Sample Chapters: Two Merchants and a Thief

TWO MERCHANTS AND A THIEF

Branded Souls Saga, Book One

 

© Copyright June 2014 JK Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.

ISBN# 9781310267635

 


Chapter One ~ Pursuit


The city of Jhargus was one of great wealth and great poverty—both halves bond together by common cords of mutual need.  The rich required the services of their “lessers”, while the laboring classes and the poor took what compensation the wealthy offered, to hold back the specter of hunger and death for yet another day.  A precarious alliance it was, but it had served the city well enough over the years. 
 
In this city, two brothers walked together along a squalid, mud-laden road, far from the clean avenues their feet were accustomed.  The first brother was tall and thin, with dark hair and kind eyes. The other brother was bulkier, covered with reddish brown hair. He had a distrusting, piercing gaze, full of grim displeasure. The streets were crowded, filled with yelling vendors hoping to squeeze a coin or two from the milling masses as they passed.  An old beggar with a hump in his back approached the pair, pleading, “Please, kind sirs.  Can you spare a wretch like myself a copper to feed me starving, lame daughter—too ill to beg for herself?”  Before the first brother could protest, the second had already opened his purse, and presented the beggar with a single coin.  

“A copper would not even buy you a loaf of stale bread,” the second brother explained gently.  “Here, take this gold so you both may eat together many good meals.”  

With wide eyes and a near toothless grin, the old beggar thanked the young man with a profuse display of bowing and backing away before abruptly turning and melting into the crowd.  

The first brother studied the second brother briefly before letting out a cynical laugh.  “Kelric, you trusting fool.  Do you truly believe that old cretin has a sickly daughter?”

Kelric shrugged his narrow shoulders.  “He gave me no reason to suspect otherwise.  Tell me Laran, why do you insist on looking for the worst in everything?”

Laran made a sweeping gesture with his hands.  “Perhaps because you have brought me to the worst part of town.  This is the first and last time I’ll let you dupe me into walking these filthy, peasant infested streets.”  

“It is refreshing to walk among common everyday people.”  

Laran sniffed, wrinkling his nose with disdain.  “It is an invitation to falling prey to beggars, cut-purses, and thugs.  I find nothing refreshing about that.  Little wonder father chose not to locate any of his shops around here—not that the locals could afford it if he did.”  

“I thought it would be nice to explore something different.”  

“Are not the pristine parks of Wrenchest a better place to explore?  We are, after all, the sons of the wealthiest jewel merchant in Jhargus.  We are nobility in money and power, if not in title.”   

“You are a snob,” Kelric quipped.  

“And you are a true virgin to the ways of this world, brother.  Naïve enough to get us both killed one day.”  

Kelric feigned offense, saying, “You have hurt me, and I await an apology.”  

“Hummph!  You will get an apology from my lips when you can tell me why they’ve started sheltering crippled, ill daughters in local pubs.”  

Kelric’s hazel eyes followed Laran’s pointing finger, which aimed at the beggar—who just entered a seedy tavern, aptly named the Sly Fox.  

Kelric gaped in astonishment.  “He lied!”

Laran shook his head.  “It is hard to believe you are the older by an hour,” he said.  “For what good it has done, you might just as well had stayed in our mother’s womb a while longer and let me be the elder son.  Father certainly would have approved.” 
 
“Yes he would,” Kelric replied, the mirth suddenly gone from his heart.  Though his words were veiled in a spirit of jest, Kelric knew his brother secretly wished to be the heir to their father’s inheritance.  But by law, all worldly wealth would go to the elder son at the time of the father’s death.  Even if one was the elder by just an hour.  It mattered not that their father hated Kelric and loved Laran, nor did it matter that Kelric desired his father’s jewelry business even less than a farmer would desire a swarm of locusts upon his crops.  It was a sad irony that both brothers were painfully aware.  

Kelric’s reverie was abruptly broken by a faint rustle of movement—passing behind Laran—gone as quickly as it had come.  

