The Long Road

by Elliott Olson

The town of Noril was two days behind Thanh and Binh so far their travel since leaving Kendalas had been uneventful. Thanh's proximity detection spells hadn't triggered on anything but wildlife, which had a different response resonance than sapients like humans, lutins or giants. The weather had also been pleasant for the past couple weeks.

As evening approached and they were considering searching out a good site to bed down, Thanh started sensing something other than wildlife off to one side of the road. "Binh, we'll need to proceed with caution, there's group off the road ahead to the left. Silence until I determine their makeup and diligence. They could be human, lutin or giants. While humans are likely to be no trouble to us, I'd rather not deal with the other possibilities. Stay here off the road while I scout them out to determine whether we might join them, camp apart or move along before settling in for the night."

"Yes Master."

"And have your San Jie Gun ready in case someone approaches while I'm away. You don't want to be caught alone and unprepared."

"Of course, Master Thanh."

Leaving Binh and the horses, Thanh focused more of his effort on stealth as he approached the detected mass of sapients, which felt through the spell like more than a mere hunting or scouting party. After a quarter mile he saw signs of nearby habitation. Going a little further, he didn't like what those signs were telling him, that this may be a lutin village. He continued only far enough to catch covert sight of a couple lutins before heading back to where he left Binh.

"Binh, we should go a bit farther before stopping for the night. We're too near a lutin village for my taste. I don't like pushing a stop farther on so close to dusk but I'd rather get some distance from them before stopping for the night."

"Lutins, Master? Do you think we can get by them?"

"Don't worry yourself overmuch, I think we can avoid them if we keep quiet and stay off to the right side of the road. We'll just have to watch out for any scouts or others wandering from the village."

They carefully continued, paralleling the road on the opposite side from the village. They went two more miles and set up their camp, with additional alarm wards set in concentric circles as well as a concealing illusion of thicker local brush.

The next morning after breaking fast and continuing on another quarter mile, veering back to the road, Thanh stopped with a concerned look. "It appears we are going to have company, there are sapients of some kind, likely lutins, in or near our path as well as apparently converging on our location. Ready your San Jie Gun." Then they continued a little farther until they found a small clearing, enough to allow movement as potential attackers arrive, and tied up the horses to wait.

As the first couple lutins came into view, Binh was visibly uneasy but standing in a ready stance. Thanh was leaning at ease against a tree with one section of his San Jie Gun slung negligently over his shoulder and called to them in an affable manner. "Good morning gentlemen, to what do we owe the honor of your visit this fine frosty morning?"

Taken a little aback at the jovial address, one responds, "You trespass on Death Walker clan land..."

"Trespass? No, we're not trespassing, we were just passing through and thought it prudent to put a little distance between us and your little village once we noticed its presence. That's the only reason we left the road, increased buffer." As four more approached from the sides the first drew weapons and the others followed suit. "Oh come now, you don't want to do that, you might get hurt."

"Ha! You talk big for man armed with sticks." the speaker said as a couple more lutins also arrived along Thanh's previous path.

As Thanh turned to tell Binh "Just remember what I taught you." the closest pair attacked just to find a blinding whirlwind of three-section staff segments beating back their swords with surprising, almost metallic, solidity. As four more joined the fray, the whirling wall seemed to speed up rather than thin out to counter their weapons. Meanwhile, Binh was also starting to parry the last two lutins' weapons, careful not to take direct blade-edge strikes on his staff's wood, instead deflecting on the flats, unlike some of Thanh's hits. Slowly, Thanh's attackers' grunts of exertion started being replaced with grunts and yelps of pain as Thanh pressed the attack back on them.

Suddenly, following a quick series of meaty thunks, Thanh's group of opponents fell over senseless nearly simultaneously and he joined Binh's efforts. The last two immediately backed off warily from their suddenly doubled opponents and looked over to their moaning comrades on the ground. "Now boys, I think you should take your buddies back home and forget we were ever here." Displaying an increasing grin, Thanh then started channeling palpable amounts of magical energy, such that even the non-magically-inclined could detect, "I also think it's only fair to inform you that I am a much worse fighter than I am a mage. I would be happy to demonstrate the latter if you'd like." White hot fireballs burned in his hands.

Instead of going to help their fallen comrades, the last two ran off in the general direction of the village as Thanh drained the energy he had been channeling back to its source. He and Binh unhitched their horses and continued on to rejoin the road. "Now that wasn't too bad, was it? It looks like your pair didn't touch you more than a cut sleeve. Did you get any hits in?"

