Copyright © 2018 Steven Moore

This is a preview of the second book in the Gnome Legends series available on Amazon.com. I'm sharing this in hopes you enjoy what you read and provide both positive and negative input on the story.

Enjoy.

FROGHAVEN



1

rince Eppon knelt quietly, his eyes shut.

He focused for a moment on the stream of sweat that slowly ran down his face. There were more important things to focus on—he grinned a sarcastic smile—much more important things. But he had to focus and the sweat provided the perfect distraction. The cold night air blew gently against his skin as he convinced his heart to slow its frantic pace and steadied his breathing. "Focus," he told himself. "Focus."

He heard footsteps so faint he first thought they might be the rustling of the grass and leaves. He opened his eyes. They'd adjusted to the shadows of moonlight. His own sword was the first thing he saw. He held the blade at a slight angle in front of his face. This afforded him the ability to look forward past the sword and behind himself in the blade’s reflection at the same time.

He ignored the blood that flowed slowly down the blade and watched for movement. He found it. Distorted in the blade was the image of a would-be assassin, moving quietly and using the shadows to hide his form.

Eppon held the grip of his sword tightly and spun. Holding his sword before him with his arms fully extended, he moved until his blade connected with the attacker. To the man’s credit, he fell without making a sound. Their attack had originated from the cover of the woods. A well-trained soldier would remain silent no matter what happened to protect the location of his fellow soldiers. That meant there were still others near. He lowered himself and closed his eyes again.

Two attackers. He could hear movement coming from both sides—very close. He thrust his sword to his left and swept his foot to his right. Two bodies hit the ground. He grew light headed. It became difficult to focus. He closed his eyes again and focused on the sweat. One of the attackers wasn't moving, but the assassin to his right would attack again soon. Without opening his eyes he swung his sword. He'd miscalculated. The hilt of his sword slammed against the man’s leg. Eppon pushed with all his might, ignoring the pain from his chest. He'd managed this long, he had to hold on a little longer. The man fell to the ground under Eppon’s weight. Eppon grabbed the attacker’s head and twisted. The assailant’s neck snapped and the struggle was over.

Eppon opened his eyes, unable to get up. The fighting had stopped and he could hear his father’s guards in the distance calling out orders. “King Dant is wounded, but alive. Find the prince."

Eppon allowed himself to relax and closed his eyes. His wounds were severe and he wasn’t sure if he would survive. But his father’s guards had managed to keep their king alive and that was all that mattered. He could hear the guards approaching him, but he drifted into unconsciousness before they arrived.

 

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Riding the backs of giant owls, Andilee, the princess of Grunebaume—and Talla, court historian to Felsen—traveled above the snow-covered countryside.

They made sure the princess’ castle remained in sight at all times to insure the guards who manned the towers could see them.

The elite guard of Grunebaume typically used the rare owls to patrol the woods that surrounded the castle. The princess seldom took advantage of her royalty, but riding the owls was one exception she could not resist. Andilee would ride the owls every opportunity she was given. The large birds were the size of ponies. Their wingspans were massive and their bodies covered in mostly white feathers with the occasional tan or gray feather adding a soft contrast. Their size and strength provided a sense of security to their passengers.

As the owls slowly flapped their wings, the riders were gently raised and lowered. Talla was amazed that the riding gear made riding the owls almost like riding a horse. Once she had become accustomed to traveling so far above the ground, she was able to enjoy the incredible view. The owls’ flight was so stealthy that the two women were able to speak to each other without having to raise their voices.

“So how’d the negotiations go that night?” Andilee asked.

Talla had to bring her thoughts back to the story she had been telling Andilee about the night Felsen was invaded by troops from Eisenberg. She was so enthralled by the beautiful winter scenery below her that she had lost track of their conversation. “King Logan was right. King Eppon was only concerned with the well-being of his people.” Talla shifted in her seat and continued. “As you know, Eisenberg deals mostly in mining and crafted goods. They were concerned that they wouldn’t have enough food to get them through the unexpectedly long winter that year.

“I learned later that a show of strength is often used by a kingdom to show their resolve in settling a problem. Even though Eisenberg’s army had invaded our kingdom and there was a small chance that fighting could’ve happened if negotiations went poorly, the invasions happen so frequently that it wasn’t really seen as a threat.”

Andilee leaned forward in her saddle. “And the wizard Drachman?”

Talla smiled. “Turns out he’d heard there was a trip being planned to Felsen and asked the soldiers if he could accompany them so he could visit King Logan. Although I’m sure his presence was eagerly accepted as a strategic move, Drachman had no concerns in the political goings on of kingdoms.”

“What’s that?” Andilee noticed movement on the snow below. She shifted her thin body back into her saddle and leaned forward. With several gentle tugs on the reins, she coaxed the owl to drift downward. Watching her from above, the princess’ flowing blond hair and white furs made her look almost like an extension of the bird. Talla followed.

“Andilee, wait!” Talla called as she gave chase. Looking at the ground below, she saw a small group of men in leather armor. Next to them were several trees that had been bent over and tied near the ground. Each tree faced a slightly different angle than the ones near it. “They’re preparing to attack!”

One of the men cut the rope to a bent tree. The tree whipped back and forth several times and then stood straight. Off the end of the tree flew a rope. Each end of the rope had a stone tied to it—a bola. The projectile spun through the air and connected with Andilee’s owl. The bola wrapped around the giant bird and the stones slammed into its body. With one wing tangled, the owl and the princess plummeted toward the ground.

Talla leaned forward and pushed one hand against the back of her owl’s head. Understanding the command, it tucked its wings and dove. As she approached the falling bird and rider, Talla tapped several times on the side of the owl’s neck. Again following her orders, the owl repositioned itself and reached out with its talons. Moments before they reached the ground the owl grabbed the princess, spread its wings and swooped toward the forest trees. Andilee’s owl slammed into the snow and disappeared into a fog of white. The two riders were too much weight for the one owl. It tried several times to climb but instead continued downward. When the princess, still held by the owl, began to drag the ground the owl tumbled and all three plowed into the snow.

