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A Ring Realms Novel: Shaladen Chronicles Book 1: A Knot in Time
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A Ring Realms Novel: Shaladen Chronicles Book 1: A Knot in Time


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Humans long to realize their own potential and some struggle each day to grasp even the smallest fraction of what they could and should be. Corim Vale, the fighting sage, struggles to be a better man, not only for himself but in order to help the less fortunate in the world. An educator, warrior and adventurer, Corm had a gentle heart and a thirst for the unknown. Little does he suspect, the unknown is about to find him and kick him in the teeth...

Corim Vale has spent his life dreaming of visiting other worlds, of learning and bringing education to the masses. One thing stands between him and his lofty goals: The seventh circle challenge against Talorin Falor, the academy headmaster and arguably the strongest man on all of Titaan. 

Known as the "Fighting Sage", Corim is an explorer and knowledge seeker who uses tournament winnings to fund his research. Ready to push toward loftier ambitions, the warrior-academic seeks the patronage of the powerful academy and gets swept up in a decades old vendetta, a war between ancient races, and a plot to destroy time itself. 

What starts as a dare becomes a race to save the stability of Eternity when Corim's investigation uncovers the machinations of a team of evil conjurers bent on the destruction of the Chronal Protectorate--even at the cost of their lives and all sentience in the universe...

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For ten thousand millennia the Kriar worshipped the light and feared the dark. Ironically, it was the light that eventually abandoned the Kriar, and the dark that became the cradle of our continuance. Now, the void is our home, and the light of the stars has become our guide rather than our god. 

-- Supreme Counsel Vatraena Marna Solaris

 

Prologue

Chronal fall

 

Dulcere Val'Saedra Starbinder phased back into real-time in a blaze of analogue energies. The discharge of chronal power crackled around her anomaly compensation field. Her twin hearts thundered, and she drew air with lungs that had been filled with nothing but the frigid cold of the void for far too long. Her gambit paid off--freedom! That despot Meridian would not again control her. Free she might be, but not in time to avert the cataclysm. Nothing remained for her now except to rectify the situation, or die in the attempt. 

She dropped to her knees in exhaustion, rips and tears in her silver flight suit exposing gold skin turned pale by the icy dark. She blinked to clear the protective membrane from her eyes. The optical coating slid back with a gritty rasp that felt as if nails were being dragged across her cornea. Wincing, she brushed back her long hair and massaged her dried-out eyes with shaking fingers. She drew another aching breath and arched her back, stiffened muscles protesting as they pulled in their sheaths. 

She sniffed the acrid odor of dry vegetation, and a breeze blew cool on her face. Night insects chirped and hummed. Cliffs rose ahead, the wind scoured and pitted abutment forming a jagged outline against a backdrop of purplish mountain crags. In the twilight, a moon loomed large, framed by russet mesas that stood like sentinels guarding a patchwork of scrub trees, rocks, and shallow valleys. 

Dulcere fingered her lips, cheeks, and forehead, restoring circulation to numb flesh. She thumbed the red matrix jewel embedded in her forehead to ease the itch of dried skin around it. She examined the gem's two companion stones, one fixed in her sternum and the other below her waist. A dark hue clouded the center of the crystals, indicating their drained state and the damage they had sustained. That deterioration was what prompted the ill-planned landing here. 

She'd awoken in transition space, flung there by Meridian after he no longer needed her. An analysis of her situation confronted her with a choice. She could either remain stranded in the transition realm and hope to be rescued before she died of neural and thermal attenuation, or take a gamble that a blind warp-jump wouldn't drop her in the heart of a star or some place equally inhospitable. Playing the waiting game was how she put herself in that predicament. She gambled. 

Dulcere conducted a quick test, setting the brain matrix's internal timer to zero, she blinked her eyes twice. She knew from millennia of practice almost to the chronon how long it took to do that. One point zero revs? It should read about ninety percent of that to an accuracy of thirty-six decimal places. She shook her head, feeling a cold sensation in her stomach. A one rev time fix was so sloppy that eons of chronal-slip could have been introduced into that warp-jump. 

The initial assessment looked bad. With her matrixes so damaged it was light's own luck that they still produced enough power to maintain the time-anomaly compensation field. Maybe she deserved to be ripped from existence for letting Meridian carry out his plans. 

Pride had cost her. To the end, she clung to hope, thinking she might still stop Meridian. How many lives? Dulcere shuddered, remembering the psychic wails of a billion billion minds as the timeline diffracted out of existence. Did a way exist for her to repair a time-sequence this heavily damaged? 

She shook herself. Focus. She needed to determine her location, and formulate a plan. 

Dulcere pushed herself to a stand. The muscles in her legs twitched and it took effort to lock her knees. She scanned the shadowy desert terrain. Far off, an animal keened. The wind gusted, then calmed as though the world were breathing a sigh after a long day of work. This might be any of a thousand planets, scattered through millions of star systems. Her brow furrowed. Why did this place feel familiar? 