"No master, I was scared witless. They could have gutted me!"

"Nonsense, boy. Sure, any number of mistakes could have resulted in injury, but you did well for your first real fight, even if it was only a pair of lutins."

"Master, why didn't you start out with the magic? The fight could have ended a lot sooner."

"If I had started by throwing fireballs and lightning bolts, a lot of damage could have been done to the landscape, as well as frightening the horses much more. I didn't want to kill anyone, just convince them to leave us alone to go on our way. It's unfortunate we don't have the luxury of letting this reputation go ahead of us, we might have avoided further confrontations because of it. But with winter coming on, I want to move on as quickly as possible, so we'll just have to try our best to avoid more confrontations on our own effort."

They continued down the road as before, only getting occasional indications of single followers until about noon, then it remained clear behind them.

Three days later as they were approaching Kelm, having bypassed Nasojassa in favor of a straighter if rougher route, the weather was turning to snow, slowing them down. It was nearly dark when they arrived and found an inn and took the baggage to their room as the ostler took care of the horses. After dinner they retired to their room to continue a little more of Binh's mage training before bed.

By the next day the snowfall turned into a blizzard as the wind picked up, so instead of continuing on (a foolish idea) they stayed and continued more training, magical studies in their room and San Jie Gun sparring in a cleared section of the common room. After one session the innkeeper, Hinsul, came over and commented, "That's quite the display there, but how are your sticks against a blade?"

"Oh, but this is more than display. Why, just the other day Binh here held off two lutins while I put down the other six. Granted, his San Jie Gun is only normal hardwood, but it'll still turn a blade with minimal nicks if done properly."

The innkeeper looked incredulously at the three section staff, "You killed six... ?"

"No, no, no!, I just knocked them senseless so they could return to their village when they woke. It wouldn't be fair to their wives and children to kill them just for scouting the periphery of their village, would it? Sure, they attacked first, but that doesn't mean I have to be lethal. Anyway, did I hear a hint of challenge there? Binh could always use more practice against different opponents"

A few soldiers entered the inn as the innkeeper responded, “Oh no, I didn't mean to challenge. I just thought it odd to be armed with such weapons when everybody else has swords, daggers, axes and such.”

“What's this,” said one of the soldiers, “a bit of weapon practice? I see you've already broken your staffs.” The others joined in with his laugh.

Thanh smiled back, "I assure you, these are exactly as they were designed. The only damage is the nicks and other wear you see on my old one." as he gestured toward Binh. "Would you like to spar a little with my apprentice? If you are too much for his skills, I'll gladly take his place."

The speaker gestured at a younger member of his group, "Densam, come show this boy a little something."

"Arduss," Hinsul said in a warning tone, "take it easy this time. I don't want to go through the hassle again of getting your commander to make you and your men pay for damages to my inn."

"Surely," said Thanh, "we can keep this down to a friendly sparring match, a demonstration of skills."

"Oh sure," Arduss said with a grin, "a friendly spar."

Densam and Binh centered on the cleared floor, twin daggers and San Jie Gun. After a minute of tentative probing of each other's defenses, they slowly picked up the pace, trading blows with parries. After a few minutes it became apparent that Binh was having no trouble with this single opponent, while Densam's frustration and anger were quickly building. Suddenly Densam was striking out with potentially more lethal attacks, at which point Thanh struck out lightning quick at the maximum reach of his staff and knocked the daggers from his hands, stinging them from the impact.

"Enough! I thought we agreed that this was to be a friendly spar."

Arduss responded, "Come now, it was just a bit of sprited fighting, nothing to get riled up over."

"I'm not the one getting riled up, it was your friend who was getting upset over his lack of successful attacks. At the end there he was out for blood."

"In war, it's all for blood, there is no taking it easy."

"Arduss," Hinsul said again, "this is fast approaching the point where you may owe me for property damage, again!"

"Come on Hin, we've only seen what the boy can do. I want to see how this guy does."

"Arduss, didn't you learn last winter not to underestimate an opponent? How many of Nasoj's forces never returned from that sneak attack on Metamor?"

"Shut up!"

"How many others deserted once the battle turned?"

"I said SHUT UP!"

