To The rescue

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

It's Dana and Jayden versus the Inspired, and only one side is walking away from this fight.



“When we met Hyress, you asked, ‘where are your friends?’, a critical question,” Jayden declared.He marched across the pasture with the determination of a man on a quest.“It was the clue I needed.As always, Ms. Illwind, you are an endless source of inspiration.”

Dana struggled to keep up.“I’m missing something.”

One hour after their battle with Hyress, Jayden pushed on to Northlight, eager to catch up with their enemy.His mood was greatly buoyed, giving Dana hope they had a chance against the Inspired.

“For too long I treated the Inspired as a threat greater than they are.Individually they’re weak.What I saw at King Rascan’s ball was the work of competent apprentices.A brick whip and a babbling attack?Most wizards can do better.Only when they joined their power did they become dangerous.”

He spun around and faced her.“But their binding spell makes them only as strong as their collective power!When the Inspired attacked the ball, why did they only use two spells when united?Why not melt another wall and possibly bring the ceiling down on us?”Not letting her answer, he said, “Because they had no strength left to cast a third spell!”

“They ran out of magic?” she asked.“I’ve never seen you run out.”

“Every wizard has a limited amount of energy.I’ve been using shadow magic for two decades, time enough to develop a deep well of power I can draw on that recharges after a night’s sleep.It helps that shadow magic needs less power than other schools of magic because it uses shadows as a framework.”

Jayden resumed marching.“Each member of the Inspired has a small amount of power to contribute to a binding spell.When that is spent, it’s gone until they have time to rest.I believe the Inspired didn’t use more spells at the ball because they’d exhausted themselves.There was no energy left to use, and they had to flee.”

“So the other Inspired didn’t come today because they’d used their magic, but doing what?” she asked.“Wait, they needed a binding spell to be strong enough to find you.”

“Exactly.The Inspired used a considerable amount of power overcoming my mind cloud.After that Hyress created magic clouds that brought him and those towers to us, but he took no direct part in the battle.He didn’t because he couldn’t.The binding spell and his magic clouds took everything he had.”

The path led into a forest.Jayden was so excited he barely seemed to notice and kept marching.“I knew binding spells were unstable and could release their power explosively, but now I see more weaknesses.What if the wizards spend their collective power while bound together?That would safely end the binding spell and leave them helpless.What if they used magic before entering a binding spell?They would have less or no energy to contribute to the pooled magic.Their binding spell makes them formidable, not invincible.”

“What if we beat up a wizard before he reached the others?” Dana asked.

“An excellent question!We can defeat the Inspired piecemeal before they join together.A victory against one of them makes their collective power that much weaker.”

“Hands in the air!”Dana and Jayden found their way barred by five men with swords and axes.They were dirty, with mud stained clothes and tangled hair.One said, “Drop your bags and we’ll let you live.”

Dana slapped a hand over her face.“Really?Blond haired guy wearing black and silver shows up, face on thousands of wanted posters, and you think you can rob him?You can’t be this stupid!”

One of the bandits squinted at Jayden.“Oh.Oh no!”

“Anyone you know?” Jayden asked her.

Dana put her hands on her hips.“Certainly not!”

“Just checking.”Jayden dropped his bags, which made several bandits sigh in relief.Then he cast a spell, and shadows in the forest swirl together into his giant black magic hand.

“Would it help if we said we’re sorry?” a bandit asked.

“Not really.”Jayden swept his right hand in front of him, and the magic hand slapped two men to the ground.The rest ran away screaming.One was too slow, and Jayden seized him with the hand, dragging him back.He tossed the bandit at his feet and said, “Alligator skin boots, quite rare in Meadowland.You’re a long way from home.”

“We heard Tyros needed swords for hire, but when we came, they wanted soldiers,” the bandit said.“We don’t do that.Too dangerous.”

“So you decided to rob people,” Dana said.She looked at Jayden and frowned.“I don’t know if there’s anyone we can turn them over to.”

“Then allow me to congratulate you,” Jayden told the bandit.“You’re not going to jail, and I’m not going to kill you.”

“That’s very kind of y—”, the bandit began before the giant hand slapped him to the ground.Jayden seized the bandits’ weapons with the hand and broke them.Without another word, he picked up his bags and continued on his way.

“Bandits have never been this close to home,” Dana said.

“War makes opportunities for vermin to scurry from cover and cause trouble,” Jayden replied as the giant hand dissolved.“As I was saying before we were interrupted, the Inspired have another weakness.During the fight at the prison, there were three Inspired wizards.One was rendered useless when you removed his arm, but he could have contributed power to a binding spell.The other two unleashed their golem undead hybrids and left, casting no spells.”

“Why not?” she asked.

“Sheriff Gress told us they’d built the hybrids earlier that day.That’s a difficult task for a powerful wizard.They must have used all their power while bound together to accomplish it, leaving them too weak to engage us.”

Dana frowned.“Their scarecrows and towers weren’t that tough, but they could make a lot of them. We could be going up against an army.”

They walked by a pool in the forest, and Dana saw bubbles rise to the surface when they approached.Two large menacing eyes came to the surface and glared at them.

“Don’t!” Dana yelled at the monster.The eyes blinked and moved back.“Just don’t!I’m having a terrible week, so if you try something stupid, I will hurt you!”

The eyes blinked again and sank underwater.Jayden glanced at the pond and then to Dana.“We will save your people.Have faith in me and in yourself.Incidentally, that was impressive.”

Dana looked down.“Sorry.”

“No one could face what you have and remained calm.”He studied the pool and said, “I didn’t encounter so many threats when I came last year to help you protect Northlight from the estate guard.Is this normal?”

Dana continued down the road with her hand on her sword hilt.“Sometimes knights or soldiers patrolled the roads, searching ruins and caves for monsters.They usually didn’t find anything, but the soldiers and militia were called away a long time ago, and knights don’t come here anymore.Is the whole kingdom going to end up like this?Bandits and monsters creeping in?”

“Sadly, yes.To answer your earlier concern, there is a limit on the Inspired making magic servitors. They seek to create magic items as powerful and numerous as the dwarfs, but I doubt their abilities.You saw their pile of ruined scarecrows, and they admitted the others wouldn’t last long.One of the towers failed without firing a shot.In time the Inspired will grow more skilled, but for now they can’t manufacture armies.”

He looked at her and said, “When I suspected the Inspired were in Meadowland, I wondered if I had the strength to stop them.Now I realize they are flawed men hoping for scraps of power, hiding in the shadow of a greater evil.If I had Suzy Lockheart, Sir Lootmore, Father Firepower or others, we would beat them easily.”

“We don’t have help,” she said.

“Lacking assistance makes the coming battle harder, but do not fear.The Inspired can fall, Dana.”

“We’re going to reach Northlight soon,” Dana told him.“I don’t know what the Inspired have done.There might be scarecrows and magic towers.There are paths we can take I’m sure they don’t know about.”

“I’ll follow your lead.”

Dana and Jayden left the main road to follow side paths and game trails crisscrossing the wilderness.Here and there they came across isolated homes, the owners either absent or hiding behind closed doors.Animals were few and far between, but that didn’t surprise Dana.She’d seen hunters scour the woods back before she’d left home with Jayden.Any animal left was either too hard to catch or too dangerous to attack.

They were still many hours from home when she froze and dropped to her knees.Jayden took cover behind a tree and drew the magic scythe he’d taken from Ghost Hunter.She squinted and said, “Someone’s on the trail up ahead.He’s on the ground.”

“He could be in need, or be luring us into a trap.”Jayden waved for her to follow him into the woods.They slipped from tree to tree, circling the person on the trail until they were sure no one else was nearby.Dana and Jayden approached to find a man dressed in ragged clothes face down on the trail.He struggled to get up, his arms flailing at his side.

“Hello?” Dana asked.The man didn’t respond and continued flailing.She came closer, one hand on Chain Cutter, and touched his shoulder.It was cold and hard.Instantly she let go and jumped back.“He’s not alive!”

