Coming Home

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

Dana and Jayden are back for another adventure. It's said you can never go home, but Dana finds she has to.

“That’s everything,” Dana told Suzy Lockheart as dawn’s light appeared on the horizon.Her wagon now carried a mound of wyvern scales, a hundred pounds of food and eight Meadowland prisoners tied up with cheap rope.“Not much to show for it.”

Only a few hours had passed since their latest battle with the Inspired, and they’d been busy as bees.They’d looted what was left of the prison mine and found little, with no tin, ore, cash or even mining tools.Most of the Meadowland soldiers had fled during the battle, so they had few prisoners.After that they’d unhitched Dana and Jayden’s horses, and prepared to leave.

“The scales will fetch a fair price for Duke Slivers,” Jayden told her as he helped a prisoner onto the wagon.Suzy’s wagon and the duke’s two were loaded with men they’d rescued.Most were too weak to walk and had to be carried to their freedom, forcing Slivers’ men and Suzy’s goblins to walk home.

Duke Slivers’ nephew walked up alongside him and nodded.“We’ll get a thousand guilders for them, and make a friend of the kingdom’s armorers.You’re sure you won’t come back with us?I know we had a deal, but I don’t fancy your chances against those wizards without a lot of help.”

“Your concern for our wellbeing is appreciated, but my path is set,” Jayden told him.

“I set bombs to blow this place up, but I ran out before I got to the gate and mine entrance,” Suzy called from on top of her wagon.She winked at Jayden and asked, “Help a girl out?”

“You’d never guess she was in a relationship,” he grumbled.Jayden waved for the wagons to leave and began chanting.Dana took their horses away so the blast wouldn’t spook them.Jayden was at the task for some time before he walked back to her.

“Don’t be a stranger!” Suzy called out as she and the others left.

“Perish the thought,” he replied.

BOOM!BOOM!

The first fireball went off in the entrance to the tin mine, burning out wood supports and bringing the ceiling down.The second blast consumed the gate and two buildings near it.More explosions went off after that, leaving nothing behind but smoke, fires and craters.

Jayden studied the devastation with obvious satisfaction.“Good riddance to bad rubbish.We need to leave.Meadowland soldiers who escaped will no doubt bring reinforcements from nearby army units.”

Dana mounted her horse and asked, “So where from here?”

“For the moment anywhere away from the border will do.Our horses are tired so we won’t be able to go far, but even a few miles should be enough when the enemy will have an obvious trail to follow thanks to Ms. Lockheart.”

Dana frowned.“Is she in danger?”

“I very much doubt that.”Jayden loaded their baggage onto his horse.“They only have to travel a few hours to reach safety, and pursuing soldiers will have to wonder whether they really wish to catch them.”He suddenly spoke much louder and asked, “Why didn’t you go with them?”

“I had my reasons,” a deep voice answered.Dana’s jaw dropped when the defiant prisoner they’d saved came out of cover from behind a pile of mine tailings.

“I imagine you’re hungry and tired,” Jayden told the man.“May I offer you the use of my horse?”

The rescued prisoner walked up to them with his eyes fixed on Jayden.“Do you know who I am?”

“No,” Jayden admitted.“I would have saved anyone in your position.No man should suffer through what we saw here.That said, you have the bearing of one who once held a position of authority, and I’d wager did the job well.My apologies you fell upon such hard times.Please, let me take you from here.”

The prisoner eyes Jayden suspiciously before he got onto the horse.Dana promised, “We’ll get you a meal as soon as we can.”

“Food can wait,” the prisoner replied.

Dana kept a close watch on this strange man as they left.Jayden led them away from the destroyed prison and back to the forest.All of them had trouble keeping their eyes open after the rigors of last night and not getting any sleep.They stopped in a forest glen far from prying eyes.Jayden cast a spell to summon Stanley to watch over them before serving bread and dried meat.The friendly, invisible spirit appeared in a poof of wind, humming a happy tune.

“I know who you are,” the prisoner said before eating.

“That’s not particularly surprising,” Jayden replied.“I go to some effort to make sure people know my name.”

“Sorcerer Lord Jayden.”The prisoner spoke the words like they were obscenities.“Thief.Arsonist. Traitor.”

Jayden ate before responding.“I’ve been called that and more.”

The prisoner pointed back the way they’d come.“I spent over a year there, suffering the guards’ abuse, trying to protect other prisoners, giving them hope enough to live just one more day, while men like you who should’ve suffered in its walls walked free.”

“No one deserves to suffer,” Dana told him.“We didn’t put you in there, and we got you out, so a little gratitude would be nice.”

“I don’t ask for gratitude from those I’ve helped,” Jayden said.“You call me a thief, and yes, I stole a great deal.Slave children, prisoners, armor and horses destined to be used against good men.Arsonist?Most certainly.I’ve burned many things, including a ship full of arrows to be fired at the people of Bascal, Kaleoth and Zentrix.Traitor?I saw only hints of what you and your fellow prisoners endured.Pray tell, how can any man still be a patriot in Meadowland?”

“And you’d do it all again,” the prisoner said.

“If I could, I would have done far more, including destroying your prison far earlier than I did.”Jayden finished breakfast and asked, “Do you judge me poorly for saying so?”

The prisoner stared at Jayden for a few seconds.“My name is Hural Gress, once sheriff of Pearl Bay, then a condemned man, now an escaped prisoner.”

Dana’s jaw dropped.Even Jayden looked surprised.

“You recognize my name?You burned a ship at port in Pearl Bay, the one loaded with arrows you boasted of.My mayor was furious with me for failing to stop you.His superiors were furious with him, all the way up to King Tyros and Queen Amvicta.”

Dana shouted, “The king said you died of plague when you wouldn’t follow his changes in the law!”

“I was called to the capital for protesting new laws that denied men mercy and justice, was seized on arrival and sentenced to death for treason,” Gress told her.“In their infinite mercy, they commuted my sentence from death by hanging to death by labor.I would work for the king and queen until I died.”

“Were your fellow prisoners also men who defied the king?” Jayden asked.

“Every one of them.Wars need men, Sorcerer Lord, so many men.Miners were taken away to become soldiers, leaving no one left to dig up tin.The king and queen were so desperate for manpower that they stopped using executioners.We were more useful working, so they kept us alive, for a while.”

“I fear your stay of execution was about to end,” Jayden told Gress.“I was puzzled at first why the mine was no longer in operation.You are correct, the king and queen need manpower, and the Inspired’s experiments provided them with expendable troops.Their scarecrows used human remains.If I’m right, you and your fellow prisoners were going to provide that resource.”

Dana’s blood ran cold.“They wouldn’t!”

“Oh, I think they would without losing a minute’s sleep,” Jayden countered.“There were no tools, ore or fuel in the prison, and very little food.They were closing it down, at least for the duration.What to do with you and your fellow prisoners, dear sheriff?They couldn’t use you as forced labor for the army, not when you were all supposedly dead.There would be too great a risk you’d meet someone who knew you.

“Killing you and using your remains to make more scarecrows would be the logical if horrifying decision.Tyros and Amvicta had already decided to kill you.This would do the job while getting one more use from you.Judging from the state of your fellow prisoners, they wouldn’t have endured such abuse for much longer anyway.”