Thanh stepped between Arduss and Hinsul to defend the innkeeper. "You want to try a little spar with me? Fine." Letting a little grin show, "Do you want to go one on one or do you need your friends for backup?"

"I don't need anybody to show you a thing or two!"

Thanh feigned a look of concern, "Oh my, Binh, you might want to step back to a corner to watch. You too master Hinsul, we wouldn't want bystanders getting hurt. The rest of you..." a quick confused look was replaced by a grin, "oh, do whatever you want."

As soon as Thanh and Arduss squared off, Arduss started his attacks, hardly probing for weaknesses in Thanh's defenses. Quickly countering the strikes, Thanh addressed Binh "Notice how he impatiently jumped to attack, not considering my possible strengths and weaknesses the way your opponent did. He lets his anger guide him."

"Quit yer yammerin' and stick with the fight."

"I'm sorry." Thanh said as he continued easily parrying the sword, "Was I letting some of your attacks slip by? I didn't notice them hitting."

"Just hush and fight."

"As you wish." Thanh then changed from mere parrying to adding to the energy of Arduss' swings so that the sword was now throwing him off balance. In addition, he also started including taps to Arduss himself, just enough to feel at first, but getting progressively harder.

Finally, Ardruss called out to his companions, "What're you lumps waiting for? Get over here and help!"

Just like with the lutins, rather than thinning out his attacks and defense, Thanh sped up his staff-work to meet the four additional combatants. Having already faced Binh and seeing Thanh's significantly higher skill, Densam was a bit more hesitant when joining the fight than the others but was emboldened a little by the presence of his comrades. Shortly they were all getting their share of bruises and jarred hands as each would occasionally lose his weapon from an unfamiliar strike.

Finally, when Arduss went down stunned for a few seconds, the others backed off. "Hey Ardy," one said, "I think we've had enough. Whada ya say we have dinner, a few drinks and go home like usual?"

"Now that's the most sensible thing I've heard you guys say in days." said Hinsul, "After a show like that, not even nicking more than the floor, I'll make the first round of drinks on the house if you promise to behave the rest of the night."

Arduss grumbled, "I don't know..."

Hinsul interrupted, "And... I won't mention all over town that you five together with swords were beat by one man with a stick."

Thanh added with a grin, "Without magic." As they promptly looked at him he said, "What? I assure you I used none." As they then started backing away nervously, he added, "Oh come on, don't be that way, I neither showed nor threatened you with my magic. I'll even buy the second round for being good sports about the fight, as well as honoring Master Hinsul's offer of silence on the matter. I mean, who do I know around here anyway to be spreading such rumors?" Shaking his head, he turned and walked to the bar, muttering something to himself too quiet to be heard by the others.

Looking at each other, Arduss and his companions considered the proffered two rounds of free drinks and slowly started making their way to tables, keeping their distance from Thanh — and Binh, who joined him. After the free drinks and meal, they had a few more rounds before leaving.

The next day was still stormy, keeping Thanh from leaving again. That evening Arduss' group came back with a few additions while Thanh and Binh were sparring and took seats in a far corner, the newcomers stupefied at the display. While taking their dinner orders, Hinsul overheard the disbelief over the claimed effectiveness against bladed weapons. "Gentlemen, believe me, you don't want to challenge him, even as a group with swords. He's not even going half speed there with his apprentice. Notice how effortless he makes it look, that's because he isn't even trying right now. Arduss and the others can attest to that."


"What, Arduss? I'm just saying you witnessed more than he's showing now." Hinsul grinned mischievously with that statement.

"Come now master Hinsul," Thanh said, as he and Binh put away their San Jie Guns, moving to a table to have their own supper, "don't you think you're pushing it a bit with Arduss? Anyway, we'll have two of today's special, at your convenience." Turning to Arduss and his expanded group, "And how fares the storm out there tonight, gentlemen?"

As Arduss was stewing over Hinsul's near breach of silence, Densam spoke up, "It appears the storm is lessening, Master Thanh. They say it may be over by morning."

"Ah, excellent! If that is so, we can get back to our journey south. I want to get as far as we can before the winter really sets in."

"And where are you going," asked Arduss, "Bremen, Lik?"

"Oh no, we're going through Caralore on our way to Metamor."

"You're what?! Why would anyone choose to go to that gods-accursed place? Don't you know that by staying too long in the valley you too will be cursed to be a beast, child or woman?"

