Chapter One

"You're struggling," Teacher said sternly.

"I can't help it," Velar answered.

"Yes, you can."

Velar stared at the silver platter on the ground before him and concentrated.

"The powers of command and creation are the most difficult to master," Teacher said. "They require order and clear thought."

Velar could see his reflection in the platter and tried to relax his expression and fought down an urge to push away long blond hair from his face.

"I warned you that it would become a distraction," Teacher gloated.

Velar looked up at the grinning old man who sat perched atop a fallen log on the far side of the fire. "What?"

"Your hair."

Frowning, Velar cast his gaze once more at his reflection. As far as he could tell his hair was his only admirable feature. His nose had been broken twice during training and a rippling patch of scar, a remnant of the fire that had orphaned him, covered the left side of his face from cheekbone to chin. His shoulder-length golden mane seemed his only means of redemption as far as his appearance and he was determined to keep it long and distracting.

Teacher clapped his hands sharply. "Pay attention! Concentrate!"

Velar sighed and once again focused.

"The powers of creation," Teacher quoted, "gather the substance. The powers of destruction dispel the substance. You can control the forms of substance and bend them to your will through deliberate thought and setting you mind to different states that, when focused, create the desired effect. Destruction is simple. Creation is more of a challenge."

Velar rolled his eyes. "Easy to say all-"

"Your not concentrating!"

Anger washed over Velar and then he "released", as Teacher would say and felt nothing. The image formed and space above the silver platter twisted, solidified and became a torca.

"Why must I provoke you to wrath to get results," Teacher said, throwing up his hand in exasperation. Velar, beaming proudly, and pointed at the oblong, orangish-red fruit that lay on the platter.

"I did it," he said, smiling.

"Of course you did." Teacher's shoulders slumped as if the entire exercise had drained him. "You have mastered destruction. Creation would be the next logical step."

"I really did it." Velar knelt and reached down to pick up the torca. At his touch, the velvety skin of the fruit collapsed to a shrunken husk. Velar's mouth fell open in shock. Teacher chuckled.

"Next time image the meat of the torca as well," he said and chuckled again.

"But, I got something," Velar said, scooping up the shriveled remnants into the palm of his hand.

Teacher nodded, but his eyes still laughed. "True enough. Which is better than most do their first time. But it takes time. Perhaps even a lifetime."

Velar looked forlornly at his tangible image, then let it slip from his hand and drift lazily into the low fire where it flared briefly and vanished.

"Oh, chin up, Velar," Teacher said. "As I said, most get nothing on their first attempt. Now," He pointed at the platter, "return that to my pack and retrieve the wineskin."

"Yes, Teacher," Velar replied in a low voice and snatched up the silver dish and walked to the edge of the firelight where the horses stood tethered and the packs hung from limbs of trees. He shoved the platter into Teacher's pack and grabbed the wineskin. After a quick scan of the dark forest, paying heed to all his senses, he returned to the fire and presented the bulging skin to Teacher, then slumped down against the same log that Teacher sat upon. Velar's gaze fell to the fire. He heard the wine being poured into one of the cups they had used for water at the evening meal.

"How long have you been with me, Velar?" Teacher asked.

Velar frowned in thought. "Four years come this harvest." He looked to Teacher to ask why and stopped. Teacher held out the poured cup of wine.

"Take it," he said.

In four years Velar had not tasted wine. Never once even a sip to ease an ache or entice sleep. Teacher would not allow it. Now, Teacher offered him a cup and his expression was unreadable.
It may be test.

"I think not, Teacher."

"It's not a test, Velar," Teacher said. "You've earned it."

Velar arched his eyebrows. An outright compliment?

"Take it," Teacher repeated.

Cautiously, Velar accepted the cup. Teacher retrieved the other and began filling it.

"The time draws near, Velar, for you to take you place in the Order."

Velar took a sip of wine and winced as the bitterness bit his tongue then warmed his stomach.

"I want," Teacher continued. "to ask you what you've learned in this apprenticeship."

"The ways and means of the Knights of Anocren," Velar answered automatically.

"What else," Teacher asked, and gulped his wine.

Velar blinked. "I don't-"

His mentor held up a hand.

