The sun was just visible over the eastern horizon, casting its light on the bright desert sand. Waves of heat distorted their vision casting visions of far off water that they knew were not there. The tree, as massive as it was, shimmered in the early morning heat. The effect causing any that might be looking to get a bit queasy.
They each looked at the campsite that was set up in the protection of the magical shadow. It was comfortable, the tents were set up, and the scent of cooking meats wafted through the air.
“I’ve heard it said that when traveling in the desert it is better to rest during the day and travel at night.” Hope suggested.
The visible heat, coupled with the fact that none of them had slept the night before, dissuaded any argument.
The meal was devoured without a word, and each of them climbed into their beds to sleep through the day.
“You fool!” The strange triple voice echoed around him. “You cannot beat us. The blade of the dagger is too short. It will never pierce our heart.”
He glanced to the strange weapon that glimmered in his hand. The stem of the rose entwined with the tail of the golden dragon. He didn’t know how, but he knew that the creature spoke the truth. The dagger was not sufficient to defeat it.
“I know you are right,” He said in a low voice “but I have to try.”
He felt power surge through him as he spread his fiery wings and rose into the air.
“Maybe we should just lead off with the water next time.”
Taren was sitting on the ground, water dripping from his hair and nose. His clothes and bedding were drenched through.
“What was that for!?” He yelled at the tall, dark haired, elf standing over him with the dripping bucket.
Shaunna stepped forward. “Taren, we have been trying to wake you up since the first star appeared.” She said, gesturing to the star filled sky above them. “We need to get going, if we are going to make any progress tonight.”
Understanding flooded into his mind. Jumping to his feet, he dashed into his tent (Hope had at least been nice enough to pull him out before dowsing him). He emerged a few minutes later in dry clothes, his traveling sack slung over his shoulder. Without pausing, he began to take his tent down with a practice hands. A handful of minutes later, he was ready to go.
“Tarrren, does the shadow seem biggerrr to you?” Grathius asked.
The young elf looked around. The magical shadow was notably larger than it had been at daybreak. It was no longer in the shape of the tree. The pointed end was broader now, making a large rectangular shaped area.
Taren closed his eyes for a moment, and then glanced at the tree. It shone brightly in the early night, a bright beacon of magical energy.
“It appears that the magic is starting to reclaim the forest.” His hand moved unconsciously to his neck, He hadn’t intended the for the crystal’s to merge together. He just wanted to see what would happen if he placed them next to each other. He hoped Cera wasn’t going to be angry with him.
“Taren, we need to go.” Shaunna urged. “We need to get as far as we can by day-break.”
Taren nodded. “Which way is North?”
Shaunna indicated the direction that they should travel.
Without another word, the group left the safety of the magic.
None of them were prepared for the difference in temperature between their haven and the surrounding area. Even after nightfall, the heat radiating from the desert sand was intense. It only took a few moments before each of them was sweating profusely. The water in Taren’s hair evaporated quickly, only to be replaced by the sweat pouring from his scalp.
“This is going to be a long night.” Grathius growled, panting heavily like a large dog,
They traveled as quickly as the heat, and shifting sands, allowed. They didn’t speak, preferring to save all their energy to keep their legs moving. The watched as small creature scurried over the sand, searching for any foliage that it could make tonight’s meal. A large bird swooped out of the night sky, having found a meal in the smaller creature.
Taren shuddered as he considered the fate of the small animal. He could relate. Here they were scurrying through desert, waiting for either Silax or the Dark Lords to find them. They had been pretty lucky so far.
“We should camp here.” Hope suggested as the first light of day breached the horizon.
Taren looked around. There was nothing but sand as far as the eye could see. “Here?”
Shaunna laid her hand on his shoulder. “Yes, here. We need to get the tents up before the sun.”
Taren agreed, unhappily.
They made camp in the early morning light. The sun wasn’t up yet, but the sand was already radiating an uncomfortable heat. They pitched their tents in the sand and retired for the day.
Sweat dripped from Taren, soaking his clothes as surely as the bucket of water that had woken him the previous morning. He tossed and turned trying to find the position that was most comfortable. Unable to find any position that would aid his rest, he resigned himself to the inevitable and tried to sleep.
Through heat induced delirium, he could make out the sound of a dog whimpering nearby. Rolling over, he buried his head in his bed roll to drown out the noise.
