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Partner in Crime

Part One
Copyright © 2010 Bonnie Watson

Up before first crow; rode out to meet the sun cresting the tops of Mount Glory. I tilted my wide-brimmed hat to block out most of the rays, then turned my horse to face town. The grass tip I'd stuck between my teeth early on was beginning to taste bitter. I slid it over. Wasn't tobacco, but it would do - now that I was on patrol.

I could feel the heat building into the morning, and I cracked a grin only a passing Horned lizard could see. A few moments more and my Duster would activate. Not the most complicated defense, but useful when scouring the desert in pursuit of possible outlaws. Supposing I was thankful to have been given the chance to redeem myself. All those years of criminal acts – the Guild must have known. They wouldn't have accepted me, let alone granted such a fine coat to display my Weapon Caster skills. Mighty thankful, if not a bit haughty.

Tilley must have read my thoughts, for she nickered, a reminder to adjust the Duster along her rump so she too could enjoy its cooling charms. I eased her out along a narrow ridge. From where I was, folk passed along the main road without a clue to who was watching them from above. I'd been successful catching several gunslingers this way. Find something to draw their guns on, and it was all point and click. I could feel the forty-four caliber resting in its holster along my left side. My trigger finger itched to take action. Instead, I gripped the reins tighter and concentrated on the road coming into town.

Peony was its name. Dinky, run-down, it was last on the list of fifty-some other towns chosen by the Guild. It was also the last place anyone would ever care to visit - anyone  of decency. Probably why the Guild chose this life for me. More criminal low-life slunk around these parts than anywhere else. The town was full of it! Another reason to put me here. As much as I wanted to charge in and take everyone out in a single blast, I knew I couldn't. The rule of the West - if they ain't caught stealing, don't arrest 'em.

Self control. It was hard, but I managed. Back before the Guild caught up with me, I'd shoot any sucker that wandered within my line of sight. Well, sucker as in those who tried to stop me. I never touched innocents. Wasn't that bad.

Tilley picked up the distant sound of hoof beats before I did and let out a nicker. I patted her neck, feeling her muscles tense and ready at the slightest nudge to get going.

"Easy, girl." Matillda was my proudest accomplishment. I'd found and raised her from a frail filly to the noblest of steeds. Hell, I'd even had offers to breed her for some extra copper. Would've been worth it, but as I was stubborn, I liked the good stuff all to myself. "Ready?"

My fingers slipped around the gun and eased it out of its holster. The soft creak of leather was a beautiful sound. That was another accomplishment. Being a Weapons Caster meant creating things, mostly mechanical in nature that went boom. The louder, the better. I'd seen some pretty incredible stuff come from other Casters, but what interested me was the polished look and feel of a gun that was easy to recognize, easy to handle, and did the job first time around. None of this boisterous bulk that covered most of the arm and sounded like it could split the Grand Canyon. Ain't me. That was another Guild. Mine only had to deal with people who slipped Add-ons to their coats. Illegal, improper, and got a Caster either expelled or executed. Tempted though I was with Ad-ons, I tried to always do the right thing.

Ahem. Tried.

"Let's go," I whispered, and Tilly didn't hesitate.

She knew the drill. Down and around the large rock formation until the traveler was close enough to step out and cut his route from town. Gun drawn. If he pulled first, it was over. All I needed. Another to my list of fugitives.

"Azri?" Unless he knew me.

"Sam?" And I knew him. "Well, well. Look what the cat dragged in."

"Been years, partner. Looks like you've finally claimed your title. Couldn't have stolen that fine coat."

I had to tip my hat down at that. Samuelamus, my old partner in crime. We shared good times and great spoils. Made a muck everywhere we went. I was very surprised he even lasted this long. No criminal did unless they had a Caster with them.

"You changed," I said. "No more women and money, huh?"

Sam nodded. "Yeah. Figured I'd settle down, start myself a little ranching business. Worked out for a while until some bandits took everything while I was out herding cattle. Never found my wife yet. Been looking ever since."

"You married?" That came as a shock. Sam never seemed the kind to just settle down with any one woman. "I'm real sorry, Sam. Must have been tough trying not to return to old habits." That got to him.

"I heard this was a place to start looking."

I grinned and returned the gun at my side.

"You're more than welcome to snoop around. Careful, though. Scum everywhere you step."

"Appreciate it. By the way, nice gun. You make that?"

"You know I did."

"Took you long enough."

"Don't start with me." Back to old times again.

Katalina was the best hostess in town, the best dressed in town, and the best lover in town. She ran a saloon where men could fill their fancy of her and others like her, drink to their heart's content, and pass out later on. It was heaven, and when I was sometimes tuckered out from the day's events, I often times found myself here.

"Who's your friend?" she asked with that raised eyebrow of admiration at Sam. She passed him a drink. "On the house, handsome. A friend of Azri's is a friend anywhere."

"Kat knows people," I told Sam. "She might be able to help find who you're looking for."

"Got a request, huh?" Her smile was a real turn-on. She had those type of lips that men wanted to touch, and be touched with. Her hair was a mass of curly blond ringlets pulled back to show off her rosy cheeks. Whenever she approached a man, she purposely puckered up her breasts, an appetizer to what was to come when she knew she could get money. When she turned to grab a drink for me, my eyes couldn't stop trailing up her leg to the revealing slit in that frilly skirt. "Don't I recognize you from somewhere?" she asked, peering over her shoulder at Sam.

"Well, he was with me at one point," I said.

"Helping a fugitive?" Kat leaned across the countertop so her breasts squashed up in front of me. "Risky." She ran her tongue across the top of the glass before sliding it toward me. "I like."

Beside me, I could hear Sam chuckle. "Now I know how you pay back favors."

"That'd be a trick." Kat pulled back and made herself a drink. She gulped it down in one swallow. Impressive. "You couldn't catch Azri without his coat if life depended on it. He's stuck to it. Believe me," she winked, "I've tried."

"She's just saving my reputation," I replied. "But for the most part, she's right. Spell Caster's don't part very easily with their coats. It's too valuable."

"Only to their wearer," Sam said. "Heard a guy tried stealing one to see what he could get. You know, weapons and such. But when he dug around, all the pockets were empty."

I nodded. "Everything's build on, so you can't lose anything. But everything is also comprised of charms. If the coat leaves the Caster, the charms fade. The weapons are still there, but no one without magic can access it."

"No one without," Kat said. "That means another Caster could."

"I thought the Guilds prohibited that kind of theft," Sam said.

"They do," I replied. "If you're with a Guild. If not..." I shrugged. "I've run into a couple who do their own thing."

