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Middlemen: Born of Earth


Elton Gahr

cover by Seth Wolfshordl

© 2018 Elton Gahr

Chapter 1

It is difficult to imagine a time when my people were ignorant of war and free of the entanglements of other races. I have often wished I lived in that time of innocence.

Gwen Telfren, Scholar, Keppler Clan

Elwist sprinted down the deer path, cutting through the thick woods silently as he followed the four strangers. He got as near as possible without risk of being seen or heard. These were the first men he had ever seen, except the eleven other members of his own race. That made them dangerous no matter who they were. He needed to decide quickly whether to kill them before they learned of his people’s existence.

In the lead was a six foot tall, blond, bearded man in a white robe. It was clear he was running away from the other three. Yet, he didn’t seem to be trying to escape. He ran through the forest like a rabbit, his feet rarely even breaking a blade of grass as his feet touched lightly between the plants on tiny patches of empty dirt or stone even at a full sprint. The others showed far less skill, and were able to follow only because occasionally the man in the lead would slow or even stop until they were close enough to see him then begin to run again. There was simply no way he was actually trying to escape.

Of the three chasing him only one appeared human. He had hair as black as Xeon’s and pale white skin which looked even lighter because of the twisting black spots that tendriled out from under his leather clothing. The spots spread across his face, hands and legs. The most noticeable was a snakelike spot that crossed from his left ear, over his left eye and stopped on his nose making that eye’s iris black while the other was light green.

Leading the three pursuers was a four foot tall monkey. He had a wide flat nose and hair covering his entire body. His only clothing was a long gray cloth that wrapped around his waist and over one shoulder. He had arms as long as someone twice his height with long hairy fingers that were wrapped around a two foot long club with a large knotted end. He was the best in the woods and could follow the tiny marks left by the robed man. He clearly saw things Elwist had missed and never slowed even when they reached a split in the path. Alone he might have even been able to keep up with the white robed man, but the other two slowed him too much.

The only one of the four that truly scared Elwist was the last. The creature was as large as a bear. It had near white scales with a light yellow tint that covered a body that was nothing but muscle. It didn’t carry a weapon, but it didn’t need one. It was two feet taller than Elwist making it almost eight feet tall and was strong enough to reach up and break away branches the size of Elwist’s neck without slowing.

The strength itself wouldn’t have scared Elwist. He had killed bears and other large animals. The danger was the thick overlapping scales on the huge creature. Elwist wasn’t certain his wooden spears would pierce those scales even if he attacked the head, arms and legs where the scales appeared to be smaller and more flexible. Unfortunately, no single blow to his arms or legs would stop him and even if he pierced the scales on his head the skull would stop the spear. That left the neck and eyes as the only targets that could ensure a disabling blow and anything less than that would likely get Elwist killed. Still, if he could take the creature by surprise a single blow should be enough.

The good news was that Elaine should have warned all the other Middlemen of the visitors by now. She had been with Elwist, but ran ahead while he stayed back to watch the visitors. She would convince everyone to hide in the cave. The others often didn’t seem to understand how dangerous the world was, but she would make it clear that they couldn’t simply assume these people would be friend.

Elwist didn’t understand that naivete. They had all helped kill deer and catch fish and knew how easy death came. Still, they did not recognize that death could come to them just as easily, or just how much a single death could devastate their race. Ahr Ain had created each of them with skills and abilities that they all needed. It was that naivete and the need for those skills that made them unready for these men. They would be better off hiding until they had children and could begin to teach those skills to their children so none of those skills would be lost.

Following the white robed man into the valley Elwist began to search the valley for signs of the rest his people. He saw signs that they had been here, but not much. He could see part of Rasputant’s house near the river, but the small hill hid almost the entire home and the rest were far more difficult to see. Most important were that the people were gone. That meant if he attacked no one else would see it. He could survive killing someone, but he didn’t think the others could survive seeing it. At least they wouldn’t survive without it changing them forever. But, as he prepared to attack he couldn’t bring himself to do it. It didn’t matter that it was the smart thing to do. It wasn’t the right thing to do. Not until there was some sign of these men being hostile.

It was also strange that the white robed man in the lead had gone towards the valley. Entering the valley was dangerous for a man who was trying to escape in the woods. There were only a handful of trees scattered across the valley, most of them fruit trees that would give almost no cover than the needle trees that made up most of the forest. That forced the man to speed up, reminding Elwist how much the man was holding back, and he turned towards the cave. Whatever his plan was the cave where his people were hiding was part of it. That seemed to be a sign that the man who Ahr Ain had sent and Elwist wouldn’t fight the will of Ahr Ain so he stepped out of the bushes and followed him into the valley counting the time that they had to cross the valley before the others could see them. There would be only a couple seconds to spare. Then as they neared the cave the man spun to face Elwist, a metal dagger appearing from inside his white robes.

“I don’t want a fight,” Elwist said. He could sense this man was dangerous, but not malicious. There was simply no reason for Elwist to kill him except out of fear. Fear that he would fail to protect his people, fear that this would change everything and most of all fear that this was really what Ahr Ain wanted and he couldn’t stand against that. Elwist didn’t like to act out of fear.

