It all started with an insult. Sartan Ursake, a knight of the country of Granta, was part of an embassy to Frethar to try to make peace between the two constantly warring nations. He, personally, did not want to go at all, but was forced to do so as an escort.
So he insulted the Fretharian King's chief adviser.
If he had done it to any other adviser, he may have gotten away with his face. For, you see, most of the King's advisers WERE bumbling idiots who cared more about their clothes than the country. But the one Sartan insulted was different. He was a Ranger, and Rangers don't take insults lightly. He challenged Sartan to a duel.
Sartan Ursake happened to be the most highly skilled swordfighter in Granta. But he, as most people did, underestimated this man who was rather below-average height and wore his mottled, dirty cloak even in the King's presence.
The duel took place in the castle courtyard that same day. Sartan wore full armor and had a broadsword and shield; the Ranger, who revealed his name as Moore Cahound, still wore just his strange cloak and had two daggers.
With a shout, Sartan charged across the courtyard, swinging his heavy sword. He raised it overhead to deliver a crushing overhand blow to the Ranger and swung down but, to his surprise, the sword was stopped. Moore had crossed his daggers and trapped the sword between them. Startled, Sartan was barely able to block with his shield when the Ranger took one dagger away from the crossed position and slashed at him. With lighting speed the Ranger stabbed and slashed again and again. Sartan tried to swing his sword, but Moore blocked it every time. The Ranger was targeting his revealed face now, and the blood dripping down over his eyes was making it hard to see. Finally, he could take it no more. Sartan surrendered. His face was by now a gory mess.
As he rode back to Granta with the embassy whose mission had, of course, failed, his face swathed in bandages, he swore revenge on Moore Cahound, Ranger of Frethar.
Aegerinh slipped noiselessly up to the wall of the Academy grounds, shrouded in his cloak, invisible in the darkness of the night. He sensed the young sentry standing guard on the wall directly above him. Waiting until a cloud concealed the moon, he then crept up the sheer wall, using no visible handholds. Then came the hard part. Aegerinh launched himself over the battlements at the sentry. Before the sentry could cry out, he touched a point on the sentry's neck, and the young guard started to fall, paralyzed. Aegerinh quickly caught him, leaning him against the battlement, so none of the other guards would notice anything. Then he jumped down into the grounds.
A few minutes later, inside the main building, he crept silently along a hallway. He stopped at a certain door, skillfully picked the lock, and entered into a bedroom. Aegerinh went to the still form lying on the bed and pulled an object from his pocket. The thing seemed to radiate darkness. Aegerinh touched the thing to the man on the bed and murmured a sort of chant. As he did so, the thing made the room even darker. All of a sudden, the man disappeared into thin air. All that remained was some black residue on the bed. Aegerinh, noiseless as ever, slipped out the window, the dark object returned to his pocket. He jumped down from the sill.
Strait into a patrolling sentry.
The sentry, with surprisingly quick reflexes, leaped back and drew his sword. Aegerinh cursed in his own language, a collection of clicks and hisses that didn't sound human, and tried to dodge around the guard, but the guard swiftly swung at him. Aegerinh simply caught the blade with his hand. The guard tried to pull his sword free, but as he did so the blade turned black and withered smaller and smaller until it disappeared. In shock, the sentry stared at where his blade was as Aegerinh made his escape.
The next morning, the Academy was in an uproar. After examining the superdark residue on the bed, the Battlemasters (heads of the Academy) consulted a mage and found out that Moor had been entrapped in a Dark Crystal, a very rare artifact that was only found in meteorites. They had the power to capture objects, even very large ones, inside its ever-empty vacuum if used correctly.
The Battlemasters also questioned the guard who had tried to stop the black figure that had crawled out of Moore's window, obviously the user of the Dark Crystal.
The guard, a young Ranger-in-training named Tinian Ingor, was thirteen years old, had brownish-blond hair, blue eyes, was rather tall, and already was very skilled with weapons of all kinds. The Academy used its students for practical tasks, like guard duty.
Tinian explained what had happened, including his withered blade. He even offered to go after Moore's captor himself; for he thought it was his fault the black figure escaped. At this, the Battlemasters were quick to assure him that it was NOT his fault, and that he would NOT go after it, whatever it was.
Tinian went back to his room and started packing for a journey.
The next morning, Tinian was striding through the forest, away from the Academy. He was for the first time disobeying orders and looking for Moore Cahound. He had slipped past the sentries and gone east. East was, he reasoned, the most likely place for the captor of Moore to go. The only people interested in killing or capturing Moore were in Granta, to the east.