"Add-ons." Sam hadn't forgotten what I'd told him long ago, and for good reason. Add-ons were dangerous. They could kill a lot of people, even Caster's themselves. For that very reason, Guilds had each of their members bind themselves to whichever Guild they chose, so in case someone was struck, even once by an Add-on, they would immediately find themselves at the Guild's Healing Center. Of course, it had its drawbacks. Even someone slightly wounded could disappear, leaving behind friends or family members in need of help.

"Gonna' be around for a bit?" Kat asked while sliding drinks to other customers. "I've a practice session with some of the girls for our dance bit, but after that I'm all yours." A customer tossed out a few extra coins in response to a glass juggling and tongue licking act, which Kat performed as smooth as the curves on her body. The woman knew her stuff.

"Don't see why not." Sam nodded. "Got nothin' better to do but watch perty  girls." He grinned.

I rolled my eyes. Sam hadn't changed all that much.

"How 'bout a place to stay?" I suggested. "You're more than welcome to stay with me. I'll be out on assignment anyway."

"No good." Kat finished fetching a round of empty glasses and set them down for a refill. "Remember, you're supposed to be disposing criminals, not housing them. If he gets caught..."

I waved the comment aside. "It's fine. He's here for his wife, nothing more. I doubt the Guild would start prying. They know I ain't going back." I held out the front of my Duster. "Not with this prize at stake."

Kat drew those thick lips into a pout. "And here I thought I was your only pride and joy." She picked up a tray of drinks, blew a kiss, then stepped around the bar to serve the many customers piling at tables for the next show.

I turned to Sam. "I gotta' tend to my girl for the evening. Should be back in time for the good stuff." When his eyebrows rose in question, I merely laughed. "Matilda, my horse."

Sam just smiled and went back to watching Kat pass out drinks.

A chill wind whisked through town as I stepped outside the saloon. It got dark quick in Peony, with only the oil lamps hanging alongside shop doorways and inside windows to light the way. Holding the brim of my hat down with one hand, I started for the town stables just down the road.

"Azriandrathorn," a voice came from behind. It wasn't very often someone used my full name, nor was it ever pronounced in a manner that called a Caster to duel. This one had, but not by a mere townsman.

"Jaemason." I turned, following the sound of his voice to a lone Caster leaning against one of the saloon's wooden beams. "Long time."

Jaemason had been a fellow student at the same Guild I attended. We were among the highest ranking chosen for the status of Master. Not an easy title to achieve. So the Guild conducted a test that set us against one another in a duel. The prize? The Duster I now wore, capable of allowing its wearer up to three hits before transporting that person to a designated Healer Center. I had always been slightly faster than Jaemason, and for that reason he had left for another Guild, one that supported heavier weaponry. At least it suited his tastes, if not speed.

"You actually brought a live one today," he said. "Don't you normally spill their guts on sight?"

"I didn't think Guilds assigned other Casters to an already assigned town," I changed the subject.

"Who said I was on assignment?" he returned.

That bothered me. Masters were not allowed to leave their assigned towns. If Jaemason wasn't working, then he wasn't with a Guild. Not good.

"So? What, you rode in with the cattle? Is that how I missed you? Why are you here?" I fired back. My finger was already on the trigger, and he knew it.

"Manners, manners, Azri." He straightened and strode to the saloon's entrance. "You ain't tipped your hat to me yet." He pushed through one side of the swinging doors and was gone.

I debated going in to see if he went over to Sam, but even a renegade Caster dared not try something in public, if renegade was what he had become. I decided to stay my course. I fetched Tilly some fresh water and made sure she had plenty to eat before heading back to the saloon. I didn't see Sam or Jaemason when I entered. It wasn't until Kat motioned to me from behind the stage curtain that I realized where everyone had gone. I stayed close to the wall, out of the way from hooting and hollowing cowboys over the girls dancing on stage. I quickly ducked behind the curtain to see Sam sitting near the dressing room. Lipstick smeared across his left cheek, and I had to grin. Good ol' Sam.

I stood before him with arms crossed. "Not the work of one set of lips, I'll wager."

Sam laughed and held up his hands in defense. "I swear I just came back here to chat. Didn't know nothin'!"

"Looks it," I replied. "Tell Kat your story?"

"He didn't get faces." Kat sauntered over to her room and began dressing her part for the show. She didn't bother closing the door and made sure to flash most, if not all, her well ripened breasts while slipping into a corset. "Would one of you handsome boys mind tying the back for me?"

Of course, we both jumped at the opportunity.

"Got enough of the backside of 'em to describe their clothing and horses." Sam grinned. He pulled the cord tight, and I noticed his eyes travel down her back to a plump mound of a bottom. Of course, I couldn't help but look too.

Kat glanced over one bare shoulder to flash us a wide smile. If she'd been a puppet master, we'd been helpless against our strings - and would love every minute of it!  A final tug caused a soft moan to escape her lips. The corset was on.

So were we.

"I think I have enough details to check around." Kat pulled part of her her hair up, letting a few tendrils dangle around either side of her cheeks. She slipped on a blue and white frilly dress and adjusted her bosom so it looked like two melons ready for picking. All the while she played that smile across her lips, knowing full well how this was affecting us. Then again, she had this affect on all men. Kat knew how to play, and played to win. She ran a finger under both our chins as she passed. "Stick around, boys. There's a private show at my place afterwards. Then maybe we'll see if that coat really can come off."

She trailed a hand up her skirt so that it pulled aside to reveal more leg. An invitation like this was hard to pass. Sam and I never said a word and just watched her vanish behind the curtain. We could hear heavy applauds and whistling on the other side. Kat had stolen the show, and both our hearts with it.

Morning came slower than usual. Somehow, in all the confusion of legs and breasts, I'd managed to misplace my coat. Warm memories of Kat's fingers caressing my flesh was enough to get me started all over again as I found my Duster and adjusted the multiple pouches containing various items I'd created over the years, one being my gun. I kept a second handy in case I needed it. A strap of bullets looped from one shoulder across my chest and down to my left side. I'd gotten the idea from another outlaw. Only he ran out of bullets. Casters never run out. Took awhile to get approval from the Guild. Without it, the extra bullets would have been deemed an Add-on. I'd have thought it would've only applied to weapons in general, but I didn't make the rules. I just played by them.

As I saddled up Tilly for the day's assignment, I couldn't help but wonder if Sam had heard me leave - being preoccupied at the moment. Tilly must have known something was amiss, for she nuzzled the backside of my coat as I finished adjusting the stirrup.

"Don't worry." I scratched the soft patch of white just between her eyes. "You're the only girl for me." Once we'd left the stable, I swung into the saddle. Reining her around, I paused a final time to check my packs.

We'd yet to clear the side of the building when I noticed movement heading out from the other side. I eased closer to the main road while still covered by the building. Hoofbeats, then a passing rider. There was no mistaking the coat worn by Weapons Casters.

Jaemason. I plucked a piece of hay off my coat and stuck it between my teeth. The day already looked interesting.