“You can hide your spots but you can’t hide your sin. I have pledged an oath to fight all Lowman,” The robed man said, and he glanced towards the cave entrance as he spoke. He didn’t want to be caught in the open any more than Elwist did and it didn’t really sound like he wanted to fight anyone.

“My people are the Middlemen and were created by Ahr Ain from the mud of this valley. We are not Lowmen,” Elwist said. Ahr Ain had warned them of the Lowmen just as he had spoken of the Highmen and he knew his dark hair made him look more like a Lowman than most of the others.

“You are the Mudmen of prophecy? Why would Ahr Ain create you here in such a dangerous place?” the man asked and tilted his head trying to get a better view of Elwist who felt self conscious with his thick, wild, black hair and dark, mud covered skin.

“We were created to decide the war between the Lowmen and Highmen. To do that we have to be at its center,” Elwist said. He then added, “You are being chased.”

“By a Lowman and his allies,” The man said.

“Surrender your weapon and come inside. It seems we will begin deciding between your people and theirs today.”

The man flipped the dagger in his hand so he was holding the blade and Elwist tightened the grip on his spear. It was how Elwist would throw a dagger, but the white robed man simply held it out and said, “My name is Chart.”

Chapter 2

For the first century of our existence an attack from either the Highmen or the Lowmen could have wiped out our entire race without serious cost to them. It was only on the backs of great men that our race survived. I am not worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as men like Ebon, Mylon and Pilox.

Monica Crowhunter, Xeon Tribe, High Lord Wizard

Elwist entered the cave with a metal dagger on his belt and a stranger behind him. The man was as tall as Xeon and long blond hair, a thick beard and white robes.

“Find something new?” Rasputant asked. He almost forgot the stranger for a moment. The bone daggers they used were functional, but all the metal they had gathered in three years would hardly make a dagger that big even if Keppler could craft a dagger that well.

“Chart is being hunted by three enemies,” Elwist said. He had missed Rasputant’s point. He would never be a good negotiator so long as he missed the nuances of language. On the other hand, he had the killer instinct and that would serve him well if he ever learned to use it in negotiation.

Quintara stood up from the back of the crowd. He looked even shorter than normal with Chart in the cave because he was as tall as Xeon; still the man put out his chubby hand and said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you. My name is Quintara.”

“I must ask forgiveness for the abruptness of my visit, but before we speak we must prepare a defense. If we can’t protect ourselves the Lowmen will kill us all,” Chart said, and he glanced at the dagger on Elwist's leather belt. Rasputant understood that look of desire well and if they weren’t careful this man might grab that dagger without asking.

“There is a small recess behind the cave entrance. I will hide there and attack from behind,” Elwist said. At this moment Rasputant would have traded nearly anything for Elwist’s skills with a weapon.

“The Weengo is the most dangerous especially in an area this small. They are a bit slow in the cold, but that won’t matter if you can’t run,” Chart said. Elwist nodded and slipped into the small gap that would be all but invisible to anyone who wasn’t looking out of the cave’s entrance. Then as a secondary thought he tossed the two extra spears he carried to Ebon then to Xeon. It made an odd sort of sense. Xeon was the closest to Elwist’s skill with a spear, but he wouldn’t take it unless Ebon had one too even if Ebon was too soft to actually use the weapon.

Elwist then looked carefully at Chart. It was the same look Elwist gave a deer he was about to kill, but rather than attack he removed the dagger from his belt and tossed it to the Highman. Rasputant disliked the idea of giving up such a valuable weapon, but goodwill would likely be worth more and if they let the man go keeping it would feel a bit like theft.

“Elaine, watch Chart. Kill him if he makes a wrong move, but only if he makes a wrong move. But I won’t have him dead because I took his weapon,” Elwist said.

Rasputant knew Elwist could deal with three people. He had been created by Ahr Ain to be a soldier as near perfection as possible, but that didn’t mean people couldn’t get hurt. And giving Ebon a spear made him a target and more likely to be hurt. He was, after all, the weakest of all of them. Ebon had nearly been killed the first time he went hunting because he refused to attack the deer. Even Quintara had at least tried to fight though he failed badly enough that he was never taken hunting again. Ebon was also the quietest of them, often spending hours alone along the banks of the river where Ahr Ain had formed them out of mud. When Elwist had finally asked he simply said he was speaking to Ahr Ain, except Ahr Ain had left them over a year ago and would not return even for his favorite.

Perhaps Chart had recognized the same weakness in Ebon because he positioned himself between Xeon and Ebon. Elwist even smiled at the man as he did that. He clearly respected someone who held the same values as he did and Elwist’s strongest belief was that the strong should protect the weak.

They waited quietly and just as the first thoughts that the Lowmen might not find them began to enter into Rasputant’s mind they appeared. These three were far stranger than Chart and Rasputant understood the fear Elwist showed that there may be a fight.

Leading the small group was a huge lizard. It had light yellow scaled skin and was hardly able to make it through the cave entrance because of his size. He was followed by a dark haired man covered in black spots and an upright monkey with a club half as long as his arm.

Elwist stepped out from the recess in the wall as the third of the men entered and said loudly and firmly, “Stop!” his spear touching the back of the lizard’s neck.

“We only want the plant mage. Give him to us and there will be no reason for us to test your ability to survive today,” the bald man with black spots across his skin said. His voice was as gruff as Elwist’s, but he cut the words off even more abruptly making each its separate own statement. He also showed no sign of surprise at the ambush. That told Rasputant he had been in many fights.