Her shout drew no reaction from the struggling person.Jayden approached and turned the person over.It was a scarecrow, definitely work of the Inspired, but weirder and worse.It was made of bones and boards, nailed, tied or glued together, covered in old clothes, but the head and hands were different.Its hands were live green branches with crude fingers, while the head was a collection of small gourds fused together, each one with a crude eye carved from stone.The scarecrow didn’t seem to notice them even after they’d touched it, and instead kept trying to stand.

“Hyress claimed the Inspired had already outgrown their creations,” Jayden said grimly.“This must be a new version.”

Horrified, Dana asked, “What’s wrong with it?”

Jayden tore open the scarecrow’s shirt to reveal symbols branded into both wood and bone.He pointed at them and said, “They made mistakes building it.The word meaning obedience overlaps the words granting it motion.The wood and bones are also crumbling.This scarecrow is defective and must have wandered off, uncontrolled and unintelligent, falling apart bit by bit.I’d pity it if it had a mind.”

Jayden swung his scythe, slicing through the scarecrow from top to bottom, ending its pointless struggles.

“Whose bones were those?” Dana asked softly.

“There’s no way to tell.They’re too old to have come from a living person or fresh grave.”Jayden dragged the scarecrow off the trail.“In that damaged state I don’t know whether it was stronger or faster than the ones we fought at the prison.”

“They, they could make these from people I love.”Her thought went to her parents.Had the Inspired killed them?

Jayden put his scythe away and embraced her.“We will stop them, Dana.We will make sure they never hurt anyone ever again.”

They traveled until darkness forced them to stop.Dana found an old watchtower they sheltered in.Jayden cast a spell bringing Stanley back.There was a whoosh of wind as he returned, and a happy hum of Hearts Over the Moon.

“Is he okay?” she asked.

“Stanley survived the war that killed the old Sorcerer Lords,” Jayden told her.“He can be hurt or driven off, but is almost impossible to kill.”

“Thank you,” she told Stanley, who brushed by her and hummed.“You’re a friend when we need one.”

* * * * *

The next morning, Dana led Jayden through more woodland trails.She knew them well from her days setting snares for rabbits and harvesting blueberry patches.There were no scarecrows or magic towers, as if the evil wizards’ presence hadn’t spread this far.

“We’ll pass a few hunting lodges on our way to Northlight.”

Jayden pointed to an impressive house in the distance.“That strikes me as being large for a hunting lodge.”

“That’s my baron’s summer house,” she said as they neared it.“Which is a weird name since he never comes here summer or winter.Once a month he sends servants to clean up and kick out goblins that move in.”

“Baron Quate.I know him by reputation as a staunch supporter of the king and queen, but not a man of wealth or influence.”Jayden studied the house.“Brick and oak, well designed, properly maintained, flower gardens and more.I’m surprised he doesn’t live here year round.”

“His wife doesn’t like it.She told him either they stayed in the city or—”

The door swung open and a man stepped out.He was in his sixties, overweight and richly dressed in fine linen and furs, and gasped at the sight of them.It took Dana a second to recognize Baron Quate, the man who ruled the province on behalf of King Tyros.

Fear gripped her heart as the baron stared at her and Jayden, and they stared back.Quate must have soldiers, tame monsters, magicians and more in his service.Even if they could beat him, he could warn the Inspired, or worse, bringing them here.Dana gripped her sword, not sure whether to attack or flee.

“Quick, get inside!” Baron Quate shouted.“Hurry before you’re seen!”

Dana glanced at Jayden, who looked as confused as she felt.The baron’s concern made sense if he recognized her, but he should be panicking at the sight of Jayden.Instead the baron waved urgently for them to enter his manor.Jayden hesitated for a second before leading Dana inside.The baron slammed the door behind them and barred it.

“I don’t think the wizards saw you,” the baron said.“They travel inside clouds, spying on us from above, and have monstrous servants all over the countryside.”

“The scarecrows?” Jayden asked.

“That’s not what I’d call them.”The baron ushered them into a sitting room with comfortable chairs and an expertly carved wood table.He called out to his staff, “Bring food and drink, and don’t be stingy with the portions.”

“Baron, what are you doing here?” Dana asked.She still couldn’t understand their strange reception.

“Hiding,” Baron Quate told her.“My manor house is under constant surveillance.I told everyone I was coming here to hunt deer.Thank Heaven they believed me.It’s given me time to act unobserved, for whatever good that’s done.”

Baron Quate looked at Dana and said, “You’re the Illwind girl who ran off.It was a wise move, child.Returning when the province is in need may not have been the best choice, but I respect you for doing so.”

“You know who I am,” Jayden said, a statement rather than a question.

“I’m not blind, Sorcerer Lord.What I am is desperate, and I think you’re here to help.”The baron dropped into a chair and waved for them to do the same.“Tales of you reached my ears long ago.You’ve made yourself a one man army, waging war against King Tyros and his charming bride.A year ago I would have died rather than meet you, such was my loyalty to the throne.That loyalty is dead, and I am lost with no one and nowhere to turn to.”

“What happened?” Dana asked.

Servants brought bread, cheese and fruit on wood plates.Once they left, the baron said, “You picked the perfect time to leave, Illwind.Since your departure, life has turned into a nightmare I can’t wake up from.I receive orders from the king every month, demanding more of everything.Taxes paid?Not enough, send more.Troops sent?Not enough, conscript any man who can stand for the front lines.Send food, send cattle, send horses.Horses!I haven’t seen a horse in over a year, and the king wants twenty.”

“Then the Inspired came,” Jayden said.

“A curse upon their names!”The baron leaned in toward Jayden.“A month ago they arrived at my door with a writ from King Tyros, granting them property in a desolate region of the province.They were given the right to demand labor and supplies from my citizens, with a higher priority than my orders.They are greater than me in my own lands!”

“Where are they?” Dana asked.

The baron grabbed a loaf of bread and waved it vaguely north.“You’ve heard of the old ruins near the mountains?They’ve claimed them as their own.The bone and wood monsters living there do nothing to stop them.I told them the ruins weren’t fit for habitation.They agreed, and conscripted five hundred of my people to rebuild them.Their leader, a snotnosed brat called Hyress, refuses to say when they will be returned.”

“My parents, were they taken?”

He nodded.“Your mother and father were among those drafted into service, along with far too many others in no condition to work.The few left struggle to tend fields and raise livestock, although I don’t see why they bother when it could all be taken from them.”

Dana sighed in relief.Her parents were in danger, but not dead.She could save them.She would save them!Hyress had magic and monsters.She’d faced both before and won.

It took her a second to realize the monsters Baron Quate referred to was the estate guard.She and Jayden had defeated it over a year ago on their first adventure.Had it still been alive, it would have attacked the Inspired as it did everyone else.They would have killed it sooner or later, but not without a fight.In a way she’d made the Inspired takeover easier.

“You allowed this?” Jayden asked, interrupting her thoughts.

Baron Quate threw his hands in the air.“How could I stop it?My soldiers were called away, and the militias, then even my personal bodyguards.I’ve no men left to fight back, no money, and reasons not to even try.”

It was all Dana could do to keep her jaw from dropping.Baron Quate should be rolling in riches.He was a nobleman!Yet he had nothing.All the defenses she was so sure he possessed, the guards and trained beasts, he had none of it.Had he lost it all to the war?Maybe he’d never had the riches and power she’d assumed.

The baron looked down, his face turning pale.“I sent a letter to the king protesting this outrage.It is a violation of my rights as baron.I have always been loyal, done all that was asked of me.I fought in the civil war!Loyalty flows both ways, and I am owed better treatment.”

A serving girl brought the baron a pewter goblet of wine.He gulped it down.“The king’s reply described in gruesome details what would happen to me should I fail to obey.My years of loyalty and military service meant nothing.”

Looking away, the baron added, “I wrote to fellow barons, men I’d known all my life, asking for their help.Surely together we could appeal this indignity.The king would have to listen if we stood together.Few replied.Men I thought my friends ignored me in my hour of need.Those who answered said they could do nothing to help.Their soldiers and militias had been called up the same as my own, their wallets equally empty.”