"What do you say, girl?" I patted Tilly on the neck. "Let's see how far he rides." A quick nicker confirmed my course of action. When dust was just settling, we pulled out to the main gate to see Jaemason already fading into the distance.

I never missed the dust kicked up from other horses while on patrol. It always confirmed I was on the right path when my nose starting clogging. This was one of those times. Jaemason had gone past my usual lookout point. Yet instead of keeping directly to the road, he veered off to the left. I followed his trail of dust to a similar lookout point not too far from town. To minimize my own dust cloud, I found patches of vegetation for Tilly to walk on versus open dirt. It hadn't rained in months, so stepping on the right ones  still healthy enough to settle the dirt could be tricky.

I finally dismounted behind several cacti while Jaemeson approached a large rock formation. He hadn't bothered tethering his horse, letting it roam free while he stood in the shadow of a naturally arched set of stone. Rough winds were known to cut into rock around these parts over time. This must have been one such sculpture, for the formation was as round and smooth as a bare man's head. I squinted in the warm glow of building sunlight. The other Caster rested a hand against the stone surface. I saw his lips move, though I could not make out his words. There came a low groan. Beneath my feet the ground vibrated. Then all was still. I stared at the now vacant location where Jaemason had once stood. A rectangular opening in the stone structure revealed where he must have gone. Several minutes passed before I ventured closer to peer inside.

The way was dark. Against my better judgment, I pulled a piece of flint from one of my pouches and a small vial of oil-soaked cloth. There were always plenty of dry things to burn in a desert, and after finding a suitable branch for a torch I wrapped the tip and struck the flint against the rock. Its first spark instantly ignited the damp cloth. I raised it high and stepped into the dark.

Slanting down, the tunnel contoured the circular structure until opening into a hollowed out room. There were no other levels to the inside, with the path continuing up the side wall. An opening at the top was the room's only light source. What drove the light down was a variety of mirrors. Each mirror had been angled along the wall to beam any rays to a single device in the middle of the room. A charge of light fading in and out on top of the device suggested the sun rays triggered a power source, but for what I wasn't sure.

It didn't look like any weapon I'd ever come across. I wasn't even sure it was an Add-on either.To me, the whole thing resembled a make-shift cross between a cobweb and a tabletop, rounded at the corners with hooks and hinges that might've closed upon command.

"How do you like my new invention?" the voice of Jamaeson drew my gaze to the opening at the top. He continued to speak, slowly descending the stairs to where I stood gawking at the strange contraption.

"And your Guild allows you to build something like this? Near my town?" I was furious, but decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. Some Casters were allowed to create things, so long as they didn't test them out on innocent bystanders. "You need to notify your Guild to send someone to move this immediately."

Jamaeson just gave me that look that read, "And what gives you the authority over me?" But as I was classified as Master, I actually did have authority. Jamaeson was just plain ol' hard-headed. Always was.

"Actually, I was thinking this would replace the coat you took from me." He gestured to the device.

I rolled my eyes. "You still on that? Look, I drew first. End of story."

"You pulled before the signal, ya little cheat!" Jamaeson suddenly roared. "And the Guild knew it! Knew it! They gave you something you ain't deserved to have. It should've been me! Not you!" He waved a hand over the device. "Now I ask you again, how do you like my new invention? Because you'll be giving me that coat whether you like it or not!"

My gun was already drawn. What happened next was beyond any foresight. A slight tingle from my gun drew my attention to it. Then a strong pull yanked my arm toward the top of the device. Next thing I knew I was dangling in midair with my gun stuck, and me with it.

Snap! The sides of the device closed around me. I'd been too dang proud of the gun to just let it loose. Now I probably looked like a fly wrapped in a cocoon of metal!
"Fast on the draw, but not on the thinking, eh, Azri?"

I forced the confusion from my mind and focused on Jamaeson standing in front of me. He'd retrieved my gun, admiring it, turning it over to follow the detail of wood-carved roses along its sides. Years of perfecting shape and design, and one mistake to lose it. I wanted to string him up!

"You remember the game we used to play when we were little?"

Hangman's Bluff. I swallowed. Never occurred I'd get strung up first.

His hand turned so that the gun's handle pointed my way instead of the barrel. That's what hit me the moment I averted my gaze. A yellow haze cast all vision aside, along with feeling. When I came to, I was overlooking the side of the rock formation at the top where the light shone down inside, with a noose around my neck and my hands bound behind me.

The side of my mouth stung from the blow, but considering my current position, that was the least of my concerns. My feet were firmly planted on rock still, so it wasn't over yet. I tried loosening the knots around my wrists, but something felt...missing.

I glanced down.

Shirt. Pants. No coat.

"I'm going to enjoy the spoils of that coat."

"You need to reconsider, Jamaeson." I adjusted my weight so I could make eye contact without slipping. "Guilds don't take well to theft or murder."

"I appreciate the warning." He pointed the gun at me. My gun. "But they're far from intervening, and by the time they do you'll be nothing more than scavenged carcass left by the vultures."

The distinct click readied the gun for fire.

"Don't think this will be a quick death," he continued. "A couple of bullets for the legs, then you hang yourself."

A whinny below drew both our attentions.

"Your horse, I presume?" Jamaeson smirked and aimed for Matillda as she came trotting in full view of his shot. Yet the sound of gunfire did not come from my weapon. Neither did it hit anything living. The rope holding me up collapsed around my shoulder, and I spun to find Sam take aim for Jamaeson from inside the stone doorway.

A spark ricocheted off the weapon. Jamaeson cursed and jerked his hand back, dropping the gun. He ran for cover around the side while I ducked into the opening beside Sam. Wasn't long before returning fire hit the doorway. Sam pulled out his knife to cut me free.

"Lucky find." I rubbed my wrists, thankful to be free.

"Think you might need this." Sam handed me my coat. I quickly pulled it on. The feel of the coat's protective power and weapons urged my desire to rush the fallen gun outside. "Heard ya leave this morning. Decided to follow."

He returned fire, then slipped back inside.

I grinned. "Couldn't wait to test your skills again, could you?" I charged for the gun with Sam covering me, rolled to the side with Jamaeson's rapid fire streaking around me. I grazed his shoulder without even looking, then dived for the opening to reload.

Sam dipped his head. "Rope was perfect target practice."

More shots against the opening.

"Should've introduced me to your friend earlier, Azri!" Jamaeson shouted from around the side.  He fired again.

"I'm pretty sure you wouldn't like him." I returned fire, though the jagged ridge protruding from the side made a perfect cover.

"Probably right. Not like that pretty little wife of his."

Sam's face turned white.

"I don't think I heard you right!" he returned.

"I'll be sure to say hello for you!" Jamaeson said.

"Where is she!" and he bolted outside.

