Once he was well down the trail from the palace, Chance slowed but went quickly without a glance backward. He was heading for the port of Oosra, without the Opal. However, he had two emeralds and an amber which was some comfort.
He regretted leaving the Reading Opal but would not risk his own death for it. Oosra port was not far, and Chance continued in that direction at a steady pace. Behind him, the battle continued with roaring, incandescent magic, but he did not pause to look at it.
Chance entered Oosra late that night and went to the Enclosed quarter and Trade Halls. As a High Mage, he was not challenged on entering. He looked like someone with the right to be there.
Only a few months passed since he was last in Oosra, so he easily found the house of Zoot, his only contact in the city.
He noticed the building was even more decorative than on his last visit, so thought Zoot must be doing well. At the front door, he requested entry and welcome. To his relief, Zoot would see him, and he was taken by servants to her.
In her private quarters, Chance saw Zoot looked calmer than when he saw her last: still thin, still attractive. She sat back in a plush chair and regarded him impassively.
After a moment, she stood and went to the servant who brought him. She spoke precisely telling him he had not brought anyone to her and that she was alone. Then she requested food.
Turning back to Chance, she indicated a chair at the table and walked slowly back to her seat. She said nothing as she walked past him, looking him over before sitting, and fixed him with a glare.
She was almost hissing as she stated: "All damnation has broken loose on account of you. The Maur want your head, Kehdy wants your head. You come, you go - you do as you please." She took a breath: "And now, you show up here. You, always you; under the debris somewhere."
She sat at the table and looked him in the eye. He did not see much warmth, but there was reason for her to have none for him. She asked: "Do you have it your pocket - that damned Opal?"
Chance shook his head to say no and withdrew the two emeralds and amber, placing them on the table. Zoot gasped: "What? Instead of the Reading Opal, you have the eyes of the Perfect One and Nessum's amber! You never fail to astound me."
He covered the objects with a cloth as a servant entered with an evening meal. Zoot poured wine into goblets for both of them, pushing one his way.
When they were alone again, Chance ate and told Zoot of the events that brought him to her door. She did not interrupt except to frown when he spoke of the Red cult.
Chance finished and added: "I want a fast boat away from here - can you get me on one of your messenger ships to Beerron or some other eastern port?"
Zoot considered his request, her face calculating. Then she answered precisely, coldly: "Yes - on this evening's tide - I am sending a ship east, and you can board it tonight. You have time for wine."
Her face softened as she added he could alternatively catch tomorrow's. That vanished when he did not answer and was replaced with an open sneer as she added: "You will be safe in soul-less Beerron where some scoundrel merchant will buy the eyes of the Perfect One."
Zoot paused to sip her wine: "Just look for one who deals in decorations for rich people. No one here will even touch them."
She was not done. Chance sat back and waited to hear it, thinking she never finished commenting, never shut up. She continued as she gave him a sarcastic look: "However, I warn you not to keep Nessum's amber; get rid of it - at sea."
Now she was openly laughing at him. He drank nervously and listened as she stirred his fear: "Ancient Nessum's amber - it is cursed - Nessum's ghost is likely to rip your still beating heart out of your chest and show it to you."
That disturbed Chance who glanced at the amber laying on the spread cloth. His look went to the two gemstones beside it.
Zoot saw that and added: "And, if cursed Nessum does not tear you open, Sleps will hunt you forever for your blasphemy."
Chance sat looking blankly at her as her warnings sank in. Zoot calmly picked among the food and helped herself to more wine. Chance felt like having only wine but realized he had not eaten that day.
After they both ate and drank enough to relax, Zoot laughed at him but with some affection now: "Chance. You draw trouble to you. How amazing that you still live!"
Chance was relaxed as well and observed: "I wake up in the morning and already trouble has started, without waiting for me."
Zoot said nothing more to him, and he remained quiet. They continued to drink until Zoot finally said: "You will miss the last ship if you do not leave for the dock soon."
Chance sighed and put the amber and emeralds back in their cloth and into his vest pocket. He started to pour another cup of wine then pushed it away. He shrugged with resignation and said: "I will miss the boat."
He folded his arms on his chest as much to keep himself from reaching for wine as to still his hands. As if thinking aloud, he remarked: "If I do not return the emeralds, Sleps will hound me to death. The eyes must be restored to keep Sleps peaceful and at home. But, a five hundred year curse aside, I shall keep the amber - to study."