"Do not answer with the condition of your warrior abilities. You are truly one of the best I seen but any idiot can be taught to fight."

Velar's brow wrinkled in confusion.

Was that another compliment?

"Think on it," Teacher said and emptied his cup as he reached for the skin. Velar frowned at the dark liquid swirling in his own vessel.

What have I learned?

I have learned to be a Knight of Anocren.

But Teacher would want to know what it was to be a Knight of Anocren.

More than a warrior. More than a spellcaster. The Knights of Anocren were the elite of the elite.

But why?

From the ranks of the Order came not only warriors but liaisons, diplomats, couriers and the like. Services as a military force and otherwise always served the highest bidder. Every political army across the continent envied the Order's organization, security and efficiency.

At the moment, the Knights of Anocren served the Chancellor of Aylos. Velar looked to the stars, found two constellations and determined they were only a day's ride from Sareon, the capital of Aylos where the main body of the Order would be encamped.

I have learned . . .

What? What have I learned?

Amidst four years of lectures, discussions, training with weapons, training with horse, traveling across the continent and discovering lessons in all things from village and city politics to the way a leaf abandoned a tree and fell to the mud of the road . . .

"I've learned how to think . . . but- " Velar could see Teacher from the corner of his eye watching expectantly.

My duty to the Knights of . . .

My duty.

The lessons always ended with a reference to duty and honor. "Duty," Velar said to the fire, "and honor. Dedication to the cause of the Order. The Knights of Anocren serve these principles above all else and that is why they succeed where others fail. That is why they are the elite."

"That is why you are the elite, Velar," Teacher said. "You more than simply understand these principles. They are a part of your being." Teacher's tone became harsh, almost bitter. "Deny your duty, forsake your honor and you will fail."

Teacher stood, drained his cup once again and began pacing beside the fire. Velar watched carefully, listening.

"The Order has given you much already," Teacher said. "It's given you a chance to rise above your station and for that you should be grateful." Teacher pointed at Velar with the hand that held the cup and squinted one eye. "I could have left you in the street where I found you."

Velar blinked and remembered the darkness, dripping water, the stench of the alleys where he made his bed and the hunger. The constant, gnawing, endless hunger.

Teacher nodded. "I could have left you there. But I didn't. And now I've given you all I can. The responsibility is yours to take the opportunity and make use of it. Or throw it away." Returning to the log, he sat and reached for the wineskin. "The choice, of course, is yours." Teacher looked into the cup, snarled and tossed it aside. Hefting the skin over his head, he aimed the stream of wine to his open mouth and drank.

"Where will you go?" Velar asked as Teacher lowered the wineskin and dabbed his lips with the sleeve of his robes.

"It doesn't matter," Teacher answered. "My task is complete. My duty is done. I've trained another Knight of Anocren and he is my last. And perhaps my best."

Velar screwed his face into an expression of skeptism and cast a quick glance at his mentor.

Teacher was drunk.

"Never betray your faith, Velar," he said boisterously. "At times it will be all you can rely on." His eyes lost their focus and reflected the fire that popped and cackled before them. Lost my faith Velar and look at me. Born to rule I was. And look at me. This close to the end and what do I have? No lands. Nothing. A Teacher. And what is that? He blinked and fixed Velar with a harsh glare. “Never betray your faith.”

The words seemed to echo and the last four years flashed across his mind and, as always, Velar wondered how it came to be. How did a street-bound urchin discover a faith of honor and duty he would now die defending? Teacher had a sly way of instruction. He did not lecture facts. He presented and revealed truths so plainly that there could be no denial. Velar had many times been left to his own devices to determine the truth guided gently yet sternly by Teacher. How could a head-strong youth rebel against his own discoveries?

There were times though when Teacher threw in contradictions to force Velar into a different realm of thinking and Velar was beginning to think this was one of those times. Honor and duty provided a sort of guidance in even the most abstract dilemmas but nothing should ever be followed blindly. Each situation has its own merit that must be explored.

But now Teacher said never betray your faith. So which was the truth? Honor and duty as guidance? Or honor and duty as absolutes?

As absolutes, the principles offered no deviance and as long as one was willing to accept casualties, literal or otherwise, life remained rather simple.