Andilee woke and fought to open her eyes. The last memories she had were of being attacked. When she was finally able to open her eyes she was relieved to find Talla sitting over her and no signs of anyone else.

“Welcome back.” Talla said with a smile. “How do you feel?”

“I think I’m ok.” Andilee sat up. “The soldiers…?”

“Luckily we traveled a good distance before we hit the ground.” Talla looked up and scanned the area. “I believe I was able to hide our trail. The wind’s been picking up, too.” She looked back at the princess. “I was able to find this outcropping to protect us from the weather. I saw a few flakes earlier. It may snow. We should be safe until help arrives."

Talla pointed in the general direction they had been attacked. “Even though our attackers wore armor, it appeared tattered and makeshift. I don’t think they were soldiers. Do you have any idea who our attackers were?”

“They were probably marauders.” Andilee covered her arms with her fur cloak and pushed her back against the stone of the outcropping. “It’s common for them to attack merchants traveling through the kingdom. This is the first time they’ve attacked our owls. They might have marked me as royalty and hoped to ransom me. A long winter often makes people a little more desperate and a bit braver.”

Talla was thankful the wind was picking up. Even though it made a rescue more difficult, it also made it less likely the marauders would find them. “The wind is strong enough that I doubt anyone will hear us.” Talla turned to Andilee. “And since we can’t go anywhere until the weather clears a bit, how about another story?”

Andilee smiled. “I’d like that.” She settled further into her furs. "I know King Logan regained his throne, perhaps you could tell me about that."

Talla thought for a moment and then lifted her hands, readying for a good story telling. “More than two years had passed since Logan acquired the ancient crown and blood sword.” Talla held up two fingers to emphasize the duration. “The King and many of his followers who escaped the confines of the kingdom had established a fortress of small villages surrounded by a tall wooden wall in the mountains on the other side of the valley. Jeiyed and a large number of his best solders had joined Logan in the mountains, though many of his men also remained in Felsen to protect the people and help when the time came to retake the throne. Sanctuary Point, the oldest and largest of the seven villages served as the capital of the mountain fortress. There, King Logan and his advisers worked and planned. When ready, they would take back the kingdom."

Talla made her face as serious as she could. "Though many felt the King was still too young to lead his people into combat, Shellina's actions forced them to move their plans ahead." The historian formed small balls of snow on the ground and pressed a valley between them to create a map. She used her first two fingers like legs and marched them from one snowball hill to another. "The queen had already taken Eisenberg through force and deceit. Enough time had passed that she was ready to move onto other kingdoms." Talla's fingers marched toward the Grunebaume snowball hill.

 

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ot waiting to see if her assassins in Eisenberg were successful, Queen Shellina was already setting into motion her plans to rid herself of the ever-present danger of her cousin Vance's offspring. The boy had formed a notable following and she feared he might one day be capable of reclaiming his father's thrown. It was only a short trip down Mount Clessa to the ancient ruins.

She approached the ruins slowly. Her braided and bundled light brown hair seemed to glisten as sunlight struck the gems and gold woven into the braids. She was careful not to allow her embroidered red tunic to catch on the roots that seemed to litter the area.

The structure before her had obviously once been a very beautiful and ornate temple of some sort. Time, however, hadn't been kind to the architecture, leaving its well-crafted and carefully placed stones worn and disheveled. Etchings that once covered the temple now showed only sporadically across its outer walls. Statues that had decorated the structure stood as disfigured shapes and crumbled stones. A knotted tree that grew from the building’s stone tangled into the structure in a way that made it difficult to distinguish where the stone ended and the tree’s roots began. The ancient tree stood so tall that its roots framed the building’s doorway. Vines covered the tree and temple.

Shellina stopped a safe distance from the doorway and studied the vines. They moved slowly as though the wind subtly moved them back and forth. But a careful observation of the vines revealed that they moved independently to the direction of the wind. “Captain.” She called to the group of men who followed nervously behind her. “Send me two men to scout this building.”

She already knew which two men would be sent in. Rumor had marked the men as part of a movement to overthrow the queen and help Logan reclaim his father's throne. The queen always dealt quickly and effectively with those who might oppose her. She intended to make no exception with these soldiers. But she did hate to waste opportunity. If they were to die, she might as well benefit from their treason.

The two men moved slowly toward the ruins, their swords and shields drawn. Shellina pretended not to notice the scowls they traded one another as they walked passed her. “On with it”, she called to them, “I need to know if what I seek is still there.”

They studied the tall grass that surrounded the old structure. Littered around its base were piles of bones ranging in size from small rodents to larger hooved animals. All of the bones were strewn near the base of the old temple and many were entangled in the roots of the tree that grew from it. The men slowed their progress but continued forward, their weapons visibly shaking.

They never made it to the door. The vines that covered the structure moved quickly from the stone and entangled the two soldiers before they could repel the plants with their swords. They screamed as the vines cut into their exposed skin. More vines appeared from the shadow of the doorway and ripped the armor from them. The vines began to force their way into the bodies of the men until their screams were silenced. The men went limp and died.

Shellina watched with fascination. The vines released the bodies and moved back to the ruins. A deep and broken voice echoed from the temple. “What business have you here?” Glowing red eyes slowly appeared from the shadows. The creature that resided within moved toward the doorway. “Returned to feed the caged animal?”

The queen heard gasps coming from the captain and his men as the large creature crouched and made his way out from the root-covered doorway. The creature was completely visible now. He stood nearly eight feet tall. His coarse, gray skin was stretched tightly over arms and legs so muscular that his arms looked more like tree limbs and his legs like the massive roots that covered the ruins. His eyes glowed red even in the light of day. His hair, streaked in various shades of red and orange, moved in the wind and gave the illusion of flames streaming from the back of his head. His nose had been transformed into a short trunk similar to those she'd once seen on the large creatures ridden in the distant kingdom of Associa. Also like those creatures, tusks protruded from the sides of his face and his feet were nearly round with large, oval toenails.