“Put your weapons on the ground slowly,” Rasputant said. This was a negotiation and that meant he needed to be the one to take charge. Otherwise Elwist would push things until there was a fight.

No one moved. Instead, the white lizard twisted his head completely around to look Elwist directly in the eyes without moving his shoulders. He looked at Elwist for several seconds and then wrapped huge fingers around the dark haired man’s spear and pulled it from his hand and dropped it onto the ground. A second later the club fell from the monkey’s hand to the ground as well.

“Now we can talk,” Ebon said. Ebon had always believed talk could solve anything.

“Chart is our enemy and those who help him are our enemies as well,” The spotted man said.

“What has he done?” Xeon asked. Xeon was the tribesman Rasputant least understood, but he trusted the man’s instincts because of how often he knew things he shouldn’t.

“He uses creation magic to change plants so they attack and kill our people,” The spotted man said.

“Do you deny these charges?” Xeon asked, and looked at Chart though he should have been watching the other men.

“The plants are only in the Highman lands. If your people did not attempt to invade then they could not hurt them,” Chart said.

“This isn’t going to be solved today. What we can agree on is that this cave and this valley is our people’s land. We will not allow anyone to be killed in our lands,” Rasputant said. The decree if accepted would solve two important issues. It would keep these men from killing each other, and more importantly they would agree that these lands were theirs.

“My name is Ungarn,” The spotted man said then pointing to the short, hairy monkey he said “This is Geer,” The contempt in his voice matched Filar's when she spoke of the time Laura ruined her best basket. Finally, he pointed at the lizard and said “Roalle,” His voice showing less contempt but it was flat, almost dead. Ungarn didn’t like either of the men with him. That was useful information.

“And you are hunting Chart?” Elwist asked.

“We hunt all who are weak and those who fight our people. I began tracking the plant mage a week ago and would have caught him today had you not interfered. So stay out of wars you don't understand," Ungarn said.

“The three of you couldn’t have caught him in a decade. He was letting you follow him. Likely into the plants that we removed from this cave when we began to use it," Elwist said.

“This is unimportant,” Chart said. Then after everyone turned to look at him he said, “Ahr Ain did not create you to decide my fate. So tell us, why are you here?”

Xeon and Ebon looked at each other and Elwist put his hand on one of the spears at his belt. Even Quintara took a step back into the darkness of the cave afraid of what needed to be said. Rasputant understood why. Their destiny was the most valuable thing they owned, but it had to be given away. It had always been the plan for everyone to know.

“Actually,” Filar said, “We were created to decide your fate, so to speak.”

Rasputant couldn’t help but smile. It was true of course, and Filar could never resist having someone know she had power over them. It also made it clear that her husband would have to speak. Xeon was the one person they could all trust not only to speak for them, but to clarify what his wife had meant, taking the pressure off Rasputant at least for a moment.

“Ahr Ain created us three years ago and taught us for two of those years. The most important of his teachings was the importance of free will. It is important because that is what we are. Your people have both been trapped in this war since before time exited and neither has the power to truly change or win the war, but according to Ahr Ain we can do both. Our destiny is to choose whether Ahr Ain or Sai Tain controls this world.”

The world seemed to stop as Xeon spoke and then after only a few seconds it erupted into arguments as both Chart and Ungarn began to shout. They clearly believed what Xeon had said because both were trying to convince the Middlemen that their side was the only good choice to help and Rasputant understood why Ahr Ain had named them the Middlemen. They were stuck in the middle of something far bigger than the twelve of them.

Chapter 3

That the Middlemen were able to remain free of the influence of our people is one of the greatest signs of their strength and right to exist.

Kurn, Lowman, Lord of Poder

The arguments were long, loud and difficult, but in the end there was only one thing everyone could agree on. The Middlemen needed a lot more information. To this end two of the Middlemen, Xeon and Rasputant would travel east with Chart to the Highmen and two more, Ebon and Elwist would go west with the Lowmen. They would learn everything they could about the two sides of this conflict and try to convince the leaders of those races that they shouldn’t harm them. Meanwhile Quintara, Keppler and the women would remain in the village and gather as much food as possible for the winter through use of Keppler’s traps, Quintara’s fruit trees and Elaine’s hunting.

Chart and Ungarn continued to argue long after the Middlemen began to prepare for the trip. They were both convinced the only way the Middlemen would survive was to ally with their respective races, but they were also both just as convinced that it would be impossible for them to make any alliance with the other race. Worse, neither was all that optimistic when it came to making an alliance with their own race.

As they walked away from the village Xeon watched the woods. He had always imagined how the world would be different once they left the peace of their valley. Yet, while everything looked bigger and far more dangerous nothing was really all that different. It simple felt different as even the branches felt as if they were reaching out and clawing at him.

Still, as much as he was afraid of the woods he found himself watching Chart more carefully than the dark undergrowth. He was certainly nicer than Ungarn and the others and at times he even seemed like he might be kind. Still, Elwist had assured Xeon that he was more dangerous than the others. Since Xeon’s instincts for battle were far weaker than Elwist’s he simply had to take his friend’s word on that statement. And there were signs. Chart was at least as comfortable in the woods as Elwist and he was very comfortable with his dagger. He had removed it from his robe only twice when Xeon could see, but he showed no discomfort with it.

