o, where are you moving?" the brown haired boy said, throwing the leather taw onto the Tawch board he had scratched on the cement with a rock.
Tavis looked down at his feet, scraping them across the ground. "Rhendale," he replied at length.
"Rhendale?" inquired a towheaded girl seated on the walkway. She was cradling a doll in her arms, face of buttons and hair of yarn "Where's that?"
Tavis looked up at her. "It's closer to the city center, so I'll be near the City Hall and the bay. My dad says we can go down there and see ships come in."
The brown haired boy looked up from the Tawch game. "My dad says that only poor people live there." He hopped through the shapes drawn on the ground over to where the taw had fallen. "Does this mean you're going to be poor?"
Tavis examined his feet again. "Don't know… Maybe."
The fair haired girl piped up again. "Will you come to visit us?"
"Hope so," Tavis said earnestly.
The girl looked down into the cloth face of the doll in her arms and began to swing it gently side to side. "We'll miss you"
Silence pervaded for a moment, and then the only noise was the brown haired boy scuffing his leather shoes on the pavement as he hopped back to Tavis, taw in hand.
"Your turn, Tavis."
"Your highness," Trondal began edgily, shifting somewhat from one foot to the other as he watched the Enteroh sitting at his desk, intently reading a large book of scripture. Nashan did not move though, head resting on one hand. Trondal bit his lip nervously, cleared his throat, and then hazarded to speak again.
"Your highness -Sire."
The Enteroh's head jerked up and bobbed about for a moment.
"Oh, sire… I am sorry. I didn't realize you were-"
"Just resting my eyes is all," Nashan broke in. Groggily, he turned around in his chair and fixed his eyes on the small Devict. "What have you got?"
"It's Mjorda, sire, he just communicated that he has lost the lance."
The Enteroh looked puzzled. "The what?"
"Lance, Sire. The group you sent him to follow, that had the lance you wanted them to recover… Well, they surprised them -had a conjurer with them and well, they lost the lance."
The Enteroh glared at the Devict, steel in his eyes. "Trondal, what was the message that I originally asked you to deliver."
With exaggerated patience the Enteroh responded. "When I first sent Mjorda after them, what was it that I told him to do?"
Trondal kept silent, biting his cheek and lip nervously.
"To capture the members of the party, Trondal," the Enteroh went on, finishing his own sentence. "The people. I don't care a toss about what weapons they might have beyond any threat they pose to their being captured."
"Is that clear?" the Enteroh drilled.
"Yes, sire." The Devict paused for a long moment. "Oh, and sire," Trondal began hesitantly, "The other Devicts and I detected others… magic-users projecting nearby the Hall, snooping around or some such."
"Have them arrested then," the Enteroh replied blandly.
"Well, uh… What precisely is the criteria for their arrest?"
The Enteroh sighed wistfully. "We cannot arrest them simply for projecting, the Senate would have our heads. However we can follow their projections back to those casting them and we will invariably find some cause for arrest at that point. Snooping into confidential matters of state, plotting violent acts against their Enteroh, -Even being unregistered practitioners of magic… Suffice it to say that you will find something.
"Just like that old man we found last week up in the Highlands. You remember him?"
"Yes, I traced him back to his home…" Trondal hesitated a moment. "Lacondus sent a troop of soldiers… But… er… He was never brought in for questioning."
"Lacondus knows how to conduct his job. If the old man resisted arrest, engaged in a skirmish -Possibly he was more powerful with magic than they thought… Then they would have dealt with him."
"Yes… of course, sire." The way Nashan said dealt made Trondal flinch.
The Enteroh rubbed tiredly at his eyes. "First thing tomorrow, produce a list of all those you've scanned who would qualify as a threat and meet with Lacondus to dispatch the guards that will be responsible for their arrest -Just as we did with the old man last week."
"As you wish, sire," the small Devict answered submissively.
"Get some sleep now,. I'll need you at full strength tomorrow."
"Of course, sire." And with that, Trondal obediently left the room.