“My purse!” Laran yelled in furious disbelief, and pointed a stiff finger to a hooded figure making a quick departure.  “He filched my coin purse!”  Eager to pursue the thief, Laran turned to his reluctant brother.  “Well?” he asked in a demanding tone.  “Will you not join me in bringing the scoundrel to justice?”

Kelric hesitated.  “Perhaps,” he began carefully, hoping to word his answer in a way that would not flare his brother’s volatile temper, “we should not follow.  The money is but a pittance, and what need have we to chase down criminals when we can dispatch a guard to do it for us?”

Kelric swore under his breath and growled, “Father once said you lacked courage.  This is your chance to prove him wrong.”  His dark eyes, following the thief’s movements, shifted to his brother for a fleeting moment.  “I will not let that villain think he can rob a son of Tarsis, and not be punished.  If there is any honor in your quivering heart, neither will you.”  He drew his dagger and pursued the thief.  

His hand forced, Kelric followed.  How, he wondered to himself as he struggled to keep up with his faster brother, did a simple trip to the city suddenly turn into a thief hunt?  The thief was an accomplished runner it seemed, for he showed no sign of slowing—even as the minutes stretched on.  Laran’s broad shoulders and thick, muscular legs managed to keep pace well enough.  But Kelric found himself wheezing like an old man after climbing a long flight of stairs.  If they did not catch this thief soon, he was sure he would collapse from exhaustion.  

They chased the thief past the limits of the city into Raven Wood—long believed to be where mages practiced forbidden magics.  Few men dared enter these woods in fear of falling victim to such arcane experiments.  If one wasn’t blinded by prideful rage, and the other by guilty obligation, the twins would have avoided following the obviously mad purse-snatcher into the accursed place.  Only when the looming trees threatened to swallow all light in their canopy of darkness, did Kelric finally speak up.  

“Perhaps we should turn back,” he breathed laboriously behind his brother.  “This place is not safe for us.”  

“Not until I have buried the whole of my blade into that miscreant’s gut!” Laran shot back, pushing his legs to run faster.  “I almost have him!” 

The woods opened into a small clearing—in its center sat a man-sized orb of fiercely bright light.  Kelric had heard tales that powerful mages sometimes created orb-spheres like this as portals to carry them off to distant lands.  He also heard that mages created such orbs to trap and kill intruders.  He did not believe such stories until today.  Three strangers were approaching the strange orb; they were not afraid of it.  Though he was still a distance away, Kelric could discern them with some detail.  

The first stranger was a large brute of a man and carried a sword nearly as great as its wielder.  He wore little clothing, apart from leather trousers and brown boots. His hulking frame was covered from crown to foot with solid muscle. The second stranger wore steel armor, so bright, it reflected the light of the orb like a dozen mirrors.  But unlike the first, this warrior had a more refined air about him—seeming just as likely to use his tongue to settle a dispute as he would his sword.  His sword was sheathed and discrete, but the shield he carried was prominent and bore the marks of countless battles.  It was a testament to its owner’s skill at staying alive.  The final stranger wore only a simple priestess’s robe and carried a common staff.  And yet, there was something fierce in her eyes that convinced Kelric that she was the most dangerous of the three. 
 
Most priestesses were trained in magic-craft—especially healing magic.  But certain orders of priestesses had no qualms about using the same magic to harm or kill.  From the distance he could not tell which Order she was from—even if he was knowledgeable of such things, which he wasn’t.   

The strangers apparently had not seen Kelric, Laran, or the thief—and they in turn, stepped into the orb-sphere, vanishing inside.  Seconds later, Laran and Kelric reached the center of the clearing.  

“Where is that wretched thief?” Laran bellowed furiously, ignoring the glowing sphere as if it were simply an annoying distraction.  ”He was just in my sight!”

Kelric knew better than to try dissuading his brother now.  Once Laran was overtaken by one of his rages, no reason would reach his ears.  Suddenly, the two heard a muffled cough from above.  The two brothers looked up to see the thief hiding in the very tree they leaned against to rest.  With the grace of a cat, the thief sprung from its perch, neatly landing on the ground near Kelric.  