"Sam, wait!" I thrust myself in front of him as Jamaeson took aim. The power behind the two shots threw me back a few steps, but not before I brought mine up and burried a bullet in his chest. He went down the same as I. I knew he'd vanished, the coat's power aiding in transporting him to a nearby Healing Center.

Ain't no trip graceful. I heard Sam shouting something as I stumbled to the ledge. I reached out to grab the remains of rope but wasn't strong enough to hold. My vision hazed again and Sam slipped from my sight as rock swirled past me in a blur of wind whipping through my coat, and I knew I was falling.

I would have preferred dirt to stone flooring when my body hit. Feet stampeded toward me, though my vision was still unclear as to who did the healing. At least I was at the Guild. Sam would be all right with Jamaeson gone for the time being.

The feel of fresh water washing over me startled me back to existence. The bullets had been removed, dressed, with company waiting next to my bed.

"You've a fine horse, my friend," Sam said beside me. "Led me right to you."
A healer left to tend to me nodded across from Sam.

"Yes," he said. "If she's been around you long enough, the pull of the coat will keep her close."

I grinned wearily. "That's my girl," then glanced over at Sam. "Jamaeson mentioned your wife. Now I'm wondering if he had something to do with her disappearance."

"We've checked all records," the healer replied. "He never appeared at any of the Guilds, which indicates he went to a rogue Healing Center instead."

"Rogue?" Sam questioned. "Ain't heard none of them before."

A nod. "They're relatively new, but spreading quickly. We don't have enough scouts to keep track."

"How do they work?" I asked.

"From what we've heard, you simply exchange something in return for later use, and it doesn't always have to be money."

I inhaled sharply. Jamaeson knew he'd lost, so it made sense for him to say he'd see Sam's wife again, because that's where he was going.

"I've spoken with the council," the healer continued. "We feel there may be more of Jamaeson's type who've refused to register back with the Guild. And we do need more   scouts. With your past and present reputation, the Guild would like to offer you a new position - as Bounty Hunter. You no longer need to stay at Peony, if you so desire. You may now access other towns, and your Healing Center privileges has extended to various locations as necessary."

I couldn't believe my ears. Bounty Hunter? Katalina would have to get one more night with me before she'd see me off, and I knew she make it an all-nighter. Worth the title, that's for sure.

Doesn't take long with a Weapons Caster to heal. I joined Sam on the ridge overlooking the Guild down in the valley. Tilly nickered softly, and I patted her neck, glad to be out in the desert with my old partner in crime.

"You going after Jamaeson first or a rogue Healing Center?" Sam asked.

"Both," I answered, bringing Tilly around to face the sunset. "We're getting your wife back first. We find her, we find a rogue Healing Center." I placed a hand upon his shoulder. "We'll get her back. Don't worry."

We rode into Peony together. Kat would be waiting for us. The tension of tonight's fiesta outweighed that of my new status as Master Weapons Caster, Bounty Hunter.

Tonight, we feast.

Tomorrow, we hunt.
This is a Western Fantasy short story.

Azriandrathorn (Azri), Weapons Caster of the West. Once an outlaw himself, Azri was taken in by the Guild, trained in the art of Weapon Casting, and given a second chance at redeeming himself. His duties to the small town of Peony don't seem much until he runs into his old partner in crime, Sam. Sam had tried to settle down after a life of crime, but when his wife was kidnapped he decided to follow the bandits that took her, leading him to Azri's territory.

