The trip to Grandview in the southern forest started off rather uncomfortably for me. I woke early that morning and went to work on prepping Surfal for the ride. It wouldn’t be long, just a day trip at a casual pace, but it was still further from Stonehaven then I’d travelled since leaving Udiria. There were several large wooden carts, all loaded to the brim with grain, pelts, and spices. It was a large donation and Stonehaven had paid Uncle Maron handsomely for it. Of course, since much of Stonehaven was supplied with funds from the nobles like Maron, it was really just a cycle of gold.
I was just about to mount my stallion when I caught sight of someone that I had hoped to never see again. Kaellax, the Shadowspeaker that Maron and I had helped a while back, was standing near the lead cart. She was dressed in a surprisingly revealing outfit and her maple skin stood out against the powerful contrast of the fabric. Her skin also looked flawless. She looked like she may have been crafted from porcelain, all of which simply did not fit with the knowledge that she was a powerful magic user that had mastered control over a Yunai. I expected battle scars, thick leather armor… anything really.
Surprisingly, she was speaking with a Stonehaven guard in a relaxed manner, and the man even laughed at something she shared. She certainly looked to be living in better times. She even had a copper staff leaning against the nearby cart and it looked to be expensive. It had a purple power crystal resting in the setting at the top and the end had been sharpened so that she could use it as a blade if necessary. I understood now why Maron had asked for a Shadowspeaker for this trip. Just looking at her, her outfit, her weapon, it was intimidating. Perhaps simply having her here would discourage nefarious activity.
“Hello, young mage,” she said cheerily, turning from the guard to face me. “I’m happy to see you’ll be joining us.”
“Well, you know,” I said as casually as I could muster. “I have to learn all this official business sometime, right?”
Kaellax grinned and beautiful white teeth appeared from behind her deep violet lips. “You’re letting Maron teach you his trade secrets then?” she asked.
“Something like that,” I mumbled. She was older than me, much older if I understood correctly, but in truth she didn’t look to be a day over Lady Evanor’s age, perhaps in her mid-twenties. By now, I had come across several Shadowspeakers in my time at the Academy. None of them had looked anything like Kaellax. They all wore skulls, or embroidered runic symbols on their clothes. They carried twisted staffs and corrupted wands. They made it a point to remind everyone that they were dark and sinister, that they were not like the rest of the world. Kaellax was not really different in that aspect. She was wearing this outfit, the dark robes, violet lipstick, and even painted fingernails in a similar shade. She still wanted us to know she handled dark energy, but she somehow appeared uncorrupted by it. It was like she knew something that the other Shadowspeakers did not.
“Have you made the trek to Grandview before?” she asked.
“No,” I replied honestly. “I haven’t been past Bantari much, to be honest.”
“I can’t blame you for that,” she said with a frown. “If you need anything, you look for me, okay? I’ve made this trip a hundred times. If something comes up, seek me out.”
I nodded. “That sounds great.”
The comment didn’t seem so important at the time, but if she had not extended that offer, I might have died that very afternoon.
I don’t remember how long we rode before the bandits descended on the convoy. We had passed through the final town in Bantari so that we could eat at the tavern. The fruit wasn’t the greatest, but the spiced ham was more than enough to make up for it. When we set out again we were full of food and all the more tired for it.
The attack began with a volley of arrows. I didn’t hear them coming toward us, but the gurgling sounds of a nearby soldier as he grabbed an arrow shaft after it lodged between his helmet and shoulder was the spark that put everyone into action. The Stonehaven guards put their backs to the carts and Uncle Maron grabbed me, pulling me close as he wrapped us with thick pelts, both to hide us, and to at least slow an incoming arrow.
I caught a quick glimpse of Kaellax and saw that she had already begun the use of her twisted magic. The same bluish-black figure, the Yunai, came to life before her and she whispered some words that sounded similar to what a snake might say if it had a language of its own. The creature moved like a ghost, sweeping across the ground and toward a nearby tree. For a moment I thought it might be fleeing from its master, but a moment later I heard a piercing scream and a crumpled mess of a woman collapsed next to the creature.
