Chapter 17: A Path Lined With Dangers

"Bark. Bark!" Roughly, the young thief was shook awake.

He groaned and rolled over, going from sleep to awake entirely too quickly. "What?" he demanded, his words surprisingly clear.

Everen stared down at him. "We need to get going," he said. "Ashur's sent something strange after us, and I don't particularly want to be around when it decides to come to entertain us. Besides, I need to buy you two weapons, and we need better traveling clothes."

Bark's eyes brightened considerably, and he scrambled out of his nest of blankets with a grace and speed that seemed much too perky for that early in the morning. "We get weapons?"

"Only for self-defense," Everen cautioned. "I don't want you to poke an eye out or anything else important."

The young Char'alan pouted but said nothing further as he began to gather up his things.

This accomplished, Everen turned to Ket, who, almost as if she had anticipated an early rising, had curled up into a small ball, her blankets wrapped firmly around her and her mass of sleep-tousled auburn hair barely visible. Everen groaned to himself, and Bark glanced over then laughed.

"Good luck," the thief offered. "The last time I tried to wake her up early, she nearly bit me."

"Thanks," Everen retorted. Gingerly, he put a hand on Ket's shoulder—at least, he hoped it was her shoulder—and shook her slightly. There was no response. He shook her harder. Again, no response. Finally, getting fed up, he shook her quite hard.

An arm waved at him feebly. "Go 'way," Ket mumbled from somewhere underneath her blankets. " 's too early…"

The Dulamban rolled his eyes and suppressed a sigh. "I don't care, Ket. Get up. We need to go."

"No, we don't," she grumbled in response, burrowing deeper into her nest.

Everen turned his gaze skyward, and his lips moved as he silently formed words. With a startled yelp, Ket found herself hovering a foot above her bed.

"Put me down!" she screeched. He shushed her. She fell silent, but she glared at him with fierce intensity. Bark conscientiously moved out of the way.

"It's time to get up, Ketrine."

"Funny, I hadn't noticed," she muttered darkly.

He ignored her comment and lowered her gently to the floor. "We need to leave as quickly as we can," he told her, his mood now serious. "Ashur's sent something after us. I don't know what it is, only that it could probably prove fatal. I don't think any of us would particularly like to be around when it catches up to us, so I thought we should leave. I wanted to buy weapons for you two, anyway."

Ket's eyes widened. "Weapons? Everen, I'm more likely to cut myself than someone else!"

"I've seen you use your dagger; you'll be fine," he replied, a little flippantly. "Now, come on and get your things together. We're leaving in fifteen minutes."

They all fell to work gathering up their things and generally leaving the room as clean as they found it, reasoning that signs of a hasty departure would probably cause more suspicion than anything else they could do. Almost exactly fifteen minutes later, they were ready to leave.

Quietly, as it was still before dawn, they crept down the stairs and out the main door of the inn. There were still a few patrons up, but they were so far gone in wine that they wouldn't have noticed a dragon walking through the front doors.

"This way," Everen whispered to his companions as soon as they had left the building. "The stables are over here." Moving as quietly as they could to avoid rousing any unfriendly eyes, they made their way to the stables, a compound of large, whitewashed buildings with red tile roofs.

Rodor, the young man who had shown them to their rooms the previous night, was inside the stables and looked up as they entered. "You all are up early," he said evenly, his voice soft. The horse he was tending to nickered softly, and he shushed it with a gentle word and touch. "Pressing business elsewhere?"

"You could call it that," Everen answered. "Could you tell us where our mounts are? I have a white mare—Rina—and a brown horse."

Rodor nodded and gestured towards the far end of the stables. "They're both down there, safe and snug."

"Thank you." Everen bowed hurriedly and headed off in the direction of Rina and the brown horse. He glanced back once to find Rodor watching them with a strange, unreadable expression, but he thought nothing of it.