Her hearts jumped as a blue-white flare radiated from a single point in the sky. Rings of ultra-violet spread out from the center. Several moments passed then a resonation, not quite audible, made her skin prickle. It grew in intensity until she could sense it through the soles of her feet. Finally, the air began to shudder as destructive forces reached down through the ionosphere. 

The rumble and light must be a star-drive going critical. Flashes like reflections off a thousand mirrors winked in the sky--the results of debris breaking up in the atmosphere. 

The realization gripped her chest like an icy hand. She'd jumped into her own past, back to the event that created this nightmare! She now stood watching the destruction her ship, the Tiraka. 

The wind moaned through the rocks again, kicking dust into eddies, and sending twigs and brush tumbling across the ground. The dry empty landscape echoed the desolation she felt inside. She clenched her fists in frustration. Trapped. Her matrixes might as well be dead. She couldn't time-dive a rev much less a hundred millennia downstream. The lingering turbulence caused by the timequake only made it harder. 

Her attention was drawn back to the red and white blossom of burning gases and ionized plasma spreading its petals to embrace the heavens. At the heart of that mass, she knew the gutted remains of her ship, the Tiraka, were now tumbling toward oblivion, inexorably pulled by the planet's gravity to a fiery death. 

Dulcere felt a hitch in her chest. At this instant, her ship was being torn apart by one of the Protectorate alpha eternals, humanoid monsters of flesh and blood that could survive naked in hard vacuum, shrug off cannon blasts, and tear through hull plates as if they were paper. The blue-skinned alpha, Garn, had appeared on their ship without warning. In moments, engineering was disabled and twelve of the crew dead. The devastation and slaughter continued as the creature moved through the ship destroying key systems. The Belkirin's duty was to command and defend. After donning the powerful Phalanx battlesuit, she hurried to confront the eternal and at least buy the crew time to evacuate. 

They had faced off, but even using the best Kriar exo-skeleton ever built didn't put her on an equal footing with the creature. She remembered leaping and dodging through the wreckage, trading blows. The few strikes that she managed to land did little more than anger the creature. In moments, her arms and legs ached and blood pounded in her ears. Suit alarms warned of fast dropping power reserves. The conflict had mirrored the dozens before it, just another losing battle in an ongoing war with the Protectorate. When she decided to confront the creature, she had known little chance existed that she might defeat the eternal. She acted only to save lives--to buy time. As she sensed the command shuttle thrusting away from the ship, she knew it was time she had managed to purchase. She gritted her teeth and kept on. She had to ensure the eternal didn't pursue the crew. He would take her down, but she would do her best to take the beast with her... 

Dulcere snapped out of her memories as something flashed on the planet's surface less than a dozen steps from her. Her matrixes chimed in her mind, warning of an incoming chronal flux. A few steps away, the ground dropped away to form a low jagged ridge. Sand and gravel crunching under her boots, she stumbled behind the waist-high wall of stone, crouched, and damped her energy signature. 

Light shined from a pinprick in the air that unfolded into the shimmering reflective surface of a gate. Weapon poised, a Kriar woman floated out. She scanned the landscape, matrix jewels encrusting the left side of her face winking in the radiance. After hovering a moment, she settled to the ground and aimed back through the portal. 

Dulcere caught her breath. That was Quasar Diliaysus, the rogue tarkath of the Kriar special forces. More flashes of falling debris ignited in the sky making Dulcere look up. Brushing back her waist-length dark hair, Quasar raised her head to look as well. The tarkath's attention went back to the opening as the edges of the gateway flickered and the air filled with a static hum. Another body flashed through the opening. 

Dulcere under-heard a telepathic broadcast aimed at Quasar. <Close the gate!> She flinched at the volume of the communication, made sharper by the sending Kriar's distress. 

Quasar slapped at a device on her wrist, and the gate snapped shut with a sizzling sound. Wiping at his narrow face, the newcomer stared into the space where the time door had been. The big Kriar's body trembled, his twitching muscles visible through the thin metallic cloth of his dark blue security uniform. The light from his iridescent blue eyes grew dim as if he had done something that troubled him. The crimson glow of a plasma blade withdrew into his clenched fist with a clap of imploding air. Clutching a wound on his shoulder, he staggered a step forward, reeled backward, and finally thudded onto his haunches with a gasp. 

Dulcere tuned her mind to listen for their telepathic exchanges. She was both alarmed and intrigued by the intrusion of these two at this particular time and place. What could they want here? 

Quasar let out a breath, her directed thought hot and stinging. <Damn you. What were you doing!> She holstered her weapon, and knelt in front of him. Brow furrowing and expression concerned she took his face in her hands. As the Kriar female raised his head, a curved silver tattoo flashed on his cheek. 

