Broken Dagger

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Schilling Manor

Schilling Manor

As Darvin and Sahn trudged their way out of the hot desert toward the border that divided Annuvian and Shrkai lands, two dignitaries were being welcomed at Millorny’s modest home on the north side of Schilling Harbor. A servant guided the elven woman and human council members out to the back porch and they sat on stone benches overlooking the cliffs with the vast western ocean stretched out over the horizon. They were each served drinks, as Millorny made his way down the stairs on his crutches with his attractive young assistant walking beside him.

“Well what could possibly bring two of the elder council members out to my humble home?” Millorny asked in an openly jovial manner, as his assistant took his crutches from him and helped him to sit at a cushioned wood reclined chair near the two council members.

“We’ve not seen you in a long while commander,” the human council member began, as Millorny’s assistant poured two more drinks from a chilled pitcher.

“Yes we wanted to visit to see how you were recovering,” the elven dignitary added.

“Oh don’t try to mince words with me,” Millorny laughed as he accepted the drink and his assistant then went to lay on a blanket spread out on the lawn not far from the stone patio where Millorny and the two council members sat. “This is your first visit to my home here and it is not a social call. What brings you here? You need me to help Otis in structuring our defenses? Or is it other business?”

“Well sir you are right of course,” the elven council member admitted, as she set her drink down on a nearby table and stood. “Much has changed with the high council over the last few years since your long-time friend Nicademus passed from us. The council has grown to near double its previous membership, but that alone is no concern.” Millorny sipped his drink and listened to her speak.

“Yes,” the human agreed, but remained seated. “We are not concerned with the increased membership, but the current prime minister is stepping down.”

“I see, please go on.” Millorny encouraged them when saw the grave look on their faces.

“Yes we are quite concerned with who the now larger council will vote on as his replacement,” the human council member remarked. “Most of the new members have been placed by well positioned geographic regions near the city of Currencia.” Millorny seemed to listen more closely as the city of Currencia was mentioned. He finished his drink and gestured for a servant behind him to re-fill his glass. The servant stepped forward out of the shadows carrying a new pitcher of chilled spirits and went also to the council members to refresh their drinks as well.

“Who does the majority seem to favor at this point?” Millorny asked as he sat up. The two councilmembers looked to each other and then the elven female brushed her graying hair behind her leaf-shaped ears and sat back down.

“The governor of Currencia seems to have a vast majority of the council’s votes,” she said, as she set her challis down on the nearby table. “The people are quite enraged over the Shrkais crossing the border. There has been much talk of violence and there was a brutal slaying although more than two years ago now it is said to have been a Shrkai man who committed the act, though no one has ever been caught.”

“The governor of Currencia as you know controls a great deal of wealth. His influence has grown considerably over the years and although many on the council, or should I say many of the old council whose members are mostly retired, do not seem to share his outwardly racist views. He has been able to solicit much support. He promises to block our borders and deport thousands of Shrkai back across the Seerogana.” The human council member added with a great deal of urgency in his voice.

“What is it you would have me do? I am retired from commander of the defense forces, but Otis is quite capable of a warrior, you should send him and the elite troops down to the border to keep the peace. The Shrkai have been peaceful allies with us for more than a century now.” Millorny pressed his lips together and closed one hand into a fist, as his other lifted his drink to his lips.

“We do not seek you as a military leader, but as a civil one,” the human councilmember stood and stepped toward him in an almost bowed position.

“We wish you to be our next prime minister,” The elven woman stood with her palms open. “You are quite well known and the only person to even possibly gain more votes on the council than the Currencian dictator.”

Millorny reached out for his crutches and began to pull himself up from his seat when his attractive assistant came to his side to help him to his feet, he brushed her off and stood on his own power. He walked forward to the edge of the patio’s stone pavers and passed the two dignitaries who turned to follow close behind him.

“You will have our full support and many others on the council,” the elven councilwoman said, as she placed a hand on his shoulder. Millorny pulled one hand off the handle of his crutches and let his weight rest on the leather covered support beneath his armpit. He placed his hand on top of the elven council woman’s and continued to look out over the cliff with the sound of the waves lapping at the rocky shore far below.

“You will hear from me soon, now please leave me alone for a while so I may think.” The two councilmembers bowed quietly and turned to leave. Millorny’s young assistant came over and stood beside him holding his hand and the two of them looked out over the ocean waters as the councilmembers were escorted through the home and out the front door.

Back at Ostleron academy Lash is climbing some spiral stone steps up into one of the tall towers of complex. On top of the tower with the orange glow of the morning sun Millaney stands beside her dragon dipping a huge scrub brush into a wooden tub filled with soap and water, as Dahvy her dragon turns to look to the entrance to the stairs.

“That’s alright girl I hear him too. There’s no one here that will try to hurt us I promise,” she said to calm her beloved dragon, as she lifted a scrub brush dripping with soapy water and scrubbed beneath her dragon’s wing. Lash stepped up from the darkened stairwell into the early morning light shining on the high tower.

“Good morning. I was told I could find you up here,” Lance announced after emerging from the stairs and remained where he was. “Wow they appear so much bigger up close. Is it safe to step closer?”

“Sure she’s already eaten,” Millaney giggled a bit. “Just move slow and let her get to know ya.” Lash smiled and stepped out a bit closer. The dragon moved her head which was twice as long as it was tall or wide and sniffed at Lash pulling his tunic free from his chest and nearly lifting him off his feet as her flared nostrils breathed in his scent. “Don’t approach just any dragon though. Dahvy here is quite special. She is one of three that took to me sort of like their mother shorty after they were hatched.” She patted her dragon on the neck and the dragon seemed to approve of Lash and lifted her head so that Millaney could continue giving her a bath. Lash felt safe enough to step up beside Millaney and watch her as she scrubbed under her dragon’s wing causing the dragon’s back leg to twitch in a scratching motion and her head tilt a bit with quiet grumble sounds spilling out of her from her throat. “She’s just a big baby really, but the rest of the dragons are much more feral.”

“You saw her be hatched?”

“Yes I was only about 14 then. I even helped Gaitlynne feed them, I’ll never forget it.”

“Gaitlynne, oh yes I’ve heard of her, she was human, but transformed into a dragon by the Shrkai from the island.” Lash remarked, as he continued to watch Millaney scrub her dragon.

“Well she was returned to human by the high priest of the mainland Shrkai, but she is still considered the dragon queen. Would you like to help me scrub her?” Millaney asked while holding the handle of the brush out to Lash.”