Chance took a deep breath and began to describe his task: "The pedestal must be capped - it was spewing raw magic last I saw it. While I am doing that, I shall have to be wary of who knows how many drug-crazy Red mages and a house whose very stones are loaded with defensive magic."
He took a breath and added: "Oh, and I must also look out for an insane Opal who may or may not think kindly of me."
Zoot smirked and said casually: "I think you have grasped all the points well. I will have the kitchen pack provisions for you to take in your backpack in the morning."
The invitation was clear; Zoot was more than angry when he left her, but Chance saw that she was ready to reconcile. Tired, he thanked her and joined her in her rooms. Tomorrow, he planned to return the emeralds then board a ship for Beerron. He was unhappy with the delay but was leery of keeping the emeralds longer.
* * *
The next day, Chance woke early and tensed in a moment of anxiety realizing Zoot slept next to him. He got out of bed quickly and dressed.
Zoot opened her eyes and seeing him, frowned for a moment. She pulled a chord by her bed and soon afterward a servant appeared with morning tea and breakfast.
After eating, she walked with him toward the edge of Oosra. It was full day now, and the sky was clear of clouds. Zoot was known, and they went easily between quarters. Once outside the last gate, she led him over to the side of the road.
As they sat, Zoot spoke precisely to emphasize her warning earlier about keeping Nessum's gem: "I have always heard the amber was deadly. If you decide to keep it, you will have to be careful - in case it wakes up."
Zoot smiled at that then laughed when he said nothing. She watched closely as he very slowly placed the honey-colored gem on the chain around his neck. He bound the amber's magic with calming and enclosing spells.
Chance felt a small warmth against his chest from the stone. After a few moments, when nothing happened, he stood: "The amber appears not interested in ripping out my heart just now. Zoot, I thank you for your warning and welcome."
Zoot stood as well and hugged him tightly saying: "Do what is necessary then come back for a longer visit. You will be safe with me."
Chance smiled thinking of what staying with her involved. Then, he said honestly: "I will do what is possible and no more."
Knowing him, she replied that must do and would see him later. She then left him and turned back toward Oosra. He watched as she sauntered away and wanted no 'later' with her.
* * *
With reluctance and misgivings, he set off for Nessum's palace. Coming, it took him half a day to reach Oosra; going, it would be past midday before he was again standing before the walls of the ancient hold.
Chance was not easy about returning; the uncertainty over what he might find when he arrived filled his thoughts. He was tired from little sleep, Zoot tended to be demanding, and his mood worsened as he ran at a fast pace back to Nessum's mountain stronghold.
Finally there, he approached the mound cautiously and went along the wall to the sun hole above the temple. In full daylight, the grounds were as before, empty except for skeletons near the gate.
As he crept closer to the opening, he worried that the cult mages were still around; he was annoyed that this bother was about Sleps.
Chance did not really care a fart for the emeralds or for their sacred status among Sleps. His dislike of the race hardened.
Were their teeth not so big, he would just turn around and leave. Chance had enemies already so what were a few more? He recalled Nalo biting off the guide's head and reconciled himself to returning the emeralds.
His irritation and annoyance increased as he looked around the palace and sun hole he needed to enter. It all appeared more ominous than yesterday. Sounds of chanting startled him.
It was then that he noticed, a distance from where he stood, the woods glowed from a bonfire. He could just make out figures marching ritually around the flames.
He wondered if they were up celebrating all night. If so, they should be drunk, drugged or passed out by now. He turned his attention back to his purpose for being here.
Carefully, he moved over to the temple's chimney hole and looked down. The temple was scoured by magic. He saw the Perfect One stretched out, unbroken and facing the floor.
The idol appeared little affected by battle magic. The smell of burned and now decomposing flesh rising from the chimney made him nauseous.
A sun beam lighted the pedestal, which was now covered in crystallized, magic sludge. In its center, a small bowl was roughly hollowed out, and Chance saw in it the shards of the Reading Opal. Sunlight and magic exhaustion caused some pieces to turn white and opaque. He saddened, his body slumped, it appeared lost forever.
Taking hold of himself again, Chance lowered himself down the chimney, dropped on to the pedestal and stepped down to the floor. There was no sound other than the repetitious chanting of mages in the distance.