Dana had rarely seen her baron, and in truth throughout her life she’d thought very little of him.She didn’t hate the man, but she didn’t love or even like him.Today she felt a kinship.He was suffering.He wanted to help his people, her parents, and couldn’t.

“I am alone,” he concluded.“Those I called friends and brothers turn their backs on me.The king I would have died for sacrifices me and my people, and for what?What do these wizards offer so great that he would reject men who loved him as a father?I have seen the creations of these wizards, these walking blasphemies of bones and wood that mimic a man’s form.What has become of my homeland?”

Baron Quate looked at Jayden with a pleading expression.“Could these wizards have bewitched King Tyros to make him issue such orders?”

“Influencing a man’s mind for even a short time is difficult and dangerous.Tyros is strong willed and has magic items to protect him from attempts to control him.Had the Inspired tried hard enough, they would have killed him instead.”

“You hate the king and queen.”Baron Quate’s face betrayed his shame for saying such words.“Because of that I cursed your name for years.I regret every word I said against you.You saw the truth before I did.Can you help me?Can you save my people?I’ve no money left to pay you, no valuables left to part with for your aid, nothing left to give but my gratitude.Is that enough?”

“Your aid is worth a fortune,” Jayden told him.“You’ve given me more information than I’d dared hope for.I swear to you I will defeat the Inspired and rescue those they have taken.”

“I’ll have my servants bring you food and full waterskins,” the baron promised.He suddenly looked worried and said, “Hyress came to me a week ago with a request I couldn’t make sense of.You might be able to solve the riddle.”

“What did he say?” Dana asked.

The baron frowned.“He asked for a map of the province.I gave him one, and he studied it for some time.He asked me to point out every graveyard, big or small.I stalled and said I’d have to search for the locations.Why would he need to know that?How many men does he expect to die and be added to those graveyards?”

Jayden’s face showed such fury that the baron backed away from him in fear.“You are mistaken, baron.Our foes do not seek to add to those cemeteries, but subtract from them.”

“No, no!”The baron staggered back as if he’d been struck.Servant rushed to his aid.“The king wouldn’t allow that!”

“It isn’t the first time he’s permitted the desecration of the dead,” Jayden replied.“I fear it won’t be the last.”

They left the baron’s summer home an hour later with enough food and drink to last a week.The baron bid them farewell, a shaken man, but one still trying.It boosted Dana’s respect for him.She wondered how many other good people were serving the king and queen out of loyalty or fear.Could they be convinced to turn against Tyros and Amvicta?

Would it help if they turned against the crown?Baron Quate no longer had men or money.Other nobles in the region were equally helpless.Had the king and queen planned this?Crippling their own nobles would make rebellions less likely.

As they walked along lonely game trails, Dana asked, “Why did the Inspired take over the old Sorcerer Lord ruins?”

“Hyress boasted of trying to master all forms of magic.Those ruins could have yielded up secrets of the Sorcerer Lords he desires.There was no way for him to know I’d already looted it.”

Jayden stopped and peered into the shadowy forest to either side of the trail.“There is another reason.If the Inspired seek to conquer Meadowland, they need bases to build their foul creations, store wealth and supplies, perhaps to train new wizards.The ruins are an ideal place to build such a base, far from prying eyes and hard to reach.They can entrench themselves where Tyros will have a hard time removing them.”

“Tyros has to know the Inspired are dangerous.”

“My father knows the threat of the men he’s taken into his service.”He looked at her and asked, “Do you think the mercenaries he hired are more loyal, or the beast tamers and gladiators?Even the dwarfs of Golem Works are only as trustworthy as their next payday.He’s surrounded himself with those who will one day turn on him.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Because he will betray them first.They’re fools to trust him, blinded by greed and ambition.They should know a man who would sacrifice his firstborn son has no loyalty to anyone.Hyress and the Inspired don’t realize how much danger they’re in, not from me, but from the king.Tyros has plans in place to deal with them when their usefulness ends.”

Dana kicked a branch off the trail.“So the last man alive gets Meadowland.Great.”

“For now we must focus on the Inspired,” he said.“They know we are near and expect our attack.They must have built defenses, but there’s no telling how strong they are when their creations are so fickle.We have an advantage in that we know exactly where they are.”

“I need to stop at home,” Dana said.“Lan and my sisters have been alone for too long.They must be scared.”

“The Inspired may have left guards to watch Northlight,” Jayden cautioned.

“We’ll deal with them.”

Dana led Jayden further into the woods.She recognized landmarks like the huge boulder split down the middle, and a hollowed out tree stump her little brother Lan liked to hide things in.She checked and found it empty.He must have taken his ‘treasures’, like the green glass jar, wood soldiers and dull knife.

It took hours longer, but they reached the edge of Northlight.Her hometown was ringed with wheat fields.She’d always thought it was large until her travels with Jayden.Now she saw a small town, well cared for but neither prosperous nor exciting.Dana and Jayden crept in closer to the whitewashed wood houses.She spotted a few women weeding the fields and a cluster of sullen children drawing water from a well.Oxen and horses were missing, and carts were pulled by people.Everyone was grim faced but kept working.

“That’s my house,” Dana told Jayden, and she pointed at a small but stately home with a second story.She ducked through alleys, trying to avoid attention.She’d almost gotten to the door when she saw five scarecrows march in a line down the street.She and Jayden hid behind a toolshed and watched the monsters.People shied away from the abominations patrolling the streets.Dana gripped her sword but refrained from drawing it.She had to speak with her family first.They’d know how many of those monsters were in Northlight.

Once the scarecrows marched away, she ran with Jayden to the back door.It was locked, but the emergency key was hidden in a flowerpot, same as always.She unlocked the door and pulled Jayden inside before shutting the door as quietly as possible.

“Who’s there?” a girl screamed.

“Emily, it’s me, Dana,” she told her nine year old sister.

There was a sudden silence before Dana was mobbed by her younger sisters.They raced across the small house, pushing furniture out of the way and hugged her.Dana nearly fell over under the weight of her sisters.

“You came back!” Molly cried.She was twelve years old and nearly as tall as Dana.

“I got a letter from Lan,” Dana told her.“Where is he?”

A screaming blur ran down the stairs from the second floor and launched itself at Dana, landing on her face and grabbing on tight.It was Lan, a little bigger than the last time she’d seen him, but every bit as hyperactive.He tried to talk, but his words were anguished howls.

“Lan, calm down.I can’t understand you when you’re crying.Your nose is running on my blouse.”

“Mommy’s gone!”Lan’s brown hair was a mess, no change there, and his clothes needed mending.The seven year old had gotten bigger and heavier since last year, and Dana needed some effort to pry him off.“Bad men took mommy!”

Dana hugged him.“I know, kiddo.I got your letter.”

Rachael, Dana’s pig tailed ten year old sister, took Lan from her.“They’ve been gone for four weeks.I don’t know what we’re going to do.We ran out of meat last week.The neighbors are trying to help, but they lost parents, too.Half of Northlight is gone.”

Dana looked around her house, happy to be back, but feeling out of place.She froze when she saw an empty spot above the mantlepiece.“Where are dad’s medals?”

Rachael looked like she was about to cry.“Taxes went up last fall.Dad didn’t have enough money.He, he wouldn’t take any from the neighbors, even when they offered to help.He gave the tax collectors his medals.They said it was enough.”

Fury burned in Dana’s heart.“He got those medals fighting for Meadowland, and they took them back?He earned them.”

Emily’s face paled, and pointed at Jayden.“Dana, who’s that?”

Dana’s sisters stared at Jayden.She caught Molly blushing, but the others looked scared.Jayden hesitated before he got down on his knees before them.

“Hello, my name is Jayden,” he said softly, his voice soothing.“Your sister Dana is a friend of mine.She saved my life.I was with her when she got Lan’s letter.I’m here to get your parents back.”

“You saved him?” Emily asked Dana.She frowned and asked, “Why do you have a sword?”

“It’s a long story.”

Lan pointed at Jayden.“Daddy has pictures of you.”

