Dance of Swords

Winter’s chill is rising, a cold eternal blue. It breaks all bindings whether old or new. These are the last days of warmth when all heat does fade, leaving only ever-cold and a hard, steel blade. Then, do come warriors called to set the balance right. Yes, winter is rising, bitter, with the dawn. At light’s first strike, the Champion comes and, one by one, the twelve uphold their skill, their arms, their valor against his might. And so, let the Dance of Swords begin.~ archives of the Gods.

One

Rahshaya stood next to her cart, pulling on the oxen’s harness as she tried to get them to move. “Move, you stupid beasts.”

Harnek looked down from the seat and said, “Rahshaya, they are just tired. I know we have to make our delivery before nine bells, but beating the oxen won’t get us there.”

She had been irritated since yesterday. The right rear wheel had broken and it cost them half the day fixing it. She gave it one more attempt and shoved hard against the lead’s flank. It still did not move. “You stupid beasts!” she yelled, grabbing her prod. She poked the lead bull hard and he moved a step. “Oh, thank the Gods. Keep it up and I promise sweets for dinner,” she pleaded.

“Okay, you are right. They are moving again. Pull on their lead and keep them moving,” he begrudgingly said.

“It’s this road. The oxen don’t mind it but the cart does. It does nothing to help our progress,” she lamented.

“That and the press of people streaming into the city for First Days.”

“That is why I was pushing so hard to be here before today. Sigh, and to top it off, it is the first day of the festival. It’s hard going for everyone.” She both loved and hated First Days. First Days was the week-long period during the beginning of each season when taxes, fees, and permits were waived. The governor thought this policy would do wonders for business. It did. However, everyone seemed to wait until First Days to sell and purchase goods. This caused nothing but chaos with the flood of people coming into and going out of Sanctuary. The frenetic activity was maddening for everyone. “Good news is that we are almost there. In fact, I see the end of the line of people, trying to get in,” he said.

Getting excited, she jumped up on the wagon and stood on the seat to get a better view. What she saw did not lighten her mood. “I see the line, alright, but if its this long and its not even sunup yet, what does the inside of the city look like?”

“Probably worse. But at least we’re here without incident.”

“We’re not inside yet,” she commented.

“Oh, you worry too much. Who is going to bother a couple of people moving bags of clay. Nobody, that’s who. Remember a couple of days back? Those bandits took one look at what we were carrying and almost seemed disgusted they had even bothered to check us out.”

“You’re right,” she relented. “Still, it is my first time as lead merchant, and I don’t want to disappoint the counsel. Dad is one of the elders after all.”

“Don’t worry. He knows you will do fine. They all do. Even if there are some rough spots, they will overlook it.”

“I don’t want any rough spots. Sometimes wonder if First Days are even worth it.”

“Don’t say that in front of the counsel. They love the extra income it brings.”

“The long trek out of the mountains, down across the valley, and through the plains is rough, sure. They understand that. Worse yet is the fact that we to deal with all these people, and that, my friend, the elders don’t understand,” she said.

“Oh, come on. Its fun. Besides, because its First Days, there are more unusual people and things to buy. What are you thinking about buying?”

“I haven’t given it much thought really. I guess I’m too focussed on the delivery. Maybe, after we drop the stuff off, Adrella can show us around. It’s been too long since I’ve been here. You know I used to come all the time with Dad. Then, I started teaching, and my best student, Maldrig, goes off and sets up a shop here, and well . . . one thing led to another and I just haven’t had the opportunity to come back.”

“At least you have come the the city before. Look at me. I’ve only gone to the neighboring villages. By my standards, you are worldly.”

This made her laugh, and it broke her ill mood. “I’m not worldly, but I will tell you what I do hope.”

“What is that?” he asked.

“I hope this line moves quickly. I can’t tell from here if it is even moving or not,” she said. The traffic on the road seemed to move in only one direction, towards Sanctuary. As they got closer the roads were better maintained so the cart was able to pick up some speed. A few more minutes travel brought them to the back of the line.

“Now, the waiting begins,” he said.

Usually, the guards would wave anyone through who looked at least halfway decent or had wares to sell. They couldn’t clog the gates with simple things like making sure everyone entering was well intentioned. This would cause all sorts of riots. After they had been in line for ten minutes, it suddenly stopped moving. Frustrated with more delays she blurted out, “Why has the line stopped moving?” The first rays of dawn had just struck the town. She knew they had little time left to deliver, and now this. With a grumble, she peered toward the wall.

“You want me to jump down and go have a look?” he asked.

“No, I’ll do it.” The squelch of mud as she landed made her wonder if a cart or something was stuck in the mud and blocking the gate. When she was close enough, she could see a statue of a strange warrior blocking the gate. “Who would leave a statue where it fell?” she said to the air. As she approached the gate, she could see the flustered guard, attempting to deal with the crowd.

When she was close enough she heard him saying, “We will get this sorted out as soon as the troops come back with mules and ropes. We’ll be able to shift the statue at that point. Those of you who are on foot will find that you can pass thorough the gap between the statue and the gate. Those of you who have carts or wagons will have to wait or go around to one of the other gates.”

In unison, the crowd said, “Going around will take too long.”

The guard could sense that the crowd was getting out of control. “I have also sent for a squad of Stepsons to come to the gate to keep order.” This worked. Everyone seemed to find something else to do. The crowd dissipated until only Rahshaya was standing in front of the guard.

She didn’t know who Stepsons were, but they must be some kind of city guard. As she pondered what to do, an idea struck her. She walked to the gate and was checked through. As she passed the statue, she noticed its oddly carved armor and weapons. It was ridiculous. Nobody carried weapons like that or wore armor such as this. She began looking for someone trapped inside the walls who wanted to leave the city. Then, she spied a group of three merchants standing around an empty cart talking. She walked up to them and said, “Good morning, good sirs. I see you have an empty cart. Would you be trying to leave the city?” she asked.

The merchant wearing the brightest colors said, “Yes, we are, but that stupid statue is blocking the way, and we need our cart so we can go to the estate of lord Jezorl. Why do you ask?”

Smiling, she said, “I am in the same predicament, but my cart is stuck on the outside. Would you be willing to swap carts?”

Cheerfully, the tallest merchant said, “Kaldell, this could solve all of our problems. It will be ages before they move that statue, and you know lord Jezorl hates to wait.”

Looking at his companion, Kaldell said, “That is true, but her cart is probably junk.”

“Oh, no, good sir. It is a fine cart. In fact, it has extra strength. I am delivering clay from my village and the cart is in excellent shape. It has the strength to carry the extra weight of the clay, you see.” she argued.

“What does it hurt to at least have a look?” the tall one urged.

Kaldell spoke up, “Very well. It will not hurt. Nagaz, you stay with the cart,” he said to the short, fat merchant. “Come, Beshand, we will both go in case she is not honest.” They walked back through the gate and she led them to her cart.

As they approached, Harnek said, “What is going on?”

“The gate is blocked and we cannot get the cart through, but I have found these good merchants who have a cart in the city. We are going to swap carts.”

“If we like your cart,” Kaldell commented. Harnek set the brake and tied off the leads, then he stepped down to allow them to inspect the cart.

After a few minutes, the two looked satisfied. “It is a good cart.”

“Then we will transfer our clay to your cart and lead our oxen through the gate.” The whole process of transferring the clay took forty minutes. Both Harnek and Rahshaya were soaked with sweat even in the unusually icy chill of the first day of winter. When it was done, Harnek unhitched the oxen and she grabbed their belongings. “We are done, good sirs. The cart is yours.”

“We thank you. May your journey be swift and profitable,” Kaldell said. They left the merchants and moved through the gates. She walked up to Nagaz and said, “We are done, good merchant. The cart is yours. Your friends wait for you,” she said.

Looking to the gate, Nagaz saw Kaldell motioning for him to come. “Thank you. May your days be filled with goodness,” he said.

Turning to Harnek, she said, “We can go to the bazaar now.” They finished hitching the oxen to the cart and she took the reigns.

“You know the way better than I do, so you guide us there,” Harnek said.

“I will. Besides, I would like to swing through and see what is happening at the bazaar,” she said. As they passed through the bazaar on the way to the compound, she spied several friends setting up and others already at work. They motioned for her to come back later. “I will,” she called out to each group of friends. She said to Harnek, “We’re going to go through this section of the bazaar over to the artisan area. It is located just on the opposite side of the stream from the Red Lanterns district. Maldrig’s workshop will be the one located closest to the stream. You can’t miss it. We will be able to see the smoke stacks.”

They reached the artisan district in no time. The wall surrounding the artisan district was mostly there to keep thieves at bay, serving little to no actual defense. Stepping out of the gatehouse, “How may we serve you this fine day, young master, and who are you here to see?” the guard said as the cart came to a stop.

“I have a delivery of clay,” she said.

The man went to the side of the cart, lifted the cover, and checked its contents. “Do you know where to deliver it?”

“Yes. Along the south wall by the kilns.”

“Very good. Just follow the road to the left. You should see it easily,” he said, waiving them on.

When they pulled up, she noticed that, unlike the rest of the artisans, Maldrig’s yard required triple the space. This allowed him to display his wares on specially built shelves for the merchants who wanted large orders. In deference to the other artisans, he had acquired a large area at the back of the compound to reduce the smoke from his kilns bothering the other craftsmen.

As they entered the yard, one of Maldrig’s workers approached. “How may I serve you this fine day?”

“Hello. I have a delivery of clay. Where might I find Maldrig?” she asked. The servant could see this was a large delivery and well out of his position.

“Please, wait. I will tell the master you are here,” he said with a bow. He went behind the main workhouse, heading toward the ovens.

A woman came from inside the house waving and shouting, “You must move that. We are expecting . . . .” She stopped in mid-sentence as she spied Rahshaya. Instantly, a shout escaped from her, “Haaheeeyaaa!!! Rahshaya, come here,” she began moving to the cart.

Rahshaya jumped off the cart and ran to her. “Adrella, you warm my heart.” The two gave each other the hug of absent friends. “I thought you would be at the stall in the bazaar. Let me look at you. Has that husband of yours kept you fed?” Rahshaya said, holding her friend at arm’s length to inspect her friend.

“More than that,” she said displaying her expansive front as she smoothed her dress to show it.

“Oh wonderful!” Rahshaya said, overcome with joy. “How long?”

“I am seven months,” she said proudly. The glow and her midriff were now apparent to any who looked.