Dulcere drew a breath in wonder--Eclipse Shargris, one of Homeworld's most decorated heroes. Both of these soldiers had been rumored dead. What were they doing here? Their energy signatures told Dulcere they had come at least as far back-time as herself. Obviously, they were here by design, not accident. 

<Dark,> Quasar cursed, the feel of her thought echoing the concern in her expression. <You only needed to hold them a moment, not take on the whole platoon! We could have handled them together on this side if necessary.> She pulled a rod-shaped wound sealer from a medical kit on her side, and began treating the largest of the male's cuts. 

Dulcere looked down to her own wounds. These two possessed what she needed to get healthy enough to time-dive again. In fact, without their help she wouldn't be leaving this time at all. 

<Had to,> he gritted. <The fools almost destroyed the timeline trying to come through the gate unprotected.> 

The ground shuddered, and both Kriar looked up. Secondary explosions lit the sky and streaks of fire sliced overhead. 

<By the light,> Eclipse thought. <Has she already started fighting the battle? How much longer before she crashes?> 

Quasar touched one of the many gems gleaming on her arm, narrowing her eyes at something she read on her wrist. <Only a few hectarevs now.> 

The male studied the sky and the blossoming colors of the warship Tiraka's fiery disintegration. <I can still feel them battling one another. Her energy is dipping though. She's running out of strength. Can you believe she went hand-to-hand with an eternal--even for a short time?> 

<Of course,> Quasar also raised her gaze to the sight above, the eruptions making rosy reflections on the shiny gold skin of her face. <Look who her mother is. She's pureblood. They wouldn't entrust a command or the Phalanx armor to a weakling.> 

Dulcere's stomach tightened. They were discussing her. Then these two knew that Garn would win the fight and blast her out of the wreckage. She would slam planet-side and get buried beneath a cliff. Had they come from after the time-quake? If they did, then they would know she caused it. If they wanted to stop Meridian from taking her captive, this certainly wouldn't be the juncture to change the outcome of those events--this was too far back in history. What could they possibly be after then? 

<We best take cover,> Eclipse remarked. He tried without success to rise a few times until Quasar caught his wrist, helped him up and supported him on her shoulder. The Kriar woman sighed and hugged her partner. <Eclipse, you know you are crazier than I am. You are half dead from taking on all those Daergoni.> 

The Kriar male put his head on her shoulder. <Love the sun, and you are bound to get a few burns.> 

<Oh hush--fool.> Quasar looked around, pointed to a large boulder, and the two of them hobbled together toward it. They had barely reached cover before a roar filled the night. 

A lance of fire angled across the curve of sky, a meteor that she knew was the matrix shielded body of her earlier self re-entering the atmosphere. Dulcere clenched her fists. Her insides felt as though she'd been hollowed out. She gritted her teeth. This is how it felt to watch yourself die. 

Dulcere winced, feeling the heat and shock as a body wrapped in a force field of concentrated matrix energies shrieked past their position to impact the cliff with a roar. 

The detonation illuminated the plateau, flashing grotesque shadows from the twisted trees. Molten rock splattered outward as the speeding form cut into the landscape. 

The hills went silent except for the crackle of wood smoldering. Clouds of smoke rose, backlit by a glow that cast amber shadows on the rocks. 

Dulcere blinked. Her mind was numb with remembrances of the fear and pain of that moment. She survived when no Kriar should have. She lived through a direct confrontation an eternal that killed dozens of her brethren. Ironic, that after pulling through all that, she would awaken from stasis to be taken captive by that living canker, Meridian. 

She swallowed the anger that flashed through her. She thought that the diffracted timeline was bad enough. These two Kriar being present at the time of her being entombed in the cliff, added new complexities to the situation. 

Looking at one another, the two tarkaths rose from their cover and approached the impact area. Making sure her life force and mental emanations were dampened, Dulcere moved from shadow to shadow in the moon-light keeping the two other Kriar in sight. 

The breeze dispersed the vapor, revealing a blackened crater of glassy stone. At the center lay a cocoon of pulsating colors that gradually grew dimmer. 

A murmuring came from the depression. 

Eclipse gripped Quasar's arm. <She survived.> 

Dulcere shivered as her gaze took in the mangled mess of a body that lay naked and vulnerable to the night. Just remembering sent pain shooting through her arms and legs. 

Quasar let out a growl. <By Hellion's light,> she snapped the thought. <She's not wearing the armor! All the risks and energy wasted. She ditched it before re-entry. Dark damned drone--she didn't break protocol to even save her own damn life!> 

They were after the Phalanx armor. Why? They'd come back a hundred millennia at least, surely in all that time the Kriar must have developed technologies more advanced than the prototype she'd been field testing. 