Molly smiled and waved at Jayden, but Rachael stepped in front of her and asked, “You can save them?”

“I can.”Jayden smiled at her.“I’m a wizard.Good wizards can stop bad wizards.”

“You don’t have a pointy hat,” Lan said.

Jayden looked at Molly, who blushed.“I saw scarecrows in your town.How many are there?”

“Umm, umm—”

“Fifteen,” Rachael interrupted.“There were more, but the wizards took most away last night.The monsters drag you back if you try to leave town.”

“Then how did you get a letter to me?” Dana asked Lan.

“He snuck out at night without telling us, and didn’t come back for two days,” Rachael said fiercely.“We thought he was dead!”

“That was very brave of you,” Jayden told Lan.“Do any people here serve the bad wizards?”

“No, only monsters,” Rachael told him.

“We need to deal with them,” Jayden told Dana.He looked at her family and said, “Stay indoors until we’re done.”

“Wait, done with what?” Emily asked.

Dana and Jayden left the house through the back door.She drew Chain Cutter and he formed his black whip and giant hand.They saw a group of five scarecrows march down a street, pushing women out of their way.

“Feeling vengeful?” he asked.

“Leave me some.”

The scarecrows’ attention was focused on the street ahead of them, where they overturned wicker baskets and searched the contents.One kicked a basket over, and a second later Jayden’s giant hand grabbed the scarecrow around the chest and squeezed.It shrieked before its chest caved in, blackened and crumbled away.The other four spun around in time to see Dana charge and behead a scarecrow.It burst into flames at Chain Cutter’s touch and turned to ashes.

Women screamed and ran as Dana drove Chain Cutter through a scarecrow’s chest.She pushed the scarecrow aside as it burned away and met the fourth scarecrow when it tried to claw her face.She hacked off both its hands before slashing it across the chest, igniting it like the others.The last one lunged at her, and was pulled away when Jayden’s black whip wrapped around it.The whip hissed and ate through the scarecrow, scattering its ashes across the street.

“More coming from the left,” Jayden said.Dana saw five scarecrows charge them.Two grabbed baskets of produce and threw them at Dana.She ducked under the clumsy attack and stabbed a scarecrow through the chest when it tried to grab her.She kicked the burning scarecrow off her sword and swept Chain Cutter low, taking off a scarecrow’s legs at the knees.The other three tried to swarm her.Jayden’s whip wrapped around them, pulling them together before his magic hand swung down and ground them into the street.

“Behind you!”It was Emily, standing at the doorway and pointing down the street.The last five scarecrows grabbed pitchforks and were only ten feet away.

They raised their pitchforks, just as Jayden’s magic hand grabbed a cart and shoved it into them.The cart ran over and crushed three scarecrows.A scarecrow tried to impale Dana, and she lopped off the pitchfork’s steel head with her sword.The other threw its pitchfork at her.She grabbed the first scarecrow by the arm and pulled it in front of her, letting it take the hit in its back.She drove Chain Cutter through it up to the hilt, and shoved it forward until her blade bit into the last scarecrow.Both burst into flames and burned away.

“What have you done?” a woman screamed.She ran up to Dana and Jayden.“The wizards will kill us when they see this!”

“I doubt that very much,” Jayden replied, his voice low and deadly.“I’m going to kill them all.”

The woman backed away from him as more women and children ran over.She gasped and said, “You, you’re him.The man from the wanted posters.”

Another woman pointed at Dana.“Dana, you came back!Wait, you’re unidentified female accomplice?”

“I’m never going to live that down.”Dana rolled her eyes.She looked at Jayden and said, “We need to calm them down.”

“I am the man from the wanted posters,” Jayden declared to the growing crowd.“I’ve been fighting enemies like the Inspired for twenty years.King Tyros offered first riches and then a noble title with land to the man who kills me.I’m still here.Monsters, wizards, golems and more fought me and lost.”

The crowd watched him, some terrified, some hopeful.He climbed on top of the cart with destroyed scarecrows still under its wheels, and declared, “I have fought the Inspired three times.They sent undead against me, gladiators, scarecrows, magic towers, and I’m still here!Citizens of Northlight, I promise those taken hostage will return, and the Inspired will not!”

A lone woman raised her hand.“Are you seeing anyone?”

“Cut it out, Cassie!” Dana yelled.“Jayden and I are going after the wizards.Baron Quate said they moved into the ruins outside town.You’re sure that’s where we can find them?”

“I delivering them food last week,” a woman replied.“It’s not what I thought it would look like, but that’s where they live.Dana, they’ve got lots of monsters.Two people can’t stop them.”

“The Inspired have been beaten before, and they will be defeated here,” Jayden replied.He jumped down from the cart, landing in front of the crowd.“You have suffered much.Know that it will end soon.”

“So, are taxes going down, too?Because that’s been a problem for a while,” a woman said.

“Cassie, you’re ruining the mood!” Dana yelled.She took Jayden by the arm and pulled him away from the others.“We’ll be back soon.”

“Bring souvenirs!” Cassie yelled as they left Northlight.

“Who—” Jayden began.

“She’s my cousin on my mother’s side, and that was as close as she comes to normal,” Dana told him.“Don’t make eye contact or she’ll follow us.”

They left quickly, leaving behind people Dana loved more than life.She’d done so much, grown as a person, but she’d always thought one day she could come home.She’d seen such suffering on her journeys with Jayden, only to find the same pain and injustices had come to her family and neighbors.

Now she had to save them like she’d saved so many others.

* * * * *

Their journey to the ruins was a strange one.They’d walked this very path over a year ago, but so much had changed.This time it was the height of summer, hot and sticky.The path was now a road beat down by the feet of her parents and neighbors, with deep ruts where carts had brought food and tools for those taken as forced labor.

They kept a careful watch for scouts or guards sent by the Inspired.Halfway there they left the path and followed another one made long ago by the now dead estate guard.The forest was as dark as ever despite the change of season, for the enormous trees let little light reach the ground.Owls hooted as the dim light faded, heralding the coming night.They pressed on, for to leave the Inspired even a day longer to prepare would make them more dangerous.

“We need to be careful once we reach their base,” Jayden said as they walked.“Specifically, you need to avoid using Chain Cutter.”

“That’s my best weapon.”Dana frowned and said, “It’s my only weapon.”

“Chain Cutter cremates scarecrows.The light and noise will alert the Inspired.We must keep them ignorant of our presence as long as possible.”

“They know we’re nearby, and that we hate them,” Dana reminded him.“Pretty sure they’re expecting us.”

“They know we’re coming, but not the hour or day.Once we’ve evacuated your people, we can attack the Inspired, ideally defeating them one by one.”

Dana took her shield amulet out of her bags and showed it to him.“Sounds like I’m going to need this.Prince Onus said it will protect me from one attack, but not how it works.”

Jayden pointed to small words stamped onto the amulet.“Keep the amulet with you, and when you need to use it say these words, ‘Save my life.’The amulet will protect you, but don’t overestimate its power.This gives you a useful but limited edge in battle.”

“You’ve got an edge with your new spell.”

Jayden shook his head.“It will be of limited use unless I need a spell with greater range.”

“Maybe not.You cast call upon the shadows in a pasture at noon on a sunny day.There weren’t many shadows, certainly no big ones.”

Jayden gave her a curious look.“You think the spell’s power depends on the time and place it’s cast?”

“Your magic uses shadows as a framework.I saw it pull in shadows every time you attacked, but there wasn’t much for it to draw on.It might work better at night.”

“A valid point, and an interesting one.Dana, have you considered taking up magic?You’re certainly intelligent enough to master it.”

She smiled.“I thought I was a swordswoman.”

“You can be both.Many villains discovered to their sorrow that I’m skilled with a sword.Hmm, it would seem out target is in sight, I think.”

Dana stared in disbelief at the strange sight in the distance.“This is the place?”

“It has to be,” Jayden replied, but he sounded uncertain.