Abruptly, the amber around his neck began to twitch. He held his breath, remembering Zoot's warning, but it did not rip out his heart.
Instead, he felt an insistent urge to lower the amber into the hollow. Uncertain but curious at this sudden impulse, he removed it gingerly and set it on the pieces of opal.
The amber appeared to melt around the shards and absorb them. When only the amber remained, Chance picked it up and started to return it to his neck chain. He halted, remembering how Nalo died, and placed it in a pocket inside his vest.
That done, he walked along the idol to its head. He whispered a small spell to raise it but was unable to move the large bulk.
Chance concentrated and connected, risking summoning magic other mages might sense. The stronger spell raised it. Carefully, he moved it to the pedestal. He did not look at the body of the priest; he was more nervous that his magic might be detected.
Fully upright and stable, he edged it back on to the pedestal. Solidified magic on the surface was scrapped off by the statue's weight. Once in place, he added a cementing spell to keep it there.
Then he remembered he still held the emeralds, but the eyes were now beyond his reach. He wanted them out of his hands as soon as possible so cast another spell to lift them up and into place.
Done, he sighed and stood a moment looking into the eyes. They gave off a eerie sparkle, which would have drawn his interest any other time.
Chance could not climb the statue again to go out the sun hole and so turned away from the icon. He went back along the passage and to the stairs to the main building.
Red cult mages entered somewhere here. Making his way cautiously back through the passage, he often stepped over the bodies of mages. The Opal or the house killed them, he concluded.
He guessed that the Opal tried to tap the deep Earth magic released by the pedestal. Even so, the large number of cult mages alone would assure defeat and the broken gem confirmed that.
Which would explain, continued Chance to himself, why they were dancing around their fire up the hill. They were celebrating their victory over the Reading Opal. They were enjoying a moment of success and likely forgot about him entirely.
Chance wanted no part of them so explored until he found the Slep's secret. Cautiously, he went along a passage that ended at a postern. It opened easily and he went out the exit quickly.
Glancing back at it, he could not make out a door nor did a Seeker spell find one. He then moved into shadows along the wall toward the road he came on from Oosra.
* * *
As he rounded a corner, someone stepped out to stand immediately before him; it was Zoot and she was excited. Her face glowed; she whispered as she leaned closer to him: "All hail Chance, Master of Nessum's Library of Magic! God Mage!"
Even in shadow, Chance could see she wore armor but was alone. He was shocked hearing her exalt him: 'god mage'.
She beamed in adoration and extended her arms to the side as she whispered: "You have always been more powerful - more bold - your destiny is greatness! Come back with me - come to Oosra - with the Library, you can make it your city! We shall rule all with your power."
Chance stepped back from her, barely able to comprehend her words; she came closer. He continued to stare at her, still unable to say anything. Then he shook his head and tried to walk away. Zoot persisted; he told her: "I do not want power. I do not want to rule Oosra. I want only to leave."
Zoot purred: "Power is yours, God Mage, wanted or not."
Chance and Zoot were startled when a bleary-eyed mage rose from nearby bushes and shouted at them: "Soul-Eaters!"
The mage jumped out after his words and started to run the short distance to them. He raised a broad sword which flamed brightly red.
Zoot was distracting Chance again, and his magic was not fully summoned. He desperately raised his sword and tried to cast. The other's sword was swinging at them; he attempted to parry the coming blow with his own weapon.
The cult mage's sword cut through his and continued, slicing Zoot's head from her shoulders. It came close to penetrating Chance's hastily raised Thicken spell; he could feel the touch of steel against his neck as it pressed harder.
Wild rage erupted, beginning in his stomach, rising up his gut into his chest then filling his eyes. It howled in his mind, sweeping away all thought. He extended his arm, palm facing the other mage, and prepared to loose Explode.
Chance was completely focused on the deadly magic welling up from somewhere within him. A thick, white-hot beam of magic burst from his palm and shot directly into the cult mage, now not an arm's width from him.
The man exploded away from Chance in a splash of cloth, flesh and blood. Other cult mage's were drawn out by the explosion of magic.
Through demon eyes, he watched mages running from of the woods toward him. His killing rage welcomed them. His hand itched for a sword, and Chance picked up the one laying on the ground that Zoot dropped when she died. It throbbed in his hand.
Chance hefted the sword; it would do. He readied and snarled at those coming at him: "Run and live - fight and die."
