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  • Andrew M. Trauger

BK 3: Chapter Six: Parallel Worlds

Elric stood to his feet and surveyed the battle scene spread across the valley. The morning sun cast a warm orange radiance across the river and set the snow-capped mountains ablaze with a fiery glow. Fire. He recalled something about fire—something dreadful.

He gazed up at the officer on his magnificent white horse. The scowl etched into the haggard man’s brow suggested impatience and war-torn weariness. His elaborate dress, polished armor, and well-trimmed beard did little to hide his irritation. Elric dropped his eyes to the powerful steed. He had never seen an animal so beautiful—a gleaming white coat with a lush grey-white mane hanging to the bottom of its neck. Its sapphire blue eyes revealed an unnatural intelligence, and Elric caught himself about to ask the horse a question.

All around him hundreds of soldiers began to sit up, bidding each other a good morning and gathering their scattered belongings. The throng gradually sorted itself into two distinct camps, with roughly half of the number trekking across the river and the others remaining on this side. Nothing made sense.

“Wha’s goin’ on, sir?” he asked, lifting his eyes back to the rider.

The officer rumbled through a cough, the kind meant to conceal unseemly words. “You have been assigned to the Battle of River Eldstadt, one of the most important and influential battles in the First Realm. Before the conflict resumes today, you must present yourself at the—”

“The First Realm!” A chill shot through Elric’s spine. “What? That means—”

The officer jabbed at Elric’s torso with the tip of his sword. “You won’t be here for long if you don’t mind your tongue. I’ll not have a grønnskolling roaming about mucking up my battle, so walk your flimsy rompedeler into that recruitment tent by the rock wall, or I’ll have you stripped down to your loincloth and serving water to the real heroes.”

The horse snorted, as if to punctuate the officer’s statement.

Elric followed the sword tip on his chest across the gloved hand that held it and up to the scowl staring down its length. With a twitch, he scampered across the battlefield to the tent. Along the way, he marveled that each man who arose with the sun seemed not to have awoken from a peaceful night of rest beneath the stars but from a bloodstained patch of trampled grass. The carnage of war littered the valley, but everywhere he looked not a single person was dead.

Near a low wall of layered flagstones stood an off-white canvas tent held aloft by four sturdy wooden poles. Beneath this tent sat an overly large man in a folding chair behind a slim table. Fiery orange hair ringed the crown of an otherwise bald, sunburned head. He sported an equally bright orange moustache, thick and bushy, flowing over the corners of his mouth like twin waterfalls and blending into a lengthy beard that draped across his ample torso. Several buttons strained at his military coat, while the middle two had given up entirely. Ornamentation on the coat indicated an officer of low rank.

A short queue of men stood before the table, each one speaking in turn to the officer. Elric stepped into line behind a middle-aged man wearing tattered coveralls and holding a pitchfork upright like a walking stick. Covering his upper right arm was the bluish tattoo of a strength rune—a circle inside a triangle inside a circle—surrounded by elaborate knot-work designs.

“Say, ‘at’s a nice tattoo ya got there,” Elric said.

The farmer nodded with a glance over his shoulder.

“I knew this guy all covered up wit’ ‘em, an’ he could make purple fire…with…” Elric’s voice tapered off as a flood of memories washed over him. Selorian…how long has it been? Years, seems like.

“Hey…I’m Elric,” he said, extending his hand. “What’s yer name?”

The man glanced down as a sneer pulled at his lip.

“So…where are we, exactly? An officer back ‘ere said the First Realm, but that don’t make no sense, ‘cause I ain’t dead an’ this shore ain’t Paradise.”

The farmer shrugged and turned away.

Elric frowned at the back of his head. I oughtta jerk a knot in his tail. He glanced around at the commotion of the war camp. Archers restocked their quivers with arrows, swordsmen swiped whetstones across their blades, circles of soldiers honed their maneuvers in mock mêlée, others rushed to consume a bowl of steaming porridge for breakfast. I remember bein’ in a marsh fightin’ dragon-bloods, and it was dark. This has gotta be a right powerful dream.

He slapped himself. Wake up, Elric.

“Next.”

