by Hugh A. Todd
The noro are desert nomads. Tall and gentle, they superficially resemble the elephants of the Dondari Jungles. They are renowned for their ability to communicate over great distances. — Races of the Blood Roads by Scribe O’tan
As the sky turned to pearl, presaging the coming dawn, Jass stepped onto the Entratura, the main road that led into R’veros proper. Hundreds of others also trudged up the dusty path toward the main city gates. The throngs surrounding Jass were a mixture of humans and other races, rich and poor: a small portrait of the diversity of the great city itself. The towering walls had just begun their change from the deep orange of the reflected predawn to the white walls of noon for which the city was known. He stepped through the gates and into the city known as the jewel of the Blood Roads under the watchful eye of the crusaders, their shining armor glinting in the first light of day.
Jass moved easily through the crowds, heading for the market, the heart of the city and his home. At sixteen, he had lived his entire life within the R’veros market, only leaving to sleep in his small dwelling, just outside the city. It had always been a child’s perfect playground, full of life and excitement in all its diverse wonders. Every day, Jass met a new person or found some new curiosity being sold. As he stepped toward the inner gates of the market, his smile grew wider.
This was his favorite part of the day, seeing the merchants putting out their goods, catching the eyes of people he had known his whole life before their attention must be diverted to their customers. He had been orphaned by a terrible accident when he was still too young to remember his parents, so the merchants of R’veros had raised him. He was almost a mascot of the city’s market, and most treated him as a favorite son. As he grew older, however, he had found himself growing restless. His imagination drew him away from R’veros. With all of the excitement to be found here in the market, imagine what he would find deeper into the Blood Roads.
Rounding a corner, he spied a cart in front of one of the few stalls not owned by local merchants. Jass was keen to see who owned it and what they sold. If he was late and made Master Tem angry, it would still be worth it. As Jass approached the stall, he realized, without seeing the merchants, that they were noro. He felt them talking, their words beyond the edge of human hearing, as a sort of buzzing in the hairs on the back of his neck. While they spoke the common tongue of the Blood Roads, it was rumored that they could talk to each other over great distances with this buzzing language. As he drew closer, he saw two noro unpacking crates of various items and placing them about the tables. Not having seen many noro, Jass noted their tall forms, their thick, grey hides, and their eyes, each placed on one side of their large, domed heads.
“I don’t mean to intrude, sir, but are you sure you want to feature that group of obsidian blades?” Jass adopted the formal tone he saved for the richest customers.
A noro looked up from his work and tilted his head, focusing a single eye on Jass. “Away, thief,” he rumbled. “Nothing for you here.”
“You mistake me, sir. I merely wanted to give you some friendly advice. You see, there’s been a glut of obsidian lately, and prices are very low. That amber jewelry, however, is like nothing I’ve seen. You should put that out where it will attract people to your stall.”
The noro stared at Jass for a moment, and he could feel the buzzing of the tall figure’s strange speech. Then he nodded. “Another says you speak truth. Come back later, I give you deal. Now, be gone.” The merchant turned back to his work.
“My pleasure, sir. May you profit well this day.” Realizing he was late, Jass jogged the rest of the way to his master’s shop.
“You’re late,” said Master Tem. His voice was grumpy, but that was the way it always sounded, except when he spoke with customers.
“I stopped to help a group of noro setting up in one of the rented stalls. They promised me a discount if I come back later.”
Tem grunted. “An acceptable excuse for a merchant, depending on the favor and the help you gave. Still, you also owe me your punctuality.”
Jass picked up a rag and a jar of metal polish. “Shall I start polishing the swords, then?” Tem was an ironmonger, selling new and used metal goods of all sorts.
“No, I have a special job for you today.” A rare enthusiasm crept into his voice. “I got a tip from one of my crusader contacts that they defeated an elemental incursion beneath R’veros. After dealing with the invaders, they discovered that a pocket from the plane of earth had popped into existence under the floor of a nearby warehouse. Guess what they found there? An ancient, abandoned mirin den, maybe from the time of the Great War itself. There’s no telling what you’ll find there.” Tem’s eyes twinkled. He paused in his work to catch Jass’s gaze.