He crouched slightly, posed for battle, and saw the effect of drugs in their eyes as they hesitated. Something brutal inside Chance was in control of him; blood lust hoped they would fight.
One of them stood tall, raised his sword overhead and called out: "Brothers, feel the spirit of the Red Dragon in us; we are Chosen!"
They paused, took a deep breath, then all charged at Chance. They died one after the other. His brother Svern, Sword Master, taught him well, and the demon surges within dominated him. Seeking any cult mages, he ran to their bonfire and began to hack methodically to death all the mages there.
When there were no more, no one within his reach remained alive, Chance sat on the ground by the bonfire; he was exhausted. Slowly, he fed his demon to the fire until he was calm again.
The day was well past midday; Chance forced himself to drag bodies to their victory fire. After throwing in Zoot's sword, he did not stay to watch them burn; he touched nothing in their camp. He considered them and their things too unclean to pick through.
His rage spent, he left Zoot to nature and began to trudge back to Oosra. He was drained, both physically and magically. As well there was an increasing disgust that affected his mood, a disgust of cults and of greed for power.
Chance was heart sick over his part in so many deaths. He closed his mind to thought and regret. By making himself run, he was able to reach Oosra by mid evening.
Once at the port again, he went directly to the docks and was not long finding Zoot's messenger ship. The captain was unsure about him but sold him passage then sent him to a cabin. Chance warded it with defense spells and lay down to sleep. His ship left port that evening and sailed through the night.
* * *
The air on the sea was fresh and cool, thus Chance felt better and relaxed. He was going to the East. At least he managed to get away, but he was unsure what dangers Beerron might have for him. With certainty, he knew the incident at Nessum's palace would follow him.
Chance slept till late the next morning and stayed in his cabin. He went out only when the lookout called that land was ahead, so he was on deck when the swift passage came to an end.
It was midday when he disembarked at Beerron; he did not know the city. There were inns nearby, so he chose one and settled in quietly.
Feeling safe at least temporarily, he took time to think that he now carried some kind of mix of Nessum's amber and Misdan's Opal. He worried that this plus the death of so many mages meant trouble would be after him quickly.
Beerron itself was tucked behind a strong defense built on the bay side of the harbor. After a few days, he felt that he was not being followed, not yet, so began to explore the city. Around the port, Beerron spread out into markets, quarters, and trader compounds.
Everywhere, narrow alleys led away from main streets. Brought up in modern Kehdyport and the manors near it, he thought this city cramped and lacking much in the way of what he called character. It contained a large Hier and Enclosed quarter both of which he stayed away from.
Along the roads of the Open quarter, the common population of Beerron lived in plain, four or five-storey houses. The side streets often led to small squares that contained Day markets.
Chance found it easy to be anonymous in these markets and could avoid places where mages congregated. He picked some public houses to spend time in so he could hear any news about him. There was little at first then more.
* * *
Over the next few days, he learned that he massacred over fifty elderly Red mages on a contemplative retreat, kidnapped and murdered a prominent citizen of Oosra named Zoot and desecrated a Slep temple. There were two warrants for his arrest, and the Schools formally declared him outlaw.
Red mages set a Grand Dragon Death Edict against him, which compelled other mage orders to seize him on sight. He knew of only one in the East, the Black Order and that it was mostly made up of mages from a place called Pusha.
The search for him would eventually come to Beerron, so he moved to inns in the Crafts district, usually situated on a specialty market. One day, he wandered into a square that featured herbs and related products.
Small-goods traders lined their wagons into rows and did business from them. As he surveyed it with curiosity, he noticed an attractive young woman selling herbs from a stall. She did not have a man around.
She was close to his own age, a few years younger, and sold teas as well as herbs. Chance looked at her more closely over the next days when he happened by. She was not like the local folk, and he learned from a nearby innkeeper that she was Caot, from the north.
One day, he stopped and examined her wares, and her. She treated him politely when he made comments about salves or asked about tea.
Nearer to her at those times, he noticed her poise, the way she lifted her chin, the manner of her speaking. She seemed able to adjust her Common to her customers, Trader Common being the most used dialect.
She was not friendly or chatty with him, showing only professional courtesy. He kept himself mannered and did not try to flirt with her, other than standing up straighter, flexing his wide shoulders and smiling seductively.