Friendship never dies, and together these two form a deadly combination of both magic and gunslinging action.
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NO'VA - Chapter 1NO'VABook One of Red Moon Rising Trilogy*****Chapter 1 The streets of the old city were silent. Colorless, as Jenario saw it, like the winter sky threatening to flurry at any moment. He fixed his gaze back to the lone corner, hoping no guards were on patrol this late at night. Closing his eyes, he thought over the escape plan. When he reopened them, his uncertainly was no different than his cold surroundings. It was pointless to turn back now. He felt an inner pocket where he had last put the list of names. When the sound of crimping paper met his ears, he gave it a good pat before moving alongside a shadowed building. The list was proof enough that the council was targeting people. Jenario had even seen his own name, among countless others he recognized. At the corner, he held his breath before peering around its side – empty. He released his breath in a puff that he could see in the frigid air. Get a grip, Jenario Onyx! You know the plan as well as any. Just wish the night were over! With the side streets vacant, he then turned and motioned for a small band of citizens to creep from shadow. To be caught past curfew was considered a crime, no matter the reason or age. It was night duty of a leading council member to watch over the streets. Yet the four who were responsible were the very ones organizing the escape. Each night, one member of the council led a group from the city. Tonight would be the last, and it was Jenario's watch. Can't mess this up. Ahead, he could just make out the dark crimson outfit of Shafari waiting at the main gate. For many years, they had served together on the council, a council that seemed to be targeting those with magic. It was no surprise to read his friend's name on the list, though for now he kept it a secret."Took your time getting here," Shafari said when his companion finally joined. Pea-green eyes glanced over Jenario's shivering form. "Afraid someone might see?" He waved the group forward until they crowded around for the next step in the plan. "I'm sure you could handle yourself. Throw some of that sour tea in their face, maybe. That'd stop 'em. It did Nickademis, that's for sure." "Funny." Jenario said without emotion. "Should've stuck to his medicines and not go poking around in my things." Jenario hugged his arms closer to his chest for warmth. His outfit contained a high collar, but it did little against the chill. Being an ornate vest worn by council members, he had little time to prepare his own family before departing. He shivered again. "We should've been gone hours ago. Snow's coming. And by the way, that was not tea! Hard enough they're after magic-users when I can't even practice alchemy." Shafari nodded with a slight smirk, his crop of curly brown hair bobbing with the motion "Too close to magic, I suppose." He held out a hand for a flickering ball of light to appear before clenching his fists. The light quickly extinguished. "Shame. Least I can boil water properly. At any rate, it'd be good if it snows. 'Twould cover our tracks." Jenario blinked at his friend's words. "I can boil water!""Hardly." "Wha—" But by then Shafari had already moved ahead, leading the people out into the wilderness."Just close the gates, Jen! I'll wait for you ahead." Jenario sighed in a huff and made his way over to the control quarters just a little ways to the far right. The plan was simple. Shut the gates. Make it look like nothing happened. Time it so he could run out. Join the others. Yeah. Simple. Once in the control room, he reached for the wheel that connected to a pulley system. A good tug unusually set its ball-and-chain mechanism in motion, but Jenario was finding it a little difficult this time. Thomas Gracie must have had help with this! He put all his weight against it, hoping to hear the clank of giant iron chains and cannon-sized ball weights activate. If the weights rose, the gates opened. Lowered, and the gates shut with a force that no man without proper strength could get back open. The wheel suddenly gave, nearly taking his fingers off in the process. He staggered back, holding his aching hand as the familiar clank of chains rotated on its pulley system. Now he just needed to get through the gates before they shut. The mechanism was slow, so Jenario took a final look at the gray buildings he had accepted as home for many years. He had met his beloved here, Tia. She would be with the others by now, safe from the clutches of the council. Anger stirred when he found her full name printed on the list: Jileathia. Although she had not accepted the name Onyx just yet, they already had a two-year-old son. The city just never suited the married way of life. Yet, with the promise of leaving, Jenario hoped she would reconsider. The chains' rotation was nearing an end. Jenario turned to scoot through the gates when silhouetted movement caught his eye. A thick arrow splintered against the heavy doors. A second zipped directly behind his chin. Jenario dived through the narrowing gap before a third ricocheted off a wall. They started tonight? Jenario scrambled to his feet, flinging dirt from his hands in the process. He darted after Shafari's group with little hope they would escape when those gates were let back open. He forced his legs to pump harder. It was Thomas Gracie who grabbed him and swung him over into the thicket. That patch of white against thick black hair was a dead giveaway. Soon, Jenario's pounding heart settled enough so he could speak. "They saw!" Jenario gasped for breath. "We need to move!" "And you would lead them right to us!" Thomas Gracie hunched down and stilled himself to listen. "Just wait a moment." In the distance, they could hear the echo of chain clanking in reverse. The gates, to their dismay, were being opened. "They're coming!" Jenario started to get up, but Thomas Gracie held up a hand for silence.Footsteps drew their attention to the lone magic-user Shafari. Through a thin opening in the bramble did Jenario watch his friend lift a hand toward the city. Soft murmuring confirmed one of his dilapidated spells, and for a moment Jenario thought he would laugh. Is he serious? Yet when he saw a red glow fill the palm of his hand, Jenario began to wonder. He could still hear the clank of chain, seeming to pause a moment. Then, as though someone viciously pulled on it, the chains pounded against the side of the gates until something heavy slammed down with a loud crack! Shafari then turned toward the location of his hidden companions. "I doubt they'll be following anytime soon." Thomas Gracie was the first to climb from the thick branches while Jenario struggled to get his footing. Random twigs kept scratching at his face or clinging to his vest. His noisy struggle silenced all other conversation until their friend stumbled out to the road, though not without tripping over some roadside bramble and falling face down in the dirt. He lifted his head to witness the first sign of snow beginning to fall. It settled over the dirt in front of his nose before the hand of Thomas Gracie blocked his vision in attempts to help him up. Jenario quickly accepted. "Interesting." Shafari admired his handiwork while rubbing his curling goatee in thought. He ignored his companion's embarrassed flush of pink warming his cheeks while trying to recompose himself. "Not exactly where I was aiming, but it'll do." "What do you mean?" Jenario dusted himself off and squinted in the distance to what the thunderous sounds had meant. What he saw gave him chills. The weighted balls still glowed faintly, the light seeming to hold it against the outer wall that now had a giant crack up the side. The gates, he realized, were stuck without a functional pulley system. Thomas Gracie sighed deeply. "You were going for the actual gates, weren't you?" Shafari shrugged. "Close enough." "So much for being foolproof," Jenario murmured, but his friend flashed a look in warning. "Foolproof?" Shafari's tan eyebrows lowered in annoyance. "It was foolish to believe it couldn't be broken. I'd like to see them get it fixed anytime soon, ha!" He turned down the road that led deeper into the unknown with his companions following. Jenario glanced around the dark woods lining either side of the path. He had no idea where they were headed or how far the other group had traveled ahead of them. "I'm assuming Nickademis took the others?" Thomas Gracie nodded. "I made sure to keep everyone far enough in case someone got suspicious.""And Tia? How'd she fair?" "She handles well under pressure when asked to leave quickly." Thomas Gracie's tone was reassuring. "Nickademis wanted his son with the first group, so she's been watching over your son as well as Nicholas." "Shame the council would waste good doctoring skills," they heard Shafari mutter ahead of them. He briefly glanced over his shoulder to add, "Nicholas would've made a good doctor as well, but for his magical talents they'd rather see him and others burn!"YOU ESPECIALLY, Jenario wanted to say, but remained silent until they reached a makeshift campsite. Through magic, Shafari had marked a