“I have donated a certain sum to the crusader cause to make sure we get first pass at whatever might be in that den. You’ve always had a sharp eye for opportunity, so I want you to get over there and mark the best items for us.”
“But I’m supposed to spar with Sethis this morning.”
Tem snorted and turned back to his bookkeeping. “You can play with your friends later. Work first. Get the items sent back to the shop, and then begin preparing them for sale.”
Jass dropped the rag and polish noisily onto the workbench. “That sparring is important. How am I going to prepare for the Blood Roads if I don’t know how to defend myself?”
Tem just shook his head. “You are too eager to go off on some quest. There is plenty of adventure right here in R’veros. You have no need of a warrior’s skills. In need, a good merchant hires someone to defend his wares. Building roots in a market; that is his most important skill.”
“I thought you said that a merchant’s most important skill was negotiation.”
Tem’s eyes narrowed. “There are many ‘most important’ skills for a great merchant, and you will be hard pressed to learn them all without wasting your time at the sparring rings. Come directly back after you finish with the mirin den. I will expect you by third bells.”
Jass sighed and left the shop.
◊ ◊ ◊
Whiskin are universally feared. Their appearance of an oily rat about the length of a man’s arm can make them seem deceivingly weak. However, with their ability to dominate a single mind utterly, the only thing scarier than a whiskin riding an ogre is one with no mount at all. — Races of the Blood Roads by Scribe O’tan
As he jogged toward the warehouse district, Jass thought about the best way to approach his task. Mirin, since their arrival with the plane of earth, had established a reputation for sneakiness and thievery, although it was rarely spiteful in nature. Having grown up with Sethis, who was both mirin and his best friend, Jass understood the race and appreciated their ability to hoard. They had an eye for novelty, if not for quality. Spending time in Sethis’s room always led to a surprise of some sort. Jass once found a full set of miniature dinnerware molded from amber in Sethis’s bed. Sethis couldn’t remember where he had gotten them.
At the warehouse, a human crusader showed Jass to the uncovered den. The intrusion from the plane of earth had caused the warehouse floor to cave in, but the crusaders had built a ramp down into the uncovered burrows. Lit by a dozen lamps, the room was greater than the largest room of Tem’s shop and filled with junk. Crates and clothes, punctuated by glimpses of metal, were heaped everywhere. Jass sighed and got down to work.
After three hours, he had sorted through most of the room, cleared some space, and had a good-sized pile of metal for Tem’s shop. With the armor, weapons, and other odds and ends, Tem would make a tidy profit, though Jass hadn’t discovered any long lost crown jewels. He found a chest-high bronze urn leaning against the wall under a pile of rotting goatskins in the final corner of the room. The urn’s seal had been broken and the lid was askew, allowing a fine white ash to leak down the wall and onto the floor. Through the crack in the open lid, Jass spied a glint of silver. He leaned forward, pushing the lid aside. Something was buried in the fine ash that filled the urn. Jass started to brush the ash away, and he caught a glimpse of an etched tree on the object’s surface. As his fingers brushed the metal, he felt a jolt of energy pass through his body. When he heard footsteps behind him, he tilted the urn back onto its base, closing the lid firmly at the same time.
“Ahhh, what has the young apprentice found, might I be so bold as to ask?”
The voice was high and whispery. Looking up, Jass saw a towering man in ragged clothes, his face covered by a leather hood. What appeared to be a large, greasy rat dressed in rich robes and a small fez sat on the man’s shoulder.
The strange rush of energy had filled Jass with the confidence to address the passenger, again adopting his formal merchant’s tone. “It appears to be a funeral urn, Chethak. Given its size, it probably holds the ashes of a dozen humans, or fewer of some larger being. I would guess it is at least a couple hundred years old, from its condition.”
