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A pair of vigilant eyes watched them from the top of the ravine. Tendrils of smoke curled above the wraith, the cigarette in his mouth glimmering red. They didn’t see him, but he saw them—that’s the way he wanted to keep it.
A bandit sentry walked back and forth in the same ten paces he was assigned. He performed his duty without zeal, sleep threatening to overwhelm him, but he was still attentive to anything that moved. A ram horn was slung over his shoulder, only to be sounded when he saw an intruder. He still didn’t see the ghost above.
The bandit paced back and forth before the small river that ran through the ravine. The wraith crushed his cigarette on a rock. The bandit turned his back to him and walked the opposite direction. This was what the wraith was waiting for. He sprinted down the side of the ravine, almost noiselessly. He bounded through the slim river with one step, creating an audible splash. The bandit immediately turned around, but saw nothing; the wraith was already gone. He dashed up the other side of the slope and into the forest. In the distance was a wall made of sharpened logs. He weaved in and out of the trees, never slowing. He ran faster the closer he came, the other bandits unaware of his presence. Reaching the barrier, he grabbed the top and flipped himself over, landing with a quiet thud.
He was inside the bandit encampment.
The wraith knelt on the ground on the edge of encampment. He was practically invisible, just a shadow of himself. The only clearly visible part of his body was his right boot. Water dripped from its black leather. It looked like it was attached to nothing. He took notice of this and withdrew into the shadows. He shook the water off of his boot and it slowly faded along with the rest of his body.
He wore a dark green suit that fitted tightly against his skin, tucked into his black boots and gauntlets. A dark bandana was wrapped around his forehead. He wore two belts, one around his waist the other diagonally around his chest, dozens of small leather purses attached to them. They also concealed his many knives, his biggest was on left side. A short-bow and a quiver was slung over his back.
He reached into his suit and produced a dark crystal that hung on a chain around his neck. He made a fist around it and whispered, “It’s Raven Cloak; I’m inside the Mgolnas encampment.”
Silence, then the deep voice of his commander answered from the crystal, “That’s good work Raven, how do you like the dim suit?”
“It’s fine, a little tight around the nethers though. It stops working when it gets wet though,” he replied, grinning.
“All good things come with a hitch unfortunately, nothing I can do about that, you’ll just have to make due with what you have. Just don’t get wet.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Raven said, glancing at the bandits that filled the center of the encampment, “so what’s next, Arrodel?”
“You’re objective is to rescue Duke Winthrall.”
His eyes grew wide upon hearing this, “You mean the Rainmaker?”
“Yes,” he said gravely, “Him. The Mgolnas tribe captured him yesterday.”
“The Mgolnas is demanding a ransom of twenty-thousand gold pieces. However, it’s far cheaper to simply spring him.”
He smiled, “I agree.”
“Be out of there as quickly as you can and kill as little as possible. We don’t want blood giving us away. So if you must, try to kill without bloodshed.”
“What about the bandit leader?”
“I guess if you have the opportunity, snuff him out. Otherwise, don’t go looking for him, your main goal is to rescue the Duke and get out of there as fast as possible.”
“I hear you, Raven Cloak out,” he released the crystal and stuffed it back into his shirt. He looked up; no moon, hardly any stars, it was a good night for sneaking,
He slinked into the shadows of a tent and peeked behind the corner. A bandit was coming his way. He rested a hand on the long knife at his side and watched him as he approached. The bandit neared, his beady eyes examining everything before him.
He reached back into his suit and held the crystal, “How does it look?” Arrodel replied.
“Not to bad, pretty unorganized, but what do you expect from bandits?”
He chuckled softly, “I guess you’re right.”
“Should be easier than robbing a sleeping drunk—wait.”
He didn’t reply. He watched the bandit approach, but he wasn’t alone. Two strange men were sneaking up behind him, dressed fully in black, their faces concealed by masks. The first grabbed the bandit by the throat while the other stabbed him in the chest. Three stabs later, they let him slump to the ground, his front soaked in blood. He was not the only one, it happened all over. The mystery intruders first killed the sentries, quiet as shadows, and then moved on to the ones sleeping in the tents. They moved into the tent whose shadow Raven Cloak used as his place of hiding. There was a muffled scream from within, then the soft sound of his blood as it sprayed on the canvas.
They passed by the back of the tent, swords drawn, looking for more of the Mgolnas. Raven held his breath, crouching as low as he could in the shade of the tent. For a terrifying moment, one looked directly at where he crouched, shinning his lamp on him, then: “No one else here . . .” He turned and moved on.
His dim suit worked well.
He released his breath quietly and grasped the crystal, “RAVEN! ANSWER ME!”
He recoiled, and held it back. He was glad that only he could hear him. “Silence, I’m here.”
