Exit Stage Left

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

More fun with Dana Illwind and Sorcerer Lord Jayden, where they learn it's hard to leave when people want you to stay.

Dana sat next to a river, enjoying the warm, sunny day and watching Jayden read one of his spell tablets.They’d been here for hours next to the wyvern’s head and other body parts.Jayden had spent the time going over his collection of tablets.Sometimes his lips moved, but he said nothing.

“Why do you keep reading those tablets when you already know the spells?” she asked.

Jayden pointed at sections from each tablet.“Look here.One is my shadow fox spell, the other is entropic lash, yet these portions of the spells are identical.My shield of blades spell also includes this passage.I think it’s a basic form of shadow magic, a root other spells grow from, if you will.”

He frowned and said, “Except it doesn’t appear in half the tablets.When I try casting a spell using just that passage nothing happens.Dana, I use shadow magic, but I don’t understand the basic mechanisms behind it.”

“Learning that sounds like it would take a long time,” she told him.“I bet you’d need a library with books about the Sorcerer Lords, plus lots of money and wizard stuff like rare chemicals and pickled lizards.”

He looked up with a grin.“Wizard stuff?”

“If I knew the right word, I’d use it.My point is we don’t have any of that.”

Jayden picked up one of the tablets.“You are correct.It may be a very long time before I truly understand shadow magic.It’s possible I never will.But my hope is to one day not merely scavenge spells from tombs and ruins, but create my own spells.”

A stray breeze brought the foul odor of rot.Dana wrinkled her nose and glanced at the wyvern’s head.It had taken a lot of effort to bring it here after the battle.Jayden’s giant hand spell didn’t last long enough to carry the head far, so they’d lashed it to narrow logs and carried it for miles.The head was going bad in the summer heat, and flies were swarming around it.The lingering stink of wyvern droppings on her boots didn’t help.“Do you know a spell to make that smell better?”

“My apologies, but no.We will have to endure the odor only a little while longer.Scald is certain to collect us soon, we can accept our reward and leave.”

Dana pointed at the rest of the wyvern’s remains.Jayden had insisted on collecting other portions of their enemy’s body, including the stinger, five claws from its feet and a piece of belly hide three feet wide and eight feet long.“What about all that?”

“We’re running low on funds.Normally I’d correct that by robbing Meadowland officials, but that’s not an option in Bascal.”

“Robbing people might upset the neighbors,” Dana said dryly.

Jayden smiled.“Possibly.Fortunately, alchemists and armorers are always looking for rare monster remains.These parts of the wyvern’s body are particularly prized and will fetch a good price, enough to make us financially solvent.A pity we couldn’t bring the entire carcass, but these will do.”

Dana glanced at the wyvern’s stinger, a black, hollow blade as long as Chain Cutter.They’d used a chimera goat horn to help make her magic sword, so maybe the stinger could be used to make a similar weapon, if the buyer could afford it.“Will people have money for this stuff with a war going on?”

“If anything, war makes people spend more freely.They will want the best weapons and armor available, and local craftsmen will be desperate for these treasures.”He picked up the stinger and swung it like a sword.“Dwarfs make most magic items, but every kingdom has at least one fledgling wizard or skilled artisan who can produce passable magic weapons, even if they will be more expensive and less capable than dwarven work.”

“Thume Breakbones would make a killing here.”She frowned and added, “He might be making a killing for Tyros and Amvicta, making them weapons as dangerous as Chain Cutter.”

“Only if he has the raw materials for the job,” he reminded her.“You know how rare and expensive uram is.Monster carcasses are nearly as expensive and hard to come by.Thume might have found royal employment, but he won’t make anything to rival your blade.”

Jayden pointed at a speck on the horizon.“I believe our ride it here.”

The speck drew closer until Dana recognized it as Scald.The dragon flew more quickly and gracefully than when they’d ridden him here.Scald opened his mouth in a toothy smile, then dove like a hawk before his wings suddenly opened, slowing him as he landed beside them.“You magnificent son of a—”

“Language, please,” Jayden said.“There’s a lady present.”

“You’re looking better,” Dana said.

“Rascan’s healers have me nearly back to full strength.”Scald studied Dana’s blood soaked dress.Earlier in the day she’d tried washing it out without any luck.Scald sniffed it and gave her an approving look.“Well done!”

“We had help,” she told the dragon.

“You did the job, and I’m back in the air again with no one to say otherwise.”Scald kneeled and added, “Climb on and I’ll hold your trophies.”

Once they were on his back, Scald took off and headed to Bascal.The trip was as uncomfortable the second time around, but it gave Dana the chance to see part of the kingdom from high up.The Meadowland camps and forts had grown since she and Jayden had last flown by dragon.Losing the wyvern and giant had hurt them, but those had been only a part of their army.They could still do a lot of damage with those men.It put her and Jayden’s victory in perspective.

They crossed the border, where Dana saw men guarding the narrow pass into Bascal.Rascan had tripled how many soldiers he’d stationed there, and given them ten catapults.That was a lot of firepower for such a tight space, made even tighter by the barricades soldiers were erecting across the pass.They were few against the huge Meadowland army, but in such narrow confines they could hold back a hundred times their limited number.

Finally they reached the capital.Scald’s arrival drew applause from those who saw him, and there were gasps when he dropped the wyvern’s head in the city’s main courtyard and landed beside it.Dana and Jayden dismounted, and to Dana’s amazement, people pointed at her and cried out in horror.She quickly realized it was because her dress was dark with wyvern blood.

“Don’t worry, it’s not mine!” she called out.The crowd still stared at her.

“I know you meant that to sound reassuring, but it’s not,” Jayden told her.He cast a spell to form his giant magic hand, seized the wyvern head with it and held it up for everyone to see.“If this was the best Tyros and Amvicta could do, they underestimated Bascal!”

Men and women cheered.Nearby food stalls poured free drinks.The crowd gathered around, some thanking Dana and Jayden while others looked at the wyvern’s head.Men shook her hand and patted her on the back.A small boy frowned at the wyvern head and kicked it, making the crowd laugh.

Stillman and two fellow knights ran over.Stillman waved to a newly built wood podium and said, “There’s a stake at the back of the podium.Place the wyvern’s head on it.”

“You might want to salt or pickle it first,” Dana said as a young woman shook her hand.

“We’ll clean it later,” Stillman replied.“King Rascan wants it displayed as fresh as possible so the people know it’s a recent kill and not an old trophy.”

Jayden placed the head on the stake to more cheers.“I’ve lived up to my end of the bargain.”

“We’ve been instructed to escort you to the king the moment you arrived.Payment will be prompt.”Stillman looked at Dana’s dress.“I can’t present your swordswoman to royalty in this state.Do you still have your dress from the ball?”

Dana smiled and opened her mouth to answer, but Jayden spoke first.“Dana, we’ll need new traveling clothes for you.See if Cassandra can provide sturdy and inconspicuous garments on short notice.”

“Why the rush?” she asked.

Jayden handed her a pouch of gold from his belongings.“I’ll explain later.Meet me back at the hotel as soon as you can.”

Dana wasn’t sure why he was hurrying.Then members of the crowd drew in closer, some offering drinks and food, and she understood.Jayden had come to Bascal to get spell tablets, not sign up with the kingdom.These people would want him to stay and help in the war.King Rascan had accepted their help reluctantly, but after several wins he might change his mind, especially after his castle had been attacked and heir endangered.Jayden wanted to leave while leaving was still an option.