He was so absorbed in his own thoughts that he didn't hear the rush of air created by the wings of a griffin diving straight at him until the beast hit him, bowling him over. Tinian drew his sword and was about to run his attacker through when he realized what, and who, it was. First, it was a griffin, illegal to kill within the boundaries of Frethar. Second, this griffin in particular was a friend of his.
"Hkyar!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
"I should be asking you the same question. I was sent to locate you and help you find Ranger Cahound," the griffin replied in the strange, guttural language of the griffins, accurately named Griffincall. He rose, shook himself off, and continued. "After the Battlemasters realized you were gone they remembered that you wanted to rescue him, and, seeing as you had already started off, they decided not to stop you. They sent me to go with you, though. Normally you Rangers are hard to see, with their camouflage cloaks and all. But you were walking out in the open. Were you daydreaming again?" he added suspiciously.
"I, er, yes, I suppose I was," Tinian admitted. "Again. Well, anyway, what are we waiting for? Come on!" He started walking toward the east again.
"Wait!" said Hkyar, after Tinian had gone a few paces. "You're going the wrong way."
"No I'm not! This way's east. Isn't it?"
"That way's east, true. But the Battlemasters told me that they had discovered that the assassin went south, to Morod. Said something about them consulting the mage again and being really difficult to track by magic."
"Oh. Lead on then, since you know the way."
Morod was a small country, bordering Frethar, on the shores of Adurna, the great ocean, to the south. From it, ships traveled all over the coasts of Wirina and among the many islands in the sea.
Kingdoms aren't usually small, and Frethar was no exception. It took Tinian and Hkyar almost a week to travel from the Academy, situated near the center of the kingdom, to the border separating Frethar and Morod. Morod was an exception, though, and it took them only a day's march to get to the capital city, Hyarnemfal, in the south of the country. Hyarnemfal was huge, and famous for its expansive docks where ships from all nations stopped.
On the outskirts of the city, Hkyar flew off by himself. He thought it better to lay low on some rooftop than walk in the very crowded streets of a city that rarely, if ever, saw griffins. Griffins are rather intimidating beasts.
All by himself, Tinian was left to look for an individual in an enormous, busy, and crowded city. Plus, there were ships coming and going every minute. The assassin he sought for could very well be on one of those ships, bound for anywhere.
Tinian was very, very lucky that day. He caught sight of Aegerinh haggling with a ship captain on the docks. As he moved closer, he could hear them. There was no mistaking the voice of the black-cloaked figure, sounding like a loud whisper. Apparently they were arguing over the price of having the ship take him as passenger. Finally Aegerinh seemed to give up. He dropped some coins into the captain's hand and walked up the gangplank.
Tinian casually walked up to the captain, a huge man with a red beard, and asked where the ship was headed. The captain looked annoyed by him, and told him to get lost. Tinian was, after all, just thirteen, and thirteen year-olds aren't usually interested in where a normal merchant ship is headed. Tinian asked again, struggling to control his anger. When the captain just ignored him this time, he couldn't take it any more. In an instant the big man was lying on the ground with a dagger that had appeared out of nowhere at his throat, held by a boy who had just knocked him over with two lighting fast punches to the jaw, a feat in itself.
"Where is that ship headed?!" the boy said through clenched teeth.
"Suworow," the reply came. "But there's no more room for any passengers. We're leaving right now."
Tinian thanked him tersely, but before he had walked two steps the captain reached out and hit him solidly on the ear. "No one knocks me down. Think twice before doing it again, young man," the captain said with a growl, and turned and went back to his own business.
A little while later, Tinian was arranging to have another captain take him and a friend to Suworow as passengers. The captain's name was MacStan, he was rather short, and had a very loud voice. He agreed to Tinian's offer.
Until he heard that the friend of Tinian's was a griffin.
"Ahm nae takin' any griffin o' yourn, an' Ah doubt any other captain will either. Griffins, huh! Where would Ah put it anyways? In the hold? Tae full. On deck? It'd get in the way o' everythin'. Nae griffins on this 'ere ship."
Tinian tried to say, "But it's really important..."
The captain interrupted. "Did ye nae hear what Ah said? Ah said no, ye understand me?"
Tinian got angry. Again. His long dagger was out in an instant, its slender, razor-sharp point hovering a centimeter from the captain's neck.