Jayden yawned and stretched his arms.“You hate me, sheriff.To a point I understand why, but make no mistake, I am not and never was your enemy.Let me ask you one question.If I had never come to Pearl Bay, the ship had been unburned, its cargo of arrows used on their intended victims, do you think the king and queen would have shown you mercy when you defied them?They weren’t forgiving to the men you were incarcerated with, and I never harmed any of them.”

Gress looked down at his food.“All my life I was a loyal subject.I upheld the law, protected the people, showed mercy.It earned me nothing.Now I find myself indebted to the most wanted man in the kingdom, possibly the world.”

The poor man was hurting so much Dana had to help.“We met your wife Sarah last year.”

Gress gasped and his eyes opened wide, then his shoulders slumped and he looked down.“Did she remarry?”

“No.She mourns for you.She’s raising your sons the best she can with help from the people in Pearl Bay who loved you.You can go back to her.I know it will be hard, but there are people who care about you and want you back.”

Jayden yawned and laid down on the grass.Gress stared at him in confusion before demanding, “I declared my hatred for you, and you’re going to sleep in front of me?”

“If you’d intended to kill me, I imaging you’d have been more discrete,” Jayden replied.“If you are inclined to kill your rescuer, I believe you’ll find Stanley a capable bodyguard.I recommend you both rest.We can resolve any homicidal urges later.”

Stanley floated by, only noticeable by the dust he pushed aside.The spirit hummed Hearts Over the Moon as he circled Dana and then brushed against Gress.

“Is this normal for him?” Gress asked her.

“You get used to it.”

* * * * *

BOOM!

The distant explosion jolted Dana awake.She jumped to her feet and drew her sword.Gress leapt to his feet and seized a fallen branch to use as a weapon.

“What was that?” she asked.It was broad daylight and getting hot.She tried to spot the source of the explosion, but the trees sheltering them limited visibility.

“Ms. Lockheart,” Jayden told her.He was still lying down with his eyes closed.“She had enough time to return to Bascal, and she’s closed the pass with one of her explosives.King Rascan’s people will be safe for the foreseeable future, a worth accomplishment.Go back to sleep.”

“After that?” Gress demanded.

Jayden sat up and looked around.“No one has found us, the explosion will have frightened nearby monsters and Meadowland soldiers, and I could use another two hours.I also have no pressing place to be, unless you overheard the Inspired say where else they might be based?”

Gress frowned.“They spoke often and openly.I fear you’re right that they didn’t intend to let us live much longer, or else they would have guarded their words.No, Sorcerer Lord, they said much but spoke of no other home within Meadowland.”

Curious, Dana asked, “What did they say?”

“They spoke cheerfully of their contempt for the king and queen, for the army, for Meadowland itself,” Gress replied.He glanced at Jayden and added, “You’ll be pleased to know they spoke of you often.”

“I’m flattered, truly.”

“Some of them wanted you dead, but not all,” Gress said ominously.“Their leader thought you could be turned to their cause.”

Dana burst out laughing.Jayden glanced at her and Gress stared.She managed to calm down (barely), and asked, “How can they be that stupid?You helped kill one of their wizards!”

Jayden yawned.“Victory’s Edge.I doubt they placed much value on his life.The Inspired take regular losses, and the death of a half mad foreign wizard would have been counted as a small loss.”

Looking suddenly serious, Jayden said, “Nor will he be the last of the Inspired to die.I have spells that might be able to locate them, but they will expect an attack.You both know the risks involved in this task, and why it has to be done.I wish I could seek allies for this battle, but last night proved how much damage the Inspired can do, and how little time they need to do it.Think carefully what your next steps are when following me could mean death.”

Dana didn’t hesitate for a second.“I’m in.”

Gress looked down.“I want…I need to see my wife.The thought of holding her in my arms again kept me alive through that nightmare.Thank you for telling me that my friends and neighbors are helping her, but I need to be with her, to protect her, provide for her.I can’t hunt these men despite all the horrors they’ve visited on the world when I could lose her.”

Jayden stood up and offered his hand to Gress.“I envy your love for her.We will do what we can to help you.”

“I have to travel the length of the kingdom to reach Pearl Bay,” Gress said.“Months of walking, searching for food, hiding from the army and sheriffs, it’s a quest equal to any tale I’ve heard.”

There was a sudden hiss, and a rush of air as Stanley flew by Dana’s head to the edge of their camp.If he was hurrying there must be a problem.Dana jumped to her feet and drew Chain Cutter as Jayden formed his black magic sword.They rose to find no threat approaching, instead a gnome riding a pony.He wore leather armor with metal studs, hobnail boots and a rain cape, and had two daggers strapped to his belt.The haggard, pale gnome looked at them, raised a leather mail pouch, and said, “I found you,” before he fell off his pony.

They raced to the gnome and found the poor soul covered in bruises.He had bandages across both hands, his left leg and neck.His armor had suffered many cuts across the chest too shallow to penetrate.

“He’s still breathing,” Jayden said as he carried the gnome into cover.

“Message,” the gnome croaked.

“Shh, don’t talk,” Dana told him.

“M-mail goes through,” the gnome persisted.“M-m-message for the lady.”

Jayden and Gress checked the gnome’s injuries, replacing his bandages and washing out the wounds.Jayden frowned and checked the gnome’s daggers.“Your weapons are scratched and nearly dull from use.Dare I ask how many of your enemies still live?”

“Too many,” the gnome said.“Water, please.”

Dana offered him her canteen, and the gnome drank deeply.“My gratitude.”

“How did you find us?” she asked.“Jayden uses magic to keep people from tracking us.”

The gnome struggled to sit up, giving up only after three tries.“I need no magic.I was told to find Dana Illwind of Northlight, and after weeks I succeeded.Many have seen you, including a sunken called Githas, and directed me here.The madwoman Lockheart gave me further directions once I proved to her that I am with Gnome Express.”

Jayden looked disgusted.“How many people will that miserable sunken sell my name to?”

“Who did this to you?” Gress asked.He sounded like he’d hunt down and savagely beat the responsible party.

“Meadowland soldiers saw me and tried to seize the message in my care.I escaped them only by good fortune.”The gnome opened his mail pouch, took out a letter and handed it to Dana.“I am sworn to deliver all messages entrusted to me, come rain, snow, darkness and dangers untold.I keep that vow.”

Dana bowed and accepted the letter.“I thank you for your service, and honor your clan.”

“Who’s writing to your friend?” Gress asked.

Jayden watched Dana open her letter and frowned.“She writes often to her family.They are far enough away that a letter would need so much time to reach her.”

Dana unfolded the letter and found a few short, messy lines in her little brother Lan’s terrible handwriting.It read, ‘Dana.Mom gone.Dad gone.I’m scared.Please come home.’

Her hands trembled.Her lips opened and closed, no sound coming forth.She dropped to her knees.Jayden rushed to her and put an arm around her shoulders to steady her.