The man had seemed comfortable with Quintara, but once they left him behind in the village Chart had become very silent. He hardly spoke as he walked and glanced back at them only often enough to be certain that they were following him down the twisted paths that led them steadily eastward.

As the sun neared the horizon Xeon began to search the path for a safe place to sleep. But Chart continued to push them forward for an hour after the sun dropped behind the mountains then simply stopped at a dead tree, leaned against it, pulled the hood of his robe over his face and fell asleep without a word.

“Shouldn’t someone stay awake to watch for danger?" Rasputant asked. He had hidden his fear, but Xeon knew him too well to believe it. Rasputant didn’t even like to hunt because he was afraid of injury.

“I’ll hear if there is any danger,” Chart said, his voice half asleep already. Xeon feared he was wrong, not because he couldn’t protect them but because of the warning Ahr Ain had given them. A warning none of them had told anyone. Their creation had ended the first age of this world and the second age was going to be far more dangerous.

* * *

Rasputant would have preferred sleeping on the furs he had brought to trade, but he felt safer with them surrounding him. But, even with the small comfort of those furs and the exhaustion of a hard day’s walk he was unable to fall asleep. Xeon was a good man and there was no one he would rather trust with his life, but he wasn’t good at negotiation. He was far too likely to give up everything the others wanted and ask almost nothing in return. The only one worse was Ebon who would work all day and then give away everything without asking for anything in return. That left everything up to Rasputant.

That had seemed easier before. Now though he had began to realize just how big the world was. He had always known it was big, but with every step he understood better just how much bigger the world was than he had imagined and how small he was in comparison.

Still there was only one choice. He would use the skills Ahr Ain had given him to gain power and influence. He could create a type of safety that Elwist could never achieve, but he couldn’t do that without taking risks that no one else even understood. But today all he could do now was make plans. Even making those plans calmed him though and he began to grow drowsy, but just as his eyes slid shut he felt a pain in his leg. It was as if he was being burnt with ice.

He looked down slowly and saw a small bug no bigger than his thumb on his leg. Rasputant reached down to flick away the small creature. As he struck it with the back of his hand he felt an ice cold chill run across the back of his hand and up his arm. That explained the pain in his leg, though he no longer felt any pain or anything at all, in his leg.

The bug disappeared in the darkness, but when he tried to move his leg it was numb and he was unable to stand. At the same time he saw another of the bugs skittering across the ground towards him.

He cried out a warning expecting Chart and Xeon to react immediately, but neither moved. He was alone. Whatever the creatures were they had already immobilized them just as they would have him had he fallen asleep.

There was no choice but for him to save himself and the others so he grabbed one of the furs and wrapped it around his hand. He then began to knock away the bugs, but even through the thick fur after the second bug he knocked away he felt the cold through the fur and the bugs continued to scurry back.

Pushing himself to his knees Rasputant tried to crush one of the creatures, but instead of killing it the beetle was simply driven into the ground. It then pulled itself out of the ground and continued to crawl forward leaving a small white line behind it as it froze the ground.

All Rasputant could do was pull himself away from the creatures, and as he did pulled himself back, his leg beginning to throb. At least that meant it might get better. Still, he couldn’t just run away. He needed to save the others. And that was when he put his hand on a broken branch. That gave him an idea.

He scraped together all the twigs, dried pine needles and leaves into a small pile under the branch knocking away one of the bugs in the middle of the job. He then dumped the contents of his backpack onto the ground grabbing the flint he used to start fires. His hands shaking with fear he began to strike the two pieces of stone together sparks raining down on the makeshift kindling.

As the first yellow flames appeared Rasputant resisted the urge to cry out in success, but instead he grabbed more twigs and leaves and added to the fire as quickly as possible.

Once the branch was on fire Rasputant picked it up and swung the branch slowly across the ground. The light illuminated hundreds of small black bugs crawling around his friend and the dead tree that they were streaming out of.

Those bugs nearest the fire had turned away from the other two and were now moving towards the fire. As they approached the fire the small black beetles expanded until they were the size of a fist and then they turned white and collapse into small white piles of dust. At the same time the flames would flicker and even go out but as soon as the bugs died other parts of the fire would reignite those that had been put out. After watching the bugs for a moment he realized that it was working, but the fire wasn’t big enough. So he began to grab more branches and adding them to the fire hoping that he could grow the fire faster than the bugs could put it out.

With the fire growing the bugs began to come out of the tree in a wave of black, the faster bugs crawling over the slower to get to it. They even began to crawl off Xeon and Chart.

Within minutes the two men were free of the bugs and only a few were still on the tree. But both of the other men were still as death and Rasputant feared he had been too late.

Fighting panic Rasputant shook Xeon whose pale white skin was ice cold. As he shook him he saw that Chart was less white and breathing deeper. He would have rather have Xeon’s help, but the Highman might better understand how to deal with this. He grabbed the other man’s robe and pulled him upward. The man was limp, but he was able to pull him nearly to his feet. As he was moved the Highman’s eyes flickered open and he groaned, then he fell back as his limp body slid out of Rasputant’s hands.

“W.. w... what happened?” Chart asked.

