Chance felt responsible for leaving the man alive and started to stand up, saying: "I must go back and finish him - I cannot let him kill..."
Rixt cut him off sharply: "Don't be so stupid - they will nab you at once!" She waited before adding: "Please? It is too late already."
As if confirming her, even more people pushed into the cafe, getting off the street. The sound of hoof beats came from the direction of the quarter's barracks, and soon the Master's guards galloped past the cafe.
They turned and headed into the street leading to the side market. Mage Fire continued to drop on to the street, terrifying horses. Chance and Rixt exchanged a glance: unsure when they could run.
The crowd jabbered: a Black mage was spilling magic in all directions, the outlaw mage was loose and the city guards were out in number.
Rixt was gauging the crush of people at the cafe's entrance for an opening they could pass through, then spoke softly to Chance: "There is a youth standing in the front portal. He looked closely at you - I think he knows who you are."
Chance stiffened not knowing who it could be and turned to look. He recognized a youth and rose to stride rapidly toward the porch. It was the carry-all boy! He closed on him and snarled: "Alsen? Alsen! Do not run!"
Chance spoke with command in his voice; he drew his dagger and held it at Alsen's neck. He cursed under his breath at this unwanted youth: "Try to escape me and I will cut your throat."
Alsen cowered wide-eyed and open-mouthed. He did not look at the dagger and did not move. Chance grabbed him by the collar and frog-marched him back to where Rixt waited.
He sat Alsen firmly on a stool then tucked his blade back into his cloak. Rixt looked puzzled and then remembered Chance speaking of the boy who carried his Opal.
Magic still exploded in the street but was weaker. The crowd edged back out of the cafe, drawn by curiosity; that turned to panic as people ran from the side market in fear. The mounted guards who entered the market now burst out and raced away, breaking through the crowds.
Behind them, a darkness seemed to seep on to the main road from the alley. Rixt nudged Chance as she looked at the mass of people and horses and said to him: "We should run for the gates like everyone else."
They picked up their bags and left the cafe to mix into the mob going towards a nearby quarter's gate. Where the flow clogged, Chance used magic to ease their way through and to keep a short leash on Alsen. They went at a fast pace on to a ring road that led to a traveler's inn.
* * *
Chance negotiated three seats on the next carry-all out of Beerron going southwards. They went to the wagon, loaded their sacks and climbed up on to their places.
The crush of people coming from the city grew as smoke began to rise from fires. Chance looked back at it, impatient to begin, and thought about the assassin.
The man was powerful. Chance recalled the shoulders, chest and arms and was amazed he held off as long as he did. The assassin's magic was precisely refined, no doubt from training by the Black Order. His throat was sore from the grip of the man's hand. It felt at the time like a steel collar that squeezed out breath.
Then the driver signaled they were ready and drove the wagon skillfully through the crowd. He shouted 'make way' loudly and exchanged curses with those pushed aside.
The wagon passed people hurrying out of the city and was soon traveling a main trade route. The driver moved the carry-all quickly along to keep his schedule as much as be away from walkers. There were many inns on this road, but they kept going steadily until they reached one on a rise, where the driver pulled over to change the horses.
While horses were switched, everyone climbed down to stretch and looked back at Beerron. All the way from the city, talk was about the mage fight but switched to how bad the fires might be.
Chance kept a firm grip on Alsen and stood with Rixt, slightly away from the others. They climbed back on to the wagon when the driver called for them to board.
As the carry-all rumbled along, thoughts came to Chance's mind. One dominated: the Black mage was fighting for his life and willing to kill as many as needed for that. He bet the man would be successful, he would live.
It was certain too that the man would pursue him once healers patched wounds. He did not want another fight with the man, restored and pumped up with hate.
Chance asked Rixt what was farther down the road. She answered it went to Chemeh, a port in the Basso region, adding it has a large garrison of the Master's troops. Chance wanted to be away from people and suggested they buy a cart, at least, in the city. That meant leaving the carry-all, and Rixt was thoughtful, glanced at their sacks and agreed.
The carry-all ended its journey in Chemeh in the Open quarter. Chance, Rixt and an unhappy Alsen left and looked for a cartwright. The street where that craft was worked was not far, and a purchase was made quickly. The cart could be pulled by a donkey or a man.