Even though his armor was in poor repair, an armband he wore and the large axe he carried were obviously magic and in excellent condition. The etchings on both glowed as the morning sun illuminated them. Mimic vines covered his entire body and flowed from him like the arms of some strange sea creature. The vines and he had become one entity.

Shellina smiled. “I need your services.” She stood still even though the large creature moved closer to her. Her smile grew when he stopped—pleased that the vines held him captive where she had estimated they would. “In return for your promise to do what I ask of you”, her gaze went directly to his “I will release you from your prison.”

He looked at the soldiers standing several yards behind Shellina. “First”—he straightened his back—“I need to feed.”

Vines shot from his body and passed so quickly and closely to the queen that her hair danced in the breeze they created. From behind her she could hear the screams of the soldiers—the men she'd brought along to protect her. The creature’s reach was notably farther than it had been the first time she'd encountered him. She didn't flinch nor did her face betray any fears she might've felt as he killed the men. She never turned to see them torn apart or the aftermath of the creature's feeding, even when the vines returned to the his side.

She cleared her throat. “If you're done, we have business to conclude.”

“Very well.” He turned to her. “You have my attention.”

 

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Talla arched her back and held her arms in the air to make herself look as large as she could, sitting in the snow.

"Shellina had encountered the incredible behemoth years earlier, not long after it was first trapped in the ruins. She ran from the danger it presented then, but later realized it could be used as a powerful weapon when needed."

"But what manner of creature was it?" Andilee asked. "I have never heard of such a thing."

Talla nodded. "Wraiths are rare."

"Wraiths?" Andilee's eyes widened.

"Wraiths." Talla confirmed. "And as wraiths go, this was perhaps the most powerful to ever walk the earth." She sat back as a sincere expression moved across her face. "But he was not always such a creature. At one time, this monster was a warrior—a gnome. Many years before Jeiyed took the post, the man, Liam, was Captain of the Guard."

 

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ing Vance stood atop the stone tower and watched the soldiers sparring in the courtyard below as they did every morning.

He focused his attention on the captain of the guard, Liam, and his most gifted student—his second-in-command—Jeiyed. The early morning sun was just rising and occasionally turned their combat into a silhouette. Although Vance always enjoyed watching the two as they practiced, the difference in their sizes made him uncomfortable.

Years of being exposed to magical weapons and other various magical items had slowly changed Liam. Not only had his skin taken on a grayish hue and his hair turned shades of orange and red, but his height and overall mass had also increased so much that his height was closer to that of an elf and his body’s build more that of a dweller. His large muscles made his arms and legs look like the limbs of an old tree, but his speed and agility were those of a thin, young and well-trained man. Vance was amazed that Jeiyed managed to somehow continue to hold his own against the captain’s massive form and magical enhancements.

Liam was tiring. They'd been sparring for well over an hour and Jeiyed was relentless when he fought, even when he was just training. Tired, Liam could still match almost any of the other soldiers, save possibly Jeiyed. All of the soldiers were showing signs of tiring, yet Jeiyed managed to tap some hidden strength that kept him as strong as when they started. It reminded him of how Liam used to be when Vance was just a child. Even then Liam was well into his adult years. The king wondered how old the captain was. The wrinkles on Liam’s face and hands along with his slightly sunken eyes only slightly betrayed his age. His massive body stretched his skin tightly enough that it hid any traces there.

King Vance leaned forward as one of Jeiyed’s attacks sent the captain of the guard to the ground.

In the courtyard, Liam sat on the ground for a moment and rubbed his sore shoulder. He was becoming accustomed to his sparring practices with the young soldier, Jeiyed, ending in defeat. Despite the magical trinkets Liam wore hidden at various places on his body that should make him impossible to beat, Jeiyed tended to win more than half of their matches without the aid of anything but his skill and talent. He forced a smile to his face and moved to stand.

Jeiyed extended his hand to help Liam up. “Are you alright? That blow hit kind of hard.” His urgency and the tone of his voice showed his sincere concern for the captain’s well being.

Liam refused Jeiyed’s help and stood unaided. “I’m fine.” He brushed the grass from his arms and legs and held his practice sword at the ready. “I must be getting slow in my old age”, he tensed his arm and prepared to attack. “I saw that swing coming and still missed it." He swung his sword in vertical circles, first to his left and then to his right, to work the minor aches out of his arm. "You continue to announce your attacks with the turn of your left shoulder. Keep it up—" he swung his sword in front of himself to keep Jeiyed off guard—"and one day you’ll find yourself at the end of a real sword—" Liam swung his sword again—"being swung by someone intent on doing more than just honing your skills.”

Jeiyed smiled for a moment at Liam’s comments and then grew serious as the captain attacked. The dull and pitted edges of their metal swords’ blades rang as they made contact. “You seem distracted today." He pushed hard, but barely moved his attacker's sword away. "Per chance smitten with the bar maiden I saw you with last night?"

“More likely the ale I consumed while with the young maiden”, Liam parried Jeiyed’s swing.

“Still fearful to commit—" Jeiyed’s blade circled Liam’s parry and the young soldier lunged forward—"to just one woman, eh?”

Liam turned to his side and stepped back to avoid the attack. “I refuse to allow myself to become entangled—" he dropped to his knees and swung his sword to the back of Jeiyed’s legs—"in the commitments that come with such relationships."

The sword’s blade caught Jeiyed off guard and its force dropped him to his back.

Liam continued, "The commitments cling to you like vines, growing and weaving around you over time until you can no longer escape them.”

Jeiyed, winded, rested on his back for a moment and then sat up and smiled. “My mother’s garden is full of beautiful vines, like the wisteria, that when properly trained and maintained can be a wonderful addition to a home.”