Dana and Jayden had come to the Sorcerer Lord ruins a little over a year ago.What they saw today bore no resemblance to those ruins.Originally there had been five badly damaged stone buildings, each one several stories tall.There had been piles of bricks that suggested the estate had once been even larger.A thick layer of moss once grew over the ground like a green carpet.Outside the ruins were a forest ancient and untouched thanks to the fierce defense of the estate guard who once protected the ruins.

All that was gone.The buildings and piles of bricks had been pulled down and reused to build a single uncompleted tower a hundred feet across and thirty feet high, the outer wall ten feet thick.Women and older men hauled bricks up a wood staircase to the unfinished top.There was no roof, nor windows in the thick wall, and only one entrance.

Around this massive construction project were dozens of wood buildings made of unseasoned pine that must have come from the trees that once surrounded the ruins.Those trees were gone, leaving an open area three hundred feet around the unfinished tower.Dana saw houses, kitchens and warehouses among the buildings, and more she wasn’t sure about.Lanterns attached to the buildings dimly lit the base.Around those buildings was a fence twenty feet tall with stone post supports and what looked like spiky briars running between them.Fifty feet beyond the fence was a ring of fifteen magic towers identical to the ones Hyress had used against them.

Those towers weren’t the only guards.Scarecrows with lanterns patrolled the camp’s interior in groups a dozen strong.Even larger groups marched around outside the fence.A skeletal monster fifty feet long, like a snake made of tens of thousands of bones fused together, slithered through the streets.Dana spotted the Inspired’s necromancer walking alongside the skeletal serpent. 

Jayden scowled.“This is what they would do to all of Other Place.In their hands it would be a prison world, men and women enslaved to their will, guarded by abominations.Curse Tyros for letting this happen.”

“If we fight our way in, my people could get caught in the crossfire.”

“We must sneak in and liberate them before engaging the Inspired.”Jayden studied the camp.“The defenses have multiple layers, but I see weaknesses.The scarecrow patrols stick to set patterns and can be avoided.The fence is too close to the buildings inside, which can hide breaches.Look at the second tower from the far left.”

Dana squinted.“The others are rotating like they’re looking around.Not that one.Wait, did it just spark?”

“It’s failed like the one Hyress used against us.With that tower malfunctioning, it is the best place to infiltrate their base.We’ll hide our baggage in the forest so it doesn’t weigh us down, avoid the patrols, cut as small a hole as possible in the fence, and once inside find your parents and neighbors.Then we get them to safety before the fight starts.”

She pointed at the huge brick tower in the center of the base.“What is that?”

“It’s a wizard’s tower, a heavily fortified structure where the Inspired can rest without fear of attack.They’ve only started construction and will need months to complete it.I see your people working on it.That must be why the Inspired seized them.”

“There are a lot of scarecrows.How are we going to fight so many?”

“We must focus our attention on the wizards leading them.”He smirked and added, “Besides, fifteen troubled us little when you were angry.”

“Don’t joke!What if they attack my parents while they’re getting away?”

“We’ll time their escape to avoid the patrols,” he promised.

“Good plan,” a goblin said.

Dana nearly screamed.Jayden grabbed his magic scythe and raised it, stopping only when he saw they weren’t facing a threat.He managed to keep from shouting when he demanded, “What are you doing?”

The short, slender goblin had lavender skin, purple hair, and wore a green and black uniform like Suzy Lockheart’s new goblin friend.He wielded a wood club carved to resemble a scepter.Nor was he alone.The strange goblin led a force of thirty goblins, none as well dressed or well-armed, but by all appearances ready for a fight.

“The name’s Biff,” the goblin said, and he shook Dana’s hand.“Me and the boys have been trying to figure out what to do about this place for days.Much appreciate the extra firepower.You two go on ahead.We’ll cover your exit.”

“Wait, what?” Dana asked.Another goblin walked up and shook her hand.

Jayden lowered his scythe.“This isn’t normal behavior for goblins.”

The goblin pointed his wood scepter at the Inspired base.“There’s nothing normal about that.Now scoot.There’s stuff for you to smash.”

“My life makes less sense every day,” Dana said.

Dana and Jayden left the cover of the trees and snuck toward the fence.A scarecrow patrol came close to them, forcing them to drop to the ground and lay still until they passed.They continued on when the scarecrows left.As they’d suspected, the magic tower they’d spotted wasn’t working.If anything it was getting worse, with smoke wafting from its leering mouth and more purple sparks.

“Watch your footing,” Jayden warned.Dana looked down to find scarecrows littering the ground.Some twitched while others were still.It was hard to see them in the darkness, but she didn’t notice any damage.They must have fallen apart like the one they’d seen on the way here.

When they reached the fence, Jayden used his scythe to cut briars close to the ground.They crawled inside under the remaining briars and hid behind a building.

“They might notice the damage,” Dana whispered.

“Darkness will make it hard to see.I hear hammering and sawing from the large building near us.We can hide behind that outhouse and see what’s happening inside.”

Dana followed him and peeked into a building big as a barn.She gasped at the sight, and even Jayden looked disturbed.Inside were Inspired scarecrows making scarecrows.They cut boards to the proper length with saws, nailed them together with hammers and rusty nails, and either glued or tied bones to the boards.More scarecrows put clothes on their new brothers and tied on their revolting gourd heads.Live vines were wrapped around the wrists to make hands.Finally, they seared strange words into wood and bones with branding irons.

This final stage didn’t grant the new scarecrows life.Functioning scarecrows stacked the new ones like cordwood and began work on still more.There were at least fifty new scarecrows piled up.

“Hybrids making hybrids,” Jayden whispered to Dana.“I’d wondered how this version of scarecrow was superior to the first we’d seen, but if they’re smart enough to make more of their kind then they are a vast improvement.”

“Why aren’t the new ones moving?”

“These hybrids can do the physical work, but they can’t cast spells to animate them.I suspect the Inspired will do so in the morning.”

Dana pointed at a huge pile of writhing limbs next to the scarecrow workshop.“They’re still making mistakes.There has to be a hundred broken scarecrows there.”

“We need to end this before the Inspired improve their performance.”

Dana and Jayden heard voices nearby, and they crouched low as men came into view a hundred feet away.Dana recognized Hyress, but the wizard wrapped in flames was new.

“We’ll stop building gale and vine towers,” Hyress told the fire wizard.“They’re only useful paired with more effective designs.We need more heal fast potions, too.I used the last bottle yesterday.”

The fire wizard scowled.“To blazes with that foolishness!”

Hyress raised an eyebrow.“Excuse me?”

Dana grabbed Chain Cutter’s hilt, but Jayden stopped her from drawing it.

“I don’t care, and neither do the others,” the fire wizard retorted.“Something went wrong the last time we combined our strength.It always hurts, but that time my head felt as if I’d been struck, and I had muscle spasms for hours.The others said it was worse for them, too.I can see in your eyes that you felt the same.Don’t lie to me!”

“I would never lie to you,” Hyress replied.

“I’ve never felt side effects from binding so strongly,” the fire wizard said.“You said you’d experimented with the spell to remove risks, but it’s not working.If we keep binding our strength, the spell could fail.You know what happens then.”

Hyress paused as the hideous skeletal snake Dana had seen earlier slithered next to him.“You’re right, it’s too big a risk.We won’t need to join our strength once our brother wizards arrive.Until they do, we will only use binding spells in emergencies.”

“An emergency is coming soon enough,” the fire wizard retorted.“Have you a plan to deal with the Sorcerer Lord?”

Hyress smiled and walked away.“I plan for everything.”

Dana’s eyes narrowed as she watched them and their foul serpent leave.Jayden whispered, “They had room enough to flee, and could have ordered their scarecrows to attack both us and your people.Patience, Dana.Their time will come.”

They snuck through the base, checking one building after another.There were storehouses for food, tools and clothing, and parts for scarecrows.Other buildings were empty.Finally they came across a bunkhouse with men and women inside.Dana recognized her next door neighbors.Farther back she saw her father speaking with a cousin.

Her father looked well.Thinner, to be sure, but he wasn’t hurt.His black and white beard was trimmed short, his thinning hair combed back, and his clothes more worn than they should be, but he was alive.Strong, healthy, trying to buoy the spirits of his people, the sight of him made her cry.