One day, when Chance was being more forward than usual, she told him: "Mage, for you are a mage are you not, do not press yourself on me. You are not invited."
Chance felt sure that she was not saying no and meaning yes. She remained facing him for a moment longer, then she went back to her business as if Chance was not there, had not been there ever and could never be there.
He was troubled by her outright rejection and avoided her for a while. Some days later, he returned to her stall.
She was polite. He learned that time that her name was Rixt, she made herb and tea mixes for ailments and she was not interested in him.
Chance smiled and then bowed to her: "I am Chance of Kiping from Kehdy. Yes, I am a mage, by my nature. But perhaps you could bring yourself to consider me anyway?"
Rixt turned from him to take care of a customer. Chance waited quietly and stayed out of the way. When they were alone again, Rixt squared her shoulders and spoke directly to him. She said bluntly: "I have no magic, but my brain tells me you are very possibly the outlaw mage that is all the talk round the markets."
She took a breath and recited: "A murderous maniac; a slayer of helpless women. And a fiend who destroys temples. And you would court me? What can this be about?"
Chance was surprised that word of him reached even here and to common folk. He shrugged but reasonably agreed he did not sound very attractive. He remarked that stories become exaggerated in retelling. She did not soften.
He was bothered that she recognized him as the outlaw; others would eventually as well. He planned to be more careful in his wanderings about Beerron from then on.
Chance changed inns often, before a keeper became suspicious. He tried to play the innocent and rarely stayed two nights in one place, but he frequented an inn on the herbal market.
Most of his days were now spent on the inn's porch, where he drank cider and read. He occupied a small table on the side from which he could watch passing traffic.
The herbalist's stall was directly across from him, but he spent his time reading his book and only glanced in her direction. It was from that choice seat that he began to watch her each day.
She left the stall in the morning and returned with the makings of a meal from a nearby Day market. She did this in the afternoon as well. When she went, she did not look at the inn. She kept her gaze in front and walked purposefully.
There was nothing inviting about her moves, but Chance thought them very graceful. He was becoming more obvious, and the usual waiter who brought him a fresh cider noticed.
As he set a fresh mug on Chance's table, he remarked: "Good luck with her, sir. She has been tried by damn near all of us, and no one has managed to break that filly."
Chance was momentarily surprised at being spoken to. This sort of thing was becoming much to everyday. Ignoring his annoyance, he shrugged and replied: "However, she is handsome - rests my eyes from reading."
Over the next few days, the news about him spread until it even came to the inn where Chance was spending his days. He heard the Master of Beerron hired a Black Order assassin.
All thought the outlaw rogue's days to live were few. Soon enough justice would catch up with the criminal. The Schools' Law was invincible.
Chance rarely joined in the conversations at the inn, because the talk did not interest him. His story was he was an apprentice mage on a study in Beerron. He resolutely passed on any effort to bring him into discussions, so he was ignored.
Talk at his current inn continued to be about the assassin. The next day, he woke and paid his bill then left. When he arrived at the market inn's porch, he was surprised to see Rixt's place in the row empty. He went over to other stalls and asked merchants about her. She left yesterday for the trade fair on Hoiya island.
This was a good time to leave Beerron, and up-bay Hoiya was a safe place. Sloder was an assassin but was not near the level of an Order assassin. This new one was assuredly dangerous. And, he admitted he wished to go to the fair to try with Rixt again.
He went to the inn and settled his day account, which pleased the innkeeper who was happy to be rid of him. Already packed, he went to the docks via side alleys and was able to get a place on the midday boat to the barrier island of Hoiya.
* * *
The trip up the western side of Beerron bay was smooth and the day was bright. Chance became more optimistic just by being out on a boat.
The ferry left him at a small port on the bay side of the island after making stops at other barrier islands. Their names reminded Chance of a sailing trip he made one summer when visiting Kiping. He sailed a few of the rim of islands along the Miene sea side of Beerron bay on that odyssey.
From people in the port town, he learned that the trade fair was inland in a region known as the Waist, a hilly area between the bay and sea sides of the island. Chance went that way, obtaining further directions as he walked along.
At the grounds, it did not take him long to find Rixt, as the fair was only beginning. He walked up to her, and the expression on her face was not one that might be mistaken for a welcome. He stood before her, said hello and looked hopeful.
She glanced about, no one was looking at them, and waved him inside. Chance entered her tent and politely did not sit.
