Tales of Chance the Mage

Book One: From Here

Chapter 13 - Black Snake Cult

The room was dark when Chance woke. He was sitting at his table having fallen asleep there. The fire was almost burned down, and the room was chilly. Not bothering to remove his clothes; he went over to the bed and lay down. In moments, he was asleep again.

Noise from the stable woke him later. The sky was clear and sunshine brightened Chance's room. This day and the next few looked to be busy: he would be on the road hunting Black Snake mages. Resigned to that, he dressed and washed before going downstairs.

As he entered the area at the bar, he noticed a man sitting in the corner. A large sack was on the bench beside him from which rolled objects and books stuck out. Chance recognized the man as his geographer and walked over to see what was in the sack.

First asking if the man ate this morning and hearing only a little, Chance called to Xsel for a second breakfast. A nod from the bar was followed by a shout to the kitchen.

Chance sat on the bench beside the geographer after pulling a table to it. The man emptied his sack on to that and began to sort out the contents.

Chance was especially interested in a map that showed the Laat Valley and was handed one which he unrolled. After studying it a moment, he asked where D'gre was, explaining he knew some of the country around it.

The geographer placed his finger on a red dot which he said represented D'gre. A fine, red line was drawn on the map, one end going up to the edge at the top of the sheet and the other extending to the bottom.

Chance asked about a red dot near the top and was told that represented the town of Supp. He asked what was beyond the bottom and was told that region was the coast, west of the Laat Valley, and was called the Laatine.

Chance did not have to ask for a map of the coastal plain because the geographer was already unrolling a second map. He placed it over the first and began to point out where cities were in relation to each other. He began with Onne and indicated Brad on the lake. The extent of lake Rayen was colored blue.

The geographer moved his narrative northward from Onne. He explained the markings: these indicated estates, those the communes clustered around a town called Rieurs. Chance remarked that the map was very useful and complimented the geographer over having such in his stock.

The man was not modest, and after graciously acknowledging Chance's words, stated with all authority that too few people understood the value of a proper map.

Chance traced a red line that ran from the Laat Valley to a point on the coast where the word 'Baslaat' was written. Chance, until now, never bothered with the name of the port town at South March and noted it.

He also saw where a red line ran from Onne through a red dot, also crossed by the Laat Valley-Baslaat road, and then on to Flas. To the north, the Laat river was indicated generally, but bridges, fords and ferries were marked exactly.

In order to be sure he understood, Chance observed it appeared that two main roads crossed at a junction, much like Enclosed quarters were built around an Intersection. The geographer confirmed that was the layout and said the crossing of the two roads was the town of Arlo.

Chance remembered when he, Rixt, Dette and Vind all went to Onne from the Laat Valley. They avoided the 'red line' road and instead paralleled it on loggers' trails.

Those were not indicated on the map. He remembered the region as hilly but the map only showed a grouping of tent-like marks to symbolize hills, sharper ones were mountains.

Xsel brought over two breakfasts and set them on the edge of the table. He looked over the map briefly but then more closely. His eyes brightened, and he pointed to a place marker saying that was Round Rock, where he and Ruby were from.

Xsel stood a while longer and listened as the geographer ate and talked. He liked the map and asked the geographer if the inn might buy one. He wanted to place it behind the bar on the wall, beside the messenger cabinet.

The geographer told him the price which caused his enthusiasm to weaken; however, Chance said he would be pleased to pay for such an addition to the inn. Xsel said Chance was generous, thanked him for his patronage and went to tell Ruby.

For his fee, the geographer brought an atlas and a full set of maps. Chance was pleased with them and thanked the man for bringing them himself. He handed the man a number of gold coins asking that he send maps to the Mark as such came along in his trade.

The geographer was more than happy to have a customer such as the High Mage and left the inn after finishing breakfast. Chance took his and the geographer's plates to the kitchen, handing them to the first person he saw. With the atlas under one arm and the maps in his hands, he went to the porch he favored.