“I had not heard,” she said, a slight sadness creeping into her voice.

Sensing something, Adrella said, “We have not announced.”

“You could have told me,” Rahshaya said, her face turning serious. Her arms moved to her hips to emphasize this point.

“Yes, yes. Of course, we were going to tell you, but you know how time gets away from you. We just hadn’t gotten around to it.” Stress crept into her voice.

Rahshaya sensed it. Trying to change the subject, she said, “Come meet my partner, Harnek.” They walked over to the cart where he was standing. “Harnek, this is one of my dear friends, Adrella. Adrella, this is Harnek.”

“Hello,” he said bowing slightly.

“A pleasure to meet you, Harnek. Have you been to Sanctuary before?” she asked.

“No. It is more than I can comprehend. So many people in one place. All that activity. So much to look at,” he stammered.

They both laughed at his reaction. “You get used to it quickly. I hardly ever notice it, except during First Days. You must be tired after such a long journey. Come inside and relax. I can have the cook make some fresh tea.”

“We will, but first we must get the clay to your husband. I promised delivery no later than nine on the first day of First Days. Do you think he will be mad that I am an hour late?” Rahshaya’s concern of disappointing the counsel was clear. They had let this run be her first delivery, even though she was so young.

“Don’t worry about it. I am sure that you are not so late that he will be mad, and if he is, I will take care of him. You know men are easy to work. You should get one.” A smile sprang upon her face, thinking about her husband.

“I will come and see you after we see Maldrig.” Rahshaya said, ignoring the comment about obtaining a husband.

“The pot is on as soon as I get inside,” she said, smiling. They left with the cart to find Maldrig.

He spied them coming long before they saw him. Instantly, he stopped what he was doing. Grabbing a cloth, he wiped his hands clean and then the sweat on his forehead. As he walked toward them, a false frown formed. “You are late,” he said, his deep voice boomed across the yard.

“And you are ugly,” she said, coming up to him. “Admit it, clay head, I have fulfilled our contract. Come, I will buy you a drink with your money.” The workers around him stopped working in amazement. Nobody talked to Maldrig like that.

“I will do no such thing. Your father and I had an agreement.” The small smile sprouting on his face gave away his true feelings.

“That was then and this is now. I will also tell Adrella if you do not agree that our contract is fulfilled, and I want leeway because you did not tell me the good news. Besides, you should give your master leniency. I still might be holding out some secrets.” She tapped her head with a finger to stress this.

His shoulders slumped. “You have me. I agree. Your delivery fulfills our pact, late though you are. I’ll take care of the unloading. Who is this young man with you?” he asked.

“This is Harnek. He accompanied me from the village.”

“Well, your father knew you needed a nanny,” countered Maldrig. He let out a gut laugh. Harnek did, too.

“Very funny,” she said sourly.

After the two had stopped laughing, he continued, “You two need to go see Adrella or she’ll have my hide. But first, tell me about what you brought.” His eager desire was evident as he ran his hand through his hair.

“I brought ten red bags of normal clay, five green for porcelain, three yellow for that new process I wrote to you about, and ten blue to make those items for the mages’ requests. As a special treat, I brought two purple bags, but now I see they must be a life gift. Let your workers unload the cart and join us in the house.”

“I would like to, but I am in the middle of something and would rather not stop or I would join you three. You know how it is,” he said apologetically. Shooing her towards the house, he turned back to the ovens and their long overdue attention.

“We will see you in a bit then?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. Then, he spied a worker who needed gentle guidance. Moving toward the errant worker, he said, “You stupid idiot! How many times do I have to tell you greenware is fragile? Only carry two pieces at a time.” His loving remonstrance did not go unnoticed.

As they walked toward the house, she said, “Harnek, I am thirsty and I know you are. Let’s go see what if that tea Adrella promised is ready.”

“Maybe, something stronger?” he wondered. “I could use a bite to eat as well,” he said.

“Oh, I didn’t tell you. They have one of the best cooks employed here. She is legendary for her unique concoctions. I suspect she has been told of our arrival and is making something special for us.” As they entered the house, the fresh smell of herbs assailed them and she knew Kahshta was working hard. “Smell that, Harnek?”

From around the corner, Adrella came upon hearing the door. “There you two are. I was just about to send one of the servants to fetch you. Rahshaya, would you like the porch or the garden?”

“Oh, I think that the porch, but the one by the kitchen. It is a little cold for my tastes and it will be warmest there.”

“Too cold? You live in the mountains.” She began walking down the long hall dividing the house in half. She stopped at the yellow door at the end of the hall that led to the kitchen and entered. “How can it be too cold? Everything in the mountains is cold. Brr,” she said. She opened the door with a creak, revealing three women working hard at various tasks.

“I guess we never discussed it before, but our valley in the mountain is special. The hot springs and volcanic action keeps us warm year round, while also providing us ample water.

The women did not stop working when the three entered. Adrella headed for the back door and Harnek followed, but Rahshaya paused to say hello to the famous cook. Harnek glanced back, watching the two give each other a warm hug and chatt.

Adrella paused after opening the door, saying, “Mona, please bring the hot teas out to us and also a brandy for the young man. He looks like he could use it.”

“Yes, miss.”

“Kahshta, when will lunch be ready?” she called down the back hall that led to the pantry.

Coming out of the pantry, Kahshta said, “I will have everything, rushed as it is, ready in thirty minutes or so. It will be one of my finest.” Her big smile told of a seasoned veteran in the kitchen who knew before the meal was even finished that it would indeed be marvelous.

“You never have the bloat after,” she replied to the overly large cook. “Could you make it an hour? I think our guests would like to rest before eating, but a small snack of cheeses and breads would be wonderful.”

“How about some fruit, too?” Kahshta commented.

Delight lit up her face. “Perfect!” she said, smiling. She led the way out back. They were already relaxing when Rahshaya came out. He was in the swing and Adrella was lounging in one of the chairs. “Ah, here we are. I asked Kahshta to bring us out a small snack and I thought that lunch should be ready in an hour, so we have time to relax.” The door opened just as she sat down and one of the servants came out with the hot tea and the brandy.

Seeing the brandy, Harnek said, “Just what I need,” pointing to the large, glass container.

Looking directly at Harneck, she asked “Is this your first long trip?”

“It is. I have never journeyed beyond the three villages.” He stopped swinging and sat forward.

“How did you find the trip?” she asked.

“I was not too worried. After all, I am schooled in diplomacy and trade. Besides, we were not carrying much that brigands would want.”

“I know you were excited. Rahshaya, how is the tea?”

“Yes, I was. I am eager to prove to the counsel that I am old enough to make deliveries. Father was against it,” Rahshaya said.

“He sure was,” Harnek said. “This brandy is wonderful. Thank you for it.” She nodded, enjoying his warmth.

“Father had to relent when I called age of ascension. Besides, he knew I was right,” Rahshaya said.

A look of confusion formed on Adrella’s face as she said, “I thought that you had decided to learn the truth of clay?”

“I did and I am still doing so,” Rahshaya said.

“Then why are you so excited about making deliveries?” she asked. The door opened and the servant carrying the snack came out. “Please set it on the table nearest Harnek,” she said, pointing toward him.

“Yes, Mrs.,” the servant replied.

After the servant had left, Rahshaya continued, “I am excited because I get a chance to travel and to learn from others. Oh, I know that father believes it to be but a distraction. I see it as an opportunity. Just think of all those other places I can go. Oh, the places!” she said with relish.

“And the danger,” Harnek chimed in, gesturing with his glass.

She turned looking crossly at him. “What is the reputation of Sanctuary in our village?”

“It is a den of cutthroats led by a wicked overlord. All know this,” he replied.

“What do you think now?” she countered.

“From what I have seen, and I intend to see much more, I think that maybe our village has the wrong of it.”

“Could it be that many of the rumors about other villages and towns are similarly conflated? Could it also prove true that the rumors of danger on the roads are equally just that–rumors?” Her hackles were up now and she had moved to sit at the edge of her chair.

Sensing that she was fixed in her opinion, he paused, but then said, “Yes.”

“Ha! So there is no need to overly worry about it.”

Interjecting herself into the point, Adrella said, “Yes, dear, but you still need to have caution. There are dangers out there. Simply because you did not encounter them does not mean they are illusionary.”

“See, just like I said,” Harnek said, switching his opinion.

“I know that. But father would have me hide in the clay pits and never leave the village simply because I am his daughter. That is wrong. I need to explore and get out,” Rahshaya said.

“Yes, but to what end?” Adrella asked.

“Like I said, Harnek, if I am to truly learn the secrets of clay, I need to learn not only what our village knows but also what other villages and towns know. Try the white and blue cheese it is wonderful. Adrella where did you get it?”

“One of the local goat farmers also makes cheese. I love it. But he doesn’t make it often. Is this argument what sold your father on letting you make this delivery?”

“Indeed.” They chatted for roughly an hour before being called in to eat. The formal dinning room was not being used. Instead, Adrella had the servants prepare the family nook just off the living room for the four of them. Maldrig was sitting in one of the easy chairs waiting for them.

“There my lovely wife is. How did you fare with the cheese?”

Coming over, she stretched out her hand, beckoning him to lead the way to the table. He stood and led them. As they were arranging themselves, she said, “Everyone loved it, especially the Gambrie.”

“I knew it. It’s the favorite of most people. A shame he does not make it more often,” Maldrig lamented. “Tell me, Harnek, what are your plans now that you are here?”

“Oh, I want to visit the shopping place,” he said nodding.

This made Maldrig chuckle slightly. “It’s called the bazaar.” He wiped his mouth to hide most of his laughter.

“Yes, the bazaar. I hear they have many wonderful things from all over the land. I want to purchase some of these items.”

“Well, I will send you out with Pagor, our best bodyguard. He can also help you haggle. Listen to him and only go to the bazaar or the Red Lantern district and you should be fine. And you, master?” he asked.

“I thought I’d help Adrella a bit before I head back. However, your tone tells me you have something. Out with it.” she demanded.

“Oh, all right. I never could get anything past you. I have a project I want you to see and maybe get some advice?” he hoped.

“How could I resist helping my best student, but advice only,” she warned.

“When can I go to the bazaar?” Harnek asked.

“Can you spare Pagor?” Adrella asked.

“Yes, I have no deliveries to make and nothing special is happening. You can go right after lunch if you like.”