His feverish dreams made no sense, and he woke before dusk feeling entirely un-rested. He lay in his tent waiting for the heat to begin to dissipate. He kept his hand near the westerly edge of the tent in an attempt to judge the outside temperature. As soon as he felt it begin to cool he rose changed into dry clothes, and packed his gear. It was still unbearably hot, so he took shelter in the shadow of Shaunna’s tent, and waited for them to rise.
He again heard the sound of the whimpering dog and he feared for Grathius. The canavar’s dark brown fur must be making life miserable for him in this heat. Taren hoped that the wolf-man would be okay.
The sun was just below the horizon when he heard movement from within the tent. He waited for several minutes before Shaunna emerged.
“Trouble sleeping?” She asked
Taren nodded somberly. “I’m worried about Grathius.”
She pursed her lips. “I know. This heat must be killing him, in a very literal sense. We need to make it through this desert as quickly as possible.”
The paused as Hope emerged from his tent, stretching. He was tall, even for an elf, and the act made him look bigger yet. As he stepped forward he took a small draw from his water skin. He started as the large, straggled, dog approached him.
“You look like hell!” He said to Grathius.
Grathius just whimpered pitifully, his tongue hanging out as he panted heavily
“We need to get moving.” Taren announced as Parel joined them. “Get packed up.” He pulled his second water skin from his pack, and handed it to Grathius. “Here I hope this will help you.”
The wolf-man accepted the skin thankfully. Taking a long draw from it, he stood and went to pack his things.
It only took a few minutes for them to strike camp and be on their way.
As was the case the night before, there was nothing but sand as far as the eye could see. They kept a northerly direction using the stars to chart their course. They didn’t see any wildlife as they traveled. There was nothing but endless, desolate, sand the whole night through.
They were nearing the point pf exhaustion as the first light of day peaked over the horizon. None of them were excited about another day sweating in sweltering in their tents as the sun tried to bake them alive.
“What’s that?” Parel asked, pointing to something in the distance.
Shaunna grinned broadly. “That’s the oasis. We should reach ‘the trident’ tomorrow by day break. If we hurry, we can get to shade before the heat gets unbearable.”
With renewed vigor, the small group headed towards to promise of a more comfortable day. As the heat rose, their steps grew ever more labored. Trudging through the sand, they made steady process towards the trees that were becoming increasingly clearer ahead of them.
A loud yelp rang through the air as Grathius fell to the sand. “I can’t go on.” he said after lying in the sand for a few moments. “My paws will not hold me any longer. Taren, take care of my daughter, please.”
“Oh no you don’t.” Taren swooped down on him. “You’re not going to leave us here on our own.”
The young elf rifled through Grathius’ pack until he found the water skin that he had imparted to his friend. Finding the skin empty, he replaced it in the pack and reached for his own water. He began to trickle the warm liquid on his friends deep brown muzzle. Grathius weakly lapped at the water pouring on him, moistening his nose and tongue. The stream grew more steady as Taren tipped the skin further, allowing more life sustaining liquid to reach his companion.
Several minutes passed before Grathius was able to sit up. From a sitting position, Taren and Hope lifted the large canine to his hind legs. Between the two of them they half carried, half dragged Grathius towards the Oasis.
Gasping for breath, the two elves dragged themselves, and their charge, into the shade of the trees surrounding a small lake. It had taken them much longer to reach their destination than anticipated. The sun was high in the sky, and the heat radiating from the sands washed over them, waves of heat that sought to sap the life from them.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t think it would take us this log to get here” Shaunna said
None of the others answered her. They just laid on the ground.
The air around the small lake was noticeably cooler. A comfortably warm breeze blew over the water, blowing the stifling heat of the desert away. They didn’t bother to make camp, preferring to rest on the cool ground surrounding the water. They drifted off to sounds of the water gently breaking on the nearby shore.
“Taren, wake up.” Ethos urged him to consciousness. “You need to wake up, there’s trouble.”
The urgency in his sword’s voice brought Taren to alertness faster than the buckets of water that Hope doused him with.
“What’s going on” He thought, sensing the danger.
“Bandits have you all surrounded. The others are all awake, but they are pinned down by sword point. We don’t know where they came from, or how they got past us”
Taren slowly opened his eyes, feigning drowsiness he took stock of the situation. He quickly stretched, rubbed the sleep from his eyes and sat up.”