Xsel came over and dragged a table to near the porch, unlocked the fasteners and raised the shutter fully. Chance set the book and maps on the table and propped up the awning with poles used for that. He brought a chair out on to the porch, then he and Xsel carried the table with its load out to the terrace, placing it under the shutter.

Tea came next, brought out by someone new Chance did not recognize. He waited while the tea steeped and looked through the atlas. Pausing, he checked the tea then poured a cup for himself. It tasted familiar, and he stopped to look closely at the color and to sniff it. It was a tea he drank often with Rixt.

Ruby came out to stand beside the table. She stretched her back and remarked that it was going to be a fine day. She smiled at him and nodded at the tea pot. She said: "The lady Rixt sent that tea. Her note said you favored it."

Chance grinned at her like a child and said it was one he liked and missed while in Onne. Ruby was pleased, and said she would have his pack ready when he decided to go.

She went back to her kitchen after first strolling through the inn's main room, collecting empty plates and asking if all was right.

The original plan, such as Chance ever made one, was to leave immediately after breakfast. As he looked at what the geographer brought him, he decided to push that back.

The maps would enable him to know where he was and what was around. He was unsure how to calculate distance and assumed that was relative.

The mages he would meet soon were enough to hold his attention without the distraction of being lost as well. That brought to mind something else Chance planned to have with him.

When Xsel next passed nearby, he asked if he could borrow a short bow and a quiver of arrows. Asked if any special type was wanted, he said no. A normal bow and plain arrows would do. Xsel said he owned one, and Chance could use it.

Beyond the porch, Chance saw the Day market vendors setting up their stalls and noted women were already coming to the fountain to fill water jugs. The square seemed normal.

To be sure, he cast a Seeker spell that wandered over it to look for magic of any importance, other than his own. He sensed only minor practitioners.

Next, he opened the map of the Laatine and brought out the amber first and then the Opal. He set the amber where sunshine lighted the table but placed the Opal to one side in shade. A honey-colored glow rose from the amber; Chance picked it up and moved it over the map.

The library spoke after he set it back down: "The best defense is attack. Strike first, run, strike again. Be bold."

The Opal added its colors to the table top; a wash of pale tints emerged from its darkness and hung above Chance. It hovered and moved over the map. After it returned to the shady part of the table, it too spoke but the tone was subdued.

Chance listened as the Opal outlined what it could do: "My ability to fight - kill to be more precise - is limited. I am powerful but only in enclosed spaces - such as at the inn near Slice Pass - and when very near - as with Sloder. I was much less effective in the open square at Tupello."

Chance did not mention the Opal's defeat at Nessum's palace where Red mages overwhelmed it. He suspected it would be sensitive about that.

He asked the amber about an antidote for Mage Death, and the library answered that it found one. A page rose from the amber, and Chance read it with interest. Afterward, he was relieved that there was a salve for magic poison and could get ingredients from Ruby.

He was aware that he was working magic in front of an audience. It was something no one who came to the inn or passed through the square ever saw before.

High Mages rarely work magic in public, except when those mages fought. During those rare instances, witnesses could see spells cast and their impact. Otherwise, High Mages used magic in private.

Most certainly, they never allowed anyone to see what they could do. Chance was openly doing magic and also showed his two stones on the table for all to see.

Xsel came out later that morning and presented Chance with a bow and quiver of arrows. Both were of the shorter style, but Xsel suggested they might be easier to use in more occasions.

A longer bow, to his thinking, was for an enemy a way off, not close in. He too noticed the two stones and also glanced at the sword very visible from the High Mage's belt. Though somewhat confused by this, he did not comment.

The notion behind being so open about magic was based in Chance's view that he did not want to be a man aloof, nor did he want people to fear him. He meant people generally; he definitely wanted his enemies to be afraid.

