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Authors: Amanda Young,Raymond Young Jr.

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BOOK: Awake the Cullers (History of Ondar)
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“And you think he was a Sublinate?” Kern asked.

Thomas shrugged. “He fit every description I ever heard of one.”

“What about the other man? You don’t think he was a . . .” Kern couldn’t bring himself to say the word they were all thinking.

Thomas looked up from his mug, his eyes devoid of uncertainty. “He bore the bands. I know what he was.”

Marcy put a hand on Thomas’ arm. “What are you suggesting?”

Thomas looked down and swallowed past the lump in his throat. He forced the next words out with great difficulty. “Sublinates are drawn to war, but there were no wars anywhere near the town where I met the stranger. The only thing that could have drawn him was the reports of the brutal killings. What if the Sublinates and Cullers never ended their war? What if the reason everyone thinks the Cullers are gone is because the Sublinates strike fast and eradicate any sign of them before their madness can spread?”

No one answered.

 

*   *   *

 

“Again,” Zanden ordered

Rand held out his hand to help Lynnalin stand. He cringed at the bruise forming on her face, but she didn’t complain. She just took her stance and prepared for the next attack. As a dwarf, he wasn’t accustomed to fighting elven women, but Zanden insisted everyone in the unit, even the mage, be able to fight. His argument was simple. They needed to work together as a team, to anticipate each other’s movements and fighting techniques. Learning some basic moves and watching them practice the more complicated techniques would help her know how to better use her magic to assist them in a fight. Conversely, they each spent time learning what spells she could cast, their range and intensity, both on their own and with augmentation from her Suriaxian fire, so they would be less likely to get in her way when a spell could prove more useful than close combat.

They were part of a four man cinder unit, an advanced scout team
being sent by Queen Maerishka to investigate the reports of raiders in the Southern Plains. Zanden was their leader and an expert fighter. Rand was a pretty good fighter himself. He didn’t know any self respecting dwarf who couldn’t hold his own in a scrap, but that wasn’t why he was on this mission. Rand was a marenpaie trainer. Marenpaie were special hounds bred in Suriax for combat, racing and long distance travel. They were exceptional animals, but not entirely accustomed to fighting in tandem with the Suriaxians’ new fire abilities. This mission was as much a test of their adaptability and continued usefulness to the city as it was an opportunity to work out the kinks in the new fighting techniques Zanden spent the past month developing for the military. Lynnalin was the mage of their group. It was always good to have one of those around for long range attacks and support magic, and the group was rounded out by a member of the Flame Guard named Casther. Rand didn’t know him before this mission assignment, but the past few weeks of intensive training had taught him not to underestimate the man’s skills. When subtlety and precision were needed, he was their man.

Rand
moved to begin the fight, but Zanden held up a hand. “This time with fire,” he added. Lynnalin’s eyes flinched and Rand hesitated, but after a quick breath she called forth her flames and nodded. Blue fire wrapped around her hands and arms, burning just above the surface of her skin. Rand called the fire to his hammer. The metal gleamed in the flickering light, reflecting the movements of the flames. After his old hammer caught fire and lost its wooden handle, he forged a new one made entirely of metal. The only draw back was the extra reverberation he felt when he hit something. Metal didn’t diffuse the impact waves like wood did. Feeding the fire into his weapon, he felt the metal heat up. Swinging wide, he began his attack.

Lynnalin avoided his attacks with all the grace and dexterity of a mage. In other words, she stumbled and nearly fell three times while just barely avoiding serious injury. Her breathing quickened and she had the wide eyed look of someone trying to follow his movements without the skill the keep up. Then everything changed. He swung down
, and she used her fire to deflect his blow. Still unsure of herself, she did not follow through with an attack of her own, but jumped back and threw off two blue fireballs in quick succession to buy herself some much needed space. Breathing heavily, she dodged his next few attacks with the confidence of someone who knew where the blow was coming from, though the grace was still lacking.