Elric shuffled forward with the line; he frowned at the table and the officer sitting behind it. Up close, the man was truly huge. Wide enough he needed two chairs. He looked like a giant scoop of orange pudding. His blue eyes glazed over with indifference. Elric swallowed a lump in his throat and approached the table. Yeah, this has to be a weird dream. What did I eat last night?

“State your name and rank, Shorty.” The pudding held a clipboard and flipped through a sheaf of pages.

“Elric Reichtoven, private.” Can I call ya Fatty?

The officer set his clipboard down and thumbed through a stack of dockets. “Radcliff … Rajali … Randolph … Rankin … Rupert, out of place … Realstone … Reaver … Redding … ah, here it is—Reichtoven.” He pulled the docket from the stack and flipped through its contents, tapping and nodding as he scanned. “First day in Paradise, I see.”

Elric’s frown deepened. This ain’t what Ma said Paradise was like.

“Background in the military. Leatherworking skills. Nice touch. And…hmm.”

“What?” Elric’s thoughts popped like a soap bubble, and he leaned forward. “Izzit bad?”

The officer lowered the docket and raised a bushy orange eyebrow. “Why would you assume it’s bad?”

“Well, I kinda muck thangs up. Sometimes…not always.”

The man lowered his brow and returned to the pages. “It says you have a natural affinity for horsemanship. I find that remarkable, given that neither you nor anyone in your family owns a horse. And you have only fifteen total hours in the saddle, although one of those hours was quite the hellacious ride.”

“That’s ‘cause I’s born to ri—wait jis a minute. How do ya know all this?”

“I’m simply reading the file on you.”

“Where’d ya get that? I mean, why is there a file on me? Who wrote it?”

“Do I need to add ‘annoyingly inquisitive’ to your list of talents?”

Elric shook his head. “No, sir.”

“Listen quickly. You died. Your body reformed in the First Realm of Paradise from whatever place you once called home to bask in the glories of never-ending battle.”

Memories flooded Elric’s mind as if bursting through a dam. Cora. Cuauhtie. Kiyla. We was fightin’ dragon-bloods in the Brack. I gulped down air to burn ‘em…the spear got me. I blew up…I…AM dead.

The registrar tore off a slip from the bottom of the file and handed it to Elric. “Exchange this requisition for some gear and report to Latham.”

With a thud of finality, the orange pudding slammed an inked stamp onto a parchment and slid the sheet into Elric’s file. “Next!”


* * * * * * * * * *


The common house in Misteral resounded with deathly silence. Cora stared blankly at Elric’s bedroll. After a long hour, she sighed, stood, and walked out of the building. Barely a minute later, she returned, slamming the door behind her.

She tossed her arms in the air with a growl. “I can’t even find solace in a rinkin mug of ale because Misteral doesn’t have a tavern.” Growling through clenched teeth, Cora kicked her backpack, sending it tumbling against the wall. “I’m so mad! I should be crying. I bawled my eyes out when Ordin died, but now…nothing. I’m cried out. And I don’t get it. I’m just really, really furious. So mad I could scream!”

“Please don’t,” Kiyla said.

Cora threw herself into a chair. “Then what am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to tell his parents?”

“We tell dem he die.” Cuauhtérroc’s gaze remained on Elric’s body. “It is dees truth.”

“Cripe…” Cora buried her face in her hands. “Stop trying to help. Why don’t you be a rinkin savage for once? Why don’t you fly off the handle, break stuff—like you did in Wilder Tower—I feel like I’m the angry one here, like I have to—”

A pair of strong hands grabbed fistfuls of Cora’s blouse and yanked her from her chair. With a grunt of pain, Cuauhtérroc shoved her against the wall, rattling her teeth. Dark eyes beneath a heavy scowl danced back and forth across her face, penetrating her with a ferocity sufficient to pull a whimper from her throat.

“Is dees what you want?” he roared. “Do you theenk I am not angry? Do you want me to be dees savage? I can be dees savage! I can keel you, and I can keel—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa…” Kiyla jumped up and scampered across the room. “Ain’t nobody killin’ nobody else.” She slipped an arm through the thin space between their chests and pried Cuauhtérroc back. Her brown eyes, locked on the savage, were a mixture of fear and readiness. “Easy now. Back away.”