Although the man didn’t move, the creature nodded and spoke again: “Ahhh, an object of low art? Maybe something your master can pawn off on some poor family with more money than intelligence?”
Jass smiled. “That sounds more like your sort of clientele than ours, Chethak. Our customers are discerning; yours must be desperate, to come to a street criminal of a whiskin like yourself.”
The whiskin hissed. “I think you would not speak so, if we were not under the eyes of those crusaders.”
“You are right,” Jass conceded. “It would be risky for me to hang around the kinds of alleys where you do business.”
“Your tongue will get you into danger one day, young Jass,” Chethak hissed.
Realizing he might have stretched his luck, Jass tried to move the conversation to safer ground. “To answer your question, there is little art to the urn, and with the seal broken, I doubt we could even sell it back to the descendants of the deceased. I suspect this is only worth the bronze it is made of. We will melt it down for other uses.”
Jass’s answer seemed to mollify Chethak. “Your eye is keen. I see you have already been through most of the junk here. Tell me, did you see anything like this?” The whiskin reached under his robes and held out a silver medallion on a leather thong. The tree etched on the medallion’s surface matched the design he had briefly glimpsed on the object in the urn.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that, much less here.”
Chethak leaned forward from his perch to look closely at the apprentice’s face. Seeming satisfied, the whiskin replaced the medallion under his robes while the man turned and walked away. As his mount strode toward the door, Chethak looked back at Jass. “If you ever see something that reminds you of this amulet, please come see me. I will make it well worth your while. You might find that doing business with me would be very profitable—you might even enjoy it.”
“Not likely,” Jass muttered.
◊ ◊ ◊
Refugees from the plane of earth, the mirin have the appearance of tall meerkats made of sand. They are friendly to the all they meet, but friendlier still to anything shiny they see. — Races of the Blood Roads by Scribe O’tan
The sparring grounds were on the edge of R’veros, up against the great wall that protected the city. Jass met Sethis at the third fighting ring.
“Sorry I’m late, Sethis. Had some work to do for Tem.”
Sethis shrugged. “No matter.” Jass’s friend spoke in the staccato bursts typical to the mirin.
The friends stripped down to their loincloths. Jass’s skin was bronzed from exposure to the brutal sun of the Blood Roads. Sethis’s skin had a loose, sandy look that was striated like the cliffs of a quarry. Sand perpetually drifted from his back, giving the impression of moving fur.
As Sethis began to stretch, Jass spoke: “You wouldn’t believe who I just met.”
“Have you seen Adalyn?”
“Stands.” Sethis pointed to the risers where a small audience had gathered. Having grown up together, Jass and Sethis were evenly matched and used to each other’s fighting style. This had driven them to constantly think of new ways to put each other off guard. They enjoyed sparring, and their dedication made their sessions well attended. They had even gotten offers to fight in the city arena, although Tem had insisted they refuse. “You are a merchant, not a gladiator,” he had chided Jass.
Jass picked out Adalyn and waved to her. Usually she had her head in a book, but he managed to catch her eye, and she waved back. Her long hair and colorful robes made her stand out from the usual crowd that filled the stands.
“Did she lay any bets for us?”
Sethis shook his head. “Terrible odds. Too well known. Shall we?”
Sethis and Jass stepped up to the rack that held the sparring weapons. Sethis chose his usual, a wooden dagger. Jass reached for a wooden longsword and then paused. For some reason, he was inspired to try a pair of short swords instead. Some of the energy and confidence he had felt during his confrontation with Chethak lingered, and the dual wooden blades felt just right.
The two friends stepped forward and bowed to each other in formal acknowledgement before dropping into wary crouches. Jass took a wide stance, each sword pointing in a different direction. Sethis readied his dagger, held so that the blade lay against his forearm, the tip pointing at his elbow. A metal sleeve of mirin design encased his other arm. This gauntlet allowed Sethis to parry, deflect, and even catch his opponent’s weapon without damage to himself.