Dana’s mind raced, wondering what had happened.She’d seen such horrors in her time with Jayden.Girls sold as slaves, undead armies, the horrible magic of Victory’s Edge, monsters tame or wild, and she imagined these or worse falling upon her hometown.The town militia had been called away even before she’d met Jayden, leaving them defenseless.

Her terror grew when she wondered if her hometown had been attacked because of what she’d done.Jayden had been trying to protect her identity, but people had seen her face, and some knew her name.Had the king and queen learned who she was and attacked Northlight to punish her for what she’d done?

She became vaguely aware that Jayden was shouting her name.She turned to him, saw the worry in her eyes, and she struggled to respond.“I need to go home.I need to go now.”

Jayden took the letter from her and read it.Fear crossed his face, trading places with rage.He looked at the gnome and demanded, “What’s happened in Northlight?”

“I don’t know.I received this letter from a human boy in a village south of that town.He said nothing to me beyond who the letter was to be delivered to, paid me and ran off.”

Tears poured down Dana’s face.“We’re weeks away from home!”

Jayden took her by the shoulders.“We’ll get there by any means in my power, I swear it.”

Gress looked at the letter and asked, “What could have happened?I heard they had some local boogeymen made of bones and branches.”

“The boogeymen you refer to was an estate guard, dead by my hands,” Jayden said.“This is something new.Let me check my maps and I’ll find the fastest way to your home.”

Dana clutched the letter to her chest as despair flooded through her.Lan said their parents were gone.He hadn’t said they were dead, but they would have never left him alone voluntarily.Was Lan okay?This letter was weeks old.Anything could have happened to him, or to Dana’s sisters.They’d need weeks to reach Northlight.Would they reach her hometown to find anyone left?

“Dragon!” Gress shouted.

Dana and Jayden looked up to see a smallish dragon flying high overhead.Jayden tossed his maps aside and shouted, “It’s Scald!Rascan must have sent him scouting.”

“What are you doing?” Gress asked as Jayden began chanting.He took a step toward the Sorcerer Lord, but only one.Dana jumped to her feet and stopped him from interrupting.Jayden finished as Scald headed west away from them.A tiny spark floated into the sky, going only fifty feet before-

BOOM!

The fireball was enormous up close, but Scald was so far away Dana doubted the dragon would hear or see the explosion.For a few seconds Scale flew on, then lazily tuned around and circled high over them.Suddenly the dragon’s wings folded up and he dropped like a stone, falling hundreds of feet in seconds.Scald’s wings snapped open and he landed in front of them, crushing small trees beneath his clawed feet.

“What was that about?” Scald asked.

“We need your help,” Jayden told him.“Dana’s family in Northlight is in grave danger.It’s too far for us to reach them in time.”

Scald hesitated.“I’m grateful you killed the wyvern, but I’m not supposed to go far from the border.”

“How far can you take us?” Jayden demanded.“We’ve gold to pay for your help, and magic weapons we can part with.Please, we’re desperate.”

Scald looked at Dana, and for such a fierce beast he looked worried.He glanced about as if he thought someone was watching before saying, “I can carry you until dusk.Keep your gold.Family matters more than anything.”

Dana ran to the dragon and hugged him around the neck.“Thank you!”

The dragon told her, “I’m not strong enough to take your horses and friends.”

Jayden’s attention fell on Gress.“Sheriff, can you nurse the gnome back to health?”

“Yes,” Gress said, his voice firm.

Jayden went through his bags until he pulled out half his food and a handful of gold coins.He pressed them into Gress’ hands.“Take these and the horses.They will speed your journey home.”

“He’s unarmed,” Dana said.

Jayden looked torn for a moment before he drew Braston the Unbeaten’s magic sword and presented it to Gress.“A man of noble heart once wielded this blade.Take it.You’ve more need of it than me.”

Gress’ jaw dropped.“Hours ago I spoke of my hate for you.”

“Hate me if it pleases you, but this gnome needs you, your wife and sons need you, Meadowland needs you.Live for them and settle your grievances with me later!”Jayden grabbed his belongings, climbed onto Scald, and shouted, “You have the freedom you’ve dreamt of for so long!Don’t waste it!”

Gress stared at Jayden a moment before saying, “Thank you…for calling me sheriff.”

Scald beat his huge wings, lifting them into the air.As they went ever higher, Jayden called out, “I call you by the title you earned, and will one day hold again!”

The dragon took them to an incredible height, so far up that even the Meadowland army near Bascal was only a splotch of blue on the ground.Dana clutched tight to the dragon as he pumped his wings hard and carried them away at incredible speed.

“Keep an eye out for trouble!” Scale shouted.“Rascan worries that Tyros and his queen might replace their wyvern with more flying monsters.”

“How far do you think you can take us before nightfall?” Jayden asked.

“If the winds cooperate, you’ll be halfway across the kingdom.It’s not enough, I know, but I’ve got people counting on me.”

“What do we do then?” Dana asked.

“I’ll think of something,” Jayden told her.

She knew Jayden would do anything for her, but there were few choices when they landed.They’d lost their horses again, so travel would have to be on foot.They might be able to find a boat, but going north they’d be fighting the current the entire way.What did that leave?Walking would be too slow.Could they steal more horses?Even then they’d need a week or more to reach Northlight.

Here Jayden’s shadow magic fell woefully short.He could tear apart, cut to pieces or bludgeon nearly any enemy they met, but outside combat his spells were nearly useless.None of his spells could help them cover this incredible distance in time to help her family.

She blinked away tears as she thought of what had befallen them.She and Jayden had killed the estate guard that once menaced her people, but the king and queen were actively importing threats far greater than it had ever been.Necromancers, mercenaries, gladiators, tamed monsters, golems and more now infested Meadowland.Any one of those could destroy Northlight.

Or was it only her parents in danger?Lan’s letter hadn’t said anything about the neighbors, only their mom and dad.Had they been seized by the king and queen for failing to do their duty?Had they been punished for failing to provide money, food or livestock?Had they been impressed into the army?Both of them were old, but she’d seen that armies needed more than just fit young men.They used cooks, drovers, medics, porters and more.Every soldier used for those tasks was one less man for the battlefield, so they might have grabbed innocent people to do the work.

Hours flew by as they traveled countless miles.The sun began to slip closer to the horizon.Dana prayed for it to move just a bit slower, to give them even a few more minutes on the dragon.Every second flying saved them an hour walking through land heavy with threats.Time passed far too quickly, and in a shockingly short time the sun drew even with the horizon.

“I have to land,” Scald told them.Dana wanted to beg him to go just a bit farther, just another hour, but she knew better than to try.Scald had already violated his orders, possibly breaking trust with King Rascan. He’d also gone deep into enemy territory where there were wizards and monsters who could kill dragons.

Scald glided gently to the ground, landing next to a river in a forest clearing.Dana and Jayden climbed off and set their belongings on the ground.The dragon pointed north and said, “There’s a village along the river.You might be able to get a boat and sail north.It won’t be fast or safe, but it’s the best option I saw.”

“We are in your debt,” Jayden told the dragon.

“Pay me back by doing as much damage here as you can.”Scald took to the air and headed east to Bascal.“Should be easy for you!”