Each of his companions was indeed pinned down by sword point. There were no others to stand guard. This seemed foolish to the young thief.
“Wass goin’...” He began to slur, stopping when he saw the man standing over him holding the sword point to Taren’s chest.
“G’d mornin’ ducky.” The man spoke cheerily. “Welcome to the land o’ the livin’”
The man was handsome, in a roguish sort of way. His shoulder length black hair fluttered in the wind. Dark, intelligent, eyes stared out from under bushy eyebrows. He wore no beard. He wore a white blouse that hung open, revealing a bare chest, and tan pants. His outfit was rounded out by ankle high brown boots. The hand that wasn’t holding the sword was flipping a large blue gem from knuckle to knuckle.
“Give that back!” Taren demanded.
“Oi’ didja hear that lads? The new slave is makin’ demands.” The man said gleefully. “What makes ya think that I would be willing to part with this hear trinket? It’s become dear to me. I’ve not seen such a gem before”
Taren smiled dangerously. “If you don’t return the heart to me, I will make you regret not killing us.”
“Now why would I be killin’ you? You lot are gonna make me rich beyond belief. Six elves, a human and a mythical dead dog-man should fetch a mighty fine price at the auction”
Taren glanced at Shaunna “Erik,” he thought “Can you send Shaunna a message for me?”
“Tell her to count to ten, and then take as many of the others out that she can.”
He saw her nod slightly, and knew she understood.
“This is your last chance, give me the heart and leave.”
“I don’ usually kill the creatures I catch. They’re worth more to me alive. I may make an exception in yer case. Get t’ yer feet”
He just sat there staring at his captor.
“I said...” The man began, but he was cut off.
“Cera, now!” Shaunna called out.
In an instant she disappeared, reappearing behind the man that was threatening her, a dagger in each hand. In a single move, she drove the daggers into her attacker’s back, drawing them out as she turned and slashing the closest man in the back of the leg halfway through. AS she finished her turn, she launched her daggers into the abdomen of the other two.
Tarea proved that she was just as adept with her bare hands as she was with a sword. Rising quickly, she forced the palm of her hand into her attacker’s chin, knocking him on his back. Without stopping, she grabbed the man from in front of Morganna, throwing him into the man guarding Saria.
Taren watched the women at work. He really began to appreciate how Shaunna had gained the title of “Greatest”. He already know how dangerous his sister was.
When the last of lackeys had fallen, Taren attacked.
Quicker than thought, Taren had Ethos in his hand. A slight movement sent the other’s sword into the nearby lake.
“Where...?” The slaver leader stumbled back surprised, but he quickly regained his composure. Pulling another sword from the scabbard on his back, he advanced on Taren. “You, boy, are more trouble that you are worth. I think I’ll slit yer gizzard.”
Taren stood in his battle stance waiting for the bandit to make his move. They circled each other, trying to size up there opponent. Taren was young, so he hoped that the older man would underestimate him.
“That’s a pretty bauble yeh’ve got there. Are you sure it won’ break against my steel?”
Taren stayed silent, not wanting to give too much away.
“Ahh, silent one, are ya? Then to arms!” The bandit lunged at Taren.
Taren easily parried the blow, stepping out of the way as the move carried the bandit past him. He struck out quickly, slapping the older man’s backside with the flat of his blade.
“Yer a skilled one, aren’ ya? This’ll be fun. I haven’ had a real challenge in years.”
Taren grinned. “You may have found more than you bargained for.”
The bandit returned the grin as he switched the sword to his other hand.
The sounds of crystal and steel rang over the water as the two fought. Taren quickly learned that his opponent was, truly, a master swordsman. His technique was flawless and his strikes were very precise. Taren’s own skill was barely able to keep up with this strange human.
They fought furiously for several minute. Taren was beginning to tire, his moves were ’growing slower. It was becoming increasingly difficult to defend the other’s attacks.
The bandit feinted an attack. When Taren stepped to the side, his attacker plunged his blade into the young elf’s arm.
Taren’s arm went numb and the sword fell from his nerveless fingers. A scarlet stain spread down his arm.
“I lost... I’ve never lost a fair fight before.” Taren fell to his knees.
“Aye, ducky, let’s get ya patched up. With a sword arm like that, yer worth a fortune to me. Yer form reminds me a bit o’ a elf master I’d the pleasure to cross blades with many years ago. Do ye, mayhap, know a Master Tarininan?”