“Some unknown mercenaries crashed the party.”
“Could it be other paladins? We do work in secret, only the King knows of our existence. The Duke’s family could have sent—”
“No,” he said firmly, “They’re not paladins, I would know. We aren’t as merciless as the ones I just saw. I heard one talk; he sounds eastern.”
“Have an idea where they’re from?”
“Sorry, I don’t. All I know is that they’re not from around here.”
“How many mercenaries do you think there are?”
He stopped and looked around. He thought for a moment then answered, “With their stealth, I would say they only have twenty. Probably more around the encampment. Most of the bandits were asleep, that was when most of them were killed.”
“What about Duke Winthrall?”
“I’m not sure about the Rainmaker.”
Arrodel sighed, “Continue with great care. We may be too late to save the Duke, but we aren’t sure about that. Don’t try anything foolish Raven, not even you are good enough evade twenty men if you’re not on your toes.”
Raven grinned from ear to ear, “You know me, Raven out.”
He released the stone once more and glanced around the corner. They had their backs turned. He darted to the next tent. They didn’t even notice. He watched from the shadows and saw the chief’s tent. It was easily the largest, the sword driven through the shield on its flap. Two mercenaries stood outside of it, everyone’s attention seemed to be on the tent, or rather what was coming out of it. Then two more of the mercenaries exited the tent, behind them was the chief of the Mgolnas, and the other was Duke Winthrall, the Rainmaker.
Both were in chains, the chief crying out curses. He spat in the face of one of the mercenaries, a poor mistake. The mercenary’s eyes blazed and he brought a wooden club across his face. It could have easily killed him had he struck just a little bit higher. The chief fell to the ground and spat out a mouthful of teeth and crimson. The mercenary said something but he could hear—he had to get closer.
He stepped quietly around the side of the tent and saw one of them standing before the tent flap. He was alone. Faster than sight could comprehend, he grabbed him by the neck and pulled him inside of the tent. There were sounds of struggle—all ended by a dry crack. No one noticed for their attention was on the two hostages. Raven peeked through the tent flap and watched them.
The chief was sobbing with pain, but the Duke seemed nonchalant. He found that strange. “Our leader shall deal with you,” the sound of flapping wings suddenly filled the night air. “Ah, there he is now . . .”
The sound grew louder and louder, the torches throughout the encampment fluttering from the increasing wind. Then he saw it; a dragon. His heart raced and his mouth became dry. A man rode the dragon like one would a horse, sitting on an oddly shaped saddle set between the dragon’s wings, on the base of its neck. The dragon landed in the middle of the encampment, causing the earth to shake.
The man who rode the dragon had a face as pale as milk, his hair as dark as coals—like the dragon’s scales. He didn’t look ill however, that was just the color of his skin.
He then knew where these men were from: “Lehigh . . .” Raven murmured.
In a smooth, liquid movement, the man dismounted his steed. The dragon released a brief, but ear-piercing scream. The mystery man sauntered over to its head; the spurs on his pointed boots jingling, and gave it an affectionate pat. Small flames spurted from its nostrils and it sat itself down.
He turned around and strode over to the bandit chief. He looked at the chief with a sour smile on his lips, and he scowled back. “You should really train more reliable guards, Gomorn,” his voice was wispy, soft, but not pleasant.
“I swear!” Gomorn cried, “I swear I will have my vengeance ya bas—”
The dragon rider’s knife flashed from its sheath, slicing a neat cut entirely across his throat. His blood sprayed the dragon rider’s face, but he didn’t care, his knife still outstretched. The blood flowed horrendously, and still Gomorn stood, his eyes rolling in his sockets. The crimson slowed, then reduced to a trickle, and he slumped to his knees, then to his face.
The dragon rider drew his lips back, revealing his crooked, yellow teeth in a horrible grin. He sheathed his blade and wiped the blood off of his face with a dark handkerchief. He then turned to the Duke, looking at him like a snake that’s about to strike.
Raven cursed under his breath and drew his bow, fitting it with an arrow. What he was prepared to do was suicide; he was dim, not invisible. If they were truly looking for him, they would find him. Yet he had to protect Winthrall, even if it meant his life.
Yet instead of harming the Duke, the dragon rider stepped forward and embraced him. “What the hell?” Raven whispered and he slackened the pull on his bowstring.
The dragon rider knelt and took a ring of keys from the chief’s belt. He unlocked the Duke’s manacles and threw them aside. “I was wondering when you would show up, Daragon,” was Winthrall’s reply, a slight frown on his face, “They were about to skin me alive.”
“Don’t be dramatic my friend, I came—no harm was done to you.”
Daragon released a very small, poisonous laugh, “Well, we had to let the paladins think that you were abducted,” he gestured his hand to the dead that lay scattered around him, “Now they will think you are dead once they happen upon this place. I would say this little rouse was very successful. Now you can aid us completely, you and the Water’s Pearl, and none shall be the wiser.”