“Enough,” Zanden said. They stood at rest and let their fire go out instantly. “Good,” he told Lynnalin, patting her on the shoulder. “You are learning to anticipate the attacks. That’s enough for today. You two
get some rest. We make it to the border tomorrow.”

Chap
ter 2

 

Marcy pumped the handle to get water from the well and fill the last of the canteens. Humming to herself, she began to sing. So lost was she in the song, an old ballad on the Sublinate/Culler War, she did not hear anyone approach. The sound of clapping startled her into dropping the canteen. Water spilled out onto the ground, quickly soaked up by the dry sand around the well. A large human man stood, leaning against the outer wall of the tavern. While she eyed him suspiciously, he stepped forward and picked up the canteen, handing it back to her.

“We don’t get too many elven women around here,” he commented.”

“I’m just passing through.” She stepped to the side, edging her way past him, but he matched her steps, not giving her an easy opening to leave. A good two heads taller than her and broad in the chest, he towered over her. She was not completely unaccustomed to being shorter than those around her. She grew up a full elf in a city full of half elves. Even Kern was only three quarters elf, so he had some added height from his human heritage. But this man was tall, even for a human. His eyes looked over her appraisingly, and she felt her stomach turn.

“This can be a dangerous place for a woman such as yourself,” he warned.

“I’ll be fine.” She moved to rush past him, but he grabbed her arm. Pulling her to him, he held her opposite shoulder with his other hand and leaned in to speak directly into her ear. His body wrapped around her like a cloak.

“Such a small thing like you needs protecting. Otherwise someone could try to take advantage of you.” He slid his hand down into the top of her blouse.

“I don’t need protecting,” she said defiantly, hiding her reaction to his touch.”

“Oh?” he answered, clearly unconcerned with what else she may have to say. His confidence ended a moment later with her next three words.

“I’m a Suriaxian.” Blue fire came to her hands, burning his arms and singeing his jacket. The man jumped back, his eyes wide with fear. Marcy fed the fire until it formed a small ball hovering just above her fingers. Making ready to throw it, the man jumped and ran away. Marcy closed her hand and extinguished the flame. “Oh, well, time to go.”

Grabbing the fallen canteens, she topped off the last one and plugged the cap in the hole. Rushing back to her room, she looked around for Thomas, but he was not around. She grabbed their travel bags off the bed and knocked next door, waiting for Kern to answer. Thomas sat looking over their map at a small table in the
room. He looked up in surprise as she tossed him his bag. “We need to go.”

“She’s up there,” a voice called from down the stairs. Several sets of footsteps walked loudly up the steps.

Kern looked over at her. “For you, I presume?” She nodded. Kern pulled her inside the room and waited with the door half closed. Three men appeared over the stairs. The first two looked like some kind of constable or law officers. The third man looked panicked and had pretty bad burns just starting to blister on his hands. Kern shot a glance at Marcy, who shrugged.

“Can I help you?” he asked when the men stopped in front of his door.

“He’s harboring the Suriaxian,” the burned man shouted. One of the officers motioned him to be quiet and moved him a few steps down the hall. The other officer turned back to Kern with a serious face.

“There are claims you travel with a Suriaxian female. Is that correct?”

“Why should it matter to anyone who I travel with?”

“The woman in question was involved in an altercation with one of our citizens.”

“Well that certainly doesn’t sound like her, unless she was provoked, of course.” He looked pointedly at the burned man.

The officer followed his look with a grimace, not bothering to defend the man. “Be that as it may, we do not allow Suriaxians in this town. You and your companions will have to leave immediately.”

“Wait, you aren’t going to arrest her?” the burned man complained. “She’s dangerous, a menace.” The rest of his objections faded away as the officer moved him out of ear shot, back down the stairs.

“Of course,” Kern answered and closed the door.
“I must say Marce, your social skills are parallel to none.” She grinned ruefully.

“What did he do to you?” Thomas demanded, standing angrily. Marcy’s face flashed with uncertainty.

“Obviously nothing Marcy couldn’t handle,” Kern said. “Those were some nice burns you gave him. Have you been practicing?”