Sethis feinted to the left and then leaped forward, the dagger in his left hand coming forward to slash at Jass’s leg. Jass stepped back and brought his left blade down. The two edges connected with a sharp crack. A flurry of noise followed as Sethis attempted to break through Jass’s guard. Such was the mirin’s speed that it was all Jass could do, using both swords, to parry each jab of Sethis’s single dagger. Still, he noticed an opening. With a particularly powerful parry, he kicked forward and caught Sethis in his midriff, flinging the mirin back into the sand. A shout went up from the stands.
Jass grinned and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Sethis took a deep breath, nodding the point to Jass as he stood. Jass smiled in acknowledgement, then focused his attention back on the fight. He now expected Sethis to try out any new techniques he had been working on. Still, he was surprised when the mirin dove toward him in what looked like a belly flop into the sand. A cloud of dust puffed into the air, and Jass lost track of Sethis’s body. Jass took a step back, peering at the sand of the sparring ring for any movement or bulge that might give Sethis away, but the mirin’s ingenious use of his own nature made him difficult to spot. Jass whipped around, but not quickly enough; the mirin rose behind him and slapped his shoulder with his blade. The onlookers laughed. Jass thought he heard Adalyn’s distinctive jeer floating above the crowd.
This time, it was Sethis’s turn to acknowledge his opponent’s nod. They both stepped back for a moment to catch their breaths and then moved forward to engage once more. Jass took the lead with a flurry of blows from all sides. Sethis parried or deflected each one until Jass stepped around him and held both blades together as one. Bringing all his speed to bear, each swing carried the blades in parallel to probe Sethis’s defenses. Finally, Sethis’s short blade was able to stop only one weapon, and the other found its way to the mirin’s neck.
“I think the bout is mine, friend,” Jass said, gasping.
“Look down, Jass. A draw, perhaps?”
Jass lowered his gaze and saw that Sethis had sharpened the fingers of his gauntlet to form claws that were now poised against his belly, ready to cut him open. Jass laughed. “Nicely done!”
A cheer went up as the two stepped back and the crowd saw the standoff.
Jass’s grin grew even broader. “We’re getting pretty good, eh? Pretty soon Tem will have to approve my journeyman status, and then the Blood Roads will be ours!” The third bells rang, and Jass looked up in alarm. “Sorry, Sethis, I’ve got to run. As usual, I’m late.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Thought to have been wiped out during the culmination of the Great War, few remember the arid lords’ shape or appearance. Their legacy continues in the writings of their great magical knowledge and their blood, both of which are literally the currency of the Blood Roads. — Races of the Blood Roads by Scribe O’tan
Adalyn looked up from her homework. “I can’t believe you spoke that way to a whiskin.” Jass grinned at her before returning to his work. Items covered the large table between them. On her side, four books lay open while three more waited to be referenced. Notes and diagrams in multiple colors covered two separate sheets of parchment. Adalyn’s ink-covered hands testified to the intensity of her studies. She was about Jass’s age, and her brightly colored robe and the emblem on her headband branded her an apprentice of the mage’s guild.
Jass’s side of the table was heaped with the goods he had recovered today, most of them in poor condition. He currently worked on a large copper plate with a pot of polish and an old rag. The room, one of the back offices of Tem’s shop, was often a gathering spot for the friends. Tem had always encouraged Jass to make friends with any and all peoples; a network of associates was a merchant’s most valuable asset.
“You see, I’ve always said he was reckless, Halu,” Adalyn said, gazing to her right. “No telling what trouble this will lead to.”
Jass rolled his eyes. “Are you still talking to your imaginary friend? When are you going to stop pretending?”
Adalyn glared at Jass. “Maybe when you realize that there are more things in these lands than are sold in your merchants’ stalls.” She held her glower for a moment more before returning to her studies.