“Ah, that’s right, the Pearl . . .” it was his turn to kneel. He rummaged around in the leather pouch that the bandit chief had at his side and produced a perfectly round stone, glowing with a blue, ethereal light. He held it before him, lost in its radiance, “It will aid us greatly.”
Raven’s face darkened. Again, he grabbed the crystal, and the voice of Arrodel responded, “What’s going on? Do you have the Duke?”
“No, but it looks to me like he’s perfectly fine.”
“What do you mean?”
“The mercenaries that I told you about before—they were sent to rescue Winthrall. It was all planned, I’m assuming that he paid for his own abduction, and after being locked away in the prison encampment, the mercenaries invaded and killed the bandits. The mercenaries are from Lehigh.”
“Lehigh? We’ve been enemies for centuries. How do you know this?”
“They’re leader rode in on a dragon, he goes by the name Daragon. Do you know who he is?”
He sighed, “I do, he’s the leader of a secret fellowship called White Shade. It’s made up of elite soldiers from all around the world. From what I know, they’ve been in league with Lehigh for quite a while now . . . But this doesn’t make any sense though, Winthrall’s been the most supportive of a war with Lehigh. Why would he side with them?”
“Perhaps to lead Caldrien into a trap . . . but how?”
“That’s a question I can’t answer, not yet. Get out of there as quickly as you can, there’s nothing more you can do without getting killed.”
“Wait!” He hissed, “What is the Water’s Pearl? Maybe that has something to do with it?”
“The Water’s Pearl? It’s a powerful stone used by Duke Winthrall; that’s how he makes it rain when things get dry in Caldrien. That, is the actual rainmaker. I can’t see how it will help Lehigh if it only waters the crops, it doesn’t have the power to create floods or any real harm.”
“We can discuss this later, for right now, I’m a fish in a net.”
“Get out of there Raven, by the will of the Father, get out of there.”
“What about the stone? Perhaps I can take it back?”
“There’s nothing you can do about it now, you’ll just end up dead. Just escape, that is your new mission; we’ll need a witness to convince the Congregation of this betrayal. You will more than likely end up dead if you try to take it now.”
“Okay then, Raven out,” he released the crystal and slung the bow over his back. He crept to the tent flap, still watching the two, but then: “What is that?” said Daragon.
“What is what?”
“That smell . . .” he began to sniff the air with his large nose. This continued for a moment, and Raven was about to make his exit when Daragon’s eyes suddenly darted to his location. “There!” He shouted, and Raven’s heart froze, “There is a paladin! Kill him!”
Raven muttered a curse. How could he have smelled him? He pointed to the tent where he hid and cried, “Don’t let him escape!”
Without question, the mercenaries dressed in black drew bow and launched their arrows at the tent. Raven sprinted to the back of the tent, drew his knife, and cut a long gash through the canvas. He slipped through just when the arrows fell. He dashed to the wall, narrowly dodging their arrows. He flipped himself back over the wall and continued to run, their footfalls sounding very close.
“Get him!” said Daragon’s distant voice.
More arrows came, still hitting nothing. They shot at the sound of his feet for they couldn’t see him. He reached the ravine and bounded into the river. He was about to make his ascent when he saw the torches of more mercenaries. There was no hope of escape through the forest; his only salvation was the waterfall. He ran as fast as he could down the river, the arrows missing by hair-widths. He lumbered through the water, panting, trying to keep out of their range.
He saw the beginning of the waterfall and pushed himself as hard as he had ever pushed himself in his life to it. Then the sound of very large, flapping wings filled his ears. He glanced back and sure enough it was Daragon, riding his dragon, the traitor Winthrall behind him. Escape was close, so close . . . Daragon kicked the sides of his dragon and flame shot from its nostrils. He was there, looking down at the lake below. He felt the heat from the fire and dove. He cut into the water like an arrow, and the darkness consumed him.
Daragon flew down to the surface of the water and hovered around, looking for his body. He soon found Raven, floating lifelessly not too far from the waterfall. He watched him for a while longer, waiting to see if he was faking. After he was sure he was dead, he turned to Winthrall and said, “Well, are you satisfied? The nobility of your name is preserved.”
“I am, now let’s go, I don’t want to stick around here.”
“As you wish,” he dug his spurs into the sides of his dragon and flew away into the night.
The sound of flapping wings soon faded away and silence stole over the forest. Then, “Oh!” Raven whipped his head up from the water and took in gulps of fresh air. He watched the spot in the sky that was Daragon and his dragon and frowned. He grabbed the crystal around his neck once more, “Raven! Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, but I think that it’s going to be a dry year in Caldrien.”