Liam extended his hand to Jeiyed to help him up. “It’s been my experience that vines tend to have thorns.” Jeiyed accepted his hand and the captain helped him to his feet. Liam smiled slightly and continued, “I’m not so old that I choose to purposely allow myself to be cut by those thorns—" his smile grew—"at least not yet.” Liam readied his stance. “Again.”

Jeiyed mirrored Liam’s stance and prepared for his attack.

 

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Talla heard snow crunching under slow moving feet. She sat quietly and held her hand up to let the princess know they should be silent. The steps were very soft. Their visitor either had very small feet or was very well trained.

She looked around the outcropping for a loose branch or stone. They were unarmed and she feared what might happen if their attackers found them. The snow covering the bushes in front of them fell to the ground from shaking leaves. Talla held her breath as a body moved out into the open. She exhaled with a gentle giggle when she realized the eavesdropper was a tall male deer.

Andilee was angered by the unnecessary anxiety and formed a snowball in her hands to throw at the beast.

“No.” Talla held her hand over Andilee’s hands. “I’m sure he didn’t mean to frighten us.” She smiled and looked at the deer. “Deer and unicorns are drawn to royalty.” The historian gestured to their surroundings. “They can also sense when someone’s in need of help. I think he’s here to watch over us.”

The buck was tall and its thick white and tan coat covered bristling muscles. Its antlers branched like a small tree resting on its head. Talla had not seen many deer or unicorn, but of the ones she had seen, this was the most impressive of them all.

It stood for several minutes and studied the ladies. Then it turned its back to them, watching and listening to its surroundings.

“You see.” Talla covered her self again with her fur cloak. “Help has arrived.”

Andilee raised an eyebrow. “Not exactly what we were hoping for.”

Talla grinned. “I’ll accept any help I’m offered.”

The princess looked at Talla. “So how did the Captain become a wraith?”

Talla leaned forward and moved her hands free of cover again. “As is always true, eventually the student becomes the master and those we think will be with us forever must leave us. That day finally came for Jeiyed and Liam.”

 

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eiyed stood in the morning-lit courtyard and watched his old teacher climb onto the back of his massive black warhorse.

The rider's muscular arms and legs rivaled the power of his mount. He turned his horse and faced Jeiyed. Liam smiled. "You'll make a fine Captain of the Guard. I know Felsen is safe with you protecting her."

Jeiyed struggled for a response. He had accepted the rank of Captain of the Guard reluctantly. He knew it meant the retirement of his old mentor. "We still need you here. You're still the most skilled fighter we have. The absence of your guidance to our young soldiers will be gravely felt. Please reconsider."

Liam's smile held but straightened. "You are Felsen's most skilled fighter." His horse took several steps to the side and shook its head. It could feel the tension emanating from its rider. "I've taught you everything that I have to offer. You have become a greater soldier than I ever was. I leave the training of future warriors in your very capable hands."

He turned his horse toward the castle's open gate and rode away without looking back. "Farewell Captain."

Liam's first stop was the ancient ruins that stood just past the Dark Woods, not far from Felsen. Once he thoroughly searched these ruins he would move onto the lower ruins near the valley. If he were to thrive on his own he would need as much ancient magic as he could find, for protection and to sell. These ruins were so filled with danger that few items were ever removed from them—a dangerous venture but very much worth the risk.

He followed the cobblestone passage that ran from the castle's outer walls down the mountain. At the base of the mountain he left the road and headed toward the ruins. He slowed his horse as they approached what appeared to be an old temple buried under a mass of vines and massive tree roots.

His horse staggered and fell, trapping the old warrior's leg under its weight. Vines had entangled its legs and moved quickly around the creature and onto Liam. With no weapons readied he could only watch as the foliage surrounded him and dragged his horse and him toward the ruins.

 

 

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The historian waved her arms and fingers in a manner that imitated the movements of a plant in the wind. "He was snared by mimic vines at the first temple he encountered. The vines wove into his body and attempted to take it over. But the magic items he wore kept him alive. Though he was able to maintain his mind, his body was infused with the plant. He took on the plant's desire to feed on life essence as well as its bond to the temple's magic that had animated the plant. The temple became his prison." Talla clasped her hands together to represent his cage.

"He was trapped in the ruins for years until Shellina freed him." She forced the sternest expression to her face she could create. "Free only if he first did her bidding."

 

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eiyed stood quietly, watching young King Logan kneel and prepare to fire his bow.

The boy had become one of the most skilled hunters in their mountain fortress. He'd always shown a natural ability in fighting and hunting, but in the two years since his parents' death he'd pushed himself to be worthy of his people's loyalty. Jeiyed had known the King since the boy was born. He'd also known King Logan's father, King Vance, since the King was a young man and he'd met many nobles in his travels. Of all the royalty he'd met, none impressed Jeiyed more than Logan. For that matter, few soldiers impressed him more.

Even at the age of eleven, Logan looked more like a young soldier than royalty. His long golden brown hair flowed over developing, yet notable, muscles. He was taller than most gnomes his age, but Jeiyed attributed that to his elven mother. Adding to his soldier's air, Logan had picked up some of Jeiyed's bad habits. Like Jeiyed, the young king was uncomfortable wearing armor. Although armor could save your life in major combat, it also slows one's reflexes and tires the fighter quicker. In a world where magic can often flow through armor as though it weren't there, he, like Jeiyed, felt it was better to not be hit than to don so much armor you can't swing your weapon effectively.

Typically, with Jeiyed's prompting, the King wore leather armor. On occasion he was able to convince him to wear chain mail, but that was rare and usually during foreseeable combat. Today the boy was wearing light leather armor, and that was only after Jeiyed threatened to cancel the hunting day.

Logan released the arrow. As it tore through the trees several leaves danced behind it until it met its final destination that stood nearly hidden behind the forest's foliage. A large bore staggered from behind the bushes and fell dead. Jeiyed smiled, "That's your third one today. Mayhaps we should stop now and leave a few for the other hunters to find."

Logan stood and turned to the captain. A weak smile almost hid the distant look in his eyes. "Thanks Jeiyed."