"Listen," he said, his face inches away from the other's. "I need to get to Suworow quickly. I do not have time for things like this. I am going on this ship, and the griffin is coming with me. Do you understand?"
The captain saw in his eyes a dangerous light. He nodded his head. "Put him wherever you want. We leave tomorrow morning," he said.
"Thank you very much," said Tinian slowly, his voice low. "I'll call the griffin once we leave port." He sheathed his dagger and strode up the gangplank.
Other than three encounters with pirates, two huge storms, and the captain getting lost once, the trip to Suworow was long and uneventful. They hadn't caught sight of the ship Aegerinh was on. The only interesting part, besides one of the pirate encounters, was when Hkyar had dropped out of the sky like a thunderbolt on the deck when they were leaving port. Some of the sailors nearly fell out of the rigging with surprise. The captain didn't look too pleased, but he didn't say anything.
Suworow was a colony in the far southern islands. It was farther south than any other colony, in fact. Tinian couldn't imagine why Aegerinh would be taking the Dark Crystal there. No expansive crime organization was based there; while it was a refuge for criminals of all kinds, it was too far away from anything. Except Sai Chan.
Sai Chan was a huge island not very far from Suworow. It was almost completely jungle and almost completely unexplored. Full of dangers, like the many mysterious, hostile, native tribes, rumored to be cannibalistic, it was, as Tinian was discovering, very far from anything else.
As he lay on deck, thinking over these things, he was startled by the lookout crying, "Land ho!" Immediately the deck was full of sailors, all looking on the horizon for a sight of land.
Tinian walked over to captain MacStan. "I trust this is Suworow?" he inquired.
"Aye, an' Ah'll be glad to finally have that beast off o' mah ship," the captain said. Overhearing them, Hkyar gave a growl in his direction.
A while later, they docked. Aegerinh's ship was also moored there. Tinian got off the ship and went over to its captain - the one he had knocked over. He wouldn't reveal any information, and was on his guard in case Tinian tried to knock him over again, but this time it was the appearance of Hkyar that opened him up. Aegerinh had disappeared into the colony's maze of ramshackle buildings, and he hadn't seen him since.
"Scary sort of fellow," he mentioned. "Wouldn't say a thing when I asked him what business he had here."
But, walking through the colony, Tinian saw Aegerinh. He started to run after him, but Aegerinh noticed him and drew his blade: a black-bladed, exotic looking scimitar with inch-long barbs down the edge. With a shout, Tinian drew his claymore, a two-handed, slightly heavier sword. He swung mightily at Aegerinh.
A loud clang rang out as their blades met. After recovering from the shock of blocking the heavy sword, Aegerinh pulled his blade down, the barbs pulling Tinian's claymore with it,then freed the barbs and stabbed upward. Both of them were expert swordsmen, and Tinian was able to evade the lethal blade only just in time by spinning to the side. Again and again the swords crashed, their skilled wielders using every trick they could manage. A crowd was gathering around them in the square. Aegerinh used the barbs on his scimitar to pull the claymore away, but Tinian was lightning fast with his glittering sword.
After a while, though, it seemed to the crowd that Tinian was gaining the upper hand. Aegerinh noticed this too, and suddenly ran into the crowd. The throng of people parted, wary of the naked black blade. Tinian ran after him, the crowds treating him the same way for the same reason, but he soon lost sight of the deadly black figure as it vanished into the maze of Suworow.
This tale would be a chronicle of failure if Tinian didn't have the luck he did. As it was, Tinian (luckily) spotted Aegerinh hitching a ride in a canoe with a tribe returning to Sai Chan after trading with Suworow. Tinian arranged with another canoe to take him along also.
Hkyar wisely flew above them, high enough that nobody noticed that the small eagle-like shape high above them had four legs and a lion tail.
The canoes traveled across the sea for a long time before reaching Sai Chan. They rowed up a small river into the thick jungle. Quite a few big logs floated around them- logs that, on closer inspection, had eyes. And lots of teeth.
Finally the canoes came to the village; just a few huts on stilts in a clearing.
Aegerinh suddenly jumped from his canoe (the natives had ignored all commands from Tinian and Aegerinh to get closer together from the former or farther apart from the latter) onto one of the nearby floating logs. The "log" burst from the water, trying to shake its rider off, but Aegerinh held on, then jumped to another "log"- or really, giant crocodile. He seemed to be quite skilled at this, for he leaped from one to another with apparent ease, making his way to the opposite shore, and stirring all the reptiles into a frenzy.
