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The Guild Core 2: Core Sworn (A Dungeon Adventure)

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Year:
2020
Publisher:
Mad Hag Books
Language:
english
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The Guild Core: Core Sworn



A Dungeon Adventure





TJ Reynolds





Edited by

Celestian Rince





Mad Hag Books





Contents




World Map of Lianin



Map of Anvar



Prologue: From the Top, First Lesson



1. Seed Before Tree



2. A Name for It



3. Friendly, Fallen



4. Where the Cloak Turns



5. New Paths in a New Land



6. Wolves, Or Something Like Them



7. An Elemental Mind



8. Bound by the Core



9. The Limitations of Power and Chivalry



10. Water from the Rock



11. From the Top, First Trial



12. Tipping the Scales



13. Boon and a Burden



14. Roots Before Leaves



15. Denizens and Discovery



16. The Woman Behind the Bow



17. Rumors and Rebellion



18. Of Gods, Kings, and Men



19. Honors and Improvements



20. Academic Ambitions



21. In Another Woman’s Shoes



22. Stronger than Crystal



23. In One Basket



24. Moldering Treasures



25. With Eyes to See



26. What Grows Beneath



27. Stirring the Lizard’s Nest



28. Like Playing Knights and Castles



29. The Perilous Deep



30. Under the Guise of Motherhood



31. To Know is to Trust



32. Inevitabilities



33. Too Much Heart, Too Little Tolerance



34. Heart of an Ally



35. Blind Flight



36. A Frightful Interruption



37. Gifts for the Guests



38. A Time for War



39. Pain for Progress



40. Studying Stripes



41. Burning a Hole in Your Dungeon



42. Circle of Fangs



43. Keep’s Gambit



44. Body Before Mind



45. Punitive Measures



46. Fire to Break the Night



47. Mind Over Body



48. Bird Song and Celebrations at the Sunken Keep



49. Denizens of the Deep



Epilogue: Echos from Times Past



Anecdotes and Archival Particulars - Expanded





Liked What you Read?



About the Author



The LitRPG Guildmasters



If You’re a Fan of Cultivation, LitRPG, and Gamelit…



LitRPG





World Map of Lianin





Map of Anvar





Prologue: From the Top, First Lesson





Imogen





Such a short time had passed since Kai and Rhona had healed her. Yet, here she was, summoning old amalgamat; ions and playing host to a group of… friends. For surely, Bancroft and his party could be considered friends by now.

Even the horse seems to notice my presence when I deposit more grass or straw before him. Always nickers and bobs his head politely when I do so. No dull beast, that one.

And Imogen considered herself happy, even despite the impending change that would have them all scrambling soon enough.

Bancroft had been celebrating the digestive abilities of his champion, an act he seemed intent on performing as often as possible. The huge stone houndzard’s belly already bulged from excess, and still he continued to ask for a little more of this and a little more of that.

He’s lucky he isn’t trapped in that body forever, Imogen mused. Otherwise, he’d end up fat like the hogs he so enjoys consuming.

Having woken with a fractured mind, it had taken Imogen some time to realize she’d also lost a good portion of her previous power. She’d once been a high Viridian dungeon, level 2 or 3 for certain. Now, though, she could tell, by her reduced area of influence alone, that she’d been diminished.

Without other recourse, Imogen had sent out one of her two dungeon champions, a Frost Raven with an eight-foot wing span.

So, even now, she watched the soldiers as they finished assembling their camp.

They were preparing to enter the swamp proper, dive into its murky depths and seek out her core as they’d done so long ago.

Yes, I have an obligation to tell them, Imogen reminded herself. But there’s still some time remaining. Why would I interrupt them at such a time as this?

While she observed the few hundred Brintoshi soldiers mount up and form orderly columns, she kept her eye on the two companions that gave her the most joy.

Ducking beneath Rhona’s kick, Kai rushed forward, bashing into the woman with his shoulder.

Rhona gripped Kai around his waist, and, using his own momentum against him, threw the young dragon over her hip to the ground.

Kai grunted as her full weight bore down on him, driving the air from his lungs.

“Focus, Kai. I try to teach you the Path of the Bleeding Tiger and you tackle me like a Brintoshi street rat?” Rhona asked, the tip of her nose just a few inches from Kai’s.

He shoved her off and rolled to his belly to stand back up for the hundredth time. “I was just trying to use what small advantage I have, Rhona. If we were using weapons—”

“I’d cut out your throat in seconds flat,” Rhona said, cutting him off. “And I’d also lose access to my monk skills. I can’t touch a sword, Kai. Let’s just pretend they don’t exist.”

Kai nodded.

They’d been over this before.

For a dragon, he is awfully stubborn, Imogen thought. Then again, it hasn’t been long since he learned of his past. How long will it be until he comes to accept the full scope of his inheritance. After all, only a single Fundamental Dragon can call this world their home at a time. He’s our best hope in the times to come.

When Rhona first asked Kai if he would train under her, the young man had gladly accepted.

Yet despite his commitment to improve, and the lofty dreams Imogen could see floating about his head like clouds, his appetite for abuse was beginning to show its limitations.

Rhona dusted her clothes off and gestured with her hands for Kai to advance.

He moaned but fell into the stance she’d shown him anyhow. “Last time, Rhona. I’m getting hungry, and besides, I don’t think I’ll learn fast enough to become effective any time soon.”

“No, you won’t. But, Kai, w hat I am teaching you has a purpose, okay? Let’s go one more round, and I’ll show you what I mean.”

Showing trust yet again, Kai began in Tiger Hides its Claws.

It was a basic fighter’s stance, hands held before the face, fingers relaxed, palms facing down. To Imogen, the posture was humorous.

Rhona began the same sequence of attacks she’d used before. A series of low to medium kicks, Kai dodged a few before adopting the second stance: Tiger Slashing Snake.

Leaning forward, Kai let his upper body hang over his leading leg. His arms drooped as well, and when her next kick landed, Kai caught the limb and pulled it toward his body.

For the first time since attempting the technique, Kai had managed to trap Rhona’s leg!

For an instant, he froze. Eyes bulging, he stared at Rhona as she bounced on her rear foot, waiting for him to act.

“Too slow!” she barked. Then she snatched Kai’s forearm with both hands and fell to the ground, pulling Kai toward her.

As Kai’s balance was shattered, she tossed him to the ground, using the leg he’d trapped to throw him in the air. Kai rolled a few feet before breaking into a fit of laughter.

He’s certainly improved. Though, I do fear he is correct. At this rate, he won’t be able to match Rhona with her own arts for years to come, Imogen thought as she analyzed the two fighters.

“So close!” he managed between gasps.

“My arse! You trapped my shivving leg, Kai! But you didn’t take me down, sweep my standing leg, or strike me in any number of possible ways,” she chastised. “Don’t freeze up next time. Besides, what I really was hoping for was—”

“For me to use Pouncing in Tall Grass,” Kai finished.

It was Rhona’s turn to laugh. “Yes. Yes, that would have been the right move.”

The two sat on the cold stone floor of the special training room for a time, catching their breath.

Imogen had made the room upon request the day they’d arrived with Ban’s core in tow. Rhona had wanted a private space to train Kai, so Imogen had gone all out.

The room attached to the main chamber where Imogen’s core sat. It included a tiny water fountain in the corner, and sconces along all four walls where torches burned brightly. All that was missing, in Imogen’s estimation at least, was a bit more decoration and perhaps a few racks for weaponry.

Allowing a little of the frustration that clouded Kai’s core to enter his voice, he questioned his new trainer. “Why, Rhona? Please, you’ve shown me a total of five stances. You’ve shown me a handful of strikes, kicks, and throws. But why do you seem so intent on this sequence. I know there is something more you’re not telling me.”

Rhona blew a strand of hair from her face.

Her cheeks were flushed, her lips plump and bright as berries.

She wears her beauty as naturally as a meadow does bees and wildflowers , Imogen thought, admiring the young woman’s vitality.

Rhona’s expression was solemn when she answered Kai. “I’m not sure where our travels will take us, Kai. We’re about to cross the border. Where will you and Ban go? Where will I go? I need to teach you what I can or you might find yourself in real danger when you next ascend.”

The monk’s logic seemed to disturb Kai. He shifted nervously when he replied. “What do you mean? I thought we’d formed a guild. Ban wants to explore the Sunken Keep. Won’t you come with us?”

“I’d like to, Kai. I really would. But that isn’t important now. What I’m trying to teach you is a foundation. Let me ask this of you. What do you know of the Emerald ascension?”

Kai’s face scrunched in concentration. “I could tell you how much Progression it takes to ascend to Emerald. I think there’s even a scroll that mentions how many Attribute Points I will gain. That’s about all though. Why?”

Rhona locked eyes with Kai. “Emerald is a pivotal advancement. It’s been called many names over the years. The Jade Gauntlet is the one I first learned. It is a dangerous ascension, Kai, and if you lack the proper techniques and knowledge, your core might collapse or rupture entirely during the process. The Brintoshi use mages to assist the soldiers ascending to Emerald. You don’t have that luxury, and if you fail, you will either be dead or crippled when it’s over.”

“Doesn’t sound very promising,” Kai responded dismally.

Smiling, Rhona patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. Andag has seen it fit to provide you with your own monk. A few still remember the old ways. I was lucky enough to study with one.”

Kai spent a few moments letting this news settle in. Imogen reflected how sad it was that Bancroft hadn’t warned him of such a truth. Yet the Earth Core was as fractured as she was. How many of our memories are gone, never to return again? she wondered.

They all had their limitations.

“How does the Path of the Bleeding Tiger help me with Emerald ascension,” Kai asked pragmatically.

“Come, stand up once more, Kai. Don’t worry. No more fighting, okay? That was just for fun.”

Without complaint, Kai found his feet again and faced her.

Then she stood beside him, falling into the first stance. “Just watch, okay?”

Rhona moved between the five forms , slowly and fluidly. Tiger Hides its Claws, Tiger Slashing Snake, Pouncing in Tall Grass, Retreating on the Furious Wind, and finally Tiger’s Hide Bleeds. The postures were distinct, and each difficult to master. But when Rhona completed the five stances, Imogen saw clearly how she’d moved in a circuit, a pattern.

After she finished Tiger’s Hide Bleeds, she spun into Tiger Hides its Claws once more.

The circuit was complete.

“Did you see that? The five stances are one form in my path. It is the foundation on top of which all else stands. If you don’t master the five, you cannot master anything that follows.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” Kai admitted. “What does it have to do with ascension though?”

Rhona smiled at him. Her eyes shone, patient and alive.

Taking Kai by the hand, she led him to the corner of their training room. A few handfuls of loose soil had fallen from the freshly carved ceiling, leaving a layer of dust over the dark stone.

Imogen nearly cleared up the debris until she realized the young woman intended to use it somehow.

Rhona stooped and drew a pattern in the dust. Pointing to the swooping lines, she explained. “If you could see the five stances from above, you would notice they form a pattern. It looks something like this, but of course, it is far from exact.”

Imogen looked at the scrawled image. It reminded her at once of a flower blooming, swirls and arcing lines that made up a five-pronged pattern.