"What have I done? You're the one who has managed to provide this evening's dinner for everyone."

Logan's smile strengthened as he put his hand on Jeiyed's shoulder. "This was a great distraction. It's obviously no coincidence you chose today, the anniversary of my parents' deaths, to go hunting."

Jeiyed just nodded his acknowledgement. "Let's go gather the kills so they can be prepared for tonight."

The two headed toward the dead bore. Logan stopped and looked at his feet. They'd become entangled in vines. As he tried to pull free the vines climbed up his legs and tightened.

"Mimic vines!" Logan yelled as he was lifted into the air.

More vines shot from the woods and wrapped around Logan's neck and arms. He managed to get his left arm near his neck before the vines wrapped around him, keeping them from strangling him. He tried to pull free, but with his sword strapped to his back, he had no way of cutting the plants.

Jeiyed pulled his sword from the sheath at his side and swung at the leafy ropes before him, cutting the young king free. He watched as Logan, unable to roll with all of the vines wrapped around him, drop to the ground with a thud. Logan pulled free and brought his sword in front of himself. More mimic vines were coming. Behind the vines—in the distance—from the shadows of the trees, a large shape moved toward them.

"I came to kill a king and found an even greater prize." A deep voice echoed from the woods. "Jeiyed, it's been too long since last we met."

Jeiyed stood silently as the swarm of vines slowly moved to the side and revealed a large gray monster. He studied the strange features for recognition. Finally he managed to find a glimmer of familiarity hidden in his memories. "Liam?"

The creature smiled.

A shiver swept through Jeiyed's body. Years of training and experience had prepared him for nearly any encounter; however, his mind struggled with the vision before him.

The creature that stood before Jeiyed was Liam, so distorted by magic and time that he was barely recognizable. Jeiyed gathered his strength and wits and moved slowly toward the beast. "It has been a long time, old man. And time doesn't appear to have been kind to you."

Liam stopped, his feet firmly in place, and flexed his arm muscles. The vines that surrounded his body flowed faster and then several flew toward Jeiyed.

Jeiyed jumped to the side and rolled. The vines missed him by only a few inches. He continued his roll until he was standing again and facing Liam. He quickly swung his sword and its blade sliced through the mimic vines as they made another attempt to entangle him.

“I think you may find it’s been kinder to me than you realize!” Liam swung his arms in a fashion that made him appear to be swimming in the vines that surrounded him. They responded to his actions by parting and moving quickly in two large clumps—one toward Jeiyed and the other toward Logan.

Logan stood with his sword held firmly in front of him. The vines closed in but parted as they touched the sword.

Liam staggered back two steps and grunted in pain. “I felt that!”

With Jeiyed firmly entangled in his mimic vines, the beast took several slow steps forward and studied the boy. “That's an interesting sword you carry my young King.” His vines began to circle around both sides of Logan, but avoided contact.

“It’s the sword of my ancestors.” Logan answered, as he stood ready for another attack, his attention focused on the vines that swarmed around him. “Come a bit closer and I’ll gladly introduce you to its blade.”

“I have heard of the sword.” Liam moved cautiously toward Logan. “Many have died trying to claim it from the Old Ruins of the Valley.” He stopped and clinched his fists. The vines closed in on Logan. “I'm impressed to find that you were able to retrieve it.”

Logan jumped and rolled to avoid the attacking vines. There were too many. He tried to swing his sword, but his arm was being pulled away from his body and he had little control of his movements. He glanced to his side and saw Jeiyed equally immobilized. He studied his surroundings in hope of some means to escape.

“I’m sure you're a fine King.” The vines moved Logan slowly toward Liam. “I can certainly tell that Jeiyed has taught you to fight well.” He held Logan so that the king’s face was only inches from his. “Had I not promised to dispatch you I might even have let you live.”

The vines moved like a whip and released Logan. The boy flew through the air and disappeared over the nearby cliff. With the king falling to his death, Liam turned back to Jeiyed. “But a promise is a promise.”

Jeiyed struggled to break free from the vines. “No!” After several attempts he slumped underneath the blanket of foliage wrapped around him. He knew he could do nothing to help Logan.

 

2

Logan watched the grassy ground of the mountain disappear below him. A thousand foot drop to the giant trees of Froghaven took its place. He let his sword move free from his hand as he grabbed franticly with both hands for the limbs of the shrubs he passed by. His shoulder ached as he stretched it out of its socket, barely catching hold of a thin branch. He slammed into the side of the cliff and held his breath as he waited to see if the twig would hold.

It held. He quickly grabbed the largest plant near him to secure his grip as he started his climb back to the flat land above him. His heart skipped a beat as he realized some of the leaves he held on to were mimic vines.

3

“What do I do with you?” Liam asked as he held Jeiyed before him. “That’s not to say I don't plan to kill you.” His smile showed broken and yellowed teeth. “I’m just not sure if I should do it quickly or enjoy your suffering for a little while.”

Liam turned his gaze quickly away from his prisoner. “What have we here?” He could feel something tugging on his vines. He turned to see Logan rising to his feet. “Aren’t you resourceful?” He looked back at Jeiyed. “Now I know what to do with you.”

He threw the captain at Logan. Jeiyed was helpless to stop him.

Logan wrapped the fingers of one hand tightly around a nearby bush, leaned to the side and grabbed Jeiyed as he went by. The momentum carried the two over the side of the cliff.

The bush pulled tight and Logan felt his arm pop. Jeiyed and he slammed into the side of the cliff. A wave of nausea moved through Logan. He tried to concentrate but could feel his mind losing its focus.

Jeiyed heard Logan's arm pop and could feel his grip slipping. Slamming into the grass and rock, he secured his hold on the vertical slope and pulled the King close. Logan never lost consciousness. As Jeiyed studied the ledge for a way back up the cliff, the boy moved to a nearby bush.

"You are a tough one to kill, aren't you?" Liam stood looking down from the grass and rock above them.