path only he could see off the main road. Soon they could hear the rustle of canvas tents being packed and the clink of cups and utensils finishing a quick meal for those who had arrived earlier. Nickademis must have known the three were close, for the doctor was already heading their way when they came through the trees. His bearded smile was a relief to all three that they had safely escaped the clutches of the council. Now all that was left was putting some distance between them and the city. At the far end of camp Jenario spotted Tia. His wave received that warm smile he missed ever since departing that morning. His attention soon reverted back to his companions. "So it's all settled," Nickademis was saying. "We're finally done with that place." "'Bout time." Shafari said without emotion. "I'm itching to practice my magic again." "Don't worry, my friend. I'm sure we'll have need of your magic soon enough – providing it works correctly." Shafari frowned, mumbling an incoherent curse under his breath, of that Jenario was certain. Since the council had built up a reputation of disliking magic, those with the ability had to ever hide it or leave. For those powerful enough to produce more than simple fireballs or illusionistic lights, practice time to keep control of their powers was limited. Yet being on the council had its perks, as night watch for Shafari meant no one would be around – plenty of time to practice. FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH. Jenario thought back to instances of abnormal plant growths and wrecked rooms of overturned, broken furniture. For Shafari, practice was never enough. Thomas Gracie held out a hand for the snow to settle. They were getting larger by the minute and coming down faster. Already, a thin covering lay over the ground in certain areas. "We need to move out while the road is still passable." Agreeing, the four separated to their respected sections to help with packing. Tia had the majority of their things already packed by the time Jenario crossed the clearing. A refreshing kiss on the lips kept the chill wind at bay a little longer before slowly drawing apart. Her pixie-cut hair wavered in a brisk breeze as she held up a wool cloak. "I knew that outfit wouldn't be warm." She helped wrap it around his shoulders, its dark color similar to the one she wore. "I could've used this earlier." He halfway closed his eyes to the touch of her fingers caressing the beginnings of a beard across his chin. Barely breaching his twenties, he could not wait for it to darken some more over his cheeks to hide that 'baby-face' look, as Shafari called it. Even the hair across his scalp needed to grow out more, having been shaved back to a fuzzy spiked appearance when he had asked for the magic-user's help in making him look manlier. The frazzled spell nearly took off his head instead. "What of Abraham?" "He did fine. Nicholas helped keep him entertained during the move.""That so?" Jenario could see Nickademis' teenage son behind her tying a few items onto their packs. By his side, their two-year-old son jumped around in the newly fallen snow. His chubby dimpled-cheeks and bright eyes made his father smile proudly. "And you? I worry about you being out here when the weather's about to bury us alive!" Tia laughed. "Not for long." She nodded toward the group preparing to move out. "Looks like your fearless leader is ready." "Better not keep them waiting." Jenario gave his fiancée a quick peck on the cheek, then stepped around to help. "Everything in order, Nicholas?" He grabbed one of the bags and swung it onto his back. "Yes, Sir." Nicholas gave a sharp tug to make sure nothing fell out from the canvas sack. He started to pick up the smaller ones while Abraham ran over to his father to hug his leg in play. Jenario patted his son's head, careful not to let his heavy load slip. "Where's Mama? Go see Mama!"Tia held out a hand for her son to cling to while Jenario and Nicholas finished collecting their things and headed out. The clearing was fairly empty, as their family was last to depart. By now, the snow was falling so thick that it did not take long for their tracks to disappear completely. It was easy to lose track of time, especially when everything looked the same. Snow blanketed the earth so deep that Jenario had to carry his small son at times. He worried about the cold getting to him, for every now and then his little body shook in a coughing fit. Hours turned into days as the group continued to follow Thomas Gracie and Shafari's guiding light he managed to conjure when nighttime fell. When they finally stopped to set up camp, Nickademis made sure to go around to each family to assess their health. Several had already taken ill in the severe weather, and it was only getting worse. Jenario was glad Nicholas was around to help pitch the tents. He wanted his family away from the wind as soon as possible, but it was taking longer due to the deep snow. They dug out as much as their numb fingers would allow before nailing long stakes into the hard ground. When they were done securing shelter, Nicholas started toward another family who was struggling to pitch theirs. "You'll be all right, Nicholas?" Jenario called after the teen, who replied with a single nod. After making sure his family was safely inside, Jenario checked a couple of his personal belongings. He counted the various sized vials and glass containers Tia had managed to grab from his secret home lab. While a few were empty, most contained ingredients for when they settled long enough to start testing his alchemy again. Satisfied that none of his vials were damaged in the move, Jenario checked on their food supply. It was low. Wondering how others were fairing, he made his way out in the blustery wind to find Thomas Gracie. "I'll be back," he promised before securing the tent flap once outside. A sudden gust nearly stole his breath, and he staggered back in surprise. THE COUNCIL NEVER NEEDED TO DO ANYTHING, he thought in disgust. IT WAS ALL A RUSE JUST TO GET US TO LEAVE. THEY KNEW THE WEATHER WOULD FINISH THE JOB!Holding both sides of his hood, Jenario fought against the wind to locate their leader's tent. The snow was blinding, often blowing in his eyes with no way to rub out the sting. He flexed his fingers, trying to keep them from cramping up inside his wet gloves. They were not made for this type of weather as he buried them instead beneath his wool cloak. With nothing to keep his hood secure, it blew back in the storm's fury. Head bowed, Jenario plowed forward. He missed his name being called over the howling wind, but when he lifted his head he was relieved to find light closing distance. Then all went still. No wind or snow beat against his cloak or blew back his hood. Instead, it beat against a shield that encircled his body when Shafari joined his side."I'm good for some things, right?" The magic-user smiled in content with his doings and led the way with a ball of light dodging snowflakes across their path. Jenario was just happy to finally enter Thomas Gracie's tent. Dousing his light, Shafari went over to sit next to Nickademis. The doctor was still shaking snow from his long coat as Jenario joined Thomas Gracie. A low flame was enough to heat up a tin pot, and soon warm drinks were being passed around. Jenario could not stop thinking of Tia as he took a long sip. The warmth of it settling down his chest chased away a stubborn cough. His fingers wrapped around the tin's hot edges, hardly noticing his flushed skin when it felt so much better than being outside. "I put shields around some of the others," Shafari continued. "It's the best defense against this type of weather." "And they'll hold?" Thomas Gracie eyed the crimson magic-user before taking a drink. "An hour at most." Shafari downed his mug before pouring another. "Enough to keep the frostbite at bay." Nickademis cleared his throat. "That IS a problem. I've a few who're showing signs." "I hope your son doesn't get anything." Jenario motioned toward the secured tent flap with his cup. "He's a good boy helping the way he does and doesn't even mind the cold." Nickademis' beard rose a little more around the cheeks when he smiled. "That he is. He's a strong one, but I told him not to stay out long. This weather is not what we had hoped." "We need to find REAL shelter," Jenario said. "An hour isn't enough to hold against the cold, especially when we've got someone still with child." "I checked on Ahnalee myself," Nickademis said. "Friend of Tia, isn't she?" Jenario nodded. "Very close. I'd hate to think she's about to lose a friend because of a still-born.""I've heard of caves being up this way – cut into the mountain ranges," Thomas Gracie said. "With luck, we'll run into one. See if it'll do 'til the storm subsides." There was a brief moment of silence while everyone just sat watching steam rise from the kettle. Now and then a slurp from their cups interrupted the howl of wind and flapping canvas parts not totally secured outside. It was in this moment that Jenario thought about the list. Reaching beneath his cloak, he pulled out the folded parchment and handed it to Thomas Gracie."I found this before we left," he said as his friend unfolded it in puzzlement. The