Especially, the Schools who relied on threats, coercion and raw force against all dissent to maintain their hegemony. To Chance's thinking, the Schools' tactics required constant oversight and regular reinforcement.

That always seemed to him to be very expensive, created an elite above their own laws and spread corruption to every level below. He felt strongly that way when in school and while on the road, where he saw much to further his attitude.

He admitted to his prejudice and tried to keep it to himself. He ate a small lunch and then readied himself to leave.

The atlas was placed in his private room, and the maps, save one of the Laatine, were stacked carefully in one corner. He put on his travel coat, tucked the map into a pocket and went downstairs.

* * *

Ruby picked up his pack and handed it to him. He tucked a pouch of salve into his vest. The pack was compact and sat comfortably on his back. He thanked her then walked out of the inn, across the square and soon out the north gate of Onne.

The road forked just beyond the Enclosed quarter, and he took the right-hand way, which led to the junction at Arlo. Instead of gliding, he began a running pace that a Seeker spell would not detect. As he injected magic, his stride lengthened, and he seemed to sail between each step.

In this way, he moved down the road rapidly, weaving round slower traffic. His thoughts were on Black Snake mages.

He cast widely looking for a signature of clustered magic. That afternoon, he was nearing Arlo without finding any. He paused then turned and headed up the road toward the Laat Valley. They must come that way and were slow moving not to be in Arlo by now.

Chance's Seeker spells soon indicated a cloud of approaching magic, so he began to examine the trees along the road. He was looking for a stand with enough leaf high up that he could conceal himself in it. He came upon a group of long-trunked pine with thick foliage and chose that.

First checking that no one was watching, he cast and lifted up one. Slowing as he entered branches near the top, he settled on one with his back firm against another.

He brought out the bow and set the quiver by his side. The wind blew steadily and lightly which was good for shooting arrows.

Traffic passed underneath but soon cleared the road. Chance smelled the odor that did that: it was a fetid kind of magic coming in increasing strength from higher up the track. He slowly relaxed the bow and primed himself by breathing rhythmically to calm his mind.

Shutters and doors closed; people hurried off the road. The area around the tree Chance sat in became very still. Shortly afterward, Chance heard the sound of horses. The stench of Mage Death was almost choking as a leader then double row of mages, all on horseback, came into view.

The man in front rode proudly. He was the highest mage in the column. His shield was brightly polished; it almost glittered in the sunlight. The expression on the man's face, even from the tree top, was clearly arrogant. Chance fitted an arrow and drew the bow.

He brought up two spells as he shot the arrow. Focus and Explode hurled it at the first rider and struck, knocking him back off his horse.

He followed the first with two more arrows that killed the riders just behind the leader. Chance rapidly packed away the bow and quiver, thinking three down.

Quickly scampering up through foliage, Chance came out above and jumped from one clump to the next, hurrying away toward thicker woods. He used a Lighten spell to prevent himself from falling through the canopy cover and dodged magic that erupted from the road.

The mages below were powerful. Mage Death slapped across the tree tops. Chance kept ducked as he went, avoiding the poison hurled at him.

Once he was in thicker woods, he returned to the ground. He was standing by a ravine down which a stream ran in the direction of Arlo.

Chance dropped to the bottom and then went quickly downstream. From above, the sound of shouting and then of hoof beats signaled that the remaining mages were galloping away.

Once that clamor passed, Chance lifted up from the ravine back to the road and trotted after the Black Snake mages. Though he stayed safely behind them, he saw when Arlo appeared ahead and his quarry entered a city gate. He slowed and then stopped.

The country outside Arlo was farmed but also was fenced by hedges. Chance went to one such, from which he could see the town, and sat in its shade. He opened his pack and was pleased with what Ruby put in.

He ate from it while looking closely at what he could see of Arlo. The magic rising from the Black Snake mages was clear to follow even without a Seeker spell.