Harnek nearly jumped out of his chair at the news. That would be so wonderful. Thank you.” They finished lunch and, over small talk and gossip, they had Pagor sent for. He came and led Harnek off to the stables to get a donkey to take with them on the advice of Rahshaya. “Will he be alright?” she asked Adrella.

“He will be well guarded. Maldrig knows Pagor will protect him very well.” She nodded toward the stalls. I suspect your young friend is in for an interesting time. I do hope Pagor takes him to the Red Lantern district,” she said.

“Me as well. Every man needs what they provide. Plus, it calms the blood,” Rahshaya said.

“And helps prevent this,” she said pointing to her belly. At this, both women began laughing.

In the palace, a very different story was unfolding. “My Prince, we have asked at the temples, and so far, none of them have reported ordering statues,” the burgundy-robed official said.

“They have to be coming from some place. People don’t just dump twelve masterworks around the city. Have the men had any luck moving them?” the Prince asked.

“None. It is as if they are part of the ground. Only the Gods know.”

An idea struck Prince Kadakithis. Standing, he said, “Unless…it is not of the Gods’ making. Enas Yorl, the recluse wizard, may know.” Turning to his chamberlain, he said, “Extend an invitation to him. No, wait! I will go to him. Captain,” he said, pointing, “make ready for the trip in ten minutes.” The captain bowed and with haste began the process of getting the Prince’s guard ready. Ten minutes later, with little fanfare, the procession moved through the streets only to halt at the doors of the powerful wizard. One of the guards hesitantly knocked. After a short delay, the door silently swung open and, without moving a limb, a grey robed figure glided into view. Of its face only glowing red eyes could be seen floating in a sea of blackness so dark that it seemed to swallow all light. The figure recognized the party. Digging in its tattered drapery, it retrieved a folded parchment and extended it toward the prince. A single phrase, For the Prince, was scrawled on its front. The being spoke the words on the letter like a burden of infinite weight. Its hoarse, ethereal voice set a chill in every man within hearing.

Be it demon or cursed man, the Prince cared not. He boldly marched forward and took the letter. Upon his touch, the paper sparked green, though nothing untoward happened. The cloaked figure, having been relieved of its mighty burden, slowly floated back into the courtyard from which it had come. The door closed unaided after its passing. Rapidly, the prince opened the letter. It read: My Prince, do nothing. These are the days when subterranean law becomes visible. In this ur-ritual, I will not partake. I am only to return with the sun. Handing it to the captain, he said, “Do nothing?”

“If the Gods are silent and the magician is, too, then we should, as well, fall silent,” Aragiss, his personal advisor, said. “You well remember the tattooed man. Then, too, Enas Yorl counseled you to remain neutral.”

Pausing, the prince recalled that time. “Ah, yes, he did,” he said, trying to sound authoritative.

“And you remember what happened to the Hellhound Donic?”

I do, he thought with slight unease at the memory. At the time, Donic was one of the Prince’s elite guardsmen, and he had been slaughtered with ease by a man who walked out of the so distant past that most would call him a myth. “Enas Yorl spoke of ur-magic then, too. What then?” the Prince asked. A light sheen of sweat covered his upper lip in the icy wind.

“It seems that Sanctuary is once again host to forces best left alone,” Aragiss said.

With a heavy sigh, Kadakithis said, “Very well, I will wait and watch for now. Come, let us leave the steps of this house that is best left undisturbed. Captain, warn the men to discreetly investigate anything odd, and to track it, and report it, but to not interfere.

“In anything, my Prince?” inquired Heggish.

“No. Only in anything that is odd or unusual, even in the slightest,” Kadakithis said.

“Yes, my Prince,” his captain said.

“In other words, my Prince, do nothing, but don’t look like we are doing nothing,” replied the captain.

“Yes, astute of you,” he said patting the man on the back. “That is why you are the captain of the the guard,” said Kitty Kat in all seriousness.

For now, thought Captain Heggish.

“Aragiss,” the Prince said, pausing to look to his senior adviser, “take care of warning the temples and the town.” With a flourish of his heavy, furred cloak, he strode off into the falling snow.

The captain turned to Aragiss and the men. “First Days should prove interesting this season, eh?”

“At least, Heggish, if not all winter season,” Aragiss replied, while thinking of the tattooed man. The party set a brisk pace to catch up to the Prince. An air of unease at what may lay in store for Sanctuary hung over the group the whole way back. The sun has not even set on the first day of winter, Aragiss thought.

As night crept into town, whispers and rumors crept into ears. One pair of ears belonged to Hashtel the merchant. His brother was one of the folk who walked in the shadows for a living. They both were heading for the Tit and Whistle, the only true competitor of Sly’s Place. Although not equal to the Vulgar Unicorn in danger, it was more dangerous than Sly’s Place. Many dark plans grew fruit here as men drank frothy mugs. The Tit and Whistle was located on the southeast edge of the maze. This made it convenient to frequent for fishermen, merchants, and the Maze’s regulars. It had one thing of note–its barkeep. Lag the barman had only one arm, but he managed to keep the drinks flowing and a muted tension. He didn’t mind a fight or two. “Pitch the dead out back for the Cartman comes in the morn’,” he was fond of saying. He got coppers for the dead. He also thought the tension helped keep the drink orders coming. It did. Some said Lag could kill better with one arm than most who had two. The brothers stepped through the door. Lag nodded, as did a few others. They sat to discuss Nameth’s dark plans. “I tell you, they have sacks of gold and real weapons. I’m not hurting anyone. Just going to lighten the burden of a few statues.”

“I am telling you, don’t do it. They say those statues are cursed. I don’t like it. Gold or no, find safer pickings,” Hashtel moaned to his brother.

Nameth waved his hand in dismissal. “Ah, you worry too much. Come watch my back if you are concerned. I want to do it tonight before someone else has the same idea,” Nameth said, chuckling. About an hour after sunset, the two, emboldened by drink, set off for the bay where one of the statues reportedly stood. The waves lapped at the shore between Fisherman’s Row and the long pier. At the edge of the water, a tall statue of a warrior clad in armor of an unknown land stood. The shield looked strange and from it hung chains. The weapon gripped in the opposing hand looked to be a large sword, but, where the pommel should end, a wicked looking, curved blade three feet long extended. Chains adorned with hooks hung from the guard. Long hair flowed from beneath the half helm, which, too, was adorned with chains. Around the figure’s middle were wrapped chains as well. As the two men came out from the buildings down to the shore, they spied it. When they reached the statue, Hashtel said, “I tell you, we must go.” He could not dissuade his brother.

“Whether from Gods or man, they have left a fine purse just as I have heard. See it swing in the ocean breeze?” he said, pointing. Oddly, items not related to fighting were not stone. They came within a few feet of the statue.

“I tell you, it is cursed. Look at its eyes. They seem to see beyond Sanctuary. It is a hard, cold face full of war and fighting. Only one other face have I seen carry this look and he is a man never to be crossed. I say away. Please, come away.” Hashtel never said please. It gave Nameth pause. “So strange a statue with two chains linked to a heavy belt around its waist, and more chains hanging off guards at the wrist should give you pause. The chains,” Hashtel said while pointing, “hanging from its shield are nothing like I have ever seen. Why do the ends have several links covered with barbs and hooks? They are things so foreign; all I see is death. I say come away!” Hashtel shouted. His words fell on deaf ears.

Looking around, Nameth said, “Do you see anyone? Everyone in Fisherman’s Row has gone inside. The boats are docked,” he said with a gesture, “and the cold has chased everyone from the pier. We are alone. What is the harm to take a pouch so crying out for release from its friend who has no use for it?”

“But who put it here?” Hashtel pleaded one final time.

“I know not, but they are absent,” Nameth replied, seized by greed. Unsheathing his short cut knife, he reached for the purse to sever its strings. Just as the purse came loose, a wall of blueish-white light encircled the two men and the statue. Cheering rose up out of the winds of time as if from fans at an arena match. In the wild chanting, a single name could be discerned, but it was neither of theirs. Both men began to sweat in the chill of the winter night. A thing happened that they never thought they would see. The statue looked down at the two small men and smiled. Their blood ran cold.

Taking the stance of a trained warrior, the figure spoke. Eerily, a feminine voice issued forth from the statue that was stone no more. “A challenge has been issued. This one,” she said pointing to Hashtel, “has made no such offer. Begone!” she commanded. The power of her command threw him like a cloth doll to land several yards beyond the wall of light. She began speaking and, as she spoke, the chains around her torso and arms began to uncoil. The gyrations of her torso, designed to unwrap them, seemed to pull life into the chains as they expanded ever outward. Similarly, her arms twirled to unwind the chains about them. When the chains were long enough, she began moving her arms to seize and throw the chains ever wider. The many-hooked chains never met but spun around and past each other now, sounding with a metallic rattle of death to come. To Nameth’s mind, fury seemed to grip the warrior’s face so forcefully that the world would crack. She spoke again but only to issue a battle scream from her soul that unwound like the chains. All around the pair, cheers from her many unseen fans rose in unison with the lengthening of the chains. Holding only his knife in one hand, he unconsciously retreated to give this towering female warrior more distance. The soft light of the barrier halted him.

When he touched it, she spoke again, but this time her insensate voice only held contempt. “You cannot flee your destiny. I am Osharah La Moabrie of the forest. I am the wind in the trees. I am the roots beneath the canopy. I am the forest made war.” Her words ended in another scream of fury so powerful that Nameth dropped his knife and fell sideways to the sand. Strangely, he could understand her, though she spoke not his language. He also knew this seven foot tall woman would end his life when she finally reached him. Odd, he thought, it feels like time has stopped. The terrible chains began their work, biting into his flesh, clutching onto him. It was a bitter hug. Now, he began to scream. The last thing he saw, though barely able to comprehend it, was her moving, almost floating, among the flying metal, and her very strange sword coming for him, powered by a face full of the fury of war, while the unseen crowd chanted her name in the thrum of battle. “Oshar… Oshar… Oshar…”

She cleaned and sheathed her sword, and wound her chains once again. She retrieved the overly full purse to re-hang it from her belt. Need to bait the trap, she thought. Her victory, though minor, allowed her to move a few extra paces. When she had taken the last step, she became stone once again. Before Hashtel landed on the sand, it was over. The waves washing the shore clean of offal and the whimpering of a brother in mourning were the only sounds on the beach.

