Mercy

 

Black dirt scattered in a light evening breeze that blew through an empty village. Scorch marks marred the ground where the dragon’s deadly breath had lain its final judgment. Charred ruins spoke to the depths of the wrath and rage that visited here so long ago.

It hadn’t been a very large town, lying sleepily along the banks of a wandering river. What these poor people could have possibly done to invoke such hostile feelings none could say, for no one had survived the fiery onslaught.

But discovery was the purpose of this expedition, and failure was simply not an option. A tall man pointed a bony finger toward the remains of what had likely once been a home in this forsaken town.

“We’ll set up here.” He exclaimed in his high, crackling voice.

Maes glanced warily at Peek, the group’s unlikely, and unlikeable leader.

“You’re kidding, right?” The smart young woman asked in a tone that bordered on insubordinate. Above all, Maes despised incompetence, which Peek Rios exhibited in droves.

“Watch your tongue, little girl.” Their emaciated leader snapped, without looking back. Peek continued on into the ruined village, expecting his orders would be followed. Perched atop a chestnut mare, he looked much like a scarecrow tied to the horse.

“Don’t agitate him Maes, please.”

The desperate plea came from Maes longtime friend, Ricardo Espen. His furrowed brow and downturned lips implored her to listen.

“It’s so stupid, Ricardo. He’s such an imbecile. We’ll be the ones doing all the work.”

“I know.” Ricardo replied softly, acutely aware that the expedition’s guards were nearby, and coming closer. “But he has the king’s ear, as well as his approval.”

Maes looked deep into Ricardo’s dreamy blue eyes. She suddenly felt the strains of passion again testing her resolve.

“But Peek will get all the credit. They’ll say he did it alone.”

“That won’t matter. Everyone will know he couldn’t do this without us.”

Deep down, she knew he was right. That knowledge however, did little to assuage her temper.

Two of His Majesty’s Sworn Swords brushed roughly past the pair of scholars. Maes gave each of them her most defiant stare, square into their backs. Pushing an angry retort deep inside, she led her friend and fellow researcher toward the vestige of the ruined building Peek had indicated earlier.

The dragon had done a thorough job, if indeed that’s what had happened almost a twenty years earlier.

The blackened remnants were most likely a home, situated on the outskirts of a town once called Mercy. Legend said that the dragon who visited here had showed no such kindness. Indeed it had left no building standing, and no survivors. If it was a dragon.

The truth of those legends was what they were there to determine.

Maes set her heavy backpack down near the middle of the charred dwelling.

“He’ll want to get started as soon as he gets back.”

“Well, we can’t.” Maes replied. “The sun’s almost down.”

Even now, the red orb of evening was kissing the horizon in their dance of dusk.

“He won’t care, you know he won’t.” Ricardo had an annoying knack of reading Peek Rios accurately. “He’ll make us go with lanterns.”

“And then blame us when we can’t find anything.” Maes kicked a loose piece of wood, sending black specks flying into the sunset.

Both of them stopped cold, glancing quickly at each other, confirming quietly that they had indeed heard that strange sound. A clinking sound, metal.

Maes knelt as Ricardo studied the men nearby. The soldiers were busy setting up their guard posts, and had no interest in the boring work of the academics.

At first, she found nothing save splinters of wood and dark earth. Suddenly her fingers brushed up against something more tangible. Scooping it carefully into her hand, Maes brushed the dirt off a tiny metal key.

The clinking sound had come from the small chain to which the key was connected. Far too small to fit into a door’s lock, this key likely fit into a small box of some kind.

Despite its long time in the dust, the key still shone brightly, as if the dirt failed to stick to its coppery surface.

Ricardo studied the tiny object as Maes stood.

“Wonder what it goes too?”

“Probably some child’s little toy chest or something.”

Ricardo seemed unconvinced, and unable to take his eyes off the small key.

“It might be important. What if it’s the key to solving the whole mystery of what happened here?”

Maes tipped her head forward in that knowing, don’t-kid-me way of hers. He smiled, glad she had caught his pun.

“Cute.” She replied after a moment. “Now if you’re quite through making jokes, please help me set up the tents and make camp.”

Maes slipped the key into a hip pocket. As they set about making camp, she glanced warily at Ricardo from time to time. His smile lasted well into the evening, stirring up feelings Maes wished she didn’t have.

The tents were almost ready when Peek Rios finally returned.

“I see you’ve been goofing off the entire time I was gone.” He stated derisively. “These tents should have been up twenty minutes ago. And you haven’t even started a fire yet. Bah, why did I even bring you along?”

“Because…” Maes started. Ricardo cut her off.

“Because of your generosity.” The young man replied. “And we thank you.”

“Fat lot of good it’s done me.” Peek muttered, to himself as much as anyone else.

Maes glared at their stick-figure of a leader. Once he disappeared into the one tent that had been finished, her anger turned toward Ricardo.

He held up his hands.

“I’m know, I’m sorry.” He replied to her furious stare. “I was just trying to save us both a lot of trouble.”

About to ask him if he wanted trouble of his own, Maes suddenly found herself at a loss for words. Watching him work, putting up his side of the tent they would share for the next few days, all she could see was his muscled arms, broad chest and chiseled jaw. Perhaps it was the rising moonlight, perhaps something deep within her heart, but for that moment all she wanted was to be held in those arms.

Peek’s head suddenly emerged from within his tent, bobbing as though someone were holding it on a stick.

“Are you really going to just stand there?” He shouted. “Make yourself useful and get a fire going.”

Ricardo looked a little confused as well. Her pause had been most uncharacteristic.

“You okay?”

Maes tried to shake off her feelings, without complete success.

“I’m fine. Get your side up.”

Ricardo smiled that devilish smile of his again.

“My side is finished. You’re the one holding us up.”

She was indeed. Maes grimaced, narrowing her eyes at Ricardo’s growing amusement.

“Well, you heard ‘lord’ Rios. Get him a fire before he freezes to death.”

Ricardo winced at her loud remark, waiting for Peek to come out and chastise them further. When the tent flap failed to open, Ricardo turned to gather up enough wood for the night.

Maes set herself to finishing her own job, trying to fight off her inner demons.

Ricardo had a roaring blaze going in a matter of minutes. It was another thirty before Peek Rios emerged from his tent, mumbled something about how low the fire was, and then disappeared again.

Even Maes sat speechless. Ricardo merely shook his head.

His Majesty’s Sworn Sword’s had taken up a perimeter around the house as per Peek’s instructions. Those who were off-guard took advantage of the campfire, including the provisions Maes and Ricardo had taken out for themselves.

She let the first offense go after a quick, pleading look from Ricardo. When it happened a second time, nothing could stop her.