 “I’ll see you soon,” she told him, and slipped away before Stillman could stop her.The crowd was large but spread out enough for her to leave without trouble.She jogged toward Cassandra’s shop, but had only gone a short distance when she ran into more people heading for the courtyard.One of them wasn’t a friend.

“What are you doing back here?”Baronet Skythex demanded.He was heading to the courtyard with two attendants.The miserable youth glared at her with undisguised loathing.“What’s that noise about?”

Dana pointed at the wyvern head, clearly visible even from a distance.“We made sure Bascal has one less monster to fight.”

Skythex stared at the head.First puzzled and then furious, he stormed off with his attendants, leaving Dana blissfully alone.Pleased she hadn’t had another quarrel with him, she continued on her way.

Getting to Cassandra’s shop was tricky when everyone she met thought she was wounded, forcing her to keep explaining what had happened.It gave her a greater understanding why she had to replace her clothes.She wasn’t wanted like Jayden was, but the blood would attract attention from friends and enemies alike.That would make it impossible to travel in public.

Dana reached Cassandra’s shop and found it in the same state of disorder as before.Cassandra’s extended family and their belongings filled the building.An older woman saw her enter in her bloodied dress and looked like she was about to scream when Dana called out, “Customer!”

Cassandra hurried over, shoving family members out of the way until she reached Dana.Wrinkling her nose, she said, “The shoes go now!Sissy, throw them in an alley.Meryl, get the girl something to wear until I can make her presentable.”

Dana handed Cassandra the pouch of coins.“I need traveling clothes.”

“The list of what you need is a mile long and growing,” Cassandra said.She shooed relatives out the door, saying, “Make yourselves useful somewhere else.”

“This is a rush job,” Dana said as she handed over her boots.

“I’ve garments that should fit with little work,” Cassandra said.Her granddaughter Meryl brought Dana a simple white dress to wear and took away her ruined clothes.Cassandra ordered, “Burn those!You’ll never get them clean, and too many animals and monsters think food when they smell blood.Mercy, girl, three times you’ve been here.I’ve paid off all my debts with your business.”

“It’s been a rough month.”

“A bad month of a bad year, and worse to come.”Cassandra muttered as she went through her stock of fabrics.“Sturdy, easy to clean, something that won’t draw attention.Brown and black aren’t your color, but it will have to do.You’ll need layers for winter, with boots to go with them.”

Cassandra and her granddaughters quickly modified clothing they already had for Dana.It surprised her how much Cassandra had that was a near perfect fit.The woman seemed to have a gift for preparations, like she’d known Dana was coming.She heard Cassandra occasionally mutter while she worked, mostly too quiet to hear, but a few words came through.

“Monster blood on her dress.Won’t be the last time, won’t be the worst time.”

Startled, Dana asked, “Excuse me?”

Cassandra kept working.“Don’t mind me.Just an old woman seeing too much.We’ll be done soon, and you can go before men come for you.”She grinned at Dana and added, “Not fast enough for one of them.”

Dana wasn’t sure what to make of that when the door swung open and Prince Onus rushed in.He saw Dana and sighed in relief.“Thank God.People told me you were dying.”

Cassandra seized both her granddaughters by their wrists.“We’ll finish work in the back.”

“But I want to watch!” Sissy whined.Cassandra gave the prince a nod before dragging her granddaughters out of the room.

Alone with the prince, wearing borrowed clothes and feeling a bit nervous, Dana managed to say, “Um, hi.How did you know where I was?”

“I heard a commotion in the courtyard and went to investigate.Half the city saw you arrive by dragon, and hundreds saw you leaving the courtyard.I guessed where you were going when I saw which direction people said you took.You should have told me you were going monster hunting.I could have helped.”

“I couldn’t take a prince!King Rascan would have thrown a fit.”

Prince Onus looked disgusted.“When kings die their people make statues of them.I feel like men are trying to make a statue of me while I’m still alive.Don’t take risks, don’t take chances, let others fight and die.Be still and look like a king.It doesn’t sit well with me.”

“I know what that feels like.People tell women to stay back all the time.There’s a lot we can do, including fight, but no one wants us to get hurt.Except we’ll get hurt anyway if the people fighting lose.”

Onus looked calmer after she’d spoken.“I’m sorry.I didn’t want to sound like I was trying to keep you from harm.You’ve done too much for me to think you helpless.Women in Kaleoth have equal rights to men, and we’ve a fair number like yourself who’ve proven themselves competent warriors.”

He looked out the window at happy people talking about the dead wyvern.“I’ve fought and killed monsters, alone or with friends at my side.Now that only I and grandfather are left in our family, I have become too important to lose.I don’t seek glory or wealth, but it galls me that others risk their lives while I stand back.Kaleoth didn’t used to have kings.If I fall in battle for my people, they can live without kings again or select another family for the throne.”

That explained a lot.Men didn’t like feeling useless.Maybe she could help.“My father is the mayor of a small town.He told me before he does anything, he thinks how it will affect the poorest resident.If it hurts them, it’s a bad idea.Your people need you now more than ever.Years from now they might not need you, but with the war going on they have to have their leader.You have to do what’s right for them even if it hurts.”

Prince Onus smiled at her.“Grandfather would like you.”

Dana felt herself blushing.She was going to say more when Prince Onus stepped closer and pressed a metal amulet into her hands.

“If I’m not allowed to fight, let me at least help those who do.Take this.It’s a dwarf magic item, one use only before its power is spent, but it can protect you from a single attack.My grandfather gave it to me, but it’s of more value to you with the perils you face and I’m kept from.”

Dana looked at the strange amulet.It was made of black iron and looked like a shield with a globe stamped on it.There were words in the dwarf language below the globe, but she couldn’t read them.The amulet felt warm and pulsed like a beating heart.“I can’t accept this!It must have cost a fortune!”

“My people bought it for fifty gold pieces and a mule,” Prince Onus replied.“That’s not an imposition even for Kaleoth.Please, take it.”

She wrapped her hands around the amulet.“Thank you.”

“Your clothes are ready,” Cassandra called out from the back of the shop.“Tell your friend to step outside while you dress.”

Prince Onus blushed and made a hasty exit from the shop, making Dana giggle.

* * * * *

Dana and Prince Onus left Cassandra’s shop a short time later and headed for the hotel.Dana was wearing a new brown dress, black cape, brown gloves and black boots.She was also carrying a coat and leggings made from bear skins.Prince Onus was followed at a distance by his security team, larger and better armed than it had been a week ago.

“An odd choice for summer,” Onus said.

“Winter will be here soon enough, and I don’t think the war will be over when it comes.You know how my week has been.How’s yours?”

“Better,” he admitted.“The needless palace games are finally over.I’m not sure if that’s because the attack on the castle convinced the king to act more decisively, or if his court finally ran out of ways to waste time.I’ve had worthwhile planning sessions with Rascan.We’re only sharing information so far.Both sides are pressed too hard to send soldiers or weapons to help the other.”

“Do you think that will change?”

He shrugged.“I don’t see either of us receiving much outside help.The strangest thing is Rascan told me goblins in Bascal have suddenly become as helpful as our own.Some have gone so far as to stand guard at forts and scout for enemies.It’s not much, but we’ll take what we can get.”

