away as Jayden’s face turned red in fury, he gritted his teeth and narrowed his eyes.He turned to face Lootmore.“These girls were sold for the price of a pig.”

“I swear I didn’t know,” Lootmore said.His expression was hidden behind his mask, but he sounded horrified.

“We’re taking them with us,” Jayden ordered, “and to blazes with the armor.”

“We’ll take them and the armor, I promise,” Lootmore said.

It looked like they were going to argue when a voice at the top of the stairs called out, “Change of shifts!You two can drink your fill and leave us to…what the devil?”

Two spearmen froze at the doorway as the looked down at Jayden, Dana, Lootmore and three of his men.A spearman opened his mouth to shout a warning when Lootmore’s man on guard shut the door and tackled him.The second man was too surprised to more than gape at them when Jump Scare leapt at the man’s face.

“Get it off!Get it off!” The spearman flailed about before falling down the stairs.Jump Scare leapt off him to land in Lootmore’s waiting arms, then licked his paws clean.

Lootmore and his followers quickly overpowered the two guards and shoved them into an empty room in the basement.Jayden barred the door as Dana asked, “Did the soldiers hear us?”

Jayden stood as still as a statue as he listened.“I only hear merriment and drunken singing.We’re in the clear.”

Except they weren’t.A man in plate armor and a helmet stormed into the basement with four spearmen behind him.“The serving girls tell me you’re drinking on duty!When I—”

Jayden cast a spell and formed his black whip.He swung it high, lopping the blades off the men’s spears and leaving them temporarily defenseless.He ran up the stairs and shouted, “Get everyone out of here!I’ll hold them off!”

Lootmore drew a sword and ran after him.“Nothing’s going right tonight.Finish the job, men!”

The soldiers fell back and drew swords from their scabbards.The man in plate armor yelled, “We’re under attack! All soldiers to me!”

The situation turned into bedlam.Lootmore’s men tried to herd slave children out of the basement, except the girls were screaming in panic.Jayden pushed forward and drove the soldiers back with his whip.The sound of merriment elsewhere in the manor ended and was replaced by frightened shouts and the stomping of approaching men.

Dana followed Jayden and Lootmore into the hallway.They found the soldiers still falling back until they ran into more spearmen and four archers.The packed hallway made it hard for the soldiers to use their superior numbers effectively.An archer shouted, “Commander Vestril, I can’t get a clear shot!”

Commander Vestril, the man in plate armor, ordered, “Go around to the other hallway and catch them from behind!”

Jayden swung his whip at the lead soldier’s sword.The whip wrapped around it and hissed as it burned through the blade until half the weapon fell to the floor.Soldiers panicked at the sight, but not their commander.

“Back to the main hall!” Vestril ordered.His men did as instructed, and Jayden pressed them further.

“We have to hold them a while longer,” Lootmore said.He turned to see soldiers coming at them from behind. “Keep this group back and I’ll deal with the others.”

That was a tall order when the second group had archers, but Lootmore had Jump Scare.The black ball of fury raced across the floor and ran right up an archer’s body.The man had only a second to wonder what was happening when the cat reached his face.He screamed in terror and threw down his bow before grabbing at Jump Scare.

Dana stayed with Jayden as he pushed the enemy back.He got them as far as the main hall, a huge room filled with long tables, benches and a crowd of soldiers and guards.Serving girls kept behind the soldiers, as did a minstrel and two cooks.A staircase led to a second story balcony, where a drunken man so richly dressed he had to be Baron Scalamonger watched in befuddlement.

The baron swayed back and forth as he asked, “Exactly what is going on here?”

There was a momentary lull in the battle as both sides eyed one another. The soldiers and guards had a massive advantage in numbers.Jayden let his whip swing back and forth, daring any to approach him.He bared his teeth in a snarl before casting another spell to form a shield of spinning blades in front of him.

“I’ve heard of you,” Commander Vestril said.He pointed his sword at Jayden and said, “You’re the so-called sorcerer lord, a wanted man.”

Jayden pointed at the baron and yelled, “And you are a slaver, a buyer of human life!Slavery has been outlawed since the founding of the kingdom.What depths have you fallen to that you’d break this law?”

If the baron was confused before, now he was totally baffled. “W-what?The girls?Laws concerning slavery were changed five months ago.We’re allowed to buy foreigners.With so many men leaving for military duty there’s no choice but to have them or we couldn’t get any work done.H-half the nobles south of here own slaves.Don’t you keep up with current events?”

Dana gasped when she heard this.The people who’d tried to hire them and the help wanted posters made sense now.Wars require huge numbers of men to fight, and while the king and queen had hired many mercenaries, that wouldn’t be enough to invade a kingdom.Every man who signed up to become a soldier was one less worker in the fields or vineyards.Commoners had to beg for help from anyone who passed by.