* * *

On the fourth day of the festival, Rahshaya woke in the guest room, startled by her dream. Speaking to herself, she said, “The cause of dreams tokens much.” She judged it was an hour before the house would begin stirring, which made her feel slothful. She sat up on the edge of her bed to think about the dream’s meaning. There was something calling to her in the dream. A power so foreign, yet it seemed to know her. She did not know why. Surprisingly, from this awareness, she took strength. In the dream, she saw herself in a field of battle, running toward its center. There upon a dais was a regal woman. As she approached, the immensity of the woman became apparent. She must be a giant. It seemed the giant was presiding over the whole scene, but the combatants were unaware of her.

“What was it that woke me?” she asked herself. She sat there and thought about it for a few minutes, becoming drowsy. It was in this half awake state that the dream overtook her. In the dream, she saw herself ascend the white steps of the dias, leading to the woman. Becoming aware of her, the queen looked down and spoke in a strange language, yet Rahshaya understood it. She woke once more but could not remember what the queen said. Thinking upon the dream for several moments revealed nothing else. “Well, it will come to me.” She thought about the dream some more. Unexpectedly, she was back in the dream. By the time she reached the queen, her stature equaled the queen’s. They greeted each other as warriors do by clasping forearms. When they did, a brightness enveloped them. After the light faded, only Rahshaya, remained upon the dais. This image thrust her into wakefulness. Now fully awake, she tried to remember more details, but nothing else could be remembered. “Oh, well, I’d better get ready for the day,” she said. Gathering herself, she washed, dressed, and went to see if anyone else was awake and at work.

Maldrig shouted at her as she was crossing the yard. “Wait up, I’ll come with you. Where is young Harnek?”

“He is still probably sleeping off his visit. I think Pagor finally took him over to the Red Lantern district. He probably slept there,” she said.

“When are you both planning on leaving?” he asked.

“We are waiting for a shipment to come by ship. It should be here in a few days. It is cartload of rare earths. Father hoped it would be here before we arrived, but you know how winter storms will delay shipments.”

“We lose ships more often during winter. It is true. Do you think yours was lost?”

“Probably not. There haven’t been reports of storms. If it hasn’t docked by the end of the week, I will inquire,” she said.

“Good. That gives me some time. I want to show you something in the workshop.”

“Are you finally going to show me the thing you mentioned days ago?” she asked, becoming curious.

“Yes. I may yet be able to surprise my mentor.” The way he began rubbing his hands made him seem like he would.

“Then, lead on. I love a good surprise,” she said.

The workshop was a large stone building on the opposite side of the yard from the ovens. It had many windows that could be adjusted to let in air, but its two key features were the well inside and the magic light Maldrig had installed so work could continue day or night. The magic light mimicked daylight, but could be adjusted as desired. The well was the sole source of water they used. As they entered, twenty men and their apprentices were hard at work at various tables. Maldrig said, “What I want to show you is over here,” pointing toward the center of the room. When they reached the table, she stopped, stunned. There before her was something even she thought she would never see. It was Findal’s Wheel. Pushing him and the two apprentices standing at the table roughly out of the way, she came upon it, grasping the table with both hands. “Jakthal’s nether parts! Where did you get this?” she cursed, staring in awe. “Findal said he would ever only make the one. I mean… Others have tried to duplicate his wheel, but they all failed, as did I,” she admitted. The sheer amazement in her tone made Maldrig smile.

“I got it by luck and by skill. I also owe a very large debt to one particular God, but that is a tale for another day.” His chest was puffed out in pride. “Suffice it to say that I made enough gold to complete the bargain, but I have yet to reach the master skill needed to make the statuette as the other part of the payment. If I cannot finish it by year end, I will have to return the wheel. This is the project I need your help with.” There was almost a pleading tone in his voice.

“I don’t know. You know that I gave the craft up and now only study its essence, the clay. I’m following in father’s footsteps.” Her firm demeanor made it clear that she would probably not relent.

“Could you see your way to help a former student?”

After a long pause, and whether it was out of pity or from an inner desire to use the wheel, the balance tipped in his favor. She said, “Let me see the sketches,” holding out her hand. Hegic, his closest apprentice, jumped up and handed her the folio. She reviewed them, shaking her head. “These scribblings of a child will not do. We need a more skilled hand. Who is the best artist in town?” she asked. All three knew it was Lalo the Limner. Sighing, she said, “I will go see him today, and he will do the sketches from which I will work. She looked over at the failed attempts and the piles of sketches. Pointing, she said, “And that pile is trash. Burn the sketches and throw the failures in the softening pool.” She turned and left, grabbing a horse on her way out to head for the artist’s house. Both Maldrig and she knew that the potters yard had a new master and her name was Rahshaya.

As she rode past Sly’s Place on her way to see Lalo, she skirted the ephemeral walls that had appeared overnight twenty feet from the bar. Something pulled at her to stop. Slowing her pace, she glanced at the walls. Although she had never seen them before now, like most people in Sanctuary, she had become accustomed to the city’s oddities. The time of wizard weather and the midnight black unicorn that rampaged the streets were two such examples. As such, most people had readily accepted the walls almost the same hour they appeared. She realized the pull that made her stop came from Sly’s Place and not the walls. She ignored it and rode on.

Had she entered the bar at this early hour, she would have found only a few drunks and a lone fighter chatting with Throde. This fighter’s name was Dohann Hestil Matteck, and his reputation, by his own admission, coined him as more than just an expert at weapons and war. “Yep, I arrived two weeks ago. Not sure why I came,” he said, scratching his head. “Had to find passage on three separate ships, cross over a whole mountain, and through the largest, foulest swamp in all the lands. But, here I am. In a tavern, where nobody can tell me what its damned address is. But, hey! I found it, right?”

“Everybody does,” Throde said in a subdued, monotone manner. Listening to Throde talk was like listening to two boulders grinding together. He could tell the fighter wanted to talk, though he wasn’t drinking much. Coin is coin, and I don’t have any pressing business, so I’ll listen. To hell with paying Hakiem for a good story. Here he had an opportunity for a great tale, for free! Ooops, my mind wandered, better pay better attention. Got to work for that coin after all, he thought.

“That is when I reached the shore. I stank of fish and the ocean, but my money is still good. Eventually, I found a ship going where I wanted. Had an urge, really, to go….” Dohann droned on and on, getting thirsty while warming up to telling his tale properly. Pausing in mid-sentence, he said, “I’ll have your best beer, but only if it is really good stuff,” he commented, throwing a gold coin on the bar. “That should cover several drinks, but I’m not paying if the drink is not top notch.”

The glint of gold caught Throde’s eye. Faster than a mendicant kneeling to his God, he snatched up the proffered coin, while thinking, Where does he think he is, the King’s Belly? “You will find that the right coin brings the right beer,” he quipped. “I’ll let you know when that runs out.” He wiped down the bar in front of Dohann to make way for the beers to come. Wouldn’t want to be accused of running an unclean bar. Which, by the unkempt nature of Sly’s Place, could have been taken as sarcasm. If one were to closely inspect the place, one would realize that Sly’s was actually clean. It was probably Ahdio’s fault.

Some local ruffs, after popping in and getting one look at Dohann, found elsewhere to drink. The unusually quiet bar made a nice change from the normal routine that Throde had to implement daily. It was almost a calm before the storm. After two hours of telling his tale, Dohann had amassed a small audience held in rapt attention by his fantastic tale, and, to Throde’s delight, they were drinking. Even more startling, were the extra coins they left. Throde began humming, and he never did that. I love First Days, he thought.

As night closed in, Ahdio came to work. By this time, Dohann had settled down and was chatting with a few new friends. They, too, appeared to be seasoned in the skills of fighting. “Any trouble?” Ahdio asked.

“That guy with the four others,” he didn’t point, knowing how much Ahdio hated it.

“I’ve marked him. Should I be concerned?” Ahdio replied.

“He’s like the other toughs come to town lately. Full of stories and drinking. He strikes me as different somehow. Been too busy to place it.”

Ahdio gave the man a closer look, but could detect nothing. “Well, if he causes trouble, I’ll take care of him.” Both men soon forgot about Dohann, as work demanded their attention. Surprisingly, it was calm all night. About an hour before Ahdio would normally close, there were only a handful of customers. The muted conversations told of the sleep rising in them, clouding their minds and making them ready to wander off. It was the quiet during the last hour that Ahdio really appreciated. At closing time, Ahdio said to the remaining patrons, “Drink up, everyone. Time to go.” They downed their drinks and slowly began filing out. Some were waiting for others to go so they would not be caught off-guard. Other patrons seemed to be waiting so they could hold an uninterrupted discussion with those still left behind. This sorted itself out, eventually, and only three remained sitting motionless.

The three warriors just sat there starring off into the distance. Sighing, Ahdio said, “It’s going to be one of those nights. Better wake them up one at a time.” Walking over to one of the warriors, he said, “Sir, you have to leave now.” he had to try this a few times, becoming progressively louder, before he switched to wrapping on the table firmly with his cudgel. This worked.

Coming out of his haze, the warrior said, “Where am I? What is going on?” Shaking his head he scanned the room. No threats presented themselves so he looked for the barkeep. “Barkeep, where am I?”

“You are in my bar and it is closing time,” Ahdio said.

“None of your guff or I’ll have your head off. Now, answer my question. Where am I?” he said, standing.

“No offense was meant, kind sir. You are in the city called Sanctuary. I do not know when you came to the city nor do I know when you wandered into my bar. It is closing time. Please leave so I can lock up,” he asked gently.

Realizing his error, he apologized, “I’m sorry. I am just confused. Do I owe anything?”

“You paid for your beer and then just sat there.”

Standing and shaking his head to clear it, the warrior said, “Good night.” He left.

Ahdio went to the next table and did the same thing. This time, the warrior simply blinked for a few moments, stood, and wandered out the door. At the last table, he tried a different tactic. I think his name is Dohann, he thought. Dohann was still sitting at the now vacant table when the last warrior left. Trouble, thought Ahdio, making ready for anything. He went to the table and said, “We’re closing for the evening. Finish up. It’s time to go,” he prompted. Dohann just sat there. “Sir, I said we are closing for the evening.” Still nothing. None of the previous things worked. Then, he had an idea. I’ll go get that sword the dead guy left, he thought. Going behind the bar, he dug around at the bottom until he found it. “Ah ha!” he exclaimed. He applied just the right pressure so the sword would sing. The sword rang as it left the scabbard. That did it. The warrior began stirring.