“Black bugs,” Rasputant said.

“I’m c...c...cold,” Chart said.

“Move closer to the fire,” Rasputant responded, and the Highman tried to push himself to his feet, but his hand slipped and he fell back to the ground. So Rasputant pulled him closer dragging him to the side farthest from the bugs. He then put his own arm around him allowing his own body heat to begin to warm him as he watched to make certain none of the bugs would touch them.

They sat in silence for ten minutes as Chart shivered and then once it seemed Chart could keep himself upright Rasputant let him go and pulled Xeon closer to the fire as well.

“Do you know what those are?” Rasputant asked as the sound of teeth clattering stopped.

“Winter bugs,” Chart responded.

“How can I help?” Rasputant asked. He was worried mostly because Xeon still hadn't moved, though his friend was still breathing slowly.

“Just wait,” Chart responded and Rasputant felt a little better. Chart understood what these things were then after a long pause Chart said, “How did you avoid them?”

“I was awake,” Rasputant said. He had been lucky, but didn’t want to admit how lucky he had been.

“And you discovered how to defeat them alone?” Chart asked. There was something new in the way he spoke. Rasputant had impressed him.

“I just started a fire,” Rasputant said. He knew that the smart thing to do was take all the credit he could. After all, reputation was just like any other commodity, but he couldn’t bring himself to pretend he had done anything impressive.

“Xeon should sleep as long as possible. There is no danger and sleeping will help him heal faster. It is odd that he is sleeping so long though. I have only seen wizards sleep this long after an attack of winter bugs,” Chart said.

“Are there many animals like those?” Rasputant asked, realizing again just how little he knew of this world.

“They aren’t really animals anymore, they're weapons. They were beetles once, but changed with creation magic, which can change animals just like mine can change plants. Luckily, they were created by a Highman and so won’t kill anyone. Still, that leads to the question of why they attacked us,” Chart said.

“Because your people created something that attacked anyone who wasn’t them,” Rasputant said. Battle was one thing, but he didn’t like the idea of creating indiscriminate weapons.

“In the future I should be able to protect your people as well as mine,” Chart said. That didn’t really solve the problem but it would be better.

“Do a lot of your people have creation magic?” Rasputant asked. He needed Chart and telling him that his people were doing something wrong wasn’t going to get him on his side.

“One in a thousand at most and even less of those who were born instead of being formed out of a death in the spirit realm,” Chart said.

“The spirit realm?” Rasputant asked.

“The first of my people and the first of the Lowmen were spirits once. There was a war in the spirit realm and those that were killed were cast down onto this world. Here they have continued that war, and so have their children. That is the war your people have found yourself in the middle of” Chart said, and his eyes began to slide shut. He was exhausted from the attack and so Rasputant put another branch on the fire and sat up watching the woods for more dangers.

Chapter 4

Loyalty is the most defining trait of the Highmen because those who were not loyal switched sides during the darkest times of Spirit War when Sai Tain was winning every battle.

Tymone Lord Commander of the Wizard’s Guards

Chart knew he couldn’t trust Xeon or Rasputant, but the more time he spent with them the more he wanted to. He wanted to believe these people could change the war, because the war was changing his people. They did things now no one would have suggested when Chart was younger. Even the winter bugs were a weapon that wouldn’t have been created when he was a child. Worse was that more Highmen every day believed they were doing the right thing by becoming more brutal in the war.

Still, while there were problems with his people it would still be good to have council from someone he trusted and there were a couple of people in the village they were approaching that Chart trusted. They were friends who had come here to expand their country because they trusted Chart’s word that it had to be done.

As they approached the small village Chart sensed something was wrong. He had spent years alone in the woods and his senses were good. There should be at least one guard at each of the three paths that led into the village. Even without them though during the day there should have been sound. It was too quiet and as he crossed over another of the steep hills that made this area perfect for the small hidden villages the Highmen needed he saw the stone building that was the heart of the village. It was the only permanent structure in the village serving as a storehouse, temporary housing and a meeting hall. What he saw though was the reason so many people were against these villages. There had been an attack in their homelands.

That wasn’t what terrified Chart though. The terror was that there were no bodies and no sign of a struggle. As he saw it he began to run forward knowing it was a mistake as he went, but unable to stop himself. They must have gotten inside the stone building and simply waited for the Lowmen to leave. Yet even as he prayed that he was right it didn’t feel right.

The door was open and there were words scratched into the stone wall of the city center. It was written in High Common which could only mean a wizard had written the message. Why would a wizard have written it though knowing that no one but a wizard would be able to remember and those without any magic would be unable to even remember it long enough to read it? Chart’s creation magic meant he could remember it long enough to make a copy, but he wouldn’t remember he had done it or what the message meant.

“What's that?” Rasputant asked from behind him and Chart stood up stiffly. This was the first time in a decade he had been surprised by someone approaching him and it had happened while he was alert expecting an attack from the Lowmen.

“What are you doing here?” Chart asked.

“We waited three hours watching you while you spoke to the monk. But once he wrote his message on the wall and left we decided it was time to find out what was going on,” Xeon said.

“There's no one alive here. Who would I have spoken to?” Chart asked. A wizard could make him forget a conversation or even a place, but not someone who had mastered less than five words of power and he knew every Highman wizard with that sort of power.