Rhona pointed at the center of the image. “This represents your core, Kai. As you complete the five stances, your body moves in a similar pattern. There are many names for this pattern, but the translation into Brintoshi is Mandala. Do you remember what you had to do with your core for the first ascension?”

Kai nodded. “How could I forget the time Briga herself had instructed me how to bend my core into the figure of a snake consuming its own tail,” he said with a chuckle. “And when I ascended to Golden, I had to bend that back into a circle again, though it became smaller, denser, and deeper.”

“Exactly,” Rhona said, glancing back to the image in the dust. “And when you ascend to Emerald, you will need to establish a Mandala with your core. It is complex, painful and wildly challenging. The Brintoshi have a simplified Mandala they use for all soldiers, and their mages imprint their cores with the pattern. Fewer soldiers die that way, but their cores are also more limited because of that. The old monks teach that to ascend perfectly to Emerald, you must learn and master your own distinct pattern. No two are alike.”

Imogen’s mind spun as faded or broken memories threatened to overwhelm her. She could vaguely recall her own master telling her something like this. He’d called it the Jade Foundation, hadn’t he? The way in which one prepared the core for greater heights of ascension.

The Earth Core’s line of thought brought her around to considering the young woman before her. Rhona’s dedication to her purpose and cause were commendable, but Imogen had to wonder how much Rhona knew of her own past. Surely, she must feel the splinter still marring her core.

When the dragon and monk had healed her core, Imogen had been subjected to a flash of insight. She’d asked Bancroft if he too had experienced the same when Kai had healed him. When Bancroft had denied it, Imogen came to the belief that it was Rhona’s participation in the act that had made the difference.

In a fraction of a second, Imogen had seen the linear progression of both Kai’s and Rhona’s lives. Oddly, much of the vision took place in the past.

Imogen could describe the golden skin and proud eyes of Kai’s dragon father. She could recall the smooth motions of his mother practicing swordplay in the dragon’s vast dungeon. The two had stolen a few moments of time to call their own during the end of a bloody war.

Rhona’s past had been just as enlightening.

Imogen focused more on her father’s odd injury more than Rhona’s painful past. A sliver, just a fragment of an Earth Core jammed in his palm. And yet, it had changed Drystan’s destiny and that of his daughter as well.

The Accolade Core Sworn made more sense in the light of Imogen’s discovery.

And though Imogen knew her friends would be leaving soon, and her own life soon to be severed, she chose not to tell Rhona or Kai. I can leave meddling to the gods, she figured. They are always so willing to do so anyhow.

The implications of Rhona’s lesson seemed to slowly dawn on Kai. He studied the pattern, nodding to himself and muttering under his breath. At last, he came to a conclusion. “So the five forms you taught me are only an approximation. I will still need to discover my own Mandala?”

Rhona nodded. “Yes. Having a firm grasp on the five forms, however, is the best way to start. Now, ready to work on Crystal Mind?”

Rather than answer, he sat down and folded his legs as she’d instructed him. “I’m ready.”

Rhona took up position across from him, and the two began the second round of their training.

Crystal Mind was but one of many mental forms Rhona had discussed. No matter how much Kai begged, though, she’d insisted the others weren’t important for now.

Imogen imagined herself sitting alongside Kai and Rhona. She couldn’t close her eyes, but she did follow along as Rhona spoke in a soft voice.

“First empty your mind of all clutter,” the monk said, and Imogen did just that.

Imogen’s concerns about the Vermillion Guard, the defenses of her dungeon, and the rapidly approaching end to her life drifted away one at a time.

Her mind was so vast, she could feel the others doing the same. The tension in Kai’s and Rhona’s muscles faded as they dropped deeper and deeper into the mental technique.

When at last Imogen’s mind had become an empty space, she began to construct the walls of Crystal Mind.

Five sheets of crystal formed a five-sided pillar around her inner mind.

Imogen sat in the center, and when the fifth sheet of crystal fell into place, her perspective shifted.

Suddenly, it was as if she was staring down on the pillar. She could make out the five-sided shape, could see her burning core beneath it all. Though Imogen stared down on the vast entirety of her dungeon, she knew Kai was observing the same in his own mind, and Rhona in hers as well.

Rhona’s voice broke the stillness around them. “The Crystal Mind allows you to focus your thoughts, clear the ether in your core of confusion, and tap into your courage and determination. Concerning the Emerald ascension, though, this technique lets you focus in so you can see the fiery depths of your core. Pull away, Kai. Look at your core from far above. Tell me what you see?”

Imogen followed along, pulling further away until she could see the five-sided pillar standing amid the burning circle of her core. Further and further, Imogen removed her perspective until she saw a crackling field around her core.

Nodes of power and tiny sparks of ether shimmered across the empty expanse.

Then Rhona spoke again. “Can you see a pattern? I discovered my own Mandala last spring. I can see the pattern my core needs to adopt when I next ascend. Can you?”

Imogen had already given up the exercise. She would never ascend again, not in this lifetime. To that extent, she’d taken liberties to preserve what aspects of her core and memories she could. Bancroft might very well argue, but her mind had been fixed. She only hoped her plan might succeed.

Shifting her observations to Kai, Imogen watched him as he struggled to master Crystal Mind.

“No,” Kai admitted at last. “I’m sorry. I don’t see anything.”

Rhona’s huge green eyes were staring into his. “It took me six months, Kai. Six months, and I practiced over an hour each day. Don’t expect to get it right away. Be patient.”

He nodded, then held out his hands to her.

Gripping her palms, Kai pulled himself up to his feet, and she rose along with him. “What about dinner, my lady? Have you any plans? I hear the local cook is famous.”

She held out her elbow toward him. “Only if you accompany me,” she said in a mock noble accent. “I would be so frightened to find myself alone in such a place. How often do you think this dungeon is cleaned?”

Then it was Kai’s raucous laugh that echoed through the hall as they walked toward the core room.

Imogen wanted to scoff at such a remark, but she sensed the humor in Rhona’s voice.

Besides, Imogen felt confident her dungeon was as accommodating as it could be.

The smell of roast boar hung in the air, testament to the many meals Bancroft had demanded.

The houndzard champion eyed the cooking meat with what looked like a mixture of greed and discomfort. It would do him well to learn the limitations of his new body, Imogen wanted to tell him. Though in the days to come, I am sure he will do just that.

As Kai and Rhona returned to the core room, they casually greeted Honor and Ban . They sat and began to enjoy the vittles Imogen had provided, all the while unaware of how she wrapped them all in the embrace of her presence.

She marked the passage of too many soldiers from the unerring eyes of a Frost Raven. The bird sat in a tree some miles off, observing every move the Brintoshi made.

Imogen returned to flitting about her dungeon’s core room, enjoying the emotions rising up from her fleshy companions like colored smoke. And she guided the hand of the massive golem tending the fire, doing her best to ensure everyone had a satisfying meal.

Despite the rapidly approaching changes Imogen anticipated, she knew this moment was as precious and rare as an Earth Core.

With this in mind, she settled down to enjoy what little life remained to her.





1





Seed Before Tree





Ban



“How in Anvar does a creature so foul-looking taste like manna from the heavens?” Ban exclaimed, sinking his champion’s formidable teeth into his third swine of the evening. He ignored the queasy look Kai was so rudely sending his way.

Rhona slammed her cup on the table nearby and offered her own wisdom on the matter. “Might be, that swine are pure of heart. Foul of face, sure, but to taste this good, they must be shivving saints!”

Imogen sat curled up in a heap of frosted fur. She’d quite impressively reforged her champion, and now occupied the body of an ice wolf. It was as tall as Ban’s own stone houndzard, but what it lacked in bulk, it made up in grace and speed.

She’d already finished her own meal long ago, but was kind enough to keep the conversation lively. In my own experience, few things taste better than jadeite. It is a rare gem stone from Kaltan. Once, my dragon went abroad and returned with a trove of such delights. I tasted spices, metals, minerals and gem stones from every part of Anvar, some even from distant Pintea! Nothing surpasses the pure bliss of sampling jadeite.

Licking his champion’s jowls, Ban fought the wave of sleepiness that threatened to overtake him. It was a most peculiar sensation, one he’d never felt so keenly.

While in his gargat champion’s body, he could always retreat back to his dungeon where his mind thrummed with endless energy. But now, with his core removed and sitting idly in a sack in Kai’s baggage, he couldn’t enjoy the luxury of boundless energy. Perhaps it is a symptom of not being surrounded by my own dungeon, he assumed, forcing his thoughts to remain private.

Ever since having been linked to Kai, Rhona and Imogen, nearly all sense of the word privacy had been pushe d to its logical limits. He and Imogen had an easier time of it though, and with practice, so too would their fleshy companions.

Ban yawned and stretched his houndzard body out on the soft grass Imogen had grown from them. They’d taken a meal together, a penultimate meal Ban supposed, before they were forced to retreat.

Considering what Imogen had said kept him aloft for a time. A world full of exotic things to consume; such prospects were any Earth Core’s dream.

“Calling it a night then, Ban?” Kai asked with just a touch of amusement in his tone.

Ban grumbled, lolling to his side to better accommodate his excess. I am wide awake, Kai. Nothing to gain in making fun.

Rhona laughed, and Ban could hear her shift in her seat. “If that’s what wide awake looks like, I’m a bleeding fool. It is getting late though. Sleep sounds rather enticing.”

Imogen was kind enough to absorb the food and mess.

Having the remains of the swine’s carcass removed from sight and smell made Ban feel a good deal more comfortable. In fact, why not enjoy a bit of rest while I can? he thought. I deserve it more than those loafers. Riding on my back all the way, and only a brief thank you when we arrived back.

The depths of Imogen’s dungeon faded away, and Ban tumbled in the vortex of sleep. It felt a little like the madness he’d endured when he was shivvered and useless, but he was beginning to find it quite charming.

Ban dreamed of eating his way to the heart of a great mountain, finding treasure and wonders there beyond description.

He’d just consumed the bones of a terrific beast when someone screamed in his mind.

They’ve arrived! Wake up, everyone! Imogen warned, her usual soft voice booming. The soldiers have reached the edge of my influence at last!

Ban and his companions bolted upright from various positions of sleep. He noticed Rhona reaching for a sword at her hip that wasn’t there, and Kai rolled to the side and clutched his glaive. Good. My dragon is developing some sense after all.

“How long?” Kai asked, rising to his feet. “Are we in danger yet?”

No, but it’s time to retreat. I’ve already prepared a tunnel that leads up to the surface heading toward the Hintari border. I’m going to send out a welcoming party, Imogen said grimly. They won’t come near without having to pay.

Ban blinked his huge reptilian eyes, confused despite the straightforward actions he would have to take himself. Kai and Rhona were scuttling about like cave crabs, both packing up their bags and preparing to retreat. Honor chewed at a lump of grass. He was, insofar as any horse can be, ready to claim the day.

But something didn’t settle right with Ban.

Imogen, why bother with sending out minions to fight? Surely, setting a few traps for the soldiers is enough. You won’t be able to control any of your minions when you’re removed from the dungeon after all.