Coming out of it and blinking, Dohann did not realize that he had been sitting there for the last few hours, staring off into space. It was almost like he was in another world. Somehow, he had his sword and long knife in his hand and he was sitting at a table. I am in a bar, he remembered. From behind him, the barkeep’s words brought him clarity and he remembered where he was. “Sorry, I was just lost in thought,” he said, looking down at his stale beer.

“It happens.” Ahdio said from behind the bar. He put the sword back in its scabbard and tossed it back onto the bottom shelf. Coming around the bar and going to the table, he prompted, “Troubles?”

“No, not really. I just am not sure why I am here in Sanctuary,” he commented.

Ahdio began cleaning again. “We all feel like that. No one really understands why he is in this town.” He placed another chair on top of a table, preparing to sweep.

“No. Not like that. I feel like I am here for a reason, but I don’t know why, yet.”

Ignoring that last statement, “I’ve heard your stories. Are they all true?” Ahdio asked.

“Yep, every one of them.” Making up his mind, he decided that the reason why he was here would show itself soon enough. Why bother it until then. “I think that I will just go back to my room and sleep on it. Sorry to be a bother. Goodnight. Oh, in case you do not know, my name is Dohann.” He stood, bowed, and left.

Puzzled at the strange departure of all three warriors, he went to the door to stare after Dohann. He, too, could sense something different about that man, and, like Throde, he couldn’t quite place it. This warrior would bear watching. Glancing over at the ghostly walls shimmering across the street, Ahdio said, “I swear they are more substantial than this morning, but it could be a trick of the moonlight.” Shivering, he thought, It’s going to be another cold night. I need to bring in more wood for the fire. He closed the door, locked it, and returned to work.

On his way back to his inn, Dohann felt them. There were three behind and four in front, shadowing him. He knew their type, looking for easy pickings. Hopefully, they would decide he wasn’t as drunk as they had believed and would leave him alone. They did not. He heard it in the dark. A dagger tumbling through the air. Instinctively, he relaxed all his muscles and dropped to the ground. It went sailing overhead where his ribs would have been. Rolling to a crouch behind a stack of garbage, he pulled out his street knife. “Come, gentlemen, I count seven of you. If you want to play, I think I have time.” Silence settled over the street. To goad them, he said, “Surely, you can make your minds up faster than this. Look, I am but one and you are seven. You begin to bore me. Still, I must warn you, gentlemen, I think, even with those odds, I should have an easy time of it.” Silence. “I can see you would like to just drop the whole thing,” he taunted. “Tell you what. I will, as I am in a good mood, let you go without killing all of you.” They ignored his generous offer and came anyway. In the morning, a ring of seven bodies lay encircling the mound of trash. He had had a most excellent evening after all.

The pacing prince was in a foul mood. “We should do something,” he stated forcefully.

“Nothing serious has occurred, my prince,” said Aragiss, slightly confused.

“Have you read the reports? The city is full of warriors from who knows where, enough to make an army, and more of them arriving daily. Worse yet, every morning there are heaps of dead warriors, and quite a few of them are around these immovable statues, which, oh, by the way, seem to be moved every morning. How can you counsel me to do nothing?” he roared, swatting away fresh reports offered by another advisor.

“Me, my lord? I do not advise this. It was Enas Yorl who did so. I merely remind you of the fact,” he replied, bowing in obsequence.

“Well, um, yes. But still, I should do something,” he argued, cooling slightly. His pained expression told of the pressure he felt.

“As I see it, my prince, the warriors pose no threat. They do not seem to be unified and they do seem to spend money,” his advisor said. The prince’s eyes gleamed. “If they happen to be dying in nighttime battles with each other, who are we to stop them? Besides, the Cartman does enjoy the extra materials. Moreover, there has yet to be a single case of someone dead who was not skilled at arms and…”

The prince interrupted him, saying, “What about the thieves?” The slashing motion of his hand mimicked a knife cutting a throat.

“True, there have been a few cases of dead cutpurses, but I believe that is a good thing. It makes Sanctuary safer, perhaps?” Aragiss, his head advisor, quipped, rubbing his hands in enjoyment.

“Yes, yes, yes. I will give you that. But then there are these phantom walls that seem to be becoming more substantial with each passing day. Has anyone managed to figure out what is going on with these walls?” he asked. “And what, if anything, are they forming?” He pointed out the window overlooking the yard towards them.

Aragiss spread his hands in helplessness to indicate they were trying everything they could think of but had no results as of yet. “Ah,” he paused. “We have not been able to ascertain their function, yet, sire. We have managed to confirm that they are or will be connected. They either form a circular barrier or the walls of some structure. Most probably it will be an arena, but Daoghan, a mendicant for the god Yirii, says that it is a shrine. I am inclined to go with a less fantastic version myself. Rest assured, the matter will soon resolve itself. Reports hold that the structure should reach completion at the midpoint of winter.

“Wonderful! I have a structure forming both inside the palace grounds and outside of it, and none of my advisors nor the priests can tell me what it is. Oh, sure, they can tell me what they want it to be, but not its true purpose. So, what should I do about these walls!” the prince exclaimed. His red face said it all.

“Listen to Enas Yorl, my lord?” his Aragiss said, calmly bowing, while backing away.

It had been several days since she had obtained the sketches and was hard at work. It seemed to everyone that she had grown more distant with each passing day, but they attributed it to her devotion to the project. “I tell you, Rahshaya, we cannot wait any longer. The counsel expects us to deliver the shipment. I know they will not be distressed at our delay since ships can be late, but we have to leave soon. How much longer will you work on this project for Maldrig?” Harnek asked.

“I am intrigued by the project. After all, this is exactly why I wanted to make deliveries. Just think of the challenge and the wheel,” she said.

“I am not a potter nor am I a clay master. What I am is a trader and we have a schedule to make. How much longer do you propose to stay here?” he asked.

“Until the project is done.”

“Well, I cannot wait.”

“Then don’t. Let me write a letter to my father and the counsel. Deliver it. I will stay here. I will explain my reasons, and I know that Maldrig will send someone with you so you don’t ride alone.” She felt she had solved the problem.

“Have you asked him?”

“Not yet, but he will say yes. How can he not?” she commented.

“You are right. I guess I just felt uncomfortable about making the journey alone. But, if he will send someone with me, then your father and the counsel will be satisfied.”

“And you will be safe. Now, please leave me be. I need to study these diagrams that Lalo made.”

“Okay, if you will ask Maldrig later today.”

“I will. When do you want to leave?”

“In the morning.”

“I will make sure that you do. Now, will you please go?” she asked nicely. He left.

Long after most of the artisans were off to bed, she was still up. The pile of rejected attempts spoke to the fact that she would only accept perfection. “I need more clay,” she announced. It had become a common shout from her area. Apprentices or workers rapidly supplied bags of clay, coming and going unnoticed by her. She had taken to standing on the table while working the wheel. She was so covered with clay that if one were to glance into the shop, he would see what appeared to be a statue standing on the table. Everyone had even taken to whispering so as not to disturb the master.

She tossed another statue to the floor. Even though it was still green ware, it could still easily have adorned any of the halls of the most powerful citizens in the land. She only saw it as rubbish. The workers would periodically remove her rejects, but secretly keep them for study to improve their own talents. She would tonight, like many other nights, work well beyond dark.

After breakfast, Harnek was all loaded. Adrella and Maldrig came to see him off. “I wish you gentle speed,” Adrella said.

“And warm nights. Goodness knows you will need them up in the mountains,” Maldrig said.

“I bought traveling cloaks at the bazaar. The seller said I would not even feel the cold,” Harnek replied.

“Was Pagor there with you?” Adrella asked worried that he had purchased the wrong cloaks.

“Yes. He inspected them and found nothing wrong. I want to thank you both and all of your house for the wonderful time. I should get going.”

“Please tell the Claymasters we are ever grateful for their services, and if any of their apprentices are looking for work, please send them to us,” Maldrig said.

“I will. Come on Bartol, its ten and we are not even on the road yet.” Bartol simply nodded and climbed up into the seat of the wagon.

“Where is Rahshaya? It’s not like her to miss saying goodbye?” she asked.

Pointing to his shop, Maldrig said, “She was up working very late. I suspect, like most mornings, she is sleeping in.”

“Tell her that I will see her in a few months,” Harnek said. He climbed up into the seat and waved one final time. Slapping the reins, he turned to wave goodbye as the cart slowly moved away.

* * *

A week later, a large, unscheduled delivery of clay arrived. One of the workers rushed to tell Maldrig. Storming into the yard, he shouted, “Who ordered the clay!”

The driver spoke up, “The name on the sheet is Rahshaya, sir.”

With gritted teeth, he said, “Pay the driver and take it to her shop.” Without pause, he headed for the building. Forcefully opening the door, he stepped in and began to speak, but was stopped at what he saw. Rahshaya was hanging from the ceiling by a series of ropes, working on a statue. He did not know what to say. She did not glance at him but kept studying her work. “What is that?” he asked.

After a long pause, she turned to look at him, “Oh, good morning, Maldrig. This is the project I have been working on.”

“I thought you were working on the statuette for me.”

“What?” she asked. Almost as an afterthought, she said, “Oh, that. I finished it days ago. It is over there,” she said pointing to one of the workbenches. “It is still drying, but it should be ready for firing in about a week, if the conditions are right. Don’t lift the wet-cloth.”

“Then, what is this?” he asked, pointing to the statue.

“After I finished your statuette, I had this urge to do something else. I can’t explain it really. Has my clay come yet? I’m stuck until it does,” she said, indicating the empty clay bins.

“You used all of my clay? How is that even possible?” he stormed.

“I did, but I knew you wouldn’t mind, since I finished your project. You can have a look at it tomorrow, just before sunrise, provided the conditions are correct. We wouldn’t want to spoil it. Have the men bring in the clay and I will sort it.” She began uncoiling herself from the ropes to drop to the floor, landing with the grace of a cat.

“Why are you hanging upside down?” His perplexed look irritated her.

“You may never become a master if you can only think like a student. I,” she said, raising herself up to stand straight, forcing him to look up to see her eyes, “am looking at the problem from more than one way. You may leave and send in my clay.” Sometimes, she didn’t know why she bothered. A strong scolding would do him good. Maybe, he would realize he had much to learn.