“Got her,” Kaellax said flatly.
She waved a hand and purple fire ripped across the ground, setting the writing woman ablaze in the process. I felt both happy and horrified at the sight, but then I heard a grunt and looked back to see Kaellax stumbling backward. She had taken an arrow in her left hip, but she caught herself against the cart before she fell. The Yunai was nowhere to be seen, but another agonizing call from the far side of the cart told me that the creature had found its next victim.
Uncle Maron leapt from his hiding place with such speed that I was completely caught off guard. He hit the ground next to Kaellax, did a roll, and then I watched him throw a dagger up toward a large tree limb. It landed in the chest of a man dressed in camouflage. I would have never seen him if not for his movements after he was hit by the blade. He slipped from his perch and hit the ground with a firm crunch.
“Are you okay?” Maron asked Kaellax as he knelt next to her.
“At the moment,” she grumbled, “I’m not too well.”
There was another growl from the far side of the cart.
“What’s happening?” Maron yelled over.
“That monster took out one more,” a guard called back. “Is that thing with us?”
“Yes,” Kaellax growled. “Maron, I think there may be a rogue with the group.”
I looked around, wondering if I should jump out of hiding to help. I wasn’t exactly skilled with magic yet, but I could put an ice lance through someone’s chest if it was needed… if I could muster the resolve.
“Stay here a moment,” Maron said to Kaellax.
She grunted and tried to stand while Maron pulled his sword and snuck around the side of the cart and out of my vision. Kaellax started to follow him and that was when I noticed the sand next to her suddenly shift.
“Rogue!” I shouted.
Kaellax twisted, but the attacker was too fast. I watched a blade appear and then disappear again as it sank into Kaellax’s chest. She gasped, but simultaneously reached out and took hold the attacker’s face with both her hands, pressing her sharp thumbnails into his eyes. The rogue started to scream, and I saw smoke begin to rise from his head as Kaellax tightly held him. He jerked away from her several times before he finally broke free. He stumbled away from her, clearly blinded, but the smoke did not stop. He cursed and growled with anger and pain, but whatever she had done to him was not fading. He sounded more desperate and broke into a run, agonizing howling echoing behind him as he ran.
“He won’t get far,” Kaellax said, looking to me.
With that, she collapsed to the ground.
I was about to help her, calling for Maron in the process, when the cart itself suddenly lurched sideways, throwing me, and most of our goods, out onto the road. Thankfully, Kaellax had fallen away from the cart, or she might have been crushed on the spot. The air became very hot and I saw that the cart had caught fire. I didn’t have a weapon on me, but I couldn’t stand trying to hide any more, not to mention my cover was blown. I came to Kaellax’s side and saw she was still conscious. She nodded to her staff and I took it without hesitation.
“Knock them dead, kid,” she said with a small grin.
The staff’s power crystal pulsed energy into my body the moment I took hold. I felt tuned to the aether and my mind cleared of panic and confusion. I had a goal. I knew what I had to do, so I rushed around the cart and saw two soldiers fighting for their lives with a man so large I barely believed he was human… a moment later I realized he wasn’t.
It was a troll.
I wasted no time pulling frost energy together and crafting a magical blast that hit the troll and caused him to stumble for a moment. One soldier seized the opportunity and shoved his blade through the troll’s gut. The creature responded by slamming his fist in the human’s chest, sending him flying backward into the burning cart.
I threw an ice blast over the fire and it died almost instantly, sparing the fallen human from severe burns. The troll pushed the attack, knocking the other soldier to the ground and coming straight for me. Before it had a chance to crush my skull, however, it howled in agony and crumpled to the ground. The Yunai, that mysterious ghostly form, ended the troll’s advance in an instant.
“Don’t kill him,” I ordered.
The Yunai shifted, but did not deliver a final blow. The troll looked at me for a moment, then sneered. The beast thrust a dagger from his side and it came whirling straight for me. I whipped my staff to my side and a shield of ice swirled around me. The blade lodged in the sheet of frozen water. I quickly lowered the ice, reformed it into a lance, and thrust it forward. The object lodged in the troll’s chest. For a moment, the troll looked shocked, but then his face relaxed and he became still on the ground.