Imogen’s champion stared blankly, and Ban knew her mind was racing throughout her dungeon. Still, after a moment, she replied in a somber tone.

But Imogen! Ban protested, What of you? Will you not come as well?

No, Bancroft. I will live, and if necessary, die with my dungeon—for as long as I am able. Nothing short of resurrecting my dragon could persuade me. Besides, who else will slow the progress of the Brintoshi army?

Kai and Rhona froze and turned to the ice wolf sitting nearby.

The body of Ban’s champion twitched with a sudden onslaught of anxiety. He felt trapped in this body, and his emotions were being compounded by the physiology of this blasted beast!

He forced himself to remain calm, and attempted to reason with Imogen. But have you had ample time to restore yourself? Will your champion, as strong as he is and flanked by golems, be enough to defend yourself? Even as strong as you are, how many could you hope to deny?

The dungeon dismissed his worries. He could tell by her tone she’d already decided her course of action long before this moment. Worry about your own, Ban. I have chosen to stay, and already, my chambers are filling with minions. These invaders are potent, but they will not pass easily. Help your companions understand and guide them with all the wisdom your Yorick bestowed upon you.

Finally, the rage and fear in Ban’s adopted body became too much. He roared and tore his talons through the fresh turf. No! I’ll not leave you, Imogen. We’ve only just woken a single Earth Core, and… and I am proud to call her friend. You’re coming with us!

A few dozen ice wolves formed all around them, each three-hundred-pound brutes with daggers for teeth, capable of bringing down a horse.

As the beasts swarmed together and bound up the chambers toward her dungeon entrance, Imogen replied to Ban’s entreaty. I won’t. This is not your choice to make, Bancroft. But I have some balm to ease your heart. This is my last gift to your guild. Take it and plant it wisely.

When her words faded from his mind, a bright spark of light began to form in the center of the turf. Soon, it took shape. A perfect sphere crystal formed, the size of a human’s fist. Inside, green and blue ether whorled.

Kai walked forward and stooped to inspect the item. The young man asked, What is this, Imogen, and how can a bauble make leaving you behind any less painful? I’d never assume to deny your will, but I’m with Ban. We don’t want to leave you, Imogen.

It isn’t a bauble. It is a fragment of my self. I’ve made this Soul Sphere in the hopes that it will mollify my passing somewhat. With time and enough ether, Ban has the power to integrate the Soul Sphere into his own core.

None of Ban’s frustration diminished, but he found himself staring in wonder at the shining object before him. He examined it, but felt he couldn’t understand how it was made. It’s design was infinitely complex.

He shook his reptilian head to clear his emotions. Imogen! I would certainly still rather you come along. But… how is this possible? Yorick never mentioned that Earth Core s could reproduce!

Imogen responded with the softest tone she’d ever adopted. Ban noticed Kai and Rhona listening as well, their faces intent, their bodies still. Yet, he felt certain she was speaking to Ban directly.

I will not speak further on the subject of where I am and am not going. Should you be foolish enough to attempt to remove my core, I will protect myself. Please, let this be the last of it. She paused, perhaps waiting for another complaint to rise up from her friends.

She finished by answering Ban’s other question. The Soul Sphere is a well kept secret, and has a great many limitations. It isn’t a form of reproduction, not in the strict sense. This sphere will never become life on its own. Rather, it contains a small portion of my spirit, my soul if you will, as well as some of my memories. When you find yourself in possession of a dungeon again someday, Ban, you will need to integrate it.

And how might I do that, Ban asked in a subdued tone.

Just absorb it as you would any other material. The Soul Sphere will resist integration, and only with time and patience will you be able to access all that I have placed here.

The dungeon’s champion strode over to Ban and walked close enough that the two beasts’ noses were almost touching. And Ban, I expect you to name it, teach it, and protect it. Will you do this for me?

Ban’s heart twisted in his overgrown lizard chest. He felt like shouting or weeping, but instead, he did as he knew any friend must.

He assented.

I promise, Imogen. I will do as you ask. Is there nothing I can do to persuade you though? I feel we have only just begun our friendship.

Imogen’s champion moved forward, pressing against Ban’s scaly face with her own. We shall have all the time we wish, even if not in this lifetime.

The great ice wolf turned away, facing the rear of the core room. A split in the wall opened up, revealing a tunnel that led up and away from the invading force. It is time you all left, she announced, the heaviness of authority coating her words. I will be distracted in preparation, so let this be our farewell. Good luck on your journeys.

Rhona cleared her throat. Wait. I guess this is okay, us taking some piece of you instead of the whole thing. It isn’t my business. But what of the bunyips? Won’t they be in danger as well?

Imogen bowed her wolf’s head, acknowledging Rhona’s inquiry. Those poor creatures would provide little help. No doubt their lives would be best lived out in the mountains where they ought to have remained. I’ve already opened a second tunnel for them that leads north instead of east. They’ll be in the Zargan Mountains this very evening.

Ban watched Kai bow to the wolf, whispering out a thank you. The young man’s eyes were shining, and Ban felt proud his dragon could be moved by such noble emotions.

Rhona placed a hand on the wolf’s forehead and gave her own farewell. “Thank you for caring, Imogen. You’ve a good heart, and no worries. We’ll protect the sphere.”

Then Kai was throwing a saddle on Ban’s back, Rhona pulling herself up onto Honor. And all Ban could do was wait. Too soon to be called decent, the group was charging up the tunnel and racing toward safety.

He knew Imogen was busy, had so many things to do. There was some small sliver of hope. The forces coming against her were many, but she was a strong Earth Core. Maybe she would live, and he could travel to visit with her in the future with Kai.

The thought tasted like a lie.

Ban growled, bounding up a seemingly endless tunnel away from a good and honest friend.

Reluctantly, he opened his mind to her. I will miss you, Imogen. I only wish we could have had much more time together. We could have created such wonders.

I know, Bancroft. I know. But do not overly despair. Even now, my soul feels diminished. Look inside the Soul Sphere, not to understand it, but to see what is inside. I think you’ll feel a good deal better.

Ban ground his teeth and pushed himself even harder than before. I will. Goodbye, Imogen.

Goodbye, Bancroft.

And that was the last he heard of Imogen the dungeon.

Honor and Ban’s stone houndzard ran for an hour until the gentle slope emerged into the gloom of the Mirin Swamps. The moon was full, providing an even sheen of silver light.

More trees grew here, the blight somehow weaker, the soil a bit firmer.

Ban followed behind the brave horse galloping toward Hintar. The rhythmic splash of Honor’s hooves lulled Ban’s mind, and he receded into himself.

Kai’s emotions drifted to Ban’s consciousness. The dragon was pained by leaving Imogen as well, but most of his concern was directed at Ban. The boy needn’t worry, he thought to himself privately. I’ve already lost my first master. What is the loss of another friend?

The bitter sentiment rang hollow in his heart, but he didn’t rightly care for truth at this time.

Moved by desperation more than hope, Ban focused on the burning sphere of light that rested beside his core.

It was like staring into the night sky if it could fit in the palm of your hand. He marveled at its pristine construction, wondering how on earth Imogen had achieved such a feat. Then he recalled her request.

So, rather than consider the item’s craftsmanship, he looked inside of it.

Though he continued to charge through the muddy swamp, a portion of Ban’s mind split off. Suddenly, he was one with Imogen, could search around her dungeon and witness her completing her many tasks.

Ban watched another troop of fifty Ice Wolves bound away from the dungeon’s entrance. He saw the bunyips hobbling along a tiny corridor, excitedly skipping along.

The Soul Sphere allowed him to see every aspect of her dungeon, but it was more than that too. Not a mere looking glass, the sphere was itself a scale from the wyvern’s hide.

Acting instinctively , Ban probed deeper into the Soul Sphere, wondering what creature this might be. It wasn’t precisely Imogen, no. It was something else entirely. At the center of the swirling gyre of Earth and Water ether, he discovered something more resilient. He pushed his mind, summoning his substantial will to enhance his efforts.

He strained for several long moments. At last, he relinquished his efforts. Perhaps it must be planted under a proper mountain first, he considered. Then, on a whim, he pushed a tendril of ether from his core into the Soul Sphere.

The sphere absorbed the energy hungrily, so Ban increased the flow. His own reserves were small, but there was little harm in giving a little away.

Once more, Ban pushed his consciousness into the core of the Soul Sphere.

His champion stumbled, making Kai mutter a curse. The dragon asked for an explanation, but Ban was too enthralled to respond.

For despite the effort it took, Ban had succeeded in witnessing a single memory stored in the Soul Sphere.





2





A Name for It





Kai



By the time Ban had responded, Rhona and Kai called an official break.

Honor took some water and hay, and Kai stretched out his legs, staying close to his Earth Core’s champion in case he needed some assistance.

They’d been traveling at a good pace, but Kai had nearly lost his seat as the huge houndzard stumbled.

Now, Ban simply wouldn’t respond. His champion just stood there, its huge lungs pulling in air. But the creature’s eyes were glossy and unfocused, and none of Kai’s questions had been answered.

Rhona approached after staking Honor to graze in a patch of grass. “What happened exactly? We were moving at a good pace, then all I heard was your blasphemous curse.”

“I don’t know. I think he was distracted, thinking of Imogen or maybe talking with her. Then all of a sudden, his legs stumbled and I almost got a taste of swamp mud,” Kai explained. “I think he is fine, but we’ve only just saved one Earth Core. The fact that we are now leaving it to be destroyed must be hard on him. Can we rest for a while ? We should have a little time, considering Imogen’s… battle plan.”

“I think we are good here until the sun rises. Then we should make our way to the border. We are but a few miles off. Still, I’d rather cross under the light of day,” Rhona finished, her eyes searching to the east.

Kai nodded then offered to take first watch. They ate a light meal first, and without the benefit of a fire, but the food helped settle them down.

Nothing quite like waking in the middle of the night and running away for your life to stir up the spirits, Kai thought. Then he chuckled, realizing the sentiment would have normally come from Ban. His brief time with the Earth Core had done much to color and shape his sense of humor.

Without anything else pressing, Kai figured he’d stick close to his friend in case he emerged from his fugue.

Kai leaned against the beast’s thick foreleg to rest. We are here for you, Ban. Whenever you’re ready to wake back up.

Kai tried to relax. His heart was hammering, though, and his mind raced. What are we going to do once we get to Hintar? Will we be able to find any friends there? Or are we just running out the oven door and into the coals?

Of course, none of his questions could be answered.

Such outcomes were as frustrating as they were predictable.

Kai scrambled up and retrieved one of their latest treasures. When Imogen had awarded them for their service to her, she’d included not only a handful of spell scales, but also a stack of skill books and old texts.

Rhona and Kai had already gone through the skill books. Most didn’t seem very useful (all were related to trade and craft rather than combat) but would be saved to consider again at a later date.

The books, however, had already been helpful. One in particular, labeled Gaolor’s Grotto: A Brief History of Hintar’s Sunken Keep.

Kai flipped it open and read, lighting a small wad of the flammable putty Rhona used to boil tea. She’d given him a nice tutorial on their one peaceful night in Imogen’s dungeon.

