A Reason to Hope.
We were marched into town, blindfolded and taken to see the village mayor.
“We caught them outside of town sir,” the leader said. “They were carrying these.” He handed over our weapons.
The Mayor looked over the weapons then jerked his head at us. “Let me see their faces”.
Our blindfolds were whipped off and we were instantly blinded by the bright sunlight. We blinked rapidly to clear our vision and the town hall slowly came back into view. The Mayor searched our faces as if looking for some sign as to our motives. Dameon’s expression was closed giving nothing away. Catarina’s eyes were closed but I could see her eyes moving behind her closed lids. I could only guess she was using some of her gifts to search the minds of our guards. The Mayor’s gaze switched to me and I hastily assumed a blank expression. The Mayor snorted in annoyance, “throw them in the cells. A day or two in confinement might loosen their tongues”. We were pulled up and led away to the cells.
“Well done,” Catarina snapped at Dameon as we were thrown into one of the many cells beneath Sammathrace.
“I wasn’t going to give him a chance to declare us traitors and order us hanged,” Dameon snapped. “You weren’t exactly helping. He clearly thought you were trying to curse him or something”.
“Oh stop it,” I exclaimed from where I was slumped against the wall. “Why don’t we just tell him the truth?”
“Because he’ll kill us anyway,” Dameon exclaimed heatedly.
I slowly shook my head. “I don’t think so.”
Catarina looked at me head tilted to one side. “Why?”
“I recognized the Mayor from my days at the Palace.” I looked up at Dameon. “Who’s been banished since your brother took the throne?”
“Um…” Dameon stared upwards trying to remember. “Well, there was the blacksmith, Arden,…”
I shook my head. “Nope, not him.”
“…the head of the bakers Guild, Harrison?”
“No, no. Any knights?”
“Um, Ser Robert of Kings Wood and Will, Captain of the City Guard?”
“Nope,” I threw my hands up in despair and slumped back against the wall, “neither of those”.
Dameon sat down beside me. “I guess there’s no hope, it looks like our quest’s over before it’s begun”.
Catarina knelt down and reached out to grip his shoulder. “Don’t think like that,” she urged, “we’ll get out of here somehow”.
Dameon looked at her sceptically. She rolled her eyes and continued, “can you remember anyone else who might have been banished?”
Dameon shook his head.
“Hold on a minute,” I cried. “What was the name of the weapons master that disappeared about five years ago?”
“Ser Brandon of the Free Isles?” Dameon asked.
“That’s him!” I exclaimed. “The Mayor. It’s Ser Brandon.”
“Can’t be. They found his body remember.”
“No.” I shook my head. “They found a body that they thought was his but it was never confirmed”.
Dameon reached into his tunic and pulled out a small silver and gold pendant on a chain.
“What’s that?” Catarina asked.
“It’s the coat of the Free Isles” Dameon said quietly, showing her the silver volcanic island with a gold spiral around it. The full picture was enclosed in a silver and gold-banded circle. “If I show this to the Mayor he’ll recognize it if he is indeed Ser Brandon as you say.” He gestured at me. “If not, then we’ll have to think of something else.”
“Well,” I stood up, “lets try it?” I walked to the door and had a quick conversation with the guard outside. After a few moments he snorted and stalked away. I watched him go with a hopeful expression.
“What did you say to him?” Catarina asked coming up beside me.
I shrugged. “I told him we wish to have an audience with the Mayor.”
Catarina looked at me. “You just asked?” she said incredulously.
“Yeah,” I shrugged unconcerned. “He asked if I was ready to tell him who we were and where we were going.”
“What did you say?” Dameon called from the far end of the room.
“I evaded a direct answer and instead told the guard that we have urgent news.”
Dameon raised an eyebrow, “and he believed you?”
I shrugged again. “Guess so.”
After a few minutes of waiting the guard finally returned. He stopped in front of the cell and producing a set of keys opened the door.