Dana ran inside before Jayden could stop her, slipped by three men in her way and embraced her father.He gasped, partly because of her bearhug, then recognized his daughter, wrapped both arms around her and lifted her into the air.Men and women gathered around her, a hundred questions on their lips.

Her father set her down.“Dana, I feared I’d never see you again.How did you get here?Did those monsters touch you?

“I broke in.Lan wrote to me about what was happening, and I came to help.”Worried what her father might think, she pointed at Jayden.“You know the old stories about Sorcerer Lords?I found one who wants to help.”

All eyes fell on Jayden.He bowed slightly.“Mayor Illwind, it pleases me to meet you.I’m certain you know of me.Allow me to assure you of my good intentions and desire to help Northlight’s citizens.”

Dana’s father stared hard at Jayden, and her fear intensified.Her father would only see an enemy if he believed what the king and queen said about Jayden.

“Those wizards are robbing graves,” her father said fiercely.“They’re making abominations out of Meadowland’s dead.Can you stop them?”

“Once your people are free, I intend to kill them all.”

Her father’s eyes narrowed.“That will do just fine.”

“Where’s mom?” Dana asked.

Her father pointed at a long building with smoke coming from a chimney.“She and the other women work in the cook house preparing meals.They’re cleaning up and won’t be sent here for at least an hour.”

“Gather your people and leave,” Jayden told him.“We’ll made an opening in the fence.You can avoid the scarecrows if you go in small groups when we tell you to.”

“You need us to fight those monsters,” an angry man said.

“I need you to leave before I destroy everything here,” Jayden replied.“Dana, help me get them to the—”

“Not again!”The outraged scream made Dana draw her sword and run to the door.It was coming from outside, and she needed a moment to spot Hyress marching up to the defective tower.“How long has this been down?”

The earth wizard with the bushy beard walked up beside him.“It was working this morning.”

“This morning was fifteen hours ago,” Hyress replied.“Did we have a hole in our security for fifteen hours?”

The necromancer approached them.He’d replaced his missing arm with another undead limb.“Yet more failures from our esteemed dirt mover?”

“Silence, gravedigger!” the earth wizard retorted.

“We’re forced to feed and guard five hundred peasants because you’re too weak to make our wizard’s tower,” the necromancer continued.“If even one escapes, we’re—”

“Stop!” Hyress ordered.He bent down next to the fence.

“Dana, I’m going to draw them away,” Jayden said.“Once I’ve distracted them, lead your people to safety.”

“You think he sees the breach?”Dana winced when she saw Hyress stand up holding the briars Jayden had cut.“Oh no.”

“Masterfully done, Sorcerer Lord!” Hyress called out.“I’m curious how you tracked us here.Our wards should have blocked your detection spells.For that matter, how did you travel here so fast?You are brimming with secrets.I’ll tear them out one at a time.”

Jayden stepped away from Dana and raised his hands to cast a spell.“Let’s see if your theory on call upon the shadows is correct.”

Dana saw Hyress withdraw to the Wizard’s tower, but not before issuing orders.“Hear me and obey, my creations.Scour this base and bring me the Sorcerer Lord!”

Scarecrows hurried to obey.Jayden had said the Inspired couldn’t make armies, and he was right, but they had made hundreds of scarecrows.The magic towers that had been watching for intruders now turned their leering faces toward the camp.

“One wizard against five isn’t good odds,” Dana’s father said.He and the other men didn’t look scared by the oncoming rush of enemies.Instead they were furious, as if Jayden’s arrival had been enough to tip already angry men over the edge.

Jayden cast his spell as a wave of scarecrows came into sight and screeched, drawing in still more.He finished the strange words and gestures completing the spell, and became the center of a vortex thirty feet across.Shadows across the base and the forest beyond poured toward him like rivers in flood, flowing around obstacles to reach him before circling him faster and faster.He looked surprised as shadows nearly hid him from sight.

“A Sorcerer Lord against five wizards is an even match, Mayor Illwind,” Jayden replied.“My thanks for your suggestion, Dana.”

Jayden reached out with his right hand, and the shadows swept over the approaching scarecrows.Their screeches ended as scarecrows were ripped to pieces, bone and wood snapping, gourds splattering across the ground, and old clothes torn to shreds.The kitchen behind them shook under the impact, and women inside cried out in fear.

“Get them out of there!” Jayden ordered.He ran into the open and blasted a second group of scarecrows, tearing them apart and scattering their remains.

“We can’t leave your friend,” her father said.He leaned in closer to Dana.“Boyfriend?”

“What?No!”

“I’m not judging, I’m just asking.”

 Dana blushed.“Don’t worry about Jayden.”

“Just the man I wanted to see!” Jayden called out, offering a welcome distraction from the awkward conversation.Dana turned and saw the Inspired fire wizard flee behind a storehouse.Jayden sent a storm of shadowy bolts at him that ripped the building open.The fire wizard lashed out with a burning bolt that Jayden swatted from the sky with his shadows, but that gave the fire wizard time to escape to the wizard’s tower.

Dana and her people ran to the kitchen.They found her mother and seventy other women staring in awe as Jayden shredded more scarecrows.Dana hugged her mother and shouted, “We have to get out!Everyone come with me!”

Dana’s mother was in her forties, strong from years of hard work.She looked surprised for a few seconds before grabbing a meat cleaver from a table.“We need to stop the wizards.Dana, you don’t know what they’ve done.We can’t leave them here.”

They saw a wave of shadows shoot across the Inspired base, hitting a mob of scarecrows head on and obliterate them.Dana pointed at the carnage and said, “We can’t get you caught in that.Jayden, bring down the fence!”

Jayden must have heard her over the roar of battle, for his next attack hit the fence.A veritable tidal wave of shadows shot through the air to tear briars apart and collapse stone fenceposts.Three magic towers shot fire and ice at the incoming attack before shadows swept over them.They resisted the overwhelming assault for four seconds before breaking open like eggs.

“Everybody out!” Dana shouted.She ran alongside them as they fled.Dana saw men stop to grab hammers and crowbars from a shed.She didn’t know why until scarecrows from outside the fence ran toward them.They’d have to fight their way out.

Dana raced ahead of the fleeing crowd and met the enemy charge.A scarecrow leaped at her with its clawed hands reaching for her throat.She ducked under its hands and rammed into it before driving Chain Cutter through its chest.It shrieked and burned away in time for her to see the rest coming.Dana sidestepped around one and hacked off its right leg.It fell to the ground, and she took off its head with another swing.

More scarecrows mobbed her.She impaled one when it tried to grab her, and kicked away a second.She raised her sword to strike it when her father ran in with a crowbar and broke its knees.

“Get away from my daughter!”He hit his fallen foe so many times it came apart.“No one hurts my little girl!”

“Dad, I had that one!”

Dana’s mother swung her meat cleaver into a scarecrow’s head.“Don’t argue with your father.”

Five hundred men and women struck the scarecrows like an avalanche.Scarecrows fought savagely, but were so outnumbered it didn’t matter.Men and women Dana had known her entire life fought with skill she’d never known they had.Another scarecrow patrol tried to strike from the right.They got within thirty feet before the goblin mob ran from the forest and attacked.Goblins piled on scarecrows, punching, hitting and even biting as they took the abominations apart.

“We’ve got this!” the goblin leader told Dana.“Go!”

Dana looked back at the Inspired base.Shadows were being drawn in to a whirlpool of darkness.Magic towers fired ice javelins into the ebony storm, only for the javelins to be swept aside by a blast of shadows.Jayden’s counterattack ripped open a magic tower.The necromancer vomited a stream of black acid twenty feet long at Jayden, but the shadows hid him so well the attack missed.Jayden’s retaliation flattened the kitchen next to the necromancer, forcing the Inspired wizard to flee.

“Where are the Inspired going?” she asked.Why weren’t they defending their base?It took her only seconds to come up with the answer.Jayden was devastating everything in his path, causing more damage than she’d ever seen from him.The Inspired were evil, not stupid, and weren’t even going to try facing him alone.They’d gather together and combine their power.Was he a match for them?