“What does that say?” Rasputant asked. He tilted his head as he looked at the writing. His voice was distracted, like anyone who tried to focus on the words of high common but wasn’t a wizard.

“I don’t know. It took my brother years to teach me enough High Common to recognize it, and I only learned that much because I have creation magic. Most people can’t remember it at all. I am simply trying to remember the words so that I can tell the wizards. They will then be able to know what the message is,” Chart said.

“It says ’Si lum Sai Tain roln si dil.” Under that is a larger word that reads Roth,” Xeon said.

Chart recognized Sai Tain clearly and easily as the leader of Lowmen. His name was one of the few words in high common that everyone knew. It seemed that Ahr Ain didn’t want that particular name forgotten by anyone anymore than they should forget the name Ahr Ain their creator. The rest was less clear. “I think roln si dil means, touches the world,” Chart said. The strangest was Roth. It was a word of power, but he didn’t know which one, what it meant or why anyone would write it here.

“So it says Sai Tain touches the world?” Xeon asked. If that was what it said it was old news. There had been a crack in his prison for almost as long as the war had existed. One that was constantly being pulled and pushed and everyone knew would eventually open completely. There were even rumors of a Lowman wizard who had discovered a way to tap into that doorway, but this message meant something more.

“No the world lum is the key. It says roughly ‘the lum of Sai Tain touch the world. The problem is I don’t know what lum or Roth means,” Chart said.

“How far to a city where someone might know?” Xeon asked. There seemed little or no doubt in his voice that they would get to help quickly.

“This village was built here to expand our lands. There might be other village, but they are hidden even from me and wouldn’t have a wizard. That means we have to go to the capital. Perhaps a week if we went through the mountains and at least two any other way. Either way you should go home. Someone can be sent to your village once things are safer,” Chart said.

“We should go through the mountains,” Xeon said. He spoke with a voice of authority that Chart had only heard in a few men. It reminded him of his father and The Prophet, but this man was a child compared to any Highman and couldn’t really have that authority.

“The mountains are dangerous. I’ve spent more time traveling than any of my people, and fought more battles than most and I’ve seen enough to know you stay out of those mountains. Of the five expeditions into the mountains two never saw anything, the other three simply never returned. I can’t take you into that,” Chart said. It was his job to protect these men and they owed him nothing.

“It seems to me that there are a lot of things in this world that are dangerous,” Rasputant said.

“And your people can’t afford to take unnecessary risks,” Chart answered.

“People were killed and we shouldn’t ignore that,” Xeon said. He seemed to find nothing unusual in risking his life to protect a people he had never met. A Highman might do that, if he knew they were Highmen, but no one risked his life for a stranger and certainly not a potential enemy.

“We’ll sleep here tonight. If the Lowmen are nearby this building will be the safest place,” Chart said. Rasputant had hidden it well, but he was exhausted and Chart needed the time to explore. Telling his people what happened was important, but it was more important to understand how. Most important it was vital to understand how the Lowmen had gotten inside the building. He had to know if there had been a traitor or if it was a force so powerful that resistance was impossible.

Chart didn’t know which would be worse. A single traitor would be gone. Likely killed by the Lowmen that they had helped, but it wouldn’t matter. If people learned of a betrayal it would destroy the Highman. In three hundred years there had never been a traitor. It was the core of what the Highmen were. On the other hand something strong enough to destroy a village without a fight could change the course of the war, and the message suggested it might be Sai Tain and the Highmen simply were not ready to face Sai Tain. No one was ready to face him.

As he returned from his walk around the village he saw Xeon sitting in front of the keep staring at the words which had been written on it. He vaguely remembered there had been something written but did not remember what it said.

Chart walked over to Xeon, who had fur cloak pulled tightly around him to guard against the cold wind of the night, and said “See anything new?”

“That word means something,” Xeon said.

“Who wrote it there?” Chart said, looking up to see a few words written on the side of the building.

“A bald man with a knot of hair that you talked to but don’t remember,” Xeon said.

“I haven’t seen anyone here but us,” Chart said. It was possible though. He knew he had forgotten things about magic in the past. A powerful wizard could make him forget almost anything and it was even easier to make someone forget something magical.

“Be careful, all words in high common have power, and not just the twelve words of power. A truly powerful being like Sai Tain can’t even really lie easily in high common because the words will try to do what he says. It is the language Ahr Ain used to create the universe,” Chart said.

“That’s it. It’s a word of power,” Xeon said.

Chapter 5

While it is easy for the Middlemen and Highmen to dismiss the arena as needlessly brutal it has served as an escape valve for aggression, encouraged self discipline and improved our fighting styles for centuries. Without it I fear far more violence would have happened outside of the arenas.

Boncen – Arena Master

Ebon had never imagined a place without trees and entering the grasslands made Ebon feel more exposed than he ever had. Even during the week of travel through the woods with Lowmen he couldn’t trust there were always trees to clime and bushes to escape into. Now, his only protection was Elwist and while he knew Elwist would protect him, it simply wasn’t the same as the woods Ahr Ain had created them in.

It also helped him understand the Lowmen a bit better. Anyone living in this place would have to work harder for food in a place where you couldn’t simply pick fruit from trees or hunt deer from the thick underbrush.