Vines moved across the rocks like a river of snakes. Jeiyed and Logan braced for the attack. It never arrived. Instead, arrows began to rain past them. They looked up to see the large creature sprouting arrows from its back and side.

 

4

"Whomever, or whatever you are," a voice called from behind Liam, "move away from the King!"

Liam turned and studied the large gathering of soldiers standing on the hill a short distance away. The area was devoid of magic and mimic vines. He could only call on what he had brought with him. Liam had been in enough battles to know that twenty soldiers to his one was a good fight to stay away from. He looked back over the cliff at the giant trees below and smiled. A plan formed in his mind. They would fight but when and where he had the advantage.

The large creature turned toward the trees and ran. Despite his size, Liam moved very quickly. His form disappeared in a swarm of leaves as he headed into the woods.

 

 

THE BLOOD-TIED STONE



1

alin stood with his back hunched as his hand tingled from the glowing crystal stone he extended toward his enemy. The gnome's body trembled as much from fear as from the magical energies that surged through him. This was the first time he had used his family's power stone. Under other circumstances he might be elated by the connection he was feeling with the crystal. But facing an unknown wizard whose mutations clearly marked him as much more experienced than Falin left the young wizard only frightened.

"What—what do you want?" Falin struggled to look strong.

"Why, that beautiful crystalline jewel you're holding there." The wizard said in a playful tone.

"It won't work for you. It—it's blood-tied." He held the rock tighter. "It'll only work for me."

"Not a problem. I can fix that." The wizard walked slowly toward Falin. "Bring the item to me."

"No!" The young wizard didn't cast a spell, but his desire to keep the other wizard away activated the stone. His energy focused through it and projected a blast of wind at the aggressor.

The older wizard was thrown several feet across rocks and roots and slammed against a stone wall of the ancient ruins that surrounded them. He staggered slightly as he regained his footing. "Impressive." He again moved toward the young mage.

"Stay back. Don't come any closer!" Falin reached into the small pouch that hung to his side. With his hand holding the magic item in front of him, the pouch was hidden from the other wizard's view. Falin hoped the wizard wouldn't notice the pinch of powder he removed from the bag.

The older wizard approached, raised his right hand, and then dropped it quickly to his side. Falin noticed the rocks that surrounded him begin to rise. He jumped, but not before a group of small boulders slammed into him from all sides. He fell to the ground and the other wizard continued forward until he stood over Falin.

The young wizard tried to move but stopped when stunned by severe pain—most likely several broken bones. He thought of his wife and daughter. Falin was no longer afraid. He knew he was going to die. He only regretted that he would not get to see his family again. He held the stone up for the older wizard to take. "Here. It's yours."

A fireball is one of the easiest spells to cast. Falin could only guess how casting one through the magic etched crystal would increase its damage. He knew it would certainly kill him and hopefully it would kill the other wizard as well. He rubbed the powder between his thumb and fingers. The powder ignited and he cast his spell.

Falin smiled—the fireball was everything he had hoped it would be. He barely felt the searing pain before he passed away.

 

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Talla pulled gently on her horse’s reigns until he came to a stop.

She allowed herself a moment to enjoy the warm sun on her face as she scanned the land before her. From where she sat, she could see across the entire valley—clear to the mountains that lay beyond. It was a beautiful day for riding and there was no finer country to ride through. She closed her eyes and breathed in the wonderful scent of the lavender that lined the edge of the plateau overlooking the dale.

“Are we there yet?” Her daughter’s voice broke the silence from behind her.

Talla opened her eyes and, with a slight grin, sighed. The gnome historian guided her horse to turn so she could face the four gnome children with her. Despite being the youngest of the group, Dhayli traveled up front. Behind her were King Logan’s two sons—Warren and Jon—followed by his daughter, Laura. Warren was the oldest of the children—fourteen years old—and most likely to someday sit on his father’s throne. Jon was eleven and Laura nine. Dhayli was only five years old, but she already rode nearly as well as Jon or Laura.

Around them were six of the King’s best soldiers—insuring the safety of the historian and the children as they traveled.

“As a matter of fact,” Talla answered Dhayli, “we are ‘there.’”

Warren—his long brownish-blond hair swaying gently to the wind—leaned forward in his seat and scanned the horizon. “Where?”

She pointed. “Look over there—along the edge of the valley. Do you see those shapes in the distance?” The children all looked and nodded. “Those are the Lower Ruins.” Their horses began to drift as the offspring strained to see as much of the ruins as possible. They had been told many tales about the Lower Ruins, but this was the first time they had ever been allowed to be anywhere near them. “Today’s history lesson starts right here."

“The story begins many years ago with a battle between two wizards." Talla let the words hang in the air a moment while she enjoyed the wide-eyed children—their attention now directly focused on her. "Though one wizard wielded a powerful magical stone made of quartz, the other possessed greater skill." She looked to the ruins as she envisioned the confrontation in her mind. "Skill won over raw power. The more experienced wizard, though injured and drained, managed to take the gem from the other mage.

"But it was a hollow victory. The magic item was blood-tied."

"You mean like my father's sword?" Warren asked.

"Exactly." Talla nodded her approval. "The stone had been made for the younger wizard's family. Only those from their bloodline could use it. Any other wizard would have very little success using the gem and could be injured if they tried to focus their energies through the crystal."

Warren sat back in his saddle. "So he couldn't use the stone."

"The older wizard knew of a way to bind the item to his bloodline. However, the younger wizard died before he could cast the spell." Talla leaned toward the children and spoke in a slightly quieter voice to add intrigue to the story. "But the wizard was cunning and quickly formed another plan. It was a plan that would take years to make happen. Wizards are patient by nature and the prize was worth waiting for."

 

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he seven-year-old gnome girl stood with her fists clenched next to the bloodied body of her mother, streams of tears blurring the girl's vision. She kept her mother between the three elven men who toyed with her and herself as they slowly circled the body.

"Now, little girly, come to your papa." The unkempt man said as he held his hand out to the girl.