On her feet in a minute, Maes snatched the apple the guard had just taken from her own hand. He missed by a mile trying to get it back. Maes laughed loudly.

The soldier, a brusque young tough with just enough stubble on his face to make him think he was grown, quickly lost his wit.

“That’s my apple, girl. Better give it back.” He tried to stare hard; it made him look like an angry child.

“Then why was it in my backpack?” She asked, taking a bite out of the fruit and further enraging her foe.

“Maybe because you’re a little thief.” The young guard tried again to take the fruit, again coming up empty-handed.

That empty hand went directly to his sword.

“I’ll cut you in two.” He growled.

“Over an apple?” A high voice chimed in. Peek stood in front of his tent. “Ridiculous.  Stop harassing my assistants and get back to your patrols.”

A second soldier materialized out of the darkness, standing behind the first and looking darkly at Peek. After a tense moment and a muttered word from the newcomer, the two guards stepped back into the night.

Maes and Ricardo both breathed a sigh of relief.

“And you two,” Peek continued. “Stay away from the guards.”

Maes was about to protest when she felt Ricardo’s strong arm on her shoulder.

Peek disappeared back inside his tent.

“I don’t like this any more than you do.” Ricardo said, voicing a new concern Maes was also feeling. “But we have to at least try to get along with them.”

The guards had come along because Mercy was near the border of wild-man territory. These particular soldiers had been sent because of their renown, and their loyalty to the king. Trust in His Majesty’s Sworn Swords was simply implied in their name.

Coming from the slums of the capital as they did, Maes and Ricardo had seen a different side to some of the royal guardsman, a darker, twisted side. Despite their reputation for honor and righteousness, they were men just like any other. It was their actions that told the difference between an honest man, and those only out for themselves.

“He’s just a boy,” Ricardo continued, “don’t let him bother you.”

Maes stared into the night, simply too angry to take her friend’s advice.

Peek had them up before dawn the next day. Four guards he ordered to watch the camp, the remaining ten accompanied the three scholars. To Maes’ relief, the young rapscallion from the previous evening was staying behind.

What she failed to notice, and Ricardo did not, was the boy’s deadly glare as the company set off into the ruins of Mercy.

The group went on past many broken and derelict structures that Maes would have thought worthy of study. Peek’s archeological methodology was known only to him. Probed on rare occasions by Maes, he’d only say that she and Ricardo were as-yet unable to comprehend his level of thought.

Peek’s arrogance merely hid his own inadequacy and self-doubt, a fact both his subordinates had come to realize long ago. That awareness was a bulwark of their ability to weather his egotism and unrelenting criticism. And although he’d never hesitated to question their intelligence, even their comprehension, Peek had never insulted them personally nor questioned their heritage. In that way, he’d actually been kinder than some.

Without a word or gesture, Peek suddenly stopped in the middle of a rubble-strewn street. More stone than wood littered the walkway here. On both sides of the road, rock foundations were the only remnants of what had apparently been the center of town.

Further ahead, where three other streets intersected this one, stood a large, round stone dais. All around the stone bubbled here and sagged there like unkneaded dough.  In the middle of this rough circle stood a vaguely rounded edifice. Before the dragon’s wrath it might have once been a statue; now it was nothing more than a vague echo of a forsaken place.

This was what stone looked like when it was melted by something as hot as dragonfire.

Peek turned to their right. Judging by the length and width of the remaining stone, the structure he was now pointing to was most likely the largest. Or had been, long ago.

“We’ll start here.” Peek began in his high voice. “Remember how I taught you to look. Check for anything valuable or important before you do any digging or clearing away. Well?”

Peek’s dour lips told them he wasn’t about to get his own hands dirty. That was after all, why he’d brought them along, as he’d mentioned innumerable times.

The soldiers took up loose positions around the street, clumping into groups of two or three. Peek would order them to go down one way or another, but the men mostly did whatever they pleased.

Maes took notice of the soldier’s attitudes as she helped Ricardo unpack their brushes and digging tools.

“Don’t worry about the guards.” Ricardo said quietly. “Let’s just do our jobs. Maybe we’ll find something interesting.”

They’d already found something interesting. Maes’ hand went unconsciously to the tiny key now hanging around her neck from a chain she’d just happened to have in her pocket. Eying the guards a moment longer, she finally took Ricardo’s advice and plunged headlong into their research.

It was exciting, she had to admit. They were part of the first Royal Expeditionary Corps, a group assembled to delve into the truths surrounding the many mysteries and legends of their homeland. The king himself was said to have ordered this particular venture, and everyone knew his Majesty had some sort of personal interest in the matter.

Maes took careful steps around the perimeter of the broken building, checking every step. Ricardo went the opposite way, tip-toeing around until he was near the other corner.

Here too, black dirt covered everything. Small piles of rubble rose haphazardly across the ground. Maes’ excitement grew as she pondered what might lay beneath those mounds. To others, treasure meant gold, silver and jewels. To Maes, the most valuable commodity possible was clues to the past.

After a careful search of the nearby darkened earth, Maes carefully stepped to the nearest black mass. Using a brush retrieved from the belt around her waist, the young scholar began to wipe away years of dirt.

The dark debris underneath the soil was impossible to recognize, at first. Small pieces of charred wood dissolved into shadowy dust in her fingers. Nothing wooden would have survived the dragon’s fiery breath. But perhaps something metal or stone might still be intact.

Cool breezes were far and few between as the day boiled. Maes never noticed the heat; she was too caught up in the excitement of discovery.

By day’s end, Maes enthusiasm had turned to anxiety, and finally to despair. Neither she nor Ricardo had found anything save dusty chunks of ruin. The dragon’s devastation had apparently been total.

Peek finally made an appearance as the broken town glowed red in the dying sun.

“Well, I see you’ve gotten nowhere.” He said scornfully, looking down his long nose at the dusty pair. “I suppose I should have expected you’d find nothing.”

Maes’ hard look seemed to bounce off their skinny supervisor. He might have smiled as he turned back toward camp.

“Come along, children.” She heard him say into the wind.

The pair of archeology students carefully retreated from the site, dusting their clothes off after reaching the faded road nearby. Peek was already halfway to their camp.

“He’ll be wanting a fire,” Ricardo began. “we better hurry.”

“If he can’t wait on us, he can make his own fire.”

Ricardo just shook his head as he hurried behind their boss.

Maes took a more leisurely pace, taking in the sights of the ruined village. What kind of people had lived here? Who were they? And what had they done to bring the dragon’s wrath?

She thought deeply about the legend of Mercy as she stopped to study a house, or building of some kind that still had a few broken timbers pointing upwards in accusing fingers. No one was said to have survived the catastrophe. That a dragon had been responsible was actually just an assumption, based on the known fact a dragon had once laired in the nearby mountains. But the last known sighting of said beast had been centuries earlier.