“You are to come with me,” he said. We followed as he led us down the long corridor that led to the inner reaches of the Mayor’s Villa. We were pushed through the big double doors and we found ourselves in a large sunny room where the Mayor was holding a small council. He was leaning over the table and Dameon instantly recognized the wide stance and the hunched shoulders. The other members around the table were two town watchmen, another guard, a white haired, young woman armed with a bow and arrow and an older white haired man dressed in sliver and purple-blue armour. As we entered, the Mayor looked up at usthen back down to the table. As we were forced into a kneeling position he paced the floor then finally turning around to face us.
“Why are you running from the King?” he asked.
“We’re not running, we’re escaping” Dameon retorted.
“That would explain this,” he said, holding out the poster that had been lying on the table. The picture showed two portraits of Dameon and I. The Mayor waved a hand at the guards and they stepped forward and released us. The Mayor stepped forward and pulled Dameon to his feet before falling to one knee in front of him.
“My Prince, I am yours to command. My name is Brandon of the Free Isles.”
“Arise Brandon,” Dameon said. “Can you help speed us on our way?’
“I fear I cannot help you,” Brandon said climbing to his feet, “but I will introduce you to someone who can.”
He clapped his hands and a young boy emerged from a side room. As he came into the room I took a quick chance to study him. He was tall and broad shouldered, a few inches shorter than Dameon, I put his age at about fourteen. His hair was light brown and fell to his shoulders in a mess of loose spikes. His eyes were the same light brown but tinged with a hint of gold. He was dressed in long, dark green pants that reached just past the knee and calf-high, scuffed, travel-stained black boots. His torso was bare, covered by the plain white apron of a blacksmith’s apprentice.
He came into the room and stopped next to Brandon who dropped an arm around his shoulders. “This is Cassius,” he said “my adopted son. I’ve nicknamed him Wolf for two reasons. One, he’s quick, resourceful and independent and the second reason is…” he paused as if uncertain how to continue, “…is that…that… he was raised by wolves,” he finished in a rush. Dameon raised both eyebrows and Catarina closed her eyes and groaned softly. I managed to control my expression, but after a second quick study of the boy I saw some similarities to a wolf; the way his eyes constantly searched his surroundings and the way he held himself like a coiled spring ready to explode into action.
“If you want to travel without everyone in every town looking out for you it would be better if you had some sort of disguise. Cassius can help you with that too.” He turned to his son, “Cassius, can you show our young friends around”.
Cassius bowed his head quickly, ”of course.” He led us out of the Mayor’s house and as we moved through the square we introduced ourselves. “I’m Serah Kreiss, a Ki’miri assassin and ninja from the Mountain fortress of Tel’ Duskstarks.”
“Dusk fighters,” Dameon explained to the other two. “My name’s Dameon, Prince of Valhall”. Cassius stared at him for a minute then dropped to one knee. Dameon grabbed his arm before he finished the movement and pulled him up. “No need for that,” Dameon said and gestured in Catarina’s direction. “That’s Catarina, a girl of many diverse skills and abilities. She claims to have been sent by the Gods.”
“I was sent by the Gods and I can introduce myself!” Catarina snapped. Dameon waved a dismissive hand.
“Yeah, yeah whatever”.
Cassius led us down a side alley and stopped before a small door set into the wall of a large warehouse. He flipped up the lock and punched a series of numbers into a small keypad. After a few moments there was movement from behind the door. As the door slowly creaked open we moved back a few paces and an old woman slowly shuffled out. Stooped with age and wrapped in an old shawl we couldn’t see her face but her voice was dry and sounded like the wind whispering through the leaves of a dead tree.
“Ah, Wolf”, she sighed. “Hurry in and bring your friends. Quick now”.
“Come on,” Cassius gestured urgently to us. We followed him through the doorway and the door closed behind us.
“Down the stairs,” the crone hissed. “Now.”
“Come down children,” a younger voice called up and through the darkness a rectangle of light appeared illuminating the stairs. Cassius scampered down the stairs with Catarina behind him. I went next with Dameon and the crone bringing up the rear. We moved through the door at the bottom of the stairs and found ourselves in a large room with two other doors leading off it.