“What? Are you serious?” Lash shrieked.

“Yes if we are to be friends. You’ll need to get comfortable around my dragon.” Millaney handed him the handle of the scrub brush and walked over to wipe her hands on a towel and dry her curly blond hair. Lash stood very uneasy his arms trembling with the scrub brush in his hand and the dragon turned back to look at him. He smiled and moved the brush forward gently running it across the dragon’s back.

“Oh go on scrub harder than that. She has armor you’re not going to hurt her with scrub brush.” Millaney laughed, as she watched Lash’s weak attempt at scrubbing the dragon. Lash did scrub a bit harder, but Millaney took the brush from laughing and put it up then kicked over the wooden tub. The dragon spread out her wings beneath the warm sun covering both Lash and Millaney with water dripping off her wings.

Lash reached forward to put his arm around Millaney’s waist and kiss her on the back of the neck.

“No no,” she said as she stepped away. “We’ll have none of that,” she took hold of one of his arms and turned to look at him. “I’m your instructor now. We must maintain due order.”

“But it has been weeks since we’ve had time alone together. Today is our day off.” He pulled in her tight, but she playfully pushed him back. She looked into his eyes and smiled, but turned her back to him and fell into his arms.

“And what is it you would want to do with your day off?” She asked, as she held his arms and he nuzzled his cheek against hers.

“I’m fine just as I am.”

“You may be but you might as well know it now. I’m not one to be held still for long.” She spun out of their embrace. And walked over to a short stone wall where her dragon saddle was resting. “Not when I have a dragon that can take me anywhere.”

Lash watched her with a huge smile on his face, as she bent over to lift the heavy saddle and her dress pulled up exposing the back of her upper thighs with the dagger that was always sheathed around her right thigh. Millaney spun around with the saddle in her arms and Dahvy lowered her wings so that she could buckle it around her waist. After Millaney finished buckling the saddle on her back, Dahvy lowered herself down.

“You have to get up first,” she said to Lash holding out her hand. “What’s the matter? You’re not scared are ya?” she said to Lash through a mischievous smile. Lash stepped forward and took her hand, then put one foot in the stirrup and through his other up over the saddle. Millaney leaped up in front of him nearly kicking him in the head, as she through her stocking clad leg in front of his face and over the saddle. She ran a harness over both of their shoulders and across her breasts before buckling it to the metal loop on the back of the saddle horn between her legs. She lifted the reins and coaxed her dragon to the edge of the tower. “So where would you like to go?”

“Oh uh…” he started his reply not hearing her at first as he was mesmerized by the feel of her soft body pressed up against his and intoxicating aroma of her fragrant body oil. “Well I’ve never been out of my village before now, so anywhere would be exciting, especially if I’m with you.”

“You can’t be serious,” she replied. Lash just shrugged his shoulders as his answer. “Wow you are in for such a treat then.” She kicked her dragon in the sides with the soft heels of her laced leather boots, then they dove off the edge of the high tower roaring out over the tops of the trees in the nearby forest. She then soar upward and reached out with both hands and felt the moisture of the thin white clouds she flew through, as Lash held her tight around the waist. She stayed up high in the clouds with the sight of land far below then pried Lash's arms free from her waist and pulled them up with hers. “Can you feel it?” she shouted out to him with the roar of the wind whistling through their ears. Lash opened his eyes and lifted his head up from her back and looked at the ground far below with Millaney's hair blowing in his face. He pulled one of his hands to his face rubbed his thumb across his fingertips noticing the tiny droplets of cool water that collected on them.

“This is so amazing!” he shouted back to her.

“How's your stomach holding out?”

“Seems alright” Lash answered not knowing her meaning.

“Well if you feel like you're going to be sick, turn your head and let it fly behind us. I don't want to clean vomit out of my hair.” Millaney put her dragon into a deep spiraling dive plummeting down to the ground far below then pulling up just above the treetops and leveling off.

“Woah...” Was all Lash could say as he again grabbed her around the waist. Millaney smiled and did a quick barrel roll with her dragon. They continued to fly off in a much more steady manner as the villages and forests passed beneath them with no real destination in mind, until Millaney recognized that they were nearing the most populated region of Annuvin just south of the capital city. She spied the ground below knowing that there was always a festival to be found end she saw a field near one of the large towns filled with tents and a crowd starting to gather. She flew overhead then looked for a secluded spot on a nearby hill to land. She unbuckled the harness and leaped off flipping in the air before landing on her feet on the soft ground nearby. “Show off” Lash laughed, as he climbed down off the dragon and set his wobbly legs on the ground. His head immediately started to spin and he reached a hand up to his forehead to settle it, when he felt an acidic flow of vomit crawl, up his throat. He a sickening smile on his face he forced the upheaval back down into his stomach and took a few uneasy steps away from the dragon before Millaney came over to grab his arm and yank him down the hill.

She held his arm in hers, as they walked together toward the crowds filing in to the tented area. The scent of food from various sources waved over them and seeped into their awaiting nostrils. The first tent Millaney pulled him to was a display of hand made scarves which she browsed through and brought them to around her neck and looked back at him in playful manner as she drew a sheer scarf across her face. Lash nodded and smiled and reached out for her hand, but she slipped away spinning around a tent pole letting the scarf trail behind her and fall into his face. Millaney bought several of the scarves from the appreciative elven vendor then skipped back out of the tent grabbing Lash's arm and dragging him with.

They spent the morning going from tent to tent shopping or watching the dancers in the center spinning in circle with the skirts of their dresses twirling around their bodies. They then bought some warm baked sweetbread from one of the vendors and found a quiet grassy knoll near a tree away from the crowd with only two other groups of people sitting and they sat with their backs against the trunk of the tree wiping their sticky fingers on a cloth the vendor provided, then sat back, as the sun reached its peak overhead. They didn't sit for very long, after Millaney finished her sweetbread, she got to her feet and pulled Lash up with her.

They stayed with the fair throughout the day and Lash was even allowed to sit in with one of the musician groups and ran the bow across the strings of the wooden instrument with such passion and gaiety all the time kicking up his heels that the crowd nearby couldn't help but join in. He bowed to then dagnaar male that lend it to him, as he returned it then he grabbed Millaney by her arms and they led the crowd in dancing. As the sun dipped over the horizon and darkness fell upon the event small fires were lit throughout the area and the festivity increased at a fevered pitch. On the center stage a group of two men and a young woman dressed in matching costumes with the exception of the young woman's costume being very revealing stepped up and lit the sticks of fire and began to dance before the gathered crowd, spinning their fire sticks with the rhythm of the drums. One by one each of the fire-dancers then took a solo in front of the others and put the fire out in their moist mouths, then three of them bowed together before the crowd.