If it was the dragon, why attack now? The town had possessed no treasure to speak of, and there were far easier meals to be had between the beast’s mountain home and this village.

A sudden grasp on her left shoulder brought Maes out of the past. Forcefully whirled around, she came face to face with the young guard who’d become her nemesis.

“Nobody makes a fool out of me, bitch.” He growled, squeezing her arm. His anger didn’t quell his lust however, as he paused long enough to take in Maes’ svelte young body.

“You don’t need anyone else for that.” She shot back, yanking her shoulder from his grip. “You’re doing a fine job of it on your own.”

He might have been young, ignorant and thoughtless, but he was fast. Maes felt the sting of his gloved hand before she even saw him move.

Her own hands tightened. This punk was not about to get away with that.

“Eh, hem.” Someone behind her suddenly cleared a deep throat. Trying desperately to hide her surprise, and her uneasiness, Maes turned to face another guard heading their way.

“There some problem here?” This soldier was much older than his compatriot. After a quick glance behind her, his eyes wickedly took in the bruised girl before him in much the same manner as the other.

“She fell down.” Maes heard the brash youth answer. “I was just helping her up.”

Maes kept on her bravest face under the lascivious gazes of the two soldiers.

“That the way of it, missy?”

“Yea sure, whatever.”

The older guard nodded, a sly grin showing his crooked, black teeth.

“Well, then I guess you owe young Mardin here a gratitude.”

Maes nodded in seeming acquiensence. After a quick glance behind her, she bored into the older soldier with fierce brown eyes.

“Piss off.”

With that she was around the guardsman and two steps away before he could turn. Mutters followed her into the dusk; she paid them no heed.

Ricardo’s terrified expression told her the growing bruise on her eye felt as bad as it looked.

“What happened?”

Maes brushed past him without answering. Still as a statue, his look told her he wasn’t giving up without an explanation.

“Nothing.” She uttered. “I fell.”

Maes sat on a hollow log near the steadily-growing fire.

Ricardo knelt down, staring at the purple ring around her eye.

“Maes.” He said quietly as he tried to hold her hand. Jerking it back, she continued to stare hatefully into the fire.

Ricardo looked down, assuming a place next to her on the splintery timber. He was about to ask what really happened when the answer came sauntering up behind them.

“You ought to be more careful.” The older soldier loomed before the fire, his dark shadow weaving ominously in the growing night. He passed a look from Maes to Ricardo. “She’s awfully clumsy. If you’re her brother, or friend, you ought to look after her better.”

The young soldier, Mardin, stood behind his mentor looking daring and smug.

Ricardo’s expression went from anxious to indifferent. He was born and raised in the same slums as Maes, and was built of the same stern stuff.

After giving the soldier a callous look he answered blithely. “I’ll bear that in mind.”

The evil glare from the soldier told that this was not the answer he was expecting. After seeming to compose a sardonic answer of his own, the guardsmen left without a word.

Mardin’s lustful glare traced Maes’ outline in the shadows. Then he followed his leader into the night.

Once they’d disappeared, Ricardo let out the desperate breath he’d been holding.

“I have a bad feeling they’re going to be trouble.”

Maes hands balled into tight fists.

“If it’s trouble they want, I’ll give it to them.”

Ricardo reached out again to take her hand. She let him take it this time, she might have even squeezed back.

Maes’ dreams were haunted with dark, looming shadows that night. Faces would materialize from the darkness, changing from Peek, to Ricardo, to the uncouth soldiers and back again. Some were vague, others so detailed she could see every pockmark, hair and whisker.

She awoke early the next morning with a startled cry. Her breath came in short gasps, as though she just run across the entire countryside.

Ricardo slept soundly near her, snoring softly in his deep, mellow voice. His bulging muscles and square frame stirred a feeling deep inside her, a feeling against which she was weakening.

Sorrow began building a nest next to her growing passion.

Terrible memories of a despicable and traumatic childhood came roaring back in a flood of emotion she was powerless to stop. Though she could control her sobs, Maes was unable to dam the river of tears welling up from within her soul.

Ricardo breathed deep and turned over, facing her with his eyes still locked in slumber.

Maes carefully and quietly turned away from him. The last thing she wanted was for him to see her cry.

The moon was still out, but falling rapidly. Another hour until sunrise, give or take a few minutes.

Maes finally fought back the grief and sorrow of her past. Her heart wanted to reach out to the young man who’d been her friend and confidant through so much sweat and turmoil. But the scars of her youth had made her too timid to even try.

She was up when Ricardo finally moved, kicked off his sour blanket and rose slowly into the rising sun.

“Up already?” he asked.

Maes simply nodded. The tears were long gone, but her walls of harshness were still being built for the day. If she spoke before they were ready those walls might crack and crumble, spilling every pathetic emotion within her.

Ricardo poked at the nearly-dead fire, stirring up a few red ashes until they were ready to accept new kindling. He had a pan on the fire in moments. Bacon was soon popping within.

“How many pieces do you want?”

His voice sounded a thousand miles away, so lost was she in thought and feeling. He repeated, finally bringing her back to the here and now.

“I’m not hungry.” She replied, looking off toward town. She’d be glad to get back to work, to get her mind off of unpleasant thoughts and warm, uncomfortable feelings.

Despite the smell of breakfast permeating the air, Peek didn’t emerge into the morning for nearly an hour after sunrise. After berating his underlings for not waking him sooner(for which he no doubt would have chastised them), he ate quickly and the group departed.

He picked another dwelling near the center of town. Not nearly as large as their first site, this one nonetheless took a better part of the day to search and examine.

Peek continued his wandering around town, letting his understudy’s do the hard work. Maes complained about Peek’s absence, loudly and often.

What disturbed her more was the number of times the guards walked by the investigation site. Whenever she looked up, one or more of the guards would be walking by “on patrol”, leering at her. She put on a brave face, a fierce look and a determined manner, but every time they walked by they disturbed her more and more.

It didn’t take long for Ricardo to see through her brazen air.

“Just ignore them.” He said after two soldiers took an extra-long time to walk past.

“They are being ignored.” She lied.

Maes blinked, and her heart stirred when she saw the absolute rage on Ricardo’s face. The expression was so out of place on him it took her breath away.

“I’m not going to let them get to me.” She said, brushing dust off of what might have once been a cook-stove. The black metal had been reduced to a melted mound of darkness.

Ricardo paused for a moment, waiting until the guards passed by. He returned to their work as the men disappeared around a corner.

“They wouldn’t be so smug if Peek was here. Where does he go, anyway?”

“Wherever there isn’t work.” Maes replied angrily.