"Well now, I wasn't aware that the curses were still ongoing, I thought it was just a one time effect from Nasoj's attack several years ago." Thanh got a thoughtful look on his face, "Tell me, if last winter's attack had turned into a longer siege, how were you expecting to avoid the curse yourself?"

Hinsul asked, "Arduss, do you still have that amulet they gave you last winter?"

"Right here," Arduss took off an amulet that had been hanging under his winter vest and held it out, "all the human soldiers got one."

Thanh looked for just a moment with mage sight before turning to Binh. "Oh my! Binh, you take a look at it and tell me what you see."

Binh concentrated on viewing the amulet with mage sight and appeared to be having trouble, to the point of moving much closer to look. "Master, am I seeing this correctly? I can barely see only one spell on it and that is very weak, like its charge has dissipated almost completely. It appears to be a warming spell but it's so sloppy it's hard to be sure."

As Arduss' face went from proud to shocked, Thanh confirmed, "That's right Binh, that warming spell is almost completely dissipated, it must have stopped providing warmth many months ago. I've never seen such sloppy enchantments, even from self-taught mages. I'm surprised there's even that much of the spell left to be seen. They must have employed novices, not even full apprentices to make so many amulets. And there's no sign that there was ever any kind of other protective spell on this one."

At this point, Hinsul started snickering, tears starting to form in his eyes, as Arduss responded, "Lies! Those were amulets to protect us from the curse!" At that, Hinsul broke out into hysterical laughter, drawing more attention from the few other customers in the room as Arduss rose threateningly from his seat.

Thanh rose as well to step between the soldier and innkeeper, "Easy now, we're not lying about your amulet's function, Nasoj did. Believe me, if there were ever any other protections in it, even failing after all this time, I would have found it." Looking over at Hinsul, "Our good innkeeper just seems to think it amusing that Nasoj cares more for some of his troops' comfort in winter than their protection against his curses on Metamor."

"His curses? They were cursed by the gods!"

"Some gods were probably involved for the power levels required, but beyond that the curses were Nasoj's doing after his centuries of failing to take Metamor."

Hinsul, regaining some measure of composure said, "Arduss, I've heard much the same from various sources, including some of your superiors, that Metamor's curses were all Nasoj's plan, not some punishment from the gods."

"Watch what you say, Hin. Saying something like that could get you arrested."

"And you watch who you're threatening, Arduss. Remember who your Squadron Major is, my sister can make life very miserable for him if anything happens. How miserable do you think you'llbe if he's miserable? Not to mention how miserable yoursister will make your life if something you did or said sent her husband to jail. Arlynn wouldn't like it one bit if she had to run this inn day and night all by herself."

That double jeopardy immediately put a halt to Arduss' threat, "Alright, alright," he grumbled, "just bring us our food and drinks."

"Master Hinsul," Thanh added, "when you're done with their orders, we will also have our meals. We'll be back down from our room in several minutes. Come, Binh."

As they went up, Arduss shot the innkeeper a questioning look and Hinsul shrugged his shoulders and went about getting the soldiers' food and drinks.

Upstairs in their room, after leaning his San Jie Gun against his bed Thanh sat facing westward into the oncoming weather outside and concentrated, opening his perceptions to the storm. After a couple minutes he said, "They were right, the storm is abating and should be done by early morning. We'll want to pack everything tonight. I want to get as early a start as possible in the morning. I don't really trust that Arduss not to try something tomorrow. Now, let's go enjoy a nice supper, it'll be a few days of travel meals before we reach the next town"

The rest of the evening until Arduss' group left was fairly uneventful, just a few arguments among the soldiers. Once they were gone, Thanh spoke with the innkeeper again, "Master Hinsul, it has been a mostly pleasant stay in your establishment but with the waning storm, in the morning we must be on our way. I want to get to Metamor before winter really sets in to hamper our travel."

"Are you sure about that? I mean... the curses! You could end up a child, woman or beastman."

"Any of which I gladly accept over the alternatives of trying to remain in Lom Shi'Un and avoid or beat another of Lilith's Hunts and sacrifice, or escape Nasoj's notice if staying here. No, my only viable option is to leave the Giantdowns. Also, I hear Metamor has one of the greatest libraries in the world. I must see that even if I decide only to pass throughMetamor rather than stay."

"Well, if that's your decision, I can't do anything about it. I just wanted to be sure you fully considered the risks of where you're going."