A young woman stepped into the light she was clad in a simple white dress with two roses picked out in gold thread on the arms. Her hair was cut short and showed traces of dark blue dye.
“This is Alyssa, a master of disguise. She’ll be able to completely change your outward appearance. And this one,” Cassius gestured to a second woman who had emerged from the left door, “is Jess. She is likely the most skilled seamstress in the twelve Kingdoms and will be in charge of your new clothes. So, Cat and Serah if you’d like to go with Alyssa and Jess they can clean you up and disguise you. Dameon you’ll come with me and we’ll do the same and once your all cleaned up and re-dressed Alyssa can change your appearance”. Taking Dameon’s hand he pulled him towards the right door while Jess and Alyssa shepherded Catarina and I towards the left door.
We entered a circular room with a large tub in the centre filled with steaming hot water.
“Bathe,” Jess told us, “we’ll get your clothes ready”. Catarina and I stripped off and slipped into the hot water and let it seep into our bones. As it swept over me I felt my muscles relax. I leaned backwards, closed my eyes and let out a long sigh of relief. Jess entered through a side door and tossed a bar of soap to us. Catarina caught it and started to wash.
After we were washed and cleaned Jess handed out new clothes. She handed Catarina a light blue, close fitting sleeveless shirt, a tunic with a sun and crossed swords on it and a short, knee length skirt.
I got a short-sleeved black shirt, a white tunic with a black rearing horse on it and a calf length skirt that could double as long pants.
“The emblem on your shirt,Cat is the official symbol of a messenger. It will grant you unhindered passage through eight of the twelve kingdoms.” Jess explained.
Where did you get this one?” I asked, indicating the black horse emblem. “Isn’t this the symbol of the Old Order of The Tel’ Dusktarks?”
Jess nodded. “I thought it was appropriate for you. The Dusktarks are feared and respected throughout the twelve Kingdoms”.
“Not here anymore,” I remarked with a rueful smile.
Jess gave a sorry shake of her head. “Shame. Right,” she said looking us over, “now you’re dressed it’s through to Alyssa for an external makeover”.
Meanwhile, in the right hand room Dameon and Cassius were doing the same.
“Why are you running from the King?” Cassius asked as Dameon stripped off and eased himself into the hot water. Leaning back, he closed his eyes.
“Long story, short story?” Dameon asked opening his eyes.
“Long story short,” Cassius replied, handing Dameon a bar of soap.
“Well”, Dameon hesitated, “where to begin. I was five when my parents died and two months later my brother threw me out on the street”. Dameon started to wash as Cassius threw off his apron and pulled on a short-sleeved dark green shirt. “I was struggling against fever and sickness when Serah found me. She took me to the hideout and treated me until I was well enough. We lived together for the next ten years and then I had a… dream.”
Cassius glanced at him. “Go on.”
“The dream told me that to reclaim my throne I would have to… accept the help the gods would send. Two days later another dream came with a prophecy of doom. Later that day we found Cat, got into a brawl in a tavern and were thrown in jail.”
“And here you are,” Cassius stated.
Dameon nodded. “Yeah. We left because the King killed our friend and Serah’s soon to be mentor”.
Cassius tossed a towel to Dameon as he climbed out and Dameon vigorously rubbed himself dry while Cassius hunted for some new clothes. He handed Dameon long, dark green pants, a long sleeved black shirt with white horses on the sleeves and the same tunic that Serah had received. As we passed through the door to join the girls outside Cassius asked if he could come with us. Dameon half turned to look back at him and replied, “I’ll ask the girls.”
“Would you let me come?” Cassius asked. Dameon hesitated a second and then nodded.
We passed trough the door and joined the girls in the chamber outside. Jess checked our clothes, nodded and propelled us towards Alyssa. She sat on a small stool surrounded by bottles and pots of multicoloured liquid.
“Cat first,” she said, gesturing to Catarina. She nervously approached Alyssa and seated herself on a similar stool facing her. Alyssa leaned forward and pulled two bottles towards her and poured one into a large round bowl. She threw in a handful of black crystals and watched as the liquid boiled then separated into two colours.