He turned to her and said, “We’ve spotted goblins in Kaleoth and Bascal dressed in the green and black of the King of the Goblin.They’ve been seen giving orders to fellow goblins in the name of their War Winner, and goblins obey without complaint or insult.”

Dana had seen goblins act strangely ever since she began her journey with Jayden.The ones in Fish Bait City were organized, efficient, effective, qualities unknown to their kind.More importantly they were helping innocent people.Was this spreading to other goblins?

“Where do you go from here?” he asked.

“Jayden’s worried about the Inspired wizards.He wants to drive them out of Meadowland before they get stronger.”

“He’ll be a national hero if he succeeds.The whole kingdom is shaken by their attack on the capital.”Onus walked on in silence for a while longer before he spoke.“These wizards are no small threat.Be careful.”

“Jayden worries they’ll call in more wizards if we don’t stop them soon.Can you imagine what they could do if there are twenty of them?Fifty?”Dana shuddered at the thought.

“They’re not invincible.We both proved that.”

Dana giggled.“You did by beating one up.Did you take his wallet, too?”

“No, but I should have.”They reached the hotel, and Prince Onus saluted her.“I have meetings with Rascan and his officials I can’t be late for.I wish you well, and hope we’ll meet again in happier times.Know that you will always receive a warm reception in Kaleoth for the good you’ve done.”

Dana curtsied, which made him laugh and add, “And you won’t have to do that.”

“You started it by saluting,” she reminded him.

“It was earned.”

Prince Onus and his guards left, and Dana went inside to find everyone in the hotel’s common room watching them through the windows.Furious, she yelled, “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

“Did he kiss you?” a woman asked.

“Should we expect a marriage proposal?” the hotel manager asked.

“Do you have a sister?” a man asked.

Dana stomped to her room and slammed the door behind her.“I can’t believe these people!Is everyone in Bascal a peeping Tom?”

She waited hours for Jayden to return, her temper getting worse as she paced across the room.When he finally returned, he took one look at her and said, “If this is a bad time, I can come back later.”

“Tell me we can leave.”

“In theory, yes.”Jayden placed a small backpack on his bed and opened it to reveal two Sorcerer Lord spell tablets.“King Rascan upheld his part of our bargain.He isn’t interested in retaining our services, in part because this is the sum total of his spell tablet collection, so he has nothing left to pay us with.Worse, several nobles have objected to our employment.”

Suspicious, she asked, “Then why did you say in theory?”

“Meadowland is bringing an army Rascan can’t hope to stop.He’s going to seal the border by setting off alchemic bombs in the remaining passes, making it impossible to reach Meadowland.”

Jayden picked up one of his new tablets.“Scald could provide an easy return to Meadowland, but the Inspired are as great a risk to the dragon as the wyvern was.Rascan is reluctant to deploy Scald except where he can be protected by Bascal’s wizards or archers.”

“So we’re stuck here?”

“Rascan can’t continue employing us without looking weak for receiving help from a wanted man, yet we’ve made ourselves surprisingly popular with Bascal’s people.They would be upset if we were mistreated.In short, Rascan can neither keep us nor let us go.Nobles friendly to him have fewer issues and can afford to hire us, taking whatever credit or blame we earn while leaving the king blameless.Several have offered us work.”

Dana slapped a hand across her face.“We’re being drafted.”

“Not quite that bad, but close.A dead wyvern is a propaganda coup, but having its slayers on call is a better one.”

“Could we leave Bascal for Kaleoth and get back into Meadowland from there?”

“Again, in theory.”Jayden traced his fingers over the letters on the tablet.“It would require a lengthy trip, and we would have to deal with the enemy army camped across Racehorse River to enter Meadowland.Even if it works, that gives the Inspired time to grow in strength.”

Jayden spotted the amulet where Dana had set it down on her bed.“My, my, wherever did you get this?”

“Prince Onus gave it to me.He wished he could have come with us monster slaying.”Jayden raised an eyebrow, and Dana shouted, “You’re thinking things you’d better not say!”

“Good manners aren’t my strong suit, so let’s change the subject.I was able to turn the parts I took off the wyvern into money, although less than I’d like.We again have gold to squander if you feel like making purchases.”

“If we get any more stuff, we’ll need a cart to go with those horses.”She frowned and asked, “You didn’t sell them, did you?”

“I kept the horses for when we return to Meadowland.We have days at best to cross the border before it’s closed for good.We must assume Bascal soldiers on guard have been instructed to let no one pass lest spies enter or leave the country.Sneaking by them is effectively impossible.What does that leave?”

Dana put the amulet away in her bags.“Some of Rascan’s nobles like us.Can they get us across the border if we pay them or do a favor?”

Jayden’s face lit up with a genuine smile.“That, dear Dana, is an interesting question.”

* * * * *

Jayden spent the rest of the day visiting important people across the city while Dana stayed at the hotel.Partly that was to guard their growing pile of loot, but she was also trying to keep clear of Bascal’s nobles for a while.Getting that stupid note at the ball had been humiliating, and she worried the nobles would be mad at her for talking so harshly to Skythex.

It was funny the way this war was going.Zentrix was holding out because of bad weather, which could end any day.Zentrix and Kaleoth had made their borders impassable, but could that last?The Inspired had melted a castle wall when they combined their strength.That much power could be enough to clear passes into Zentrix.They’d also brought gladiators and undead on magic clouds, a way over Racehorse River and into Kaleoth.Magic made those natural barriers delays instead of permanent solutions.

Magic made a huge difference in war, but couldn’t it be just as important in peace?The Bascal wizard who’d repaired the castle could just as easily build bridges.Fire magic could be used in forges, water magic to irrigate crops and so on.Jayden’s shadow magic seemed limited to combat, but even there she saw possibilities.Except she’d never seen wizards use their power constructively.Were there too few wizards for the work?Were they needed too badly elsewhere?

Then there was the Inspired.They’d done a lot of harm, and could do more.What if they dissolved a dam, or burned barns?Those wizards were doing terrible harm to so many people.If they did good, maybe people would want them to be leaders.They had to be smart to become wizards.How could they be so stupid?

It was nearly dark when Jayden returned.He stepped into their room and dropped a handful of slips of paper.“Be a dear and burn those.”

Dana giggled.“Girls haven’t given up on you?”

“No, and it’s getting irritating.The presumption and lack of discretion in openly handing me such offers is galling.Still, it’s a small price for success.Your suggestion worked.Duke Sylas Slivers was quite open to a short term job.He will smuggle us across the border along with his men, we’ll do some looting and pillaging, then part ways.”

Dana made the mistake of reading a note.“Princess Estell seeks the pleasure of your company…oh dear.”

“I said burn, not read.”Jayden looked around the room.“No new gifts?”

“Don’t start!”

“Just checking.I’m grateful you stayed behind.Sylas is noble in rank but not in character.The word that best describes him is corpulent.”He saw Dana’s confused expression and added, “Overweight, disgusting, possibly diseased, but he’ll work with us.He’s sending a follower to collect us tonight.”

“Who or what are we attacking?”

Jayden packed his bags.“A mine of some sort.The important thing is we’re leaving Bascal with what we came for.Once back home I’ll learn these new spells, locate the Inspired and put a stop to them.Our contact should be arriving shortly.”

There was a knock at the door, and Jayden smiled.“Speak of the devil.”

Still smiling, he opened the door and was tackled, knocking him backwards onto the bed.Dana drew her sword and raised it for a strike before she recognized the blond woman with her arms wrapped around Jayden’s waist.