Peek’s laziness was the last thing on her mind. Irritation at the vulgar soldiers was quickly boiling over into rage. This was supposed to be a wonderful time for her. Archeology had been her passion for as long as she could remember. And now, when they finally had a chance to go explore something new and undiscovered, the experience had to be tainted by these idiotic buffoons.

All around her was the chance of a lifetime, everything she and Ricardo had been dreaming about, and yet now it suddenly held nothing but disgust for her. All because of them.

Maes stood up, unable to hold her leg still. Dust flew everywhere as she kicked the precious remains into clouds of dark particles.

“What are you doing?” Ricardo exclaimed, leaping over to her. Maes pushed him back.

“I can’t let it go, I just can’t. They’re ruining this whole thing for us.”

Ricardo grabbed hold of her shoulders, looking deep into her angry brown eyes.

“This is our time, ours. Maes this is our dream. How long have we waited, studied, for a chance like this to come along? Don’t let them ruin it for us.”

His strong words, and the conviction with which he said them, whirled inside her mind; debris flying amidst the tornado of rage that swelled within her.

“Those guys mean nothing.” He continued. “They’re children in grown men’s bodies. Hell, some of them are children. They’re behaving like the simple-minded people they are. But we’re better than that. We’ve risen higher than anyone thought possible. Look where we came from, and where we are now. We’re in a company that works for the king himself. Do you realize that we’re considered some of the smartest people in the realm? You and me? Can you believe that?”

Slowly, Ricardo’s words began to sink in, battling for space in her rage-addled brain to bring some order to the chaos in her mind.

“I know.” She said at last, casting about at the ruins she had despoiled even more. A deeper sadness touched her soul. “You’re right. I just wish…”

Maes looked behind her. The evening sun was beginning to set, casting the town in a red glow that made it seem the dragon may have returned.

“I do too.” Ricardo continued for her. “But we can’t control what they do. But we don’t’ have to pay attention to them either.”

“Easy for you to say.”

Ricardo had a ready reply, but let it drop after seeing the deep pain in her eyes.

Suddenly all Maes wanted was to be held in Ricardo’s strong arms, to feel the joy and comfort she knew he had within him. The past tried to hold her back, and she almost let it.

Fighting through her own feelings, Maes shot forward and wrapped her arms around him. She fought hard against the tears that tried forcing their way up.

Ricardo held her in his firm, yet delicate way. Maes heard his heartbeat, fast and steady.

At last she broke the embrace. If she’d stayed for one second longer, her heart would have burst, and all the feelings she had for him would have gushed out. And she just wasn’t ready for that.

Looking up, Maes could see Ricardo’s affection for her, reflected most evidently in his soft, blue eyes. She wanted so much to be with him.

“I uh, I think I need to be alone for a few minutes.” She said humbly.

She saw the disappointment in his face, though it was quickly pushed away by his nod of understanding.

“Okay, sure.” He smiled his humble, charismatic smile.

Maes tried to smile back at him, a half-hearted attempt at best. Not that her whole heart didn’t love him completely, but she simply wasn’t ready to admit that yet, even to herself.

She made her way carefully out of the site, walking on eggshells through debris. Her caution was borne more out of respect than the need to keep anything preserved, as they’d already combed through most of the ruins here.

“Don’t wander too far off.” She heard Ricardo say, distantly. He was still in the dig site, only a few feet behind her, but he sounded as though he were across a great chasm.

“I won’t.” She replied, far too softly for her companion to hear.

Toppled mounds of debris and ruin littered the landscape around her, testifying to the devastation that was wreaked here. But was it truly a dragon?

The question weaved in and out of her mind as she grappled with the past, the present, and her growing feelings for Ricardo. Though she’d been fighting the emotion for a long time now, Maes began to realize that no matter what she did, as long as she stayed near Ricardo, her love for him would only grow. And it would only be a matter of time until she either had to accept it, or let it drive her away from the only true friend she’d ever known.

Her heart grew heavy as emotions swelled and fought for dominance of her soul. Her chest grew warm at the thought of being with him forever.

The warmth lasted for several minutes, remaining even as she finally got her feelings under control. Suddenly she realized the heat was coming not from within, but without. Maes touched her breastbone and felt a strange heat. Touching the source of that warmness, she brought up the tiny key that hung loosely around her neck. It looked normal, but the heat was most certainly coming from the small piece of metal.

Maes looked around. The sun was setting, and everything seemed normal. And yet, something was strange, a thought just out of reach. Her eyes were drawn to a ruined structure nearby.

This building could have been called a survivor, should that name be applied to any construction in the burned-out town. Half a wall still stood, defying the dragon, time, and the elements. Though the wood and plaster from which it was made was broken and torn, the wall nevertheless held a kind of dignified quality Maes couldn’t quite put her finger on.

She stood in the doorway. This had been someone’s house, their sanctuary. As she looked across the blasted remains, Maes suddenly realized that all of this building’s walls were lying on the ground, fallen but quite intact. Unlike the rest of the town, there were no signs of fire having touched it anywhere, no blackened scars or burnt ashes. Instead of burning, it looked as if this building had been torn down.

Maes stepped carefully through the remains of the ruined structure. Remnants of furnishings peeked out amongst the debris of fallen walls and a collapsing roof.

Unconsciously, her hand had again gone to the small charm hanging just under her shirt. Drawn suddenly to the southern corner of the house, Maes bent down there, studying the ruins. Her trained eye suddenly found what she was looking for.

As quietly as possible, Maes removed a few large pieces of debris to reveal a small doorway set into the ground. She puzzled over how she might open it. There was no pull-ring, knob, or any device that might aid her in that regard.

Brushing her hands across the surface to clean off dirt, Maes didn’t notice the key swinging delicately in front of the door. Suddenly she heard a click, and the door opened slightly, just enough to get her rough fingers beneath the edges.

No one seemed to have yet caught her absence. It wouldn’t be long though, the sun was about to set. If Peek didn’t find her with Ricardo, he could make life miserable for both of them. Even more miserable.

Despite its age and condition, the door opened without so much as a squeak. Maes laid it quietly over and descended a small ladder into utter darkness.

The underground room was small and square. Distance from the dirt floor to the wooden ceiling could have been no more than five feet, if that. Maes was much taller than that at nearly six feet, and had to lean over to get inside.

Objects on the floor began taking shape as her eyes adjusted to the lack of light. Wonder turned immediately to horror as long, slender shapes became withered skeletons.

Judging from their lengths, two of these people had been adults, and two had been children. And they’d been down here a long, long time.

Maes bent down near one of the smaller remains, wanting to use the last of the remaining daylight to start here. Whether it was her keen eye, developed through years of study or simply her intuition, Maes knew this had been a young girl. The other smaller one was a boy.