But it wasn’t the same for nobles and rich landholders.With slavery accepted, men with enough money could buy the workers they needed, scooping up the poor and desperate from other kingdoms for pocket change.The young girls in the basement and who knows how many others were nothing more than property.

Commander Vestril stepped forward supported by dozens of men.“I give you one chance to surrender, a mercy you don’t deserve.Submit to royal authority and your life will be spared.”

Oh, that was the wrong thing to say.Jayden’s fury doubled, and he hissed, “I spit upon the mercy of those who buy and sell children.I scorn the authority of a king and queen so vile they debased their own people like this. I will see this house fall and all those within it flee for their lives!”

“So be it,” Commander Vestril replied.“I’ll send you to the devil.”

Boom!

The noise came from outside the manor, the sound of thick masonry shattering. Men and women gasped and backed away, crying out in confusion.

“Jayden, what’s going on?” Lootmore called out.

“Fiend, what have you done?” Vestril demanded.The wall behind the commander creaked and began to buckle. Wood beams six inches thick splintered as some great force pressed against them.

“It caught up with us again, didn’t it?” Dana asked softly.

Jayden watched cracks spread across the wall like a giant spider web.“It did.”

Dana forced a smile and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Living Graveyard!”

The wall caved in, filling the main hall with dust, and the Living Graveyard lumbered into the room.The monster was made of grave dirt, broken headstones and shattered bones, stood twelve feet tall and was eight feet across at the shoulders.There was no head, only thick legs with tombstones on the soles of the feet, long arms that ended in oversized hands with splintered coffin wood for fingernails, and a bulbous body with a cluster of human skulls in the center.Two headstones rose up from the monster’s shoulders, both with messages gouged into them. The left one read No Rest, and the right one No Peace.Lastly was its scent, the overwhelming stench of rot.

This monster had fought Jayden and Dana twice, died, and somehow reassembled itself.Such losses didn’t deter it.It had followed them halfway across the kingdom for another battle that could mean dying at their hands again, and yet it still came.

For a moment the Living Graveyard stood still, the skulls turning to study the room with their empty eyes.Then it spotted Jayden and Dana.With its quarry in sight, the Living Graveyard marched toward them.This meant crossing the entire main hall packed with armed men.The soldiers didn’t know they weren’t the monster’s target, and as it advanced they panicked and attacked.

Arrows struck the Living Graveyard.Spearmen stabbed it and swordsmen slashed at its legs and arms. Such attacks did little to a body of dirt, stone and bone, but it did catch the monster’s attention.The Living Graveyard’s skulls opened their grinning maws and howled like a hundred tormented souls.Soldiers and servants alike screamed and fell back as the monster marched on.

“Form ranks!” Vestril ordered.He dragged fleeing spearmen into a rough line and pushed them toward the monster. Their spears were no more effective a second time.Arrows flew over the men’s heads and embedded themselves in the towering monstrosity. Its response was to casually swing one arm and swat the spearmen aside.

“Get the militia!” Baron Scalamonger shouted over the chaos. “Hurry!”

The crowded hall turned into a maelstrom of chaos.Servants ran for their lives, getting in the way of the soldiers.Some soldiers banded together and fought Jayden or the Living Graveyard, while others threw down their weapons and fled. The Living Graveyard knocked over tables and chairs, splattering the floor with food and wine, but fighting only those between it and Jayden.

Jayden strode through the hall like the personification of vengeance, remorseless and unstoppable as his whip and shield of blades cut through spears, swords and arrows with equal ease.He struck anyone foolish enough to get close to him, and Dana watched him head directly for Baron Scalamonger.

“We’re not after him!” she shouted to Jayden.He marched on.

Dana shook her head in dismay and ran after him.She tripped a spearman coming after Jayden and threw a bowl of hot gravy into the face of an archer.Both men were so slow to react that she wondered if Jayden had cast a spell on them, but she remembered the soldiers were exhausted from the march here and drunk from the celebration.She, Jayden and Lootmore were the only ones at the top of their game, a slender advantage that might save them.

Jayden and the Living Graveyard met near the middle of the hall.The monster swung its right fist at him, knocking men and furniture aside before the blow even came near its target.Jayden raised his shield of blades to intercept the attack. Fist met blades, and sprayed dirt and bone shards across the room.The shield broke under the pressure, but not before mincing through the Living Graveyard’s right arm up to the elbow.The loss didn’t bother it in the least, and it raised its left arm for a swing.

“Get out of the way!”Jayden swung his whip and wrapped it around the Living Graveyard’s chest, and the whip hissed as it burned deep wounds.The Living Graveyard grabbed the whip with its left hand and pulled hard, dragging Jayden across the floor toward it.The monster slapped him with the back of its hand, sending him sprawling on the floor. Jayden rolled out of the way before the Living Graveyard stepped on him.He got to his feet and replaced the whip with his black sword.He howled and ran past the monster, bounding up the stairs to the balcony where Baron Scalamonger trembled in fear.