“Sweetie!” Suzy Lockheart squealed.The lady alchemist was as exuberant as ever, her blond hair tied back in a ponytail and her blue eyes sparkling.She still wore a yellow dress and black boots, but must have left her green coat off in summer’s heat.Pretty and possibly insane, she looked at Dana and winked.“Close the door.”

Dana sheathed her sword and slammed the door shut.“Suzy, what are you doing here?”

“What have I done that God hates me so?” Jayden asked as he tried to pry Suzy off.

Suzy giggled and helped him up.“That’s no way to talk to a friend.You wanted Bascal free of the nightmares Meadowland would cause.I did it.I made my bomb, big and ugly and crude, and with a little help I turned the biggest pass into Bascal into a rubble pile.Ah, good times.”

“For which I am grateful,” he said.“Your presence, if a touch enthusiastic, is welcome.Dana’s questions still stand, though.What brings you here?”

“Silly boy, everyone in the city knows where you’re staying.You’re the talk of the town.Some people say you’ve turned over a new leaf and become a good little boy.Others think you’re taking what you can before Bascal gets crushed like a grape.”

“Neither are true, although I did come here for a specific goal.”He waved for her to sit on the other bed.“You didn’t leave after destroying the pass?”

Suzy’s earlier cheerfulness turned into a dead serious tone.“The job isn’t done.Meadowland soldiers are trying to dig open the pass or force their way through the ones I didn’t close.I’ve been making more bombs to seal those passes.They’re built and being placed tomorrow, then boom, no one is getting in here. No more selling girls, Jayden, not here, not ever.”

She took Jayden’s hands and said, “Before that happens, we’re going to save a few more people.You, me, Dana, and about twenty of Duke Slivers’ men are going to lower property values in Meadowland.”

Dana’s brow furrowed.“Slivers?Wait, you’re the follower who’s here to pick us up?”

Suzy rolled her eyes.“I work with him, not for him.Slivers wants to earn a name in the war, and get rich ransacking the nicer parts of Meadowland near the border.Problem is he’s low on firepower.”

“Which you have in abundance,” Jayden said.“You support his attacks, but to what end?”

“I was waiting for Rascan’s people to find me bomb making materials when Slivers asked for help looting across the border,” Suzy told them.“We pulled off three capers before Meadowland patrols chased us off.I wasn’t here to greet you when you came because I was on a job.My share of the loot is any slaves we find.I settled them in Bascal as free people, or send them to other kingdoms with help from the Brotherhood of the Righteous.”

“What does Slivers’ want us to do?” Dana asked Suzy.

“There’s a tin mine not far from the last pass into Bascal.It’s not rich pickings like the other jobs were, but there will be goodies to steal.The work is done by prisoners.They’re supposed to be the worst of the worst in Meadowland.”Suzy nudged Jayden.“But since you’re the worst man in Meadowland, maybe some of them aren’t so bad.”

Jayden frowned.“How dangerous is this mine if Slivers needs us both?”

Suzy shrugged.“There will be guards, maybe attack dogs.Honestly, it’s not an important place to hit and won’t have golems or tame monsters.Slivers is worried about the army nearby.He’s happy to play patriot and get rich doing it, but not if it gets his men killed.We’ll make sure his people get home with the prisoners and any loot we find.”

“Dana and I won’t be coming back with you to Bascal,” Jayden said.“The Inspired are in Meadowland, and we need to drive them off.”

Suzy didn’t look bothered.“I heard about them party crashing.So rude.My bombs are finished but not in place.Sweetie, I’m sorry, but I can’t leave until that’s done.I can’t let these people down now that I know what will happen if I fail.”

Suzy saw Dana smiling at her and asked, “What?”

“I’m proud of you,” Dana said, and Suzy looked startled.“Lots of people wouldn’t do what you are, wouldn’t take the risks.You’re a hero.I’m glad we met.”

“I…honestly don’t know what to say to that,” Suzy admitted.

“Accept the compliment as it was intended,” Jayden told her.He packed his new spell tablets with the rest of his belongings.“How soon does Duke Slivers need us to leave?”

“Hmm, nowish?”

Suzy hustled Jayden and Dana downstairs and out of the hotel.Guests watched them leave and whispered, and Dana saw a man hurried out a back exit.She worried he was informing King Rascan that they were leaving, but hopefully they’d be long gone before anyone tried to stop them.

Outside they found the armored wagon Suzy had taken from Duke Wiskver last winter.Her horses looked healthy and chomping at the bit to get moving.Jayden hitched his and Dana’s horses to the wagon before they climbed aboard.They found her goblin ally Yub waiting for them, the blue skinned goblin wearing a white lab coat and carrying a bag of homemade bombs.

Yub wasn’t alone.The little goblin sat next to two more goblins also wearing white lab coats and carrying bags of crude, unstable explosives.Three more goblins dressed in rags and armed with clubs and wood shields were behind them, and one last goblin wore black and green, with a hat, cape and club.He was the oddest of the bunch, for his clothes were clean and in excellent condition, rare among goblins.

“Who are your friends?” Dana asked.

“They’re with Yub,” Suzy replied as she took the reins and got the wagon moving.“I needed help getting my latest bombs ready.He said he knew some people, and poof, the next morning there they were.Don’t worry, they don’t bite.”

The goblin in black and green took off his hat to Dana.“Ma’am.”

Dana curtsied as best she could in the moving wagon.“Sir.”

“I don’t get friendly greetings?” Jayden asked.A goblin stuck his tongue out at him.

“It’s complicated,” Dana told him.

The wagon rolled through the streets unopposed.Streets were brightly lit by lanterns, making it nearly as bright as day.Dana assumed guards would stop and search them, but soldiers on the street merely nodded as they went by.

“So, are you getting anywhere with him?” Suzy playfully asked Dana.

“Getting anywhere with who?” Dana asked.Suzy glanced at Jayden and smiled coyly.“Oh come on!I told you it’s not like that the last time we met.”

“That was months ago.You must have at least gotten a kiss.”

“Yeah, on the forehead.”

Jayden smiled.“Dana set her sights a good deal higher than a lowly Sorcerer Lord.”

Dana froze.“What?”

“I want detail!” Suzy demanded.

“You didn’t hear?” Jayden asked, his tone innocent.“Our Dana danced with the crowned prince of Kaleoth at the ball.”

Suzy halted her wagon and seized Dana’s hands.“You did?Is he a good kisser?”

Blushing, Dana yelled at Jayden, “You’re the one who told him to do it!”

Jayden leaned back and stretched his arms.“He’s giving her gifts, expensive ones.”

“Ooh, let me see!” Suzy squealed.

Dana pulled away from Suzy.“Either you drive this wagon or I will.”

Jayden tossed Suzy the magic amulet.“Shielding magic.Not very strong, but it’s the thought that counts.”

Suzy’s mouth opened into an O.“He gave you a magic item.Classy, generous, practical.I call dibs on bridesmaid!”

Dana folded her arms across her chest while the goblins snickered.“We’re going to be late, and I don’t see how you’re in any position to judge me with the way you were chasing Jayden last year.”

Suzy looked away haughtily.“If you must know, I’ve moved on.I met a man who treats me like a princess.”

“Dana makes a valid point regarding our timetable,” Jayden said.