It was several days later and her mood had darkened considerably. She had locked the door so nobody would bother her. It was late, and most of the statue was finished, sitting comfortably under the wet cloths. She had crafted a warrior. The shoulders, neck, and head were still giving her trouble. “Have to do something about that armor and weapons. I think you need something a little more unique,” she said aloud. Her dreams were coming more frequently, and they had given her insight into the realm of war. It almost felt as if she were in training. If one were to look at her now, one would instantly realize that she was both taller and more muscular. She hadn’t noticed, since she was so focused on the statue. She even had to stoop and turn sideways to enter the workshop. A mystic air hung about her. She retrieved another bag of purple clay, placed it on the workbench, and approached her statue. It called out to her to be done. She was driven to finish it.

“It will be done,” she commanded with an air of regal authority.

* * *

“When will they ever learn?” Dohann sighed. He was being challenged more of late by these inferior swordsmen after they had learned he was the one who killed seven thieves at the same time. “I tell you, Throde, they just don’t make decent fighters anymore.” Dohann had taken to visiting Sly’s Place in the evenings just before going out to prowl the streets. Even though he was bemoaning the fact, he still went out looking for trouble every night. Recently, though, he felt the need to go stare at the uncanny statues. He’d heard that they moved and that they attacked people, but he put that down to rumor. Still, it was strange that many of the fights and the dead seemed to be around them. The other warriors might also feel the pull to go to the statues like I do, he mused. “Time for one more beer before I make my rounds,” he announced to Throde. It was almost like practice, his nightly fights.

“Did you want one more, or are you going to just stare at the bar top for another hour?” Ahdio prodded.

Startled, he jumped back slightly. Only Ahdio noticed. “Where is Throde? I just ordered a beer from him?” he stated.

“He left about an hour ago. After he put your beer down, you just seemed to stand in one place and look off into nothing, just standing there staring at the bar top.”

“I did what?”

Ahdio cleaned his hands on the bar rag and dropped it. He placed one hand on his hip. With his other hand, he made an easing gesture to try and calm Dohann down. “Is something troubling you? Of late, you seem to get lost in thought for hours at a stretch. You were like that when you first came into my bar, if you remember. So, what is it?” he asked with real concern in his voice. “You seem to stand statue-like for increasingly longer periods.” After all, if Dohann had one of his spells while on one of his nightly walks, he could find himself knifed before he even knew what was happening, and where would that leave me? Without my best paying customer, that’s where. No, I have to get to the root of this, Ahdio thought. “I ask again. Is there anything I can do?”

“Thank you for your concern, but I am fine. I just have a lot on my mind. What with the nightly attacks and these statues. Do you hear the voice in the night? It’s a woman’s voice and she seems to be whispering in my mind. But, I am not sure what she is saying or who she is.” Changing the subject suddenly, he said, “No matter. Where is that drink?”

Caught off guard by the suddenness, Ahdio thought, Seems a bit off, better not press the matter. He served him a fresh beer.

Later that evening, after a few drinks to steel himself against the cold, Dohann found himself wandering the streets, something others would not do this late at night in this bitter cold, much less alone. There it is again. That strange voice. Familiar. He decided to follow his instincts. After wandering the Maze for a bit at random, with nothing presenting itself, he thought, I know were play may be had, Downwind! He headed towards it. Stopping at the edge of West Side, he look up at the moon. A few stray clouds crept past. Even they looked chilled on this freezing, winter night. Closing his eyes, he began a simple breathing exercise to clear his mind. There that voice is again, he thought. When he was ready, he began walking, using all but sight as his guide in his search. He ended up at White Foal bridge. The sounds of the icy water rushing past told him where he was. Pausing, he listened; the voice still called to him. He went toward it across the bridge. The guards on the other side did not move stop him, having watched his slow progress. Something told them they should ease into the shadows of the guardhouse to wait for this dangerous, silent figure to pass. They were correct.

Standing firmly on the opposite side, he once again made his way deeper into Downwind. The icy breeze tugged at his cloak. It went unnoticed. The stenches changed as he moved. He could tell that he was nearing the Charnel House. Sometimes he walked in the light; other times, the shadows obscured his silent passing. The thieves, though hungry, sensed, too, that they should fade into the background.

There, I can almost taste it! Another warrior is close and on the prowl, he thought, sensing the correct direction. Initially, the pickings were better, but lately, there seemed to be fewer opponents for him to test. What was strange was not his need to hunt, but the fact that it did not seem strange to him.

The creaking boards beneath his feet softly sounded his passing as he moved past the buildings of Downwind. Most men would have lumbered down the avenues, but his step was light, seemingly buoyed by the wind. I’m almost there now, he thought. His opponent was close, and the voice was pounding in his ears. He stopped in mid-stride, straining beyond normal human strength, to listen to her. Finally, he could understand! It all made sense now. Yes, I have to find out! he thought.

Be my champion, the ethereal voice urged him.

“Yes,” he replied to the wind. The world somehow changed in his mind. He felt his senses fine-tuned to battle. Somewhere deep inside him, all the laws and rituals of warfare came surging to the fore. It was then, armored with all the rules of war and battle, that he opened his eyes. Before him, lit by eerie moonlight, was the Downwind graveyard. The slight creaking of the few trees in it and the whispering wind were the only sounds. On the opposite side, a warrior waited. The arena of the graveyard would contain their battle, and another figure cloaked in midnight black, watching from a rooftop, would be the sole spectator. He knew that this was his last opportunity to turn from the path he was on, but he ached to do battle. The first step he took into the hallowed ground seemed to release the other warrior into action. Both strode forward, pulling their weapons as they went. Soft, blue moonlight suffused the graveyard. They met in the middle of the graveyard. Without ceremony, they began the task before them.

First to attack was the silent warrior. The step-move-shuffle-lunge combination showed itself to be the opening to what would be a hard fought test of both their skills. Dohann easily countered with a twist to the side and a half thrust, which set him to close the distance. He much preferred to meet his opponent at close range. Sweat even in the icy wind began to form on the brow of his opponent. Although Dohann was smaller, his dense frame compensated for the weight facing him. “Rrrr,” said the dark warrior as he blocked the swing of Dohann. It was not designed as a mighty attack, but rather one to unbalance his opponent. The ease with which it was countered, bespoke of his opponent’s skill. It would be the long test of skill that would show the better of the two. A quick guard and then twist by Dohann drew first blood. It was a deep cut along his opponents shoulder.

Luckily for you, it is not your weapon arm, thought Dohann, appreciating the placement of the strike. He knew the weight of the shield would soon enough wear that arm out. It did, and with an animal cry, Yeearrgha, the warrior hurled the shield at him. Sidestepping it, Dohann renewed the attack. His opponent was sweating with pain and exertion. Though far from over, Dohann knew he probably would take the day. No words were exchanged. No taunts or puerile verbal salvos calculated to distract came from either man. They were here and set to uphold the rules of war. Lunge, parry, thrust, and slash were Dohann’s attacks. The other warrior, now shieldless, swung his mace and stepped, causing dust to swirl around his feet. During one of the attacks, Dohann recognized a particular maneuver as the ancient and almost forgotten Kagnaha Jezulli. Tisk, Dohann thought, you shouldn’t have done that. The Jezulli has a deadly counter. This was the reason it was no longer used, though most had also forgotten the counter as well. He struck and it was another heavy blow, but this time it was the warrior’s leg that took the brunt. Half beaten now, it was clear to both what must surly be the outcome.

They had now moved into the final minutes of the battle between veterans. Fifteen minutes later of heavy fighting, Dohann found the opening he sought, one he knew would be there all along. He struck, and then stepped back to allow room for the man to die a warrior’s death. The battle madness that had seized him vanished. He began the task of cleaning his blade on the dead man’s tunic when he noticed shadow on the roof. It became aware that he was watching, and so it moved.

He turned to look at the silhouette. As he watched, it seemed to him that a piece of darkness detached itself to land in the middle of the graveyard. Calling out, he said, “Be at ease, thief. I mean you no harm. My fight was with this warrior.”

Musical female laughter came from the figure, but it did not move. In the ensuing silence, the only thing belying the fact that she was alive was the mist rising from the cowl as she breathed. Hesitating for fear of frighting her, he did not take a step toward her, but stood fast. Trying again, he said, “I will not harm you, should you mean me no ill will. Have fear if you do, though.”

This set her in motion. She half-flew, half-jumped toward him so fast that even he would have been hard pressed to counter an attack. She landed near him, but out of weapon reach. “Oh, you are one of the few I do fear, but not for the reason you think.” The voice issuing from the cowl was as cold as any winter night. “Although, I cannot place it, I do sense your difference. You do not belong anymore, unlike yesterday. I have been watching you for some time.” A soft, pale white arm emerged from the cloak to point at the dead warrior. “It is this act that sealed your fate,” her voice softly hissed, forming thin clouds of steam, swirling around her cowl.

He did not understand, but was not sure that he needed to. “Who are you?” he asked, hoping to get her to say more.

Her other hand came out from beneath the blackness to pull back her cowl. A face beyond measure of pure beauty stared at him through obsidian eyes. “Some call me a thief, but that is cheap. Others call me evil, but again they are ignorant. As for myself, I am called Ischade.” Whether she expected it or not, her name elicited no reaction from him.

“Why are you in this place, and alone, especially at this time of night, with all that has been happening? A beautiful woman such as yourself must have better things to do than visit graves.”

She found him unsettling, but alluring at the same time. “As far as alone, I have no fear and much hunger for those who would prey upon seemingly helpless women. As for the place, it is not unlike a second home to me. I come here often at night. The stillness of the dead comforts me. They demand so little and give so much.” This statement brought a small, chuckle from her. “However, unlike most nights, tonight I could not help myself. I was drawn here to be a spectator, as I suspect from watching your approach to the graveyard that you were drawn here as well, but for another purpose.”

“As was my friend lying there,” he said with a smile. “Would you, Miss Ischade, care to accompany me for a drink?” He felt the need for danger, an addict to it for sure, and he knew she fit the bill.

Smiling at the stir this would cause, and because he was achingly good looking, she said, “Yes, but that is all. You are far too dangerous for anything else.” She meant it. She felt wonderful and laughed such a laugh that she had not laughed in a very long time. “The thought of us, the entrance we will make, and the gossip it will cause brings me much joy. I am honored to join you this evening.” Entwining her arm in his, they moved silently out of the graveyard, through Downwind, and into the Maze proper toward the Vulgar Unicorn.

Everyone behind every locked door and in every place in Downwind could sense that a plague of death had passed, and that they had weathered its storm. Everyone beneath the pale moon, as the stillness of winter’s night settled over them once more, breathed a sigh of relief.