Branches snapped into their faces and chest. Brambles caught on their cloaks and breeches. Underneath their feet, twigs cracked and snapped as the company marched through the Elven wood, Gin in the lead. Lingering in their ears was the faint, continuous buzz and chirp of numerous forest insects, some patches louder than others, indicating a larger swarm or colony. The blackness of night seemed to escalate the hum of the insects into a fierce whirring and spinning sound that made everyone's skin twitch at real and phantom insect bites. One dogged foot before the other, squinting and grunting with each step, the party pressed on. Tavis had removed the canvas from the lance and its silver shaft and steely spearhead glinted in the subdued light of the forest.
"You should really be careful with that magic stuff, Rhoden," Gin chimed in the direction of the conjurer. "There was this man that lived just outside of my village, and he once learned a spell just to light candles and things, and then one night, he went to touch his daughter's hair and it lit on fire!"
"Hey, I heard about that, too," Tavis answered. "Except it was this man that lived near Orctown and he burned all his wife's hair off one night when the spell got out of control!"
"You heard about that guy, too, huh?" Brogan added.
Rhoden looked up briefly. "I think everyone has a neighbor or uncle that they're sure had the same experience. It's just stories you tell at night when children get tired of hearing the story of 'how the Skein got its tail'."
"No, I heard about this from my friend Kenja when we lived in -Whoa!" Tavis held his forearms before his face, attempting to deflect a new onslaught of limbs. Haltingly, he plunged through the scrub and saplings. "Somebody remind me why we're going this way instead of on a nice, clear path?"
Gin sighed. She was sufficiently short to avoid most of the bothersome limbs which harried the other members of the company. "All of the main roads have gates at the border, and they're not just going to let us through after what we did at the inn."
"Ginny, I was being facetious."
"Does that happen when you get older?"
"No, no, no. This is the other 'being'. Remember when I explained this to you? This isn't the being like 'I am', this is the being like 'I'm acting'."
"You have a confusing language. I thought fasejus -or whatever you said meant 'talks to himself a lot' or something like that."
"You stupid girl! Can't you recognize when someone -Ow!" Tavis stopped abruptly, hopping madly on one foot, holding onto the lance for support. "Oh, good…" He bit his lip. "How soon till we're out of these cursed woods!"
"Are you being fasejus again? I told you just a little while ago."
The group paused and caught their breath while Tavis picked the thorn from his foot.
"You're the one who doesn't know where he's going anyway."
"Gin, I was told by Endae that I needed to take the lance to… -Rohnjeck, and there I'd learn what I need to know."
"And do you know who this Rohnjeck is?"
"We'll find out when we see him. Okay? -Look, I don't need you to be giving my all this shash, I just need to get us out of this stupid Fay forest and we'll be fine! Allright?"
Gin's face went tight. She panted, but kept all her retorts in. Her hands were clenched into hard, white fists, but she didn't let them go, she just stared, panted, and finally turned and stomped away through the brush. The group stood back for a long moment, and then followed the trail her angry footsteps left.
After more marching, switches, and brambles, Brogan spoke. "Where's Zeyn, anyway?"
"Back a ways," Rhoden replied. "He said he would help cover our tracks."
Brogan snorted. "He's got quite a job, then. We may as well be an army of a thousand with the trail we're leaving."
The sound of Tavis grunting rose again as he tested putting weight on his foot. "I suppose he's got a way for us through the badlands as well once we get out of this blasted wood?"
"That's why we brought him along," Rhoden replied nonchalantly.
Tavis rolled his eyes. The group began marching again.
"I think he's interesting," piped Gin.
"I think Temacus' sewer system is interesting, but it doesn't mean I like to visit there." Tavis replied.
"He is necessary," Rhoden spoke in Zeyn's defense, "and fortunately his goals are at harmony with ours."
"He gives me chills!" Tavis declared. "He never eats, never sleeps, goes off on his own or into weird trances, and he only speaks to you, Rhoden."
"You would rather he spoke to you instead?" the conjurer inquired dryly.
Tavis was silent.