other two men leaned closer to better see. "If we haven't left when we did, they were going to start eliminating us, one by one."Nickademis' face turned a shade redder in sudden anger. He slapped his cup down, splashing some of its hot contents on Shafari's sleeve."If they thought they were going to knock off my son, they'd-of had another thought coming!"Shafari rubbed the stain from his clothing with a disgruntled look. "Doesn't look like Nicholas was the youngest, either." He glanced toward Jenario, who dropped his gaze at the thought of his young son being a target."Just because of the magic?" Nickademis was still on a tangent when Thomas Gracie located his own name."So why are you on there?" Shafari pointed to the paper. "I can understand myself, or even Jenario."At this, Jenario gave him a dirty look that read, NOT THE TEA THING AGAIN!"So why you? You're no magic-user."For a moment, Thomas Gracie just stared at the list. His friends waited."I knew too much," he finally said."Ha!" Shafari chuckled. "I always said you were one shy of a mind-reader!"Thomas Gracie handed the list back to Jenario. "Keep it. Might be useful to double check individuals in our group."With a nod, Jenario tucked it back inside his shirt."In the meantime," Thomas Gracie continued, "Let's be on the lookout for better shelter. The surrounding trees offer some protection from the wind, but it won't be enough for long once Shafari's spell dissipates.""We're also low on supplies," Jenario said. "We should start utilizing those with hunting skills to help look for game in the area."Nickademis leaned back with crossed arms. The swell of anger had lessened, along with the red in his cheeks. He sighed loudly."Let's start at first light," he said. "The storm would've let up by then so they can better see—“ A sudden crack outside the tent shut his mouth. Startled, all four perked up to listen to the sounds of splintering bark ripping nearby.The jolt across ground sent shivers down Jenario's spine. Being closest to the tent opening, he flung the flap open to peer outside...and gasped."Get out! Get out!" His desperate shouts jolted his friends into action. They scrambled out just as several large trees rolled down the slope. Shafari nearly dived onto the others when a thick mound of snow-covered tree trunk nestled overtop their belongings, crushing everything into the snow."Or perhaps we can start now." Jenario's voice came in a breathless squeak, concerned that more might continue toward the other tents. For now, the trees remained still in the blustery night."I second that," Nickademis was quick to agree. "'Cause it looks like the way forward is now blocked." He eyed Shafari a moment. "Unless you think your magic could move it.""Probably blast more than we want," Shafari said dully. "I wouldn't recommend it since the snow is still soft. Might bring more of THIS down on the group." He pointed to their crushed belongings."I've a lantern back at my tent," Jenario said. "I can grab it so Shafari doesn't have to waste energy keeping tabs on all of us.""All right." Thomas Gracie pulled the collar of his outfit up higher around his neck. "Nick, Shafari, why don't you two stay here to keep an eye on things? Jen, grab that lantern and let's search for a way around. Might get lucky and find better shelter."Jenario held the lantern out so he could better see through the winding trees. His other hand rested against a pocket containing a pebble – Shafari’s version of a tracking system. Both he and Thomas Gracie carried one, which the magic-user swore he could find should they get lost. What about a protection spell? Why not that instead? He glanced over to his companion, who was busy looking off to the right. The wind was not as harsh once off the open road. Still, the crack of weighted boughs overhead gave Jenario the chills. “Hope nothing falls on us.” He kept checking overhead. “Think there are bears around here?” “I wouldn’t worry so much about bears. Maybe a wolf or two. Bears wouldn’t be out in this.” “Yeah. They’re probably all in the caves we're looking for.” The whistle of wind as it passed through the treetops startled him at how high pitched it sounded. A wolf howl added to the mix. “Do you think we’ll be able find our way back?” “Sure, just walk straight.” Thomas Gracie chuckled. "Besides, we've got these." He patted a side pocket. Jenario kept checking the fabric surrounding his pebble. His fingers came away warm. "And we're trusting our lives to a rock? Right. Don't suppose they'll catch fire, will they? Does yours feel a little warm?" "Shafari means well. Besides, he hasn't let us down entirely." Flashbacks of broken furniture kept coming to mind as Jenario tried to keep his balance in the deep snow. The words, "Look out!" did not register fast enough. A loud crack drowned out anything Thomas Gracie tried to say before both men dodged a clump of snow falling between them. Jenario lost track of his lantern down an embankment. With everything covered in white, he had not noticed the dip beyond the set of trees he dived between. He watched the light disappear first before the soft snow gave way and he followed after. It was as though a wave of white washed over him. It was all he could see as he tumbled down the hill until he finally came to rest. Sprawled out, he figured his position was similar to the snow angels children made along the streets of Mayla. As strict as the council was, they did allow for some fun - but not much. Keeping up with their studies was more important than being with family, and most were enclosed in schools to be taught what parents were not aware of, save for council members. Being a member had given him and his friends access to those teachings, rules, regulations, punishments, and more. Jenario was only glad his son would never be a part of that system. His cheeks stung from the wet cold pressing around him. It was a struggle to dig himself out and stagger to his feet. He wiped snow from around his eyes and glanced around the area. Thankfully, his lantern was still lit and slightly protruded from the snow not far from his landing spot. With limited vision, he quickly scooped it out and held it aloft to better see. Light played along a rocky cliffside, long tendrils of icicles clinging to overhanging edges. The sound of wind whipping across hollow space suggested an opening. Jenario trailed the light down to his left until it failed to penetrate the dark mouth of a small cave. It was just large enough where a grown man could walk inside. He peered inside. I NEED MORE LIGHT. Too dark to see how far back it went, Jenario checked the hillside to see Thomas Gracie's light at the top. "Jen, you all right?" "Fine! There's a cave here! Can you make it down?" "Hold on! Let me find a way around this drop-off!" Jenario waited, following the sound of crunching snow as Thomas Gracie made his way down the slope. It did not take long for him to join his companion in front of the cave. "Good job." Thomas Gracie slapped his hand over Jenario's shoulder in good faith, then entered the cave. "You've always managed to do what you thought was best." "By falling head first?"Thomas Gracie chuckled. “You use your head. That’s a good way to be. Me? I tend to act on impulsion. That’s why my name was on the list.” Jenario followed his companion, the extra light allowing for a glimpse into the back caverns. The farther they walked, the more they realized the tunnels split between a left and right path. Thomas Gracie paused in front of the left passage and directed his lantern over to Jenario’s right. “You take that side. See how far down it goes, but don’t branch off into any others.” “What are we looking for?” “Oh, just making sure no bears linger around, that’s all.” He winked before entering the tunnel. “Wait…what!?” An echoing chortle answered, his traveling light fading from Jenario’s sight. “You want your son out of the cold, don’t you? Just check the tunnel, Jen!” Jenario sucked in a breath before proceeding to the opening off to his right. He swung the lantern around a bit just to make sure it was clear. Then he entered, hating the sound of his boots crunching over small pebbles and tripping over the occasional stalagmite. Anything here would know instantly where I am...however far down this goes! His foot caught against a stalagmite, jolting him forward in a flailing attempt to keep his balance. The lantern scraped across rocky surface, busting one side of the glass. While fragments streamed down the side wall, Jenario had no choice but to let go so he could bring up both hands in time to catch his fall. He was lucky no other stalagmites rose under him as he listened to the lantern skid across uneven floor. The palm of his hands burned where they had scraped the rough ground but managed to push himself to a sitting position. Ahead, the lantern winked out. Jenario stilled himself, trying to listen for any other sounds. At the moment, his weathered breathing was the loudest. Despite his attempts at keeping quiet, the rustle of fabric and creaking leather boots still echoed down the tunnel. He thought about calling to Thomas Gracie, but dropped the idea. I can’t even hear anything over myself! How am I supposed to hear him, let alone expect him to