Cuauhtérroc stepped back, his glare never leaving Cora. He released his grip on her shirt, and Cora’s feet settled onto the floor. He poked her in the sternum. “Do not be dees stupid female. You want to make Ordeen Clay alive again, but we are lost in dees dark cave. Now we are not. Now we will make Eric Rikeoven alive again.”

Cora hung her head with a heavy sigh. “We can’t raise him. We’ve got the same rinkin problem: the nearest city is easily two weeks away. There won’t be another shipment to this backwater outpost until the end of the month. We’ll have to bury him up the river somewhere because I will not bury him in this disaster of a hamlet.”

“No.” The decisiveness in Cuauhtérroc’s voice startled Cora. “We do not bury heem. We take heem to dees duke, and we say dees dragon armor burn heem. Dees duke weel help us.”

Kiyla shook her head. “Can’t lug a dead man through mystic lands.”

Cora startled and turned to the brawler. “Of course! Kiyla, you’re a genius—we’ll take Elric to the mystics.”

“Whoa,” the brawler said, holding up her hands. “That ain’t what I said. You don’t just walk into the Cerion Forest.”

“But if we did, they’d have to take notice and deal with us.”

Kiyla scoffed. “Do you really want that?”

“Look, Ordin was from the Cerion and part of the Grove. When we tell them we knew Ordin, they’ll—”

“Seriously? Think about it. Ordin’s dead. You gonna tell ‘em, ‘We got your man killed, now raise ours’?”

Cora pinched the bridge of her nose. “I know it’s a long shot, but it’s all we have. We should be able to reach the forest before sunset, then we’ll see what happens. If they help us, maybe he can be saved. But if not, then we bury him as far from here as we can.”

Kiyla shrugged. “If they don’t kill us first.”


* * * * * * * * * *


“Move, soldier!”

The brusqueness of the officer’s voice jolted Elric, and he rushed to find Latham, the officer to whom he had been assigned. His mind whirled with the revelation of his death. More startling was the realization that Paradise—at least the First Realm—was a battlefield, not at all what he had been led to believe.

Latham bore all the markings of a professional soldier: neatly trimmed full beard, crisply pressed uniform, every button and every tie perfectly aligned, and a fresh shine to his shoes. He was busy pulling together new recruits into a platoon, many who had never held a weapon in their first lives. But he showed no signs of frustration or of losing his patience. He literally had an eternity to wait.

Elric snapped his heels as he approached and stood at full attention. “Elric Reichtoven, private, reporting for duty, sir!”

“Good form, private,” Latham said with a quick glance. His eyes scanned the flurry of activity around him as soldiers gathered their belongings and prepared for battle. “But…you should be able to snap without making noise. Perfect form comes without a sound.”

A cadence of marching began to Elric’s right, and he turned to watch. Perfect rows and columns of men departed from the camp down a lane clearly trodden by thousands of boots over endless days. A plume of smoke arose in the distance, and the echoes of officers barking orders floated up the valley. The metallic ring of swords on shields filled the air, broken only by the lone wail of the day’s first mortal wound. Elric grinned. This might not be so bad.

With little warning, Latham’s eyes riveted onto Elric, a fierce glare that purged his joy. “You’re not going to last long here,” he said, then walked away.


* * * * * * * * * *


Kiyla cut a path northward through the rushes and reeds with Elric’s shortsword. Cora followed, and Cuauhtérroc carried Elric’s body over his shoulder. As they walked in silence, Cora’s thoughts wandered to the reception they might receive. Hopefully they wouldn’t be slaughtered for trespassing. Would they even know where the forest began? Perhaps when the arrows started flying?

She wished she knew the powerful magic that had sped them from Westmeade to Cer Cannaid in a revolting swirl of colors. But high spellcraft like that was beyond her knowledge. And dangerous. She feared the mighty power of translocation—everyone in their right mind did—but she wished she could wield that sort of power just this once. She could whisk them all away to Cer Cannaid and skip the arduous journey.

A grunt from Cuauhtérroc spun Cora around. “Are you all right?”