Millaney stood in front of Lash with her head nuzzled against his shoulder and his arms around her waist. Knowing that these festivals normally would last all night and greet the rising sun the next day, Millaney stepped forward out of Lash's embrace but kept hold of one of his hands.

“I have had such a wonderful day,” she said to him with her head down a bit and walking away from the crowd which was finally beginning to disperse leaving mostly the entertainers and a few hardy individuals from the crowd to keep the festivities alive. “I would love to stay all night and greet the sun, but we only have the one day off from classes. We must be going.”

“Yes, but there will be other days.” Lash said to her, as followed behind her walking through the thinning crowd and headed back toward the hill where they left her dragon. “Forgive me for not thinking of it before now, but is your dragon alright alone op top the hill we left her at?”

“Oh yes she's fine. I left the saddle on her, so she knows I'll be returning to look for her. She probably flew off to avoid the people, but she won't go far.” Many of the vendor tents had already pulled out their wares but left the tent set up expecting to return the next day. Millaney and Lash held hands, as the walked up the hill and stood with the moonlight shining on them. Lash pivoted Millaney around and looked into her eyes. He leaned in to kiss her, but she stopped him by pressing her finger to his lips. “Remember student instructor boundaries.”

“Tomorrow you'll be my instructor,” he gently grabbed her wrist and kissed her fingers one after the other. “and when you bark I'll jump higher than any other student, but tonight your lips beckon me.” He pulled her in tight and kissed her deep pressing his lips against hers, but when he pulled back to break off the kiss, she took charge and pulled him in and kissed him yet again with more passion than he expected and left him hanging there wanting more with his eyes closed. She turned and whistled for her dragon. Lash remained still with his eyes closed and the taste of her sweet lips still fresh in his mind, as Dahvy spread out her wings and landed nearby. Lash finally opened his eyes, and climbed up onto the dragon's saddle with the back rest reaching up to the middle of his back. After Lash got seated, Millaney placed her left foot in the stirrup and threw her right leg over. She leaned her head back, as she put her other foot in the stirrup and lifted the reins as she felt Lash's warm breath on her neck, as his lips pressed against her neck where it met the shoulder and he pulled back the collar of her dress.

“Please Lash. You'll have to stop that so I can focus on my flying.” She said in a soft voice.

“As you wish.”

Millaney pulled the harness again over their shoulders as before and hooked it to the saddle horn. 'heeya' she hollered out snapping the reins and her dragon soared off into the dark sky.

Millaney landed her dragon in the quiet village circle near Lash's home. A nearby dog someone in the darkness barked, as it saw the dragon land but yelped and slithered back when Dahvy turned her large head and smokey nostrils in the direction of the sound. Lash slid out from beneath the harness after Millaney unbuckled it and 'scooched' forward in the saddle. With legs already much more stable than the first time he dismounted from the dragon's back, he stepped down onto the ground while holding Millaney's had in his.

“This is by far the most exciting day I have had in my life,” he said as he looked back to her.

“As it has been for me and I very much enjoyed sharing it with you, now it's late I must be off before we wake your whole village.” She slid her hand out from his grasp an adjusted the harness tighter across her body and slid back to rest against the back of the saddle, then quietly nudged her dragon back up into the dark sky.

Lash watched as Millaney and her dragon flew out across the pale green full moon then disappeared out of sight. With a broad smile across his face and his feet lighter than air, Lash cupped his palm around a narrow tree in the village center and stretched out his body as he spun around it then danced his way home with an imaginary partner.

The sun was just rising the next morning, as Millaney woke in her room at the academy. She pivoted her bare legs over the edge of her wood-framed bed and slid her feet into fluffy slippers. She threw off her warm blankets wearing an over-sized night shirt that extend to her pale knees. She rubbed her tired eyes and forced herself out of bed and over to a night stand where she sat and lifted a brush to run through her thick blond hair loosening the wavy locks. She pulled off her night shirt letting it fall in a clump at her feet then dipped a sponge in some chilly water from a basin and washed up before putting on her uniform and strapping her dagger to her right thigh over her tall socks then pulled up her soft leather calf-high boots and laced them up. She grabbed a sword belt with a sword already sheathed in it and buckled it around her waist.

She stepped out of her private room on a floor with a few other rooms most of which were filled with other students some who were student-instructors like herself many of which were exiting into the hallway from their chambers as well. They nodded and or yawned polite greetings to each other then headed down to a large mess hall. After taking a tray and going through a line to get her morning meal, Millaney went to a long rectangular table with other instructors some student instructors, but most were hired from other regions previous graduates of the only major school in all of Annuvin returned to teach in the same classrooms that taught them.

After a short time she noticed Otis stepping away from the line walking over to the table eating a roasted fowl leg from a heaping plate of food, as he walked. Her eyes then opened a bit wide when she noticed her Shrkai sister Sarnay walking behind him. Otis plopped down at an open seat on the bench next to Millaney. The people seated on the other side of Millaney shuffled down to make room for Sarnay. After Sarnay set her plate of food down, Millaney got up to give her sister a hug.

“I wasn't expecting you so soon,” Millaney spoke out loud giving her sister a hug. “I have got to talk to you after we eat.” She whispered in Sarnay's ear then sat back down. “So what brings you up from the border?” Millaney asked after sitting down.

“Nothing good,” Sarnay replied as she looked down at her food poking at it with her two-pronged fork.

“Ya it's almost enough to make me lose my appetite,” Otis remarked, as he shoveled food into his mouth. Both Millaney and Sarnay gave him a strange look.

“Maybe we should head to the conference room outside your office,” Millaney suggested.

“You two go ahead,” Otis belched out after a swallowing a huge drink of his juice. “I'll catch up with you in awhile.” The two girls lifted their plates and stepped out of the dining hall through a side door. They scraped off their plates in a compost bin outside the building and set the empty plates and wares in a barrel before walking across the courtyard toward another building. The two held each others' hand as they walked. Since the time of Sarnay's birth back on the island of the Dragon clan of the Shrkai a few days after Millaney was brought to them as an infant, the two have rarely been apart for long. Millaney was about to rattle on about meeting Lash, but she pushed her excitement back when she noticed Sarnay seemed rather far off in thought.

“Where is Frolin by the way?” Millaney asked hoping to ease into whatever subject seemed to be troubling her sister.