It did not move to what looked like the Enclosed quarter. Instead, it halted very near the gate. Chance guessed that the Black Snake men did not want to explain themselves to Schools mages in their quarter. They were not supposed to exist. He was ready and stood. After a moment to order his thoughts, he began to walk towards the town.

He thought the cult to be so secretive because they used Mage Death. Hugon said he believed them extinct, and the man's expression when Chance first asked about them was convincing. However, the cult obviously still existed.

The Library was not able to say for sure but thought Mage Death could not be flung. That was proved wrong. Thus, Chance selected a Nimbus spell and crammed Thicken into its gaps.

He drew his sword as he approached the town's eastern gate. The guards standing beside the gate's white columns did not even look as he passed by. He did not need a Seeker spell to know where his targets were; he could see them.

They were grouped outside an inn not fifty paces from where Chance was. Of the seven remaining, six sat on their horses with pikes pointing outward while one argued hotly with a man standing in the inn's door.

Chance ran toward them, fitting an arrow in the bow as he went. He used Focus and Explode again as he let fly. The arrow hit one of the mages holding a pike. His body blew up and smashed against the inn's wall. The man arguing with the innkeeper drew his sword and cut his way inside.

The others rapidly dismounted and raced with him into the inn. The door slammed closed. From windows, magic surged outward, but Chance was lifting up to a roof top. He moved along it till he was positioned with a view of the inn.

A mage was standing in a window and firing off magic bolts. Chance shot him where he stood. Two more down to his counting. That left five. Chance went across the roof and then cast a spell to descend to the street.

He was in an alley that led to the inn; he stepped out of direct sight and considered options. The Opal came out of his pocket and hovered beside him. It was pulsing and giving off ripples of color.

After a few moments, the Opal committed to killing as many as it could if Chance entered the inn.

The amber preferred to remain in Chance's pocket but its voice spoke up: "Odds are they expect you to come in the back. Use this spell to strengthen Explode and go in the front - before dust settles."

A spell rose from his pocket, and Chance quickly read it. Opal moved over to between the spell and him, and he now read it again in its rawness.

It was powerful indeed. He raised then pointed his sword, released Explode at the inn's door and added the Library's spell.

The door blew in, along with large sections of wall on either side and a chunk of the thatched roof. Chance dashed from the alley and into the opening. Four mages were still alive and turned on him; magic flared from every direction.

Opal caught a spear, turning it back on its sender who screamed when Mage Death impaled him. Chance hacked aside a bolt from a mage too close to him and kicked the man with a Sojo move.

As the man folded, Chance plunged his sword in deeply. Opal erupted color again and killed a third mage as he turned to run for the back.

The last mage lunged at Chance, flinging his sword ahead of him. Chance dodged, dipped and came up against the man.

He thrust his sword in, heaved upward and twisted to avoid the body. It happened quickly: the mage's sword bouncing off a wall and falling towards him; a feeling of a scratch pricking his cheek; the first pain of Mage Death.

* * *

He stumbled often as he left the inn and went back out through the city gate. The Opal followed him unable to help. The pain was growing; his face felt as if a knife was being pushed through his skull.

He needed the antidote and fumbled for it. Increasingly dizzy, he tried to glide but could not. He staggered away from Arlo as the pain in his face sucked in all thought and will.

Disoriented, he sank to his knees and tried to see about him. Someone was approaching; he could not keep the image from wavering. Chance tried to raise his sword but was unable to hold it up.

Creeping darkness lapped towards him as he began to lose consciousness. The other person was now directly above him.

As Chance started to fall over, he was caught and then lifted. He felt himself being carried but no more before his mind broke apart.

Chance knew he was not dead because he felt something. It was someone pressing a wet cloth to his mouth; he felt moisture and liquid. The taste was minty, but his lips seemed wrong as he tried to close them to swallow. He was aware of nothing else after that.

The next instant he realized, he was waking; his eyes opened but he could make out nothing at first. Then, a scene enveloped him, and he slipped into a sensation of dreaming.