He did as she’d instructed. Balling up a wad the size of a pea, Kai smashed it onto the center of his breastplate. Then he struck a flint stick over it.

It lit up like a tiny candle on his chest. The flame was just bright enough to cover the page in golden light.

Kai had already read the introduction of the book. It discussed the local terrain and why the Sunken Keep had been a necessary project for the Hintari. The castle in the heart of Hintar was well-secured, but one noble house had found a more specific need.

The Surtir family was the richest and most powerful in the land. Yet they had been forced to share their power, to allow the other noble families as much sway over Hintar and the capital as they had. So, a few hundred years ago, the Surtir patriarch set out in search for a secret base of power.

By the time construction had started, the secret was out.

Considering the layout of the keep, however, it hardly mattered.

In the southeastern portion of the Zargan Mountains, the high passes converged around a particularly steep-faced canyon. Within, three streams met, forming a substantial river.

The Surtir family used the force of the streams themselves to delve deeper into the soft soil of the canyon.

Few details were included, but the dragons most closely allied with the Surtir had lent their strength. With a combination of ingenuity and magic, the Sunken Keep had been constructed.





“In ten short years, the incredible construction project came to a close. Yet no fanfare was raised. The competing families were offended at the lack of an invite. Any such improvement on a family’s holdings traditionally called for a celebration.

When no such celebration was held, the most ambitious of the Hintari nobles sent out spies to discover the secrets that were locked away in the depths of the Sunken Keep.

The few who returned mentioned only that the three streams now fell down a deep, cylindrical chasm so perfectly formed only magic could explain it. The keep itself was a humble tower no taller than fifty feet.

It was made of stone and mortar, like any other structure, but it sat at the bottom of the deep pit. The only entrance was fiercely guarded by a score of dragons and the Surtir forces.”





Kai closed his eyes and imagined what such a structure might look like. How the falling water wouldn’t erode the keep’s foundation boggled him.

Perhaps they’ve made underground chambers. Perhaps… That’s it! I am willing to bet anything that they built the keep with the help of an Earth Core. Such a feat of construction would be simple for Ban given enough time.

Feeling quite pleased with himself, Kai continued to read.





“For hundreds of years, the Surtir held their position of superiority. The Sunken Keep likewise remained impregnable. Yet when the war against the dragon kingdom began, old alliances crumbled and new ones were formed.

The Surtir were betrayed along with the dragons. Every prince, lady, and child of the Surtir were put to the sword or driven out of the land.

Predictably, lacking the protection that held its treasures locked away so many years, the Sunken Keep was raided. A trove of gold, jewels, and magical items was taken away to line the purses of the new lords of Hintar.”





The book closed with a muffled thump. Kai’s bit of flame was beginning to gutter out, and rather than renew it, he snuffed it.

Seems like a sad end to a miraculous story, Kai considered. Still, that’s the way of history.

He stored the book away, then thought of their other great treasure, the one he’d been too hesitant to use yet. Within the small chest, Kai found the faintly glowing spell scales.

Glancing over, Kai saw Rhona had at last finished with a series of stretches she’d been performing, and was curled up on her bedroll.

Kai shrugged and made his way back over to Ban’s champion.

The huge houndzard still stood rigid, its body almost seeming lifeless if not for the rhythmic intake of breath. He ran his hand across the scaled hide of the creature, sending a few supportive thoughts to his friend.

Then he sat back down, crossed his legs, and focused.

Closing his eyes, he pictured his core churning around within him. The brilliant gold of his condensed ether burned as bright as ever. He felt warmed by its presence, as if the fire in his belly were warming his entire body. I suppose it is though. That must be what it’s for. Like my own personal furnace.

Letting his observation pass, Kai brought up his Etheric Interface and selected the Spells tab.

A list of his current spells populated, and he skimmed them over quickly.





Flame Dart- A spell of Yugos’ Fire, the Flame Dart condenses ether into a fiery projectile that causes minor damage. Spell damage may be increased by channeling more ether. Cost: 5 AE. Casting Time: Instant. Charged Spell Cost: Up to a maximum of 20 AE. Charging spell takes 2 seconds for each additional AE.





Shadow Shroud - A spell of Angut’s Abyss, the Shadow Shroud summons a veil of concealing abyss ether. Visibility of all party-members within the shroud is greatly decreased. Sounds produced within the shroud are moderately dampened. Visual concealment is reduced when spell is used in broad daylight or without the addition of cover. Cost: 10 AE. Casting Time: Instant. Duration: 10 minutes.





Restoring Tide - A spell of Briga’s Water, the Restoring Tide calls upon the healing nature of the ocean’s endless tides. Spell causes minor healing of injuries and a modest restoration of stamina and mental clarity. Spell also stops minor bleeding and may stifle the onset of infection as well. More severe ailments like poison, fever, and serious infection are unaffected. Cost: 20 AE. Casting Time: 30 seconds.





Confounded Core - A spell of Niama’s Soul, the Confounded Core manipulates the ethereal flow within a target enemy’s core. When the spell takes hold, one or more effects may result: Confusion, a mental state which causes an enemy to attack one of their own; Confounded, an inhibition of ether that prevents the casting of spells or activation of skills. Cost: 20 AE. Casting Time: 15 seconds. Duration: 5 minutes.





Kai still couldn’t believe his luck. Ban had handed him some incredibly useful spells, and he’d only just begun to learn how to maximize their potential.

Flame Dart was a spell Kai relied upon heavily, but all of them were equal in his eyes. If he had to choose a single one to keep, he’d go with Restoring Tide. Being able to heal an ally in need was a frightfully enticing boon. His Accolade Briga’s Ally made the spell even more appealing as it cut the one minute casting time in half.

He opened his palm and examined the five spell scales Imogen had granted him.





Flame Spear - A spell of Yugos’ Fire, the Flame Spear acts as a modified and improved version of Flame Dart. The spell condenses ether into a fiery projectile that causes moderate damage. Spell damage may be increased by channeling more ether. Cost: 10 AE. Casting Time: Instant. Charged Spell Cost: Up to a maximum of 50 AE. Charging spell takes 3 seconds for each additional AE.





Before Kai explored his other options, he came to a decision on this one. Neither Ban nor Imogen had known what would happen should Kai choose to upgrade his Flame Dart.

Without much guidance, but needing to improve himself for the days ahead, Kai took a risk. He mentally prompted Activate Spell Scale.

His spell sites lit up in his mind’s eye, and he found the one occupied by Flame Dart. Kai selected Flame Spear, and the place on his forearm burned like it had the first time.

A few moments later, Kai examined his new marking. It resembled the first but for a long streak of crimson down the center of the scale. If only I had a bit of space to practice this one. It would be lovely.

Kai glanced at his hand filled with scales. Then his eyes bulged. Briga’s sweet breath! I still have five!

Searching through them, he found the scale for Flame Dart.

He wanted to shout in triumph, but settled for a grin. His original spell hadn’t been wasted at all. It had been replaced.

Then his eye caught on a minor detail he hadn’t noticed before. The scale had a thin crack down its center, and its fiery surface appeared somewhat dim. If he was forced to make an assumption, it would be that the spell scales could be traded out with one another, but that each use strained the scale.

Eventually, they’d most likely be ruined.

Now, if only I could find another half dragon friend to give this to. It would make a fine gift.

The other four scales were just as amazing as Flame Spear.





Barbed Barkskin - A spell of Andag’s Earth, Barbed Barkskin organizes ether to form crystalline structures over the body of the caster or chosen ally. The ether-forged second skin acts to both protect the user as well as propel their movements. Movement speed slightly increased. All slashing and piercing damage moderately reduced. Enemies who attack and make contact receive minor damage from the barbed effect. Cost: 25 AE. Casting Time: 10 seconds. Duration: 5 minutes.





Breeze Step - A spell of Shu’s Air, Breeze Step allows a caster to glide upon a current of ethereal air. While not a true teleportation spell, Breeze Step nonetheless acts as a means to navigate a battleground with great speed and efficiency. Spell conveys caster up to 70 feet in any direction. Cost: 10 AE. Casting Time: Instant.





Soul Projection - A spell of Niama’s Soul, Soul Projection is a unique ability that allows the caster to project their soul outside of their physical body. Traveling in such a way is possible by envisioning the person or place the caster wishes to travel to. No physical or ethereal effects may be used when caster’s soul is projected, but some forms of communication are possible. Cost: 30 AE. Casting Time: Instant. Duration: until ether expires. An ethereal drain of 5 AE for every 10 seconds is applied while spell is active.





Shimmering Shield Wall - A spell of Anlil’s Light, Shimmering Shield Wall projects a large protective shield of ether. The spell can be guided into nearly any position or shape, but is limited to a single wall with a maximum height of ten feet and maximum width of twenty feet. Cost: 40 AE. Casting Time: 2 minutes. Duration: 10 minutes.





Kai had already read each a dozen times. He wanted to select them all, yet he was terrified of making some unknown mistake.

Ban couldn’t remember nearly enough information regarding how dragons used spells, and Imogen had been likewise uncertain.

Shrugging his shoulders, Kai selected Soul Projection. It burned into place, making a patch of his golden skin glimmer a faint purple. He rubbed it with his fingers, smiling at his tiny accomplishment.

Nothing weird happened, so why not apply them all?

Diving back into his EI once more, Kai opened the tab for Spells.

The Activate Spell Scale tab had a line through its center. It didn’t seem like a valid selection anymore, and when he tried anyhow, a message popped up in his vision.





All Available Spell Scales Sites are Allocated. Additional Spells available upon Emerald ascension…





“Blast it,” Kai hissed under his breath. “There I go, choosing a spell at random, and now I’m stuck with it.”

The thought occurred to him that he could replace this scale with another, but he paused before doing so. Not only did he want to avoid damaging his small store of spell scales, but he also didn’t know if the other choices would be better at this moment.

The barkskin could be useful in a battle. The same could be said about Breeze Step. Yet using Soul Projection might very well save them in the upcoming days should they find the need to spy on their pursuers.

He could always experiment again in the future.

Sighing, Kai nearly brought up his personal information. Too often, he’d been summoning his Character Status, staring at his Progression, thinking about what his mind and body might feel like should he continue to ascend.

What more can I find? What else is waiting for me to explore, to fight, to claim for my own? Knowing his ambitions would keep him occupied until he woke Rhona for her shift, Kai stood up and returned his treasure to Ban’s baggage.

He sat down again and at last felt the surging energy of his mind and core slowing.

Kai needed rest as much as Rhona, but he couldn’t neglect his watch. Clearing his thoughts one at a time, and forcing his breathing into a deeper rhythm, however, gave his body some reprieve.

He recalled the steps of Crystal Mind, and still cognizant of his surrounding, started the mental technique. Kai focused, breathing long and steady as he tried to envision the pattern his core would soon adopt.

Then, shattering the peace he’d worked so hard to cultivate, Ban’s voice shouted wordlessly in his mind.

The champion also stirred, its leg twitching and jolting Kai back into wakefulness.

I know it must be an awful time to say so, and Kai, you really must forgive me. But I’ve simply had the most wonderful experience!