“Of course there are! Much as I love the market here in R’veros, I’m dying to get out there and see the Blood Roads. Someday we will make our fortune and live like caliphs.” Jass raised his hands dramatically into the air.
Adalyn scoffed and continued her studies.
Sethis was juggling brass buttons that Jass had finished polishing, creating an array of flying metal above his head. “More shinys on the Blood Roads?”
Jass grinned at his friend’s one track mind. “More than you can imagine.”
Sethis chuckled at the idea and continued his juggling. He kept adding more sparkling bits to the storm until Jass looked up, mesmerized. Even Adalyn, usually uninterested in this type of physical prowess, seemed impressed as Sethis kept dozens of brass studs darting here and there in their hypnotic patterns. As he added yet more objects to the dance, Sethis’s movements became difficult to follow. The sand drifting from his rapidly moving arms created the illusion of a dust devil swirling in the middle of the room, buttons jumping in out and out of the sandy maelstrom. Suddenly, the buttons fell to the floor. As the dust settled, Sethis was left staring at a shiny medallion sitting on a nearby workbench.
“Ooh. What’s that?” Sethis crooned. He picked up the trinket.
Jass grinned. “That’s a waterdowse amulet. It helps you find water in the desert. Please put it down; it’s not for you.”
Sethis did as Jass asked and looked back at him innocently.
Without looking up from his work, Jass added, “Could you also return the copper earrings you just palmed?”
Sethis dropped a pair of earrings onto the workbench next to the amulet.
“And the ring?”
Sethis produced a ring seemingly from nowhere and placed it next to the earrings.
Tem bustled into the room. “Sethis, you will pick up every last one of those buttons, and there will be three dozen tomorrow when I set them out for sale.” He turned to Adalyn. “Nice to see you, young lady, and studying, no less. Maybe you will serve as an inspiration to others.” Tem glared in Jass’s direction. Jass concentrated on his polishing. “As for you, make sure you finish the rest of that work, and then clean out that urn. I’ll have it picked up for melting tomorrow morning.”
Seeing Jass’s stubborn expression, Tem shook a finger in his direction. “Young apprentice, discipline is a merchant’s most important skill!”
After Tem left, Jass turned to the bronze urn in the corner. “I almost forgot. I did see something in that urn, just before Chethak arrived and distracted me.” Jass went to the urn, removed the lid and began to dig in the ash.
Adalyn crinkled her nose. “Ew. You know that used to be somebody, right?”
Ignoring the comment, Jass continued sifting through the ash. He uncovered the outline, then the face of what appeared to be two large coins sitting against each other. He tugged on them, then continued to dig when they wouldn’t come free. The coins had handles attached; he finally dug them out enough to pull them free of the urn. He didn’t feel the same rush of power as before. Instead, he felt as if there was a gentle hum just outside his range of hearing. He stood, holding two short swords. The blades were similar to a kris, almost as long as his arm. The watered steel gave the impression of waves created by a stone dropped in a pond. What he had mistaken for coins were pommels set in the grip of each weapon. The blade, the crossguard, and the pommels of each blade were etched with exquisitely detailed patterns and scrollwork, so complicated that Jass had no idea what it might mean. Adalyn, Sethis, and Jass gazed at the swords in total silence while Jass held them in the light of the wavering torch.
Adalyn was the first to speak. “Those are amazing. I’ve never seen anything like them. They might be magic.”
Jass turned to her. “Is there some way you can find out?”
Adalyn nodded. “Set them down here.” She cleared a spot on the table between them. “Sethis, can you get me a little ash from the fireplace?”
Sethis complied as Jass set the swords down parallel to each other on the table.
“Thank you.” Adalyn took a pinch of ash from Sethis and sprinkled it over the blades. She muttered indecipherably, then took a deep breath through her nose. She leaned forward to blow through the ash, slowly and carefully. The ash sparkled, taking on a golden glow that reminded Jass of sunshine. Parts of the ash cloud began to shine more brightly and spread into tightly whirled threads that entwined in midair. From one angle, the ash resembled leaves drifting in a breeze, but from another, it looked like threads being sewn to some purpose.