“Which would you like?” Alyssa asked “Black or Blonde?”
“Black,” Catarina replied without hesitation. Alyssa nodded and dipped her hand into the black liquid and as it flowed up her hand she slowly moved it towards Cat’s hair. As she touched it the black colour flowed from her hand and slowly Catarina’s hair changed from light brown to black. Steam billowed up around them and a few minutes later Catarina stepped out of the haze.My eyes widened in surprise. She looked completely different. Her hair was now fully black and tumbled down past her shoulders in a mass of curls. Her eyes had turned a startling green and her skin was so dark she looked like a native of Calamascar.
“Dameon next,” Alyssa called from inside the cloud of steam. Dameon apprehensively walked forward and disappeared into the cloud. After a few minutes there was a flash and the steam thickened to smoke. A second later Dameon walked out of the cloud, his silver-blonde hair now more white than silver and cut short. His eyes had also changed from blue to a dark green. He looked at himself in the mirror hanging on the wall and raised his eyebrows.
Cassius nodded, “you look good.”
“Thanks,” Dameon replied with a slight smile.
“Serah,” Alyssa called. I walked into the smoke that was now so thick I could barely even see.
“Please sit,” Alyssa asked and suddenly the air cleared and I found myself in a clean cylinder of air like the eye of a storm. I seated myself and waited. Alyssa spent a few minutes mixing potions and powders before speaking. “I’m afraid there is nothing I can do about your hair. But if you consent I can brand you as a Thundercat”.
I nodded, my mind already made up. “Do it”.
She reached forward and pushed my hair back from my forehead securing it there with a leather band. “This will hurt a bit,” she warned. She picked up a small curved piece of metal and muttering to herself smeared a little bit of yellow paste on it. She then moved it to the fire and held it there until the metal glowed red-hot. “Close your eyes,” she told me. I obeyed and felt the heat of the metal as she placed it on my face. The burning feeling covered my forehead, snaked down the side of my face and ended in two tapering points under my eyes. She leaned back. “There it is done”. I slowly opened my eyes and she handed me two long close fitting gloves covered with fur. I pulled them. She looked me over once and nodded. “We are finished, you can go now”.
I walked out of the cloud as it dissipated and stopped next to the other two.
“Thundercat markings,” Jess noted glancing at me. “Good choice, but now you must leave and I need to tell you that Brandon has sent three more companions for you. One is his son and the other two are right here.” She gestured to the shadows and the young woman we saw before with the bow and arrows stepped into the light. The older man, a huge broadsword strapped to his back followed her in. The young woman bowed. “It is my honour to serve you. My name is Lady Hawkeye. I was the foremost tournament archer in the Land.”
“You would do well to take her,” Jess added. “Her speed and uncanny sense of direction along with Cassius’s wolf like abilities will serve you well on your journey.”
‘I can hardly refuse after the shelter and everything Bran’s done for us.” Dameon turned to the older man, “I’m sorry, I feel I should know you from somewhere”.
The older man saluted, placing his right fist on his left breast and dropped to one knee. “My prince, I’m not surprised you do not remember me. It has been many years since I visited the court and i ned ful vision to survive in the city these days.” In the light we could see his left eye was white, blinded. “I am General Brandon the Elder, father of Ser Brandon the Younger, Mayor of this town”.
Two hours later as the last rays of the sun set over the walls, seven figures slipped out of the small gate and away into the mist and forest that bordered the eastern edge of the town. With Cassius and Hawkeye in the lead we moved through the forest and soon found ourselves crossing a clear patch of ground that bordered the banks of the Thunderfoam River. Cassius disappeared into the mist as the rest of us stopped.
“Why have we stopped?” Dameon called from his position behind me. “We should keep move…”
“Quiet!” I snapped, clamping a hand over his mouth and cutting off the rest of his question. The mist next to me swirled and reformed as Cassius appeared.
“What is it?” he whispered.
I shook my head, “I’m not sure”.