Dana looked upriver where she saw dim lights in the distance.“Let’s go.”

“We need to rest.”

“We can sleep after we’ve got a boat.”

Jayden stood his ground.“They won’t open their doors for strangers so late at night.We’ll talk to them in the morning.”

“No!I am not, I can’t stop!I wasn’t there to help them!I, I should have been there, Jayden!My parents needed me and I wasn’t there!I was saving all these other people and not my family!Not, not…”

“You were saving me.”Jayden walked up to her.“You did it, you know.I’m honest enough to say I was walking a dark road when we first met.If it hadn’t been for your words, your friendship, I don’t want to think of the state I’d be in today.

“We helped thousands of lives, possibly tens of thousands.I know how much it hurts when you can save others but not the ones you love.Dana, we will save your parents.To do that you need food, water, rest.Know without a doubt that I will do anything to help you.”

Anything.Dana had seen Jayden at his best and worst, killing monsters, defying armies, butchering the undead.He was quite possibly Meadowland’s most dangerous man, capable of devastating violence.She had done all she could to save him, change him, calm him down.

With the people she loved in danger, Dana’s heart was filled with terror.She’d do anything to save them.With Meadowland becoming fouler by the day, infested with the worst of the worst from across Other Place, there was no telling what horrors they’d face.It could take everything to save her parents, her people.She didn’t want to be merciful, just or kind to whoever was threatening them.She didn’t know if it was irony or hypocrisy that she needed Jayden the force of nature, the raging monster, not the hero she’d been trying to make him into.

Jayden broke her increasingly hateful thoughts.“I know your pain.I lost my mother to a poison so strong she died before healers could reach her.Even the man I am today would have been powerless to save her.There is no sacrifice I wouldn’t make to prevent her death, even trading my own life.”

“I should have been there,” she whispered.

“When we first met, you were a resourceful girl of fifteen.Had you been in Northlight I have no doubt you would have done everything in your power to help them.It wouldn’t have been enough.Today you have the weapon and training to save them, and my magic for whatever it is worth.The Dana who stayed home couldn’t do what the Dana standing in front of me can.”

She looked down in shame, tears running down to her chin and dripping onto the ground.He embraced her and said, “Rest, friend.There are battles yet to come that need you at your strongest.”

* * * * *

Dana didn’t know why she woke up when she did.It might have been a breeze touching her face, a tiny sound easy to miss, or just luck.Whatever the reason, she woke in the darkness of a dying fire filled with a sense of dread.She scrambled to her feet and lashed out with Chain Cutter at a looming shape barely visible in the darkness.Sword met the hulking form with a shriek of pain.

Jayden woke at the sound and ran alongside her.Their adversary backed away, pulling their baggage with it.Jayden cast two spells in rapid succession, the first forming a short lived globe of light.For a few seconds they saw the repulsive, tentacled sunken trying to slither back to the river, its bulky body clumsy and slow out of water.Jayden’s second spell formed his giant magic hand.He threw a savage uppercut, and the magic hand mimicked his move, knocking the sunken on its side.

“Mercy!” the sunken cried out.

Jayden swung the giant hand again, this time grabbing two tentacles in its iron grip.He dragged the monster farther onto land.Dana threw wood onto the fire until it grew large enough to illuminate their campsite.Jayden bared his teeth as he pulled the sunken away from the river.It tried to pry the giant hand off and failed.

“Free Githas!” the sunken cried out.

“Githas?” Dana asked.

Jayden snarled, “I have a score to settle with you!”

“You were trying to steal out stuff!” Dana yelled.

“Regretting action,” Githas replied.

“You regret getting caught,” Jayden said.He pointed to a cut on of one of the sunken’s tentacles.“It would seem you thought little of my magic and my friend.I was in a foul mood before we met, and you gave me yet more reasons to want revenge.”

“We’re nowhere near where we met you,” Dana said.

Githas tried to break free and failed again.“Former territory unsafe.Current territory not looking better.Need food, treasure.You have both.Did not recognize you in darkness.Otherwise would have selected other target.Am willing to bargain for survival.”

Jayden’s eyes narrowed, and he cast a spell forming his magic sword.“You have nothing I want.”

“Wait,” Dana told him.She stepped closer to the sunken.“My father told me sunken are centuries old.They know things most have forgotten, and always tell the truth.”

Githas studied her with its huge eye.“You require information.Githas has much.”

“I need to get to the town of Northlight faster than a bird flies,” she told it.“Do you know ways we can do it?”

Githas blinked.“Task possible, but risky.Goblin settlement west of the river.Goblin gate there.Can take travelers thousands of miles, but direction random.Could take you closer or farther.”

Dana looked at Jayden, who said, “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“You study shadows,” Githas countered.“Githas lives in them, listening to whispers of smugglers, hermits, outcasts, unwanted.”

“Is there another way?” Dana demanded.

“Was once three more ways.No longer.Tyros scourges Meadowland of all he cannot control.Hedge wizard fled.Griffin eaten.Midnight Dancer retreated to realms beyond.Only goblin gate remains.Unsure how long that will remain true.”

“How do we find this settlement?” she asked.

Githas squirmed in the giant hand’s grip.“Finding settlement not issue.Goblins know you are here.Githas has heard them mention Illwind.Favorable impression, reason why unclear.Goblins will cooperate if asked.”

Dana and Jayden exchanged glances.She could see his doubt and said, “If Githas wanted to lie, it would come up with a better one than that.”

“Being out of water uncomfortable,” Githas grunted.

“Dana wanted words from you,” Jayden told the sunken.“I want more.You’ll never tell another tales of her or me to another, not in words, writing, or by any other means.Nor will you again rob anyone, or threaten them or their possessions.”

“Agreed.Please return to river.”

Jayden’s magic hand shoved Githas into the river.The sunken quickly disappeared underwater and swam away from them, visible only as a wake.

“I don’t know if meeting that monster was fortunate or not,” Jayden admitted.“Nor am I sure letting it live was wise.Sunken have a reputation for twisting promises they make.”

Dana looked around their campsite.The fire threw light only a short distance into the forest, but their confrontation with Githas had made a lot of noise.Anyone within a mile must have heard them.Whether they’d approach to see what was happening or avoid the risk of getting involved was the question.

Taking a deep breath, Dana called out, “I need help, more than I ever have before.I’m told you can help me, but I can’t offer much in return.Will you help me?”

There was a pause before a squeaky voice called back from the darkness.“You need more than your scary friend can give?”

“My family is in danger.You can get us to them in time to help.”

There was a whispered conversation in the dark forest before two goblins came into the light.The squat, dirty goblins wore filthy rags, and had huge eyes and lavender skin.One said, “We’ll try, but we’re goblins.Things go wrong for us more than right.Follow us if you’ll take the chance.”

Dana made a crude torch out of one of the burning branches from their campfire before she and Jayden followed the goblins into the dark forest.The goblins lit no torch or lantern, instead following narrow, winding trails they seemed to know by heart.They went deeper and deeper into the forbidding forest until they came upon a cave entrance.