Kai heard Rhona cuss under her breath, sitting up startled.

Honor nickered, sensing the disruption of the once-peaceful camp.

In the most polite voice he could summon, Kai asked, “What is it, Ban? And can it not wait till morning?”

The Earth Core answered at once. Of course it can’t, Kai! Otherwise I would have done so. Anyhow, I’ve just come from within Imogen’s Soul Sphere. It’s an amazing piece of craftsmanship, and I can’t wait to integrate it fully.

“Is that all you’ve got to say, Ban? Cause we’re not exactly sitting around a fire and sharing stories,” Rhona growled.

Ban laughed through their shared mental link, sounding both amused and a little embarrassed. I’m sorry, Rhona. I’ll go to sleep. I just thought you all might want to know that I have learned the design for summoning a proper door knob. And to think, I thought such knowledge lost forever. Isn’t that simply marvelous?





3





Friendly, Fallen





Rhona



After Ban had shouted in everyone’s mind, any chance at decent sleep had vanished.

Rhona was like most soldiers. She could fall asleep on command, but after being rudely awakened, her body would be too riddled with nervous energy to relax any time soon.

So while Kai drifted back to sleep, and Ban curled up around him in his ponderous houndzard body, Rhona went through her baggage and sorted things out. In the past, she’d have been sharpening her sword. Without such an excuse, she spent an hour oiling her saddle, organizing their food stuffs, and preparing for the day to come.

Running through the list of items in her mind, she recalled her latest acquisition. She glanced at the bracelet on her wrist for the hundredth time since receiving it.

Blue and white stones wrapped around her wrist in an unbroken chain. Each stone was a perfect sphere but for the union between one sphere and another where they flattened out to accommodate the other stones.

Rhona was clueless as to how the bracelet functioned.

When she’d first put it on, it had shrunk down to fit her wrist. Now, if it wasn’t for the weight of the bracelet, she’d most likely forget it existed.

It simply fit perfectly.

What it did, though, was something Rhona wouldn’t soon forget. Having the ability to form a ward to protect herself when she had no armor, no shield, and no weapon… that was a boon worthy of a queen.

Rhona sighed and glanced around at the slumbering camp site. She’d done some good stretches when they’d stopped and her body still felt limber. Perhaps a bit of exercise then.

Remembering her kind friend from so long ago, Rhona decided to run through a few of the movements she’d learned from Palben.

Rhona began by clearing her mind of any distractions, and only when the canvas was clean did she begin.

The first set of movements were graceful and fluid, moving from one pose to another. Each time she transitioned, she would breathe out. Solidifying that pose, she inhaled as deep as she could. Then she’d move again.

After half an hour, her body was thrumming with heat, sweat burning away in the cool air.

Rhona craned her head up at the sky. Morning was soon approaching but not nearly quick enough for her tastes. Might as well get them up a bit early though, she thought. No sense in losing our lead.

But when she looked over to Kai cuddled up with a bovine-sized lizard dog, deep in sleep and carefree, she couldn’t make herself do it.

Breakfast then! I’ll make a fine breakfast, and when it’s ready, I’ll wake them both.

So, with renewed spirits, Rhona set about gathering a few nearly dry sticks. She pulled free her tinder kit, and managed to make a tiny fire. It was half smoke, but she hadn’t expected otherwise.

Then she rummaged through the food Imogen had sent them off with.

Filling a small pot with some water, Rhona poured in a few handfuls of grain to soften. Then she removed a large piece of smoked fish. Breaking the fish into pieces, she stirred it into her makeshift stew.

The rest was a touch of salt and a handful of savory leaves she’d kept dry in her saddle since finding it on the way from Creshon.

Soon, the water was bubbling away and a fine aroma settled over the camp.

Honor stirred first, so she brought him a few handfuls of oats and some water.

Then, with a satisfied smile on her face, Rhona strode over to Kai and gave him the tip of her boot. “Oi! You planning to sleep all day?”

Kai groaned and rolled onto his back. “Why? It’s barely light out. Maybe another hour or so, huh?”

Rhona laughed, enjoying herself a bit too much. Having had her own sleep shattered a thousand times in the call of duty made her less than sympathetic. “Fine then. Honor and I will get going, and you two can sleep here till the Vermillion guard catches up.”

By then, Ban’s champion had stirred. She’s right, Kai. Imogen may slow them down, but we can’t be sure if some were sent on ahead. Best we ignore our aches and pains and get on with the day.

Slowly, Kai pulled himself up and packed away his sleeping gear.

Ban, perhaps stirred by hunger, excused himself and tramped away into the swamp.

Kai and Rhona ate the stew she’d made and watched the sun rise. The trees of the swamp emerged from the gloom all about, and when they could see clearly, Rhona was surprised at how the terrain had already begun to change.

The black rot that poisoned the Mirin Swamps was fading.

Now, most of the trees were flush with green leaves. The ground was still damp and puddles pocked the earth in all directions, but they were getting close to leaving this waste behind.

I, for one, won’t miss one shivving speck of it.

Ban returned shortly after with a gleam in his houndzard’s eye. I managed to kill and eat two of those swine that live about. Delicious! I’m quite certain that a bit of roasting might have improved the flavor, but I won’t be complaining any time soon.

Looking between Kai and Rhona, the dungeon champion belched before asking, Are we close to heading off? I’m quite excited to see what Hintar has in store for us.

Suddenly, a flash of emotion crashed into Rhona’s mind. She braced herself but couldn’t quite keep her balance. In a practiced effort, Rhona managed to collapse over her knees, both hands pressed to the ground.

Distantly, she could hear Kai grunting and Ban’s champion roaring. Before she could say a thing, she was seeing through a different set of eyes. Eyes that flicked about a cavernous dungeon at the speed of thought itself.





Plate-clad soldiers, shields held forward and spears jutting between, shoved against a line of golems. Each of the minions was as strong as a horse, but the Vermillion Guard were known for their high ascension ranks. Besides, they outnumbered the minions at this point.

Rhona’s gaze shifted, and in a flash, she scanned the upper tunnels of Imogen’s dungeon. All around, the shattered bodies of her minions lay broken, random silver and gold coins scattered around them feeling like nothing more than an insult.

What else will they take from me? What else can I give? Imogen’s thoughts rang through Rhona’s mind, and with each word, a pang of remorse.

The elegant bodies of ice wolves were strewn between heaps of rubble from her golems.

Up near the lake, dozens of eel crocs lay dead, their corpses pale from blood loss.

Among her own losses, too few of the soldiers could be seen. Rhona could sense how eagerly Imogen had fought for her life, but the Vermillion Guard had healers in their ranks as well. This had made for a one-sided conflict.

Then Rhona was staring at the bristling shield wall once more. In lightning flashes, Rhona read the cores of the men before her.

An entire rank of Golden 2 soldiers glared at her. Their yellow cores scorched Rhona’s eyes as she faced them down. At the corners of the formation, and directly behind, others stood who burned brighter. Golden 3 corporals and shield sergeants flared to either side, their own dense cores seeming like forge fires.

The colors blended together into a garish display of raw power.

Beyond the common soldiers, two lieutenants flanked a colonel. Both lieutenants were Emerald 1 as was the colonel. Oddly, Rhona noted the man in charge of the prestigious Vermillion Guard appeared far too young for his power, the lines on his face nearly as soft as her own.

Yet none seemed to consider him weak or question the order he issued next.

“Split Shield!” he bellowed, and the two lieutenants and the shield sergeants echoed soon after.

The interlocked shields defending the soldiers broken in two, opening wide enough to allow skills to be triggered from the second line of soldiers.

Four of the elites launched Earth attacks. Ripples broke the even expanse of the dungeon floor, tearing up shards of dense stone that hovered a moment in the air. A moment later, the rock shards exploded as one, blasting apart the golems.

With chilling efficiency, the shield slammed shut, and the soldiers advanced.

A final line of golems was summoned, and the hulking champion strode forward.

Imogen had done what she could to prepare for this last moment. The commander of this force was experienced, though. The group spotted the floor trap and wove around it. Then they engaged the golems from a distance, blunting their assault with the shield wall while a contingent of burly men wielding war hammers flanked them.

The golems were busted apart with terrifying efficiency.

Finally, Imogen’s champion roared. It used the skills it had at its disposal, breaking apart the formation of troops. A few of the men were killed instantly as huge spikes were torn up from the dungeon floor, impaling the soldiers.

Her champion held up its hands and a ball of icy ether formed between them. It turned its focus on the center of the soldiers, but before it could release the spell, the mighty golem was struck in the chest by a counter spell.

Rhona had no idea what she was seeing, but in a way, it did seem a little like Kai’s confusion spell. A sphere of black and purple energy splashed over the golem’s chest and torso. The liquid power seeped into its ice and stone body, turning portions of the creature black.

Regardless of what the skill was called, the effect was close enough.

Imogen’s champion froze in its tracks. The ether burst in its hands and dissipated into the air.

Then the soldiers fell on it, pounding its body apart with fell hammer strikes.

The sound of collapsing stone announced the champion’s death.

All fell quiet.

Rhona felt a spike of panic as a single man walked through the crowd of soldiers. He cried out in a voice as sharp as a whip. “Cover the exit! Third platoon, send two squads ahead! See if that tunnel leads to the surface or if this shivving Earth Core blocked the way.”

He made his way to the pool in the center of Imogen’s core room. Rhona felt her perspective flip a half dozen times as Imogen inspected the man from every angle.

He wore fine armor though the sword at his hip remained sheathed. His face was pale, and his eyes as green as Rhona’s. She’d have called him handsome but for the cold greed that filled his gaze.

This man was hungry.

He coveted the power Imogen held in her core.

In a voice only Imogen could hear, he spoke to her. “It’s such a pleasure to meet you. Normally, I’d ask if you might consider lending your strength to the king’s mighty empire. But I think we both know what I’m really here for.”

Imogen’s gaze shifted, focusing on the strange gauntlet that linked up into his vambrace and pauldron. Rhona noticed something was off about the armor. Lines of ether were running up from the steel glove, as if the equipment were somehow powered.

The man leapt over the pool of water in a display of strength and power beyond Rhona’s own abilities. How high is this man’s ascension? she wondered. Or is it this device that makes him stronger?

As if to answer her personally, the man held up his gauntleted hand and held it above the surface of Imogen’s glowing core. “Really, you are lending your strength to the Brintoshi. I serve the king, and now you will serve my needs. Thank you for your sacrifice.”

Panic shot through Imogen’s mind as the man’s gauntlet finally touched the surface of her core. The man’s vile grin filled Rhona’s mind. Then he faltered, a look of confusion passing over his features. “How many minds are here? How is this possible?” he asked, eyes searching the depths of the stone for answers.

He ground his teeth, somehow sensing Rhona’s connection to Imogen, but not understanding it. “No matter. I have what I’ve come for.”

Suddenly, a piercing pain cut into the Earth Core, stripping away the protective barriers that held her ether in place.