“I had to do it,” the baron sobbed as Jayden grabbed him by the throat.“It was this or bankruptcy.”

“No one has to do evil!” Jayden yelled.There was the sound of wood splintering, and Jayden looked over his shoulder to see the Living Graveyard tearing apart the stairs.Jayden pointed his sword at the abomination.“The only difference between you and that horror is that its evil is plain to see.You hide yours behind riches and a noble title.”

“You don’t understand,” the baron said.“You don’t know what it’s like being in charge, the expectations, the demands.”

Jayden howled like a wounded animal and threw the baron off the balcony onto the Living Graveyard.The baron screamed and fell onto the monster’s chest.It had no interest in the baron, grabbed him and tossed him aside.Jayden jumped off the balcony and landed on the Living Graveyard’s back.His knees bent when he landed, and he drove his black sword into the monster.When it grabbed for him with its left arm, he hacked it off at the wrist.Anything else would have died from those wounds.The Living Graveyard simply ran forward into the nearest wall, smashing through it and throwing Jayden off.

Dana worked her way through the panicked crowd to help Jayden.She’d nearly reached him when Commander Vestril saw her.He drew his sword and charged, screaming, “You side with him, you can die with him!”

Dana ducked between confused soldiers, dodging the first few attacks. Vestril kept after her, slashing away. He raised his sword for another attack when a black clad fighter blocked the swing with his own sword.It was Lootmore, bruised and battered, but not out.

“Try fighting a man,” Lootmore said.

Dana saw a blur of black race across the room.“I’d worry more about the cat.”

Jump Scare leapt onto Vestril, but Vestril’s plate armor offered no easy avenue for attack.This didn’t bother the cat, and it satisfied itself by shoving both front paws into the eye slits of Vestril’s helmet.Vestril staggered back, blinded with his eye slits jammed, and Lootmore attacked again and again.

Soldiers regrouped now that Jayden and the living Graveyard were busy with one another.Dana saw an archer take aim at Lootmore.She drew her knife and ran up behind him, then slashed the string of his bow.She ran past the shocked archer, grabbed a full wine bottle off the floor and clubbed a spearman in the head with it. The bottle shattered and the spearman fell.

“Get Jayden!” Lootmore shouted.He struck Vestril again and again, but his sword didn’t even scratch the commander’s plate armor.

Dana struggled to see Jayden in the melee.She finally found him getting up off the floor and heading after Baron Scalamonger. The baron hid behind a few spearmen, but they scattered when they saw Jayden coming.Terrified, the baron staggered back and bumped into the Living Graveyard.

“Not again,” the baron pleaded.The Living Graveyard kicked the baron aside and lumbered after Jayden. More spearmen came to attack both of them.The Living Graveyard howled again, and the men fell back in terror.

Jayden yelled back at the nightmarish monstrosity and swung his sword, shattering half the skulls on its body.The Living Graveyard tried to club him with its left arm, but he ran in close and struck the monster’s right knee.It buckled and the monster fell to the floor.With the biggest threat dealt with, Jayden turned to face Baron Scalamonger again.The baron was hurt and limping away when he saw Jayden heading for him.

“No, wait, I can pay a ransom,” the baron said.

A loud bang caught both their attentions.Lootmore had given up trying to cut through Commander Vestril’s plate armor and instead clubbed him with a stout oak chair.The blow staggered the commander, and another sent him to his knees. Jump Scare leapt off Vestril and returned to its owner’s shoulder.

One of Lootmore’s men ran in and reported, “We’re ready to go.”

Lootmore tossed the chair aside.“The job’s finished, Jayden.Come on.”

Jayden kicked aside the last soldier still fighting back and marched up to the baron.

“We won, Jayden!” Lootmore shouted.When that got no response, he turned to Dana and spoke more softly. “You are to my knowledge the only person he likes.If you know words to reach him, use them now.”

Dana’s mind raced as Jayden advanced on the baron.She’d seen him angry before, but never like this.What had set him off?The girls!Their plight had driven him to this, and it might be enough to redirect him.

“Jayden, the girls are free, but Baron Scalamonger called for his militia. They’ll catch the girls and bring them back.They’ll only get away if you protect them.”

For a second it seemed like she’d failed, but slowly, ever so slowly, Jayden stopped.He was breathing hard when he jogged back to her and Lootmore.Exhausted and bruised, he looked like if he had his way he’d continue the fight.Jayden took up the rear as they left the manor through one of the holes the Living Graveyard had made.

Outside they found Lootmore’s men had loaded the wagons with crates and the girls, and they had tired oxen yoked to pull them.Jayden helped Dana and Lootmore onto the last wagon and was about the climb on when they heard a now familiar howl.