The land was far from empty though. There were still the rolling hills that created valleys like the one he lived in his entire life though more shallow. And there were a few trees, but never more than a few clustered together in small groves. What really helped though was the grass. It was like the bushes in the forest in many ways. Thick enough to hide in if he threw himself to the ground and high enough he could crawl through. It even hid a multitude of small animals.

Then Ebon saw one of the Lowman homes. It was little more than a pile of rocks with branches thrown across the top and smoke escaping from the porous roof. That same roof must have been almost worthless in the rain, but three Lowmen children sat on the ground naked from the waist up and ribs showing through mud and dark spots that made them look more sickly than sinister as they did on Ungarn.

The two largest of the children were throwing rocks at each other while their parents watched until after being struck in the head with a large rock the boy rushed at the girl a rock in his hand and murder in his eyes. The father then grabbed the boy and said “You can’t kill her. You might need her some day.”

Ebon saw who these people were in that exchange. These were parents who didn’t protect their children, but encouraged them to hurt each other. He even understood why. They believed it made them grow stronger and they needed that strength to survive. Ebon disagreed, but these parents saw that as the moral decision.

That scene played out many times over the next miles in a variety of different ways, sometimes with children and other times with adults that came near to murder. Ebon had just begun to become comfortable with the Lowmen and then he saw something far more impressive than children being taught to fight to survive. It was a pile of stones at least eight feet tall in a long curved wall.

“What is that?” Ebon asked.

“A defensive wall,” Ungarn said.

“Why not stack the rocks better?” Elwist said.

“The more solid the wall is the easier it is to destroy. A single spell from a wizard can put a hole through a solid stone, but this will collapse filling in the hole. It is also easy to build because The General simply created a law which requires a tribute from anyone who enters the city to add a single rock to the wall,” Geer said.

Elwist looked around and picked up a rock half the size of his fist. “Is there any rule about the size?” he asked.

“No. Most people toss up a few pebbles or even clumps of dirt that looks like a rock. They still fill in holes and make the wall stronger and many people enter each day,” Ungarn said.

The pile of rocks sloped into the road but left a wide enough opening for the five men to walk side by side. As they entered each man tossed their rock to the top of the pile. Ebon’s rock hitting the side of the pile and rolling almost all the way back down, but that didn’t seem to matter to anyone.

On the other side of the wall of stone was a city far bigger than Ebon had expected. The streets twisted and turned each filled with the same tiny stone or wood huts that were very similar to the same houses that spotted the countryside around it. Each appeared to hold ten or twelve of the thin sickly Lowmen. It was a jigsaw puzzle of buildings forming a second wall that would make attacking this city almost impossible because no army could ever make it through without splintering into a hundred tiny groups.

The other thing that struck Ebon was the smell. It was worse than the small ditch on the edge of Middleman valley where they disposed of their waste. The smell was a mix of human waste, sweat, blood, rotting meat and things Ebon didn’t recognize and probably didn’t want to.

The small group with Ungarn at the front twisted through the streets. Here Ebon watched the people even more carefully because he felt like he was in far more danger. As he watched them he saw a child sitting along the wall. He was tiny with arms hardly bigger than the bone and a stomach that budged out. He seemed almost dead until he reach out suddenly and grabbed one of the rats that swarmed through the street. He twisted it, breaking its neck and then bit into it. He got only two bites of raw rat into him though before one of the larger children pulled it out of his hands. Ebon almost stepped forward to help the small boy, but it would only make things worse by making him look weak.

At the center of the town was a huge pit it was twenty feet deep and thirty feet square. Surrounding it was a road twice as wide as any other road in the town. In fact, every building in sight seemed to be facing that pit. Even the roofs were tilted so people sitting on them could look down into those pits. Elwist walked to the edge of the pit, looked down and asked “What is this?”

“The battle pit. Every adult fights in the pit at least once each year to prove his or her worth,” Ungarn answered.


“Anyone over the age of twenty-five is required to enter. Anyone may choose to enter the arena though,” Ungarn answered. He sounded proud of the pit. The way the city was built around it seemed to reinforce that feeling of pride.

“Why would anyone enter early?” Ebon asked.

“Winners are given the same status as soldiers for one week. They are fed by the city and can sleep in the barracks. Some of the strongest warriors spend their lives fighting in the arena,” Ungarn said.

“And the losers?” Ebon asked.

“Sent home. If they are not too injured they will survive,” Ungarn said.

“When is the next battle?” Elwist asked.

“There is one most nights.” The statement came from deep booming voice from behind Ebon and he turned to see a man nearly as tall as Roalle though not quite as wide. His face was so covered in small overlapping spots each a slightly different color and Ebon instinctively moved a step closer to Elwist.

“I'd like to watch,” Elwist said.

As Elwist spoke Ungarn, Geer and Roalle had dropped to their stomachs and had their face in the dirt in front of the huge man. Ebon understood that reaction as he heard an authority in that man’s voice that made it clear he was dangerous and in change. In fact the only reason Ebon didn’t fall to his face as well Elwist. The man stared into the eyes of the huge newcomer. It wasn’t surprising. Even when talking to Ahr Ain Elwist had never shown fear, only respect, and he certainly wasn’t going to show this man more fear or respect than he showed Ahr Ain.

“Only adults are allowed to watch the battles so unless you are willing to enter the pit you cannot watch.”