Then a crack resounded, and ether gushed from Imogen’s core into the man’s hand. It filled the stones embedded in the gauntlet’s palm. The power bled into the vambrace and into the pauldron. Finally, Rhona stared into the man’s eyes as they began to glow with the pale blue of pure ether.

Terror, cold and unyielding, clutched at her heart as her mind tore apart.

Rhona came to, sweat pouring from her face. Her fingers had sunken into the mud like claws, and her body was cramped and shaking.

She looked up into Kai’s face, and they both knew their friend had died.





There wasn’t any good way of knowing if the Vermillion Guard were closing in on them. Rhona had tossed the idea about in her head for some time.

They could no longer communicate with Imogen.

They’d all witnessed her chilling end.

Rhona’s stomach knotted up in the too-familiar sensation of losing a comrade. After calming down for a time, Ban had admitted he could no longer peer into her dungeon even with Soul Sphere’s help.

Still, Rhona knew if she were the commander, and had confidence in her strength, she’d sent a small contingent to scout ahead.

“I have a new spell,” Kai had offered at last. “It allows me to project my soul out of my body. I should be able to spy for us without being caught or harmed at least. I’m really not certain how it all works.”

Rhona had mulled it over. Eventually, she’d urged the group onward instead of scouting for their position. If there were soldiers coming up behind them, they’d have at least a little notice, given the squelching earth of the forest.

Risking the use of an untested spell at a time like this felt unwarranted.

She trotted ahead on Honor’s back, keeping her eyes focused.

A rough trail had begun to form and the soil was firmer now. She knew they were capable of a much faster pace. Honor could most likely gallop at top speed and not risk injury, but she wasn’t worried about the road.

It was what and who they might meet at the border.

As she considered the possibility of running into Hintari resistance, Rhona recalled a conversation she’d had not so long ago.

The herbalist half-gnome back in Mindonne had given her two vials of Briga’s Tears.

As quick as she dared, Rhona reined in Honor and wheeled around.

Kai and Ban adjusted their course and stopped beside her. Kai’s eyebrows asked the silent question that was most likely on his mind.

Rhona leapt down from Honor’s back and dove into her pack. “I forgot something. Gods, might have cost us our lives!”

She bit her lip, wincing at the reference to death. The loss of Imogen was all too soon.

When she found the vials, she ran over and showed them to Kai. “I doubt Honor will be recognized as a Brintoshi war horse. He’s never had that build, and Ban’s champion will stick out no matter what. The vials will help the two of us, however. Here, take one.”

“Slow down, Rhona. What in Andag’s green land are you talking about?” Kai pressed.

“In Mindonne I met with the herbalist to stock up on medicines and the like. She gave me these. Called ‘em Briga’s Tears. They infuse the body with ether which helps to defend against magical attacks. But, as a side-effect, they make you glow!”

Kai nodded pragmatically and took the vial from her hand.

It was Ban who needed more explanation. Pray tell, friend, why that should be considered a benefit to our party now?

“Because the Hintari might recognize it as a sign that we are not Brintoshi. That’s what she claimed at least, and I’ll be damned if I don’t give it a shot.” Rhona drank down her vial and nudged Kai on the shoulder. “Your turn, Kai!”

The liquid tingled as it went down her throat, flashing between cold and hot like some chemicals do. The sensation transformed into an itch that covered her body.

She spared a glance at Kai who was scratching his neck and looking a little uncomfortable. More important, however, was the discovery that her riding companion had a faint glow about his face.

Seeing her in return, Kai gave a reluctant smile and a thumbs up.

Into Eastern Hintar we go, and shimmering like a moon moth to boot, she mused. Why not go for the authentic experience though?

An expression her father used to say made her smile despite the association. She could even hear his gruff voice and see her mother’s shocked expression. Eat, drink, and sleep with the locals. Best way to experience the soldier’s life.

If only the man could see her now.

Despite the heavy mood, she allowed herself a thread of satisfaction. She’d been an obedient and loyal daughter for many years. Since turning away from her father’s path, however, Rhona found she was delighted by acts of rebellion.

The trail ahead wound underneath a sprawling canopy of trees. These were vibrant and strong, their trunks massive. How long they might have lived here, she could not know. Rhona simply appreciated them. Grandfathers, she thought. One and all, they’re grandfathers of this forest.

A twig cracking a few paces away made her reach for a sword that wasn’t there.

She cursed and put a heel in Honor’s right flank. They turned and faced the tall man standing a dozen paces away.

Rhona froze, taking in the newcomer’s appearance in a blink.

He wore clothes dyed a dozen colors of the forest. A smile rested on his lips, and she saw his eyes flick to a position behind her. He isn’t alone. We are surrounded. And I led us into this mess.

She sighed, knowing there was little else they might have done, and held up her hands.

The man’s bow was drawn, the glinting steel arrowhead threatening. “Hold, friends. What business do you have in Hintar?”





4





Where the Cloak Turns





Rhona



They’d been blindfolded and bound. Dismounted, and being led through the forest by a group of hostile rangers, hadn’t been a pleasant experience.

Yet Rhona knew she’d have done the same if the tables were turned.

Rough hands had forced Rhona to her knees, and then her blindfold was off again.

Blinking around her, she saw Kai likewise kneeling, a small fire crackling before them. They’d been taken to the rangers’ hidden camp, a ring of bedrolls lining the base of the stone outcropping that rose above their heads.

The ranger woman lashed Honor to a nearby tree, and Rhona could just make out the four rangers surrounding Ban’s terrifying champion.

Rhona tried, for the tenth time that morning, to explain their plight, heat rising unbidden in her throat. “Yes, we’re shivving Brintoshi, but that doesn’t mean we’re here on the crown’s business.”

“Then why have you come at all?” a woman ranger asked. She had a braid so thick it made Rhona’s look like a child’s and the most beautiful eyes.

Kai cleared his throat, as if to answer himself. Rhona held up a hand though. “Please, Kai. I know we both have business, but mine is more pressing.”

Dubious looks were plastered to both of their faces, but the man seemed decidedly more amused.

Turning to the tall man who’d first stopped them, she repeated her plea. “I am here in an attempt to stop another War of the Dragons. The Kaltanese and the Brintoshi are forming another alliance with the sole purpose of claiming what is left of Hintar.”

The man turned and spat on the ground. “Pretty story, but why should we believe you. Rumors like this have been flitting across the border for a decade or more.”

“Because the bleeding Vermillion Guard is right behind us. They chased us from just outside of Mindonne, and have just…” Rhona let her words die off. What she’d been about to say could be considered pure madness.

“They’ve just what?” the ranger asked in a low tone.

A blush stole up Rhona’s cheeks and she shook her head. There’s no way they’ll believe us. Unless we tell and show them everything.

Kai gave Rhona a nod of encouragement and she spoke again. “They just killed the Earth Core who was called Imogen. Her dungeon is just a day’s ride from here, and I believe they’ll be following us here.”

The woman snorted. “Earth Cores can’t be killed, and the one in the swamps was shivvered years ago.”

Rhona, Kai, and Ban spent several long moments arguing how much they should reveal to these people. As time passed, the woman ranger’s impatience began to flare up, forcing Rhona to act according to her instinct.

They’d come all the way to Hintar to speak with these people. It seemed strange to her to begin their new relationship by lying. The only challenge Rhona foresaw was getting the rangers to believe the truth of it all.

“The two of us, him really,” Rhona said as she leaned her head toward Kai. “We… healed the Earth Core a while back. I know it sounds—”

“Like a fit of Spring Fever? Aye! How then did you manage to heal a broken Earth Core, girl?” The woman demanded.

Rhona growled in frustration.

Thankfully, Kai was there to take up her slack.

He cleared his throat, drawing the two rangers’ attention.

The man, seeming reasonable, asked the question anyone in their right mind would ask. “How, boy. How did you heal this Earth Core? Or is your friend as mad as she sounds?”

“She isn’t mad at all. I can heal any Earth Core for one very simple reason. I will gladly tell you, but I would prefer to ask you a question first. Two questions actually. Is that permitted?”

The female ranger growled in frustration, but the leader called her off.

After receiving a nod, Kai continued. “What is your name? It would be a lot nicer if we exchanged pleasantries first. I’m Kai and this is Rhona.”

“You may call me Royar. Your second question?”

Kai stared the man in the eyes. Rhona was surprised to see the boldness of his posture and expression. Already, the lanky youth she’d first met was thickening his skin and strengthening his backbone. “Not so long ago, the Hintari nobles turned against their dragon allies. They betrayed them, and led them to a slaughter. What do you think of such an act? Was it wisdom or folly?”

Royar folded his arms and scrunched up his face. As if thinking aloud, he said, “Strange question coming from a half-blood boy who calls Mindonne home. Strange times to be having a conversation on the very border of my country.”

Royar tossed a wink to the woman, who still clutched her spear and wore a hungry expression. Then he eyed Kai again, taking in his armor, his newly forged pauldrons. Faint runes glowed on each of the pieces, evidence their party was more than commoners.

Finally, he answered. “The Rangers that guard our border are a diverse group. Many of us have allegiances to the very noble houses that were… involved in the War of Dragons. Most of our number, though, especially those who you find yourselves in company with, hold more ancient oaths. I’ve sworn to defend Hintar from any danger. That oath is protected and honored by the elected council. So, I am more or less able to speak my mind.”

Pausing once more, Royar chewed his lip. “I was just old enough to be called up to join the army in defense of this land when the war you speak of played out. My scrawny arse was lucky enough to avoid most of the main conflict, however. Yet, when I heard of the dragons’ fall, I wept openly. My fellows wept along with the common folk of Hintar. I do not consider any act of betrayal to be noble. Does that answer your question?”

Kai considered but ultimately nodded. “Thank you, Royar. You’ll understand why I asked in a moment. First, I need to retrieve something from my baggage.”

The woman shook her head at the same time Royar said it was acceptable.

Royar unfastened Kai’s hands and apologized to his companion, then offered, “If it makes you feel more comfortable, love, why don’t you keep that needle of yours above his liver while he does so.”

Rhona watched as Kai walked over to where Ban’s champion stood. The woman held her spear pressed between a gap in Kai’s armor. She had but to thrust and he’d be a dead man.

Kai dug through the baggage, and at last pulled out Ban’s glowing core.

Rhona gasped at the same time the other rangers did. She watched Kai return with the heavy stone, its blue ether pulsing regularly.

Then Kai explained. “This, as you might suspect, is an Earth Core. It is my Earth Core, and his name is Bancroft. I don’t own him, but rather am bound to him as he is to me. You see… I’m a dragon, Royar. Half dragon to be exact, and that is why I’m capable of healing Earth Cores. Do you believe us now?”

Honor’s flanks twitched and Rhona’s heart leapt at the explosive laughter that burst from Royar. He fell to slapping his knees as well, and drew more disapproving glances from his woman. “Your tale is as mighty as a lake carp! How?… no, who?”

He took a few moments to compose himself, even wiping away a tear from the corner of his eyes. “Either you’ve been blessed by Shu, and your tongue is capable of the most convincing lies, or you’ve all lost your wits.”

“He speaks true,” Rhona growled, touching the edge of her power. If things went wrong, she’d already decided that she’d use Spirit Surge and kill the rangers where they stood.