“Ahh you know him. Whenever there is a library near he buries himself in a book or three.” Sarnay replied trying to sound happy.

“You really need to tell me what brought you here,” Millaney asked, as they neared a different stone building in the academy grounds.

“Let's wait until we get to the conference room so I can better organize my thoughts,” Sarnay smiled as she opened the large wooden door. “You said you had some news?”

“Oh no that can wait. It's nothing really.”

They walked together down a narrow shadowed hallway of what used to be the soldiers barracks, then opened a double wooden door and stepped in to a large room with weapons racks along both walls and shields with a variety of coat of arms displayed hanging from the walls. Millaney sat at the table, as Sarnay wandered around the room looking at all the weapons and such and even running her fingertips over the smooth blade of a halberd in one of the racks.

“Will you please tell me what's going on before I lose my mind here,” Millaney pleaded. With a half a smile on her face, Sarnay sat opposite her sister and reached her hands across the table and held Millaney's hands in hers.

“It was the worse thing I've ever seen in my life,” Sarnay began looking her sister directly in the eyes. “At first there were minor conflicts and brawls which by themselves were not a major concern, but then Frolin and I noticed a pattern. At each incident there were reports of an unknown Shrkai man and three strange hooded children, or child-sized anyway. We sent word out to all the border guards to keep an eye out for them, just to talk to them see if they might know anything about the clashes that were breaking out.” Sarnay paused and squeezed her sister's hands a bit tighter. “Then we found a guards body... He was tore up in a way I've never seen before. A chelonian guard. Frolin determined it had to have happened fast, because the guard didn't even pull his sword. He had deep claw-marks all over his body.”

“Claw marks? What could possibly claw a chelonian to death, their hides are nearly as tough as a dragon's armor.”

“It didn't make sense to us either, that's why we immediately flew back here we arrived yesterday while you were away.”

“We are dealing with the unknown here. You were right to fly up here. We need to come up with a plan together.” A short moment later Otis burst through the door and saw the two of them sitting at the wooden table. “We're going to need to put together a team right away.”

“I'm way ahead of you,” Otis announced, as he sat at the head of the long rectangular wooden table. “I've already arranged for a team of elite infantry to take the next boat down there.”

“But that will take weeks.” Millaney added, as she stood up from the table.

“Yes I want you two to form a team. You have all three dragons now. You should be able to fly a half dozen or more soldiers down and investigate. We still don't know what we're dealing with. We'll need as much information as you can gather. Take with you the best of our academy students and meet up with the border guards already in place. I'll get down to you as soon as I can, but just search for whatever this is, don't engage until I arrive. Is that clear?” He directed the second part of his command to Millaney who nodded her understanding. “You are young, but you are one of the best students, I've ever instructed. Load your dragons up with all the armaments they can carry and don't take any chances.” Otis got up from his seat and stepped around by Millaney. Sarnay came around to join them. “You girls are very precious to me. I love you both dearly.” The three of them shared an embrace, then Otis turned to step out of the room.

“I'll gather up our soldiers and supplies, you go see if Frolin has found anything in his books.” Millaney directed, as she and Sarnay stepped out into the hallway. The two went in opposite directions in the hallway. Millaney rushed to the practice field where she was already late for a class. When she arrived the advanced students were gathered on one side of the field where Otis was having them form ranks and march out of the academy grounds. Millaney ran over to her group of students with Lash standing among them. “A situation has come up and I'm going to have to leave for a while.” She picked out one of the advanced students in her class, an elven female who stepped forward in a rigid military fashion. “Continue with your drills. I'm leaving Kastana in charge until I return.” She glanced toward Lash, then turned to leave.

Kastana barked out a command the group formed ranks facing each other with their wooden swords in their outstretched arms, all that is except Lash who stepped out of formation and followed after Millaney.

“Where are you going?” Lash asked after catching up to her.

“Ugh... I don't have time for this.” Millaney brushed him off, and headed toward a different building with Lash hot on her heels.

“You're off on some sort of mission aren't you?”

“Yes there is trouble of some type at the border.”

“Then take me with you.” Lash begged, as they got to the building and he reached out to open the door for her.

“Really? You just picked up a practice sword for the first time in your life a few weeks ago, besides I'm not damsel in distress that needs rescuing.” Millaney stepped quick through the hallway back then up some stairs with Lash following behind her every step of the way.

“I don't think of you in that way, you know that.”

“Oh, in what way do you think of me then?” Millaney turned sharp and looked him in the eyes.

“I... I Think of you as someone I'd very much like to know better.” Lash smiled, as they stood in the hallway just outside the door to Millaney's private room.

“Please I sincerely enjoyed our time together, don't spoil it. I have certain responsibilities. If you can't deal with that then, I don't know what to say. We'll have more time to get to know each other when I return.” Millaney turned from him and opened the door to her room. She stepped inside and closed the door on him. Lash stood in the hallway dropping his head, as he heard her door-latch click.

A short time later he was out in the practice field with the other students drilling with their sword and shield. He looked up to see two dragons fly over the campus with Millaney on one and her Shrkai sister Sarnay on the other. He watched as they flew out of sight, then turned his attention back to his training blocking a wooden sword thrust at him by his opponent. That afternoon he had two other classes. He immersed himself in geometric equations and historic dates for the rest of the day, but as the sun fell and darkness engulfed the campus he had the lonely walk back to his village. He was the only student to live in the nearby village, while the other five hundred live in the housing at the academy. The walls of the complex faded behind him as he carried his books in a canvas bag he slung across his shoulder and disappeared into the thick forest that separated his village from the academy. That's when his thoughts were filled only of her, his princess dragon rider.

The days that followed seemed to drag on for Lash. Where just a few short weeks ago his time was filled with simple village life, telling stories at the nearby tavern for a few coins to contribute to help pay the rent on his family's modest home, now he spent them at the academy which while as near his village as it could be called a neighbor, but within the walls it was a whole world apart. Time there seemed to be a rare commodity life was a but a speeding blur of classes the melded in one to the other, with a rush of activity in between as the hallways filled with students trying to get from one classroom to the other.

Lash was doing as well as any other student at the academy in fact most times his grades were far above average. He applied himself like no other student. Where most who attended were the privileged few that seemed to take a higher education for granted, he knew that for him this was a rare golden opportunity and wanted to get every benefit from it he could. In addition to his class-load which was no different really than any other student, Lash soon found many clubs to join. Where before his life was much more of a log adrift on the sea just floating among the gentle waves with no real direction in mind, now he was focused and driven to succeed. He knew that to give himself an edge he had to fill his time at the school with activities, to set himself apart from the many other students from wealthy families seeking the same degree. He still thought of Millaney on his long quiet walks home after dark. He'd often look up to the sky to see if he'd see her returning on her dragon.