In another quarter of town, a very different scene was unfolding, although it, too, centered around warriors and fighting. In this instance, it was ten against one. All the while, an ethereal voice drove them. “Fight the champion.”

As if planned, they came at the lone figure in concert. He was Baweh Nimba, the Warmaster for the Eternal Counsel of the Empire of Vordeen. He had come here to this forsaken continent because he was called by an urge. He had arrived on the appointed day and found that he could only move at night; a few steps at a time before burning cold covered him. He always made sure to face the beacon calling to him. It was the last thing he saw each night as the stone took him, creeping from foot to head. He had found that if someone challenged him, the stone released him to face the challenge. He also discovered that their deaths allowed him to take a few more paces than normal. The battle between combatants somehow acted as proof that he was worthy to arrive early. He was the most prominent thinker and scholar in his lands. Baweh could match wits with the best scholars from any realm or kingdom. He had deduced he was part of some ritual. Should he find a mage toying with him, he would ensure that mage’s regret. He knew it would all end when he reached the beacon. For now, however, he contented himself with practice. Tonight, would they come, he wondered? He hoped they would. Several nights ago, they did not come. His path had led him to step into the wall of a building. Half in and half out of the wall, he froze. He wondered what the inhabitants had said, finding him hanging there partly in the wall. Of course, the inhabitants of the house had vacated rather than remain around such an unsettling statue, appearing out of nowhere. He would have, too, had he been common, but he was very far from common.

Coming out of his revery, a soft crunching on the ground told him that he would soon have company. From the sounds of it, they would arrive from three areas: the front of the alley, the rear of the alley, and the roof. The confining space would be large enough to work in, all he had to do was wait. They came all at once. Upon the first strike to hit the statue, a large circle of blueish-white light encompassed the area, and the stone, like melting ice, gave way to flesh and metal. Wind from before the dawn of time rose sharply, bringing with it the roar of tens of thousands of fans in an arena. It was a wild, primal cheer that chanted a single name over and over. “Baweh!” He smiled at the ten little warriors. They are mine, all of them, and there is honor in death. This, they will find in plenty, he thought. He also smiled because he knew that tonight he would take extra steps.

An hour later, Muggmahr ran, out of breath, into the Tit and Whistle, and straight up to Lag. “You won’t believe what I just saw! Git meh a drank an I’ll tell ye all bout et.” Not seriously waiting, for the tale was far too good, he continued, knowing his beer was on the way. “Thar weren thees tall fella all made out of stan and den he chame ta lif. He did. An ten fighters came et him, but twar no geh. One by three they all deh. Deher than a dur nahil. Leh me git meh drank and I’ll tells ye proper.” So, the famous tale of Muggmahr was first told and was retold for generations.

* * *

She had locked herself away from everyone for weeks so she could finish. She occasionally ate from the stores she had placed on one of the tables. Some inner well of power surged through her, pulsing visibly across her now grey-tinted skin. The dreams, too, were almost non-stop. When she stopped working, images would flash in her mind, filling it with battle after battle. This occurred whether awake or asleep. None of her clothes fit anymore. She had outgrown them. It did not matter. Everything was focussed on the statue now. Unbeknownst to her, she had even started speaking in a language long since past from the land. She stood before her statue looking at it. Everything was done, but the face. It would not come. She had made many attempts to craft it properly. Still, none of them seemed correct. In frustration, she slid one of the large worktables out of her way with ease. “Nothing to do but try again,” she sighed. She began working. It was well past most people’s bedtime, and only she was still awake. Another failure. She scraped off the excess clay and then stood back to look at him, saying, “Where are you? Where is my champion?”

The voice was calling to him from the depths of his being, beckoning him. It is time, he thought. “No more practice where warriors fall on my blade. Mere pretenders, novices, and children,” he mused out loud. His nighttime routine set his waking hours, making him nocturnal, an inhabitant of the dark. This was the wicked time when the moon cast her gaze upon the combatants, who, purposed for good or ill, came to test their skill. He was one of them now. Washed and dressed, he checked all his weapons. His sword, daggers, and throwing knives were clean and sharp. His leather vest and chain were secure. Tonight, however, called for something special. He had carried the box a long time without ever opening it. It was time. He retrieved it from under his bed, placing it on top. Opening the three hasps, he lifted the lid. Inside, cradled on a sheet of the softest velvet, was his crestadula. Next to it were his other two prized possessions, a sheaf of nine throwing knives and a curved short sword. These he took along with his regular long sword. All of them, including his long sword, were of the highest quality, though none of them were magical in nature. Time to make my way to Sly’s Place.

Stepping into the bar, he moved to his customary table. The three men occupying it saw him coming and made to leave. He motioned them to stay. He felt there was still a little time to relax. The serving girl immediately came over as he sat at his table. “Gentlemen, I am buying as tonight is the night.” At that moment, the wind chose to grip the door and shake it. He glanced at the door and then turned back to his company. “Even the wind wants to join us, I see,” he said. They all laughed. The trio knew who he was and felt at ease. He had the reputation of being generous when the mood struck him, but they also knew that he was not a man easily defeated, if such a thing was even possible. Their fate sealed, for they did not want to offend him, they made the best of it.

“We thank you for your kindness, sir. I am Darndneck. This red haired fellow is Lagmor. And he,”–indicating the fat man–“Kettle Pot.” Of the three, Kettle Pot was the most dangerous to Dohann’s purse, but Dohann didn’t mind.

“What are we drinking?” Dohann asked.

“We will all have the largest, finest beer that the house has.” All three were smiling. “And the best food as well,” Kettle Pot said. Again they laughed. They sat and swapped stories for over an hour, occasionally getting a little loud. Finally, Dohann felt it was time to leave. It was just before midnight. He moved to the bar to wish Ahdio a good evening.

“Ahdio, I am off,” he said before the barkeep noticed him.

Ahdio did not normally pry into the affairs of his customers, but he could sense something was different tonight. “Do you want me to get my club and come with you? I can get Throde to cover for me, if you need it.” The offer was generous. Ahdio never left the bar at night.

Shaking his head, he said, “No. It is something I am called to do. But, you see those three gentlemen at my table? Here are three gold. I would like their tally covered, and let me know if I need to pay more,” which he knew he would not. He walked out of the bar and into the freezing winter night, never noticing that his winter cloak hung open.

The voice was strong now, guiding him to the Processional, near the Old Wharf. He knew he would find a statue waiting for him. He rounded the corner, entering the Processional. One way led to the palace, which was only a block away, and the other led to his quarry. The speed at which a figure moves depends upon its intent. The deliberate, rapid pumping of Dohann’s legs accompanied by the swift swinging of his arms said it all. This warrior was on a mission. In the dark streets where blood often flows, the two met, though one was of stone.

Rising up with all his might, he called out to his foe a challenge, sound and sure. “Come what may, my challenge is issued. In honor and with skill of arms, I stand ready for war.” Thus said, he rang steel upon steel. It was as if a mighty blacksmith was pounding on his anvil. Before the ringing short sword on crestadula fell silent, the statue turned and moved a pace or two, stopping once again as the ringing faded from this land. Again, he called his challenge. “You will face me. She whispers in my mind. I must stand.” Again, he rang steel upon steel, and, again, the statue did move. This time from him issued the name of the statue-man in clear tones. “Face me, Fushir Castillor. Face me warrior kinsman of the planes. Face me; I challenge you.” Yet again, the statue moved, but stood utter still with the dying of the tone. For the fourth and final time, a challenge was issued. Neither stone or time could stand in his way. “I am come. I am a warrior for those who throw power and breathe it deep–Magicians. For the last time I call out my challenge to you.” Then, the statue, holding a man-sized oval shield and a war axe, became flesh as the arena made from blue light sprang out of the timeless past. So, too, did the crowd cheer for the champion, some ten thousand voices strong. The name they all shouted up to the heavens out into the night was “Dohann. Dohann… Dohann…” A mystic light filled his eyes and the power of ur-magic filled him. With a mighty blow he felled Castillor, who dropped to lie in the street–evermore. As Fushir Castillor fell, the soft blue light of the arena faded, leaving only darkness and a cold-steel blade.

Eleven statues still remain, and a new one with a new name.

Two

Morning shone bright and unearthly cold. It was only a few days before winter solstice, and the pervasive ice covering the land spoke of the strange, an almost magical lack of heat. Whispers had begun about who was to blame. Some said that the necromant, Ischade, was responsible. Others said it was the Gods fighting again. Still others, more accurate than they knew, blamed mages and their tampering with things they did not understand. This, coupled with the fact that there was what appeared to be a giant arena becoming more solid hourly added the final touches on a unease that had been building all winter. The arena’s location was centered at the intersection of the bazaar, the southwest corner of the palace wall, and West Side. It was so large that its walls stretched all the way to Sly’s Place. The wall disturbed Ahido so much that he had taken to peering at it often. When asked about it, he always said, “Ah, nothing to see there. It’s just a long wall.” But still, he did peer at it often.

She woke in the workshop, lying half on and half off a few tables. She ached from the effort of her work and the changes to her body. For the first time since she began work on the statue, she realized that she had been seeing the world through eyes clouded by a power beyond understanding. Sitting up, she found she was nude. The plain simple truth was that she had grown so large her normal clothes no longer fit. Realizing she had not looked, she glanced at the statue. A smile of pure joy captured her as she saw that it was done. Here was her champion, finally come. She knew that there was still work to do. Getting up, she decided to go wash, dress, and make ready for tomorrow. The building lost its roof and one of its walls in the wake of her departure. “There are still many preparations that need attending to before tomorrow,” she said. A new knowledge filled her, and, although she did not know it yet, more changes were still to come. Tomorrow would bring them.