All seemed real to even feeling wind in his hair. His sight did not extend far and only what the dream wanted to show. He was standing on an open bluff that overlooked the Rayen river.

The river's channels formed flashing, foaming whirlpools that spread across the expanse. Feeling something behind him, he turned to look and saw Nessum's palace. Instead of pale white, this version was softly gold.

A noise drew his attention, and he saw Rixt with a hoe. His feeling for her overwhelmed him; he yearned. She was working in a garden of herbs, weeding around bodies of dead men. He heard her singing a song he did not recognize.

A child's shout turned him back toward the river, and he saw a boy running up the slope to him. The face was happy, arms waving. He was running, bouncing and laughing.

Chance knelt to catch him. The boy looked beyond and then passed through Chance as if he was a ghost. He turned to see the child run to Rixt. She scooped him up in her arms and both were laughing as she tickled him.

He needed help; she could save him. Chance began to call out Rixt's name but no sound came as he tried to speak.

Helpless, he saw her set the boy down, and they walked past bodies before going into the palace. In the doorway, Rixt paused, shooed the boy on in before turning to look out at him. She threw a kiss his way, then went inside and closed the door.

The dream ended; Chance felt again the pain of Mage Death in his body before he lost awareness. There was literally nothing to separate one dream from the next: Chance was either in one or was adrift in a void.

His second dream was of battle, of Berserker War. Chance woke to the sound of horns, men shouting and the drumming thud of hoof beats. He hacked with his sword, fighting several mages at once.

With each powerful swing of his weapon, men fell dead. He felt himself becoming larger, swelling into a giant now towering over his enemies. A ring of dying or dead men sprawled in a tangled, bloody circle around him.

More warriors appeared and scaled the grisly surround to attack him. Chance was still growing. His arms thickened, sharp talons grew from his fingers. He slashed out driving the warriors back or adding their bodies to the pile.

Black spikes extended from his chest and warriors died in his sharp embrace. He was a demon, a killing monstrosity.

There were too many; Chance howled like an animal and killed. More warriors came from every direction and jumped on the lone fighter.

He sank down under their weight until he was buried in gore, death and darkness. Chance drifted away into an emptiness, no longer feeling his body.

Before his third dream, Chance was more awake as he opened his eyes. He could do almost nothing except look. Objects were blurred; he could barely bring his eyes to focus.

He lay in a bed in a blurred room; above was a thatch ceiling. A face leaned over him, and he saw it was the Abbot of Badi. A hand come to his face, and he felt fingers gently close his eyes.

The pain was deadened though Chance could feel numbness throughout his body. His face felt thick and he sensed he was drooling. Before he could be upset, he fell asleep.

His third dream was mighty: he was a giant again, standing in the square before the Mark inn. Gold bulged from his pockets, burst from them, and clinked as it fell to the ground at his feet.

All around him, people scrambled to pick up the coins which flowed from Chance. He saw bright expressions of avarice everywhere he looked and began to hear a cry for more.

They wanted gold. He struggled to make more coins, but suddenly could not remember the magic. The last coin dropped from a pocket and was snatched up by one. He stared down as Xsel, Ruby and Alsen jumped the man and began to beat him for the coin.

There was no more gold; the crowd began to demand coins. He could not make any, so they threw rocks at him. One hit him in the face which hurt so much that Chance tried to break away.

His boots were made of gold; he could barely move or take a step. The crowd closed on him. He stumbled then fell, his boots were taken and they kicked him.

A voice spoke into his sleep. Chance heard the Abbot of Badi say 'only one more - Meditation'. At once, a fourth dream began with no break between it and the one just past.

It was peaceful. Chance was in a cavern that contained a pool in the middle. The walls sparked from blue pinpoints of light embedded in rock.

As if compelled, he walked around the pool twice, and on the third time he approached the edge of the water. It was smooth; no ripple blemished it.