“Definitely magical,” Adalyn said. Then her eyes widened. “Look!”
The blades began to glow, taking on a rich green cast. Certain parts of the pattern took shape, bringing order to the unreadable etching. The glow finally took on the shape of characters crisscrossing the length of the blades.
Adalyn’s eyes narrowed. “It almost looks like…” She leaned forward and turned one of the blades around so that the blades pointed in opposite directions. When she pushed the two blades against one another, their wavy edges fit perfectly together to create one solid sheet of metal. The glowing lines on the blades merged to form full characters.
Adalyn tilted her head, as if listening to something. “Halu says it is written in the language of the arid lords. It says ‘Keys of the Ath’rotan.’ Look, that’s their mark on the pommel.” Adalyn pointed to the markings.
“It looks like a tree painted in green light. In fact, it is just like the sigil on Chethak’s amulet,” said Jass.
A worried look crossed Adalyn’s face. “Then Chethak is probably looking for these swords. I don’t know what that means, but our guild has many books about the arid lords. Hopefully something will give me a clue as to who or what the Ath’rotan is.” As the glow began to fade, Adalyn quickly copied the text to a piece of parchment. Then she began to pack up all her books. “Let me do some research, and see if I can find out anything more about this Ath’rotan.”
Jass nodded and went to find a bag for the swords. “Thanks, Adalyn. I’ll keep these with me for safe keeping. Who knows, maybe this is the adventure we’ve been waiting for.”
◊ ◊ ◊
The most numerous of all the peoples of the Blood Roads, humans are a force to be reckoned with. Their deep passions inspire them with the potential to become the greatest of heroes and the direst of villains. — Races of the Blood Roads by Scribe O’tan
The next morning, after Jass had completed his usual chores of polishing and inventorying, he went with Sethis to the sparring circles. For some reason, he felt compelled to bring the swords, hidden in a shoulder bag. The friends often went to watch the other fighters and try to learn from them. Jass and Sethis were enjoying a particularly brutal fight between two huge crusaders in full plate armor, when Tem’s voice interrupted them.
“I thought I might find you here.” Tem glared at Jass from the entrance to the stands. “You should be at the auction house. You could learn a lot about prices and buyers there.”
Jass stood and stepped toward Tem. “You said I should practice what I’m good at. Well, I’m good at swordwork, and I plan to get better.”
Tem took in Jass’s stubborn expression for a moment, then snorted in disgust. “What, so that you can become some crusader? Or worse, a caravan guardsman?”
“Maybe. Those are honorable professions. And I would get to see the world.”
Tem’s expression hardened. “Becoming a merchant would be better. Haven’t I always said that the whole world eventually comes to the R’veros market?”
Jass looked down at his feet. “I want to have done something with my life before settling down, even in a city such as this.”
Tem shook his head. “I know you will not always be my apprentice, but until then, you will do as I say. If you leave someday, it must be for the right reasons. Lust for adventure will not be one of them.”
“Yes, Master Tem,” Jass hissed through his teeth.
Tem nodded to Sethis, who was still watching the match. “Where is young Adalyn? She could always talk some sense into you.”
Jass looked around. “I’m not sure. We were expecting her to join us. Maybe she’s found some information about a little project we were working on.”
“I’m heading back to the shop. If I find her there, I will ask her to stay until you can arrive.” muttered Tem. “We will talk more this evening.”
Jass and Sethis walked toward the mages’ quarter. They had checked a few of her normal haunts, but nobody had seen her that day. Jass hoped that one of the mages would know where she had gone. They had just gotten within sight of Adalyn’s lodging house when Jass heard a whisper from behind him. He turned, but nobody was there.
Sethis must have heard something as well, because he hissed and looked around.
“Who is that?” Jass felt a little foolish talking to the empty air.
Jass. Jass. Help Adalyn.