It was three days later as he sat outside on a bench between classes with a book in one hand and a piece of fruit in the other, when Frolin approached him.

“Excuse me sir, might you be Lash Bavil?” Frolin asked of him. Lash raised a hand over his eyes to block out the bright afternoon sun to see a Shrkai boy that was about his age standing before him wearing the most unusual bronze goggles.

“Umm yes I am.”

“Might I join you please?” Lash moved over on the stone bench he was sitting on so that Frolin could join him. “I am a friend of Millaney.” Frolin sad as he sat on the bench next to Lash.

“OH! How is she? Have you heard from her?” Lash set his book aside and turned to look at Frolin.

“I believe she is fine, no I haven't heard from them, but I've known these two ever since they helped me up the ridge at the Shrkai academy about three years ago now. I've learned they are some of the most capable people I've ever known, they can take good care of themselves,” Frolin saw the look on Lash's face then added, “but I worry about them too.” Lash nodded then looked up at the bright sky with a couple of day moons at ¾ size drifting behind some clouds. “They are not the reason I came to speak to you though, I heard you are a storyteller.”

“She told you about me huh?” Lash said with a sense of pride in believing Millaney was thinking of him as well.

“Well she confided to Sarnay and I just overheard her.”

“Well yes, stories have been tradition in my family I heard them from my grandfather when I was quite young every night by the fire.” Lash went back to eating his piece of fruit.

“I'm especially interested in a story you told about an elven princess and an energy stone they placed in their village.”

“Yes that's always a crowd favorite, but I called it an elfstone, not an energy stone.” Lash replied.

“Well that's just the scientist in me, but the reason I'm asking is, well you may not have heard up here, but a few years ago just before the suns merged into one another energy stone called a lifestone was destroyed.” Frolin paused for a moment before continuing. “I just thought the coincidence in the similarity of these stories too much to overlook. From what I've learned of the elven folk is that they developed in this region about the same time period as the Shrkais were building their great city. Now you say their stone pushed back the ash cloud that came from the great eruption. That sounds about right since they lived far enough from the initial blast to have survived and the any ash cloud that would have reached here may have been light enough to be held by an energy source like that. Anyway I guess I just found it curious and couldn't find it in any of the books.”

“You wouldn't,” Lash replied, as he tossed the center core of the fruit he was eating under some nearby bushes. “I believe my family heard the stories from the elves when they first settled in this region a century ago or something and they been re-telling it with every generation.” Lash looked at a large water-powered clock in the center of the courtyard with three triangular facings show the time. He picked up his textbook and stood, then reached out a hand to Frolin. “It was great to meet you. I am very much like an outsider here.”

“Yes I know the feeling,” Frolin answered, as he accepted Lash's hand the two of them shook hands as if they were old friends. “And it's not just because I'm the only Shrkai, I think it's much more of a snobbery class issue than an ethnic one.” He smiled and stood to leave as well.

The next morning, as Lash stood in formation with his other classmates with a new instructor standing before them, two people entered the practice field and walked up to the instructor.

“No!” Lash remarked out loud. “This is too much of a coincidence. It can't be.” The students nearest him, just gave him a strange look, as an elderly elven man with a long gray beard and an attractive elven young woman with short black hair talked to the instructor. The elderly elven man stepped forward to address the formation of student soldiers.

“I have come here seeking an escort for myself and my daughter,” the elderly elven man started to speak in a surprisingly strong voice. “I have been told that not only will the volunteers be given extra credit for this class, but they will also be allowed to make up work over the upcoming break for their their others classes and not lose a grade there.” Several of the young men bolted forward from their ranks with their arms outstretched almost fighting over each other to volunteer. Lash also stepped forward. “but it can't be anyone who is already behind in their grades,” The elven man added causing most of the would-be volunteers to step back into formation. The young elven woman lifted her long gown to show her ankles and stepped up to the group, as her father moved aside. She looked each appreciative student soldier over carefully one at a time smiling at some and looking them over quite thoroughly, while others she passed up rather quick. When she got to Lash she stood quietly for a moment looking him over.

“You're the bard aren't you?” she asked after a moment.

“Yes miss. I tell stories to help my family pay for their home.” Lash replied much to the envy of the other students whose snarls made their feelings quite apparent. She looked him over a bit longer than went to the next student a very large strong human who stood at attention thrusting out his chest when she looked upon him. She smiled at him as well, then glanced over some of the others quickly before returning to stand by her father.

“I'll take him, him, him and uhh that one.” she pointed out four of the students including the large human who thrust his chest out at her and Lash, who she was sure to pick last and smile at before turning to leave with her father.

“Alright you four fall out and go to the armory to pick up your weapons and supplies,” the instructor barked out. “The rest of you take position for drill.” Lash followed the three other chosen volunteers, as they patted each other on the back and jogged off the practice field.

A short time later Lash and the three others chosen gathered at the stables and a horse was brought out for each with three horns on the head set in a triangular pattern the forward most horn a bit longer and thicker and a slight curve pointed back to the body of the horse. The barrel chested human lifted a large folded tent to tie behind the small leather saddle on his horse, while the others just had a small pack and bedroll. The elven daughter strode up mounted on a sleek cinchona colored horse with a flowing golden mane. She had changed from her satin gown to a more practical cloth riding dress but was no less revealing of her curvaceous figure and was hemmed just below the knee revealing the bottom half of her her thigh high leather boots and just loose enough for her legs to straddle the back of her horse.

“I am Jasna,” she spoke toward the group of student soldiers. “Thank you for coming to my aid.”

“I am Magno,” the large human bowed before her. “Honored to have been chosen.”

“I am Celerem,” the dagnaar student presented her with a flower.

“I am Skratka,” the dwarven student clicked his heels and bowed his head, as Jasna walked her horse before their rank.

“And you?” she asked of Lash when she appeared before him on her horse.

“But I thought you already knew of me,” Lash replied with no bow, now flower and no clicking of his heels.

“Yes I have... You are the Bard. Lash is it?” Jasna asked as her horse stood before him and nodded its head and scraped the ground with one of its front hooves.