“Fine.”Suzy went back to driving the wagon.“I thought you’d be more interested in my meeting someone special.”

“He is no doubt a living saint,” Jayden replied.

“You’d like him,” Suzy told them.“He’s a bit older than me, but I like mature men.We met when I was planting the bomb to close the main pass into Bascal.He helped me place it because he’s a geologist and knew where it would do the most damage.You have to love a guy who thinks like that.”

Suzy sounded happy, a little romantic.It made Dana happy.If love wasn’t in the cards between Suzy and Jayden, then Suzy deserved to be happy with someone else.

“It’s funny,” Suzy continued.“The first time I met Malcolm, it was like I already knew him.”

Dana froze, and to her surprise so did Jayden.She asked, “Malcolm Redoubt?”

Shocked, Suzy asked, “You know him?”

“I met him before Jayden and I went wyvern hunting.He asked to meet Jayden.I had the exact same feeling you did, like there was something familiar about him.”

Jayden’s face turned pale.Worried Dana asked, “You know him?”

“We’ll talk about it later.”

Suzy drove her wagon to the entrance of a massive estate.Dana marveled at the high marble towers and gorgeous flower garden, with huge white blooms that seemed to glow in the darkness.There were two more wagons at the gated entrance, along with twenty swordsmen and a man who had to be Duke Slivers.

So that’s what corpulent meant.The man was seriously overweight, nearly bald, and moved slowly.His clothes were rich silks and furs, with jewelry just as expensive.That smile suggested he did things Dana didn’t want to know about.

“Sir, madam, a pleasure to meet you in person,” Duke Slivers said.“Your reputations precede you.”

Dana and Jayden got out the back of the wagon where Slivers could see them.Jayden had regained his composure and announced, “One night’s service, Slivers, no more.”

“It’s counterproductive to keep you here when you wish to leave.Any benefits to your presence would be lost to your growing indignation at being kept here against your will.King Rascan and too many others take obedience as a given rather than a gift.”

Slivers waved to a young swordsman next to him.“My nephew has the information you’ll need, and my warriors are quite capable.Send back what treasures you can, leave devastation in your wake, as you always do, and have Ms. Lockheart and my followers back in time for breakfast.”

The young swordsman approached Dana and Jayden with a map.He bore a passing resemblance to Slivers, but without the older man’s excesses.“Lockheart’s goblins scouted the area last month.We won’t come back covered in riches and glory, but we’ll come back.”

Jayden gave Suzy a quizzical look.“Your goblins?”

Suzy smiled and hugged Yub.“Everyone should have one.”

“Of all the outrages you’ve committed, this is the worst.”All eyes turned to the speaker except Dana and Jayden.Dana slapped a hand over her face while Jayden rolled his eyes.

“Doesn’t he have anything better to do?” Dana asked Jayden.

“You’d think so.”

Skythex Brass came down the street toward them, staying behind eight attendants.He’d brought his noble friends with him as well.Dana wondered how Skythex had found them, but then she saw the man who’d run out of the hotel standing beside the baronet.Skythex must have sent him to spy on them.The baronet bared his teeth, and his eyes narrowed as he looked between Jayden and Slivers.

“I knew you’d cast your lot with foreigners when you hired this lunatic woman, but now you compound your error by associating with a wanted criminal!” Skythex shouted at Slivers.

“I’m sorry,” Dana apologized to Suzy.

Suzy didn’t look bothered.“Sweetie, I don’t even notice men like him.”

Slivers spoke with a contempt equal to Skythex’s.“I won’t be judged by a wet behind the ears welp with no accomplishments to his name.You’re on my land, boy, insulting me and guests of my house.King Rascan will hear of this.”

“Can we leave?” Dana asked Jayden.

Jayden gave Skythex a hostile glare.“We’ve no reason to stay longer.”

Skythex marched up to them.“King Tyros can use the Sorcerer Lord’s presence as validation for his invasion!People ignore their leaders and cry out for foreigners and criminals to save them!I won’t let Bascal be ruined from within!”

Dana had a sinking feeling that Skythex would keep pushing until Jayden, Suzy or Slivers lost their temper and lashed out.Hurting a nobleman usually ended in executions.Somehow she was the most responsible, mature person here and had to settle this.

She stepped up to Skythex and met his fierce glare.That infuriated him, but she pressed on.“Jayden and I fought two battles for your homeland.We’re on our way to fight another.Bascal needs as many friends as it can get if it’s going to survive, even flawed friends.You don’t like us or the work we’ve done, but at least respect that we’re trying to save Bascal.”

Skythex looked like he was about to explode, but Dana pushed her point.“There’s too much at stake for us to quarrel.Look around you at the people, the buildings, the animals.It could all go up in flames!Don’t turn down help when that’s the price for failure.”

For one beautiful second it looked like she’d done it.He was silent, motionless.Then he spoke just above a whisper.“I will not be spoken to like a peer by a foreigner.You only matter because of your magic sword.Let’s see what you can do without it!”

His hand shot lightning fast to Chain Cutter’s handle, so quick she didn’t have time to step back or push him away.His fingers closed on her sword, and he screamed as Chain Cutter glowed like a bonfire.Skythex staggered back, his right hand burned as if he’d touched a hot iron.His men surrounded him and Dana’s friends stepped in front of her, Jayden with his sword drawn and Suzy holding bombs.

Skythex and his people fled.He screamed, “A foreigner attacked a noble!”

“The fool!” Duke Slivers yelled.He waved his followers to the wagons.“Go, now.I can deal with this.”

Dana stared at her sword, shocked by what had happened.Jayden pulled her to Suzy’s wagon and got her on.Slivers’ men got on with them, and the wagons left as fast as they could.

“I made everything worse,” Dana whispered.

“No,” Jayden said firmly, and put his hands on her shoulders.“You spoke the truth more eloquently than I could have, and he ignored you.By his own laws, Skythex had no right to lay a hand upon you.He deserved what happened to him.I would have done far worse to him, and may yet if he dares approach us again.”

When she didn’t look convinced, he said, “Your sword let me touch it, but burned Skythex for doing the same.It’s a sanctified weapon.He was more than just unworthy to wield it.He is an evil, arrogant, hateful, possessive man who deserved punishment.”

The wagons left Dragon Roost and headed for the border, leaving Dana in the dark and scared.Rascan was afraid his nobles could rebel against him, and she may have given them the excuse to do so.If nothing else, Skythex would want revenge, and he had the riches and connections to do so.

The wagons reached the fort Dana and Jayden had crossed when they first entered Bascal.Jayden pulled Dana into the corner if the wagon, and Slivers’ swordsmen pressed tight against them as cover.Dana heard the soldiers speaking with Slivers’ nephew.

“You’re going out again?” a soldier asked.

“It’s now or never.Lockheart is going to bring down this pass soon.”Dana heard the jingling of coins.Slivers’ nephew was paying a bribe to go through.“We’ll be back by dawn.”

“Keep the fires burning for us!” Suzy called cheerfully.

The wagons rolled on into Meadowland.Dana was home again, and possibly safer for it.

* * * * *

“Where is this mine?” Jayden asked as the wagons rolled through the night.

“Ten miles from the border,” Suzy told him.“It’s a big operation.Lots of men and buildings.Lots of smoke, too.They refine ore into metal right there.”

Suzy glance at Dana.“You okay?”

“No, but I will be.”

She turned back to watching the road.“I’ll take care of him when I get back.”