But what if casualties in any form were unacceptable?

As guidance, the principles, in reality, offered little. The question would always remain; serve duty and honor or the situation?

He needed clarification and opened his mouth to speak but felt the old man's hand clap his shoulder.

"Sleep," Teacher said and Velar knew all training and discussion had ended for the day. Frustrated, he pushed to his feet and moved to where his pallet of wool blankets and skins lay a safe distance from the fire. Velar collapsed on the makeshift bed and folded his arm underneath his head for a pillow. He heard Teacher laugh softly.

"Remember, Velar," he said, "and remember well. The only place truth can truly exist is in a vacuum."

Sleep fell over him like a heavy blanket, tugging his eyes shut and shielding his mind from waking thoughts. Teacher had brought unnatural sleep on him and Velar resisted for a moment then relaxed. Teacher wanted him to sleep . . . so he would sleep.

"Remember, Velar." Teacher sounded far off. Distant. A whisper almost. "Remember nothing else if you only remember this. Truth, even the truest truth, can only . . ."

The darkness and silence suddenly became complete.

* * *

Velar rolled to his feet and blinked in the morning sunlight. Staggering slightly, he rubbed his eyes and scanned the clearing. Nothing remained of the fire but white ash and a thin stream of smoke.

"Teacher?"

His head hurt.

"Teacher?"

He had a medicinal tea in his pack. Massaging his temple with the heel of his hand, Velar turned to the tree where the packs hung and the horses were gone. The packs, the horses, everything.

Gone.

Panic seized Velar's chest as he spun in a tight circle, once again searching the clearing. Everything. Gone. He was alone with his bedroll.

He fought against the terror that clouded his thoughts. A familiar terror, bitter and tangible, of abandonment, hopelessness, sickly wet streets, cackling, haggard men, sobbing, mournful women, the stink of sewers, the screech and scurry of rats Gods! the hunger, the pain!

His weapon. He had to find his weapon.

He dove for the pallet flinging aside the furs and blankets.

Gone. He always kept it near his hand beneath the blankets when he slept and it was gone. Twisting away he pounded the earth and grass with his fists and sobbed.

I wasn't good enough! I didn't try hard enough! Now I'm alone again.

A horse nickered. Velar's head snapped up, eyes fixed on the forest.

The stream.

Launching to his feet, Velar stormed into the woods, easily dodging trees, ignoring hanging moss and clinging tanglefoot.

Another test. Teacher moved the camp to the stream as a test. He could hear the water splashing across smooth stones. Teacher would have a new fire burning and food cooking, admonish him for over-reacting and-

The forest ended abruptly and Velar slid to a stop, hung suspended briefly over the stream's edge, then fell face first into the icy water. Bounding to his feet, he sucked in a deep, harsh breath and coughed.

"Teacher." he wheezed. Water streamed from his woolen tunic as he stumbled to the bank. "Teacher?"

The horse nickered again and Velar looked up, pulling wet hair from his eyes. The massive straw-colored steed stood secured by the reins to a nearby tree and gazed at Velar expectantly. The mount was saddled with black leather tack that was marked at several points with an emblem of a perfect circle crossed diagonally with a sword. The symbol represented the Knights of Anocren.

Velar's eyes slowly drifted to the base of the tree. There, in an ordered pile, lay the armor . . . his armor.

It was beautiful, shining steel polished to the point of reflection and it was his.

Teacher thought he was ready.

Reverently, Velar crawled from the stream and across the short distance to his armor. The greaves and vambraces were stacked on either side of the smooth, mirrored breast plate. He held his hands over the metal, eager to touch it, to feel its weight and strength, but at the same time hesitant.

Teacher is gone. The armor is here.

He gripped the edges of the breast plate and lifted it. Beneath the plate, a cloak pin fashioned as the Order's symbol rested on a dark red cape.

He was ready.

His reflection gazed back, wet and dripping. Replacing the armor, Velar stood and looked himself over.

A bath was in order.

Turning, he stepped back into the stream pulling his tunic off over his head.

His skin tinted blue and his fingers and toes were numb but he was clean and his hair was swept back away from his face, more or less combed.