Eclipse growled, his thought hard and ringing. <Do not demean the girl for being a good soldier, simply because it inconveniences you. Look at her.> The male clenched his fists. <She is what Daergon Surr's arrogance bought us. Dead and suffering soldiers. Don't seek to emulate his poor example.> 

Quasar was obviously taken aback by his intensity. She pushed her face into the curve of Eclipse's neck and ran hand across his chest. <My apologies, you are right, we would both do well to remember the ranks we rose through. We are so close though. I can taste the Genemar. That armor is the key to finding it, and--> She stopped. <Eclipse are you hearing me?> 

<She's moving,> Eclipse's thought was quiet. <She's even managed to arm a distress marker. Wonder why she was never recovered.> 

<Eclipse, we need to focus here.> 

The Kriar male pushed her back, hands gripping her shoulders. <Have you no feelings, Quasar!? Can you not feel her pain?> 

The rogue tarkath looked into the crater, glowing green eyes flashing. <She's a tough one--admirably so. What would you have me do, Eclipse? Cry? We're thousands of gigarevs in the past, we can't change what already is.> 

The male's blue eyes brightened. <We can find out why our belkirin was not recovered. Perhaps she will tell you where the armor is.> 

Quasar stared down into the crater, toying with the strands of her hair. <You want to rescue the girl. I want the armor. Those goals need not be at odds. I am curious as to what happens.> 

She gets scared, Dulcere thought to herself. Concerned that Garn would come down here and finish the fight. She panicked and tried to use damaged matrix stones before they fully healed. She got herself into more trouble than she ever imagined. 

She watched as a maimed female--herself--clawed her way out of the crater, pasty white blood oozing from a dozen wounds. She relived the pain of each agonizing reach and pull. Survive. Even after all those millennia of life, she did not wish to die; not alone on some uncharted rock. 

<She's making for that cliff,> Eclipse remarked. 

<That same cliff was collapsed when we examined it a megarev ago. Strange, didn't we see signs of recent excavation?> 

<We did,> Eclipse remarked. <Someone must have dug her out, or our scans would have found her.> 

Dulcere's jaw tightened. Meridian found her, curse the creature. That meant they came back-time prior to her diffracting the chronology. For whatever reason, Eclipse must never have gotten an opportunity to exercise his desire to free her. She warred with the idea of revealing herself to these two. Instinct said there was sinister purpose to their being here despite Eclipse's noble-seeming sentiments. Quasar wanted something called the Genemar. The rogue was by far one of the most dangerous Kriar alive. With her power and viciousness, little lay beyond her reach. 

Once Dulcere was back in her origin reference and things set right, she could turn her attention to worrying about what these two were after. There might still be a chance that Corim and Beia survived. What a tangle this all was; so many acts to answer for, so many things she regretted. 

Quasar growled. <Right now, I want to find her. Let's go. Eclipse, do you really want to stand here and watch this child get crushed?> 

Eclipse studied Dulcere's crawling form for a moment, his head tilting up to see the cliff that would soon be collapsed on her by a combination of poor luck, bad planning, and desperation. 

<No,> he finally determined. <I want to see her back with Marna. I'd like to see the Solaris motivated to do something besides sit.> 

<Is that what this is about?> Quasar responded with a raised eyebrow. <You still have feelings for our lady?> 

Eclipse frowned at the female. <I never stopped. She would never have understood you and I being together. That is all.> 

Quasar shook her head. <All I understand about you and I, is us in a borehole surrounded by Lokori put there by Daergon Surr's foolishness.> She looked around. <Let's find a good spot to transition out of here. There's an unusual amount of chronal turbulence.> 

The male's brow furrowed. <Yes. Something is definitely amiss in the continuum. We should check it out.> 

<Eclipse...Eclipse. Let the eternals clean up their own messes. We warned them there was a rogue time-diver. Remember, I even offered to track for them. They turned me down.> Quasar thumped Eclipse on the shoulder and pointed down the plateau. <Looks like a soft spot there.> She moved toward the location indicated. 

Eclipse took a last look at Dulcere as she crawled toward the cliff. He followed his companion. 

Dulcere glanced at the time-shadow of herself. The memories of those last moments of fear and pain pushed through her body with fingers of ice. She straightened. She needed to be ready. When the two elder Kriar gated out, she needed to ride their draft. She concentrated, listening for the signatures in their matrixes. With their guard relaxed, they didn't have all their usual shielding in place. She filed away their track identification, so if she needed to find them again she could. 

<...You wanted compensation,> Eclipse was telling Quasar. <That's why the Protectorate turned you down.> 

Quasar shrugged. <It is not as if I asked much. For the best time tracker living, my price was cheap. They passed. Their loss.> She paused, eyes narrowing. <Feels like that snarl is getting worse.> 

<This is bad,> Eclipse said, brow furrowing. <Really bad.> 

<Damn it,> Quasar grumbled. She punched some of the gems on her arm. A pinhole of light shined in front of her, then widened. <I hate working for free.> 

Dulcere crouched, tensing to make her move. 

