Chapter 1
The Mysterious Knight

Stormtree, Gladius

"It is difficult for a warrior to go on once his time has passed. He is no longer fit for the battlefield and he cannot adjust to town life. One of the few ways to make your life valuable at this point is to pass on what you have learned to the younger generation."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

The old man allowed his cape to cover his sword. Mark was still stunned. That gem in the pommel could mean only one thing.
"Who are you?" he asked. "An Elemental Knight?"
The old man introduced himself with a slight bow. "I am Felix the Crusader, of the Holy Knights of the Temple of Redcrosse. I was a friend of your grandfather's."
"How do you know who I am?"
Felix simply smiled. "I would be remiss not to know the heir of House Aran. We Elemental Knights share a common destiny. I heard the rumors of your survival and I have passed through Gladius several times over the years in hopes of finding you. It seems I have been fortunate this time."
"Did you fight in the war?"
Felix's gaze went to the roaring fire in the hearth. "Sadly, I had my own war to fight in the Holy Lands. Though I was not one of King Edgar's vassals, I would have gladly lent my sword to his cause. I had no idea what had happened when I returned here." His eyes went back to Mark. "I am sure you felt the same way."
Mark nodded. Felix continued to look at him, only much more intently than before, like a diviner poring over the signs in the entrails of a sacrifice. Indeed old knight's eyes pierced so that it was like someone was reaching into his belly.
"You do not have much time," Felix said. "I can sense you have not had the Guardian's gear for long. Your powers are still immature. As you are, you cannot stand against Randwulf, but I can help. I can train you if you let me. I will even train your comrades as well."
"Why would you help us?" Mark asked warily. "What quarrel do you have with Randwulf?"
"The homeland of my friend has fallen to an usurper. That usurper is an Elemental Knight who has broken the Convention. And the young man who stands against that usurper is not only the descendant of my friend, but a brother of the faith. My duty is clear."
"What are your conditions?"
"Only that you open your mind to my training," Felix said. He sighed. "I am too old to fight, but someone needs to take a stand for the people of this land. I believe that you are that person."
Mark did not need to deliberate for long. "Very well," he said. "What do I need to do?"
"We will need to get a boat," Felix replied. "There may still be some salvageable craft in the ruins of Sandstone. There is a small island a couple miles offshore. It happens to be an excellent training ground."
"I need to gather the others," Mark said. "Shall we meet at the South Gate?"
Felix nodded. "That will be fine."
Mark rose from his chair and walked up to the bar. Edward had passed out, Sonia was little better off, and Jasper was lying on the floor singing nonsensically. Jill, on the other hand, did not seem to have drunk very much and was keeping a watchful eye on her adoptive sister. Sonia looked lazily at Mark and then at Edward.
"Damn fool drunkard didn't know his limits," she grumbled. "Miracle he didn't vomit all over the place..."
"It's time to go," Mark said.
Sonia looked at her glass and frowned. "Ah, I can barely taste the liquor anymore anyway... I guess it's time to stop." She cuffed Edward on the back of the head. "Hey, get up! You can't lie around here all day!"
Edward grunted. Looking up at her brought a scowl to his face. "No un laysh handz un th' Crown Prinsh!" he bellowed, slurring badly in his drunkenness.
Sonia thumped him on the Prince on the head again. "Your crown'll be all lumpy if you don't get up!"
"Wutch yurr tung, wummun!"
Mark forced himself between the two, playing the part of the mediator yet again. "Settle down, both of you. We have to get going."
"No, wee'v gut t' wet fur Shigfrid," Edward said. "That shurvunt shed he wuz sh'ppos'd t' meet ush hurr."
A chill ran down Mark's spine. Why had he not realized it earlier? Though Siegfried Martel was Edward's most trusted vassal, he was also a peer in Randwulf's court and the mayor of Stormtree. There was no way he would meet Edward out in public, especially in this tavern with so many veterans of King Edgar's army.
"We have to go," Mark insisted. "Now."
"Ay'm wettin' hurr."
"I don't have time to argue," Mark said. "If you want to stay, fine."
Mark had no intention of leaving Edward alone, intoxicated and easy prey for an assassin lurking in the shadows, but it was easy enough to get the Prince to do what he wanted. Mark turned to walk away when Edward stumbled off his stool.
"Dun't thunk yuh kun git away frum meh that eash'lee! Yuh b'lung t' me, r'memburr?"
Mark did not even bother to face him. "Didn't I tell you that I belong to no one?"
Edward grumbled to himself and lumbered after the Guardian. All too easy. Following Mark and Edward, Sonia grabbed Jasper by the hood of his cloak and dragged him across the floor.
"Time to go, Tricky," she said.