“Yes and I'm only doing this for the extra credit,” he smiled to her then mounted his black horse and stood beside her. “Is your father not joining us?” He asked, as he he trotted his horse along side hers. The other three students scrambled to mount behind them. The dagnaar mounted a specially made saddle for his body shape so that he didn't have to sit straight up, but leaned over with his head just above the neck of his horse. The dwarf mounted a small but sturdy horse, and the large human mounted his horse. The three of them caught up to Lash and Jasna flanking them on both sides, then Jasna kicked the side of her horse and the five of them galloped out of the campus grounds.

As Lash and the other students followed Jasna through the woods, Millaney and Sarnay met with the border guards they returned to the scene where the chelonian guard's body was found and split into two groups. They searched on foot for any sign of a trail and talked to everyone they could in the small villages, trade markets or people they'd pass along the way, but they uncovered nothing more about the Shrkai man with the three hooded children.

Later that evening as the sun was setting in the forest, Lash was gathering firewood as the others were setting up tents in a small clearing just off the forest path. The horses were tied together to a rope strung between two tree trunks, as Lash piled some branches he had gathered in front of the tents. Magno and Skratka grabbed their bows and ventured deeper in the forest, as Celerem and Lash raked up the dried leaves and pine needles and stuffed them under the branches. Celerem struck a knife across a flat stone he pulled out of his pack and blew on the sparks until the dry leaves caught fire. Jasna loosened the laces on her boots and sat on a fallen tree limb with a gourd flask in her hand, as Lash and Celerem poked at the fire and continued to put dry leaves on until the twigs and branches started to burn, then they too found a place to sit on either side of Jasna.

They passed the flask between them drinking the spirits with and staring at the fire. Lash kept a thick branch to poke at the fire keep the dry leaves loose so they burned easier and a pile of twigs nearby to toss on to keep the fire burning. It wasn't long before Magno and Skratka returned with a small kill that they skinned and skewered. Magno held it over the fire keeping it high enough to roast and spun it from time to time.

“I'd say it's a good time for a story,” Jasna said looking to Lash.

“My stories are but folk tales passed on to me over the many generations of my family. I was hoping you would tell us one.” Lash replied after a long moment of thought. “We exactly are we headed on this mission of yours?” Jasna smiled, but the other seemed quite disinterested. Celerem just leaned back stretching out on the tree limb with his back resting against a branch protruding from the limb. Skratka lay on a blanket near the fire and Magno kept turning the roast.

“A fair question,” Jasna smiled and thought of an answer.

“I don't really care where we're headed sweetpetal, so long as we get a few days out of class.” Magno laughed. Skratka smiled and gave him a 'thumbs up'. Jasna stood and handed her flask to Magno.

“Most folk tales have a basis in reality,” She spoke, as she circled the fire. “I've heard your story of the elven princess trapped in a magical stone to save her village.” Jasna looked across the flames with the firelight dancing in her emerald eyes. “Why it is true there are no more kings and no more princesses, my family too is deep with tradition.” The young men watched her every move transfixed more on her, than on her words, as she walked around the other side of the fire back toward them. That is except for Lash, who paid attention not only to what she was saying, but how she was saying it. “My father has asked me to seek such a gemstone. I am a descendant of that princess... or so my father has just informed me,” she was quick to add. Lash raised an eyebrow, as she looked directly at him.

“What need do you have for such a stone?” Lash asked of her when she passed in front of him and turned to sit back down beside him.

“He has not told me. He himself has only recently discovered its existence.”

“What difference should it make why she seeks it?” Magno interjected, as he continued to turning the mamas over the fire. “If it is her families stone she has every right to it. I'm with you all the sweetpetal.” Mango winked at her. The other students cheered in agreement. Jasna looked over to Lash and smiled, as if she had just won an argument.

After a short time, Magno pulled the roasted mammal away from the fire and broke off one of its legs. He offered the roasted meat to Jasna, who politely accepted, tore off the other leg for himself then passed the rest off to the others. They sat quietly together by the fire eating and passing a re-filled flask, as the fire dwindled with tiny sparks that floated upward only to lose their glow and disappear into the dark night sky.

The next morning, as the sun was rising, Lash stepped out from the larger tent he shared with the three other chosen students, and dug a hole near where the fires had burned away to bury the ashes. He froze his movements after seeing Jasna step out in her night dress. She stopped too after stepping out of her tent in a cloth night dress that hung from her breasts and covered her slender body down to just above her knees. She smiled when she saw his gaze upon her, as she too gazed upon him kneeling in only his short pants with no short to cover his lean tanned upper body. She stepped over to him and bent down at her knees to pick up a gourd container of water sitting near the fallen tree limb, then walked turned to walk back into her tent just before Magno stepped out of the other tent yawning and stretching out his big arms. Magno's yawn snapped Lash out of his trance and he finished up burying the ashes and returned to his tent. Magno looked around with bewildered expression standing there in front of the men's tent.

They quickly broke camp and packed up the tents with the bigger tent folded up onto the back of Magno's horse and Jasna's tent on the back of her horse. They trotted back out onto the path wide enough to only ride two by two, each of the students, other than Lash jockeying for position to ride beside Jasna. Jasna often pulled out a map at intersections before deciding which way to go. By late in the afternoon she slowed her pace looking at the map more often watching the forest to her left for an opening of a narrow path that was marked on the map not of the original printing of the map between named villages. At one point she stopped looking at the map and holding it up to compare it to the actual terrain with two hillsides marked on the map that appeared to match the terrain.

“There was once a path through here somewhere,” she proclaimed after rolling up the map and tucking it in a pocket on the side of her dress.

“I don't see anything,” Skratka remarked as he looked at the dense forest she pointed to.

“I'm sure it's overgrown by now. The elven village hasn't been seen in centuries.” Jasna said, as she dismounted and held the reins of her horse and walked up to the forest to step over the underbrush along the trail and into the woods. Lash was the first to dismount and follow her in, the other three followed them them. Once inside the woods there was room to walk between the tress trees but they often had to duck under low branches or step over fallen trees that were rotting and becoming nutrients for the for the forest. The ground was mostly level with just a slight decline, as they headed between the two hillsides.

“Will there be any signs of this village after more than a thousand years?” Celerem asked, as he pushed a low lying evergreen branch out his way.

“I can't say, but the stone was moved to a cave in one of the hills.” Jasna replied as she led them deeper into the woods. They spread out in a wider pattern with Jasna in the middle and each rider moving to where they were still in view of the rider next to them and led their horses deeper and deeper into the wooded valley until the forest started to darken with the setting of the sun, then they converged on Jasna and set up their tents.

Magno started to gather wood for the fire, when Lash stopped him.