“Some,” she looked away.

“Good,” he said, surprising her. When the Night of Blue Fire came, they were both affected, but Kern gave up his powers, turning his back on Venerith and forsaking his Suriaxian citizenship. Since that time, Marcy avoided talking about the fire or her own continued use of it. Whether she thought he may be jealous she kept the power he lost, or if she felt guilty for not doing the same, he couldn’t tell. Either way, it didn’t matter to him. He did not want that kind of power, but he did not begrudge her for keeping it. He didn’t even know if it would be possible for her to do as he did, should she wish to. The power was hers. She might as well use it. “It may come in handy in the Southern Plains.”

“So we are crossing the border? She asked.

Thomas folded up the map and threw his bag over his shoulder. “Yes, Kern and I decided it is the best way to learn if the raiders are something more before they have a chance to make it farther north.”

Kern grabbed his own bag and put his few belongings in it. Marcy handed them each a canteen, and they were off.

 

*   *   *

 

Lynnalin sipped her tea and stretched out her toes. Rand and Casther sat on the other side of the fire
. They were checking their weapons and supplies. Zanden stoked the flames and turned the meat over the heat. Everyone was more subdued, tonight. This was the first night since crossing the border. Zanden pulled off the meat and took a bite. The fire crackled in the quiet night. Lynnalin flipped through her spell book and scrolls, taking inventory of everything she had. Some of the scrolls were a little advanced, even for her, but she felt fairly confident she could pull them off if the need arose. She organized the scrolls in order of ones she may need to access the quickest and put them back in her bag. Checking all her potions, she readied her bag for the morning. They were only two days north of the last village attacked, meaning they could run into trouble at any time. Volunteering to take the first watch, she puffed up her blanket and positioned herself to where she could see all the camp and much of the surrounding area. She hadn’t cast any spells today, so it could be the last time for awhile she could share in the watches. Frequent spell casting required time to recover else she risked losing focus and miscasting, or just forgetting her spells entirely. Everyone understood this, so on days when she used her magic, the others split the watches, allowing her the extra sleep she needed. But Lynnalin did not want to take advantage of her role in the group. She could pull her own weight. Sharing in the watches helped her prove that. One by one the others fell asleep. She listened to their even breathing, drawing runes in the dirt by her leg to pass the time. In the distance she heard night birds flying after their prey. Bushes rustled softly. Then one of the hounds woke, looking sharply to the west. She followed his gaze, straining to hear. She thought there could be voices, but her ears were not sensitive enough to tell for sure. Tapping on Casther’s shoulder, she motioned to the direction of the sounds. She and Zanden were mostly elf, but Casther was full elf which gave him the advantage of ultra sensitive hearing. If anyone could tell what the sounds were, it would be him.

“Voices?” she mouthed. He nodded. She moved to wake
Rand, and Casther woke Zanden. Together, they quietly moved in the direction of the voices. As they got closer, Lynnalin could make out a woman and at least two men talking and laughing. She scrunched her face, trying to figure out why they sounded familiar. Zanden motioned them to fan out and surround the other camp. Lynnalin and Rand took the left, while Zanden and Casther stayed right.

“I’ll be right back,” the woman said, walking toward Lynnalin and Rand. They took positions, preparing to attack if necessary, as the woman stepped through the trees. Lynnalin felt her jaw drop.

“Marcy!”

The smile died on Marcy’s face as she turned in the direction of her name. Fire sprang to her hands. Lynnalin stepped forward, lowering her hood. “It’s me.”

“Lynn?” Marcy asked in shock, dropping her fire and rushing to hug her friend.

“What are you doing here?” they asked in unison.

Lynnalin was old friends of Marcy and her brother Bryce. She often made magi
cal items for his tavern. But Marcy left town without any warning during all the craziness a few months before. All she knew about Marcy and her whereabouts came from random snippets of information she gathered from Bryce after his infrequent updates from his sister. She still wasn’t entirely sure why she left. “I thought you were going to the mountains,” Lynnalin said. That was the last thing Marcy told Bryce, anyway.