“I’m sure you all believe that. Still, it is a lot to swallow. Yet I don’t know how else you might be in the possession of an Earth Core,” Royar admitted. Then he pointed to Ban’s lumbering champion. “And what of the strange beast? How came you to possess such a creature? And what of the Briga’s Tears? Your faces are still tinged with lilac.”

Rhona answered him quickly, her anger pushing her to act before considering Kai. “I purchased herbs from a half-gnome in Mindonne. She told me the Hintari would pause before striking down a fellow with a lilac cast about them.”

“Shineva Pliernum?” Royar asked. “She’s one of our finest spies, I’ll have you know.”

“Royar! Watch your tongue,” the woman scolded.

“Why? Either they’re allies or they’ll be dead by morning,” Royar snapped back. Adding a pinch of iron in his voice, he asked again, “And what of the beast?”

This time, it was Kai who answered. “The beast is called a stone houndzard. It is the dungeon champion of this very Earth Core. Hey, Ban!” Kai called out. When the houndzard swung his massive head to see his dragon, the rangers posted all around bristled with fear.

Again, Rhona nearly used her greatest skill to end this farce. She had no desire to kill these people, but she was terrified they’d hurt her friends.

Thankfully, all were disciplined, and she found no reason to defend herself.

Kai called out once more. “Ban, will you blink your left eye three times, slowly. That might prove to our friend here that there’s a keen mind inside all that flesh.”

Tension built as everyone waited for Ban’s response.

Then the stone houndzard’s left eye closed and opened three times precisely.

“By Briga’s Bosom! That was quite a trick!” Royar shouted.

Ban growled, opening his mouth to expose terrifying rows of razor-sharp teeth.

Immediately after, Kai said, “Ban thinks you should watch your tongue. Briga is a fair and wise goddess. She’s guided us well so far.”

Royar squinted, deciding if Kai were pulling his boot. “Okay, well enough. I’ve heard plenty and will promise not to insult any more gods. Still, we’ve much to do in a short amount of time.” He released a high-pitched whistle.

Another ranger emerged from the thick foliage and ran up to Royar.

Royar clapped the man on the shoulder. “Nicada, I need you to ride to the southern watch and warn them of an impending attack. Tell them to expect the shivving Vermillion Guard to show up. Could be an hour or it could be a week. I would guess tomorrow though. When you’re done, ride to the reserves camp and summon every long-shanked ranger we have and bring them back here. Switch horses along the way. Go with all haste, my friend.”

Nicada bowed at the waist and then sprinted away. A moment later, he emerged on a charger, plowing into the southern forest.

Then Royar gave his next commands to Kai and Rhona. “I’m honestly beginning to believe you both. A thousand easier lies could have been told, but you stuck with your story. Still, I will be taking you back to our commander. He can decide your fate.”

Rhona sighed, relieved the man had chosen to act reasonably. Besides, the commander of the rangers is precisely who I wish to speak with. He’ll know how best to respond.

Then she heard Ban’s voice.

Since Imogen’s death, the Earth Core had mostly been silent, but now he sounded urgent. Tell him that we can’t! We must get to the Sunken Keep. I just know it. Besides, we’ve done our duty. I can be of more help to Hintar if they let us find a suitable place for a new dungeon!

“Royar,” Kai said, making the ranger turn round and sigh.

“There’s no way around it, son. I’m sorry.”

“We need to find the Sunken Keep. Please, if you care at all for the shivvered Earth Cores and their fallen dragons, you must let us pass.”

The ranger’s face pulled together in another desperate expression of thought.

Rhona could see why the ranger woman had taken to the man. He was boyish at times and then intensely handsome at others. His thinking face makes him look boyish.

Perhaps sensing an opportunity, Kai pressed his case. “Please, let me retrieve my map. I’ll show you precisely what we’re about.”

Again, Royar proved he was a reasonable man. Kai fetched the colorful map he’d shown Rhona back in Imogen’s dungeon, and handed it over to their captor. The man rubbed the bristling beard on his face and considered. “I do not wish to hinder such a quest, but friends, how am I to let you all pass? If what you say is true, war may be on our doorstep.”

Stepping forward, Rhona broke into the conversation. “I have a solution.”

She spared Kai a pained look. She knew that neither Ban nor his dragon would agree with her suggestion. Staring up into Royar’s kind face, Rhona laid down her cards. “Let my friends go. If this Sunken Keep hasn’t up and moved, it isn’t far from here. I’ll go with you and yours. Call me a captive, if it pleases your commander, but I go willingly. I have information on the Vermillion Guard as well as the tactics and plans of the Brintoshi and Kaltanese army. I’ll even help you fight the bastards.”

Kai stumbled forward. “No, Rhona, we mustn’t separate. We’re a team, a party… we’re a guild!”

Rhona searched her friend’s eyes, imploring. Kai, you have to trust me. He will let you two go and will most likely send scouts to follow. I doubt they’ll be a bother though, and that still leaves you two to perform the mission. But I am needed here. Not only can I give the Hintari an edge by sharing all I know, but I can fight the man who killed Imogen directly.

For a moment, Kai remained hesitant. Then he sighed and asked one honest question. Will you come back?

The unguarded expression he wore gave Rhona pause. Not wanting to leave the question unanswered for a second longer, she replied, Yes! Yes, of course, Kai. I… I just have to do this first. Please, trust me.

Expecting to hear a similar retort from Ban, the Earth Core’s response shocked her. Rhona speaks with wisdom. Kai, have faith. We left Imogen trusting she knew her business. We may part with Rhona now and trust our paths will cross once more.

Royar, unaware of Ban’s comment, gave his own verdict. “Very well! Rhona, you’ll remain bound and once we get moving, blindfolded. Kai, you may leave with your Earth Core and his beast. Know that should your actions turn against Hintar, your friend will answer for your crimes.”

When Kai made to protest again, the ranger held up his hands. “Good! Be about your business then. I’ll not change my mind unless you wish to come with us.”

Kai searched Rhona’s face, frantic for some alternative.

Rhona gave him a smile, then spoke in his mind. Don’t worry. I doubt the Hintari wish to kill me, not after I tell them all I know. With the force coming against them, they’ll be in need of all the allies they can get.

At last, Kai’s resistance crumbled. His plaintive expression turned grim. “Fine. As you are trusting us, Royar, I’ll trust you. See that our companion remains well cared for. If something goes awry, you’ll regret crossing us. We are stronger than we may appear.”

Royar’s woman gave Kai a poke with the butt of her javelin. “Watch your tongue, half-blood.”

But the lead ranger held out his hand to Kai and shook with him. “Understood, young man. Now, be on your way before I change my mind. As for my own,” he continued in a louder voice. “We encountered a woman on horseback this morning! She had the pale skin and the fiery hair of the Brintoshi. We took her captive, and will bring her to speak with Commander Tembar. Am I clear?”

The rangers standing all around gave a curt “aye.”

They were given only a few moments to part ways.

Rhona ran to Ban first and pressed her face against his scaly champion’s shoulder. It was an awkward hug, but the only one she could deliver. Find your Sunken Keep, Ban. I hope you discover a pile of jewels or another mystery. And please, take care of Kai for me.

Turning to Kai, Rhona was surprised when the dragon wrapped his arms around her first. He whispered in her ear, “Be careful, Rhona. I’ll never forgive you if…” His voice trailed off briefly and he cleared his throat. “Just come back, okay?”

She smiled at him then darted in, landing a quick kiss on his cheek. “You won’t be rid of me until you beg, dragon boy.”

Her friend turned three shades of crimson as he staggered back. His expression grew somber and he nodded more than he had to.

Then Rhona walked with Royar. He helped her mount Honor.

Kai returned the map to his baggage and tucked Ban’s core back inside its protective wrapping. When he was done, he watched Rhona as she and Honor were tethered to two horses. Royar and his woman mounted up as well.

The leader tossed Kai a nonchalant salute. “Shu willing, we’ll meet again, young man. Off with you. We’ll depart only when you’ve gone. And since you’re searching for a keep that’s hidden underground, keep your eye out for its crest. Three streams blending into a circle. The outline of a stone keep in the middle. You’ll recognize it when you see it, trust me. The canyon that leads to the keep is marked with the crest. Good luck.”

Kai mounted Ban’s champion, and Royar himself handed back his glaive.

The young man dipped his head to the ranger, thanking him privately, then waved to Rhona. Ban’s champion trotted away up the trail, heading into Hintar proper.

Rhona’s belly swarmed with competing emotions. She was satisfied her plan had succeeded. She’d made it to Hintar and she was on her way to speak with a man who might be capable of reacting to the threat at hand.

Yet, when the blindfold was drawn in place, fear and doubt made their own calls as well.

Unable to control the quiver in her voice, she asked her captors the single question that bugged her the most. “Why have you let my friends go about their business? Please, tell me true.”

From a few feet away, Rhona heard Royar’s reply. The bitter honesty in his words struck her like a mallet. “I’m sure you know already. I’ve a troop of lads to follow after them and report back when they can. They’ll follow the young man and his beast and tell me if anything interesting comes about.”

Rhona thanked the man for his honesty.

Most soldiers would have lied. It would have made things easier. But Royar had chosen to respect her instead. His answer hadn’t been a surprise either.

To be honest, the prospect of rangers following Ban and Kai didn’t bother her. In fact, they might even lend their aid should something befall her companions.

What was troubling Rhona now, though, was the inkling that the very same rangers had more than one set of orders. You’d better keep your noses clean, boys, she thought. Or you might not even see the arrow that kills you.





5





New Paths in a New Land





Kai



If you could hold still for but a moment, I’d really like to have a look myself! Ban asked again.

Kai shifted, holding the small map out as best he could. They’d been trying to spot a reliable landmark for some time now, and Kai’s patience was running thin. “Maybe next time you can eat your rotting lunch after we do this. Your mouth smells like a swine pen.”

The houndzard huffed, blowing a gout of stinking air down Kai’s neck.

Gently and with great deliberation, Kai folded the map and walked over to their baggage to put it away.

Predictably, Ban protested. I was using that! It isn’t my fault I haven’t any hands.

We’ll be fine. I’m in a foul mood and having you breathe all over me isn’t helping. Besides, we have the mountains, Ban! We head north, skirt the mountains, and we should find the canyon leading to the Sunken Keep by day’s end.

The Earth Core wasn’t satisfied. Kai could feel a plume of frustration practically billowing off of Ban’s mind.

Ban kept the peace though, which was all Kai could ask for.

He snatched out an apple and some jerky then strode to the edge of the clearing. Taking a bite, Kai reminded himself he was traveling through a new land.

This day should feel wondrous.

The fact of the matter, though, was that Kai felt pulled in a dozen different directions. He wanted to take on the rest of this adventure with Ban. Finding what might lie hidden in the depths of the Sunken Keep sounded like a line pulled from a book of adventures Kai once might have read as a boy.

But then there was Rhona. Where is she now, and by Briga’s braid, if they hurt her… He let the thought die where it had been born.

No, that isn’t how a hero proceeds, he told himself. Rhona herself would insist that I focus on the road ahead.