Quickly, he loaded up Rina and the brown horse, then motioned for Ket and Bark to mount. Remembering Mesenth's words the night before, Everen mounted behind Ket on Rina. She looked at him over her shoulder as he pressed against her but said nothing.

"We'll leave by the west gate," Everen told Bark. "From there, we'll take the main road out for about five miles. Keep your eyes open, all right?" The young thief nodded and nudged the horse into a walk. Everen followed.

They stopped only briefly before leaving the city. Everen halted them at an arms maker's stall and, after quick deliberation, purchased a pair of matched daggers for Bark and a thin, leaf-bladed dagger for Ket. Then he stopped at a clothier's booth and bought nondescript traveling clothes, not even bothering to haggle over the price. As soon as the purchases were made, he hustled them out of the city.

There was a little trouble with the guards, but a single flash of Everen's medallion had been enough to let them pass out of the city. The roads were relatively empty; only a few travelers, ones who had obviously been riding all night, were actually out, and most looked too exhausted to even remember riding into Richelan.

They rode in silence until about midmorning. The early dawn light had given way to a stronger one, and there were more people about. "Everen, where exactly are we going?" Bark asked finally as he maneuvered his horse around an old man on a donkey who knew where he was going and was not about to move aside for a young whippersnapper, no sir.

"Row'kilri," the Dulamban answered shortly. "We need the elvish prophecies badly." He glanced over at Bark and caught the thief's look of total incomprehension. "It's in northern Dulamba," he elaborated. "Elves live there. They're prissy, but they'll give us prophecies, all right?"

"What's got you in a snit?" Ket demanded, twisting around briefly to glance at him.

He glared at her. "No reason."

Bark snorted. "Pull the other one, Everen. You never snit without reason."

The Dulamban arched a brow. "And just what do you mean by that?"

Bark drew himself up angrily, hating to be condescended to, but Ket shushed them both with a simple question: "Isn't it about time we had something to eat?"

The two boys stared at her with almost identical expressions of confusion. "Eyes on the road, Everen," she reminded him archly, "and we didn't eat last night. Perhaps some food will ward off any future snittage?"

"There is no such word," Everen protested.

"There is now. Breakfast?"

Everen and Bark exchanged long looks. "I could do with some food," Everen admitted.

"Me, too," Bark conceded, albeit a bit grudgingly.

Ket smirked at them. "Let's find a spot to stop, then."

The boys looked at her, sure they were being had, but Everen gestured to a small grove of trees a few hundred yards ahead. "We'll stop there."

They rode off the main way when they reached the trees. Dismounting, they picketed the horses and Everen began to start a small fire while Ket and Bark looked through the food pack, trying to find something for breakfast. Ket found a slab of bacon and produced her dagger, and the slight, contented smile on her face as she held the weapon made Bark quite nervous. "Could you get me out one of the frying pans, Bark?" she asked. "Bacon sounds good, doesn't it?"

"Er, yes…"

Humming quietly to herself, Ket began to slice strips of bacon off of the hunk of meat. Everen watched her for a moment with a sour expression on his face before asking, "Why, exactly, are you so chipper?"

"Because I got tired of you being sullen," she answered with more heat than he expected. "I mean, I know we're doing something serious, but…why does that mean we have to be gloomy all the time?"

He stared at her, almost flummoxed by her question, but then his expression darkened. "Just because I happen to take the idea of saving the world seriously doesn't mean—"

Ket cut him off with a groan. "Everen, why do you assume this automatically? We take it as seriously as you do—"

"If not more," Bark interrupted, remembering his encounter with the Wind-Daughter.

"Exactly." Ket nodded in agreement. "But what's the point in being sullen all the time? You forget why we want to save anything in the first place. If you're all dark and cold, then you're just like what we're against, Everen. The world is beautiful and full of light. It only seems fitting to laugh and make merry while you can."