“Dees reebs hurt. But I weel carry heem.”

The bundle draped over the savage’s broad shoulders filled Cora with a fresh wave of anger. Some might say his was a noble death, but to Cora it was pure waste. Elric loved life, but he didn’t get to have much of it. His presence provided laughter, but his absence brought only fury. He had been brave and valiant against the dragon-bloods, swinging that massive axe to great effect. That mighty axe. That huge expensive axe.

“Where’s Elric’s axe?” Cora asked.

Kiyla chopped through a small bush. “Gave it to Cuauht.”

“I put it in dees pack on hees back,” Cuauhtérroc said.

“It’s a backpack,” Cora said with a weak smile. Kiyla carried Elric’s gear as well as her own, but the axe was not there.

“I put it in dees backpack,” the savage said again.

“I’m sure you did,” Cora answered.

“Musta fell out,” Kiyla offered. “I ain’t go it.”

“Cripe.” Cora stopped and stared down the path they had traveled. “That axe alone might pay the price of getting Elric raised. If we can find someone able to work the miraculous, it will be terribly expensive. We ought at least to look for it.”

“Nope.” Kiyla shook her head. “I packed his gear. It wasn’t in there. Not when we left town. Musta dropped it in the marsh. Ain’t goin’ back to the Brack.”

The songsage’s shoulders slumped. “No. No, we’re not doing that.” Hope was fading fast and taking their options with it. “Come on then,” she said with a growl, “and may the Maker help us.”


* * * * * * * * * *


As the din of combat carried across the valley, Colonel Latham spent the greater part of the morning training Elric and fifteen other new recruits how to march in ranks and files, how to interpret the various trumpet blasts that might be heard on the battlefield, and how steep the cost in lives and personal penance if they interpreted wrongly. Throughout the hours, Elric learned each of the new recruits shared a similar story to his. They had each recently died and found themselves here, the lands of the First Realm of Paradise, the Maker’s Kingdom.

One of the new recruits offered Elric additional information about the place. Freysin Hrird had been a cassock of the Hall of Champions. Befitting his sect, Freysin possessed layers of rippled muscles straining the seams of his garments. He stood head and shoulders above Elric, his ice blue eyes always smiling and his ruddy cheeks splotching fair skin.

“The First Realm,” Freysin explained between marching drills, “is the battleground. Here, our duty is to wage eternal battle on fields of glory. If we perish in the fight, we rise again the next morning to continue in the never-ending conflict. But if we survive the day, we gain merit and favor with the Maker. Continued success will result in our ascending the ranks and eventually retiring from the battle to spend the rest of our days in the sacred Hall of the Valiant.”

“Ya mean I gotta fight all day every day?”

“Pretty much…until you retire as one of the Unvanquished.”

Elric frowned. That ain’t what Ma said Paradise was.

Freysin flexed a muscled arm. “The Unvanquished feast at the Divine Table. Forever. That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout!” He pulled his sword and raised it in the air. “To the Maker!” he yelled, “and to the Valiant!”

Several of the new recruits also drew and raised their swords. “To the Maker!”

Elric turned back to Freysin. “Can I get me a horse? I’s born to ride, ya know.”

“I wouldn’t know about that. Only the officers ride horses.”

Colonel Latham strode up to Elric and stood squarely in front of him, his dark brown eyes serious and glaring. “You were born to ride, you say.”

Elric felt a lump forming in his throat. “Yes…sir.”

“Do you have any idea why you’re here?”

“I died, sir.”

“And do you know why we’re here? Why we’re fighting this battle?”

“No, sir.”

Latham folded his arms and leaned over Elric. “None at all?”

“Um…fer the glory o’ the Maker?”

The colonel exhaled sharply. “No, private. We’re here for one reason only: to win this battle. The enemy has gained ground steadily over the past few days, and we must take it back. We must drive them across the river and back through the valley from whence they came. We must win this battle!”

“What’re we fightin’ ‘bout?” Elric asked.

“What are we fighting about? What are we figh—I’ll tell you something, private: many lives were lost just yesterday to reclaim this ground, and your pertinent questioning is out of line. You disrespect those who gave the ultimate price for defending our land.”