“Keep it small. We don't want to burn down the forest,” Lash said to him. At first Magno looked as if he was going to argue, but he saw the low hanging pine branches and just nodded his understanding. They gathered around the small fire and cooked and shared three small fowl caught by Skratka and Celerem. Magno made it a point to sit close to Jasna, but after a short time she casually got up to stretch and moved closer to Lash.

The forest got dark fast with the canopy of trees blocking out most of the moonlight, it was difficult to see anything beyond the glow of the small fire. Celerem lay stretched on the ground close to the fire in order to warm his cold reptilian blood. Magno and Skratka sat on the ground with their backs pressed against trees across from Lash and Jasna who sat with their shoulders pressed up against the other sharing the wide trunk of a pine tree with a low hanging branch just above their heads. They shared one of the fowls and Jasna tore off a piece of the roasted meat and offered it to Lash who after a short moment ate from her fingers.

After they finished the meal, the five of them sat quietly around the fire, until Celerem got up and rushed off to his tent to climb and changed into a thick night shirt and climbed under the layers of blankets spread across his thick cushioned mat. Skratka and Magno got up to follow a short time later and Lash went to go kick out the fire and bury the ashes, but Jasna reached out to hold his hand and keep him at her side. Magno gave them a strange look, then raised a cupped hand to his eyebrow in a faux salute then continued to his tent. Jasna avoided eye contact with Mango and continued to stare at the fire poking it with the stick that once held the roasted fowl she and Lash shared.

“We should find this village tomorrow. It should not be far from here according to what the maps show that my father gave me,” Jasna said, as she snuggled up closer to Lash.

“If we find it at all.” Lash replied and leaned forward a bit enjoying her company, but not wanting to encourage her to become more affectionate.

“I just want you to know I appreciate your joining me on this quest.” Jasna said, as she rested her head on his shoulder. She shivered a bit as a cool wind blew up from behind them. “Perhaps another log on the fire?”

“I want it to burn down. I plan to kick it out soon and bury the ashes. It'd be warmer in your tent.”

“Yes it would.” Jasna brought her opposite hand across Lash and ran her fingertips up his arm and left her hand on his shoulder and turned to look him in they eyes. Lash turned his head to return her gaze looking into her emerald-green eyes beneath a lock of black hair from her bangs that floated over her dark bushy eyebrow. Her dark red lips eased their way closer to his and for a long moment he thought to let them brush up against his to taste their sweetness, but he turned his head and sat forward.

“Ummm... I uhh..... It's late,” He said, as he stood to kick out the fire and bury the ashes. Jasna stood behind him, and ran her fingernails across his back from shoulder to shoulder, before stepping into her tent. Lash turned to watch her enter her tent and saw her look back at him, as she tied the the flaps slowly closed, one string at a time. After she was gone, Lash kicked out the fire, buried the ashes and headed to the tent he shared with the other three male students.

They waited until the sun was up before packing the tents and returning to their search for the hidden village. They led their horse by the reins and spread out as they did the previous night each of them within sight of the person next to them, then they moved northeast according to Jasna's map of where the village was suspected to be. They searched for the better part of the morning and well into the afternoon looking for any signs of the lost elven village. Lash walked between Jasna in sight of him on one side and Celerem on the other. He walked along leading his horse watching the ground and the surrounding area for anything that looked like it was once the framing of a house or any ceramic cookware. He kicked at the underbrush looking beneath it, as he heard Celerem trip and fall.

“Ahh,” Celerem shouted, as he fell.

“Are you alright?” Lash called over to him.

“Ya I just tripped over a stupid stone?” Celerem called back, as he lay on the ground.

“A stone?” Lash asked quietly more to himself than Celerem. “Hold on I'll be right there.” Lash called over, as he led his horse through the thick weeds over to where Celerem lay. “Where is it?”

“I'm fine thank you,” Celerem replied, as he stood.

“No the stone... where is the stone?” Lash bent down ran his hand along the ground until he found the stone Celerem tripped over.

“What is it? Did you find something?” Jasna called from further away.

“I don't know yet,” Lash called back, as he started digging up the ground around the stone with his bare hands, then set his pack down and removed his small shovel. “Converge on me. Let's see what this is.” He called out to the others, who turned to head to the sound of his voice. Magno removed the shovel from his pack and helped Lash to dig up the stone which turned out to be much larger than just the small part that Celerem tripped over.

After digging for a short time, Lash put down his shovel and wiped the loose dirt off the stone, then uncorked his water-skin and drizzled some on the stone washing loose dirt out of some writing.

“It has something written on it!” Celerem shrieked. Magno stopped his digging and came around to the other side of the stone, as everyone gathered in a half circle to peer at the stone in the freshly dug hole.

“It's elven writing. My elven is not that good I've only had a short course in it,” He said, as he looked to Jasna, the only one in the group with elven heritage.

Jasna bent down to take a closer look at the writing. “It's eleven alright but an ancient dialect.”

“Can you read it?” Lash asked with unexpected excitement in his voice.

“Yes! Yes. It's Morning Dew. That was the name of the village!” Jasna squealed and stood up next to Lash. “We've found it!”

“Not yet. You said the stone was moved to a cave.” Lash reminded her.

Jasna reached into her dress pocket and took out her maps, shuffled through them until she found one that was of the village itself showing a cave entrance. She held up the map and turned herself to the north.

“It should be just over that way,” she said and pointed to the north. They each turned to face the same direction as Jasna and stepped through the foliage. Lash stayed near Jasna's side with the other three spread out on their left. They stepped through the thick underbrush near the base of the trees until a hill came into sight. “This has got to be it. Spread out and look for an entrance.” Jasna commanded of the group of students who nodded their understanding and inspected the based of the ascending hillside. Jasna and Lash moved to their right while the other three moved off to the left.

Behind the students something moved quickly through the underbrush and stopped at the stone that was exposed in the ground, then zipped away in the same direction as the unsuspecting party of explorers. Magno stooped to look closely at the moss-covered stones at the base of the hill, as three trails were pushed through the dense foliage behind him.

“AAAGGGH,” Magno's agonizing scream rang throughout the forest, as something pulled him down into the foliage. His horse reared then ran off as something moved rapidly over him clawing him deep all over his body. Skratka was nearest him and he drew his sword and ran to his aid only to be pulled down as well. Celerem ran over next only to see the two horses running from the scene.