“Can a child make a treaty with your people?” Ebon asked.

“Our people do not believe in treaties. They protect the weak. We may consider a military alliance someone strong enough to be useful or agree not to kill a people who could become useful,” The man said.

The Lowmen had not moved to stand up. They seemed terrified of this man, but he showed no sign of being angry or bothered in any way by Elwist’s questions or having even noticed the three groveling men.

“My people would like to make an agreement that neither of us will attack the other,” Elwist said.

“Why should I agree to give you something I would not give my own people?” The man asked, and he stepped closer to Elwist.

“General. May I speak?” Ungarn asked, lifting his head just enough that he could speak clearly but still looking at the ground.

The General looked down at Ungarn, “Why should I listen to someone who cowers on the ground while these men speak to me as equals?” He asked, then he spit on Ungarn and said, "Speak worm."

“They are a new race General. We do not yet know their strengths and their race numbers only twelve so cannot be expected to match the strength of those who number thousands. They claim to be created by Ahr Ain out of the earth of this world and to have no ancestors from the spirit realm. I believe that unique origin may make them useful,” Ungarn said.

“I see,” The General said.

Ebon knew Elwist well and he understood the man’s pride. He would never be able to admit enough weakness to do what needed to be done. Yet he wouldn’t stop Ebon so he moved forward and said, “We do not seek special rights. You allow your children to grow into their power before you force them into this pit. We only ask you for the time to prove our strength.”

“You have no status here to ask for that,” The General said.

“I will fight in your pit,” Elwist said. Ebon didn’t like the idea much, but he understood the need. By proving the strength of a single man they could prove it would be worth letting their race become strong and there seemed little doubt that Elwist could defeat any of these sickly men or even their healthier counterparts like Ungarn.

“Our battles are often deadly, and I won’t stop someone from killing you,” The General said.

"I will require a room until the battle begins as well as clean water and a few pieces of fruit. I have walked a long way and would not want to tarnish your battle by being weak when I enter it," Elwist said. Ebon wasn’t listening carefully though, he was looking at The General and he saw a plan in his eyes. He was going to use the pit to kill Elwist.

Chapter 6

The loyalty that the Orblings show to Sai Tain can be credited largely to the connectivity of their minds. Because their minds are constantly in contact with all Orblings it is all but impossible for any one Orbling to act alone, but I still believe they have free will.

The Prophet

Ebon wasn’t allowed to wait with Elwist. Elwist’s room was for combatants only, so Ebon was sent out to wander the streets. Both Ungarn and Geer offered to take him through the city. Geer was far less respected in this city, but Ebon trusted him more than Ungarn and so he went with the small hairy man.

In the forest Ebon would have found food easily, but here he had no idea how to get food. Elwist would be fed, but Ebon was hungry as well and they wouldn’t give him food unless he fought. Geer agreed that it would be good to eat, but convincing him to take him someplace with food took more effort. Still even after he agreed he repeated several times just how dangerous it was.

Geer led him through more twisting streets and paths so narrow that he had to walk sideways to get through. It opened up into a small courtyard that was filled with people and three doors but no other entrances. Most of them looked similar to Ungarn, with curved spots in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and dark shades of greens, blues and reds and most were moving through a single doorway.

There was no line. Everyone simply forced their way through the doorway by pushing and shoving. Geer moved in front of Ebon and the two of them were able to force their way through the doorway after a few minutes of jostling. Inside there was far more diversity of people than on the city streets. Small hairy people similar to Geer sat in one corner talking in a language Ebon didn’t understand and a creature that looked Roalle only smaller and with darker yellow stood at the bar leaving Ebon to wonder how the creature had made it through the alley into this place.

It wasn’t the strangest thing in the building though. The strangest thing was a silver orb that floated over the heads of the crowd its metal skin reflecting with the swirls of every color.

“What is that?” Ebon asked and he nodded towards the metal ball.

“It’s an Orbling, both creature and weapon that was created by Sai Tain from the soul of a powerful spirit. It survives solely on the power of its magic. The Orblings are the most common users of magic in our lands and all others fear them,” Geer said.

“Why is it here?” Ebon asked.

“Socializing it seems, since it needs neither food nor drink,” Geer said.

Ebon waited for food, but because the stronger moved to the front of the line he never got closer to the front. Eventually Ebon decided waiting was not worth the effort and turned to walk away. It was then that the small silver orb dropped in front of his head and in a flat toneless voice said “You can’t show weakness here.”

“I’m just tired of waiting,” Ebon said.

“Then take food. Move away and someone will see that as an opportunity to prove their strength,” The Orbling said.

Ebon didn’t want to get into a fight, and understood why Geer had tried to keep him out of this place. Still, it seemed the best way to avoid a fight was to be aggressive so he shoved one of the men at the front of the bar away and then turned to a scar faced man with half a nose behind the wooden counter who said, “What would you like?”

“Food,” Ebon said. He had seen everyone else was given two scoops of something brown from a large bowl and so he assumed that was all they had.

“And a drink,” The Orbling added.

The man grunted his half rotted teeth showing as he scooped out two handfuls of slop then poured something yellow into a cup. As he handed them to Ebon the silver orb floated down to the counter, glowed for three second, and then a small round piece of metal appeared on the counter.

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