More goblins gathered around them until there were over a hundred.They whispered to one another and pointed at Dana.Many goblins were armed with clubs or small farming tools, no match for soldiers.Dana worried how much danger she was putting them in if Meadowland soldiers found their campsite and followed the trail here.

“This safe?” one goblin asked another.

The second goblin shrugged.“Safe, risky, it’s happening either way.”

“You need us?” a wizened goblin with pale blue skin and long robes asked.“That’s a first.”

“My family needs me,” Dana told the goblins.“Githas the sunken told us of something called a goblin gate.It’s supposed to get us to Northlight fast.”

The old goblin scowled.“Githas needs to start keeping his mouth shut before he gets us all killed.We have a goblin gate, but it won’t take you to Northlight.The nearest gate to that town is fifty miles away, passable if Tyros hasn’t put an army in your way.But goblin gates go where they please.It could take hours to get you where you need to be.You could end up at a gate where danger waits for you.”

“Whatever danger we come across will find a match in us,” Jayden replied.

The old goblin nodded.“True.Come into the cave, and stay together.”

They followed the old goblin into the cave to find heaps of trash everywhere.Goblins ran alongside them, studying Dana and occasionally poking Jayden’s bags.Far from the cave entrance was a ring of bricks ten feet across.Each brick was inscribed with a strange symbol, no two alike.The old goblin pointed to it and announced, “Here is what you seek.Step inside it exactly the same time I do.”

Jayden studied the bricks.“How does this work?”

The old goblin took a lit torch off the wall.“It’s goblin warp magic.Don’t expect us to understand it, or make it work right.Step in on three.One, two, three.”

Dana, Jayden and the old goblin stepped into the gate with a whoosh!The air turned dark and musty, and Dana felt lightheaded for a second as the cave vanished and was replaced by a city in broad daylight.They were standing in another brick circle in an alley.

“What happened?” she gasped.

“Answering that takes time you don’t have,” the goblin said.He studied the wood buildings around them.“We’re in the wrong side of Other Place.Back in the gate.”

“Wrong side of the planet?” Jayden yelled.

“The goblin gate network has some quality control issues,” the old goblin explained.“I’d be lying if I said we were working on it.Everyone in on three.One, two—”

Whoosh!

Dana, Jayden and the goblin reappeared on a beach, the air warm and the sun setting.The goblin frowned and said, “Not much better.Third try.”

“How many more tries will this take?” Jayden asked.

“You want a fortuneteller?Too bad, because you’ve got a goblin.”

Whoosh!

They reappeared in another city, but this one was as active as an anthill that had been kicked over.Bright lights lit up the streets and music echoed between the buildings.Men and women in outrageously bright and bizarrely designed clothes laughed and danced even though it was late at night.Colorful streamers and banners hung between streets and buildings, each one proclaiming a festival.

“I recognize our location,” Jayden told the others.“This is the city of Vascmer, five hundred miles South of our destination.”

“Can anyone here get us to Northlight?” Dana asked.

“No one who could do the job would be sober during Festival.”

A beautiful woman wearing a scandalously revealing dress saw them and ran over.“Jayden?You came back!”

Dana scowled at Jayden, and he looked embarrassed.“Only temporarily, Maddy.”

“Oh poo,” the woman pouted as Dana, Jayden and the goblin reentered the goblin gate.

Whoosh!

“This isn’t helping!” Dana said when they appeared in a desert next to an oasis, the air unbearably hot under the noon sun.

“I warned you,” the old goblin said.“We could be at this all day.”

Whoosh!

Their new destination was pitch black, so they were at least on the correct side of the world.It was, unfortunately, already occupied.An enormous tentacled monster, red and black with a huge oblong head covered in blue eyes, rested next to the gate.The beast was so large it dwarfed the burned out inn it was curled up next to.

“How’s it going, George?” the old goblin asked the beast.The beast burbled back a response the goblin seemed to understand.“Yeah, Tuesdays are like that.Come on, let’s go.”

Whoosh!

“Stop!” Dana yelled.

“I know it’s nerve wracking, but we’ll get there sooner or later,” the old goblin said.“Maybe.”

“We’re here,” she told him.Dana stepped out of the goblin gate, hidden in the ruins of a castle.They were on a second floor balcony open to the sky, with an oddly shaped mountain peak in the distance.“That’s Old Man Point.I’ve been here, but I never went in the castle.We’re close enough to Northlight to walk the rest of the way.”

The old goblin frowned and pointed at the peak.“How drunk would you have to be to think that’s a man.”

Dana shook the goblin’s hand.“You helped me more than I’d hoped.”She looked down and said, “I’ve been asking a lot for doing a little, and that’s not fair.What you did for me today, tell the goblins we’re even.”

“Even?” the goblin asked.“This had nothing to do with paying debts.We helped you because you proved in Fish Bait City that you’re worth helping.What you’ve done since then showed you’re good.There’s no limit on that.”

The goblin handed her his torch.“The rest of this is too big for a little guy like me.But don’t think I balanced the scales, because there are no scales, just folks helping one another get through dark times.Be seeing you, little girl.”

The old goblin stepped onto the goblin gate and vanished with a whoosh, leaving Dana and Jayden in the ruins.Jayden set down their bags and asked, “Is this castle known to be inhabited or haunted?”

“It was cleaned out a few times when bandits or monsters moved in, but it’s been empty for years.”

“Then this is a good place to settle down for the night.Fifty miles to Northlight should take us two days, three if road conditions are poor.”

Dana sat down next to the goblin gate.“I should tell you why goblins keep being nice to me.”

“I didn’t ask for an explanation.”

“Not today, but you’ve asked in the past.The Shrouded One from Fish Bait City isn’t a ghost or fairytale.He’s a bunch of goblins playing a trick on everybody.I figured it out and told them I wouldn’t tell anyone, but you’re risking your life for my family, so no secrets.”

“Goblins?”Jayden’s jaw dropped.He laughed and sat down beside her.“Oh my!”

* * * * *

They woke the following morning to a warm, sunny day.Birds flew about picking insects from the air, but otherwise there were no animals.Jayden read from his new spell tablets while they ate breakfast, focusing his attention on one of them.

“This is promising,” he told her.“It includes the repeated section I told you about, making it much easier to learn.I recognize all the words, too.No need for guesswork.”

“Who’s Maddy?” Dana asked.

Jayden blushed.“I would very much like to change the topic.”

That was about what she expected.He might be more willing to answer her next question.“Why were you worried when I said the name Malcolm Redoubt?”

“Ah, that.I did say I’d explain, and there are no witnesses.Malcolm is my cousin.”Jayden set down the spell tablet.“Redoubt is my mother’s maiden name.I didn’t know any of my relatives lived in Bascal.It sounds as if he’s doing well for himself.That pleases me.”

“Wait, he’s a relative of yours?”

“Decades ago when I was sent to the Isle of Tears, relatives on my mother’s side of the family appealed the ruling.They sought clemency, and were suspected of hiring men to rescue me, although that couldn’t be proved.King Tyros and Queen Amvicta ordered them out of Meadowland in retaliation.They were stripped of what little property they had and exiled.”