He looked at his reflection in the water and saw himself as he was, simply Chance, a man in the making. He sat and leaned forward. Extending one arm, he dipped his fingers into the pool. The water was not cold; it seemed to soothe his body.

He put his other arm out and lowered his fingers until both hands were in the water. He woke fully; he was back on a bed in a strange room. Sitting up seemed too hard, so he just lay where he was.

He looked over and saw the Abbot of Badi in a Sojo tranquility posture. The other abruptly opened his eyes, smiled at Chance and stood in one graceful motion.

Chance could not speak; his mouth did not work yet. He watched as the Abbot walked out of the hut and beyond his sight. With effort, Chance was able to raise himself and made his way to the door. He looked about outside but there was no one. He tried to call out but could not make any sound more intelligible than a hoarse, cawing noise. It was too soon for words.

He held himself upright by leaning on the door posts of the hut as a strong wave of imbalance swept up him. He went back to the bed and fell as much as laid down.

* * *

Slowly the dizziness eased until he was able to sit up. He was unsteady but put his pack on and buckled his sword. The bow and arrows were neatly beside the bed. He pushed those into the pack and went to the door.

With small, careful steps, Chance began to return to Onne. He stopped frequently when he felt he was going to drop down if he did not sit down.

By the end of that day, he managed little distance. That did not bother him, and he walked off the road and into woods to sleep for the night.

The four dreams stayed vividly in Chance's mind. Each was as real as if he lived it. He did not look for meaning in them, not right now, but was intrigued by their nature nonetheless. He was more than curious why the Abbot of Badi warned then saved him.

Chance knew he was not able to take the antidote himself; he was too far into a Mage Death spiral. The abbot applied the life-saving salve to him. It bothered him as well that the abbot seemed to have led him into four dreams.

He chewed on these thoughts as he forced himself to walk to Onne. People who passed noticed him and gave him room. He was aware they stared, but he did not look higher than his next step.

Plodding along, he came closer to Onne but stopped for the night when he became too exhausted. He mused this is somewhat like what Vind experienced and slept tightly wrapped in his cloak, surrounded by warding spells.

At the beginning of the next day, he was much closer to his goal. He began to look farther than the ground immediately in front of him. His body felt more ease so his progress picked up. A numbness was still around his face but that subsided. He worked his jaw to speed healing.

The sun was shortly past midday when Chance arrived at the north gate of Onne. He walked without looking about him as he went down the main street, turned into the side lane that led to his inn and crossed the square.

Xsel saw him coming and rushed out to meet him. Worry was all over the innkeeper's face; he began to ask questions but seeing Chance, instead walked silently alongside.

Once in the inn's main room, Chance walked over to the bar and sat on his stool. Xsel went behind and started to pour a cider. He paused and looked a question at Chance who nodded. Xsel placed a filled mug on the bar and noticed when the hand that reached for it shook.

Skor came in shortly after Chance began to drink. He was keen to hear about what happened and was bright in his eagerness. Xsel caught his eye and shook his head.

The messenger shelved his happy mood and turned around to leave the inn. Chance called after him, his words slightly slurred: "No need to go, messenger. I went to find Black Snake mages. We fought - I won."

As Skor took a stool by Chance, Xsel asked carefully how it went, were there problems with that. Chance nodded saying he was wounded. He did not speak of the Abbot nor of dreams.

Xsel leaned closer, noticed the scar on Chance's cheek. Skor saw too and did not ask. Ruby came out of the kitchen with a plate of cold meat and hot bread. She set that on the bar by Chance then went back into the kitchen.

Chance realized he was hungry; all of him was hungry. He began to eat until the plate was bare. Ruby came out again, glanced at it and asked if he wished more. That echoed one of Chance's dreams, the one set in the square. Suddenly, he wanted to leave Onne, return to Linnet.

He shook his head and managed words to thank her. She did not fuss. After giving him a detailed look over, she went back into the kitchen. Xsel left the bar to close the propped up shutters on the porch. The day was becoming colder, and he remarked a storm was likely.