“Hold him!” Laran cried, charging ahead.  Kelric made a half-hearted attempt to grab the thief, which the latter easily dodged, but not in time to avoid the rushing collision from Laran.  Pushed off balance, the thief stumbled into the sphere and vanished.  Laran could not control his momentum, and he too disappeared into the mysterious sphere of light.  

Kelric stood alone, terrified and uncertain.  The orb began to shrink and recede—its light growing pale and erratic.  Kelric surmised that it would soon close in on itself and disappear forever.  Precious seconds passed as he debated his fate and that of his brother.  If he followed the others into the orb-sphere, he could die instantly; the sphere could be nothing more than an elaborate death trap.  If only he knew more of magic-craft! 

Kelric struggled to focus his thoughts.  The three strangers, he reasoned, did not look like suicidal fools, and the priestess, who certainty would have known the nature of the orb, did not hesitate going inside.  A calming resolve passed over the young merchant.  He was going in.  As rash and stubborn as his brother could be, he was still his brother, and his ward.  He could not abandon him.  Wherever the illuminating sphere led, he would follow.  Leaping forward, Kelric dove inside the sphere, just as it dissipated into nothingness.  

A blinding flash and strong wind enveloped Kelric and torrents of fear and wonder flooded his soul.  Caught in the maelstrom of strange magic, he felt himself drawn deeper inside.  An odd tingling sensation drew his attention to his right hand.  His brown eyes widened in awe at what he saw.  A circular imprint of sorts was somehow stamped onto his hand.  Its simmering colors were vivid—almost alive.  A tattoo? Kelric wondered, but quickly dismissed the notion.  It was more than that.  It was a kind of…brand.  The embossed imprint featured a series of elaborate patterns wreathed in unknown, rune-like glyphs.  More magic-craft?  A series of pulsing heat waves washed over him, and suddenly like the wind, the light was gone.  

Kelric rubbed his eyes to adjust to normal light, and saw to his amazement that he no longer stood in the clearing of Raven Wood.  Thick moss lay beneath his feet and a foreign forest with trees like ancient towers beheld his every side.  He turned and saw Laran, standing dazed, shaking his head for clarity.  The thief stood across from them—alert and poised for action.  Two other figures were also nearby, and one of them—a short, balding man wearing a well-established scowl on his face—spoke first.  

“Eh?  What’s this?  You lot are not the three we left with!  What have you done with Ral, Thance and Erin?  Murderers!”  Tugging anxiously at his knotted, gray beard, the frowning accuser turned to his taller, beardless companion—a mage judging from his garments.  “Talos, we have intruders—agents of Motris no doubt!  We must stop them before they escape!”
The mage stepped forward and mouthed a cryptic phrase under his breath.  Cobalt flames began to flicker around his hands.  

Kelric gasped.  He had never seen a mage cast a spell before.  
“I pray you three can explain yourselves and quickly,” Talos whispered, “or I promise you, this day will be your last.”    


Chapter Two ~ Chrosynthium


Laran laughed disdainfully.  “Surely you jest.  You wear no hat, much less one with a feather.  By what right have you to address me as such?  I am Laran and this is my brother Kelric.  We are the sons of the great merchant Tarsis, and you will do well to remember your station when—”

“That man is a mage!” Kelric hissed to his brother, his nervous eyes never straying from the flickering spell waiting to be unleashed in the spell-caster’s gloved hands.  “It matters little whether or not his blood is noble!”

“If anyone deserves that blue fire you’re brewing, it’s that thief over there,” Laran shouted, undaunted.  “He stole my coin purse, and by right of Jhargus law, I can reclaim it by any means I see fit!”

“You are far from the land of Jhargus, loud one,” Talos replied quietly.  With a thought, the mystic flame vanished, leaving but faint traces of floating blue ash.  “You have entered the realm of Chrosynthium”

“The land of mages,” Kelric thought aloud.  