"Ish th' merrimakin' ovah owlreddy?" Jasper asked. His dialect was nearly incomprehensible as it was, so the alcohol did not make things much worse.
As soon as they left the tavern, Mark began to look for Teresa. She had refused to enter the "den of vice" saying she would use her time "ad maioram Dei gloriam". He started by checking the alleyways where the poor gathered to beg. He was just about to ask someone if they had seen her when he heard a clamor in the distance.
He rushed out to the main street to see his companions squaring off with a twenty-man detachment unlike anything he had seen before. They wore armor like that of lieutenant of the Gladian Guard, only embossed with gold and sporting plumes of white horsehair on the helmets. Mark would later find out that they were men of the Palace Guard. The detachment was led not by any normal officer, but a blond youth in civilian clothes. The youth drew an épée, a hopelessly impractical weapon, and pointed the tip at Edward.
"Surrender now, rebels," the youth said, "and you will be spared."
Two six-man squads of the local garrison appeared on their flank, apparently part of the original plan to trap the group in the tavern.
"You are surrounded and outnumbered," the youth said. "There is no escape. Surrender."
His voice had a nervous edge. Mark could easily see the youth's inexperience. He wanted to avoid a fight in town, but it seemed unavoidable. If they created too much of a ruckus, more men of the garrison would get involved, possibly even the drunken veterans in the tavern eager for an excuse to attack Randwulf's men. There had to be another way.
"Rut 'n 'ell, cur!" Edward roared at the youth. He drew his sword and assumed a somewhat wobbly fighting stance.
Likewise, Sonia drew her rapier and main gauche. "Prepare to die!"
Jill notched an arrow and Jasper already had his knife in hand. It was too late. The fight was happening here and now. There were no alternatives left.
Without hesitation, the Palace Guards charged at the four companions. Five went down immediately: two to a swing of Edward's sword, one the point of Sonia's rapier, one to Jill's arrow, and another to a deft stab by Jasper. Mark's first instinct was to rush into fray to aid them, but there were almost as many enemies behind them as in front. Charging at the men of the garrison, he cut down one on the draw of his sword, charged the blade, took out two more with a bolt of lightning, and knocked down a fourth with his shield.
Back at the front, a Palace Guard thrust at Edward and the point of his halberd became wedged under the Prince's chest plate. Before it could fully pierce through his defenses, Edward brought down his sword for a powerful blow, cleaving both the guard's helmet and the skull underneath. The blade continued to cut down the length of his body, stopping about halfway down his torso. Edward could not waste any time prying it loose, so he drove the point into the ground and abandoned it. He then pulled out the halberd from his chest plate and used it to stab another Palace Guard in the throat.
By that time, Jill and Sonia had already taken two more apiece, but Jasper was finding less success, struggling to hold back the halberd of the Palace Guard he was fighting. With Jill and Sonia turning their attention to the local Guardsmen, Mark was free to come to the thief's rescue, cutting off the Palace Guard's arms at the elbow and quickly decapitating him with the next swing. Another Palace Guard tried to take advantage of the opening to attack Mark, but was stopped short when Jasper's knife landed in his eye. Jasper plucked the knife out and slit the guard's throat for good measure. While he was kneeling over the body, two local Guardsmen tried to pounce on Jasper, but the thief was saved by a timely fireball from Sonia and an arrow from Jill.
Now wielding his axe and mace, Edward hacked through the shaft of a Palace Guard's halberd with a swing of the axe and followed through with a blow from the mace that smashed into the side of his opponent's head. Meanwhile, Sonia was barely holding back the blades of two Palace Guards attacking her at once. She did not try to prevail against the combined strength of the two men. Instead she diverted their swords with a flick of her wrists, moving in close to stab one with her main gauche while she thrust at the other with her rapier. After that, Jill's unfailing aim claimed another victim while Mark pierced the armor of the last one with a forceful thrust.
In the midst of all the fighting, three of the local Guardsman tried to flee. Only one escaped Jill's arrows and the huntress quickly darted after him to finish the job.
The blond youth was left alone amongst the bodies of his men, épée shaking in his unsure hand. With Jill returned from finishing off the last local Guardsman, the five rebels stood ready, but did not attack right away. Near his sword, Edward took his foot and forced the body of the slain guard off the blade, hoisting it up in a menacing gesture.
Since the Palace Guards were the only credible threat, Sonia had ignored the youth who led them. She only paid attention him now that they had him he cornered. Getting a good look for the first time, she recoiled abruptly, her eyes wide with surprise.
"Mark, let him go," she said hastily.
"Why?" Mark asked.
"Just trust me on this," she insisted. "Let him go."
"We can't afford loose ends," Edward declared, apparently sobered from the fight.