"My father's dead! And you're not him" She reached to her side and pulled out a small dagger. "You'll be dead too if you don't leave me alone!" She swung the blade several times at the men.

The man laughed at her actions, but all three men moved a couple steps back to avoid accidental contact with the dagger. "Come now dearie, put that away and come to your papa." The three men laughed.

The girl moved back—the men didn't follow. Instead they all became quiet with blank expressions. One-by-one they fell to the ground. The child moved farther away and looked for what caused them to drop. She saw a cloaked figure move from the woods.

"Are you okay young lady?" The man said. "May I see to your mother?"

She just stood still and watched as he approached—not sure what to do.

He dropped to one knee and studied the woman. "I'm sorry I can't do anything to help her." He looked at the girl. "I'm afraid she's gone."

The girl just stood and studied the man. Her mind was numb from what had happened and she struggled to make sense of it all.

She took a step back when he removed his hood. Not so much from fear, but more from the surprise of what she saw. Though she could tell he was an elf, his hair looked more like fur or a lion's main and his face had many cat-like features. One side of his face was scarred. She could see fur on his hands and claws replaced his fingernails. Her father had died when she was only five, but she had memories of him and those her family traveled with when he was alive. She was accustomed to seeing people who looked like animals. She continued to study him and wait to see what he did.

"Hi—I'm Maison." He smiled a sad smile. "What's your name?"

"Crissins." She dropped her dagger and began to cry.

The man moved slowly to her side, kneeled and put his arm around her. "I'm sorry this has happened to you. I heard you say your father was also gone. Do you have any family I can bring you to?"

Crissins shook her head.

"You come with me." He stood and held his hand out to her. "I'll take care of you. I'll train you to make sure no one will hurt you again."

 

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Talla swung her leg over her horse and slid off her saddle.

The children followed her lead and moved off their horses. The historian tied her horse's reins to the limb of a tree and the children again did as she did. The soldiers looked to their commander—he nodded and they stepped off their horses, too.

"Crissins trained for three years under Maison." Talla ran her hand along her arms and then across her face. "As you know, the use of magic changes those who use it. Their skin, hair, eyes—everything slowly transforms. The more powerful the magic, the faster and more obvious the changes." She picked up a limb without branches that was straight enough to look like a staff.

She twirled the makeshift staff from side-to-side as the captain of the guard, Jeiyed, had trained her. She wasn't a soldier by any means, but she had gained enough skill to hold back a common thief.

"Wizardry requires great mental and physical discipline. If an apprentice is exposed too quickly to magic the changes can occur in a very short time and be disruptive to their training." She turned to the children and leaned on the staff like a walking stick. "So, like many wizard's apprentices, Crissins was taught to focus her training on a non-magical weapon—the staff—to sharpen her mind without the dangers of magic." Talla waved her hand back and forth. "She still learned magic, but only simple spells that would get her comfortable with controlling the energies in her body and around her. But training with the staff gave her the control she would need to be a wizard.

"Maison was a powerful wizard with years of experience. Most of his body had transformed. If it weren't for the fact that his hands and feet were still those of an elf and he continued to walk upright, he might have been mistaken to be a lion." Talla smiled. "And, of course the fact that he wore clothes was a bit of a clue." She waited a moment for the children's chuckles to subside.

"Because of his appearance—like many wizards—Maison relied on his apprentice, Crissins, to do those errands that required being around large groups of people."

"Like shopping in town?" Dhayli broke in.

"Like shopping in town." Talla confirmed with a nod. "And it was during one of Crissins' trips into town when she met the great wizard Drachman.

 

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ore than a dozen children lined the dirt and stone streets anxiously watching for signs of the wizard. They knew to stay out of the streets in case a rider on horseback or a cart needed to pass through.

"There he is!" Once one of the children spotted him, they no longer worried about the traffic around them and they filled the area in front of the tall hooded figure.

"Who dares block the path of the great and powerful wizard Drachman!" The wizard called out to the young crowd.

"We do!" They all shouted back.

The elven wizard removed his hood and laughed so hard he bent forward slightly. The scene might have been confusing to those who had never met Drachman. Most would be at least a little nervous at his appearance. His face was slightly elongated and covered in small scales that disappeared into the white cotton-like hair on the back of his head and the long flowing beard circling his chin. His pointed ears were longer than most elves and his eyes were dark with slits like those of a dragon. Two short horns gently rode backward off the top of his head. The hands he put forward to hold back the children were covered in scales and ended in black claws. And yet the children pulled on his cloak and ran around him as though they didn't notice his unusual form.

"Let's see here," Drachman dug through the pouch at his side. "What do we have today?" He pulled out a handful of beer root he had gathered from the woods. Its natural flavor when sucked on was pleasant, sweet and much like candy. The root quickly disappeared from his hand.

"Alright, now—I have things to do." He smiled and waved his hand. A stream of light and sparkles followed it. "It's time to vanish." The children all ran away, laughing and enjoying their treats.

Most wizards hid under their cloaks and long flowing garments to hide the mutations that came with years of practicing magic. But Drachman wore colorful clothing that called attention to him and kept his head exposed more often than he covered it. Those who had never met the wizard still most likely knew of him. If he wasn't the most powerful living wizard, he certainly wasn't bested by many.

The stories of his epic battles, though probably exaggerated through story telling over the years, left no doubt that he was to be respected—even feared. But his friendly demeanor quickly dismissed those feelings in most people. Only his enemies needed to fear him.

He continued down the street, giving the occasional nod hello to passersby. At his destination—a small shop that supplied many of the items magic users needed in their spells—Drachman gently pushed aside the cloth that covered the building's entrance and stepped in. Before he could cross into the shop he was nudged to the side by a young gnomish girl—he guessed her to be nine or ten—as she moved quickly out the door.

"Sorry. Excuse me." She walked quickly away waving a hand to the wizard but not looking back. She carried a small pouch she had just purchased.

"Adryel?" Drachman studied the girl. He turned from the shop and followed her.