Rixt did, a look of irritation passing across her face. She invited him to sit down and then sighed as if having made up her mind about something, and unhappy with it.
She brusquely handed him some leaves of a plant she intended to crush: "Here - break these into that bowl. As you are here, be useful."
He thought it might help to have her hear his side. As they sat amid the bustle of the fair setting up for business, Chance admitted he was indeed the rogue mage but the story, like coins, offered another face.
He asked if she would listen to him and was told that she would. She did not look open to it, but he began to tell her about the Opal, Slice Pass inn, Tupello, Slep, Nessum's palace and Zoot. He admitted to stealing the Eyes of the Perfect One but said he put them back, which was how he came to kill so many Red cult mages.
She remained quiet while he wandered through the story. Chance did not mention the innkeeper in much detail nor did he explain how he knew Zoot.
When he was done, she sat silently for a while. Plainly, she was thinking about what he said and what she heard. The truth must wait, because he sat here beside her right now. So, she said precisely: "Except for the emeralds, I do not see how you could have done other than you did."
Chance became more hopeful. She continued: "From your story, the Opal appears to be crazy - the killing in Tupello - and violence at this palace seems not to be your fault - you did not start it."
She gave him a look that suggested she knew quite well how he was linked to the Oosran woman. She continued: "About Zoot, I believe a woman might attempt to convert a man to her ambition - well, she was taking a big gamble tempting you - one she lost."
Rixt almost smiled at him as she shook her head and added: "The emeralds, well now, that was silly. I have never seen a Slep but have heard enough tales. Of the amber, I have no judgment on that."
Later, she shared her evening meal with him, which he thought was a good sign. He slept under the wagon; she slept in it. In the morning, he was kept busy helping to set up for business and caring for the horse rented with the wagon.
The trade fair was held quarterly and was attended by all on Hoiya and nearby islands. Chance helped with the displays of herbs, salves and teas and was often sent to run ordinary errands. After hours, there was much to do for the next day.
Chance felt safe in the bustle and crowds, and he enjoyed the change from his usual habits. Rixt gradually softened toward him, sometimes smiling at him or looking at him from the corners of her eyes. He kept himself steady.
He behaved as if he was helping one of his sisters and stayed out of sight when he could. The fair continued on its own business around them.
He did not use his magic at all; however, when he did, he sat by himself and took time to examine his souvenir of Nessum' palace with its absorbed Opal. The honey-colored stone always appeared as only an amber.
He was able to see books inside it but only scattered stacks. It seemed carelessly messy for a library. Of the Reading Opal, there was almost nothing except occasional flecks of color.
As the fair came to an end, Rixt announced she planned to stay on Hoiya longer. There was a ruin of a monastery in the southern hills of the island. She wanted to go there to gather herbs and invited Chance to come along.
She remarked: "From what I have heard from others here, you are feared and the hunt is on in Beerron. The descriptions of you are very vivid: ram's horns stand out from your brow - and other, vulgar signs of your bestiality. A Schools High Assassin - Black Order - stalks you."
* * *
Chance was happy to come along with her to gather herbs in some remote wood. Her words brought him back to reality and the dangers he was running from. He would have to stand against his enemies one day but not this one. They took down her stall and left the fairgrounds.
Rixt drove and followed a country road that led them southward, eventually arriving at a ruin in an isolated crescent valley among hills. They came on a few scattered farms but none were near the old monastery grounds.
For Chance, this time on Hoiya was a pleasant break from danger. And, everything considered, his skills with magic increased greatly during the time he possessed it.
There remained a bit of the show off in Chance's personality; thus, he demonstrated how he got gold. At a stream, he cast and pulled out a nugget.
As Rixt watched, fascinated, he ground the piece in his hand and then held out a perfect gold coin. She thought that amazing and was pleased when he handed it to her.
As the days passed from first quarter into summer, he fell into an easy habit of breakfast with Rixt, wandering fields where he learned what was what and carrying baskets of plucked leaves back to the wagon. In the evening they talked while sorting and preparing plants.
After he offered to cook so she could work herbs more, and did not burn the meal, Rixt was happy to let him do all the cooking. He kept to basic recipes he knew well from his sisters' teaching and did not try to be fancy.