Three

The stillness of the predawn hours shattered as the eleven champions walked up the ramps, leading to the arena floor. They stopped and stood still in the arches and waited. Men from all sectors of the city–from every bar, and stall, from every home–came to the arena. Women woke before dawn all across the city, making ready the children where needed, and they came out of the houses. From the poor sections of town, the urchins came. From beneath the city, out of the sewers, the hidden of Sanctuary came. The temples of the Gods, their doors flung wide, issued forth all of the acolytes, the mendicants, the priests, and monks, all of them came. In the houses of the rich, the servants and the handmaids, the stable hands and the slaves came. The rich, in their closeted beds flew into clothes and down the long, grand stairs out into Sanctuary, also came. The shepherds in the fields and the tenders of animals came. From the tents and hovels, from the brick-a-brack houses where the S’danzo dwell came those who know before it happens. They knew and came. Out of the brothels, where the painted ladies exist behind fabricated lives for men and women to share, they came. The tricksters and hustlers, the palmists and pick-pockets, the knife users, and the assassins came out of the shadows down through the lanes. Even those who were half dead or dead or dying and lived by whim of her came. She, in midnight black, who knew the price of living, came. And the Gods came in their shining glory and their muted rage. In their timeless essence bound by laws far out of their control, came these Gods—one and all. Every man, woman, child, and God filed up into the stands, knowing precisely where to sit. Surely, the massive flat blocks spaced throughout the seats were meant as seats for the Gods. Finally, front and center, one came who did not have to come. But, unlike the rest, he felt at ease, at home, if you will. He came last, just before she did. Out onto the arena floor he strode, stopping to nod and smile here and there. Then, he, the only spectator who had a weapon, went up the stairs to take the place reserved for those like him, and all his eyes were open, watching. One or two Gods had to adjust themselves as they were in his way. His shooing motions, like an adult to a child, told Thalmador the Mighty Slayer of Foes to make room. After he sat, he reached out and pinched the choicest bit of sweet treat from Thalmador’s snack. The other Gods began laughing, until the man with the many eyes looked at them, too. So it was, on this very icy, freezing day that all of them came, waiting for the ritual to begin.

The sky began to lighten, but still it was dark. A little later, a tiny bit of sight was granted by the modicum of light. Quietly, with patience, they waited for her to come. Finally, just before the breaking of the sun, she did come. She was the mistress of ceremony, the speaker for all life. Through the great arch that stood thirty feet high, she came, filling it almost full, so giant in stature was she. Rahshaya now stood twenty-four feet tall and was more regal and elegant than any queen was or would be. The glow of ur-magic shone in eyes and thrummed in her skin. As she passed before the place reserved for him, she stopped. With a welcoming smile and a gesture only known to him, she spoke in that language not heard for so very, very long. Although it was not Ujox’s language, he knew it from his time. In return, he did something he had not done for a very long time. He smiled and gave a little laugh. The mistress of ceremony moved out into the arena, placing the empty entrance to the arena floor behind her and to her right as she faced away from it. She spoke in clear tones with a booming voice that all could hear.

“You have all come as witness to the ritual set before time was. The twelve must stand against the one to come. He is the champion of war, a warrior of all warriors. The twelve, make no mistake, will fight to their defeat, victory, or death. They care not. I see that you Gods have come as well. Stay silent and do naught. You are but spectators, mere specks of dust tossed in a gale. Interfere and I will erase your existence.” She paused to let this fact sink in, and the Gods were uncomfortable. Looking around at the assembled host, she raised her arms open wide. “I have been tasked here to bring the final champion to fill the gap left by him,” she said, pointing into the stands at the place of honor reserved for Fushir Castillor.

“Fushir Castillor is the first fallen champion during this ceremony who has been returned to life. As are all champions who die or have died in the past returned to life. They will forever be given the seats of honor reserved for champions. But, his loss has left a place empty. It must be filled!” she announced to the crowd. She swept her hand down to point at the empty arch. “He who would fill that void comes!” The assembled host was struck and silent.

Running at full tilt, Dohann Hestil Matteck passed through the arch and onto the arena floor. His passing through the arch broke the spell of silence. Thousands yelled and screamed his name, urging him to greatness. The speed at which he ran attested to his power. In mere moments, he would be upon her. “For him I have crafted his statue,” she said. She stepped aside. The unfired statue stood behind her, amazing even the Gods at its sudden appearance. “Our newest champion needs the raiments and tools of war. Come champion Dohann and take them. Take what is earned by might and skill,” she said pointing to the statue.

Without hesitation, he stopped in front of the statue and cast down all of his weapons. The cloud of dust he had made in his haste slowly, quietly settled back to the arena floor. Then, he discarded all of his armor. The statue was a perfect copy of him. Even his face was perfectly represented by the statue. He reached out and grabbed the clay weapon from the statue’s grip. The clay shattered to dust as he pulled his new weapon from it. It was the weapon he had always desired. Next, he ripped the clay armor from the statue. It, too, came away in a cloud of dust. The process continued until Dohann stood fully vested in the armor and weapons foretold by his dreams and visions. Silently, he stood, waiting for her command. “I caution you. These weapons are not magic, but they are so perfect in every detail, that they may seem so.” Standing straight, she commanded, “Did you wish otherwise?”

“No!” he shouted to the sky as he placed both fists on his hips in defiance of any who would say the contrary.

“It is good. Take your place, champion, and await your turn.” He strode away behind her, heading for the empty arch. When he reached it, he stopped and turned to face the arena, waiting.

She surveyed the assembled crowed. “Some of you may remember this as a dream. Others of you will not even remember you were here. There will be a few who will remember all. The memory of this moment does not matter. It is enough that you bear witness to the ritual of war. This ritual was set before existence to right imbalances that will occur from time to time. It has been five thousand years since the last. Time is short. The champion is almost upon us.” Turning, she strode to the seat prepared for her. Standing before her seat was the queen of her visions. As Rahshaya, the master of the ceremony approached, the queen of war, who somehow was she also, acknowledged her, and with a nod of deference, faded from view. Before sitting down, she spoke once more, “I am now become the queen of war, of strife, of struggle. I will, hence, preside as queen to the court of battle, though few will know it.” Dawn broke and the first rays struck the earth within the arena. She turned to watch the first strike of light that began winter solstice.

A blue-white light, so bright that it was painful for the Gods to witness, pulsed in the middle of the arena. As it faded, she spoke for the last time during the ritual. “He has come. Let the Dance of Swords begin!” Then, the queen sat down.

He did not know were he was or what was happening. He had only mere seconds to grasp the situation before the first warrior was upon him. And so, Tempus Thales, the Riddler, the mightiest warrior in existence, saw the approach of one intent on attacking, and he drew his sword. Miraculously, as it left the scabbard, so, too, did the power of the God sustaining him leave. For the first time in a long time, he was mortal in a battle that he must win. It felt good, and he smiled. His God had heeded the warning to not interfere.

The warriors, one by one, were bested. Some were killed. After they were vanquished, they stood and walked to their seat in the champion’s box to watch the remainder of the ritual. They could rest, but Tempus could not.

Two hours after noon, Osharah La Moabrie’s turn began. She came out onto the floor slowly, saying, “Riddler, I am Osharah La Moabrie. Do you hear them chanting my name?” she taunted, pointing to the stands. Many thousands were chanting her name. “They know, as do I, that you will not find me easy prey.” Indeed, each new champion was harder to defeat than the last. Her chains were now all unwound and her sword a blur of death. She came for him.

As she came, in an almost bored tone, he said, “You will fall like the rest.” However, somewhere in the back of his mind, he tallied all of the cuts and bruises he had so far. Still, undeterred, he met her on the field of battle. The chains proved very difficult for him as they bit deep and then were pulled free, leaving wounds for him to enjoy. He grabbed a chain out of the air by entangling his sword in it and yanking. This did the trick. Seeing that her chains would no longer serve, she released them, clanking to the ground. Now, she took the stance of a warrior with sword.

They fought long and hard, but in a stunning move, both disarmed the other. The seven-foot-tall woman roared with animal glee as she pounced on him, bare-fisted, smashing down upon his head. The force of that blow would fell most, but not him. He rose from his knees, ramming his fist into her jaw. The last phase had begun. It was as if two giant hammers were smashing into flesh, both his and hers. Still, in the end, she fell, too, although it cost him dear. Defeated, she stood up, bowed to him, and took her place in the champion’s box. That was his allotted rest.

The next came, and the next, until there were only two champions remaining. Time was short and the sun was making ready to set. He had to finish quickly now for he knew the ritual faded with the sun, complete or not. The penultimate champion strode onto the arena floor. Somewhere deep inside him, calling on all his battle lore, he switched to the broken haft, which was the perfect weapon against the champion’s weapon. Unexpectedly, this champion was dispatched with ease. Finally, the last one came with only an hour before the setting of the sun. It was Dohann Hestil Matteck, the greatest warrior next to Tempus.

As he strode forth, Dohann said, “I am Dohann, new to this game. I raise my sword, not for king or empire, not for people across the land. I raise my sword for war because might is right. I am the protector of mages, wizards, and all spellcasters who have been crushed by warriors like you. I am Dohann. Come and dance one last time in the Dance of Swords.”

Tempus knew this was going to be the fight of his life. No God buttressed his stamina, or healed him unnaturally. He was alone, but free.

The price was very high, but he had to win.

He did, although it was close. The last rays of sunlight stopped touching the arena floor mere moments after his victory. Dohann rose and took his place in the champion’s box. Rahshaya stood, coming out to congratulate Tempus amid the cheers of thousands upon thousands of people chanting one name: “Tempus! Tempus! Tempus!”

“Well done, champion of war.” So saying, Rahshaya reached out with hands that sculpt clay and erased his wounds, cuts, and bruises, one and all. Suddenly, Tempus felt the weight of his God return to claim him once more. Then, a white light grew around him, pulsing brighter than sight could stand, sending the Riddler back whence he came.

The sun set and the arena began to fade. The people filed out in an orderly fashion. Even the thieves and assassins left work until tomorrow. For once, Sanctuary would have a peaceful and safe night. Every town deserves it, even if it is only once every five thousand years. After the people left, Rahshaya turned to the Gods and said, “Remember this day and remember your role.” But, she knew most of them would forget, until reminded of it during the next ritual. When they had left, the only remaining people were the champions both past and present. The arena had almost faded from view. They came to stand next to the giant woman. They all cheered and clapped in celebration of their role and skill. “It is you all who hold the highest honor. You came when you were called, without thought to your needs. Although there can be no benefit to you from it, except to our newest champion. He earned new weapons and armor.” They all congratulated Dohann. He knew he had joined the ranks of legends and found a new purpose. The prior champions, one by one, began fading from view, sliding back into the past, until they were gone. Finally, only the twelve current champions and their queen remained. As the final portion of the arena faded from view, she spoke as a queen to her subjects, “I will see you on the battlefield.” Then, she faded. The twelve who started this journey clasped fore-arms as friends, but knew that they would fight as enemies should they ever face one another on the battlefield.

Each turned and began the long journey home.

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