The clopping hooves of the old mare throbbed like a drumbeat in Tavis' ears as the wagon rolled steadily into town. It was funny how the houses changed as they rode in, Tavis thought. They're still made of wood and brick and glass, but the tone changed as they rode on, like the gradual change in hue of the sea as it spreads from the shoreline to the horizon, or the color of the sky as the sun descends, turning it from orange, to violet, and then to indigo.
Father drove the wagon on and they passed underneath the tall walls of the old city. Tavis stared at them all the way, watching them grow up out of the ground higher and higher until they stood over them like giants as they passed through one of the old archways. It appeared that there had once been gates in place to close the city off, but they had long since been removed.
The streets were narrower in spots, more irregular, twisting and turning, and in some places seeming to bend back on themselves. There weren't as many parks or fountains here, Tavis thought. Children were playing in the streets rather than being indoors or on a stretch of sedge outside.
Lots of people cluttered about on walkways and in alleys. Some were selling baubles and trinkets, others were mulling about allies, and others were sleeping in doorways. The boy stared at them without realizing until he received an icy glare in return from one of the stragglers. Tavis turned his head and looked down at his hands, uncomfortably.
After a long time, father pulled the wagon to a stop, crying 'Whoa' to the mare. Tavis looked up, excited. Father helped mother off the seat and down to the pavement below. He then picked up the boy and lifted him out of the wagon. Tavis gave out a shrill giggle as father lifted him. Still holding his son, father turned around and examined the building before him.
The building before them stood three stories tall, blotting their view of the sun from where they stood on the walkway. The thin coat of plaster that had covered the wooden frame for apparently many years was peeling away in numerous spots. The glass in the old windows was dirty and cracking. The door and window sills had been recently painted a dark green color.
As the family looked on, a little sandy-haired boy ran out the door wearing no clothing at all. A woman came behind him, shouting after him in a foreign tongue. She quickly apprehended him by one arm and picked him up, his little legs kicking fiercely in the air. She smacked his bare little bottom with her other hand and carried him squealing back into the building.
Father lifted Tavis up and leaned his head against his son's. He pointed upward to a window on the second story. Tavis squinted, looking to the browning dusty glass his father signaled toward.
"You see that one up there, son? That's our new home!"
Night was drawing on as the band emerged from the wood. Despite the fact that their pursuants were close behind, they were all exhausted and decided they would get a few hours of sleep before dawn. They had reached the edge of the badlands where the sand crawled up against the forest, turning the shrubs to brambles and fallen logs to stone. They were laying down their bedding when Tavis' nerves began to prick. The hair on his neck began to tingle, and a shrill twitch of fear went running through him. He dropped his bedding, caught the lance from the stone he'd leaned it on and turned around to bear.
Zeyn was hanging in the air before him, suspended, as usual, a span above the ground. Tavis was breathing hard and hadn't recognized it. Zeyn hovered by, uninterested, and stopped by Rhoden. Tavis' eyes followed the wraith as he floated, and resheathed his dagger only after he had passed.
Zeyn touched his tendrils of fingers to the side of Rhoden's face. The two stood there for a while, silent. At length, Zeyn released and Rhoden exhaled abruptly. The eyes of all the group were on him expectantly.
"Early tomorrow we will meet Omoz." Rhoden declared.
Great, Tavis thought, Who's Omoz? Then the youth laid down on his bedding, rested his head against the wadded ball of his cloak, and fell asleep instantly.
"Tavis! Wake up!" Gin was yanking furiously on Tavis' blanket. She had crawled, bedding and all, right up next to him.
Tavis mumbled and stirred. "Go away!" he grumbled.
"No! Tavis! There's something out there!"
Tavis rolled and peered over his shoulder at her.
"I'm serious, Tavis! It was just over there by those rocks." She pointed a petite finger over toward a pile of boulders nearby. Other than the scrub, an occasional pile of boulders was the only thing that gave variety to the endless expanse of sand.
The pair of them stared at the rockpile in silence for a long moment. At last Tavis exhaled noisily and rolled back into his bedding. "There's nothing there, Gin! Go back to bed and leave me alone!"