Elric’s brow furrowed in confusion. At dawn, men from both sides of the conflict stirred to life and rejoined their encampments on both sides of the river. They had died in the previous day’s fighting and arose to regroup and engage again today. Perhaps it had been going on for many days, weeks, or months. It occurred to him that this battle might have been going on for years with neither side gaining much real ground.

“Don’t they jis come back to life?”

Colonel Latham started to answer, but stopped short. He paused to process the question as if it had never before occurred to him. Then, casting the errant thought aside, he faced Elric squarely once more. “I’m only going to ask this once, private. Are you on the right side of the river?”

Elric shrugged. “I reckon, but I don’ rightly know what this side is. Or that’n. Why are we killin’ folks on ‘at side?”

“Because they’re trying to kill you! That’s how you win a war, private—you kill them first! Now, I have no more time for this senseless talk. Either get in line and run your drills, or I’ll have you slopping stables for weeks.”

Elric nearly opted to slop stables. Horses made more sense than this officer.

As the mid-day meal was served—a meager but tasty bowl of stew with a small block of dried bread—the Eldstadt River valley filled with the energy of war. Lines of soldiers formed as trumpet blasts and drum cadences signaled marching orders to faraway battalions. Similar signals echoed across the river from opposing camps. Acrid smoke filled the air as huge fire pits grew into raging infernos, which would soon ignite flaming balls of pitch to be hurled from well-used catapults. Highly decorated men on regal stallions rode hither and yon, shouting orders with increasing pace.

At a moment when Latham’s back was turned, Elric leaned over to Freysin. “We’re fixin’ to fight, ain’t we?”

Freysin grinned and nodded as his muscles tightened.


* * * * * * * * * *


The towering cypress trees of the lower Cerion Forest blanketed many lesser trees growing in their shade. Elms, willows, ash, and tupelo trees provided secondary undergrowth, further shrouding the myriad shrubs, vines, and saplings that created the lower canopy of the forest. Ancient live oaks spread wide their evergreen shade, their limbs as large as most tree trunks and sagging to the ground beneath their massive weight.

Cora stood quietly in the tall grasses alongside the mighty Rae Serene, staring into the forest’s edge. She swatted a lone midge on the back of her neck; the mud of the Brack had long ago stopped being an option. Any minute she expected archers to emerge with bows drawn tight.

Cuauhtérroc winced from the pain of his cracked ribs as he set Elric’s body on the ground, then rested beside the slain ally. “I need to eat before we go in dees trees.”

Cora glanced at the sky. Clouds were growing over the Maz Nabors to the southwest, and the sun slipped between the blanket of charcoal clouds and the peaks of the mountain range, bathing the Cerion in a fiery radiance. The wind chilled earlier in the afternoon; the early winter predicted in the almanacs had finally reached the deep south.

“It’ll be dark soon,” Cora said, “and darker beneath the canopy of trees.”

Cuauhtérroc pulled a bit of dried beef from his pack. “You have dees light. We weel see fine in dees trees.”

“And that’s all it is,” Kiyla commented. “Just a bunch of trees.” She paced the area, tramping down an ever-widening area of grass. “Right?”

“It ees like my homeland,” Cuauhtérroc observed. “But dees are not the same trees.” He drew in a breath through clinched teeth as he put a hand to his side.

“Cuauhtie, you’re wounded.” Cora knelt beside him and pulled a ceramic vial from her pouch. She offered the healing analeptic to him.

Cuauhtérroc pushed the vial away. “I dreenk all mine. Dees bottles cannot heal dees reebs. I need dees cassocks.”

Worry lines etched Cora’s brow. “I know you try to hide it and remain strong for us, but at least let us carry Elric for a while.”

“No, I weel carry him. He is my—how you say—asponsable.”

“Responsibility,” Cora corrected, “and no, he isn’t. If there’s any responsibility to be had, it belongs with me. You don’t bear that burden, Cuauhtérroc—we all do. So, we all will take care of him.”

After another moment’s rest, Kiyla stood and faced the Cerion Forest. “There’s walkin’ and talkin’ trees in there,” she said as Cora approached her side. “They say the rocks can move.”