Skor said he learned of new information, but it could wait until tomorrow. There was no response to that; Chance's mind was not on the messenger beside him.

Finishing his cider, Skor wished the mage a good night and left. Xsel stayed with Chance and kept him quiet company.

When Chance was ready to go upstairs, Xsel went with him and stood at the bottom as the other went up. There was a moment, near the top, when Xsel thought Chance might fall. However, he did not so Xsel went back to his work.

A bath was set out for him in his room, and he stripped and entered it gratefully. He touched his cheek and felt a rib of swollen flesh. He was lucky. He did not think about the Black Snakes he and Opal killed; he thought about the four dreams.

The water cooled, he climbed out and dried himself. He was very tired. A servant knocked and, after hearing what sounded like an invitation, came in to remove the tub.

As the first did that, another stacked firewood for the morning and inquired if Chance wanted tea. He did not but thanked the man; he wanted to sleep. The bed was ready and he climbed in. There seemed almost no time before he was in a dreamless slumber.

* * *

As seamlessly as Chance fell asleep the night before, he woke the next day: one moment nothing, the next everything. He lay in bed but smiled when the door opened and Xsel entered. The innkeeper nodded politely, set tea on the table and started the fire.

After that, he left. Chance thought Xsel was a fine innkeeper and friend. He got out of bed and dressed noticing that his clothes were beginning to smell from wearing too long.

He drank the tea and kept his feet by the fire. When the tea was gone, he packed up the atlas and the maps into a sack before going downstairs.

Xsel wished him a cheery good morning which brought Ruby from the kitchen. She was wearing an overly happy expression and set down a bountiful breakfast for him. Milk was on its way she said and went to see about it.

Alsen came in but stayed to the side. He and Xsel spoke about horses then Alsen left. Chance only nodded at him but did so in a friendly way.

Seeing Alsen caused him to think about horses, and he decided to speak with Xsel. Vind needed horses in order to recruit more riders. His thought was that perhaps Xsel could buy for Linnet like he did for messengers.

After eating, Chance saw that the day looked stormy, as Xsel forecast. He sat by the hearth and drank tea. News of the fight at Arlo would be working its way northward.

He imagined the reaction when mages from the Enclosed quarter in Arlo came out and saw Mage Death all over an inn. He was sure no one would touch the bodies; they would burn it all.

Skor arrived while he was thinking about Arlo and sat in a chair alongside Chance. He waited until Chance looked over at him and nodded. He was curious what the messenger would say.

Skor began saying: "I hope you like brawling, High Mage, because those come to engage you are massing at unhappy Baslaat."

Chance smiled asking why was Baslaat unhappy and heard that an army was put ashore there. It was being billeted in the port. He smiled and added that two clusters of mages from the Black Order just arrived as well.

There were disputes over what was available. With sarcasm, he remarked that staying in South March was no longer possible.

Chance sat by the fire and sipped tea. He listened as Skor gave detail about the army and gangs of Black mages. At one point, he asked questions because he did not know very much about armies nor about gangs.

Skor was surprisingly knowledgeable on both and patiently explained terms and things Chance might not know. From what Chance heard, he doubted if he really wanted an army of his own. However, Vind did, and Chance was relieved that his Rider planned for one, and would lead it.

After the messenger left, Chance went back to concentrating on what he must do and in what order. At the most, the remainder of the month might pass before enemies moved south. That assumed none of the groups at South March chose to come against him alone. He also considered what he was expected to do.

Thinking again over the likely reaction to the death of ten Black Snake mages, Chance doubted any were courageous enough just yet.

Helping him was the storm which was increasing outside. Xsel remarked at breakfast that this was seasonal and his experience was they could expect a few miserable days.

Chance left the hearth and walked back to where Xsel was sorting packages. He sat on his stool and asked if he could borrow Alsen for a few days. Xsel was surprised but said the stables would survive without him.