“Yes, that is what your people call it, but in all fairness, Chrosynthium is divided into several territories and provinces—each with cities like your Jhargus.  And not all of these provinces are…harmonious.” Talos seemed to enjoy the role of instructor and he shifted comfortably into lecture mode. “For example, the land of Nightwood, is a region of dense, enchanted forest that stretch as far as the eye can see. The Druid King Nim rules that land.  It holds many secrets, and few who have entered Nightwood have ever returned to divulge such secrets. Tos is the province of the Chaotic Prince. Nothing there is as it first seems. The land is full of random features and sightings, thrown together without rhyme or reason. Tos is parched in some places, lush in others—often filled with poison and…unpleasant surprises. Perhaps the less said of that place the better. Ayntis is a holy region located among rolling green hills and flowering meadows. It is home to a host of religious orders and temples—including Arma Gardens, the beautiful home of Erin, who had been our chosen priestess for this—”  

“Cease your endless explaining! The lands and affairs of mages are of little interest to me,” Laran scoffed.  

“Then you are a fool.”  A neutral, measured voice rang out.  It was the thief.  “Death comes swiftly to the uninformed.”  

“So you finally speak,” said Laran.  “I thought you mute as well as criminal.  Hand me back my money!”

“No.”  

Laran turned to Talos.  “You see?  The thief admits to the crime!  I swear by the celestials, if you do not kill him I will!”

“No, it is I who shall kill you,” the thief replied stoically.  “You are not the only one who can hold a dagger and use it.”  As if in afterthought, the thief added, “And before you meet whatever celestials you swear by, you should know something.”  The thief pulled back the dark hood of her cloak, revealing the continence of a lovely woman.  “I am not a ‘him’.” 

She was young like Kelric and his brother—fifteen or sixteen years of age. Her eyes were dark green and watchful, like a predatory cat; her medium-length hair was raven-black, and draped the sides of her face in perfect symmetry. Her face was delicately featured, but with sharp angles and prominent cheekbones. And her lips were the loveliest ruby red Kelric had ever seen.   

“Enough!” the bearded stranger declared.  “The only blood-shedding here will be done by me and Talos if you don’t tell us what happened to our companions!”  He stared at Kelric.  “You there, beside the loud one.  What is your name?”

Momentarily stunned, Kelric had to tear his eyes away from the thief’s beauty, to answer.  He swallowed.  “It’s Kelric—” 

The bearded stranger cut him off, “You look like the sensible sort.  Do you know what became of the three that were following us through the portal?  Speak, boy!”

“Good sir—”

“Call me Grak, boy.”  

“Sir Grak, I…I did see three others pass through the ball of light before us, but I have not seen them since.  By my word, we have done nothing to them.”  

“He speaks the truth,” the thief said, restoring her hood.  “They did not even see us approach.  Whatever their fate may be, it had nothing to do with us.”

“There is one other thing,” Kelric said.  He raised and opened the palm of his hand, revealing the mysterious imprint.  “When I arrived on the other side of the portal, I bore this marking.  What does it mean?”

Laran looked at his hand and saw it had a similar imprint, as did the thief.  

“By the celestials!” Grak exclaimed.  

“It all becomes clear now,” Talos said somberly.  

“What becomes clear?” Laran demanded, trying in vain to rub the raised mark from his hand.  

“Each of you,” Talos explained, “possesses what is known as an Eternal Brand.  They contain celestial magic.  They are also exceedingly rare—only seven such relics are known to exist—two of which are lost.  My order is proud to own three.”  

“Curious,” the thief replied, stifling a cough.  “You are an elemental mage, judging by the symbols adorning your robes.  How is it that an elemental-mage should come to possess celestial magic?”

Surprised, Talos stared at the young thief, viewing her in a new light.  “You speak well for a thief.  And you knew which order of magic-craft I serve, even though you are a mundane.  Impressive.”  

The thief smiled faintly.  “It is my job to know many things.  One must, if one is to survive.”  
“I see.  Well, you needn’t worry about the details of how my order acquired such talismans, but you should know this: The Brands you wear belonged to three warriors chosen for a quest of great importance.”  