“No!”Dana’s shoulders slumped.“Just, just let me think of a way to fix this.”

“There’s nothing to fix,” Jayden told her.“Good words and deeds are wasted on Skythex.He sees us only as a threat to the position and authority he squanders.Write him off as a waste of time.”

“I can make it look like an accident,” Suzy said cheerfully.

“She said no,” Jayden replied.“How close are the nearest Meadowland army units?”

A goblin pulled out a crude map drawn in charcoal on an old shirt.“Four miles.They used to be closer, but a couple forts got trampled by this big hairy mute guy.That made them bunch up in big groups.”

The roads were dark and ominous, flanked by dense forests and thick undergrowth.Slivers’ men carried lanterns that lit only part of the road and cast long shadows.If the Meadowland soldiers had a good general, he’d have these roads watched.Dana worried they might ride into an ambush.Then again, Meadowland forces would be cautious after they’d been hit hard recently, and anyone they sent would be in danger in this darkness.

The wagons rolled on for hours, avoiding main roads in favor of smaller paths cut into the forest.Bit by bit the forest thinned.Trees were replaced with stumps.That didn’t surprise Dana.She had limited experience with mines, but she knew they used a lot of timbers to support their ceilings, and even more wood was burned to smelt ore.It made for a dismal landscape.

As they rode, Dana said, “Suzy, you said there would be lots of smoke.Shouldn’t we smell it?”

The others looked at Dana.Suzy frowned and said, “Yeah, we should.They would have had to put out the refinery fire days ago if we’re not smelling anything.Maybe they left.”

“I’ve got a backup target if they’re gone,” Slivers’ nephew said.“It’s riskier, though.We’re close enough to the mine that they might hear our wagons.Leave them here and we’ll come back for them when the job’s done.”

They left the horses and wagons on the road with five swordsmen guarding them and continued on.Slivers ordered his men to shutter their lanterns, leaving them in the faint light of the moon and stars overhead.There were no houses or farms here, but the road looked well used.

“Stop,” Jayden ordered.“There’s a light ahead of us.”

Dana spotted torches in the distance and heard men’s voices.There was a rustling of grass and greenery being stepped on or pushed aside.Jayden cast a spell to form his black blade, and everyone following him drew their own swords.The noise and light came closer, and the swordsmen moved to surround the approaching force.

A group of twenty spearmen wearing Meadowland uniforms and full backpacks came into sight.They gasped when they realized they were in danger.The man leading them wore an officer’s fancier uniform, and he raised his hands.“Wait!”

“Sound an alarm, and that will be the last thing you ever do,” Jayden promised.

“You don’t understand.”The officer wiped sweat off his brow and backed up.“We, we’re leaving.For good.”

“An officer deserting?” Slivers’ nephew asked skeptically.

“You better believe it.”The officer waved the way he and his men had come.“I didn’t sign up for that!”

“I didn’t sign up for anything,” a spearman added.“I was drafted.”

“Not now, Lou,” the officer snapped.“I don’t expect you to understand.I, we, we’ve seen things men shouldn’t see, ordered to do things men shouldn’t do.Call me a deserter, a traitor, anything you like, but we leave our posts or condemn our souls.”

Jayden’s eyes narrowed as he marched up to the officer.“Explain yourself clearly.”

“We were ordered to provide room and board to a group of foreigner wizards in white and black.They told us to take our prisoners off working in the mines and put them on other jobs.First it was simple tasks like cutting timber we didn’t need.Then, then they ordered us to dig up a graveyard.”The officer cast down his eyes in shame.“My captain told us it was the prisoners desecrating graves, not us.My men and I don’t care.Doing that leaves a mark on your soul.I told my men I was leaving and they could do as they pleased.They asked to join me.”

“How many soldiers are left?” Slivers’ nephew asked.

“What happened to the prisoners?” Dana demanded.

“Half the mine’s guards are still on duty, the fools,” the officer replied.“The prisoners are still in their cells.I wouldn’t leave even condemned men behind, but we couldn’t get to them past the wizards’ enchantments.”

Jayden studied the officer.“I think you’re telling us the truth, either from honesty or fear.We can’t afford to take you prisoner when we’ll need every man we have to deal with the Inspired.Leave for your homes or go to Bascal if you choose.”

The officer looked at Jayden one last time before leading his men away into the darkness.“I’ve been told for ten years you’re a monster.Now I’ve learned those I serve deserve that title.”

“Now that we know it’s going to be dangerous, can you use your shadow fox spell to scout ahead?” Dana asked once the soldiers were gone.

“I need a pool of water to cast that spell, which we lack,” Jayden replied.

Slivers’ nephew stepped closer to Jayden.“The pay on this job was low, but so was the risk.Fighting wizards is a sure way to die.”

“You have two advantages,” Jayden told him as his black sword faded out.“The first is you have myself, Dana and Ms. Lockheart supporting you.The second is we are forewarned and the Inspired aren’t.You also have good reason to act now.These wizards already attacked Bascal once and will surely do so again.A strike now will spoil their efforts.Ignore them and they will come to your door.”

When the men hesitated, Dana went down the road alone.“Fine.Go back and tell your uncle two girls were braver than you.”

Slivers’ nephew grumbled but followed her.“You fight dirty.”

Jayden chuckled.“You have no idea.From here on say nothing above a whisper.”

They followed the lonely road as the landscape growing bleaker by the step.The ground became rocky, and tree stumps were replaced by piles of mine tailings.There were lumpy piles of stone on the ground that Jayden identified as slag, waste material from refining metals.

“There it is,” one of the goblins announced as he pointed ahead of them.There was a stockade fence surrounding a cluster of large, rundown wood buildings pressed up against the side of a mountain.Dana spotted four guard towers, but none were manned.Light poured from the windows of three buildings despite the late hour.A large gate in the fence was closed, but as they drew closer, they saw it was unbarred.

“The lit buildings are likely occupied, so we’ll check them last,” Jayden whispered.He led the group inside, pushing the gate open slowly.They went to the first building and found the door locked.Suzy pulled her arm back to throw a bomb, but Dana grabbed her arm.Jayden cast a spell to form his black sword and cut the lock off.He peered inside and shook his head.“Empty.”

The next building was bare as well, and the third.They passed rows of wood ore carts next to a brick refinery that was dark, cold and empty.Bins for ore, charcoal and wood were equally empty.They forced open another building to find a pile of wyvern scales.Dana stared at them and asked, “How did they get these?”

Jayden pointed his black sword at one of the larger buildings.“That’s big enough to house the men you seek to rescue.”

This door was locked and sealed with a strange glowing red symbol.Jayden scowled and cut the entire door off its hinges, then caught it before it fell and set it on the ground.Inside, men slept on bunkbeds under thin sheets, except for a lone man weeping by the door.His hair was long, his skin dirty, his clothes ragged.He looked up at them, terror in his eyes as he opened his mouth to scream.Dana ran in and clapped a hand against his mouth.

“We’re here to save you,” she promised.The man grabbed her hand and tried to pull it away.“It’s okay, we’re friends.You’re free.”

The man stared at her and let go.Dana took her hand away, and the bedraggled man whimpered, “They made us do it.We didn’t want to.”

Dana put an arm around him.“Shh, it’s okay.It’s not your fault.We’re going to take you away from here.”