They loaded the sacks of herbs, and Chance grabbed up the poles fixed to it and began to pull it along. Rixt and Alsen were on either side, pushing, and so they left Chemeh.
* * *
Rixt was quiet. She was wondering if she was being foolish to stay with Chance, foolish to bring him to Beerron. She decided that foolish did not begin to describe it; however, she came this deep with him so would continue. She was deeply distrustful of the boy Alsen.
As they walked along down a road that went to the south, Chance tried to ease Alsen. He made a remark about his change of status since they last met. He said he was now outlaw as well as rogue. Alsen did not answer.
"Truth," Chance rambled, "Since we parted in Tupello, I am known as a demon mage - slayer of peaceful monks, desecrater of temples, and murderer of women - well, really only one woman. And I didn't kill her."
Alsen did not look up and only nodded without glancing at Chance, whom he was afraid of. As the mage made no move to kill him, so far, he tried to keep up his end of this conversation.
He volunteered that when he was on his own in Tupello, things seemed to go well but then soured quickly. He did some things which he preferred not to talk about.
With an effort to smile, he finished with: "Looks as if we are both in bad grace with the world. I'll just follow along a while, if you don't mind."
Chance preferred to keep him close but not out of affection. He was not even sure he liked the boy at all; however, Alsen could identify him.
The feeble conversation died, and they spoke little among themselves as they continued farther from Chemeh into a region called Goat county.
Rixt did not know this area so Chance asked villagers when they stopped to rest. He learned that the road went to a place called Flas. The region round that city was said to be primitive and only nominally ruled by the Pusha empire through the Master of Beerron.
That information appealed to Chance, so they continued on the road through an uninviting, infertile countryside that lined the coast in this region. Rixt did not know of Flas but heard of a Laat Valley, eastward of Goat. She knew someone who lived there and so told Chance.
They halted for the night in the open away from settlement. Chance went about the nearby scrub and returned with rabbits for the evening meal. He began to skin one, handing the other to Alsen. Rixt made a small fire and set a kettle and a pot on it.
Before long, meat was cooking over the fire, and a pot simmered with vegetables gathered from the wild. Alsen sat glumly and helped when told to. Soon the meal was ready and they ate heartily after the day of walking and hauling.
They drank tea after eating, during which Rixt explained that a childhood friend lived in the Laat Valley. They had not seen each other since both left Egenlar but were close friends still.
Thinking of the assassin, Chance asked if she would go ahead, to her friend. She was puzzled a moment until he explained his feeling that the assassin mage would come after him. He did not want Rixt anywhere near when that fight began.
She thought over his request and did not like being apart from him. He went on to say Alsen could escort her and then be free to go where he wished. Alsen perked up hearing that and looked at Rixt with his most innocent and chivalrous expression. She was not persuaded.
However, she accepted Chance's wishes and told him her friend lived near D'gre. She did not know where in the valley that was but thought Chance could simply ask directions. Her friend's name was Dette, and she was married to a man named Shom, of a landowning family outside the town.
This plan was agreed, and Alsen said he would go along with Rixt to keep her safe. The menacing expression on Chance's face when he said that warned how dangerous the mage could be if Alsen failed to do so.
The next morning they came into a medium-sized town, where Chance stocked up provisions for his return to the north. He handed Rixt a pouch which contained gold and said it should be enough for their expenses.
Alsen's eyes lighted up seeing it and he smiled happily. They ate a meal at a part-time inn and then split up.
* * *
Rixt sat with Alsen and finished her tea. Clearly she was not welcoming but did not put it in words. She thought about her herb business, how it just disappeared. Gone like that, she reflected, because of this mage and his stupid stone.
However, she admitted to herself that she was growing fond of him and could work out her herb business later.
Finally, she ended the debate she was having with herself. Rixt suggested they move on. Alsen reached for the gold Chance left with them. Rixt placed her hand over his, firmly, and said: "Alsen, shall we go buy the passage now - do what Chance has asked?"
He could only nod and pull his hand away slowly. She smiled at Alsen, but it was not a friendly nor trusting expression. Rixt dropped pretense and simply looked at him, seeing easily what he intended: "Do not worry, Alsen, what is left after buying passage is yours. I do not need it."