“Dees rocks do not move,” Cuauhtérroc interjected.

“Vines’ll reach down to you,” Kiyla continued, staring wide-eyed ahead. “Dirt’ll blow in your eyes. Trees’ll block your way. Gettin’ lost in here is a given.”

With a grunt, Cuauhtérroc stood and joined the women. “Dees theengs are not true, Kiyla Muroe. In my homeland, dees plants will eat a man, but dees trees do not talk. Ordeen Clay will say dat is stupid.”

Cora had no idea whether it was stupid or not. It sounded a lot like mariner superstitions. But the forest did have a reputation for being an unfriendly place to visit—for other reasons. “We have every right to be a little nervous. The mystics control every aspect of the forest. They speak with Nature—trees, rocks, the river—and Nature speaks back. I’ve seen Ordin do as much. But, I have no idea what to expect once we step foot in that forest. We might be accosted right away, or we might make it several miles into the interior before we encounter anything. The mystics might leave us well enough alone, and we might instead be torn to bits by all manner of creature. Then again, we might travel nearly through the whole thing and never see another soul and wind up burying Elric after all. Or, the mystics might be standing just on the other side of those trees, right there, waiting to kill us. Or maybe the trees will kill us themselves. Of course, it’s also possible—”

“Cora…” Kiyla said.

“Yes?”

“Shut up.” She scooped up Elric’s body and gave his pack to Cuauhtérroc. “You ain’t helpin’.”

Cora sang a light into being, and the trio forged ahead, stepping from grasses to brambles. The trees hovered over them like gnarled skeletons, looming down with grasping claws. The air reverberated with the eerie calls of nocturnal creatures. A shudder crept up her spine as shadows cast by her light wavered and danced against the leafy canopy.

“Kinda creepy,” the brawler said in a low whisper.

“Stop,” Cuauhtérroc whispered, holding up his hand.

Cora saw a look in the savage’s face that she had not seen in all the time she had known him. His dark brown eyes darted about; his macana quivered in an unsteady hand. This jungle-toughened savage, slayer of panthers, Amurraks, and giant lizards, shook with dread. He had faced a dragon and all manner of dragonkin, but now his spine had liquefied.

“Dees is very bad juju,” he muttered. His unease spread like a contagion, and Cora’s light wavered.

Branches shifted in the near distance. Cuauhtérroc crouched like a cat about to spring, his muscled torso rippling with tension. “Dees trees are moving.”

Cora trembled with speechless shock. Cuauhtérroc is afraid. That had never happened before. It wasn’t supposed to happen. She balanced a tightrope of decision—calming the savage versus setting him off. The longer she waited, the more agitated Cuauhtérroc grew. What if he snapped? If he entered a berserker rage, the Cerion Forest would destroy him—all of them. She had to do something.

Cora strummed the strings, and Cuauhtérroc’s attention snapped to the sound. But it was a fragile second; she had to be quick. I have to dominate him.

The thought distressed her, tearing her through with conflicting emotions. If she probed his mind, she could scrub away the source of his fear or force him to proceed into the “moving trees” despite his feelings. The domination of another person’s mind was powerful, but it was disturbing to contemplate.

With chords progressing, Cora sang the controlling melody, a soothing tune that turned minds to an amoebic paste. She cringed at her actions; she felt sullied by her deceit and filthy from her forbidden intrusion. But she pressed on, convinced of the necessity. Invading Cuauhtérroc’s mind would save his life. And theirs.

As the last notes were on her tongue, the resolving tonic chord that would open the gateway to his thoughts, a series of crackling snaps spread before them. Trees shifted, parted, and opened up a distinct pathway from their position, revealing a corridor free of entangling roots and vines.

Cuauhtérroc twisted and brandished his macana. Cora sustained the final note, holding it, ready to land it should her savage turn feral. But the panic in his eyes gave way to a curious bewilderment, which yielded to a restoration of calm control. His shoulders relaxed, and the tension melted from his arms. “I see dees path. We go now.”

Cora dropped the final note and exhaled sharply, glad to have left his mind alone. Crisis averted.