Both commanders activated their analogue generators, and the sheen of phase variances surrounded their bodies. Quasar leaped into the gate. Eclipse paused, looking around as though he sensed something, then he too leaped for the portal. 

Dulcere sprang up as the Kriar swung his body forward. She launched herself at the chronal threshold and a chance to put everything she'd destroyed back to rights.


Crossing the barrier into tween-space, her thoughts went to the boy Corim, the first victim of her foolishness. He had come so close to rescuing her. A fine way to repay his bravery. She shuddered, recalling the fear in his dark eyes as she warped him into the void...

Knowledge is the sword wielded by books in their war on ignorance. 

-- Cassandra Kel'Ishtauri-Felspar

Archmage Ascendant and Master Archivist of Isis

 

 

Chapter one

The Fighting Sage

 

On the birthday of his twenty-fifth summer, Corim Vale vowed to become immortal. Some were renowned for their leadership, others their prowess in war--his fame would be as the man who brought letters to the common people. Hunkered in front of the iron-bound gates of the Falorian academy he considered two obstacles to that goal. First was the book in his lap, written in spidery Silissian dialect. The second were the nagging doubts concerning the upcoming battle with master Falor. Dreams were all fine and well, but one needed to survive to realize them. 

He drew a breath and tried to put the worry out of his mind. A salty breeze sighed against his smooth-cheeked face. The gentle wind sent swirls of dust across the yard and up the gray marble steps where the clouds spread out around his feet. The keening of sea-birds and the distant crashing of the surf against Ivaneth's southern shoal barely impinged on his hearing, the sounds muted by the high granite walls of the fighting yard. 

Adjusting himself on the stone bench, he turned the page with extreme care. Corim gritted his teeth, chest tightening as the ancient and brittle parchment creaked under his delicate touch. Any damage to this book would cost him scoredays of pay. He sighed. He was such an idiot to apply for his Sage's Guild residency at the same time he challenged for the position of seventh-circle fighting instructor. He needed more time; time to research, to practice. The guild chairs would shred his thesis, and master Falor would pummel him senseless. It had become a point of honor though. He would earn both the guild residency and the school tenure even if it killed him. 

He calmed himself. It was hard enough to read the twisty Silissian script without his mind wandering. It made him reflect on another poor choice of his; choosing a topic that necessitated going to intellectual sources penned in his third and weakest language. Damn, he just needed to get this section memorized. Return the book. Then he could get in some extra sparring practice and scout out what details he could of the master's fighting style. 

He read a few more passages. He felt a chilly sensation on his neck and paused. Now, it felt like he was being watched. He looked up. He saw some students sparring in practice yard, but they were intent on the rhythm and strike of their weapons. Was everything conspiring to break his concentration? 

With a sigh, he returned his gaze to the book. He fingered the page over carefully. 

A shadow crept across the face of the book. 

Bultaik misa indri tas... What is that word? There wasn't enough light to make it out. His skin prickled. He realized that someone was standing in front of him. 

He slid over the bench so the light shone again on his page. He rubbed his forehead and continued his reading. After a few moments, the shadow returned to hinder his view. 

Corim growled. "Do you mind?" He waved whoever it was away. 

He heard no answering response. The person also didn't move. 

Corim let out a breath. "Please," he said, looking up to a figure framed in the bright morning sunlight. "You're in my--!" 

He stopped in mid-word as he took in the huge hairy figure looming over him. A half-ogre; and he looked mad. Hands the size of butcher blocks clenched and loosened at the end tree-trunk arms knotted with muscle. Shadowed by a cliff-like brow, two tiny pale blood-shot eyes glared at him out of a craggy face that would have made a gargoyle swoon. 

The brute leaned forward and snorted, polluting the air with the odor of spoiled milk. 

Nose wrinkling, Corim leaned back from the stink. His stomach tightened. With deliberate care, he closed the book. He loosened the ties on his blue tunic and cleared his throat. "Is there a problem?" 

The creature scowled at him, meaty lips pulling back from square yellow teeth in a grimace. He edged closer. 

Corim shoved the book behind him and came to his feet. He worried his boots into the stone, making sure he had good footing. "Whoa there. What's the matter?" Corim felt a twinge in the back of his head, then a strange icy nibbling behind his eyes. 

The og scrubbed at its shaggy head for a moment as if a bug were trapped in its skull. The half-ogre let out a snarl, and a vein pulsed in its temple. 

"You da matter!" The og snarled in a voice that sounded like a ground quake. "Gundar is tired of watching you sit all day. You never train in classes, never spar or do chores--don't do nothing!" 

Corim stepped back out of arms' reach. He'd never seen this bruiser around the academy before. He shook his black hair out his eyes, keeping his gaze fixed on the og. "Sorry that bothers you, Gundar." 

"Why they give you better room than Gundar? Huh?" the creature rumbled, leaning forward. "Better food. Teacher say we have to call you, 'sir'." The creature's brow furrowed. "Never see you fight!" He gestured toward Corim with a fist. "You don't look so tough. Why you so special?!" He yelled with such force it made Corim's hair flutter. 