“What does that have to do with me having this inane badge on my hand?” Laran shouted, his anger giving way to subtle fear.  

“Silence!” Talos commanded sharply, casting a cold eye at Laran.  “You will learn if you are wise enough to listen.  As I was saying, the warriors you saw were comprised of a life-mage, and two mundanes.  They were selected by my king to bare the sacred Brands.  I would have preferred that the mundanes not be involved, but those of my order and my friends are not compatible with celestial magic.  The king decided it was best to find the most deserving of the mundanes to be the barer of the two remaining Brands.”  Talos began rubbing his temple, as if to soothe a throbbing pain.  “Alas, it was all for naught.”  

Kelric gave a nervous half-bow to Talos, to show extra respect—he seemed the less approachable of the two—and said, “If I may ask, sir mage, do you mean, these Brands somehow attached to us by mistake?”

Momentarily lost in private deliberation, Talos did not reply.  However, Grak spoke instead, his coarse voice sounding grim.  “Aye.  You see, a portal only has enough magic to transport five safely.  Talos and I entered first, and the other three were supposed to follow close behind.  When you three bumbled into the orb, you displaced them.”  

“Displaced?” Kelric echoed.  The word did not sound very encouraging.  

Talos left his private thoughts and said, “Essentially, you scattered three of our party throughout Chrosynthium.  Each of them is in a different place, somewhere, perhaps days or weeks apart in distance—assuming of course they are alive at all.  Due to the random nature of displacement, there is good chance they materialized inside the slope of a hill, the corner of a wall or solid rock.”  Kelric tried to suppress a sudden shudder as Talos went on.  “The displacement somehow caused a temporary disruption in the Brands’ cohesion, separating them from their true owners, only to re-bond with the next three to enter the portal.  Fascinating.  If it were not for the pressing circumstances in which this incident occurred, I would take detailed notes to share with my colleagues back home.”  Talos sighed with genuine regret.  “Perhaps later.”  

“Powerful or no,” Grak grumbled, “I knew we shouldn’t have involved celestial magic.  It’s too unpredictable—and it’s bad luck.” 
 
Talos dismissed the remark with an irritated wave of his hand.  “The absence of the Brands would not have changed the outcome.  Your superstition is a poor substitute for fact, so please do not interrupt my flow of thought with such rubbish.”  The tall mage began to pace to and fro, as his ever-occupied mind sorted out his predicament.  “Ral was a mighty warrior and wore the Brand of Swords— the Brand you now wear, Kelric.”  Talos gestured to Laran.  “And you, loud one, wear the Brand of Shields, which once was Thance’s, our paladin.”  The mage turned to glare at the thief, who met his imitating gaze without fear.  “And you, snatcher of purses, wear the fabled Brand of Staves, once upon the hand of Erin—a priestess, and one of the most gifted life-mages I have ever met.”  Talos rubbed his temple harder.  “And now I am faced with the task of completing our quest with two merchants and a thief!”

“I have no desire to go on any mage’s quest,” the thief said.  “I must return to Jhargus at once.  I am not well, and my medicine supply is low.”  

Talos raised an eyebrow in curiosity.  “Not well?  With what manner of illness?”
“Blood Cough—most fatal if left untreated.”  As if perfectly timed to prove her claim, the thief was suddenly overtaken by an uncontrollable, retching cough, in which droplets of dark blood fell to the ground. 
 
“By the celestials!” Laran sneered in disgust.  “Mage, I demand you send us back to Jhargus before that diseased wench infects us all!”

Talos turned to Grak.  “What do you see?”

Grak narrowed his eyes in concentration, and shook his head sadly.  “Aye, the disease is well-spread all right, but this variety of Blood Cough is the kind that afflicts at birth.  It doesn’t spread to others—but it gives off a nasty green glow all the same.”  

“How do you know this?” Kelric asked, forgetting his fears.  Perhaps it was her beauty, but he felt a growing concern for the thief.  “I can see no glow.”  