Taren just stared at Ethos, laying on the ground, in unbelief. He couldn’t feel his arm, so any thoughts of retrieving the sword would be pointless. This master swordsman would see to that.
“Not gonna answer me? Then we best be goin’”
“We aren’t going anywhere with you.” Shaunna said, defiantly.
“Ay lassy, ya are...” The bandit stopped short when he turned around.
Shaunna stood proudly over her fallen adversaries, having retrieved her daggers. Hope stood next to her with his golden sword gleaming in the failing light of the day. Grathius growled savagely, baring his glistening teeth. Behind them, Maxx, Oran, and Erik floated.
“Crystalblades, I haven’ seen one o’ them fer years.” He shook his head “Doesn’ matter, with a single word I can have hundreds o’ men here.”
Shaunna pointed a dagger at him. “Then you will be the cause of their death.”
The man opened his mouth to call, but no sound came out. He gasped, his head snapping back as if he had been struck.
I soft thud in the sand behind them caused Hope to turn around. Maxx was lying on the ground where he had fallen.
“What happened to you?”
Maxx’s voice was weak as he answered. “We didn’t have time to deal with this, so I stopped him. That attack hurts me just as much as it hurts my... victim”
Hope noticed the careful wording that Maxx chose. “What do you mean?”
“I essentially reached into his mind and hit him from the inside. That requires a close link to the target, so close that I share his senses. I feel everything he does for the duration. The link ends when the pain shoots through both of us, generally rendering the other unconscious.” Maxx explained. “I will need to be carried for a while.”
Hope lifted the sword from the sand, noticing that he was much heavier than he usually was. He gingerly slid the enormous blade into the sheath that he wore strapped across his back.
“We should fill our water-skins and be going.” Shaunna said, moving towards the clear water of the lake.
“We aren’t going anywhere with Taren in that condition.” Hope stated.
He moved to Taren’s side, placing his hand directly over the wound. The blue light flowed through him, into Taren, turning an ugly shade of red. Muscle and skin began to knit back together as the light turned from red to purple to blue.
“I can’t believe I lost.” Taren repeated.
Hope laid his hand on Taren’s shoulder. “That man was very skilled. He knew exactly where to hit you to disable your arm with minimal damage. You should not feel the least bit inadequate for losing to him. I get the feeling that your Master Tarininan probably lost to him as well.
Taren reached down and retrieved Ethos. “I’m sorry, I should have done better.” He apologized, dismissing Hope’s absolution.
“I do not blame you, Taren. You did your best.”
He faced Hope. “Maxx, I am sorry you had to do that, but thank you for saving me.”
Maxx’s voice was weak when he answered. “I am glad to be of service.”
Taren pulled out and activated the Star Fire Sword. He quickly passed Ethos through the fiery blade to energize him. “Here, let us help you.” He touched Ethos’ blade to Maxx’s. The effect was immediate. Maxx began to glow brighter than any of them had seen him before.
“Thank you. I haven’t felt this well in centuries.”
Taren nodded and turned to the other bandits lying on the ground. “How did you sneak up on us? The unconscious one mentioned hundreds of others. There is nothing around for leagues, how is this possible?”
The man just lay silently as his life blood ran from the wound on his leg.
“Saria, do you think you might heal this one enough to talk?”
Saria, looking pale as ever, walked over to the man. Holding her staff in one hand, she placed the other directly on the weeping wound. Bright blue light flooded from her hand into the wounded leg. Muscle and tended knit back together, blood stopped flowing into the sand, and the man sat up.
Taren pointed Ethos at the man’s chest. “Now, I would appreciate it if you answered my question.” Despite the polite manner that he used, there steel in Taren’s voice.
“There are caves under the Oasis that lead to our hide out. The others are probably already on their way to see why Kòmandan has not returned yet.”
“Time to go.” Taren said, standing and donning his pack. He stooped to retrieve the deep blue crystal. It pulsed slightly as his hand made contact with its warm, smooth surface. He didn’t know why he had called it the “heart”, but he felt that it was probably one of the two that the magic had mentioned in its rhyme. Without giving it another thought, he placed the gem in his pocket and walked into the desert.
Shaunna addressed the bandit. He shied away from her when she spoke. “The others will live, but you will want to get them medical attention.” Without another word she turned and walked swiftly from the oasis, following the others.