Dana snapped her fingers.“That’s why I felt like I’d met him before!Suzy said the same thing.He looks a bit like you.”

“If I didn’t dye my hair, Malcolm would look a great deal like me.I wonder if our resemblance is one reason why Ms. Lockheart is interested in him.”

“You knew you had family living somewhere.Why didn’t you go to them?”

“For the same reason I didn’t seek out my former tutor Mr. Wintry or Kipling the jester,” he told her.“Strangers would have seen me and guessed my identity.Someone would have talked, and word would have reached Tyros and Amvicta.Once they knew I was alive, they would have torn the world apart to get to me.You’ve seen what they’re capable of.Only by staying away and hiding my identity would my relatives have a chance for survival.”

“Malcolm wanted to meet you,” she said.“Maybe he guessed who you are.”

“He might have.Malcolm always was clever.I remember once he—”

Jayden threw his head back and screamed in agony.He gripped his head and clenched his eyes closed as he fell to his side.Dana cried out in panic and grabbed him before he hit his head on the stone floor.She felt a sudden jolt when she touched him, like power was coursing through him.

“What’s wrong?Jayden!”

“I, I’ll live.”Jayden gasped and rubbed his forehead.“That was extraordinarily painful.”

Dana helped him sit upright.“What was that?”

“Give me a moment.”Jayden cast several spells Dana didn’t recognize that had no noticeable effect, then he stopped and frowned.“Someone overcame the mind cloud spell protecting my location.That blast of pain was the spell violently failing.”

“How is that possible?”

Jayden rubbed his temples and stood up.“It shouldn’t be.Less than fifty wizards in the world are strong enough to defeat my mind cloud.Few of them should have even heard of me, and none should care enough to take the time and effort to locate me.Unless it’s not one powerful wizard, but lesser wizards working together with a binding spell.”

“The Inspired.”

He nodded.“We fought twice before, both times meeting accidentally.It would seem they used their magic to find me, and we must assume it is for a third confrontation, this time not by chance.”

Panicking, Dana shouted, “No!We don’t have time to fight them!My family needs us!This, it has to wait!Can you put up another mind shield and then we run away?”

“They broke my mind shield and could do so again.As for fleeing, we would be running while they fly on magic clouds.”Jayden looked around the ruined castle.“They know where we are and that we can’t move far before they arrive.They have dictated when this battle must take place, but we can decide where.These ruins could be brought down on us when the Inspired have a wizard specializing in earth magic.Come, Dana, let us pick a better battlefield.”

They left the ruined castle and headed for Northlight.There were good trails going through woodlands and foothills.Dana spotted a few old houses abandoned by their owners, not rare in the wilderness where prospectors, trappers and settlers often left their homes if the land proved too poor to earn a living.Eventually they reached a wide pasture that looked like it had been grazed short not long ago.

Jayden set down his baggage and declared, “This will do nicely.There’s no cover for enemies to hide behind, no trees for their nature mage to animate, and no boulders for their earth wizard to throw.”

“No innocent people to get caught in the fight, either.”

“A valid point, Dana.The Inspired would gladly harm bystanders if doing so achieved their goals.”Jayden picked up one of his new spell tablets and studied it.“Our enemies will most likely come by air, so watch the skies.If they don’t come by dusk, we will assume they don’t want to fight us yet and we can move on to Northlight.”

The next few hours were worrying.Dana watched for threats that might not appear.Jayden seemed sure the Inspired would come.It made sense when they had gone to the effort to find him, but maybe they just wanted to be sure he was far away.Sheriff Gress had said they were interested in Jayden, though, either to kill him or recruit him.After their last battle, they’d want to do one or the other as soon as possible to keep him from interfering in their plans.

“Call upon the shadows,” Jayden said.

“What?”

“It’s the name of one of my new spells.Give me a moment to try it.”Jayden cast a spell Dana hadn’t seen before.When he was finished, shadows across the pasture reached out to Jayden and spun around him like wisps of smoke.

“What does it do?I mean besides look pretty.”

Jayden touched one of the swirling shadows, his fingers poking through it.He pointed his right hand ahead of him, and a stream of shadows shot forth to slash through the short grass.More shadows stretched out and rotated around him, replacing what he’d used.

Jayden frowned.“Not what I was expecting, or particularly useful.My other combat spells do as much damage or more.Still, I may find a use for it.”

Dana was watching Jayden when she saw the threat.“Jayden, that cloud is moving against the wind.”

“That would be our enemy.Polite of them to not keep us waiting long.”

Scared, she said, “That’s the same direction we were going to reach Northlight!”

“Indeed, and it’s been only a short time since they discovered my location.It would suggest the Inspired—”

“They’re in my home,” Dana finished.“That’s what happened to my mom and dad.The Inspired got them.”

The magic cloud soared toward them and began to lower.Jayden cast a spell to summon Stanley.The nature spirit arrived with a gust of wind, but this time Stanley didn’t hum or sing.The nature spirit growled as he got between Dana and the magic cloud.It was weird that she could see through him but knew he was there by the way he brushed aside dust and bugs in the air.

“I’m going to need armor,” Dana told him.

“Easily done.”Shadows across the pasture swirled together to form black, spiky armor.Dana noticed the armor seemed to take longer than normal to form.Maybe there weren’t enough shadows here to make it out of.The delay was brief, though, and pieces of armor flew across the pasture to lock onto her into a menacing suit.

The cloud landed fifty feet from them, and the top half evaporated to reveal a single wizard in the Inspired’s black and white.Dana recognized him from the battle at the mine.It was the young man who’d unleashed the skeletal wyvern/golem against them.

“Hold your wrath,” the man said.“I am Hyress of the Inspired.I seek only to speak.”

“That’s asking a rather lot from me,” Jayden replied.

“True, but it will be worth your time to listen.”Hyress held up a beautiful silver and sapphire choker. “Do you recognize this?”

“A death bond,” Jayden replied.“The elves of old used it to stop wizards from casting spells during tense negotiations.If a wizard wearing it around his neck casts a spell, the choker detonates, killing him instantly.”

“Ah, I see you are a man of culture.”Hyress placed the choker around his neck, and the sapphires lit up.“I found it while excavating a destroyed city in the Ruined Lands.Death bonds only work for five minutes before deactivating, and they only explode if combat magic is used.I do this to prove I only seek dialog and can’t take action against you.”

“That’s a considerable gamble,” Jayden told him.“Very well, villain, you have my full attention.Fair warning, not everyone survives it.”

Dana noticed that the Inspired wizard kept his distance and hadn’t dispelled his magic cloud.He could leave in a hurry ifneeded, proving he was worried they might attack.She pointed her sword at him and demanded, “Where are your friends?”

“Occupied.Even if they were available, I was concerned you’d take their presence as a threat, and I know how you deal with threats.This meeting must be peaceful.”

“To what end?” Jayden asked.

The Inspired studied Jayden before answering.“That’s a new spell you’re using.I don’t recognize it from our previous encounters.It illustrates your versatility and value.Sorcerer Lord, I’ve heard you prefer solitude, never working for long with any but this girl.You have been alone for decades, but that need not last.You could find a home with the Inspired.”