"After this evening's revelation of the continuing curse, I have more to think on as we travel but it seems a small price to pay compared to the risks of staying this side of the Giants Dike... and if the information on the curse's delay before taking effect is correct, I'll still have the option of continuing through to the other side of Metamor if I change my mind."

"I can't say it's been boring having you here, it's been too long since Arduss and his buddies have been taken down so many notches at once. Sleep well Master Thanh and Binh, and fare well on your journey. Arlynn will have somethingready early to break your fast, and your horses will be ready."

The next morning they had a hearty breakfast and thanked Arlynn for her and Hinsul's hospitality. After a bit of argument with the South Gate guards over opening so early, they were a couple hours down the road by the time the sun rose between the Death Mountains and the Great Barrier Range barely visible to the south. Coming upon a fork leading south to Bremen or southwest to Caralore, Thanh looked back at their horse and snowshoe tracks noticing that the remaining breeze was quickly filling them in. Using a telescopic vision spell, he could see a couple miles back that their tracks were nearly gone. "It appears, Binh, that we won't have to bother with any efforts to hide our trail from possible pursuers. The remaining wind is nicely drifting our tracks in."

"Pursuers, Master? Are you expecting to be followed?"

"Not expecting, but I wouldn't trust that Arduss to not attempt causing trouble for us by concocting some story that would get a squad assigned to come after us. We put a pretty big dent in his ego the last couple days. Anyway, before we take the Caralore road on the right, how are your snowshoes, are they secure?"

"Yes Master, they're as secure as when we put them on, though they're a bit awkward to walk in."

"You'll get used to them as we go. I want you to get the hang of them here on the road before anything happens that may require their use. Even if we do have someone following us, this intersection may throw them off with the addition of tracks drifting in. Let's continue." With that, Thanh started down the Caralore road with Binh and their horses following.

Over three hours later a squad of soldiers from Kelm approached the Caralore-Bremen fork. The squad leader looked at both paths and asked the rest if any could see any sign that anyone had been traveling either way. "Sarge, the way the wind is still blowing with this fresh snow, we could be a mere hour behind and the tracks would already be wiped clean. Are we really going to chase after this guy on Arduss' word? He sounded like this guy embarrassed him and he just wants revenge."

"Don't worry, this is as far as we're going on this goose chase. Despite Arduss' word that they're going to Caralore next, with no tracks, there's no proof that anyone even came this direction. Lets get back to town." And with that, the squad gladly about-faced and went back home.

Mid-afternoon the next day, the horses were getting nervous about something. After a while Thanh started noticing odd large mounds to the east and getting closer to the road the farther south they went. Finally they approached a mound in the middle of the road and came to a stop some distance from it, seeing others on and across the road beyond. Keeping an eye on the nearest mounds Thanh strung his bow and nocked an arrow.

"What is it, Master?" Binh asked, pulling out his San Jie Gun.

"Unless I'm mistaken, our road appears to be blocked by tundra moles. They must be migrating south already and have grazed the road with their path. We'll have to detour west a while to get around them. Get on your horse, we're riding a while to make some distance, they should be able to handle both the luggage and us for a few miles."

As they left the road, a mole burst out of the ground next to the road and landed with a great rumbling crash to attack but misjudged their position and missed. Thanh loosed an arrow and just grazed the mole's sensitive nose barbels, causing it to rear back in pain. They continued to ride off to the west as fast as the horses could safely go through the snow. Once they were a few miles off the road, they started looking for a good site to set up camp. Considering the continued possibility of tundra moles, they found a ledge of rock that happened to be on the lee side of a hill, and set up the double-walled cabin tent with its additional lean-to to shelter the horses. Thanh then went about setting up the usual perimeter alarm wards as well as wards close around the tent to damp the wind and take the edge off the cold, as he had at the previous camp since the storm. Foregoing weapons practice due to the snow and close quarters of the tent, Thanh took Binh through more lessons in magecraft before settling in to bed, the insulated tent warmed some by temporary pyrocks made by Binh as an exercise.

The next couple days were uneventful as they continued west until they came upon an unnaturally long and level ridge, and found the obviously artificial construction wooded to a surprising density. Thanh told Binh, "This must be the siege road Nasoj tried to build all the way to Metamor a year and a half ago ... but the top looks like it's had at least twenty years for the trees to grow back. Let's follow down this side until we find a better way across.", and they turned south, staying east off the heavily wooded road. The next day they found a break in the ridge where a stream cut through it. "See Binh, how a mage can wreak havoc on a large scale without expending a large amount of magic?"