The innkeeper sold them tickets for carry-all seats on that afternoon's regular trip to Laat Valley. As well, he happily bought the cart when Rixt told him she was done with it.
She took Alsen to wait for the carry-all and handed one pass and the remaining gold to him. He pocketed it and left saying he would be back later.
That Alsen was not back when passengers were called for the carry-all did not surprise her. She considered it a cheap price to get rid of the youth. She did not regret his absence.
Instead, she was eager to see Dette again. It was now five years since they parted at Egenlar; she pushed down memories. With Chance, she left out how it was she and Dette were friends. Nor did she say anything about how both came to leave Egenlar at the same time.
That could wait. Chance showed no awareness of Egenlar; she assumed he must been been traveling then and simply paid no attention to foreign news.
* * *
Chance was uneasy about leaving Rixt and had no confidence in Alsen. However, he did in her; so, he turned to the fight he was going towards.
He sent out Seeker spells to sniff for any specific searching that was looking for him. He found a few but they were faint. Even so, it confirmed to him that he was pursued.
The road back toward Chemeh was joined by country trails that were used by local folk. The monthly Full Moon market in the port drew them. Such gatherings were where people could buy things not available in their village and where they could sell surplus.
By law, farmers and country craftsmen could only sell in bulk to Guild traders who were licensed. Chance saw several wagons carrying produce and was curious about the traffic.
Chance lived at a family manor when on holiday from the Schools; however, he knew little of those who lived outside the hall.
He reflected that perhaps Rixt was correct naming him an upper-class son of privilege. It was an accident of birth and as irrevocable as one's face or body.
That was his attitude, and he never concerned himself much that he was lucky where others were not. But even so, Rixt brought new ways of seeing his life, and he was starting to question his attitudes and opinions.
His life until he met her was generally pleasant. Certainly there were rough times, but he admitted that those were usually his own fault. He assigned that to his nature which he thought was gifted.
Modesty was a useful social art, but he did not see a need for it otherwise. However, meeting her stirred up some changes in him; he was unsure how he felt about that.
Walking common, how he thought of it, required concentration which was annoying. He preferred to dabble with whatever came to his attention. For now anyway, he tried harder, and no one on the road looked at him twice.
Smugly, he felt his Expectations spells were the reason he was able to pass without being recognized. He was confident in his regard of himself and what he could do with magic, that most others could not.
The nearer he came to Chemeh, the stronger the searching spells became. Chance decided on a side trail and went inland toward hilly country east of the port.
After searching about for a day, he chose a hilltop site near a rare stream in that dried-out land and began to lay down spells.
* * *
In Beerron, events eased back to normal: fires were put out and bodies were removed from the market. Senior Black mages took custody of the murderous assassin.
Unhappy, the appointed Master of the city paced the high porch of his residence in the Hier. He did not look at or admire the view; he strode back and forth on the balcony, angry and frustrated at not having the outlaw's head and gemstone.
His thoughts mocked him: he paid gold and got disaster. He saw no way things were not fouled.
The Black Order's proud assassin failed too. He was unwilling, at first, to hire the assassin, because he wanted the rogue's stone for himself and did not trust in the Order.
The Master was forced to summon senior mages when the assassin failed so spectacularly. Now there were High Mages running around in Beerron which displeased him. He did not like so many of them near his business, in his city.
They waited in the court room while the Master calmed himself. Once his temper was more under control, he strolled back indoors to where mages waited to hear his wrath.
The Master sneered and addressed them: "Sorry work this! Absolutely dismal! How incompetent is your Order?"
Three men stood stiffly; they were not used to being spoken to in this way. No one other than someone ranked as high as the Master would dare. The man's anger rekindled quickly and was turned on them: "One demon mage loose in the city and now is added one of yours gone crazy!"
The Master was told that the Black mages subdued the assassin, there would be no more damage. That did not mollify in the least, and he swiveled his scowl toward his guards captain.
The Master grew red in the face and his frustration with the captain erupted. He drew his sword and plunged it hard into the startled captain's chest. The Master twisted the weapon then kicked the dying body away. Servants scurried over to remove the failed man from the Master's sight.
That release appeared to satisfy him somewhat, and with a snarl of contempt, informed the senior mages that the outlaw was still loose and still in possession of his magic stone.