As they traveled deeper into the forest, Cora considered the possibility that the trees were not hindering them; rather, they might be guiding them. The question was: to where? There was no discerning whether a tree was ally, enemy, or simply having fun at their expense. If that sort of thing were even possible. She was not yet convinced they saw things as they truly were.

When a couple of hours had passed, Cuauhtérroc spied a small boulder jutting from a weathered hillock and shucked the two backpacks he was carrying. He winced from his cracked ribs, aggravated by the metronomic bouncing of the packs against his sides.

Kiyla gently laid Elric’s body beside the packs and collapsed at the base of a tree. “Where are we?”

Cora looked back at the way they had come; as expected, there was no evidence of the trail they were currently on. She peered through the fading light into the darkened forest ahead; the slimmest trace of a continuing path lay before them, just enough to nudge them along in their undisclosed journey. Except for the various sounds of scattered nocturnal life and the swaying of the taller trees in a wind that rarely reached the ground, the Cerion Forest was entirely calm. The songsage shrugged. “I can only assume this path leads somewhere, and hopefully soon.”

“Sure don’t lead back,” Kiyla muttered.

“I figured somebody would have spotted us by now.”

“Dey are watching us,” Cuauhtérroc said.

“How do you know that?” Cora scanned the trees in vain.

“I am panther warrior. Dees trees hide dees path, but dey do not hide dees peeple from my eyes.”

“Are they watching us now?” Cora’s voice cracked from nervous excitement.

“Yes.”

“What do we do? Are they friend or foe? Should I call out to them?”

“No,” Cuauhtérroc said. “Dey weel come out when dey are ready.”

The songsage glanced over at Kiyla. The brawler’s half-closed eyes meant sleep would soon overtake her. They were all wounded and weary. If there ever was a time to wipe them out, it would be now. Cora pulled her lute into position and prepared to defend the beleaguered trio.

A chuckle accompanied the footsteps of a lithe, long-haired man. He stepped around a thick oak and approached. “I suppose we can talk now.”

Cora thought she recognized the man; perhaps she’d seen him somewhere before. He stood almost as tall as Cuauhtérroc, but not nearly as thick, and displayed a rugged strength in his frame. His wavy brown hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail that jutted out from the nape of his neck. His crooked smile and the cocky lilt in his step were strangely familiar. Perhaps they had met in a tavern in Cer Cannaid, where he had ogled her or said something grossly mistaken for a compliment.

Cuauhtérroc and Kiyla rose to their feet with weapons drawn, pain and weariness notwithstanding. The man flashed an arrogant smile. “Put your weapons down. I mean you no harm. But know that you’d be dead before you came within five feet of me. There are dozens of eyes upon you right now. Trust me; your best option is to relax and let me hear your story. What brings you to the Cerion this night?”

Cora studied him. I’ve seen him somewhere…

“Okay…I’ll start,” the man said. “My name is Moffe Stattalonn, and I’m an elder reeve in this forest. I’m also in occasional employ with the Blade Masters freeblade group, and I believe it was in Westmeade when we last met. Am I correct?”

“Yes!” Cora replied enthusiastically, then checked herself. “I mean, I think so. Some of us were there, anyway.”

“As I thought,” Moffe said with that crooked smile of his. “I recall sitting beside a lovely songsage with long, flowing hair of the deepest red. And I remember the serious stares of the savage draped in his furs. That is truly a high form of respect you show that panther.”

“I had it cut,” Cora announced. Kiyla rolled her eyes.

“Excuse me?” Moffe said, turning his attention away from the distrusting glare of the savage.

“I had my hair cut. You know, in the Elandran style. It’s all the rage back home.”

Moffe raised an eyebrow. “I see…so, I don’t believe I remember your bull terrier, who looks like she could tear me limb from limb. And might enjoy doing it.”

“That’s Kiyla, former pit fighter. She is lethal.”

Moffe cradled an elbow in his hand while he scratched at the stubble of hair on his chin.He scanned the perimeter of the area, peering into the outermost edges of the torchlight.He cast his gaze for a prolonged time on the blanket wrapped around Elric’s body.There was no mistaking what the blanket contained.Moffe returned his searching eyes to each of them, then settled on Cora.“Where’s Ordin?”

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