Jass could almost believe the noise was the wind in the trees or a bush rustling, but the more he concentrated, the better he could hear it.
Jass. Help Adalyn. Chethak has her.
Then Jass understood. “Halu, is that you?”
Yes. Help Adalyn. Tem’s shop.
Jass turned to Sethis. “Did you hear that?”
Sethis nodded and then they ran. They arrived at Tem’s shop in bare minutes. The door was smashed open. Stepping through the doorway, time almost seemed to stop for Jass as he took in the scene before him.
The shop was in shambles, display stands overturned, goods scattered, and Tem lay crumpled in the corner. The giant human that Chethak rode stood near the far wall, holding Adalyn by the neck, her feet dangling in midair. Chethak leaned forward from his perch on his mount’s shoulder, pushing his face close to Adalyn’s and hissing angry commands. Adalyn could hardly answer as she tried to squeeze a breath between the brute’s grip on her throat.
“Put her down, Chethak, or deal with me.” Jass drew the two short swords, their wavy blades shining in the torchlight. The weapons again filled Jass with a seething energy. Behind him, Sethis slunk into the shadows.
The giant didn’t put Adalyn down, but Chethak turned on his perch to contemplate Jass.
At the sight of Jass’s swords, Chethak’s expression turned from anger to delight. “Ahhh. You’ve brought me the items I was looking for. When I heard that a young apprentice mage was doing some research into the arid lords’ script, I knew someone had found the key. I followed her here, but she has been reluctant to reveal what she has found.”
“Jass, Tem is hurt,” Adalyn croaked. All eyes turned to Jass’s master, lying on his back. He was propped against an overturned display, his face a mask of pain. Jass could see the blood that stained Tem’s tunic from where he stood.
Chethak nodded. “Yes, I tried to trade his life for information from her, but she has been unusually stubborn for a human.”
Jass sank into a fighting crouch. “Why don’t you leave Adalyn out of this and try to take them from me?”
Chethak gave the wheezing cough that passed for whiskin laughter. “Very well, youngling. I will.”
The giant threw Adalyn across the room and picked up a huge greatsword from a weapon display. Even as he winced at the sound of Adalyn’s yelp of pain, Jass kept all of his attention on Chethak and his mount as they moved in his direction. Stepping forward, the hooded man brought the blade down with enough force to cleave stone. Luckily, Jass wasn’t standing there anymore. He moved close inside the giant’s swing and chopped right and left with each of the blades. But the man was quicker than Jass expected, and he managed to get the greatsword between them, deflecting the attacks. Bringing his weapon around in an arc, the hulk tried to chop Jass in half, but Jass rolled under the swing and away.
From across the room, Adalyn stood up, shouted in a throat-wrenching language, and dug her hands into the dirt of the floor. Immediately, huge stone hands lifted out of the ground at the giant’s feet and grabbed a hold of them, preventing him from moving. Jass drove forward, trying to find an opening that would disable the giant. Still, the man, or the whiskin that controlled him, was too skilled for Jass to overwhelm, even with his immobile feet. They traded blows until Sethis landed on the man’s left shoulder, kicking Chethak from his perch. The giant reeled uncertainly, and Jass planted one of his blades in the huge man’s chest.
The stone hands released the giant as he fell to the ground, his life’s blood pumping onto the floor. Jass stared at his foe, stunned. He had never killed a man before.
As the great man fell, Chethak rolled to the floor and stood, the lamplight glinting off his well-oiled fur. To Jass’s eye, he looked more annoyed than scared. “Do you know how difficult it is to find one of those? He’s been the best mount I’ve had. Still, if I had the Ath’rotan, I could easily find myself another. You have no idea what you hold there, boy.”
Jass knew not to underestimate the whiskin. He kept his remaining blade trained on Chethak. “You realize the city guards will hang you for this. Why would you kill all of us just for a pair of magical swords?”