"And when did you become the voice of hope and goodwill?" Everen snapped. "You sit there and whine and mope about your life and how bad things are for you. Do you have any idea what it's like for anyone else? You mouth your pretty words, but your ears are closed to everything around you! The world cries out for help, Ketrine Row'an. It doesn't cry out for laughter or joy—it begs for aid! And you blind yourself to it and wrap yourself in this illusion that everything is good and pure when it isn't!"


Both Ket and Everen started, then turned to Bark, completely startled. The thief, his jaw set, almost shook with anger. "Stop fighting," he ordered. "You're not doing any good, squabbling like hens."

Everen opened his mouth to speak, but a fierce look from Bark stopped him. "Please, let's just eat. I'm tired of fighting all the time," the boy said.

There was silence for a moment. "I'm sorry," Ket said finally. When Everen didn't respond, she nudged him sharply in the ribs.

"Me, too," he added.

Bark smiled, a strange smile that seemed too old for him, and handed Ket the frying pan.

Fifteen minutes later, they were well into breakfast. As they ate, the mood lightened somewhat, though now a fine edge of apprehension was beginning to encroach on them.

"Let's get going," Everen said as soon as the dishes were cleaned and packed away. "I don't want to stay here any longer than we have to." His two companions nodded and quickly mounted. Before they made their way back to the main road, Everen beckoned Bark over. When the boy was near enough, the Dulamban reached out and traced a strange, asymmetrical symbol on his forehead. He repeated the procedure on Ket, then on himself. "It's for protection," he explained. "Let's go."

They got back on the main road, no one noticing the strange shadows that oozed along behind them.

Ashur lounged on his massive chair in the main room of his stronghold, staring pensively at nothing. A faint frown touched his brow, and his sublime face was troubled.

After Mesenth had told him of Everen's location, he was able to track the Dulamban. He knew now that Everen and his companions were headed to Row'kilri, presumably to see the Light Elves and to obtain the elvish prophecies. Once Everen had reached the forest, the balance Demian had carefully constructed would be destroyed. If that balance were to fall in favor of the light, then all of his work would be ruined.

But how to prevent that balance from being disrupted? He had little power to spare; his army took much of his energy to fuel those puppets of flesh. Idly, he drummed his pale fingers on the arm of his chair as he thought.

An idea began to form in his mind. He had developed a spell that would suit this situation quite nicely, and it could be triggered at any point in time. A slight smirk touched his lips. What made it even more fitting was that Mesenth would be needed to use it. Ashur was no fool; he knew that the half-elf had continued to have contact with the Dulamban. Now he could use that to his advantage.

With a wave of his ivory hand, he summoned a runner. "Find Mesenth Darkeve and tell him that I require his presence," he said, his tone bored. The runner bowed and left quickly. A few minutes passed, and then the runner returned with Mesenth in tow. The half-elf looked as though he hadn't slept for a week; dark shadows were smudged under his eyes, his face had a wan, gaunt cast to it, and faint stubble—full-blooded elves did not have facial hair, but it was not uncommon in half-elves—covered his cheeks and jaw. His clothes were rumpled, and there was an utterly hopeless look in his eyes.

"Ah, Mesenth," Ashur drawled. "So good to see you. Won't you sit down?"

Mesenth only stared at his master hollowly.

"I need your help with something," the Elfsbane continued urbanely. "I have to set up a little spell for Everen, but I'm afraid I don't have enough power for it. You'll have to set it up, I'm afraid."

For a moment, Mesenth's blank eyes flickered with pain, but he nodded in acquiescence.

Demian smirked again. "Good. Come to my rooms later; I'll have everything worked out for you by then."

The half-elf bowed and, without waiting to be dismissed, left.

Ashur sat in contemplation for a long while after Mesenth had departed. There was something about a plan that was so twisted that just appealed to him.

Not for the first time that month, Aren was jarred awake by the sound of battle.

Outside of Row'lan, The Star Tower, fighting continued much as it had for the past few weeks. No one was really sure who was fighting whom; the residents of the Star Tower knew only that they were defended their place of refuge, healing, and most importantly, knowledge.