Corim took another step back from the eye-watering intensity of brute's foul breath. Somehow, he just didn't think the intricacies of circles, seniority, and challenges would make much sense to the og. He also couldn't afford to chance getting injured right before his match against Master Falor.

"Look, Gundar, you obviously have some issue with me. I'd like to settle it with you now, but I don't have the time. Challenge me after tomorrow. I promise you a good fight. Deal?" 

He felt a twinge in his temple that made his vision blur. The og gripped the side of its head. "No deal! Fight now!" He lunged. 

Corim slip-blocked a massive hand aimed to crush his head. He knocked the creature's other arm up and sent a palm strike whistling into the creature's sternum, focusing his energy on the bunched nerves shielded by that thin layer of bone. 

The og stared down at Corim's hand jabbed into its abdomen and let out a low angry growl. 

Corim winced. That sure didn't go as planned. He glanced up as the creature swung as though to hammer him like a nail. 

Corim sidestepped the hissing mattock of flesh that pulverized the tile he'd been standing on. He guarded away two more thunderous punches, then slammed his heel down on the og's instep. 

Gundar let out a howl, buckling to grab at his foot. Corim took the opening, side-stepping and bringing a ridge strike up into the soft meat and bunched nerves of the og's arm-pit. 

The og staggered back, growling in pain and gripping its paralyzed left arm. 

"Give up?" Corim urged, holding up his hands. 

With a crazed yell, the brute charged. 

Corim spun, sending a heel kick thudding into that same spot beneath the og's sternum. The strike halted all of Gundar's momentum and knocked him back a step. The og let out a pained gasp, dropped to his knees and lurched forward hugging his stomach. His forehead left a greasy smear on the tiles as he moaned and gurgled for breath, hurt expulsions of air kicking up tiny clouds of dust. 

Corim shook his head, knowing exactly what that chest-seizing fish-out-of-water experience was like. He realized then that the fight had spectators. The students he saw practicing earlier had paused and were now staring at the scene with wide eyes. 

"Don't just stand there," he snapped at them. "Go fetch a healer!" 

A quick nod and the two men ran toward the administration compound. 

He should wait for the healer. There would probably be an inquiry over an altercation like this. Damn it, he didn't have time for such silliness. He glanced at the huffing og. He'd live. 

Corim picked up his book, and headed to the west compound where he wouldn't be disrupted again. As he crossed the dirt fighting yard he glanced back to Gundar. Still, the creature's sudden hostility had been odd. This was third time he'd been attacked this tenday. 

Why had everyone turned hostile suddenly? Why against him? In every case, he'd been deliberately non-descript and minding his own business. The brute acted as though he were mentally under attack or possibly in pain. There were a couple of moments he'd felt strange twinges as well. Shaking his head, he pushed the incident from his mind. He needed every spare moment to complete this research and still be prepared for the grueling match ahead. 

It took superior fighting skill and knowledge to survive in the monster-infested dark lands where the richest treasures lay. If he worked hard enough he'd learn the secrets of the great treasure hunters. He yearned for the magic and knowledge to travel the planes and explore the worlds described in his books. To enjoy the thrill of uncovering new lore and traveling to alien landscapes. Someday he'd form a school like this one. One designed to educate not only warriors, but aspiring academics; a school that would train anyone that cared to learn. 

He would become a true teacher, not some stodgy sage doling out knowledge to the pupils who best tickled his ego. 

The sages found his goals of educating the masses blasphemous and dangerous. They thought him foolish enough to try to spread the first powers through the populace. Not everyone needed magic or the great secrets, but they all should have the power to read and write. 

His father and mother had both suffered because of illiteracy. They lost their farmland from not being able to read the deeds and know that they needed to renew the land-grants. He and his mother were separated from his father because they signed a contract. They were told the contract would return the property, but instead it bound them as hand servants. After that, he vowed to never again let himself be a prisoner of ignorance. 

Corim's only tools were his exceptional agility and the strength he had built up from summers as a cart-wright's apprentice. The most profitable use of those attributes was show-fighting. He shoveled garrison stalls to get lessons from the militia, squired for knights, and spied on training schools to learn the rudimentary fighting skills that won him his first prize money. 

That started his life as a fighting scholar. Tournament winnings funded his education, both in warrior-skills and general learning. Later, as he traveled the competition circuit, he taught others who wanted to learn. 

Corim knew that if he stayed dedicated, he'd acquire the skills to make finding that one great treasure possible. Then he would have the money and notoriety to do things the way they should be done. Step by bruising step, he could see his dream that much closer to being true. 

Right now, he needed to find a comfortable spot to finish this research, then get as ready as possible for the match with Master Falor. A growing ache in his stomach told him it would be no easy task. 