Again, Chethak made his wheezing noise of amusement. “They are much more than that. During the siege of Bastion in the Great War, the arid lords devised a weapon that would pierce the walls of the keep and destroy the humans once and for all. Much of the arid lords’ blood was poured into that weapon. But before they could use it, the fekruna completed their masterstroke and brought the plane of earth into our plane of life, ending the arid lords’ power forever. Still, stories of the arid lords’ final weapon persist. To find its crypt, they say, one needs a certain amulet etched with their mark. To open the crypt, one needs the keys, the swords you now hold.”
Jass, Sethis, and Adalyn eyed Chethak as he stepped forward, but Jass kept the point of his blade pointed towards the greasy rat. The whiskin continued, his voice now crooning. “We could find and take this power, and become the heirs to the arid lords. We could be partners and share equally in its glory.” Chethak’s eyes widened matching the maniacal tone that Jass heard in the whiskin’s voice. “Together, we could conquer the Blood Roads. All races, even the fecund humans, would bow to our might.”
Jass shook his head. “You are crazy. Besides, why shouldn’t we just take this weapon for ourselves?”
“How would you find it without my amulet?” asked Chethak.
“This amulet?” said Sethis, holding out the little silver medallion.
Chethak’s grin turned to dismay as he checked under his shirt and found the necklace missing. He took a step toward Sethis, then changed direction and leaped onto Jass’s chest. The speed with which the whiskin moved took Jass by surprise, and then he could see nothing but the whiskin’s eyes boring into his own.
You will make a fine new steed for me. Jass heard the whiskin’s voice in his head even as Chethak’s will pressed down upon his soul. He felt as if his mind were being crushed between two huge stones. The sword in his hand began to glow green, and Jass felt power fill him. With his newfound strength, he held himself back from the brink of slavery, then pushed forward until he had thrown the whiskin’s mind from his own.
Chethak stumbled back, stunned by the rejection. “Nobody has ever resisted me,” he wheezed. With Jass still reeling from the mental attack, Chethak grabbed one of the swords from where it stood in the chest of his fallen mount and scampered out the door.
Adalyn and Sethis ran to Jass, helping him to his feet. Then all three rushed to help Tem.
Jass’s master was drowsy and bleeding freely from his side. Adalyn worked to bind his wound while Sethis fetched some water. After a drink, Tem became more alert.
Now that the immediate danger from Chethak was gone, Jass became worried about the blood that pooled around Tem’s side. “Master, hold on. Sethis will fetch the healers.”
Tem shook his head. “No, no time,” he gasped.
“I don’t think…” Tem stopped, gasping for breath as Adalyn applied pressure to the source of his bleeding. Then he continued. “I don’t think the wound is mortal, but it doesn’t matter.”
The thought of his master dying brought tears to Jass’s eyes. “Sir, I know you want me to stay, but I have to stop Chethak. He’s going to get a hold of a powerful weapon that would threaten everyone. I’m sorry to go against your wishes, but this is important.”
To Jass’s astonishment, Tem chuckled. “You’re right. I’ve…” He gasped in pain once again. Sethis gave him another drink of water and he continued. “I’ve never seen such swordwork. You were brilliant, and so were your friends. You’ve a future ahead of you and I don’t think it involves selling iron.”
Jass shook his head. “Master, you must rest.”
“Not yet. Go to the safe and take the money you find there. It is my gift to you. You must stop Chethak.” Tem struggled with his pain to get everything out. “I heard all that he said. The fate of the Blood Roads rests upon your shoulders.”
Adalyn finished binding Tem’s injuries and stood. “Chethak has one of the keys. That might be enough to get him into the crypt.”
“Not if we stop him,” hissed Sethis.
Jass met his friends’ eyes with a determined look. “We have the amulet and the other key. We will just have to get there before him.”
Tem nodded tiredly. “I’m sorry to see you go, but I’m glad it’s for the right reason. Just like I’ve always said, a merchant’s greatest asset is his sense of adventure.”