Even if he forced himself to ignore their missing companion, Kai still felt the tug to ascend. He wanted to race out into Hintar’s wilderness and take on its many challenges. Battles meant ether, and ether meant ascension. Yet then he stumbled upon one more briar patch in his mind.

If we’d only had a little more time together, he thought. I might have come to master Crystal Mind. As it is, I can’t trust I’ll be able to ascend when the time comes.

Thoughts of having his core burned out or crippled made him fall into a cold sweat. Knowing Ban wouldn’t mind the break, Kai sat down where he stood, leaving the apple in his hand untouched.

This time, when he assembled the prism of Crystal Mind, it took him half the time it had before.

Regardless of how he tried, though, he couldn’t see any outline that might show him his true Mandala.

After half an hour of practice, Kai closed off his inner vision. The vortex of his core had an undeniable allure, and he knew if time were less pressing, he could spend days on end in meditation.

A gust of wind tousled his hair, and he opened his eyes again.

Standing, he made his way back to where Ban had retreated and delivered the first of his apologies in the form of a scratch behind Ban’s ear.

They’d ridden for an hour after leaving Rhona. The trail had become a common road, but when it had veered east toward a town called Vianne, Kai suggested they head overland.

Kai couldn’t yet tell if that decision had been wise but s taring at the tree-clad hills and resplendent grasslands of the Hintari wilderness sure had its comforts noneth

He took his time eating, allowing his emotions to calm over time. Then he patted his friend’s scaled hide and apologized verbally. Ban was as forgiving as always, and the two took a break from their squabbles in order to more properly explore the countryside.

Perhaps it was leaving the stagnant decay of the swamps behind, or it may have been crossing to the eastern slopes of the Zargan Mountains. Either way, the terrain had indisputably changed.

The grass was just as green, but all over a patina of blue and white flowers flecked the rolling meadows. Reaching down, Kai picked one. The tiny gem was the size of a pearl, and though it had no fragrance at first, Kai noticed a smell like honey and thyme when he squeezed it.

On a whim, he gathered thirty of the tiny things in hopes of increasing the flavor of their stew that night.

The trees had shifted as well. An occasional tall redwood sprouted up, towering over its neighbors, but most were pine. Yet even these most familiar of trees looked as if Andag had taken a brush to them, stretching out their needles and curling them somewh mbat.

They gave Kai the impression of shaggy dogs.

So, it was with revitalized spirits that the two adventurers continued their journey.

They began afoot, allowing Kai to stretch his legs and get a feel for the land. After half an hour though, he mounted up.

The road, and any other marker of civilization, drifted away behind them. Only the towering Zargan Mountains to their left kept them oriented.

At first, Kai considered asking if Ban could travel close to the mountains, follow directly in their shadow so as to avoid missing their target. But the map showed the Sunken Keep at least fifteen miles north of the Hintari and Brintoshi border.

A thought occurred to Kai, something that he’d suppressed since taking Ban from his dungeon. Ban, you showed Rhona and I a skill your champion could use when we left your dungeon. Do you have any others? And what do you call them?

I would appreciate to keep such things a bit secretive, Ban replied. It is most pleasant to surprise you.

Kai sighed, glad he’d broached the subject. I understand. And when we get you tucked deep inside a cave somewhere, you can surprise me all you want. But we’re companions, Ban. You need to tell me what you can do. I’ve already mentioned my Flame Spear upgrade, and though it won’t do us much good in a fight, I told you about Soul Projection. I think it is time you tell me all there is to know of this magnificent champion you’ve forged.

As usual, the compliment served to soften up Ban’s resistance. The first ability I showed you is known as Beam Roar. I’m not overly fond of its name, but I am excited to give it a try in combat. The only problem is that I can only use it once per hour.

Growing curious, Kai asked, Do you know why the skill uses Lumen as its element? Did you design your houndzard to use Lumen? Or can you only create creatures with that element?

If you keep interrupting me, I won’t be able to tell you. Still, you pose a good question, Ban admitted. I’m not certain, but I believe I can create new amalgamations with custom elements. I should be able to use them all. Having not selected one, however, the houndzard defaulted to Lumen. At least that is my guess.

Kai turned over his friend’s response. Imagining a dungeon full of various elemental minions was an exciting prospect, especially considering that they’d be Kai’s allies.

Ban continued in a chipper tone. The other two skills are a bit mundane in some respects, but useful. Reptilian Roll is the first. It does what you might think. It is an ether-powered roll that can be used both offensively and defensively.

And the last, Kai asked, thrilled to consider the possibilities.

The last is Tail Whip.

Kai felt Ban sigh heavily beneath him. Then the Earth Core explained his feelings. I can customize almost anything about my minions, but I was short on time and highly concerned about meeting up with you and Rhona once more. The skill names are simply horrendous.

Kai laughed, sympathizing with his friend and knowing the Earth Core was, at times, the oddest companion he could ask for.

The day passed pleasantly as the miles dripped away like fat off of a spit goose.

As the afternoon came on, golden and glorious, the rolling meadows turned into hills. Between the hills they found secluded springs or glens. Kai caught sight of two villages, one only by the smoke drifting up from a few chimneys.

The other was tucked up into a narrow valley.

He expected the houses to look different, and though he only spotted them from two hundred strides away, Kai noted thatched roofs and squat, stone structures. If anything, the village seemed like a moderately improved version of Mindonne.

I think we should break for another meal, Ban, Kai said at last.

His stomach growled and his body ached from enduring the odd side-to-side trotting of Ban’s champion. The Earth Core, while normally not subjected to hunger, was forcing his minions on at a goodly pace.

Confirming his suspicions, Ban agreed with much enthusiasm. I could eat a half dozen swine. Think we can find any?

Normally, an Earth Core’s minions, even their champion, fed off of the ambient ether within its dungeon. After leaving, however, the creatures had to survive on more mundane methods.

Kai stood up in the saddle and peered around. Empty grasslands stretched out for endless miles to the east. The mountains stood to the west, their craggy outcroppings promising a dangerous hunt. But due north, Kai spotted a depression in the land, running between two large hills.

Keep going, my friend. I think there’s a valley ahead, or if we’re lucky, a river. Swine drink as much as any other beast. Might be our best shot.

The powerful legs of Ban’s champion exploded with renewed vigor.

Kai laughed, falling down into the saddle only just in time to avoid losing his seat.

Twenty minutes later, and he could see over the lip of the nearest hill. The pines grew densely, clustering around the center of the ravine. And sure enough, babbling down its middle, was a stream as lively and cheerful as any he’d seen before.

Let’s slow down a bit, Ban. We don’t know what beasts or people might be hidden by those trees.

Yet as they approached, no signs of civilization showed themselves, and only birds and squirrels could be readily seen.

Ban grumbled, his hunger ruining his normally amiable mood.

But Kai was still hopeful.

When he could hear the water rushing, Kai dismounted and removed his glaive. Then he strode closer to the stream.

What he found there made his heart soar.

“Fish, Ban! Big ones too!” he called aloud.

They found a gap in the wood line big enough to accommodate the houndzard, and then Ban too could witness the glory of the fish run. Trout or salmon of some kind, all longer than Kai’s forearm, stole up the twists and turns of the small river.

Having no bow, and suspecting that Ban would make for a terrible fisherman, Kai tramped out into the stream, glaive in hand.

It took him several tries, but he managed to catch a fat fish on the hook at the back of his glaive. The sharp metal carved easily through the creature’s flesh and held it there while it jittered.

Kai twisted the glaive and flicked it toward Ban.

The fish tumbled end over end and flopped on the bank.

Ban devoured it whole.

It wasn’t hard for Kai to imagine his friend’s discomfort. He’d gone hungry more than once in his life, and Ban was inexperienced with his body. The pangs the Earth Core felt might very well have seemed amplified.

So, with great patience, Kai fed his companion.

Still, an hour passed, and Kai had only retrieved ten fish.

I hate to be the one to complain, Kai, but at this rate my hunger grows faster than it’s fed. Get another for yourself and let’s be on our way. I’m sure I can find some game before the day is out.

Kai squinted, watching the progression of an especially large fish as it swam toward him. It paused a moment at the base of the tiny waterfall that had served Kai so faithfully. Then, like the others before it, the fish raced up, tossing its body out of the water and flapping up the stream.

His glaive darted out and he hooked the creature. Not a bad plan, he admitted after tossing his last catch to the shore. Let’s keep moving north in hopes we can spot some deer or a fat pig like you’ve been craving. I can smoke this fellow here tonight when we camp.

Kai dispatched the fish with a hard knock to the head before wrapping it in cedar fronds and storing it in his baggage.

Glancing up at the sky, Kai guessed they had five hours of daylight left. Probably less considering the mountains. They’ll cheat us of an hour of sunlight for certain.

There was little else to do other than carry on.

Ban took them across the river and over the adjoining hill. Little but a few crops of trees greeted them, but Kai was nonetheless optimistic.

They traveled at a moderate pace, both now conscious of Ban’s increasing hunger. His champion was twice the weight of a normal horse, and that kind of body required serious sustenance.

Too bad you can’t eat grass like Honor. We’ll need to get you to consume the body of a horse when your dungeon is rebuilt, Kai suggested in hopes of keeping the party’s spirits high. Then you can create a hybrid horse champion that can eat practically anything!

A splendid idea, Kai. While we’re on the topic, I do hope we can find somewhere more secure than my last dungeon. It was a convenient place for a diplomat, out of the way yet near the border. Yorick simply hadn’t considered security much of an issue.

Kai fell back into his own thoughts again, recalling how closely they’d all come to defeat before their adventure had properly begun.

He still felt guilty over not having been there to defend his Earth Core’s dungeon. Ban would always be there for him, but Kai had been deep in Imogen’s dungeon when the band of soldiers had pushed Ban’s limits.

A trumpet reverberated off the distant slopes of the mountains, interrupting Kai’s thoughts.

Ban halted, and the two held still. There it was again, a trumpeting noise that sounded more organic than an instrument.

What do you suppose that was? Kai asked.

No idea, but I am thrilled to find out. Shouldn’t be far out of our way.

Turning toward the mountains slightly, Ban raced off to find the source of the odd noise.

The further they got, the louder the calls became until Kai was quite certain some beast was making them. It reminded him of a male deer calling for mates. He’d heard them in rut near his uncle’s house often enough to associate the noise.

Yet this surpassed anything imaginable.

It was loud enough to travel miles!

Finally, they emerged from a thicket of trees and came upon a sprawling wetland. Some river, or perhaps a series of underground springs, had flooded the grass, making it soggy in places.

Large pools of tepid water dotted the horizon, and standing among them was a herd of remarkable creatures.

Kai clutched the pommel of his saddle as Ban came to a sudden halt. The muscles under his leathery hide rippled in anticipation. That is dinner, Kai. I promise you, I will eat one.

Are you sure you can finish it though? Kai asked, regarding the animals’ impressive size.

The group clustered together a half mile away, all surrounding an alpha. They looked like deer had they been paired with warhorses and doubled again in size.

The beasts were too far away to examine with his Etheric Interfa