He stated threateningly that they better correct this stupid error on their part. That was to be done at once or else. Then he became tired of this and wanted wine. He issued a blunt dismissal with a wave of his hand and stomped out of the room.
* * *
The senior mages left the Master's residence and went directly to their Order house in the Enclosed quarter. Once they were private and waiting on refreshments to be brought, the First remarked that the meeting was better than he feared it might be. He added that the Master has a bad temper in the calmest of times.
The Second was cynical saying that it was a guards captain who paid the penalty, not them. The Third wondered what was taking the server so long. Finally wine arrived, and they took time to gulp down several cups before talking more.
Asserting his position in their triad, the First was firm saying they should kill the assassin and leave before the Master became more crazy. Only the Second disagreed, except about leaving. Being related to the Master, the First could say what he did, but the other two could not.
The First was still harsh and demanded the assassin die: "He has eaten what is forbidden. He has become an abomination."
"Only to live. He ate only on reflex in his desperation. Any of us would have done the same." answered the Second.
The Third tended to side with the First in most matters and did so now: "He is tainted, soiled, unclean, untouchable - not human."
The argument among the senior mages continued with the First trying to sway the other two: "He most certainly may not remain in the Order; we must publicly renounce him."
The Second mage was more tolerant and proposed another use for the assassin. He spoke with care in order to persuade: "He can cleanse himself; his actions were without prior intent to eat. He is not innocent but not guilty either."
The Third mage was steadfast and continued to support the First mage's view: "He must be shunned everywhere and, at the very least, stripped of his magic!"
They argued late into the night and ended in a compromise: they would mend what they could, but only that, and the assassin's magic must be stripped from him. It would not be painless for either the mages removing spells nor for the mage being reduced.
The following morning, they went to where the assassin lay under care of Healers, tied him to the bed and began. The injured mage cried out as they began the brutal spells to uproot magic.
Healers stood to the side and watched without interfering. Once the seniors were done, they left what remained to the care of those minor mages. Healers applied sedatives to the former assassin and washed their hands of him.
Late that night, the senior mages made a decision to keep the magic stone for themselves. However, their spies who watched the harbor reported no sign of any mage fleeing and could find no trace of the rogue's magic in Beerron. They accepted that their game escaped.
The Second now offered a plan which was listened to suspiciously by the other two. His suggestion was they use the assassin to lead them to the rogue. He was sure that the man would demand revenge and would follow the rogue's trail.
He spoke of the dagger, which the man still clutched. He left, returned with the blade and lay it on a table. The Second thought it could be used to track the rogue. They cast spells into it and discovered traces of magic spoor.
A second spell cast on the blade itself was not able to detect magic in it. Instead they sensed a woman's hand. It appeared that the rogue escaped his assassin with help.
Regardless of the finer points, all three were most interested in the stone the rogue carried. That object was recently rumored to contain the Reading Opal in an amber looted from ancient Nessum's palace.
Each of the senior mages thought how power and prestige might be greater with possession of such a tool. Precisely, each viewed the prize if he held the stone, meaning he alone.
The night ended with mutual distrust and professed agreement. The Second was given permission to carry out his plan to find the outlaw.
When dawn came, the Second went to where the assassin lay and woke him gently. He found no magic left inside the man and no feeling below the waist. The assassin was lame.
The Second decided to go ahead with his plan and trust to luck. The market where the killings happened, where the fires started from, was wrecked. The Second went there and wandered among the damaged or burned down stalls until he came to where Rixt's stood.
He spelled and sucked in all traces of magic he could identify. The assassin's was strong, as he thought it would be, so he carefully hunted for the outlaw's. He found it after a short search.
The Second returned to the Order house and merged the tracings of magic into an amulet. With that, he went back to the assassin and began to talk about revenge, honor and courage.
The healers did well, the man was sitting up but was plainly distressed that he could not walk. There was little compassion in the Second, but he fained sympathy, encouraged the desire to bring the outlaw to justice.
He was absolute in declaring that the fight was not fair, it was soiled by the trickery of a woman. No true man could permit that. An honorable man could not leave an insult unanswered. The assassin listened and believed.
Next, there was the mechanics of a man who could no longer walk. Though the Second did not know how the assassin could go after the outlaw, he was sure there was a way. Healers suggested an answer, and the Second looked at methods used by cripples.