Maes scanned every part of the bones for some sign of what may have ended these young lives when a square object caught her eye. Something bulged near the girl’s right hand. Maes looked closer, brushed off some dirt, and discovered a tiny book.

Lifting it carefully, almost reverently from its place in the young girl’s hand, Maes cleaned it off until she could read the hand-written inscription on the cover.

“Balee’s Diary. Do not read. This means you, Walter”.

Maes found the book was sealed with a tiny lock set into the hardbound cover. Drawing the key from around her neck, Maes slipped it inside and turned, feeling a small click.

“Sorry.” Maes uttered softly as she looked once more at the young girl’s remains.

Flipping quickly through the pages, Maes found that the entries seemed to stop suddenly halfway through. A desire to read the book then and there was suddenly overcome by the dying light which also reminded her she’d better get back to camp before she was missed.

Poking her head carefully up, Maes saw no one about. Carefully closing the door, which made no more sound than it had when opened, she hastily made her way back toward camp.

Whether by luck or the grace of God, Maes was able to avoid notice by His Majesty’s Sword Swords. Most seemed to be gathered in their own camp nearby.

Ricardo stood near the fire he was hastily constructing. Peek was nowhere to be seen.

“You shouldn’t go wandering off like that.” Ricardo said quietly. “Where have you been?”

“Never mind that.” Maes replied under her breath. “Where’s Peek?”

“He’s in his tent. When he came by to get us I had to tell him you were, uh, relieving yourself. “

Maes smiled slightly. “Good thinking.”

“But that’s not what you were doing. Where were you?”

Maes looked around, leaning in close and speaking even softer than before.

“I found something.”

Ricardo’s eyes lit up.

“Oh, what?”

Maes shook her head quickly.

“Not now. I don’t want Peek to know I have it, not yet. He’ll take it away from us the minute he finds out.”

Ricardo pursed his lips in apprehension.

“Yea, but he’ll be furious if he thinks we held something back from him. He might even kick us out of the Society.”

“No he won’t. Not after all the time and effort he’s put into our education and training. I don’t care what he says or how he acts, at the end of the day he needs us. We’re the only ones who know how to do what we do.”

Ricardo nodded, seeing her point. His eyes still belied a tense anxiety.

“Okay, we’ll keep it a secret. Now show me what you found.”

“Not yet. I want to make sure he’s gone to sleep.”

As if he heard his name, the scrawny professor pushed his tent flap open, emerging into the night. His eyes rested on Maes.

“Well, I trust you’re well relieved. I see I still don’t have a fire for this evening, much less anything to eat.”

“Sorry, sir.” Ricardo answered at once. “I was just getting to that.”

“You’ve been ‘just getting to that’ for ten minutes. Get that sausage we brought cooked, immediately.”

And then he was gone, back in his tent.

Maes had a witty comment ready, but let it fall unspoken from her lips at Ricardo’s pleading gaze.

Maes kept the book hidden within her blouse. The fire was ready and the dinner of sausages cooked. Peek came out long enough to take most of the meat for himself, then disappeared back into his tent.

As they ate in silence, Ricardo kept peeking at her blouse. She knew he was curious about the book, but something else stirred inside her every time she caught him looking down her shirt. The thought that maybe he was looking for something more excited her.

Maes pushed those thoughts out of her mind. No, she told herself simply.

The moon was high and the fire low when the pair finally heard loud snores coming Peek’s tent. After a careful look to see that no soldiers were nearby, Maes procured the book from her shirt.

Ricardo’s eyes widened, studying the tiny tome in her hands.

“It’s a diary.” She said softly. “A child’s I believe.”

After looking around again, Maes carefully opened the book, scanning through the first few pages. It was indeed a diary, and likely the little girl’s in whose hand Maes had discovered it. The pages spoke of running through town, picking flowers, and waiting for someone named Mister Sargasso to bring a sugary treat called a Pull-Sweet. Whatever it was, both the girl and her brother had loved them dearly.

Though the first few pages were filled with happy thoughts of childhood, soon the entries began taking a darker turn. For reasons the little girl never understood, she began seeing soldiers from the king’s army all throughout town, many of whom chased off her and her friends from their favorite playgrounds with angry and sometimes violent words. Eventually her father told both her and her brother not to leave the vicinity of their home. Apparently, he’d offered no reasons for his sudden sternness.

In one of her last entries, the little girl named Balee and her brother Walt were forbidden to leave the house at all. She could tell something was horribly wrong, but her parents had apparently not been forthcoming with any explanations.

To little Balee’s horror, her brother decided to slip out one night and find out what was going on. Luckily he’d returned later that night, but with some chilling news. They’d never see Mr. Sargasso again.

According to one of Walt’s friends, Mr. Sargasso had been turned away at the gate earlier that day, and was ordered not to come back. Balee lamented this, and would miss both the kind merchant and his sweet confections terribly.

From the way Balee wrote about him, Maes conjectured that this Mr. Sargasso had been both a nice man and a positive influence on the little girl’s life.

Things seemed to go from bad to worse, according to the diary. Balee’s father had taken to shouting at both her and her brother, and even their mother, which was seemed to be very out of character for him from the way he was described earlier in the text.

Maes turned to the last entry in the diary. Her bones chilled as she read and reread each word.

 

Father moved us to the cellar just now. The Dark Man is coming, I just know it. Father won’t say what’s going on, and mother won’t talk to us at all. I’m so scared. Walt keeps saying there’s no such thing as the Dark Man, but he won’t talk about it in front of father either. Why are we down here? I hope Suzy is okay, and Mizzy, and Mr. Sargasso. I miss him already.

 

Maes looked over at Ricardo. By his worried expression, he must have finished the page as well.

For a moment, neither of them said anything. After another moment of thought, Maes finally spoke up.

“Well, that puts a new thought on things, doesn’t it?”

“Yea, I guess it does.” Ricardo seemed lost in the past.

“A Dark Man? Who could she be talking about?”

Ricardo shook his head.

“Ah, it must be some local legend. There’s no way one man could be responsible for this level of destruction.” Ricardo waved behind him to emphasize his point.

Maes disagreed.

“It could be. There are still a few wizards left in the world.”

“True, but they’re way off in the east. And what could a wizard want in a small town like this. And why waste his power leveling the place?”

Maes thought carefully, collating facts in her mind and organizing them in the way she’d been taught.

“Well, let’s take what we do know.” She began, quietly and matter-of-factly. “The town was destroyed. Now if we take this diary as fact, we know that something strange was happening in the town before the destruction. Days, maybe even weeks. We don’t know since Balee didn’t date the entries.”

“Balee?” Ricardo asked.

“Yea, Balee.” She replied, narrowing her eyes sharply. “Somehow I kind of feel connected to her.”