“You must be joking,” Lootmore said.

It was the Living Graveyard.It had lost its right arm up to the elbow, the left at the wrist, most of its skulls and so much of the right leg that it dragged the ruined limb when it walked, and still it hunted them.It pushing through the same hole they had fled through and limped after them.

Jayden cast a spell to form a huge hand five feet across from shadows.He reached out with his real hand and sent the huge hand hurdling into the Living Graveyard.He slammed the monster into the manor.

“Die!” he screamed.His phantom hand slammed the Living Graveyard into the manor again and again until that entire side of the manor peeled off and collapsed on the monster.“Die and stay dead!”

A slave girl tugged on Dana’s arm and asked, “Does the scary man own us?”

“No one owns you, now or ever,” she promised.

* * * * *

It was late the following morning when Lootmore stopped his barge to let Dana and Jayden off.They’d traveled through the night until they were sure no one was following them.The heavily laden barge couldn’t travel fast, but it managed to reach an unpopulated wilderness.Lootmore changed back into his regular clothes and used the brief respite to address the girls he’d help rescue.

“I lack the means or money to send you back to your families.It wouldn’t be safe to even if I could.People would think you’d run off and would return you to the baron.What I can do is offer you three choices.The first is I can adopt anyone who wishes into the Lootmore family.We are not rich or respected, but we look after our own. I can apprentice you to tradesmen I know and trust.Or if you prefer I can send you to a Brotherhood of the Righteous orphanage. You’ve no need to make a decision this important hastily, but know that whatever you choose, you will be cared for.”

“Now that’s how a knight is supposed to act,” Dana said.“I don’t care how his family got their title, they deserve it.”

Lootmore got off his barge and approached Jayden.Before he could speak, Dana pointed at Jump Scare perched on the bow of the barge like a figurehead.“Your cat tried to attack me twice.Won’t he go after the girls, too?”

Sounding far more sheepish, he said, “Jump Scare calms down after he’s had a few dozen victims.He’ll be quiet for the next week or so.”

Dana stared at the cat.“What is wrong with him?”

“I used to think it was a traumatic event in his youth or a poor upbringing. Now I’m convinced he’s just evil. Still, he can be used for good purposes.”Lootmore frowned and turned to Jayden.“The good news is we got all the armor and saved these children.I admit this didn’t go as well as it could have, and I take part of the blame for that.”

Jayden had been silent since leaving the manor.He didn’t look at Lootmore when he said, “Call upon me when you need help.”

Taken aback, Lootmore asked, “Really?After that?”

“I make the offer because of what happened.In my worst nightmares I never imagined my people could sink so low.I doubt I can prevent the coming war, but I can slow it down, weaken it, anything to keep the evil we saw from spreading.”

Lootmore saluted Jayden.“It has been a pleasure, sir.I need to get these unfortunates to safety and the armor to my superiors.I hope to find you well in the future.”

With that said, Lootmore returned to the barge and sailed off.Jayden stood where he was, saying and doing nothing.

When he didn’t move, Dana said, “You said you knew that manor because you’d been there before, but the baron didn’t recognize you.It must have been a long time ago, like when you were a kid. What kind of kid is invited to the manor of a baron and ends up as the world’s only sorcerer lord?”

Jayden didn’t react at first.He turned slowly to face her before speaking.“It happened so long ago he didn’t recognize the man I’ve become, and I didn’t recognize the monster he’d turned into.I’m sorry for last night.”

“You had a reason to be angry.”

“It’s more than that.”Jayden paused before speaking again.“Last night you saw me at my worst.I gave in to a hatred I’d thought I had control of, a rage so great I could have done terrible deeds.You helped me back from the brink of becoming the villain so many people think I am, and I am indebted to you.I…won’t think less of you if you wish to return home.God knows you have good reason to after what I almost did to the baron.”

“You mean besides destroying his house, humiliating him in front of his peers and followers, freeing his slaves and knocking him around?”

Jayden managed a weak smile.“Yes, besides that.”

“I’m not walking out on you.”

“Thank you. Your loyalty is touching.”

Dana took his hand and smiled.“Nobody could have seen what we did last night without reacting, and I’m with you for another reason.Five months ago the laws in the kingdom were changed so a man could buy foreigners, and girls no different than me were made slaves.Five months from now the laws could change again, and it could be me on the auction block, or my sisters.This has to stop, and you’re the best man to do it.Now come on, my sword should be ready by now.”

As they headed north along the river, Jayden began to regain his confidence. “It’s funny you should mention that. The swordsmith has no doubt produced a weapon worthy of you, but I know ways to infuse magic into weapons.It won’t be as impressive as my spells, but I think you’ll like it.”

Smiling, she asked, “Does that mean I get to chop monsters apart?”

“Let’s start small and work up to that.”

 

 

 

 


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