"I'll cut you down myself if you take another step toward him," Sonia hissed icily. A glare at Edward left no doubt of her sincerity. "Now let him go."
Having no reason to argue with her, Mark shrugged. He pointed his sword at the youth. "You heard her. Tell Randwulf that we're not to be trifled with. Tell him we're coming for him. There's going to be a reckoning for what he's done to our kingdom."
The youth took a few fearful steps backward, then turned and ran. With no more enemies in sight, everyone sheathed their weapons. Mark turned to Sonia.
"I'm surprised with you, Sonia," he said. "You're usually so bloodthirsty. I probably would have spared him anyway, but why were you so insistent on it?"
Sonia looked away, refusing to meet his eyes. "Ask me later..." she said quietly.
Mark shrugged again. "I'm sure you have your reasons."
Edward cursed under his breath. "Stupid woman!" He pointed at Mark. "You're even more troublesome than him! Don't you know that was Randwulf's son Claudius? We could've gotten rid of that usurper's heir here and now!"
"Shut up!" she snapped. "It's like Mark said. I have my reasons. That boy is no threat to us."
Before the argument could continue, Mark intervened. "We need to find Teresa. I have someone waiting for us at the South Gate."
Forgetting her anger for a moment, Sonia looked at him curiously. "Who?"
"I'll explain when we get there."
Their conversation was cut short by a scream. Mark ran to the source with the others close behind. A group of peasants were huddled around something in a nearby alley.
"What happened?" Mark asked.
"Someone attacked this nun!" a frightened woman shrieked.
Mark pushed past the peasants to find Teresa crumpled on the ground. Mark turned her over to check her condition. Her skin was cool and clammy to the touch and her breath slow and weak. She was still conscious, but just barely.
"What happened, Teresa?" Mark asked.
The novice's voice was barely above a whisper. "Cloaked... person... cut me... Blade... poisoned..."
"Do you have any antidotes?"
"Yes... Black vial... in pouch..."
Mark rummaged through her pouch and found the black vial. He uncorked it and poured the thick liquid into her mouth. Teresa swallowed hard and grimaced.
"Won't... counter poison..." she said. "Only slow it... I need... Sister Kleantha..."
Mark took her up in his arms.
"Hang on, Teresa. We'll get help for you."
Mark carried her over to where the others were. Sonia and Jasper rushed up to him. From the distressed look on the thief's face, it was as if Jasper already knew what was wrong.
"What happened to her?" Sonia asked.
"Doan' doi on meh, luv!"
"She's been poisoned," Mark explained. "We need to get her back to the abbey. We have to get to Cruz as fast as possible."
Despite the urgency of the situation, Mark did not forget about Felix. They were closer to the South Gate anyway, so it was just as well. Felix was waiting for them when they reached the gate. The interior of the gatehouse was solid rock, as if the earth had rose up into the ceiling. Blood trickled out the windows.
"I took the liberty of giving you a few less people to kill," the Crusader said. He looked at Teresa in Mark's arms. "What have we here?"
With no time to lose, Mark was quick to reply. "She's been poisoned. We need to get to Cruz."
Felix shook his head. "No good. The garrison has been increased fourfold. You will not get through."
"We have to help her!" Mark said desperately.
"There may be an alternative..." Felix mused.
"What is it?"
"There is an old woman in the marshlands to the south."
"The witch?" Edward sputtered. "She's one of the devil's own!"
"She is a talented herbalist no matter her reputation," Felix replied. "It is that girl's only chance."
Mark committed himself without a second thought. "We'll do it. Do you have any horses?"
"We can use the ones belonging to the detachment you fought," Felix said. "The stables are not far from here." He then pointed in the direction of the stables. "Fetch some horses and I will open the gates."
"You stay here," Sonia said to Mark. She looked over her shoulder. "Jill, Edward, we'll get the horses."
Edward glared at her and grumbled, "I don't take orders from you."
Mark had no patience for Edward's usual nonsense. He angrily snapped, "There's no time! Just go!"
Edward glowered, but made no retort. Sonia and Jill ran for the stables while Edward followed, though at a considerably slower pace. Even so, they were not gone long. They returned soon with six horses in tow. The Gladian Guard did not keep their horses in prime condition, but the three of them had clearly picked the healthiest-looking specimens. By the time they had reached the South Gate, the earth in the gatehouse had receded and the gate lay open.
"A good thing I managed to avoid damaging the machinery," Felix commented. He looked at the horses and frowned. "The men of the Gladian Guard should be ashamed of the way they treat their steeds, but I suppose Gladians are not known for their horsemanship." He shook his head. "It cannot be helped. If we push them hard enough, we should make it there by tomorrow."
Mark looked at Teresa's trembling body in his arms. He could only hope tomorrow would not be too late.