The forest grew quiet around me. I snapped back to reality and saw that the attack had ended. A few guards stumbled, wounded, to the flipped cart, while another few soldiers were already cleaning their blades. I quickly rushed back around the cart to find Kaellax on the ground, her body lifeless.
I started to move toward her, but the Yunai approached from behind me. I leapt clear of the creature before it could touch me. It moved close to her, closer than I felt comfortable, and then it started to… vaporize. A swirling cloud of bluish black swirled away from the creature and encircled Kaellax. As it slowly disappeared, I saw Kaellax suddenly lurch forward. She let out a scream of pure horror, but silenced herself and looked right at me.
I only stared back at her.
The surviving guards stumbled around the cart to see us both there.
“Are you both okay?” one asked.
I couldn’t respond. I just pointed to Kaellax.
They followed my finger and fell upon her eyes; her solid black eyes.
None of us moved.
Moments passed… moments that felt like hours.
Finally, Kaellax closed her eyes. When she opened them again, they were the normal color that they had been before.
She looked at us and gave a faint smile. “I’m okay now,” she said politely. “Thank you for your concern.”
It took a moment for the tension to thaw, but soon the guards relaxed and I followed their lead. I stepped up and held out a hand so that Kaellax could steady herself.
“Thank you, Sionis,” she said as she stood. “That was a close one.”
“I know,” I replied. “Where is Uncle Maron?”
“He’s not here,” a guard said shortly. “By the Crystals… they’ve taken him!”
The words took a moment to sink in… to really hit the core of my gut.
“I can’t find him.”
“There is no body,” Kaellax said firmly. “That’s actually a good thing.”
“How is that?” I asked, panic starting to swell inside me.
“It means they wanted him alive,” she said gesturing to the tipped cart. “They had plenty of gold and supplies here to rob us. They came specifically for your uncle.”
“Why?” I asked. “Why do they want my Uncle?”
“Ransom, most likely,” she answered. “We must tip this cart back on its wheels and get what we can to Grandview.”
“Shouldn’t we go after the kidnappers?” I asked, totally shaking now.
“Sionis Sepher,” Kaellax said calmly, resting her hands on my arms so that I would stand still. “You’re okay. You’re alive. Your uncle is alive. We need to make sure he stays that way. Let’s deliver our supplies and get your obligation out of the way. This is a ransom, I assure you of that. We press on and deliver the supplies. The kidnappers will know to meet us at Grandview.”
I nodded, feeling queasy. “Okay, right. Okay.”
Kaellax took control of the situation as soon as I agreed. She quickly reformed the Yunai, and as the creature formed I saw her growing weaker. After watching the creature revive her from near death, I couldn’t help but wonder how their relationship worked.
Once she had the Yunai in her control, she easily tipped the cart. The guards went to work gathering the rest of the supplies. One of the horses had a broken leg and couldn’t walk. With Kaellax’s approval, the Yunai took the creature’s head off with one swing. I offered up Surfal to pull the cart the rest of the way, but the guards pointed out Surfal was far too valuable to risk. Realizing the stallion was so expensive reminded me of one more thing I could have lost in the attack.
Once we had everything in order, we climbed atop our mounts and pressed onward to Grandview. Kaellax allowed the Yunai to take the lead so that it could scare any other potential looters that might have their eyes on our supplies. Fortunately, the rest of the trip was as uneventful as it had been before the attack.
We reached Grand Hamlet just after sundown. The mayor was quick to rummage through the supplies, thanking us for our generosity and not making any comments about Maron’s lack of attendance. I started to grow suspicious of him, then Kaellax, then everyone else I felt wasn’t taking this situation seriously.
We made sure to sign all the appropriate ledgers, and then I made my way to the inn and collapsed on my bed. A moment later, the innkeeper walked in with a plate of meat and cheese. He set it on my nightstand and departed without a word. I rolled over to take a bite and saw a note resting on the platter with the food.
We have your uncle. If you want him back, prepare to pay…– The Stonemasters