“I’m going back for Jayden,” she told her parents.“Keep everyone heading for home.”

“It’s too dangerous,” her father said.

A red flash inside the tower caught their attention.The light grew in intensity and formed a ring.She was right.They hadn’t been able to stop the wizards individually, and now the Inspired were going to face Jayden at their strongest.

“He and I are the only ones who can beat them,” she told her father.“If we fail, they’ll come after Northlight and kill everyone.They can’t risk us warning Meadowland about what they’ve done.”

Her father stared as the ring of light growing stronger.Dana could see his concern for her and his people, the men and women he’d led for decades.His family, his neighbors, everyone he cared for was in grave danger.

“Get them home,” Dana told him, and ran back to the battle.

Dana reentered the Inspired base to find utter carnage.Wood buildings were flattened.Bits of scarecrows littered the ground.Magic towers were now rubble piles.One remaining tower shot fire into the vortex of shadows.A beam of shadows answered and split the tower down the middle.

“Jayden!”

“Here!” he called back.She could barely see him inside the swirling shadows.

She ran up to the dark vortex around him.“The Inspired finished their binding spell.”

“I fired at two of them, but they escaped.I’m sorry, Dana.You need to leave.”

“You’re not fighting them alone!”

The ring grew brighter, and Hyress’ taunting voice called out, “We’re waiting.”

He told her, “If I kill one, they will lose control of the binding spell, and the explosion will kill me.If I lose, they will come after Northlight.Go.Tell your family to scatter and spread the word to anyone who will listen about what King Tyros made possible.”

Thinking fast, she said, “We’ll win if we exhaust them.When they attacked the ball, you stopped one of their spells with one of yours.Make them use all their magic.”

“That’s incredibly risky.”

“It’s our best chance, and I’m not leaving.”Dana took a deep breath and said, “Armor, please.”

Jayden cast a spell, and shadows around him formed armor that snapped in place over Dana.“You’re a good woman, Dana.The best I’ve met.”

Dana and Jayden marched to battle, her in black spiky armor and him surrounded by shadows.Rivers of darkness flowed into the vortex around him, replacing shadows he’s used to flatten the abominations of the Inspired.Together they went to the only entrance into the wizard’s tower.It was surprisingly large, wide enough for four men to walk through at once.

What they saw inside shocked them.There were no interior walls or ceilings for a second floor.Instead there was a wide open space filled with destroyed golems, and Dana recognized them all.In the back was Wall Wolf, the iron golem’s armor plates stripped off to reveal its inner workings.Next to it were pieces of stone golems they’d destroyed when they’d defeated Victory’s Edge.Lastly were timber golems she’d destroyed protecting Zentrix.

Hyress stood at the center of a ring of wizards.Dana recognized the necromancer and earth wizard from the ball, and the plant wizard from when they attacked the prison mine.The fire wizard was a new one.All five were wreathed in fire that didn’t burn them.A ring of blazing red light connected them, but it was strongest around the earth wizard.

“I was admiring your handiwork,” Hyress said casually.“There is such elegance to your brutality.You know the exact amount of savagery to crush your enemies before moving on to the next one.Not a move or spell wasted.I really must thank you for stopping when you did.You made our success possible.”

“Stop gloating and kill them,” the necromancer said.“The foul spirits say he’s never far from his spell tablets.We’ll recover them after he’s dead.”

“Patience, friend,” Hyress replied.“I bargained hard with Tyros to obtain your victims.We’d never been able to study golems before.Dwarfs guard their secrets jealously.These carcasses helped us learn some of their magic to make our scarecrows and sentry towers.Do you appreciate the irony, Sorcerer Lord?You despise us, and your victories made us massively more powerful.”

Jayden gave Hyress and his followers a contemptuous glare.“It is a correctable mistake.Goodbye, Hyress.You won’t be missed.”

The earth wizard sneered and cast a spell that pulled bricks out of the wizard’s tower.They formed a brick giant similar to the one they’d used at the ball, but this one formed much faster.In seconds a giant thirty feet tall stood in front of them.It made a grumbling sound and raised a foot to step on Jayden.

Jayden sent a wave of shadows at it, crushing the raised leg to powder.The brick giant swayed as it struggled to keep its balance.Dana ran in and slashed Chain Cutter across its remaining ankle.The brick giant tipped over and shattered.The Inspired stared in terror at their fallen creation.

“Where are your boasts?” Jayden asked as more shadows flowed to him.“You would conquer the world?Your arrogance and stupidity are staggering.You should have fled Meadowland after our first battle.Now you will never leave.”

“Kill him!” Hyress screamed.

The earth wizard’s spells pulled more bricks up to form three tentacles fifty feet long and five feet thick.They rose high into the air before coming down like battering rams.Dana dodged one and sliced into it with Chain Cutter until it came apart.Jayden stood his ground and fired straight up, shattering the other two.

“What’s wrong with you?” the plant wizard screamed at the earth wizard.“Kill him!”

“He wasn’t using this spell last time!” the earth wizard cried out.He formed a pile of soil and broken bricks ten feet high and twenty feet across that he sent charging across the wizard’s tower.Jayden blasted it with streams of shadows that pushed it back, but every piece he took off was quickly replaced.

“I’ll show you how it’s done,” the necromancer spat.“To me, vyrm!”

The necromancer’s call was answered when the bone serpent slithered over the top of the unfinished tower.Countless bones were fused together to make the hideous serpent, and it opened a mouth made from human skulls with broken femurs in place of fangs.It hissed and slid down toward Jayden.

Jayden couldn’t face it and the Inspired at the same time.Dana ran in front of the skeletal monster as it neared him.The monster reared up and lunged at her.Chain Cutter sang hymns of praise and lit up like a bonfire.Dana dodged the bite, and the serpent closed its massive jaws on rubble from the fight.She slashed at it and cut deeply into its side.Bones burned at Chain Cutter’s touch, and the serpent pulled back screaming.

“I told you not to waste time with that degenerate toy!” the plant wizard snarled.

The serpent was wounded, not defeated, and tried to race around her to strike Jayden.She chased after it and leapt onto its back.Her armor burned it, but the real damage was when she drove Chain Cutter deep into its side.The serpent bucked like an angry steer and nearly threw Dana off.

“What made you think you stood a chance?” Jayden demanded as he directed the shadow vortex into streams of destruction.“We killed an iron golem!We destroyed an army of the dead!What made you think you petty, pathetic excuses for men were a threat?”

“Get us out of here, Hyress!” the necromancer shouted.

“Yes, Hyress, fly away!” Jayden yelled.“Let me tear you from the sky!”

“Your threats don’t impress me,” Hyress snarled.“That’s the most powerful spell I’ve seen you use, but I can tell how much it taxes your strength.You’re running out of magic to power it.How long until you have none left?”

Dana held on to the serpent with one hand and kept stabbing.It thrashed about, trying to dislodge her as both her sword and armor burned it.Fires raged from the serpent’s center to both ends.Bones burned like kindling, and the serpent screeched as it was consumed.In seconds the fifty foot monster was cremated, and Dana dropped to the floor.

Shadows finally split through the mound of soil and bricks, tearing it asunder.Jayden bared his teeth in a snarl, then suddenly looked surprised.He burst out laughing.“Was that all you had?Three overpowered spells?”

Dana wasn’t sure what he was talking about until she saw the red circle running between the wizards was nearly gone.What had been a torrent of power was now a pale, flickering light tethering them together.The Inspired were viably weaker, their faces pale and fingers twitching.Her plan was working!

“We aren’t finished,” Hyress replied.He took the death bond from inside his robe and clenched it in his hands.There was a flare of light as the sapphire and silver choker was vaporized.Inspired wizards screamed in pain as the light connecting them shot back to full intensity.The light was brightest around the fire wizard when Hyress yelled, “Pylath, sear the flesh from their bones!”

Hyress’ order went unanswered.While the red light was most intense around the fire wizard, he was bent over clenching his stomach.“Hyress, you idiot!”