Intrigued, the Second went with a Healer to see for himself. He was shown how a person sat on and was attached to a cushion. Once fixed, a man worked two shortened crutches to propel himself forward. Craftsmen and tailors were summoned to put together such a device.
It was tried and tested then pronounced ready. Within a few days, the assassin was poised to leave Beerron. The Second loaded him into a cart, covered him with a tarp and took him out of the city. Not far from the gate, the human cargo was transferred to Tinkers who carried the concealed assassin south in their wagon.
The First and Third watched all this and were skeptical. But, they wanted to know how this odd scheme worked out and queried the Second. He assured them the lame man would lead them directly to the rogue, a tracer amulet was hidden in the man's cushion.
The amulet worked in two ways. To the man using it, it was a spelled beacon locked to the outlaw's magic spoor. For them, it showed where it was, its location. Thus, they could follow it as the assassin hunted the outlaw.
They discussed exactly how they could remove the magic stone and benefit from capturing the heretic. Seizing and then holding were essential to their plotting. That seemed overly dangerous.
The decision was to send about twenty Battle mages to follow the assassin's trail. When the outlaw was cornered, the three seniors would come to finish him.
It was important to be at the scene to assure they received credit. None of them wished to do the deed itself.
* * *
Chance passed the first handful of days making the camp as sturdy and defensive as he could. The assassin cast a hammering magic during their fight; Chance paved the surrounding ground with spells that would alert him to that kind of weapon.
The searching spells he sent out continued to confirm that he was not yet found out. He could detect nothing targeted to him until a Seeker spell found one that did. It was moving, coming towards him. Chance checked his spells and relived the fight in Beerron for ideas.
A Monitor spell that Chance sent outwards reported the steady approach of magic. It was curious in that it appeared to move slowly at times while at others more rapidly.
As he waited, he also thought about the Opal inside an amber. He reached in his pocket and was surprised to find two stones in place of one. Both gems glowed in his palm; the Opal was separate from the amber.
Chance eased magic into each to identify himself. He was wondering how to contact whatever resided in the amber when he was startled by a voice, male, saying: "Misdan's Opal has shown me how to make a voice. I am a library - Nessum's. You may speak to me as you do to her."
He only recently discovered that the Opal could speak, and their conversations then were unpleasant. A second voice was addressing him now; he was still unable to understand how the Reading Opal came to have one in the first place.
It felt peculiar to be having a discussion with gemstones, and he hesitated to speak. He assumed, wrongly it seemed, that the Opal was shattered, and recalled how it ranted wildly when last it spoke. And, what use was a library without a librarian to explain it?
Chance did not see how the stones' advice could help but, having no other resource, began to relate his problem: "The Black assassin from Beerron comes for me. He is powerful and, if I am killed, will try to take you from me, if he can. He is a ghoul and may be stronger than mages Opal fought before."
The stones in his hand remained quiet. Chance wanted to say more but did not; He sat thinking that he was talking emotionally with stones and now was waiting for an answer.
Dust from a breeze annoyed him, and he felt this was time wasted. Thus, he was surprised to hear the Reading Opal. Her voice spoke bluntly: "All mages are vulnerable - the woman proved that already against the one who is coming."
She was speaking with a lecturing tone and expanded her point: "When you fought Sloder, I could kill him because he kept his eyes on you - not me. He did not expect me to act separately."
There was a pause before the Opal added: "That principle enabled me to slaughter Red mages in Tupello, nicely grouped as they were. In any situation, think first of the expectations in place - the assumptions you and your opponent have about each other."
She said no more, but Chance noted this was not the hysterical voice he remembered from the Perfect One's temple. The new voice spoke after a polite silence: "My histories state that more mages die from deception than in raw contests of magic strength. Nothing is as it appears."
The library was not done and spoke bluntly, unemotionally: "From a critique in Character of a Mage: 'trust carefully and slowly or, better, not at all. Deceive, dissemble, lie - never speak the truth. Do not expect a fair fight; do not fight fair yourself. Power is never handed over, it is taken.'"
There was small feeling of comfort after hearing their advice. Chance sensed the coming of his enemy. As his tension increased, he made himself practise 'slow' Sojo, a martial art that his brother Svern insisted he learn. Chance calmed himself but with difficulty.
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