Ricardo nodded, sorry he’d interrupted. “Go on.”

“And this Mister Sargasso. I’m betting he was some kind of travelling merchant. And just before the disaster, he was turned away. So it seems like at least some of townsfolk knew something was about to happen.”

“But what?”

“That’s the question. What happened? But if someone in town knew something was going on, they might also have known,”

Maes paused, hoping Ricardo would come around, realize where she was going and finish her sentence.

“Why.” He said at last.

“Exactly.”

“But who? There’s no way we can find that out, the diary doesn’t say.”

Footsteps sounded from out of the darkness. Maes quickly hid the diary as two soldiers strolled casually by. When one of them winked at her, Maes returned the gesture with a wicked glare. After watching them disappear back into the night, she turned back to her friend and colleague.

“Maybe we can.” Maes replied. “Think about it for a minute. Travelling merchants are the life-line of these frontier towns. Without them bringing in new goods on a regular basis, a town could go broke in a matter of months, even weeks. So, who in town would have the authority, and the audacity, to refuse such an important person entry, and in fact order them not to return?”

Ricardo thought a moment. The answer hit him presently.

“The sheriff in town, or the mayor?”

“Right.”

“So we should look for their homes, or their offices. But, how can we find them? The whole town is devastated.”

Maes looked over at Peek’s tent.

“Maybe Peek’s random wanderings around town aren’t so random.”

Ricardo seemed to know where she was going. The look on his face told he didn’t want to go there, not at all.

“You think he knows more than he’s telling us?”

“I’ve thought that from the beginning.” Maes locked her eyes on the tent and the loud, sleeping sounds coming from within. “Just didn’t know what it was he might be holding back.”

“Well,” Ricardo asked reluctantly, “what do you want to do?”

“You know what we have to do.” Maes replied, looking back at her hesitant companion.

Apparently he did, from the distressed look on his face.

Maes slipped the diary back into her blouse. She slept fitfully again that night, dreams of the past and present mixed together in a mélange of distortion and disquiet.

The morning proceeded as usual. Ricardo made the fire and breakfast, Maes prepared their packs while Peek derided them the whole time. At last they set out.

Maes’ blood froze in her veins when Peek stopped at the very house where she’d found the diary the night before. After ordering them to excavate the entire thing and offering one more snide comment, he disappeared toward the east end of town.

After he was gone, Maes leaned over to Ricardo.

“Keep working, make a lot of noise. If any of the guards ask, tell them I had to relieve myself.”

Ricardo was clearly unhappy with the whole situation.

“Maes, what if Peek catches you? And, I can’t just keep telling the guards that you’re peeing every time they walk by. They’ll get suspicious.”

“Then make up something else.” Maes said sharply. She needed to hurry, Peek was already long gone.

“Maes, I’m begging you. Don’t do this. Let’s find another way.”

About to tear into him about his cowardice, Maes stopped short after seeing the care, concern, and heartfelt love in his eyes. Her anger melted, leaving her only with a strong desire to take him in her arms and kiss him passionately.

“Ricardo.” She began softly. “Try and understand. This is our chance to make a name for ourselves, outside of Peek Rios and his condescending attitude. We’re the real brains behind all this, we found the clues that started this whole venture. We can’t let Peek take all the credit, not when we have a chance to validate ourselves.”

Ricardo frowned. “Perhaps there’s another way.”

“Perhaps. Years of turmoil and back-breaking labor under an ungrateful mentor who ultimately won’t give us any credit for our work. We’ll have to do this, if we ever want to get any recognition.”

Acknowledgement was not the desire she saw in his eyes. Her heart fluttered, but she stood firm. This was the only way.

“You’re too hard-headed for me to stop you anyway.” He said at last. “Just be careful. Don’t take any chances that might result in your being caught.”

Maes smiled. “I won’t get caught. Did I ever get caught when we were hungry?”

Ricardo shook his head, smiling in spite of himself. When they were growing up in the slums of the Capital, alone and starving, she’d never once been caught stealing enough to keep them alive for one more day.

“Just, just come back to me.”

Maes winked, a heartfelt gesture.

“I’ll be fine.”

Ricardo made a lot of noise about getting to work as Maes bent down to slip quietly away. When she was certain no soldiers were about, she took off in the direction Peek had gone.

Taking quick glances at the homes and buildings she passed, Maes was startled to find that many on this side of town were not burned out either. Much like the home in which she’d found the diary, these structures had not been burned down but merely collapsed.

After going several hundred feet in the direction she thought Peek had gone, Maes found she’d lost him entirely. Deciding at last there was no choice but to take a chance, she slowly stood up.

At first, her quick look around gained nothing. Movement suddenly caught her eye in the distance, and she found the stick figure of Peek Rios standing among some ruins. He was so skinny she’d almost mistaken him for a piece of standing timber.

Maes carefully maneuvered around broken debris, getting closer to Peek. Every so often he would bend over, pick something up, and then discard it again. Eventually she was close enough to hear his mutterings. Though his words were difficult to make out, it seemed he didn’t want to be here in this village at all.

Suddenly the thin man stopped. He bent over, made a startled sound, and then disappeared into the ground.

Maes’ breath caught in her lungs. After checking to make sure no one was near enough to see her, she made her way closer to the place where Peek had disappeared. A large half-broken wall served as her cover while she waited for him to re-emerge.

Each minute was like an hour. And he seemed gone for hours.

Peek returned just as suddenly as he’d disappeared. The withered professor looked around suspiciously, as though he’d just hidden a cache of treasure. After making sure no one had seen him, Peek strolled casually away.

Once he was gone, Maes snooped around the debris, staying as low as possible. When Peek was completely out of sight, she moved over to the spot where he had vanished into the ground.

Unlike the cellar she’d found the diary in, the square hole in this floor had no door, although judging from the rusted hinges near the lip there had indeed been a door here at one time. Carefully, Maes stepped down the rickety ladder than descended into the darkness.

Also unlike the cellar from before, the ceiling here was of almost normal height, allowing Maes to stand erect. Sunlight spilling inside revealed a room that had obviously been neat and well-kept. Dirt and dust now covered the sparse appointments here, but they were otherwise none the worse for wear, contrary to the desolation suffered by the rest of the village.

A small table holding an oil lamp and a chair took up a portion of the room, but what drew her attention immediately was the long bookshelf that covered an entire length of wall. At least fifty or sixty books sat here, squeezed tightly into the shelves. Most had no names upon the spines. A few had titles in letters she didn’t recognize, a fact which disturbed her greatly. Part of their education had been studying all the known languages of the world. She should be able to at least recognize a word, a letter, something.

Pulling them out one at a time, Maes noticed most had no titles on the covers either. Searching the pages would reveal the subject matter most of the time, but not all. Some books even appeared blank.