“Stay here and stay hidden,” Lash said to the dark haired elven maiden, then drew his sword and ran over as well. “What happened,” he asked Celerem when he arrived. Celerem just stood looking quite frightened with his sword held out before him. Lash moved cautiously forward until he came upon Skratka leaning up against a fallen tree blood oozing from his claw wounds. “What was it?”

“I don't know... It moved so fast it was but a blur,” Skratka coughed out between deep heavy breathes. Suddenly Celerem screamed behind him and was pulled into the underbrush as well. Lash stood and looked, but saw nothing around him. He looked back at Skratka whose head had rolled to the side and his heavy breathing had stopped. Lash bent down to put his fingertips on Skratka's neck, but he felt no pulse.

Lash gripped his sword with both hands then moved through the woods following the trail in the underbrush that was left by Celerem's body being dragged off. He placed each step of his foot carefully watching for any signs of the beasts that took his mates. He heard Celerem scream and quickened his pace running to the sound when something leaped up out of the brush and clawed at his sword hand causing him to drop his sword and grab at his wound with the opposite hand. He stood motionless for several minutes and was about to reach down to retrieve his sword with his other hand when Jasna stepped out from where she was hiding nearby and grabbed him pulling him away. Lash instinctively followed.

They ran through the woods toward the hill they had been searching not knowing if the beasts were following them or not until they finally stopped to rest near a narrow stream.

“What were those things?” Lash asked out-loud of no one particular, as Jasna removed the pack from his back and reached in to pull out a roll of bandage and a jar of salve.

“I don't know I couldn't see anything,” she answered, as she tore at his shirt to expose the deep claw wound in his forearm.

“Why would they attack us here?” he asked again, but Jasna didn't answer, she just dipped a piece of cloth in the stream to clean out his wound, then rubbed the thick smelly solution over the claw marks before wrapping the bandage around his arm. “I have to go back.” Lash started to stand, but Jasna pulled him back down so she could finish dressing his wound. “Listen you have to let me go check on the others.”

“NO!” Jasna protested, as she finished tying off his bandage. “They're gone. There's nothing you can do about that.”

“I have to see for myself.” Lash pushed her off and stood up. Jasna got to her feet and moved in front of him.

“NO! You mustn't,” she cried and started to beat him across his chest. “You'll not going to leave me here alone just to satisfy some misguided sense of honor! You're just not.” She cried then hugged him tight and placed her head in his chest. Lash placed his uninjured arm across her shoulders. With tears moistening her cheeks, Jasna looked to the hillside with the tiny stream flowing alongside of it. She reached a hand up to wipe the tears from her eyes. “Look Lash we've found it.” Lash looked down at her and saw the way she was looking. He followed her gaze and saw a moss-covered arch with elven writing at the top. Jasna stepped toward the entrance with Lash right behind her.

“We can't think of the stone right now, we need to get back.” Lash pleaded.

“Don't you see? We were guided here. If this stone can push back the ash cloud from the eruption, maybe it can ward off the beasts in these woods.” Jasna turned sideways and squeezed into the narrow cave entrance overgrown with moss, ivy and fallen stones. Lash shook his head then followed her in.

Once inside the cave their only source of light was what little light seeped in through the narrow entrance. Lash felt along the cave wall until his hand came upon a torch in a mount. He removed it then tied some cloth around it and lit it by scraping sparks from a flat stone he kept in his pack. The torch lit up their immediate surroundings showing a compact area with water dripping down from the cave ceiling on a short distance above their heads and the cave walls encroaching from all sides. They stepped further into the darkness following a path that narrowed around them with an almost unnoticeable ascension. Lash led they holding the torch with his uninjured arm and holding Jasna's hand in his other, as she followed close behind nearly stepping on his heels.

The torch flickered and dimmed, as they continued to venture further into the cave. The path became so short, they had to duck and walk bent over and continue their upward climb on slippery smooth wet stone. Finally, as the torch dimmed and nearly went out the saw a greenish glow up ahead. Lash set the torch down, as he peered through a narrow crevice where the source of the greenish glow came for and saw a room lit up by an unseen source. Jasna shimmied up beside him and together they peered into the room.

“There must be a way in,” she said, as she she stood hunched over next to Lash. Lash used what little torch light remained to examine the nearby walls. He found some more elven writing, just as the torch flickered out. With the torchlight extinguished the writing reflected the glow and lit up enough for Jasna to read it. “With the blood of the ancients, the path shall be revealed.” Jasna read out loud the writing, as she ran her fingertips over the words.

“There's a stone dish down here at the bottom,” Lash announced after finding the dish in the dim light that escaped through the narrow crevice. He turned to Jasna and in a barely perceptive accusatory tone he told her. “You're the heir to the stone, surely your blood will open the path.”

“Why... yes of course,” Jasna smiled, then pulled a small dagger out from a hidden sheath in her clothing. She pricked one of her delicate fingertips and squeezed out a few drops of blood into the stone receptacle at the bottom of the wall. They waited, but nothing happened. She squeezed out a few more drops, but still nothing happened. Lash looked at her for a long moment, then turned to leave.

“Wait. Please!” Jasna begged. Lash stopped, but did not look back at her. “Maybe it's your blood we need.”

“I'm am not elven.”

“You could be. This was a thousand years ago. You could have elven blood in you and not even know it.” Jasna continued to plead, but Lash still didn't turn her way. “We've come this far. Does it hurt to try?”

Lash finally turned back to look at her on her knees before him with her hands clasped together and the glow reflecting in her eyes. He took the small dagger from her, pricked one of his fingertips and squeezed out a few drops of blood. The moment his drops of blood mingled with hers in the stone dish the walls began to rumble. Gravel spilled on them from above, as the walls moved and the narrow crevice widened. Soon it widened enough for them to slip into the small expansion on the other side. They were able to stand once inside and before them on a stone pedestal was a large glowing gem.

They instinctively held hands, as they inched their way closer to the inviting gemstone. The light of the stone reflected off their faces, as they stood next it gazing upon its mesmerizing symmetry. Jasna reached out to retrieve the stone and place it in a leather sack but left the bag open so the glow could guide them back out of the cave. Jasna squeezed out of the caves entrance first and stood in the narrow banks of the stream with the three shrouded child-sized beasts standing before her. She moved aside speechless, as Lash stepped out behind her.

“No! Don't kill him,” Jasna stepped between Lash and the three demonic beasts, as one of them started to move forward. “I have what your master wants. I'll bring it to him, just please don't kill this one.” The shrouded figures looked to each other speaking in a quiet unrecognizable fast chatter, then the center one picked up a large rock and smashed Lash's shin.

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