“Small detour,” Thomas explained. Thomas, followed by Kern, joined them in the clearing. Zanden and Casther entered the clearing from the other side, taking their place by
Rand.

“What are you doing here?” Marcy asked again.

“Same as us, I’d wager,” Kern answered for her. “They’re investigating the attacks.”

“And why do three former Suriaxians care about raiders in the Southern Plains?” Zanden asked, suspiciously.

“Just doing a little recon for Aleria,” Kern answered. “We are assessing the potential threat north of the Plains.” The two men eyed each other.

“Hello, Thomas,” Casther said, inclining his head in greeting. Thomas looked over in surprise and inclined his head in return.
The two men obviously knew each other, but they were both from the Flame Guard, so that wasn’t so surprising.

Rand
laughed, diffusing much of the tension, and put up his hammer. “So,” he said to Kern, “you’re the queen’s half brother I’ve heard so much about.”

Kern laughed
, responding to Rand’s outspoken honesty. “So I am.”

“It’s true then?” Lynnalin said. “How did you keep it a secret for so long?”

“I didn’t know until recently,” he answered. “Why don’t we all take a seat and compare notes? Honestly I think we could use each other’s help on this one.”

“What makes you think we need your help?” Zanden challenged.

“From what we heard in the last town, I’d say you could use all the help you can get.”

Before Zanden could answer, the sound of hooves hitting the ground at a rapid pace drew all their attention. They moved just as the horse and rider came crashing through the trees, running past them. The rider, a girl, squealed in surprise at seeing people. She jerked on the reigns reflexively and sent the horse tumbling in an effort to turn. The girl flew off its back, rolling into the bushes. The horse collapsed in exhaustion. Lynnalin and Marcy shared a glance and walked over
to the girl, touching her softly on the leg and side. She jerked conscious and scooted away, fear in her eyes.

“Feel no fear, we mean no harm,” Mary said in a sing song voice, slipping into an old lullaby. The girl responded instantly, melting into Marcy’s arms with a whimper. Marcy sang and stroked her hair.

“This horse has been ridden hard for days,” Thomas said, examining the beast and giving it water from his canteen.

“Where are you from?” Lynnalin asked.

The girl, still calmed by Marcy’s singing, looked up at Lynnalin. “Breakeren,” she answered. Lynnalin looked back at Zanden. That was the location of the last attack. By all accounts, this girl was the only known survivor.

 

*   *   *

 

“We are here,” Zanden indicated on the map. “Breakeren is there. If we come around this way, we will get cover from the hills.”

“That’s assuming the raiders are still there,” Kern pointed out.

“Until we know otherwise, we will act as though they are. Once we get there, we can reassess the situation based on what we find.” Zanden folded up the map and put it away.

“What about her?” Lynnalin asked, motioning to the girl, still asleep on Marcy. She stayed by her side the entire night. Marcy hummed softly to her, running her fingers through her hair to keep the girl from waking frightened.
They were on the opposite side of their new joint camp. The marenpaie slept along the outer perimeter. The girl’s horse gave them a wide berth but didn’t move too far from Thomas, who continued to provide it food and water.

“There’s an Alerian town not too far north of here,” Kern said. “She should be safe there.”

“The problem is getting her there,” Rand observed. “We need to get to Breakeren now if we hope to find anything. We don’t have time to go leading some girl through the wilderness, into Alerian lands no less.”

“Thomas and I can take her,” Marcy volunteered, keeping her voice low to keep from waking the girl.

“That’s a good idea,” Kern agreed. Thomas nodded. From their Guardsman days, Kern and Thomas possessed special communication rings that allowed them to speak to one another over great distances. Kern also had a couple of teleportation scrolls he could use if they got into trouble. Besides, Marcy was the only one the girl seemed to trust, and Thomas could keep them both safe along the journey.

BOOK: Awake the Cullers (History of Ondar)
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