"No! I saw it! It was creeping from the rocks toward us!"
"It's too early in the morning for games, Gin!"
"I'm serious! Look, just keep your eye on it for a minute and you'll see."
"Only if you promise to be quiet."
"I promise, okay? Now look!"
Tavis rolled over sluggishly, gathering his blankets about his head and peering out from within the covers. He cracked an eye open and stared out at the heap of rocks in the distance. Morning was still many hours off, but already the pallid light of the impending dawn glowed faintly over the desert, highlighting the dunes and stones across the plain.
Gin laid down as well, resting her small, blonde head on Tavis' torso, head propped up so she could gaze at the boulders as well. She allowed her eyes to half-close, and let her breathing slow.
Tavis was nearly asleep when the boulders became animate. At first he thought it was just a dream. He blinked several times. The rocks were moving. There could be no doubt of it. It wasn't that there was something moving in them, the rocks themselves were alive. He turned his hip to nudge Gin. She shook her head gently and let in a gasp. Her eyes blinked and came open. Her pointed ears perked up. The stones themselves were moving toward them.
"Rhoden…" She murmured softly. "Rhoden. Get up." Fear quaked her voice as she spoke.
"Brogan! Rhoden! Get up!" Tavis added imperatively.
A flare of light sounded audibly as a ball of flame shot to life in Rhoden's hand. Somehow he was out of his covers and standing. Tavis and Gin squinted at the light, feeling exposed. Rhoden tossed the ball of flame over to the pile of boulders. There was movement as a creature scrambled to get out of sight.
"Get together! Get up and pull together!" Brogan's bellow resounded through the night as Rhoden's flame ball faded.
Tavis and Gin came up from sheer nerve and ran to where they remembered seeing Rhoden before the flame went out. All around them they thought they saw the desert moving.
"Whoa!" Came a cry as a huge hand came up to stop the youth and the elf girl in their rush. The pair gave yells and shrieks as they hit the massive limb. Gin clutched Tavis close to her. "Pipe down! It's only me!" Brogan cried.
Tavis and Gin gave out embarrassed gasps. She kept hold of Tavis in spite of herself.
Then there was another ball of flame in Rhoden's hand. The creatures were on all sides of them now, Rhoden's magical flame illuminating their gray, pocked skin.
"What was that?" Brogan shouted in the conjurer's direction, "An incubus?"
"Can't tell. Didn't get a good look at it." Rhoden replied.
"Look!" Gin screamed, eyes wide, pointing past Rhoden. Brogan's head snapped about He sprang past the conjurer, sinewy body unwinding in the air. He bolted into one of the creatures with a dull, scraping thud. The company saw the two bodies tangle and separate. Sand flew and the shuffle was over. Brogan bound back over to the company, clutching his shoulder, arm hanging limp at his side.
"Brogan!" cried Tavis, racing over to him.
The BeHemoth was panting. "Aigh… Whole arm numb… Touched me like ice or something."
"Stay close" Rhoden ordered as the BeHemoth came near again. "Keep low".
Then the flame shot from the conjurer's hand again. Not a gentle toss like before. The flame sliced across the night, thinning down like an arrow as it picked up speed. It lanced into one of the creatures, striking it full force in the chest. The face was illuminated hideously in the night, stark ridges and obsidian eyes highlighted underneath by the ensuing explosion. There was a cry and the grating sound of stone scraping on stone. Then it was dark again.
Tavis was aghast. "Should've set it on fire… Should've killed it."
"-Don't know what it's made of…" Rhoden followed.
"Where's Zeyn?" Bellowed Brogan. The BeHemoth uttered a curse in his own, gutteral tongue. "Why is he always disappearing!"
"There's no time!" Rhoden declared. "Come on! Let's-"
But he was cut off. A sharp hiss and a tiny thunk sounded as Rhoden went down to the ground, clutching his neck.
Gin screamed. Tavis held her close to his body, feeling paralyzed and useless. His wide eyes lingered on Rhoden's fallen body and then he looked up at Brogan, and spied the creature standing behind him.