Slivers’ nephew and men went from one prisoner to the next, waking them gently and calming them when they panicked at the presence of armed men.Pity and rage warred within Dana’s heart at the sight of such suffering.Every one of the prisoners had scars from whips, and burns that could only have come from hot irons.Worse than that, if such a thing was possible, was the expression of fear on their faces.Only one prisoner showed defiance, a bear of a man who carried a fellow prisoner in his arms.

“We need to get them out of here before fighting the Inspired,” Jayden told Slivers’ nephew.“Send some of your men to guide them to your wagons.”

“If we leave now, it’s still a victory,” he replied.

Jayden’s gaze fell upon the suffering prisoners.“A debt has been incurred here that must be paid in full.”

Dana saw movement out of the corner of her eye, and she when she turned her head to get a better look, she slapped both hands over her lips to keep from screaming.She regained control, grabbed Jayden’s arm with one hand and pointed at the abomination in the camp with the other.Jayden gasped, Suzy backed up into a wall, and three swordsmen dropped their weapons in terror.

At the back of the mining camp was a grotesque mound of moving body parts.Arms waved, legs kicked, bulbous pumpkin heads opened gaping maws.The seething mass was twenty feet across and five feet tall, constantly moving yet going nowhere, each part acting independently of the rest.Pinpricks of light emanated from inside the unwholesome mass, the lights shifting, winking on and off.Dana had missed this writhing offense hidden behind one of the lit buildings they’d been avoiding, yet so close to it that the people inside had to know it was there.

The lone defiant prisoner stepped up to Jayden.“The wizards in white and black made that this morning.Their leader said they would try again tomorrow.”

Dana couldn’t bring herself to approach it, but Jayden marched up to the disgusting pile.He poked it with his black blade, cutting through the dismembered limbs.“I see bones, branches and live plants here, blended together with some form of magic I’m not familiar with.What did they call it?”

“A failure, nothing more,” the prisoner replied.“They spoke as if such failures are common.”

“We’ll burn it on the way out,” Jayden said firmly.“Where are the men who made it?”

The prisoner pointed to the lit buildings.“The warden is boarding them there.He and the guards are in that darkened houses near the gate.I don’t see the men on guard duty.Did you kill them?”

“They left of their own accord.”Jayden pointed at the open gate.“Go.You’ll be taken to freedom outside Meadowland.”

The prisoners marched off grimly with two swordsmen guiding them.Jayden turned his attention to the lit buildings, his face the image of fury and judgement.Suzy, Dana, the goblins and remaining swordsmen followed him to the closest one.There was no stealth as he hacked the door open and marched in.

Inside there were no wizards, but their handiwork was everywhere.Row after row of scarecrows stood at attention, at least fifty strong.Each one wore ragged, dirty clothes over bodies made of boards and branches.Their heads were pumpkins carved to look like sleeping faces, their eyes closed to thin slits that light glowed through.Dana kept her sword ready when she approached one.

“Why aren’t they attacking?” Slivers’ nephew asked in horror.

“No one ordered them to.”Jayden studied one of the scarecrows from top to bottom.

“They have fingers on their hands,” Dana said.“It looks like they can open them.Jayden, look at this mark here.Wall Wolf the iron golem had symbols like this under his armor.I killed it by stabbing the symbol inside its helmet.”

Suzy bent down to look at the symbol.“Dwarfs make all golems on Other Place, but this isn’t their work.Too sloppy.”

“Golem Works had nothing to do with this,” Jayden agreed.“Their standards haven’t fallen this far.That’s the dwarven word for iron, which has no place on scarecrows made of wood, cloth and bones.”

“Bone?” Dana asked.Jayden cut open the scarecrow’s shirt to reveal human bones nailed to the wood boards.Dana gasped.“That pile outside are bits of these monsters.”

“Exactly,” Jayden told her.“They’re not fully undead or golems, but some blend of the two.It would appear the Inspired are trying to produce their own golems.Their work is amateurish, and the failure rate is staggering, but these are functional.I daresay the Inspired plan to use these against Bascal in the near future.”

“Last time I was near animated skeletons I got all stabby,” Suzy said.She quickly amended that to, “I mean, more than normal.I don’t feel that hate.”

“A curious change,” Jayden replied.“I’ve never seen the likes of them before.”

Suzy stood up and looked around the room.“Thirty by fifty feet across…yeah, I can bring it down.Give me a time to plant my bombs and this place will go up in flames.”

Dana tensed when she heard voices outside the building.One said, “This would be easier with better materials.”

“Work quickly,” Jayden told Suzy.Suzy went through her bags and placed bombs across the room.

A calm man’s voice replied, “I don’t ask for perfection, merely proof of concept.Once we have working models, we can test them to destruction and focus on correcting any weaknesses.”

The voices drew closer, and everyone prepared to attack.The first voice said, “They’re already falling apart.In another two days they’ll be consumed by the very energy we invested in them.”

Jayden headed for the door and waved for the swordsmen and goblins to hide inside the prisoner’s barrack.He and Dana stayed by the doorway and saw two Inspired wizards walk by.

“Failures come before successes,” one of them said.He looked young, not too much older than Dana.

“Our superiors lack your patience,” replied the other.He was an older man with vines wrapped around his white and black robes.It was like elven nature magic, but he was no elf.

Dana scowled and raised her sword, but Jayden pulled her back.He whispered in her ear, “Give Lockheart the time she needs.Then we attack.”

The wizards paused under the moonlight and gazed at their wretched pile of failures.The calm one pointed at it and said, “We can make these whenever we need.Imagine a hundred of our brothers laboring at the task.An army on demand at nearly no cost.”

“Two more minutes,” Suzy said.

The other wizard grunted, then pointed at the guard towers.“Where are the soldiers on guard?”

“The wretches abandoned us.”The young wizard held up an amulet.“Protect me, my scarecrows.”

“Oh, that’s not good,” Dana said.She turned to face the scarecrows in time to see every one of them open their eyes.Ghoulish green light burned inside their pumpkin heads.As one they turned to face Dana, Jayden, Suzy and Slivers’ nephew, and howled like condemned souls.

“Outside!” Jayden ordered.He covered their exit, decapitating a scarecrow that tried to tackle him. Another swung a fist at his head, and a third leapt at him.Jayden cut off a leg off the second scarecrow, causing it to topple, then drove his sword into the third and threw it onto the crippled one.He ran out after the others with an enraged mob of screaming scarecrows chasing them.

Dana hadn’t gone ten feet when she felt a sudden pressure on her leg.She looked down to find a piece of black, spiky armor clinging to her.More pieces of armor flew through the night and attached to her until she was encased in one of Jayden’s suits of magical armor.She looked over to find him finishing the spell and a scarecrow charging him.Dana chopped off its right arm, then the left.Jayden finished it with a stab through its chest.

“Thanks,” she told him.

“Thank me by stabbing someone,” he replied.“There is no shortage of targets.”

“It’s the Sorcerer Lord!” the older wizard yelled.He fled to one of the other lit buildings, yelling, “We’re under attack!”

The dark night turned into a maelstrom of chaos.Scarecrows piled out of their barrack, howling for blood.Slivers’ nephew called out his remaining swordsmen and the goblins from hiding to join them.Suzy threw bombs at the scarecrows, blowing one up and splattering Dana with mashed pumpkin.A scarecrow punched Dana in the shoulder.She returned the blow with a swing of Chain Cutter that opened her enemy from its throat to belly.It burst into flames, proving whatever foul magic had been used to make these scarecrows still counted as undead to her sanctified blade.