Xsel went out and soon after returned with Alsen; both were wet from just the short way between the inn and stables. Alsen's face showed curiosity as did Xsel's.

Chance explained that he was returning to Linnet, walking, and asked if Alsen would come with him. He wanted to bring the geographer's items but did not think he could carry so much.

Alsen glanced out a window and saw a storm. He seemed to hesitate but shrugged saying he would do what was asked of him. Xsel gave him an annoyed look but confirmed.

Chance then asked if he could buy two horses off Xsel. He continued that one was to carry his packs and another for Alsen to ride. The horses were for his army so he wanted two fit for Vind's Riders.

Xsel said he would speak to Ruby about packing food for them; when did Chance wish to go? The answer was unexpected: they would leave when the horses were selected and Alsen was ready.

He added that he was packed. Xsel left and went into the kitchen. Alsen just stood looking at Chance. He looked out the window again then said: "There's a brown, not much to look at, but has fire in the belly. I'd pick the tan mare next; she is feisty and smart. I'll get them ready and bring them around front."

Chance asked if they would suffer in the storm and was told they would. However, they were animals and would do as they were made to do. Alsen did not add that he too would do as told.

That was good to know, but Chance said he did not plan for any of them to be soaked and cold. He could maintain a Nimbus spell that would cover them all. Alsen shook his head in wonder and gave the mage a crooked smile.

After bringing down his packs, Chance went out of the inn and erected a large 'rain' Nimbus. He re-entered the inn and was given a pack by Ruby.

She did not scold him about going out in the storm; she could see the area under his Nimbus spell. Alsen came round from the back shortly afterward and got the horses into the spell with a little difficulty. Saddle bags of bundled maps were tied on the riderless horse.

Chance said he would be back before too long, thanked Xsel and then went outside to join where Alsen waited. He checked the spell then lifted slightly. His boots were clean and dry; he wanted them to remain so.

With a wave from Chance, the small procession moved out of the square to the gate road. Instead of heading toward the road to Brad, Chance went to the Enclosed quarter.

Alsen was puzzled but followed. Why Chance wanted to walk confused Alsen; however, the mage always bewildered the carry-all boy. This was no different.

They entered the courtyard where the Hier-like hall stood. Alsen waited outside as Chance went in the doors. The servants came from side rooms and watched him walk over to the table where recently two High Mages sat in a private conversation.

Chance stood at the table and lifted a bag from his pocket. He opened it revealing chunks of raw gold. One by one, he began to make coins until a number lay on the table.

None of the servants spoke, and Chance noticed a few more stood in the room now. He looked about then said: "This is a place of beauty. I do not wish it looted, destroyed, maimed in any way. Take my gold now to protect it - or not as you wish."

A tall man stepped out from the group of servants and came to the table. He looked solemnly at Chance then nodded. That was all; between them was a contract. Chance thanked the man and left.

Alsen rode along behind Chance, wondering what just happened inside the hall. He would hear eventually; he kept his attention to keeping the horses inside the Nimbus umbrella.

Chance walked along silently. Once they were beyond Brad, Alsen began to look about him. The rain kept a steady downpour that wet everything; the Nimbus spell distorted what was outside it slightly as well.

Alsen saw he was riding farther than the last of the villages along the lake shore and then into increasingly uninhabited country. This land, he thought, is where the High Mage will make his Holdfast. Alsen mentally wished Chance luck.

When they reached the river, Chance continued along the road down the valley of the Rayen river. The little-used way followed the water's course and halted at a wide span of rock and shallows.

Chance glided up and down, then across and back. He pointed and Alsen followed, into the stream and waded the ford.

An army coming for Linnet must cross there, so Chance paused once they were on the far side, drew his sword and summoned what he was calling his Shake spell. He cast and destroyed the ford. Alsen watched without commenting; the High Mage is thorough was his thought.

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