“What possible reason would I have for working with delusional idiots seeking to take over the world?” Jayden asked.Normally Dana would chide him for being rude, but she was having trouble keeping her own temper in check.“Your beliefs are moronic, your actions reprehensible.Magic resides in bloodlines no more than skill in sword fighting does.”

“Agreed.”

“What?” Dana asked.She was glad she had a helmet on when her expression was shocked.

“Magic doesn’t run through family lines,” Hyress said.

“That’s the core of your group’s beliefs!” Jayden yelled.

“No, that’s our core recruiting tool,” Hyress corrected him.“Wizards are capable of deeds most men can only dream of.It makes them vain.We appeal to that vanity and tell them they are better than those who can’t cast spells.It’s demonstrably false, but we’ve found few people reject praise, however unearned it might be.Those of us in leadership positions know the lie for what it is.”

“And world domination?” Dana asked.

“That’s not a lie,” the wizard admitted.He waved at their surroundings, as if to encompass the entire kingdom.“Look around you.Meadowland was a disaster long before we arrived.Tyros is actively destroying it.I’m told you’ve traveled to neighboring kingdoms.Did you find their leaders wise?Was their land productively managed?If so, it was exceptional.I have traveled the width of this continent, seeing incompetence and galling failures at every level of society.That is what drove me to join the Inspired.”

“I saw your hybrids,” Jayden retorted, “monsters half undead and half golem, using bones of dead men and women.Do not claim wisdom when you desecrate the dead.”

The wizard looked puzzled.“Hybrids?Oh, those experiments.We don’t have a name for them yet.Are we perfect?Of course not.Do we take distasteful actions?No more than any other ruler.We must experiment and learn if we are to overcome our limitations.”

Hyress held out his empty hands.“Our first meeting was an unfortunate one.We didn’t know you were in Bascal, nor were you our target.Had you left as so many others did, we wouldn’t have fought at all.”

“Letting you kill innocent people,” Dana snarled.

“Innocent is a meaningless word,” Hyress retorted.“You instigated our second battle, Sorcerer Lord.Again, we had no grievance against you.That remains true today.We sensed you near us, proof you again seek battle, but there is no need for one.”

“You seek friendship with me, yet you’ve done unspeakable harm across Other Place,” Jayden replied.

“Such damage is common,” Hyress countered.“We do no more or less than countless others of all races.The difference is what we seek.Wizards can and should control Other Place.Only we have the power to defeat the threats this world faces, to hold back the fall of civilization.If not us in charge, then who?Elves?Dwarfs?Someone will rule a united world, and we can do it properly.”

“That is the most self-serving excuse I have ever heard,” Jayden replied.“You judge others while exonerating yourselves, committing atrocities in a land that needs healing and justice, and you think I would join you?The nerve.”

“I never said you would do so out of idealism,” Hyress countered.“We’re both too experienced for that foolishness.I offer tangible rewards.”

“You have nothing I want, and I have a feeling I have a great deal you desire,” Jayden replied.“I’ve seen members of your cabal.The necromancer didn’t surprise me, but you have a man using elven nature magic.You also had an earth wizard.Quite the collection.I daresay you seek to add shadow magic to your arsenal.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Hyress replied.“We seek to master all forms of magic.There was some discussion whether shadow magic was worth exploring when the old Sorcerer Lords were wiped out, but I’ve seen you in action.That’s the edge we need.As for having nothing you want, don’t be too sure.We’ve uncovered magic items from ancient times, and we could help you find more spell tablets.I’m told your appetite for those is ravenous.”

Before Jayden could reply, the Inspired wizard pushed his point.“You’re a master of shadow magic, capable of using multiple spells at once.Few Inspired can do the same, but we’re more capable than you think.We’re looking for ways for a single wizard to master multiple schools of magic.Imagine merging your shadow magic with control of the air and fire, building magic items like a dwarf, controlling nature like an elf.We can learn shadow magic from you, and you can gain power as well.”

The man pushed on, relentless in his argument.“We’re not close to being done.You’ve seen our creations, what you called hybrids.Those are rough drafts we’ve already grown beyond.We’re branching out into other forms of magic, studying, growing, learning.We even attempted to tap into goblin warp magic.”

“That couldn’t have gone well,” Jayden said drily.

For a moment Hyress’ confidence faltered, and he looked both confused and humiliated.“No, not well at all.”

Jayden was silent for a moment before responding.“I have lived decades under King Tyros.I watched him condemn innocent people to lives of suffering and degradation, and too many to death.I despise the man you work for with all my heart.”

“We work with him, not for him, using him for what little he’s worth,” Hyress said.“If you want him dead, it’s an easy price to pay for your support.Take Meadowland for yourself if it pleases you.”

Jayden cast a spell forming his black whip.“You didn’t let me finish.I loathe Tyros.In speaking with you, I see his equal, a man of overwhelming ambition and no humanity, no empathy, no love to temper his desires.I have fought and killed chimera, manticore, barrow wights and more.You are far worse, for your intellect is a tool for your brutality, making the most horrible deeds not only possible but excusable.”

Unfazed, Hyress said, “That sounded like no.”

“Victory’s Edge fought us and died.Cimmox the necromancer fought us and died.Stay in Meadowland one hour longer and you will join them.That warning is the only mercy I will show you.Go back to your fellow wizards and tell them Meadowland is forbidden to them, and that Sorcerer Lord Jayden is not for sale.”

The choker stopped glowing, and Hyress removed it.“That was your five minutes.Your answer is disappointing.For the record, I did try to resolve this peacefully.I say, do you feel a breeze?”

Five magic clouds dropped from the sky as fast as swooping hawks to land across the pasture.The clouds evaporated to reveal strange brick towers fifteen feet tall and eight feet wide, with what looked like enormous leering faces carved into them, and four clawed legs at their bases.Two towers were wreathed in flames, one was wrapped in live plants, another in ice and the last exhaled fog from its grotesque mouth.As one the tops of the towers turned so their faces stared at Dana and Jayden.

Too late Dana realized her mistake.She and Jayden had been focused entirely on Hyress and not the skies overhead.He’d brought in more magic clouds while they were distracted by his speech.She’d never seen anything like these towers and had no idea what they were capable of.

“You will serve us, Sorcerer Lord,” Hyress said calmly as he flew away on his magic cloud.“If not as a willing member, then as an example to those who would oppose us.”

The towers sunk their clawed feet deep into the ground before unleashing a flurry of attacks.The one wrapped in plants stretched out vines that grappled Dana, holding her in place for seconds before her armor’s sharp edges shredded through them.The icy tower shot a blast of razor sharp icicles at her that she had to run to avoid.Jayden ducked under a stream of fire from one of the burning towers, only to be thrown to the ground by a blast of wind from the tower breathing out fog.

“You both have a gift for dealing with necromancy, so we left that out of this version,” Hyress told them as he flew overhead.“Adaptability, Sorcerer Lord, it’s why we’ll win.”

Jayden cast another spell, forming his giant magic hand.It rammed into the mouth of the wind tower, jamming deep inside the tower’s gaping jaws.The tower blew hard but couldn’t dislodge the hand.Jayden blasted the base of the tower with the shadows circling him, cracking bricks but little more.