Maes looked through several books before she found one that interested her, one that perhaps might hold the key to the entire mystery of the town. Though it too had no title, the first few pages revealed the book’s purpose. This was the town’s ledger, where every income and expense had been carefully recorded.

Most of it seemed like normal village comings and goings, as much as Maes recognized such, at any rate. Historical research was her forte, not bookkeeping, but she was versed enough in commerce to know what she was looking at.

She turned a page toward the back of the ledger, and breath escaped from her lungs, not to return for several seconds. In just a few entries, everything fell into place. Dear God, she thought, what have they done?

It all made sense now, the king’s interest, the heavy presence of the soldiers, everything.

Maes was so wrapped up in the moment she failed to notice the light from the ceiling entrance slowly faded.

For a rapid second, the light disappeared completely. Someone fell from the sky, to land in a heap at the bottom of the ladder. In the weak light, it took Maes a second to recognize the face of her friend.

She barely had time to utter his name before the hole darkened again, this time revealing a man in dull chainmail armor coming slowly down the angled ladder. A wicked smile hung on the face of the young soldier, Mardin. Behind him came the older soldier that always seemed to be by his side. The two men parted as a third party made his way carefully down the ladder. Peek Rios.

The two soldiers rested their hands comfortably on the hilts of their swords. Peek’s eyes went first to the ledger in Maes’ hands, then to the girl herself.

“I knew you’d find it for me.” Peek said with a wicked tint to his voice. “Now be a good girl and hand it over.”

Ricardo stood slowly, focusing her attention for a moment. His right eye was purple, and the fresh bruise was growing. His arms were behind him, hands apparently tied behind his back. Her heart sank, and her anger grew at the same time.

“What did you do to him?”

“Never mind all that.” Peek answered, annoyed. “Give me the book.”

For a second, Maes considered tearing it too shreds. At that moment, she alone knew what was contained therein. Perhaps she could use that as a bargaining chip to win hers and Ricardo’s freedom. Something deep inside told her they would need leverage to get out of this cellar alive.

In the end she decided to hand the book over. She simply couldn’t take the chance they’d kill Ricardo merely out of spite.

Peek took the ledger, looking it over with a thoughtful air. Maes got the feeling he was faking it. She’d known him for years now, and he wasn’t near as smart as he made himself out to be. To the contrary, his positon in life was due far more to blind luck and ambition than any amount of intelligence. Still, he might have had enough sense about him to discover what the entries in the ledger truly meant. If he did, he’d have no longer have any use for his two “assistants”.

Maes discovered Peek’s purpose in the next heartbeat.

“Okay, we have what we came for.” Peek said in his high, lilting voice. “Dispose of them and let’s be on our way.”

The older soldier suddenly gave Peek a disappointing glare.

“Here now, you said we could have a go at her before we left.”

Peek looked annoyed.

“Fine then, but hurry up. The sun will be going down soon and we need to get going. I want to be in the Capital as soon as possible.”

“Hey,” the young soldier Mardin interjected, “if he gets a turn I want one.”

Peek rolled his eyes.

“Whatever, but keep it between yourselves. We don’t have time for every soldier to have his way with her.”

“Oh don’t worry.” Mardin said with a lusty, dangerous look in his eyes. “It won’t take me long at all.”

“Me either.” The older one uttered. Somehow his look was even darker and more lascivious.

Peek turned and began to proceed up the ladder. “Be quick about it.”

Maes backed away, raising her arms in defense. The wicked men just smiled wider.

“Stay away from her.” Ricardo muttered, struggling against his bonds.

Mardin must have taken offense to this. Drawing his weapon, the young man approached Ricardo, ready to run him through. The older one put a restraining hand on the young man’s shoulder.

“No, wait. Look at him, he loves her. Should be a fine show for him, watching us have our way with her.”

Mardin returned his weapon to its sheath. “Yea.”

The young man turned toward Maes.

Anger beyond words lurked behind her eyes, though deeper still was a sense of utter terror. Maes tensed, ready to fight for her chastity, and her life.

“I get to go first.” Mardin said, already loosening his sword belt. A strong hand pushed him aside.

“Ha. You think I’m going after some snot-nosed boy. Mind you elders son.”

The old soldier’s lustful gaze was locked on Maes’ shirt. She swatted his hand away when he reached out to grab it.

“Now you just stand there like a good girl and give it to us, and maybe we won’t kill your friend here at all.”

Maes looked over at Ricardo. His shoulders squirmed, and she knew he was trying to free himself. The soldier’s attention was focused squarely on her, and their growing lusts.

“Okay.” She replied slowly, almost seductively. “But let me do the undressing.”

The men’s eyes went wide at that. In lurid fashion, Maes leisurely moved her fingers to the buttons on her blouse. One by one she undid them, each time showing more of her ample cleavage. By the she time reached the button near the bottom, her breasts were almost completely exposed. But she had the soldier’s complete attention.

A noise off to their left broke Maes’ sexual spell over the soldiers. Ricardo was still struggling against his bonds, and had backed up against the far wall.

“That’s it.” The older guardsman uttered. Pointing to Ricardo, he ordered Mardin to kill him on the spot. As the younger man made his way around the older in the cramped quarters, Maes made her move.

In a heartbeat she leapt forward, grabbing the dagger in the old soldier’s belt. In the next instant it had found its way into the man’s neck.

Maes leapt back, letting the soldier fall, gurgling blood as he fell.

Mardin drew his weapon. “You little bitch!”

Maes fell into a fighting stance, causing Mardin to hesitate before charging headlong. In the next instant however, he was on her, striking as quick as a cobra.

Maes knew he was fast, had seen it firsthand. But in these cramped quarters, the dagger would be a better weapon, and she knew it. Growing up in the slums of the capital had taught her many things. One of those lessons was how to effectively use bladed weapons, especially small ones that could be easily concealed.

The young warrior was just as deft as she was, however. Though they danced around the dying body of the older soldier in a waltz of steel, Mardin always seemed sure of his footing and never foundered once.

In a sudden feint-and-parry by her opponent, Maes was suddenly off-balance. The dead soldier’s leg tripped her, and Maes went down on her back.

Mardin leapt, bringing his sword down at an angle that would pierce her right through the exposed portion of her chest.

Maes rolled away at the last instant, and Mardin’s sword dug into empty earth.

It was all the time she needed.

Whirling around in a flash, Maes brought the dagger down on the back of Mardin’s neck. He went limp instantly, falling loosely to the ground and knocking his sword out of the earth.

Maes heart was beating so hard and fast she thought it might leap from her body. Only in the seconds following the bloody battle did she begin to contemplate what had just transpired.