“I am a seer, boy, of the Mind Order.  It is my talent to see the unseen.  What is past, what is now, and what is to be—I can see them all…sometimes.”  Grak sighed.  “But seeing is all I can do.  The thief will need healing by a priestess if she is to be cured.”  

The thief let out a dry, cold laugh, “I would have better hope of sprouting butterfly wings and flying over the sea.  We both know that a priestess would sooner die than help one of my kind.  The medicine I need will not cure me, but it does keep the malady at bay.  There is an apothecary in Jhargus that serves the thieves guild.  I can get what I need there for no charge.”  

“Thieves controlling legitimate business?” Laran said incredulously.  “The world is truly coming to an end!”

“Then you are sorely ignorant as well as loud if you think our guild has only one face.  We are like a great vine that spreads throughout the world.  Few places have not tasted our influence.”  She added with a dark smile, “Did you truly believe that your father, Tarsis, would be allowed to prosper in the jewel trade without our consent and compensation?  He is in fact one of our major contributors.  Consider that the next time you turn your nose up at a thief.”  

Laran grew silent.  

Grak was blunt, and the finality in his gravelly voice was unmistakable.  “We cannot return to Jhargus.  We only went there in the first place to give the mundanes a chance to see their families again before we got started.  Our charge is a dangerous one and there is the possibility we may not survive.”  

“What does that have to do with us?” Laran asked.  “We are no warriors.” 
 
“True,” Talos said, rejoining the conversation.  “If a choice was available to me, I would return you to Jhargus, and select a better qualified party.  However, two facts prevent this: Firstly, you all possess the Brands, the key to our victory.  Secondly, the magic required to produce a portal is too great for a single mage even of my learning.  So we had to use gate stones.”  

“Gate stones?” Kelric asked. 
 
Talos let out an impatient sigh, momentarily lifting his eyes to the sky, grumbling, “Must I educate the masses?”

Grak chuckled. 
 
 “It is my life’s charge I suppose,” Talos concluded with a resigning whisper.  His voice returned to its slightly louder speaking level.  “Gate stones—sometimes called ‘portal stones’—are enchanted rocks the size of my fist. They are created by teams of mages channeling magic into the stone over the span of weeks until it is complete.  We carried with us three such stones.  We used the first two stones already.  The third stone was with Thance.  He is lost and therefore our way back to Jhargus is lost.”  

“Then how are we to get back?” the thief asked.  

“Complete our quest of course.”  

“And that is?”

“I didn’t tell you?  Oh, then listen and learn.  As I told you before, Chrosynthium is comprised of many provinces.  We are not far from the province of Tos, under the rule of the Chaotic Prince Motris.  You see, just like you mundanes, we mages too have rulers—all according to which order we are born to serve.  I, being of the Elemental Order, serve King Bramen of Esen.  My companion is born of the Mind Order and serves Queen Ti of Sycrest.  It is all very fascinating actually.  This hierarchical structure has been in place for over ten thousand years, evolving over time using a system called—”

“You’re meandering again,” Grak warned.  

“Oh, yes, of course—where was I?  Ah, the quest.  The Council of Mages recently granted Motris approval to annex Jhargus as a property of chaos.”  

“The old stories are not forgotten,” the thief whispered in barely audible breath.  “They say that once every thousand years, one order of the mages turns their eyes toward the lands of normals to conquer.  It is said that one day, the mages will rule all the land, and normals will cease to be.”  

Talos nodded in remorseful agreement.  “I am not one for prophesy and legend telling—that is my friend Grak’s area of interest.  You are, however, are correct about your former statement.  A thousand years had come again, and it is the Chaotic Order’s turn to select a mundane territory in which to expand.  It is a flawed arrangement, but it has prevented war between the mages for a long time.  Anyway, the Chaotic Order, under Prince Motris, chose Jhargus.  My order voted against the action citing that the Chaotic Order was already too powerful, but they would not listen.”  Talos frowned.  “Tradition is a comfortable blindfold and the Council wears it well.  That brings me to our quest.  In an unofficial capacity, the King has sent us to seek out the Prince in his stronghold and quietly remove him from power.  Our order has powerful acquaintances in the chaotic ranks that are sympathetic to our views, and are willing to fill the vacuum of power once we make it available.” 
 