Tinian attempted to do the same. But he chose the wrong one to jump on: the croc right in front of the legendary Gharaytond, mythical "father of all crocodiles" to the natives. Its tail alone was twelve feet long, its body nineteen feet, not including the five foot long head and lengthy jaws. Eight legs it had, webbed feet, short spikes down its back, four beady eyes; and it was exploding from the water towards Tinian.
Suddenly a blur swooped down from the sky through a gap in the canopy. It caught Tinian up just in time, flew across the river to where Aegerinh was disappearing into the thick underbrush, and then dumped him on the bank, while the Gharaytond slid back into the water. By then the blur had slowed down enough that Tinian could tell it was Hkyar, and the Islanders, scrambling onto their bank to get away from the Gharaytond, could tell that it was a dangerous, fierce-looking creature they had never seen before and that was capable of flying over the river to attack them, just as it had apparently done to the boy they had as passenger.
Backing away from the shore, for the Gharaytond was still in the murky water, they pulled out blow-pipes or bows and started shooting at the griffin, which quickly ran into the jungle with the boy.
Behind some trees, Tinian thanked Hkyar. "I wonder what that thing was, though. And are there more of them?"
They saw no more creatures like the Gharaytond, but there were more monsters. Much more. As they traveled through the jungle, tracking Aegerinh, they ran into many grotesque animals, all of them extremely lethal. Giant centipedes, basilisks, carnivorous animal-like plants, weird deadly indescribable creatures, a lots of giant spiders (and webs to go with them!), and, worst of all, a herd of strange beasts: the smallest of them was 11 feet tall, they were gray, had large flaps for ears, pillar-like legs, long noses that looked like tubes and reached all the way to the ground, and large tusks. Tinian and Hkyar only saw these from a distance, but they looked very fierce.
At last, they caught up with Aegerinh. He was desperately fighting a losing battle for his life with a manticore. Tinian and Hkyar killed the beast with one fell swoop (and a well-aimed throwing knife), but Aegerinh was mortally wounded. Tinian rushed over to him, and with his dying breath he said that he was hired by "Ursssache."
They searched him, and finally found what they were looking for: a small crystal, pure, darkest, black.
That's when they were surrounded.
The ambushers, a little more than half a score of them, were all dressed similarly to Aegerinh: black cloaks, belts full of small packets and vials, exotic blades (drawn!), and masks and hoods concealing their faces. They also spoke like him, with clicks and hisses.
They advanced slowly, hissing menacingly - then struck like lightning.
Heavily outnumbered, there was no way Tinian could survive fighting, so he just blocked a couple of slashes in quick succession and dodged between two of them, then ran for his life.
Never had he run as he ran now. He ran for hours, not heeding the monsters he ran past, knowing that Aegerinh's kind was close behind. Finally, he collapsed from exhaustion in a clearing. He was dimly aware of a large shape falling out of the sky, flapping its wings. Then he heard no more.
When Tinian woke up, he was lying next to a little smokeless fire. Someone had apparently found him and built the fire to ward off the dangerous beasts, but was nowhere in sight. He waited for what seemed hours, until finally a figure emerged from the forest carrying an armload of wood. Tinian thought he recognized that person, but he couldn't recall where. Then he remembered.
"Gawera!" he called, weakly. The elf came over to him.
"It's been a while since I've seen you," she said. "If you're wondering why I happen to be here, of all places, I was just sent with a couple other elves to investigate some traces of black magic that seemed to connect with whatever's happening in Granta, and also in the Northwestern Wilds. As I was walking through this clearing, I almost tripped over you." She smiled. "You Rangers and your silly camouflage cloaks."
"What about Hkyar, though? Is he all right? Do you know where he is?" asked Tinian worriedly.
Gawera's face clouded. "He's in the forest. Dead. It looks like he was flying, then crash-landed. He was hit by a throwing star in the side. It wasn't fatal, except for the fact that it was poisoned.
For some time after that, Tinian was only dimly aware of what was going on. He vaguely remembered burying Hkyar, meeting up with five other elves, telling them his story and why he was there. Then he searched his pocket for the Dark Crystal. It was gone. Tinian passed out.
When he woke, he heard the elves still talking. He heard Gawera telling the others that she had seen traces of somebody walking up near Tinian, when he was asleep before she found him, and then running away in another direction. She had been so preoccupied with helping Tinian that she hadn't given them a thought.