Jayden lashed out at them with shadows.The light from the binding spell grew in intensity around the earth wizard, who caused bricks to form a thick wall between Jayden and the Inspired.He nearly split the wall, but the earth wizard caused tons of dirt to surge into the tower.It swallowed Jayden and his shadow vortex whole.

“No!”Dana charged the wizards, only to be mobbed from behind by three scarecrows.One grabbed her right arm to keep her from using Chain Cutter while the other two pounded on her with their fists.She struggled under their assault.

Dana drove her left hand into a scarecrow’s leg, then pulled hard until she tore it off and the scarecrow fell.She shoved into the scarecrow holding her right arm until she rammed it into the tower wall, driving the sharp spikes of her armor deep into it.Her armor burned it until it crumbled away, freeing her arm to stab the last one.The scarecrow she’d crippled crawled toward her until she stabbed it through the back to destroy it.

“Kill the girl!” Hyress ordered.

“I can’t!” the earth wizard screamed.Both his arms reached toward the huge mound of dirt, and he made squeezing motions with his hands.“He’ll break free if I stop!”

Dana’s eyes went from one wizard to the next, ready for them to rain death on her, but none of them attacked.“Wait, you can’t use more than one spell at a time, can you?One guy gets all the power.The rest can’t do anything but watch.Well watch this!”

Dana ran straight at the earth wizard with her sword raised over her head.He screamed and –

SPLAT!

The dirt mound exploded, spraying everyone with filth.Dana stopped her charge to scrap dirt off her helmet so she could see.When her vision was clear, she saw Jayden rise up from the remnants of the mound with an expression of rage, his eyes narrowed, his teeth bared.Shadows spun around him, casting off the last specks of dirt.

“You’re weakening again,” Jayden snarled.He lashed out at the stone wall with his shadows.The earth wizard reinforced it, but Jayden wore it down faster than his foe could rebuild it.“Your pooled magic is spent.How many magic items do you have to sacrifice to power your spell?Whatever the number is, it’s not enough!”

Jayden was right.The red ring linking the Inspired wizards was dimming again.Hyress looked at his fellow wizards and found them in agony, the fire wizard moaning in pain and the others little better.The stress of the binding spell was too much.When they’d cast only one spell or two, they’d managed it, but not without suffering.Today they’d cast five.It was more than they could handle.If they kept on like this it might be more than they could survive.

Dana’s eyes locked onto the weakening red ring.There wasn’t much power left in the binding spell.If it failed now there would be no explosion, or at least nothing critical, but she had to stop them before they refueled the spell with another magic item.Even now Hyress was going through his pockets.

The wizards were weakening, but still surrounded in fire.She had enough experience with magic not to risk touching those flames.Maybe she could strike the ring itself.Chain Cutter had hurt Wall Wolf, so it should be able to cut through a spell.

Dana charged.The necromancer saw her and screamed.Jayden continued blasting the stone wall and had nearly torn it down.Dana raised her sword and swung at the red ring flowing between the wizards.Her blade came down as Hyress drew a wand from inside his robes and clenched his hands around it, consuming the wand.The red ring charged it back to full power, and Dana couldn’t stop her swing in time.

There was a thunderous roar as Chain Cutter severed the red ring.Bolts of purple lightning arced across the room, gouging deep furrows into the stone.One hit Dana and threw her back ten feet.The wizards screamed.

“Hyress, get the spell under control!” the plant wizard screamed.

Hyress stared in horror at the glowing light.If there was a way to stop the spell, he didn’t try.Instead he reached into his robes, pulled out a silvery rod and pointed it to the sky.He shot into the air, leaving the others behind.

“Dana, get out!” Jayden yelled.

The red light grew still brighter.Dana was sure the binding spell was going to explode like Jayden had worried it would, and it was doing it now.There wasn’t time to run.She had her shield amulet.That might protect her, but she was too far away from Jayden to protect both of them, if it even could.She called out, “Save my life!”

There was a flash when the shield amulet took effect, and a grayish dome six feet across formed over her.It was almost too dark to see through.She could barely make out Jayden behind the stone wall he’d been trying to break.

Then the binding spell failed.

The dome couldn’t keep out the unbearable light or deafening roar of the explosion.The brick floor beneath her feet shook and then cracked.Dana struggled to keep standing.She turned to Jayden and saw the stone wall protect him for precious seconds before it vaporized.He fired the entire vortex of shadows into the explosion, diverting the blast so it went around him like a river flowing around a rock.

Snap!Cracks formed in the dome protecting her.They spread and multiplied.A gravelly voice called out from her amulet, “Catastrophic failure imminent.Seek cover.”

There was no cover!Dana still had her magic armor.Could that resist the explosion?She’d seen Jayden’s magic armor fail before.Dana threw herself to the floor and covered her head with her arms.

The dome shattered, and Dana was hit by a wave of heat and force.It lifted her off the ground and sent her airborne.She landed twenty feet away and rolled across the floor until she went out through the tower’s entrance.The light dimmed, the thunder died away to a distant rumble, and with a final crackling sound the explosion ended.

“I, uh, Jayden?”Dana struggled to her knees.The sharp spikes of her magic armor had snapped or melted off.The armor dissolved into whisps of shadows.She was bruised, and it hurt when she stood up and walked.Chain Cutter had landed nearby, and she sheathed her sword.“Jayden?”

She heard the roar of flames around the wizard’s tower, and found the entire base ablaze.Every building was either totally destroyed or engulfed in fire.The pile of defective scarecrows burned and sparked purple bolts of lightning.The stacked up scarecrows not yet animated never would be as they burned.Only the wizard’s tower was left standing, but with breaches big enough to walk through.The earth wizard must have drawn out too many bricks for his spells, badly weakling the walls.

Dana heard coughing inside the wizard’s tower.She hobbled inside to find Jayden crouched down.The shadow vortex was gone, its power spent saving him.He stood up and rubbed his head.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“I’ll heal.”He put an arm around her shoulders.“We need to leave.”

“Hyress got away.Where are the other four?”Jayden didn’t answer and instead pulled her toward the entrance.“I know they’re evil, but they need our help.They must be hurt.”

He kept pulling her outside.“Come.”

“Where,” she began, and then she spun around, looking at the carnage around her.The pieces of timber golems were gone, burned to ashes.The stone golem parts were crushed to gravel.Wall Wolf was identifiable, but was red hot, and the inner workings fused together from head to toe.

The wizard’s tower was badly damaged, but had been sturdy enough to survive the blast.She couldn’t figure out why there were shadows on the walls.One, two, three, four of them, but she and Jayden were the only ones there.One shadow was missing an arm.

They weren’t shadows.The binding spell had released such enormous power when it failed, when she made it fail, that the four Inspired wizards had been totally destroyed.Those shadows were where the blast had burned their images into the wall.

She whispered, “I didn’t mean to.I swear, I, I…”

Jayden embraced her.“This isn’t your fault.They knew the risks, and kept taking them again and again.This was going to happen today, tomorrow or next week, but it was going to happen.They chose this course.”

“I killed them.”Dana dropped to her knees, tears pouring from her eyes, and she screamed.




Submitted: July 19, 2021

© Copyright 2021 ArthurD7000. All rights reserved.

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Comments

Deborah O'Carroll

The way Dana just yells at the monster in the water and it backs off. XD Ooh, I did not see that coming about the Baron! And Jayden and Dana's siblings meeting, aww!! I love it. "Unidentified female accomplice"--love that call-back. XD And I absolutely love the connections to the very first Dana and Jayden story! And wow, WHAT a finale! :O I don't even know where to start but it was absolutely epic! :O I'm not sure I remembered to breathe at all during that. O.o Loved this whole chapter so much!!

Tue, July 20th, 2021 4:16am

Author
Reply

I've got a little more to come to wrap things up. Then a month of editing.

Tue, July 20th, 2021 5:40am

TheresaVan18

Well done, Arthur. I'm not sure if I can add much more to what the other commenter has, but I can say that even in it's unedited form, this is one of your best to date.

Fri, July 23rd, 2021 4:48am

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