"It's coming from within Greymare," Canarinth said from the doorway as Aren struggled with her clothes. She had not heard the captain approach, but that too was a part of life at Row'lan—the captain went where she pleased, when she pleased. "We haven't pinpointed where these fighters are coming from, but our money is placed on the Shieldsbane household."

"Do you mean that literally or figuratively?" the innkeeper asked as she yanked on her boots.

Canarinth strode in and glanced around a moment before replying, "Several of my trusted advisors have told me that there is a substantial betting pool concerning the origin of these troops," she said blandly, "and the most money is placed on the duke's family. I've been told that that money is further divided between Lyon, Orlath, and Larith, with the best odds on Orlath, second-best on Larith, and last on Lyon. No one seems to think much of that boy for some reason."

Aren finished tying her laces and looked up at the captain skeptically. "Sometimes, I can't tell if you're telling the truth or not."

"Then I'm doing my job well," the captain responded. "But I didn't come here to jest. The king is calling reserve forces. He's building an army."

"The king?" Aren's brows shot up. "He's a weakling! I don't even think I know his name…"

"It's Selwin," Canarinth said, "and he has power still, nevertheless. He's been calling forth all the able-bodied youth he can find."

Aren paled. "But that means…"

The captain's face was grim. "Aye. Our country quietly prepares for civil war."

"But why?" Aren burst out. "There's no reason to fight!"

"Orlath's been aiming for the throne ever since he ascended to the head of the duchy. Personally, I'm surprised that he didn't make a move sooner than this," Canarinth replied calmly. "What disturbs me are those reports we're getting out of our more…specialized forces." As a rule, Canarinth disapproved of magic, but she was not above using it to get the information she needed. "They're telling me that strange creatures are going about at night, and people are disappearing. That's not Orlath's style."

"Which means somebody else is working in Rebanda as well," Aren surmised.

The captain nodded. "And Orlath's looking for you and Ketrine as well," she told the innkeeper. "He doesn't know you're here, but it's only a matter of time."

A dark, cold feeling settled in the pit of Aren's stomach. Orlath looking for them could only mean trouble.

"I've doubled the guards around the tower. In such troubled times, it won't be that remarkable. We've got people on this," Canarinth promised. Aren nodded absently, her mind obviously elsewhere. The Captain of the Guard sensed this and left quietly.

Aren didn't notice. The duke after her daughter…and herself. What did he want? And more importantly, why did she feel like they were overlooking something important?


It felt strange to actually have it, to not have to depend on someone else for it. Experimentally, he clenched his fist, feeling the power crackle around it like lightning.

He glanced down once at the battered body of the maidservant that was sprawled in an undignified heap at his feet. "Lerc," the duke-heir called. The hulking man entered the room, his eyes impassive. Lyon knew that the man would think nothing, feel nothing; he had made certain it would be so. "Dispose of this," he commanded, nudging the corpse with his foot, "and then send one of the other maids to clean it up."

Lerc nodded mutely, crossed over to the maid's cadaver, and lifted it easily. As he turned to leave, Lyon made a strange gesture with his right hand. Bright light shot from his fingers and buried itself in Lerc's spine. The man let forth a guttural roar that was quickly silenced.

"Be swift, Lerc," Lyon said in mock good humor. The man left quickly, almost as if trying to escape.

The duke-heir waited until the man had gone before crossing over to the mirror that hung above his chest of drawers. He could almost see the power in his eyes now, just as Ashur had said. The more often he used the power, the stronger he got.

He smirked to himself and turned away, and his eyes flashed once, emerald green.

A/N: Okay, so I'm a bad person as far as procrastination goes. Sorry for making y'all wait so long. I should have 18 done in a couple of weeks; I actually feel like writing it, and I've got an outline, so it works.

Thanks go out to Sarah K., who knows who she is. Thanks for being so excited about TBoS even after all this time! I dedicate this chapter, short as it is, to you.