The second burning tower didn’t attack them.Instead it rattled and smoked, cracks forming across its surface.There was a loud pop and flash of purple light before it fell over backwards and broke open.

“Not again,” Hyress said from high above.

Dana charged the remaining burning tower and slashed at its base.Chain Cutter bit deep into one of its legs, chopping through bricks like they were dirt.The tower shot fire at her, but while it could turn its head in a full circle, it couldn’t bend up or down.It fired and ignited the pasture twenty feet behind her.She struck it again, cutting off one of the tower’s legs.She raised her sword for another attack when a blast of ice hit her from behind, covering her legs in ice half a foot thick.

The icy tower chuckled at its success, and screamed when Stanley attacked it.He’d always been invisible, but now she could see him, a vision of rage cast from shadows.Stanley had four arms ending in long blades, a featureless head with narrow eyes, and a body that trailed off into whisps of shadows where legs should have been.He chopped at the tower’s face in a frenzy of attacks that tore off its jaw.

Jayden ran to Dana and waved a hand, dissolving her black armor.That left enough room between her and the ice for her to slip out.Together they attacked the fire tower, her with Chain Cutter and him with his black magic sword.Dana cut off another leg and he a third until the tower tilted to the left and fell over.The tower cracked open, there was a purplish flash of light and the fires went out.

Vines grew so fast from the plant tower that they seemed to shoot through the air to grab Stanley and pull him back.He shredding through the vines, but they held him in check long enough for the ice tower to vomit a stream of ice that covered him entirely.He fell to the ground, helpless.

“Stanley!” Dana shouted.

Jayden waved his hand, and Stanley vanished from inside the block of ice.“He’ll live.We need to finish off the tower he damaged.I can get you on top of it.”

“Do it,” she told him.

Jayden pulled his magic hand out of the wind tower’s mouth and brought it back to them.The towers shot ice javelins and a mighty gust of wind, forcing Dana and Jayden to take cover behind the fire tower they’d destroyed.Jayden brought his magic hand next to Dana, and she jumped onto it.

The magic hand rose high into the air.The towers opened fire at her, but like the fire tower there was a limit how high or low they could target their attacks.Jayden sent the magic hand above their reach and then dropped it quickly next to the top of the ice tower.Dana jumped onto it and drove Chain Cutter deep into the tower.It shook as she plunged her sword into it again and again.The tower shuddered before it collapsed, forcing Dana to jump back onto the magic hand.

The wind tower blasted her with a gale so strong that she and the magic hand were forced to the ground and then knocked flat.The plant tower shot out vines that wrapped around her so tightly she couldn’t move.It laughed at her, not noticing a tiny spark drift over and slip into its mouth.

BOOM!

Jayden’s fireball went off inside the plant tower and blew it to pieces.Broken bricks and burning greenery rained down around them.With the plant tower destroyed its vines went slack, allowing Dana to wiggle out and stand up.The wind tower turned back and forth between them as Dana raised her sword and Jayden swung his black whip from side to side.

“That’s the best you can do?” Jayden asked.“These piles of stone?Your work pales before what both the Sorcerer Lords of old accomplished, and wizards of today.You want to rule the world with cheap parlor tricks.”

Jayden sent his magic hand flying in and punched the tower from behind.It staggered under the blow, then crumbled as he sent streams of shadows into its face.Dana ran in under his attacks and drove Chain Cutter into the tower’s base.She stabbed it twice, her sword piercing bricks easily.Jayden swung his magic whip and wrapped it over the tower’s open mouth.The tower shook wildly under their blows until it cracked open and a great windstorm blew out of the hollow center.

“Pathetic,” Jayden snarled.The shadows spinning around him grew faster, as if to match his temper.

“Necessary,” Hyress replied from a hundred feet above them.“This was field testing, nothing more.I noticed several weaknesses in the design thanks to you.The next version will correct those flaws.It was also a benefit to study you in action.”

Jayden stared back.He showed no fear of Hyress, nor respect for him.Instead his gaze was contemptuous.Dana had seen him like this before.Things were going to get messy.

“You are alone, Sorcerer Lord,” Hyress gloated.“The Inspired have the skill, money and overwhelming numbers to kill you or any other wizard.If it takes days, weeks, years or decades, we have time enough to wear you down until you break.”

Jayden pointed both hands at Hyress flying high overhead on his magic cloud.The shadows rotating around him shot up faster than arrows and higher than any of his other spells could hope to reach.Shadows tore through the base of the cloud and sheared off huge sections.Hyress screamed in abject terror and flew away.He’d nearly escaped when one shadowy bolt struck him in the right shoulder.Cries of fear turned to pain as Hyress bent down and gripped his right arm.The magic cloud flew even higher until it was a speck in the sky.

Jayden stared at Hyress fleeing and spoke with contempt.“You studied me?No, Hyress, we studied one another.I have your measure, villain.A month ago your order of fools intimidated me.No longer.”

“You can beat them?” Dana asked him hopefully.

Jayden marched to one of the destroyed towers.He picked up a single brick, turned it over in his hands and tossed it to the ground.“We can beat them, Dana.You pointed out that Hyress came alone.I figured out why.The Inspired are dangerous because of their numbers and binding spell, but there are weaknesses to that spell I’ve only now realized.”

He looked at her with an undeniable fierceness.“Their only hope is to run from us.”


Submitted: July 01, 2021

© Copyright 2021 ArthurD7000. All rights reserved.

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Comments

TheresaVan18

That was so much fun to read! Dana's fear for her family is protrayed so well. The interaction between her and Jayden is always fun to read about. Can't wait for a big showdown between them and the Inspired!

Jayden's interactions with sheriff Gress was fun too. It's good to know that the sheriff is headed back to Sarah. That would be a lovely reunion to read about!

Fri, July 2nd, 2021 5:10pm

Deborah O'Carroll

This chapter was amazing! Aahhhh! And there was so much going on! I loved it so much and I'm finally getting the chance to leave a comment now, because there were so many things I wanted to say...

Jayden and Suzy's banter is always hilarious! XD And his interactions with Sheriff Gress were sooo good--speaking of which, oh my word, I did not expect us to meet him and that's so cool! Also, Jayden's amazingggg! I just love him so much. And nooo, poor Dana! D: But nice to see Scald again too. And Jayden doing anything for her and her having saved him and their friendship and I just--! *cries* I love them! And I love that Dana has grown so much and what he said about her being able to do more now. And the goblins calling Jayden Dana's "scary friend." XD The goblin gate bit was sooo fun! I love what the old goblin said about no scales and just people helping others. OH MY GOSH, MALCOLM'S IDENTITY!!! :O *jaw drops* *shrieking* And nooo, the mind cloud! Poor Jayden. Hyress is...different and creepy how he is using them to field-test his experiments! And aaahh, it ended! That was sooo exciting and I'm on pins and needles about Dana's family and what might happen next! Amazing chapter! :D

Thu, July 8th, 2021 6:39am

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One more chapter to go.

Thu, July 8th, 2021 6:05am

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