One evening while they drank tea by the campfire after a filling stew, Rixt asked him about himself. He said he was from Kehdy, youngest of a big family and always showed strong magic. Most of his childhood was spent under mages who taught him to control his power and improve it.
He told her of finding the Opal at age fifteen and leaving the Schools at seventeen. Wandering Kehdy county filled most of the next five years, and he related briefly about the Recluse he studied with during that time.
Wandering after his curiosity was foremost in his life: he read the ancient scrolls and books avidly. He spoke of enjoying puzzling out complicated spells and was never more satisfied than when all the pieces were clear in his mind.
He could tell that Rixt obviously thought him odd but not overly so. She was a little odd too. In turn, he asked about her and was told she was Caot, from Egenlar.
He did not react to that so she went on saying that she learned herbs from her cousin Cado. Chance thought she left out much, such as anything about her family or life in Egenlar.
He did not prod for more but noted the gaps. Chance guessed her age at around twenty. Completing her story, she said she started working in Nodun as an apprentice but left for Beerron and its bigger market once she was confident enough in her skill.
She confessed that she worked with herbs and thought of little else. There was never a time she could recall, not really, when she was not absorbed by her profession.
The time passed peacefully for both of them. They settled into a familiar routine and from that to easy conversations, both while working and around their campfire.
Chance discovered she tended to good sense, an even disposition and a warm, humorous outlook on life and herself. She found him more than a little introspective, well-mannered but steeped in the arrogance of his class.
* * *
Rixt finally told him they were almost done here. They traded some teas with a village for wine and drank it over their last evenings at the ruin. She remarked that the nights were still chilly and asked if he was all right sleeping on the ground.
She suggested that perhaps he should sleep in the wagon; they would both be warmer. He finished his wine, yawned and answered that he would like that.
As they packed the wagon a few days later to leave, Rixt said: "Chance, I have become used to your face and will miss it. But, I have a business and it needs Beerron. You are in danger there."
Chance stopped what he was doing; the realization that she was saying goodbye to him shouted in his mind. He did not want that to happen, he wanted...
Slowly, he turned to face her then indicated they should sit a moment. He could see from her face that she was unhappy.
Had he been selfish? Had his own problems shut him off from realizing what he was doing to her. She was in danger because of him. He answered her honestly: "I understand you must return - your business is important. I will come with you and live as we have - unless you rather I did not. I can pass for ordinary."
Rixt seemed to become more sad hearing that. She picked at the edge of the blanket they were sitting on before saying simply: "Can You?"
At once, Chance started to tell her about his Fade and Expectations spells but did not. Instead, he thought more on appearing common, chiefly that he knew nothing about it. He asked bluntly: "What? If I wear the right clothes, who is to know?"
This was the part that Rixt hoped to avoid. She sighed giving herself time to pick the words she wanted to use. She did not want to blurt out something that would hurt him.
With a half grin, she teased: "They search for a Kehd - you look like a Kehd. An elite - you carry yourself like nothing other than high-born. A man of the better classes - you are that quite plainly."
Two of her words caught, and she knew instantly which ones. She regretted it, but Chance was already asking what she meant by quite plainly.
Perhaps being blunt would end this, and she said: "Presumption, posture, voice. How you stand, walk, look at the world."
He started to snap at her but held it. Instead he thought about what she actually said. As evenly as he could manage, he asked: "How is a common man different? Other than clothes."
She, in turn, took his question seriously and reflected that this man sitting opposite her might be able to look and act the part enough to fool Beerron. He passed for ordinary at the fair.
She leaned back on her arms and answered: "Before his betters, he does not stand up straight, looks at the ground ahead of him and speaks only when invited to."
Now she was smiling: "With his own, he is master of his house and a good fellow to have with you in a fight. I do not doubt the second but we shall have to discuss the first."
Chance matched her smile: "I still look like a Kehd. Or shall I dye my hair and beard darker?"
She flicked her own light brown hair, laughing and enjoying the feeling of it on her back. Her eyes hooded slightly, and she remarked that she felt enough Kehds were sired around the bay so that his face would not stand out too much. Chance leaned into her and they kissed.
They were late getting out of the valley and the first issue became a joke between them. Rixt explained a man does not sit on the side while the woman drives the wagon. It is the reverse.
Chance said he never drove so much as a cart before, to which she replied he will have by the time they reach the port.
When they passed through a village, Rixt decided to stop. She climbed down, took up some herbs and went to speak with different households. Later, she returned with worn and mended clothes.