hear me? Jenario squinted, barely making out a bend in the passage just ahead. What should have been complete darkness turned into a search for a possible light source. With his lantern now useless, he left it where it lay, though he could not avoid the multitude of shattered glass cracking under his footsteps. As he turned the corner, the walls took on a slightly different hue. A blue glow faintly illuminated the cavern walls. It was enough to see some of his breath rise in the frigid air. “Hello?” A returning echo of his question was the only response. “Anyone here?” Jenario pressed on, the walls slowly brightening the farther he walked. A chamber off to his right seemed to contain the source, so he hastened his steps. When he reached the room, he cautiously peered inside as if half expecting some frightening spectacle to jump out at him. What he saw instead drew lines of confusion across his brow. An oblong mirror rested within a wooden frame. Its base was built to allow rotation for better viewing. Even from a distance, Jenario could make out intricate details carved into the frame itself. A crest of flora at the top secured the mirror in place, with its center being the source of light. Like a curious child, Jenario was drawn in fascination. His mind was a whir of questions. Shafari would love this! He’d be analyzing its magic and have an answer in no time on how it works! Remembering the pebble, he felt around in his pocket to see if it was still there. Wonder if he can be summoned? However, his fingers came away empty. It must have slipped out when I fell…twice! Ashamed at his clumsiness, Jenario stood basking in the mirror’s light and wondering what to do. It felt warmer the closer he came, until he felt the need to remove his cloak. “What is this?” He reached out to touch its glowing surface when the entire structure began to distort. Like rippling water, the mirror faded, leaving instead a portal. Its outer rim held a faint glow while the center image no longer reflected his surroundings, but someplace else. "What..?" A snarl from behind made him turn just as a grey wolf charged. When it leaped at him, Jenario held up his hands with a shriek. Instinct jerked his body back – straight through the portal! He landed with a thud on a grassy patch as the wolf sailed overtop. When he uncovered his eyes, he lay with everything upside down in his vision. The wolf stared back at him for a few moments before turning and trotting off into the forest. “It’s...spring?” Jenario blinked. He was outdoors, but there was no snow. Leaves wavered in a warm breeze when he gazed up into the canopy. It was still night. A full moon shone brightly in between the movement of leaves. He squinted at its unusual coloration. Its bottom hemisphere was stained a blood red that slowly faded to the milky-white look he was accustomed to. Confused and still slightly dazed from his crash-landing through the portal, only one thought came to mind. What could that mean?
NO'VA - PrologueNO'VABook One of Blue Moon Rising Trilogy*****PrologueThe caress of wind whipping beneath his wings was what carried him. At such a high altitude, land become little more than dots of green, orange, and red. Fall, in the land of No'va, was magic in itself as its colors spread like fire across the treetops.At a break in the clouds, the hawk soared through and was greeted on the other side by No'va's only floating structure: Luxor Castle. Its gleaming alabaster stone was a symbol of strength to many, all made possible by the familiar figure waiting by the landing platform. The Grand Master's white strip of hair against mostly dark was an instant giveaway, and the feeling of coming to a second home was welcoming. There were fond memories here, which he hoped to continue as his wings pulled into a dive. Just before reaching the platform, he pulled up, allowing the familiar sensation of shifting to engulf his body in a blue hue. As it slowly faded, it left its owner poised in true form until only the irises lit with a blaze of sapphire. It was a mere hint of power accustomed to his particular kind, the Lo-ans'rel, a Land Healer. Adjusting his landing position, he allowed his wings to hold against a high wind to keep steady before they too faded behind his back."I hope I haven't inconvenienced you, Master Wisdom, as it was short notice." Lord Gracie welcomed the albino Healer with a firm handshake, which was returned with eagerness. The Healer's wolf-like ears pricked forward in the manner of friendship, a tuft of white fuzz at their tips that gently wavered from another brisk breeze. "Let's head in, shall we? There's something I've been meaning to share with you."Wisdom followed, sweeping a hand through a tangle of pallid curls to set them in place. The last time he had come, Lord Gracie had given him a portal disguised as a large, oval mirror. He was still waiting for it to show him the other portal's location, for both were needed to locate the place of Purification – a process that cleansed all impure magic. He shivered at the thought of how everything connected, and it all led back to one individual who desired power above the rest, one whose soul now belonged to the horn – what was left of it."I'm sure you saw when it best suit me." He grinned while walking alongside his friend down an expansive entrance. Ornate columns held up each section of curved ceiling, one that drew attention to its fine detail."You know me well." They turned down a hallway and stopped at a closed door. When Lord Gracie pulled out a key ring, Wisdom had a mind to know what was going to happen next."Shortcut?""Didn't think you wanted to walk the entire way." At the click of lock, the door opened to an airy chamber containing the Grand Master's collection of overflowing bookshelves. The room itself was surrounded with crowned-top windows, each with a window seat decked in red velvet cushions."How many ways did you make it possible to reach this room?" Wisdom familiarized himself with the central desk, and recalled when he had found the Head Master's chamber by accident. There was no telling how many portals Lord Gracie had placed around the building, once explaining that it was easier to find 'lost' guests who stumbled upon them. Beneath the semi-circle desk was a large, decorative bowl of water, no doubt for his winged felines that offered their foreseeing abilities. "One would never really need to leave this place to know anything, the way you've set it up.""True." Lord Gracie offered his guest a seat before sinking into the high-backed leather chair at his desk. "I shouldn't have any excuses for not knowing. And yet, I made them, all the while Jenario did what he did. For that, I blame myself.""Jenario was under the influence of the horn," Wisdom said sternly. "It was the horn that pushed his motives. Who knows what all it whispered in the back of his mind, manipulating his every move.""But Jenario's unicorn is not like the one you have." That generous smile vanished, leaving the Healer to ponder what he, too, currently carried within.Placing a hand over his heart, Wisdom felt the gentle beat of life beneath the silken fabric. That was where the horn lay, both protecting and being protected from the multiple attempts the dark unicorn made for another body – his. It was something he had struggled with even as a child. Now, at age twenty, his body was a ripening fruit for the harvest. As a Land Healer, his powers tied directly to Nature, something the horn had been deprived of when Jenario created it. It needed to be One again, to reclaim pure power that a unicorn should have. Instead, it had devoured the landscape surrounding the Realm of Sapphire. No one other than Jenario's son lived in that area, for it was his son that accepted responsibly in guarding it."You're right," Wisdom said. "What I have is not the same. The temptations of power are still there, as I'm sure they were in Jenario, but there are no false promises of security. I know the risks of having a unicorn's horn.""As did I. But it wasn't a Foreseer who first showed me."At the mention of 'Foreseer', a black and white cat jumped up on the desk. It was a clean move, for a pair of multicolored wings spread to assist in the height needed to reach the desk's polished surface. A reflection of itself flitted over dark marble as the cat came to rest in front of its owner. Wisdom looked into those large, green orbs, reflecting on his first encounter with one. In content, the cat just perched to allow its ears to be stroked. The sound of purring grew louder."Were you visited by the unicorn as well?" Wisdom cocked his head in curiosity."Perhaps it's best if I show what happened." Lord Gracie motioned to the Foreseer, which lifted its wings around so the tips nearly formed a connecting ring. "Perhaps then you'll understand how Jenario came to lust for power...and why I'm to blame."Tiny sparks of electricity began gathering in a circle within the limits of the wings’ arch. Like the warm light that filtered through the windows, so too did a light begin to glow from the contained sphere. Various images materialized within this light until Wisdom realized he was staring into a vision of the past....

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