“Come on then,” Cassius beckoned and we followed him up a small rise and through the doorway of an abandoned house that suddenly loomed out of the mist ahead of us. We entered one by one and Cassius pulled a heavy-looking chest into view. “There are weapons and amour inside, enough for all of us”, he explained and threw back the lid. Iwinced at the heavy crash it made and he threw me an apologetic look “Where did all this come from?” Catarina asked. “You have enough to outfit an army”.
Cassius shrugged and it was Ser Brandon the Elder who answered. “This house was an old outpost for smugglers and pirates before the great eruption that forced the sea back as more land rose.” He reached into the chest and pulled out a small cloth bag. “By the looks of things they have been out of business for a long time”. He tipped two blue stones and a smaller silver-blue one into his hand before turning to me. “Know what these are?” I shook my head. “Elf stones, we can combine them with our weapons to make them more powerful.” He pulled out his sword causing Cassius to jump to one side as he turned the seven-foot blade sideways to show me the hilt. “See these?” he asked, indicating small gaps in the hilt. I nodded. “Watch this”. Brandon the Elder pressed one of the blue stones into one of the gaps and held it there as the hilt around it bubbled and then melded with it. “This is a water stone,” he explained, directing my eyes towards the blade. The metal seemed to ripple like waves underneath a thin shield.
“Throw me a wind, fire and ice stone,” Cassius asked from the other side of the chest. He stood up, thrusting a hunting knife and a large assortment of throwing knives through his belt before swinging a Howling Star sword kit over his shoulder and clipping the connecting strap to his belt.
“What does a wind stone do?” Catarina asked, hunting through the chest for a suitable staff.
“Nothing much for a melee weapon but for a ranged weapon it increases power, range, accuracy and lethalness. When combined with an element stone like water or fire they can become a powerful destructive force.” He caught the stones Brandon the Elder tossed to him and slotted the fire and wind stones into either side of the belt before placing the ice stone in the hilt of the sword.
“In your hands any weapon can become a destructive force” Hawkeye interjected “Can I have an ice stone and a wind stone, Bran?”
Brandon the Elder nodded and after rooting around in the bag for a few more moments handed her the required stones. She nodded her thanks and slotted them into her bow.
“What would you like, Serah? Brandon the Elder asked but before I could answer Catarina grunted in satisfaction and withdrew a staff from the chest. It was about two and a half metres long and the last half a metre on either end was wrapped in gold and had two elf stones slotted into them. The ends were tipped with two curved blades that snapped up into place as she twirled the staff around her head. She spun it a few more times, nodded in satisfaction again,and then slowly lowered it. As she brought it down the blades snapped backwards and slotted into the staff.
“With a fire stone and a water stone that staff will make a good weapon” Cassius told her. “Found anything yet, Dameon” he asked turning around. At that moment Dameon straightened up.
“This will do for me,” he held up a two handed broadsword about three hands shorter than Brandon’s. “Water and wind stones?” he asked. Brandon nodded and passed him the stones.
“A wind stone won’t do you much good with a melee weapon” Hawkeye warned.
“Let me worry about that” Dameon told her. “You chosen yet Serah?”
I nodded, “Fire and Lightning.”
Brandon raised his eyebrows but passed me two small stones that glowed a subtle black, and two slightly larger red-orange stones. I pulled both swords off my back and slotted one lightning and one firestone into both hilts.
“Can I have one of those?” Dameon asked.
Brandon nodded, “I might take one as well.” He pulled out two more lightning stones, “by the way you’ll have to replace one of your other stones”. Dameon nodded and pulled the wind stone off his sword. Brandon handed him a purple lightning stone and found a green one for himself.
I led the way out with Cassius behind me. Hawkeye, Brandon and Catarina came next discussing the usefulness of different stones on different weapons. Dameon lingered long enough to close the lid of the chest and shove it back into the shadows. He made to follow the others out but ducked back into cover as he heard cries of shock from outside.
 Howling Star sword Kit – A long sword with another shorter sword attached to the blade of the first one.