Tinian got up and walked over to them. Quawian, the leader of the group, told him what had happened. "I know, I heard you," He said. "What do we do now?"
The six elves and he made a plan. While the other five would continue their mission in Sai Chan, Gawera and Tinian would track the person who had stolen the crystal. They would follow him to whatever hideout he had, and hopefully be back before the other five left the island. Then they left for the clearing where Gawera had found Tinian.
Carchameht slowed from a lope to a walk, now that he had gotten some distance between himself and the boy. He knew that when the boy woke up, he would follow him just as easily as he had followed Carchameht's comrade Aegerinh. He hissed angrily at the thought. Aegerinh was the most accomplished assassin they had. Plus, their race was dying out. That is why he must get away from the boy. He had seen the boy's skill with a sword, almost nobody could block four swords coming from different directions that quickly. He had also seen the boy's aim with a throwing knife. He was dangerous.
Every so often, he would run for about twenty minutes, then slow back down again to a walk. As night fell, he would take short catnaps, then start running again. But little did he know that Tinian and Gawera were gaining on him. At about nine o'clock the next morning, among the sounds of animal life in the jungle, he heard a sharp twang, a whiz, then a thunk, and he looked with amazement at the head of an arrow protruding out of his chest. Then he died.
With the recovery of the crystal, Tinian and Gawera traveled back to where the other elves would be. Then they noticed something strange happening to the Dark Crystal. It was turning gray around the edges. They quickened their pace. When they met up with Quawian, the gray areas were spreading, and getting lighter. Quawian said that it had held a living object for too long and was going to turn white and implode, destroying whatever was inside.
"You must hurry," he said, "and take it back to Wirina. Find a mage there that can release Moore. The only one I know that is able to do so is in Granta." He gave them the location, a cave outside one of the main cities, and also a special amulet. It was enchanted, and could teleport people and objects, but sapped the user's energy, too, depending on the distance.
Tinian and Gawera both touched the amulet, while Gawera said the spell. Their figures started to blur, and then they were gone.
They appeared in Morod, a few miles in from the coast, exhausted. "I feel like I ran all the way here across the ocean," Tinian said. About ten minutes later, they had recovered enough to start traveling northeast, toward Granta.
After slipping across the border, they stayed undercover; they were in enemy territory. Finally they reached the city they were heading to, and, after a while of searching and Gawera muttering spells to counter the mage's enchantments to hide and protect his cave's entrance, they found the mage.
He lived in a small cave full of the usual things: a big cauldron in the middle of the room, dried toads and bats' wings hanging from the ceiling, jars of pickled snake eyeballs and newt tails on the walls. He was a grumpy sort, and Tinain and Gawera had to pay him quite a bit to make him free Moore Cahound from the Dark Crystal, which was by now light gray. At last he said the proper incantations, and, all of a sudden, Moore stood before them.
Tinian and Gawera explained to Moore Cahound what had happened to him, and where they were. He was surprised, of course; anyone would be, after going to sleep in their own bed and waking up in a small cave with a mage, an elf, and a boy, and in enemy territory too.
They all needed to get back to Frethar quickly: besides the risk of being captured and found out as enemies, while traveling through the country they had discovered that Granta was readying to attack Frethar, and soon. The only way Frethar could learn of this early enough to have time to prepare for the onslaught was if the three of them got back soon.
So they did. It was hard, but at last they stealthily crossed the border to Frethar unharmed. They traveled in haste to the capital (where the Academy was located), and reported all they had found out to the Battlemasters and the King himself.
They quickly readied the army and marched off to the virtually undefended town that Granta was going to attack first. While Cahound went with them, he was one of the superior generals, Tinian stayed at the Academy. He was, of course, only a boy, however skilled at fighting he was.
He waited, and the whole Academy with him, for a week. Then, finally, the news came back. Frethar had successfully warded off the attack! But something strange was afoot. The forces of Granta weren't alone. They were accompanied by even more magical creatures than usual, and they had apparently allied with Ter'ren, a powerful country to the west that bordered the Kraanstind Desert. They had sent a battalion or two to Granta.
This was very bad news. Frethar received more and more reports of countries allying with Granta, and also more and more ambassadorial parties wishing to ally with Frethar. War was erupting, and it looked like it would envelope the whole of Wirina.
Gawera finally said goodbye to Tinian, and started on the long journey back home to Ilvar, the Great Forest of the Elves. Tinian and all the other cadets at the Academy continued their training.
They knew that they would be called upon to take part in this conflict soon enough.