The thief smiled slightly.  “‘Remove’, as in assassinate.  Interesting.”  

Kelric stared at the elemental mage in disbelief.  “You want us to assassinate the prince of this realm?  Murder!”

“Aye,” Grak said, “and that’s exactly what Motris plans to do to your people.”  Grak’s rumpled face softened a little, his hard eyes suddenly sympathetic.  “I know a little of how the Chaotic Order do their business, lad.  If they succeed in claiming Jhargus, they will kill most of its citizens, with the remaining survivors kept as slaves.” 

“The people of Jhargus will not lie down and let themselves be conquered!” Laran protested.”  

“I’m sure your people are able fighters, as mundanes go,” Grak said, “but they will find their axes and swords of little use against chaotic magic.”  Grak’s dark eyes grew hard once more.  “It will be a slaughter, boy.  I’ve…I’ve seen it.  And my vision will come to past if something isn’t done soon.  Some mages have little concern for the lives of mundanes—Prince Motris is one of them.”  Grak tugged absently at his thick, scraggly beard.  “He’s got too much power as it is—and don’t let the title of ‘Prince’ fool you.  He’s already mightier than most of the kings.  With Jhargus, he’ll have enough land and power to be an emperor.  So we were tasked with preventing him from making good his claim.  One man’s life to save a hundred thousand.  Why do you think the mundanes before you volunteered for this quest?  They knew their very homes and families were at stake.  There’s no turning back now, lad.”  

Talos cleared his throat, reminding the others he had been speaking before he was interrupted.  Then he went on, “Because the Council considers the matter closed, neither my King nor Grak’s Queen can act openly.  They cannot amass an army without starting a mage-war, and heavens help us if we ever have another of those.  And so, five of us were selected for this task, and to increase the odds of our success, we were entrusted with the Eternal Brands, the greatest talismans ever forged.  You must learn how to use them quickly for the challenge ahead.”  

“And if we fail?” Laran questioned.  “Would Motris not know your king endorsed this little maneuver?”

“He will suspect it no doubt,” replied Grak, “but for the good of our realm, both my ruler and Talos’s will say we were rebels acting outside their wishes.  We are alone in this.  And one other thing.  The displacement caused a brief surge in magic.  I felt it when you came through.  Motris may be chaotic but he’s no dunce.  I am certain he has sensed our presence.  He knows we’re here.”  

“So much for the element of surprise,” the thief quipped.  

“There is no such element as an element of surprise,” Talos corrected, his stern face taking on a sour expression.  “How I do wish people would stop referring to it as such.”  

“If, by the celestials’ favor, we succeed in our mission, finding a gate stone among Motris’s magical stash will be easy by comparison,” Grak said.  

The thief succumbed to another bout of blood-tainted coughing.  She looked up at Grak with a glint of dark resentment in her eyes.  “I may be dead by then.  But it appears I have no alternative but to try.  I commit myself to this quest.” 
 
The grizzled seer nodded.  “Good.  What say the rest of you?”

Laran crossed his arms defiantly.  “If going along with this foolishness is the only hope I have of getting back home, then I have little choice in the matter, do I?”

All remaining eyes fell on Kelric, who stood at a distance from the others, afraid of what they were about to undertake.  He looked at the mystical Brand on his hand.  It depicted a sword within a circle, within yet another circle—all surrounded by symbols he could not understand.  And yet…it seemed to beckon him.  Calling to him.  Urging him to begin a journey that would carry him to a greater destiny.  With newfound fortitude, Kelric clenched his fist and stepped closer.  Though his mind had much to say, the nervousness of his heart granted his lips but four words: “I am with you.”  

…And somewhere—far beyond the sight of mage and mundane alike—the celestials smiled.  

 

End of sample.

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