Looking around the deadly scene, her eyes went immediately to Ricardo. In a reaction that was just as surprising to her as it was to him, Maes rushed over, grabbed Ricardo and kissed him with all the passion of the loveliest goddesses.

Suddenly realizing what she was doing, Maes broke away only to find Ricardo’s eyes closed, lost in the soft feel of her lips. Her heart ached so bad for him in that moment, all she wanted was him. But her mind was still screaming its fearful refrain, holding her true feelings back.

Ricardo opened eyes full of love and compassion. All Maes wanted was to get lost in those eyes.

Somehow, Ricardo had finally managed to get free of the ropes tying his hands behind him. He took Maes in his arms, drew her close and kissed her again. For a moment, Maes basked in the glory and passion of the love her man offered.

Suddenly, she pushed him away.

“No, we can’t!” she exclaimed, trying to push an angry quality into her voice that simply wasn’t there.

He frowned, his expression more sorrowful than anything Maes had ever seen, even in the slums.

“Why?” His simple question tore her soul apart.

“Because.”

Ricardo waited. She knew that simply wasn’t good enough, not now. Perhaps it had never been.

“We, we’re friends. And we have to work together. We can’t let anything spoil that.”

Holding her close and looking deep into her eyes, Ricardo kissed her gently.

“That’s not it, and we both know it.”

Now it was Maes’ turn to frown. Sorrow and grief mixed with happiness and joy, creating a chaotic morass within her.

“I, Ricardo…”

She was too afraid to vocalize the fear welling up insider her. Ricardo did it instead.

“You’re afraid to be in love. Because of what happened to you.”

She was unable to fight the battle any longer. Tears burst like a mighty river through a dam.

“I understand.” He continued. “No one should have to endure what you went through, certainly not a child. I know your father was killed, right in front of you after selling you to the brothel. You’ve gone through so much, one terrible thing after another. We were both so scared when we met, but we made it, together. We’ve shared everything, except love.”

Maes looked deep into him. He was right, she wanted to scream it at him, but her lips simply wouldn’t form the words.

“Maes, I love you, and I have for so long. I know you feel the same way. Please don’t let fear stand in the way of our being truly together.”

All she wanted was to be held in his arms. She couldn’t even ask for that, she was so terrified, so ashamed. At last, she found some words she could say, and the wherewithal to say them.

“I, I couldn’t stand to lose you.”

“Don’t you think I feel the same way?” he asked. “But do you really want to live your entire life that way? Afraid of being close to someone for fear of losing them?”

It was more than that, so much more. Her emotions were a festering wound from years of abuse at the hands of dirty old men until she’d finally found the will to escape. And she was indeed very afraid of losing him. Ricardo had become the rock upon which she leaned her soul. Quite unknown to her until just this instant, he was not only her true love and inspiration, but the one thing she had that made her life complete and worth living. Not the work, not her passions, him. Ricardo Espen.

“Ricardo.” Saying his name somehow brought everything into focus. All at once she was able to clearly see what she wanted, what she needed.

Saying his name once more, Maes buried her heart, and her head in his bosom. He accepted her without a word, merely holding her gently until her sobs had subsided.

At last she stood back, meeting his eyes and falling in love with him all over again. He smiled at her, gently kissing her once more.

“I love you, Maes. And I always will.”

“I love you too, Ricardo. And I always will.”

Their hearts bound together in those moments, an attachment that was never undone by man, beast nor God.

Remembering suddenly where they were, Maes stood back, glancing down at the dead men at their feet.

“What are we doing?” she asked suddenly. “We have work to do.”

Ricardo smiled back, despite the grisly scene around them.

“We better get out of here before the rest of the guards come.”

Something told Maes that the rest of the guards wouldn’t be coming. Peek had seemed in a hurry, and had likely gathered the rest of the men to accompany him back to the capital.

“What was in that book you gave to Peek?”

The entries and the grave notions they conjured leapt back to her mind.

“It was the records of the town’s expenses. Everything seemed normal until about five or six months before the last entries. All of a sudden they were getting these huge sums of money from someone called Endorth. I couldn’t tell if that was a group, or a person. Anyway,”

“It’s a person.” Ricardo interrupted, his grave look telling Maes his news was as grim as hers.

“Who is he?”

“One of the last of the Death Mages.”

Maes shuddered at the very name. The Death Mages were said to have discovered their secrets by experimenting on people, using whatever means they deemed necessary.

“Why haven’t you ever mentioned this before?”

“Because he’s supposed to be dead.”

Maes paused a moment, dark thoughts passing through her.

“That makes sense then. After the large payments, I started seeing lists of names. I thought maybe the mayor was selling the townspeople into slavery. My God, Ricardo, this is much, much worse.”

Her companion nodded. “Worse than we can imagine. Look who sent us here. He must have known what was happening, at least part of it.”

Maes shuddered at the thought that the very heart of their kingdom could be corrupted by the stain of death magic.

They looked at each other, Maes asking the question that leapt to both their minds.

“What happened to the town, though? Who destroyed it, and why?”

“The wizard, I’ll bet. Perhaps his experiments were concluded. The Death Mages were highly secretive. If the mayor knew what was happening, he might have told others. The wizard wouldn’t have wanted to take any chances that knowledge of his existence might spread.”

Maes spirit fell. The entire town was slaughtered because of the greed of a few of its leaders. And now the fruits of that diabolical labor were set to spread. The rest of the puzzle suddenly fell into place in Maes’ mind.

“That ledger is what the king wanted, proof of what the wizard was doing. Now he can blackmail the Death Mages into giving him all the secrets to their power. They’ll give in too. I’m willing to bet they’ll share the secret to their power before they let their existence become widely known.”

“Unless,” Ricardo began, “someone keeps that book from ever reaching the Capital.”

Utter astonishment filled Maes’ mind at his bold pronouncement. The exact same thought had entered her mind as well, but she hadn’t yet thought to vocalize it.

“But how will we get it? Peek’s got the rest of the Sworn Swords with him. And they’re probably on their way now.”

Ricardo smiled; a telling grin that said he already had something in mind.

“We’re two of the smartest people in the entire kingdom, you and me. And it’s five days to the Capital. I’m sure we’ll be able to come up with something by then.”

Maes knew where he was going, or at least thought she did. Well, there would be plenty of time to talk it over. Right now they needed to get going.

Peek and the guards must have indeed left in a hurry. The tents were still up, and just as if they’d been left on purpose, two horses stood tied to a makeshift hitching post. The mounts had probably belonged to the two dead guards.

Maes grabbed Ricardo before they leapt up on their mounts, imparting the breadth of her love in one long, passionate kiss.

Together, they set out to discover just how deep that love went, and to stop a madman from visiting an unholy pestilence upon the entire world.

 

But that, is another story.

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