The remaining guards ran out of their barrack, bleary eyed and half asleep.To a man they froze at the bizarre battle in front of them.One man drew his sword and charged, and ended up right in front of Dana in her menacing armor.He screamed in terror, threw down his sword and ran.

BOOM!

Everyone fell to their knees when Suzy’s bombs went off.The scarecrow’s barrack was blown sky high, taking half the scarecrows with it.Bits of wood and bone rained down around them.Burning debris landed on the pile of failed scarecrows.The pile caught fire, and carved pumpkin heads in the revolting mass began blowing up.

Dana pushed her way through the confusing battle.Meadowland soldiers and scarecrows were minor threats compared to the Inspired wizards if they cast their binding spell.She had to stop them before they gathered together to use the spell.

She ran to the two buildings still with lights on inside.She passed a scarecrow battling goblins, with the goblin in black and green clinging to its head and bashing it with his club.She hacked off the scarecrow’s legs at the knees as she passed.Suzy was back to back with Jayden, throwing bombs while he created his giant black magic hand.The hand charged into Meadowland soldiers, scattering the few inclined to fight.Slivers’ nephew and two of his men were chopping a scarecrow limb from limb until it stopped moving.

There!She spotted the young wizard duck into a large, brightly lit building.Dana ran after him and burst through the door to find he wasn’t alone.The Inspired necromancer was already inside next to a huge shape covered by a tarp.The revolting man had replaced the arm Dana had cost him in their last fight with an uncovered skeletal limb.Dana howled in outrage and charged him.

“Not again!” the necromancer cried out.Dana hit him hard across his skeletal arm, and Chain Cutter worked as well as ever.The undead arm burst into flames and was instantly consumed.The necromancer screamed in pain and ran off gripping the stump of his arm.

Jayden ran alongside Dana in time to see the necromancer flee.He raised an eyebrow and said, “That’s becoming a habit with you.”

The young wizard walked behind the hulking form under the tarp.“I’m surprised by this, and I shouldn’t be.After all, homicidal aggression is your hallmark.If you can hold that in check for a moment, I believe you’ll find I have much to say worth listening to.”

“No,” Dana snarled, her voice sounding even harsher echoing inside her helmet.

“I didn’t ask you, child.”

“She answered for us both,” Jayden told him.“Surrender or die.”

“There is a third choice.”The youthful wizard pulled the tarp off to reveal a horror even greater than the suffering of the prisoners or the hideous scarecrows.

It was the assembled bones of the wyvern Dana and Jayden had killed only days ago.She was sure of it.It was missing the head, tip of its tail and five claws, all the parts they’d cut off.The missing bones had been replaced with crudely fashioned iron parts.A huge ax was bolted into the neck, and a somewhat smaller one was at the end of the tail.Meat hooks replaced the missing claws.There were iron plates bolted into place as crude casts where the bones were broken.Dana saw dwarven runes burned into bone and iron.

“Be honest, what do you think?” the young wizard asked as the skeletal wyvern lifted its ax head.“It’s not finished, but I feel we did well.”

Jayden pointed his right hand at the Inspired wizard.“Die with your monster!”

Jayden’s magic hand came crashing through the nearest wall, sending splinters and dust across the room.The skeletal wyvern lunged in to protect its master and took the hit across its ribs.Bones broke and blackened under the impact, but the skeletal monster pushed back and shoved the magic hand back through the wall before following it outside.The Inspired wizard ran after it and ducked behind a building.

“After it!” Jayden ordered.

“What about the wizards?” Dana asked.

“Saving our friends is more important.”

They raced outside to find the battle pure pandemonium.Meadowland soldiers ran away while the remaining scarecrows fought on.The skeletal wyvern swung its ax head at a goblin and missed when its tiny target ducked.A scarecrow wasn’t so fast, and was hacked in half at the waist.Jayden’s magic hand gripped the skeleton by the neck and tried to drag it back, but the undead monster was too strong and pushed on.Men ran away screaming, while the skeletal wyvern grabbed a scarecrow and tore it apart.

The youthful wizard watched his rampaging creation from a distance and took notes on a small book.“Target acquisition is an issue.”

The patchwork monster couldn’t tell friend from foe, but that made it no less dangerous.It swung its tail in huge sweeps, chopping into anything too close.It trampled and clawed everything in its path, including an outhouse.Dana’s sword was devastating to the creations of necromancy, but only if she could get close enough to use it, and that monster had a much longer reach than she did.She had to slow it down or stop it.

“Suzy!” Dana yelled.“Can you cripple its legs?”

Suzy and her alchemist goblins were struggling with a scarecrow when they heard Dana.Suzy jammed a bomb into the scarecrow’s mouth and the goblins tripped it.The scarecrow fell over backwards before its head exploded.Splattered with pureed pumpkin, Suzy looked as happy as could be, and shouted, “Coming!”

The skeletal wyvern chased Slivers’ men into an empty building.It swung its ax head, hacking off a huge portion of the roof.Another swing took off the rest.It would have finished off the cowering men if help had been a second slower.

Jayden formed his black whip and wrapped it around the skeletal wyvern’s neck.The whip hissed as it burned through bones.Suzy threw a bomb at the monster’s left kneecap and blew it up.The wyvern buckled under the attack, bringing it to a halt for a few seconds, long enough for Dana to run alongside it.

Somehow the wyvern saw her coming without eyes or even a head, and swung its tail at her.Dana didn’t try to dodge and instead swung Chain Cutter.She’d cut off the wyvern’s stinger when it was alive, and repeated the deed by slicing off the last three feet of its tail.Still running, she plunged her sword into the skeletal monster.

Chain Cutter sang hymns of praise as it cut deep into the wyvern.The wyvern was part golem like the scarecrows, but enough of it was undead that Chain Cutter was poison to it.Bones burst into flames and spread as if the monster was dry kindling.The skeletal wyvern tried to push her away with its wing, a failed effort when Jayden seized it with his magic hand and whip.Shadow magic was nearly as toxic to the undead as Dana’s sword, and between the two of them the monster fell to the ground before burning away, leaving only the iron parts behind.

“That was educational,” a voice called out from above.Dana, Jayden and Suzy looked up to see a magic cloud soaring away.The youthful wizard and his two peers were fleeing, leaving the Meadowland soldiers to their fate.“We’ll have to make changes to the next model.My gratitude for your help in this field test.”

“They’re not using a binding spell to squash us?”Dana’s shadow armor faded away.“And what did he mean by next model?”

“I have theories,” Jayden replied.“None of them good.”


Submitted: June 06, 2021

© Copyright 2021 ArthurD7000. All rights reserved.

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Deborah O'Carroll

Ominous mysteries are growing, between the Inspired wizard, whatever Jayden's reaction to Malcolm meant, and Cassandra's iiiinteresting remarks... Also, so much excitement! And the return of Suzy and the goblins. Grumpy Dana is fun. XD Jayden lowkey hinting about her and Onus is kind of great. XD I just love them all! Lots of great moments. :D

Sun, June 6th, 2021 6:13pm

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Plenty more to come, with at least some of those questions answered.

Sun, June 6th, 2021 7:48pm

TheresaVan18

I enjoyed this very much. Loved Dana's reactions. Can't wait to see what happens next!

Tue, June 8th, 2021 2:20am

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