* * * * *

Talorin Falor settled on the ironwood balcony rail, the material groaned as he leaned a shoulder against the window frame. He glanced down toward the inner courtyard of his school, noting there weren't many students practicing today. 

He stretched, feeling the warmth of the sun. He was a big man who felt cramped in doorways, that is, the ones he didn't arbitrarily widen with a few strokes of the huge hammer that rode on his hip. His opponents called him the petrified warrior: fists of rock, eyes of ice, and a jaw of iron. 

With a sigh he undid the strap holding the shoulder-sheath, bent and leaned the shaladen Nova against the wall. He glanced around wondering about Ceraph's whereabouts. She almost never arrived late. His office had recently been tidied up and the pungent smell of the wood-oil used on the paneling still lingered in the air. The light streaming in through the curtains made the freshly polished floors glow. Every chart, map and tapestry in the circular room looked spotless. 

He settled on the rail again and scrubbed a hand through his hair. He felt that familiar crease of tension in his stomach. Some people could sense bad weather, Tal had an in instinct for trouble. This time he felt it all the way to his bones. A double dose was on the way. He could smell it on the wind. 

A summer of uninterrupted peace--it lasted longer than he predicted. Now, time anomalies were cropping up, with the Protectorate unable to find the perpetrator. Rumors on Kriar Homeworld said one of their elite soldiers, presumed dead, was actually alive and running amok. 

Scary, one loony belkirin could annihilate a timeline. Since he had joined the Protectorate twenty summers ago, life seemed nothing but one long battle. Tal loved fighting, but occasionally it was too much even for him. 

He took responsibility for the ugly tasks that sometimes needed doing to set matters right. It was a position that sapped his strength until it forced him to take time out and recover. 

At a young age, he learned the need to be as brutal as the enemy. The memories still left him cold. His elven wife lay bloody and lifeless in his arms. Around them the slashed husks of her kinsmen lay staked out and left to rot in the sun. A thousand deaths because he'd withheld a killing stroke and showed mercy to an enemy commander. While Tal fought on another front, the embarrassed officer had exacted his revenge. 

Even now, when his sword took the life of murderers willing to slay thousands, Tal would still flash on the impaled bodies of innocent elves. He'd re-experience the gut-wrenching loss and despair. He'd loved his wife, the elves and their ways. They died simply to salve one man's injured pride. Those visions gave Tal the will to execute such killers to prevent similar events from ever transpiring again. 

He and Beia Targallae had been waging a war against Meridian Arcturan. Tal formed a regiment to destroy the evil mage's arenas. So far, they'd only forced the operation underground; the slavery, gladiatorial combat, and human sacrifice continued. Meridian's troops were formidable opponents. Soldiers capable of beating them on their own turf were hard to find. 

Meridian's brutality was sadism for personal gain. For that alone he deserved to be punished. After Beia showed Tal the atrocities of the Death Spectacles, he knew Meridian's organization must be destroyed. To allow the Arcturan and his twisted followers to shatter more lives was criminal. 

A sound made him glance back into his office, he saw his Elven talent scout, Ceraph, glide in with a sheaf of papers under her arm. She stopped briefly to straighten a picture on the wall. Once satisfied, she came to the desk and stopped in front of it, hands clasped together, indigo blouse and skirt clinging to her slim body. Tal always chided the birdlike woman to eat more. The elves were slight already, and fussy eaters could look skeletal. 

Today, Tal would test a new prospect. He'd set up the school to find candidates for his vigilante army, the Scarlet Talons. Ceraph told him that the new man had potential as a recruit. 

He glanced back in the courtyard, of the sparse population, one stood out; a dark-haired man with broad shoulders and sculpted body leaning back on a bench and reading a book. "That our candidate?" 

Ceraph approached and rose on tiptoes to look out. Tal watched the elf's amber eyes flash as she spied the man reclining on the bench below. The woman's delicate features brightened. "Yes, Master, that is he." 

Tal noted the change in her normally impassive expression. Though Ceraph was not his best fighter, her six centuries of experience made the lady an excellent judge of character and skills. 

He patted her shoulder. His blocky fingers each looked thicker than her wrist. "Raph--let's cut the formal stuff." 

Ceraph blushed, ivory cheeks reddening. "Yes--Tal." Her eyes flashed and she grinned. "Or would you prefer the nickname your wife uses--Tiger?

He chuckled. "I wouldn't suggest using that around my wife. I think my big kitty, Terra, could even get jealous of you, little bird." 

She nodded. 

He focused again on the man in the courtyard dressed in silk and leather. Usually, the pretty-boys didn't go in for the heavy fighting. It messed up their good looks. 

"All right, Ceraph, give me the poop." 

She raised an eyebrow. "'Poop'? What does that mean?" 

"You know--the scoop, dope, lowdown, sly, sneaksee--the facts." 

She pursed her lips. "Perhaps Mistress Beia is correct, you've stayed a few days too long on those strange worlds." 