"What do you mean Master?"

"See that stream cutting through? Well, you would without the snow cover. When Nasoj's road was built here, it was damming the stream a bit along with what appears to be the remains of culverts relieving it. All the attacking mage would have to do is create a weakness for the stream to erode and undercut the road, creating a cascading structural failure. Also, from the debris I see sticking out of the snow on the west side, it looks like it was timed to take out some siege equipment as it passed over as well. Now, let's find a way across the stream and across this failure. I'm not sure how frozen or deep it is, so let's be careful."

Once they found a spot to cross the stream they followed it through the cut to cross to the west side of the road where they could see many large lumps strewn around. Large, cut faces of stone peered from under the stone on the lumps nearest the road, each of them speckled a light pink unlike the more typical gray native to the western Giantdowns. Some of the scattered stones created a small dam and rapids across the the stream. They turned south again alongside the road bed a while and as they neared the end of the road, the wind was picking up again and snow was starting to fall. Thanh stopped and reached out his senses to the worsening weather. "Binh, we'd better set up camp early, there's a good size storm coming and it feels like it'll be similar to the one that kept us in Kelm." Finding a small stand of trees, they set up camp on the lee side to take advantage of some natural wind break, orienting the tent so that the lean-to for the horses was downwind so as to not catch a stray breeze or drift in. Thanh then set up the camp wards again, tying them off this time for a possible extended duration.

A few hours later the wind ward started weakening a bit. Thanh reached out to the ward's strands and as his awareness reached the tapped node, he felt a presence suddenly draw back and the ward restrengthened. Stretching his awareness out farther to scan the perimeter he said, "It appears we have a ... visitor." Completing his circle facing the node again he continued, "In fact, there may be a few spirits out there but one more curious than the others who remain more cautious."

"S-spirits, Master?" Binh asked, looking around nervously, "What do they want?"

"Be calm, Binh. I imagine they're curious about what we're doing in their land, and quite nervous about it at that, considering what Nasoj's construction crews and mages likely did to them." Raising his voice a bit to reach past the tent walls, Thanh called out, "Spirits, be at ease, we are just travelers through your land. We have no intention of raping the land like Nasoj's people last year. We merely journey south to Metamor and needed a detour around some tundra moles blocking our path."

After a moment, there was a bit of a light draft swirling around in the tent for a few seconds and a moment later it tousled Thanh's hair then the tent returned to its previous calm state. A minute later with no further activity, Thanh said, "It looks like we may have passed inspection. They appear to have wandered off."

After three days of storm, some at blizzard intensity, the weather finally let up enough to move on again by noon. Donning their skis this time instead of snowshoes, they found travel to go a bit easier at least for themselves, though the horses had to work a bit more than before to trudge through the deeper snow.

The second night after the storm, something didn't feel right. The wards were apparently still working but seemed a little skewed for some reason. Around midnight, the wards started getting weaker as the ambient magic appeared to be drawn away somewhere. Thanh stepped outside and looked around for a possible cause. As he was scanning north, a wind rose up out of the south, Binh came out too and looked into the wind. "M-m-master... w-what's that?!"

Looking south too, Thanh was deeply shocked to see a massive wall of energy, nearly blinding to mage sight and visible even to normal sight, quickly coming their way, reaching east, west and up as far as they could see. He said with a fearful note in his voice, "I don't ... know... WHAT? How...?" Stepping in front of Binh, he raised the strongest shield spells he had and waited. As the magical shockwave passed, it shattered all the camp wards and the shields, giving Thanh a bit of a headache with the shield disruption. "Ow! That was a nasty shockwave, someone must have released some massive god-level magic for that to happen. It had to be hundreds of miles away, too. I wonder what caused it? Let's see what the damages were and get to bed."

Thanh reset the camp wards and Binh remade his dispelled pyrocks, still only temporary ones for practice. Checking the trunks, Thanh found they were undamaged, still opening their interiors into their pocket dimension which appeared to shield any magical items from the wave, though the trunk enchantments themselves were resonating a bit after the shockwave. Rechecking the restored wards and finding them to be normal now, they went to bed.