He changed farther down the road and packed away his vest, soft boots and silver belt. He transferred the gemstone to an inside pocket which he sealed with a spell.
Chance was gradually able to control the horse and thus the wagon. Rixt watched closely at first but relaxed as he seemed to learn quickly.
The road was not busy, and they arrived at the small port on the bay side of Hoiya before evening. Rixt directed him to the stables where she returned the horse and wagon.
She would not let him pay and instead used her earnings from the fair. The gold piece he gave her was a keepsake and stayed in her pocket.
They missed the last ferry to Beerron but were pleased to have another night together in a safe place. The next day, they rose early, shouldered sacks of herbs and went to a cafe to wait for the first boat. When it was ready to depart, they boarded with many others and stood on the deck with their baggage.
Chance was working his Expectations spell while they sailed to Beerron. The others on the ferry saw him as someone every day, a man who looked like a fellow they knew who was a little slow.
Rixt was nervous and watched people around them for any sign that Chance's disguise was not effective. The ferry eventually entered Beerron harbor and docked at the busy landing set aside for such.
* * *
Chance and Rixt disembarked with the rest of the crowd, his Expectations spell at full force. No one noticed or remarked on them as they walked swiftly into town and headed for their market.
Back at the Herbals square, Rixt spoke with the master and received material for her stall. They stacked the bags of herbs collected on Hoiya and began to erect the wood frame. Once it was firm, they draped the awnings and then began to tack side panels in place.
Chance said he would tie the panels, so Rixt went into the back area to unpack. As he started to close two sides, the cloth was abruptly pulled apart, a muscular hand reached in and grabbed Chance by the throat. Another arm was swinging at him striking towards his shoulder.
Spells shot out from Chance; he deflected the blow to his shoulder but could not pry his assailant's grip from his throat.
Putting all his strength into it, he slammed his fist into the other man's stomach. The mage gasped but did not release his grip on Chance.
Rixt screamed when the assassin first tore out the front panel so people on the market were already looking at where two mages fought. They were kicking at each other, trying to trip, but were closely matched. Struggling and firing off magic in bursts that lighted even the midday sky, they knocked away the stall's frame. That drew a bigger crowd to watch the fight.
Rixt stood back from the two, concentrating on what was happening, then acted. Suddenly, Chance felt the Black mage go slack and release his hold on Chance's neck. Sinking to his knees, his face showed surprise then pain, he fell forward. Chance saw Rixt's dagger stuck into the man's lower back.
Chance gasped for breath but managed to kick the man hard, sending him backward out into the nearby crowd. The body tumbled to a stop; the mage seemed to be dying.
Rixt grabbed Chance's arm and dragged him into what remained of the structure. They were not yet unpacked so shouldered their baggage and went hurriedly down the pathway behind stalls toward a main street.
In the market, more people were coming out of their stalls and houses; they stared fearfully at the writhing body of the Black mage screaming in pain. No one knew why the mage attacked the man with the herbalist.
Chance and Rixt were now out of the market and turned into the first major street they came on, slowing to a normal pace. They headed towards the nearest gate, but Chance was having trouble keeping up.
He was exhausted, was just regaining his breath and carrying bulky sacks. Rixt saw and led him to a cafe. Grateful, he entered with her, set down his load and sat.
Rixt ordered tea and two plates of the day's lunch. Chance's arm was painful where the assassin struck it; he rubbed it in a massaging motion. Their food and drink arrived, and they ate silently.
Neither was ready to speak, but Rixt was thinking her hopes of starting a business were gone and Chance of where to go after leaving Beerron. Suddenly, Magic shifted, the faint web of magic that is as common as air.
Chance sat up straight and looked at nothing. He then leaned towards Rixt and whispered: "He is not dead - his magic is exploding - he is eating life to appease death!"
The noise of a boom then a screeching, whistling noise echoed from the market. Everyone in the cafe stopped what they were doing and looked about in fear.
Outside in the street, a molten ball of magic dropped from the sky and splattered on stone. People flooded into the cafe to get away from mage fire.
As they gabbled in their shock, fire-watch towers in the nearby quarters began to ring out an alarm. The gates between districts were readied to close quickly should a neighborhood start burning beyond control.
G. Wiley / NLStrabo - © Copyright - All rights reserved