He grinned. "Could be." He studied the young man's intensity, as if nothing else existed save the book in front of him. "Go ahead." 

Ceraph cleared her throat. "His name is Corim Vale. Tournament weight is thirteen stone, height is nineteen hands; hales from the kingdom of Ironwood. He's lowborn, parents were farmers pressed into service." 

"King Iggerd's big land sham?" 

"Yes." 

"Lot of bitter kids came from that. What's he do, besides fighting?" 

"He's a scholar. Does a lot of treasure hunting." 

"Kid's a book snoot? He's good, or you wouldn't have called me." 

"Yes, he--" 

Tal held up a hand. "Wait." Below he saw a huge og moving toward Corim. The set of creature's shoulders and scowl on its brutish face said it wasn't walking over to have a cheery morning conversation. "This could be interesting." 

Shrugging the leather vest loose on his massive shoulders Tal pulled a rock-nut from a pocket and rolled it around in his hand. He crunched the shell between his thumb and forefinger with a loud crack, then popped the meat into his mouth. He chewed slowly, relishing the tangy flavor. 

Ceraph leaned close to see. Tal cracked another and offered it to her. She hesitated, then took it from him. 

Crunching and eating rock-nuts, he watched the exchange grow more heated. Corim trying with little success to avoid a physical confrontation. The big man raised an eyebrow, noting how easily Corim slipped the strikes of a creature easily double his weight. He flinched, feeling that powerful mule kick in his own gut. 

Tal sucked a breath through his teeth. "Mmmm, that's got to hurt." He nodded as Corim sent two students to get a healer for the og, then headed out the west gate. "You're right, this kid is good. He's got restraint to. I like that; shows class." He smirked. "I probably would have broken the slob's head." He opened another nut and held it out. 

Ceraph smiled and took the offering. 

He glanced back to Corim's retreating back. No anger, no animosity, even after the og tried to kill him. The man truly had a special warrior's composure. "How do you rate him?" 

"Excellent." 

Tal turned all his attention on her. The elf wore a solemn expression. It took a lot to impress Ceraph. The best rating in the last five summers had been 'very good'. "Excellent? You getting soft on me?" 

"Overall winner in three events in the Blackstar tournament of '94. Top honors four summers running in the Western challenge jousts. 211 victories, thirty-one ties, and twelve losses since he entered circuit. He has been undefeated in the last eighty-one bouts." 

Tal raised an eyebrow. "Damn, surprised I haven't heard of this guy. He done any tours on the unlimited circuit?" 

She shook her head. "That usually involves an invite from the nobility. He's expressed some rather pointed reservations about the upper class in Ivaneth and Corwin." 

The big man chuckled. "My kind of guy." He shook his head. "Even if he just tours the limited circuit, that's still a lot of fightin to do and still keep looking like a pretty-boy." He sniffed, thinking about the fight he had just witnessed. "Have to admit, the kid's got a solid defense though." He paused. "How's he done since being here?" 

The elf smiled. "He swept all the sixth circle masters by challenge." 

He rubbed his chin. "You're rooting for him." 

Flushing, she studied the floor. "He is quite the gentleman." 

"Raph--fraternizing with a prospect--you?" He laughed. 

Ceraph turned a little redder. "He wants to be a seventh circle master. He approached me to arrange the master challenges. I found him refreshingly persuasive." 

Tal grinned. "After all this time, a man has finally turned your head? He's a human at that. Kid deserves a fair shake just for doing that. How'd he do?" 

"Five of seven, two ties." 

"Decisive victories or points?" 

"Points. He plays for the win, not for blood." 

Tal cracked his knuckles. "One of those civilized fighters you're so fond of. So, blow me over, Raph. Has the kid got grand master potential?" 

Ceraph bit her lip, tiny hands wringing together. "Yes. His skills have only developed in proportion to his challenges. He has reached a plateau. He needs to be pushed to make the breakthrough." 

"And you think we can use him in the Talons?" 

"Definitely. He's very interested in taking part in off-world expeditions." 

Tal noticed how quickly she'd answered that. He guessed Ceraph saw liaison opportunities in Corim's becoming a part of the school's faculty. He had nothing against that. Still, to be a part of the Talons Corim needed a lot more than a strong defense. Meridian's soldiers were hardened warriors, men and women honed to lethal sharpness by deathmatch after deathmatch. 

He pulled the last shell out of his pocket and began tossing it up and down. "Okay. He's instructor material for sure, but the Talons? He'll have to really show me some guts." Tal fixed on her amber eyes. "If I approve him for the Talons you'll be responsible for him until he's trained. There's a big deal going down and the Shael Dal will need me. I won't have time to baby sit." 

"I'll keep him out of trouble." 

"Good." He caught a glimpse of Corim, now settling in the Master's Compound. "So, the kid needs a push? That can be arranged." 

The rock-nut crushed between Tal's fingers... 

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