"Brogan!" he screamed, too late. The creature raised a limb, and as Brogan turned to see, it came down on him, sound of flesh giving and bone grinding as thin fingers hit the BeHemoth's spine.
Brogan went down groaning, eyes glassy, mouth open. There was a hissing and Gin went limp at Tavis' side. Tavis turned and received a sharp blow on the back of his skull. Everything went black.
Tavis stood on the steps of the apartment, slowly wringing his hands. He had placed his belongings in the small room that father said was to be Tavis' room now. He felt cramped in there. He had to stuff his clothing into the tiny closet and shove his toys under the bed. He put some of his astronomy and story booklets on a shelf by his narrow bed. He set uncle Wiljes' top on the windowsill. Mother came in and saw him staring at the wall. She had told him to go out in the sunshine, meet some of the new children and make some friends. He didn't feel much more at ease outside, though.
"Du fon wegen Tenkern?"
Tavis turned. A tawny-haired girl was by his side. Her hair was intricately woven back along her head in rivulets of braids. Brilliant green eyes shone up at Tavis, and the smile she wore took him totally off balance.
"Du glick Tenkern?"
Tavis stammered helplessly. "I… I…"
The girl looked at him deeply. "Par mal, You know Delian?" She looked at him intently for a moment and then repeated herself.
Tavis thought he understood her the second time. "Delian…? Who's Delian?"
The girl gave a melodious laugh. "You don't speak Delian, do you."
"I guess." Tavis said, the words tumbling out.
The girl laughed again. "I asked if you wanted to play Tenkers."
"It's a game. Come on, I'll show you." She led Tavis down to the walkway by a group of children who were huddled together around a circle they had etched in the dirt with a stick. Each child had a handful of wood, metal, and glass chips which they were taking turns throwing into the circle.
"Ge ne me kait" the girl announced to the other children.
"Gak-o" replied one of the older boys. "Kant's geh nomb."
"Oh yeah," she said, turning to Tavis, "what's your name?"
"I've never heard that name before." But it's nice, Tavis thought.
Kenja turned back to the children. "Gen nomb Tavis." Quickly they had assembled some wooden chips for Tavis to play with and were rapidly explaining the rules to him.
"…But you can't do that on your turn, unless you call a chamb. Now throw your piece. No, not from there, you've got to do it down low by the circle. That's right, now flip it… Ooh!" The children cheered, the older boy swore. "Look, you hit Jonda's big flint! Now you can take it or wait and get three of them on the next round if you hit it again!"
Tavis looked at Kenja and smiled.
Tavis awoke, still terribly exhausted from the activities of the previous night. His muscles were stiff. He tried to sit up and found his arms bound behind him. He groaned, but his groan was muffled by the gag in his mouth.
He wriggled around and surveyed his surroundings. Apparently his captors had thrown him and his companions unceremoniously into some sort of mud and stone hut. It was cool and dry. As far as he could tell, he was resting on Brogan and Gin was piled on top of him. The youth twisted and peered overhead at the light source above him. Muted sunlight came from behind a milky, overcast sky and descended through a portal overhead.
Tavis felt the bite of the ropes on his wrists, but continued squirming until he had awoken all his companions. After an excessive amount of shuffling and grunting, the group disentangled themselves and each sat up. Rhoden's face was blank. Brogan looked perturbed. Gin's face was fraught. The ground here wasn't sandy, Tavis observed, more solid, like clay.
Then overhead they heard voices. Odd chittering and clicking. A language none of them understood. They looked up and beheld their captors: Slender bodies and long limbs, pitch-black chunks of coal seated in their skulls for eyes, facial ridges prominent and blocky, like they were cut out of stone… No, they were stone. Just like the creatures at the plaza when father took me to see the new Enteroh inaugurated so many years ago, Tavis thought. No wonder all we saw was boulders last night.
Then another figure came into view and Tavis felt an eerie presence like a ghost. A hollowness opened up inside him like a pit. Slowly, the cloaked head turned and Zeyn's fiery red eyes peered down at the group.