Falin was a friend of Drachman's—a wizard. Years earlier Falin and his wife Adryel had been killed. They had a daughter that had been rumored to also be dead, but he began to doubt those rumors. The young gnome looked just like Adryel.

Magic was slowly changing Drachman into the form of a dragon. He had a long way to go before the final change, but he already had some of the advantages of the beasts. His eyes could see marks in the dirt that matched the curve of her shoes and he could smell her scent even though she was nowhere to be seen. He took his time pursuing her.

2

Maison opened the small pouch and removed six small crystals. "Good. These will work well. We can begin your lessons on simple illusions."

"So, you finally mastered illusion. Can you cast a fireball, or do I need to teach her that one?" A cloaked figure stepped from behind a large tree and removed his hood.

"Drac—Drachman." The wizard's face grew pale for a moment and then he forced a nervous smile. After a moment he regained his composure and motioned the wizard into their campsite. "Welcome. Please join us." He placed a hand on the young girl's shoulder and gestured toward the older wizard. "Crissins, this is the wizard Drachman. Drachman—my apprentice Crissins."

"Crissins." When he heard the name he remembered it from years past. "So this is Falin and Adryel's daughter."

The girl stepped forward with her eyes widening. "You knew my parents?"

"Yes, I did. And you and I have met once or twice, but I wouldn't expect you to remember. You were only a baby." He smiled. "I'm pleased to see you are well. You look just like your mother." He leaned against a nearby bolder. "Perhaps after your practice I could tell you a story or two about my adventures with your parents."

"Yes!" She said without thought and then turned to her teacher for approval. "Can he stay for supper?"

Maison presented a dry smile. "Of course. That would be nice. Please stay and eat with us."

"Very well." Drachman reached into the larger pouch at his side and pulled out a bundle of parchment. He unfolded it to reveal several fish that had been prepared for cooking. "I picked these up in town today. Perhaps you will allow me to add them to our meal."

Maison's smile continued. "Of course. That would be nice." He repeated.

 

3

Drachman watched Crissins' practice while he prepared their meal. She held the small crystals in her open palm. Her eyes focused on the crystals and she gently bit at her lower lip as she concentrated. A soft light formed across her palm and the crystals started to glow.

"Very good." Maison said as he watched over her shoulder. "Now project that light through the crystals. Form a picture in your mind and project it."

A spectrum of colors shimmered in front of the girl. She concentrated harder and the colors moved around, but never turned into anything recognizable.

"That's enough for today." Maison put his hand on her shoulder. "You did fine for your first lesson."

"I'll say." Drachman, who had remained silent throughout her training finally cut in. "For one so young your skills are quite impressive."

Her face blushed and she smiled openly. "Thank you."

"Now, let's eat." Drachman readied the smooth planks of wood holding their supper.

 

4

The first part of their meal held very little conversation. Not only was everyone hungry, but their servings were well prepared, too. It was common for wizards—because of their knowledge of plants and herbs—to be good cooks. Drachman's cooking was better than most. The three ate quietly, enjoying their food.

"Can you tell me about my parents?" Crissins was the first to break the silence.

Drachman smiled and nodded. "I actually knew your grandfather before your father. He and I were good friends."

Crissins' head tilted slightly. She suddenly realized the wizard might be considerably older than he appeared.

"Like me," Drachman continued, "your grandfather came from lands far away from here. And like most wizards, we were both drawn here because the magic in these lands is the oldest. The origin of magic comes from the ruins that reside here.

"There were times we traveled together." Drachman poured some water into a cup, took a sip and continued. "But for the most part, our paths went in different directions." His face, though still showing warmth, grew serious as he looked at Crissins. "Your grandfather was a great wizard. And though he died when your father was barely an adult, your father learned quite a bit apprenticing under him." He looked at Maison for a moment and then back to the girl. "Had your father lived longer, I know he'd have become a very impressive wizard."

"And my mother?" Crissins asked.

"She was a beautiful woman." Drachman smiled. "And quite the warrior." He took his final bite of food and placed the empty wooden plank on the ground. "She picked up a few simple spells from your father, but she wasn't a mage. She left the magic to him." His attention moved to Maison for a moment and then back to Crissins. "Their skills complemented each other well and together they were impressive in a fight." He thought for a moment before continuing. "I was told they were apart when they were killed. I suspect things might have turned out differently if they had been together." He stood and stretched stiff muscles. "Until today I thought you were killed with them." He looked at Maison. "I'm quite pleased to see that you're not only alive, but doing well."

Maison studied Drachman for a moment as their eyes made contact. Then he smiled. "I'm glad I found her before she was harmed." He stood. "She has become a respectable apprentice."

Drachman nodded. "That she has." He kept his gaze at Maison. "I'm sure you'll keep her safe until she's ready to be a wizard on her own."

"We start my quest tomorrow." Crissins said with a smile across her face.

The change in conversation surprised Drachman and he was silent for a moment before answering her. "Your quest?"

"Yeah." Crissins said cheerfully. "Maison says I'm ready." She pulled out a map. "My family has a blood-tied power stone that was lost when my father died." She pointed at a spot on the map. "We have new information where it might be."

Drachman turned to Maison. "Really. I'm intrigued."

Maison's face was emotionless. He was watching Crissins and then met Drachman's gaze. "Yes. I had learned of its existence years ago, but I didn't have any clues where it might be and Crissins was too young to have use of it anyway. She's still a little young to channel its powers, but she should soon be old enough to start learning to use it." He looked at the campfire and then back at Drachman. "There are rumors that a mage found the stone in the lower ruins, attempted to use the stone and died. As you know it's dangerous to anyone other than Crissins." He looked to Drachman for confirmation, but the older wizard just stood silently and listened. "Anyway, I now have clues where we may find it."

"Might I join you on this quest?" Drachman asked Maison.

Maison stood quietly for a moment, looking at Drachman and then turned to Crissins who was shaking with excitement. "Of course. That would be nice."

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Copyright © 2018 Steven Moore