Near Chai Enu – eastern Lom Shi'Un:

The white dragon's nap was troubled. This wasn't her regular weekly day/night sleep time but she had thought that since she currently had no active students, a mid-week nap would help that particular day's sluggish feel and so flew to her mountain cave to stretch out in her full natural form. After a few hours, Salerna Walderan Zelarus woke to find the ambient magic all around quickly waning in a seeming draw toward the far Southwest, like the extreme low tide she saw preceding a tidal wave while touring the oriental coast a century ago. Moving to the cave mouth, she looked out to see if she could discern anything of what was happening.

The sight that greeted her coming over the horizon shook her to the core and her white mane stood erect from head to tail as fear of this unknown and obviously powerful event quickly rose in her. A massive shimmering wall of chaotic energy was rapidly approaching, following a stiff wind from the same direction. Having no experience for such an anomaly to fall back on, she hastily raised layer upon layer of wedged shields pointed into the wave to try parting it around her. As the shockwave struck the shields, layer after layer shattered, each impact pounding on her mind as she tried in vain to maintain them. As the last shield fell, the wave rolled over her, doing little more than give her a momentary shiver as she passed out from the shields' backlash.

Waking a few minutes later, "Oh my head! Perhaps I would have been better off just letting it pass." Salerna reentered the cave and started checking things over. All the trivial magics, mere spells, had been dispelled like the shields by the chaotic wave, while more powerful magics, runic, blood magics and the like had survived, though in many cases they had a fading resonance that wasn't there before the wave. She decided that after the shock of the shattering shields, she should have a little more nap to recover before doing anything else.

South of the siege road:

The next day they came across what must be the road through Caralore... but which way was the town, east or west? With the wind calmed down after the last storm, they could see signs of travel along the road but nothing to indicate whether the tracks going one way or the other led into town or out. Looking farther south, Thanh could see the edge of a forest a few miles away stretching eastward but not much westward.

After a few more minutes, Thanh could see movement to the east rounding a bend coming their way. Waiting a bit, the approaching movement resolved into a pair of men scouting the road on horseback. "Hail, goodfellows." he called, "Could you tell a pair of weary travelers where we are with respect to Caralore? We had to detour across country to avoid a mole migration encroaching on the road from Kelm."

"Kelm, you say? How far out did you find them and when?"

"Let's see... three days ago the storm let up allowing travel again, three days of storm, and before that it was a couple days detouring west from the road to our turn back south. So it was just over a week ago and at a point nearly two days foot travel south of Kelm we found them encroaching on the road from the east. It seems odd we didn't cross their path coming west from Kendalas... unless they crossed ours after."

"We'll have to report on the mole activity when we get back, there've been complaints in some of the villages east of here. Caralore is just an hour's ride west. I suggest we escort you into town to avoid possible hassles by the lutins living in some of the outlying abandoned manors. You can tell our Scout Captain what you told us then find a room."

"Oh, we can handle a few lutins." Thanh responded, "But we accept your offer. Lead on." He and Binh turned their ski-shod feet to the west to accompany the scouts. A little over an hour later they saw the castle peeking over the town walls.

Thanh caught sight of some lutins eyeing them from brush that may at one time have been a nice hedge around a nearby manor but they otherwise did nothing more menacing than watch. "Are the lutins around here so tame, that one can lay eyes on them so near without them attacking?"

"I wouldn't call them tame, especially not to their face. We have a few... agreements with them since Nasoj's failed attack on Metamor last winter soured them against continuing in his employ. As long as they don't bother us, we leave them alone."

Finally arriving at the Scout Captain's office near the main doors in the castle, the scouts made their report while Thanh and Binh waited in the foyer. After about ten minutes the scouts left and Thanh had his turn to report what he had seen south of Kelm. In return for the information, the captain recommended an inn that would give a discount by mentioning his name.

Salerna finished scrying on her most recent special interest student to check up on him. He had been busy recasting spells like other mages she had checked on after the shockwave event. After a short break, she took out Thanh's student phial to use as the next target focus. Concentrating on the scrying pool and the phial a moment, she got an image of Thanh and a boy traveling over a snowy road with pack horses. Confused by this activity, she concentrated on getting a bearing on him and got a feel of greater distance than should be if he was still in Kendalas, twice as far, in fact. "Thanh, what are you doing so far from home? Where are you going, and why at this time of year?" She decided that further watching from time to time would be warranted before she could find out his destination. Dropping the connection, she went on to the next of her few remaining former special students.

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