With quick precision impeded only by cold fingers he buckled on the armor beginning with his legs and working his way up to the breast plate, arm and shoulder pieces. Velar wondered at the fit which seemed a bit loose especially in the chest and shoulders. The armor he had trained in seemed more snug. Bracing against the tree, he stooped and retrieved the cloak pin and cape.

The cloak pin was beautiful. The circle shone silver and the crossing sword appeared to be gold. Velar held the brooch up between a thumb and forefinger marveling at the way the light played on the details. It seemed to almost to glow. Or was it glowing? A pulsating blue glow that slowly intensified then danced down his arm and enveloped his body. A blizzard of sound rushed in his ears the light twisted and swirled around pressing towards him. He heard metal wrench, felt the armor molding to his skin, conforming to the ripple of his abdomen and curve of his chest.

"Gods," Velar muttered and watched the gauntlets and greaves melt to the shape of his limbs. Slowly, the whirlpool of lights and stars faded and ebbed away. Panting, Velar staggered slightly, regained his balance, then fell against the tree.

The horse still watched expectantly.

Velar laughed. "You'd think," he breathed, "they would tell you about something like that."

The horse snorted and pawed the ground.

"Right," Velar said, swirling the cape to his shoulders and fixing the cloak pin. It still felt strangely warm to the touch. "We should be going."

A sword and two daggers hung from the saddle. Velar put one dagger in his boot and attached the other which was the longest to his belt. The sword he left secured to the saddle. Then, gathering the reins from the tree, Velar mounted.

"I have to think of a name," he said, giving the stallion a length of rein and patting his thick neck. The horse tossed his head.

Velar nodded. "I think we're ready," he said and started his mount off along the easiest path though the forest that followed the stream north.

Velar smiled, excitement thick in his chest.

"I think they're waiting for me in Sareon."

Chapter Two

Sareon stood before him, massive, towering, whitewashed walls gleaming in the sun.

Am I ready for this?

From a huge gate house streamed all brands of traveler from soldier to merchant to farmers guiding laden carts pulled by thick necked oxen. Some shouted greetings, others shouted curses, a wheel snapped on a wagon and a woman screamed in fright. Velar could smell smoke and meats and humanity and spices. It was an odd sensation to have one's mouth water and stomach churn with nausea all at once.

He had visited Sareon before but that was with Teacher. It had seemed wondrous then and exciting but now his wonderment felt tainted with a strange anxiety.

Velar chided himself. Teacher knew he was ready or he wouldn't have left the armor.

But visions of sorts occurred regularly. Velar saw himself riding into the ranks of the Knights of Anocren amidst laughter and jeers. Or perhaps the commander would approach, drag him from his mount and strip his armor away while explaining none to kindly that he wasn't worthy of the Order. Or maybe he'd be stopped at the gates by the city guard and turned away.

Or perhaps he was ready as Teacher had indicated, as the armor had indicated when it molded to fit his body perfectly.

Velar straightened his back, took a deep breath and started his mount forward into the throng that sought entrance to the city.

"Good day to you, Sir Knight," a woman called as her children waved. Velar smiled shyly and waved back.

"Make way," an unseen man bellowed. "A knight enters the city. Make a path!"

The crowd parted leaving the way open to the gate. Velar blushed and felt even more conspicuous since his scar would show white against his red face. He started his mount forward at a trot, waving to still more awestruck children and beaming adults.

"Strength in battle, Sire!" sounded another voice.

"Gods keep you!"

Sweat beaded on Velar's forehead. As he approached the gate the guards snapped to attention.

"Hail Anocren," a captain said and Velar cringed inwardly. He wasn't sure of an appropriate reply or even if there was one. Nodding to the captain, he rode through and hoped he wasn't insulting the man for lack of a verbal response.

"See that scar?" Behind him. Most likely one of the guards. "Battle tested, that one is."

Velar blushed again.

Further into the city, Velar paused at an intersection and cursed. He should have asked the guards where the Order's compound was or better yet he should have asked Teacher last time they visited the city. Somehow he doubted that the merchants and vendors that swarmed around him at the moment would know. Not that they would pause long enough to allow him to ask. Velar scanned his surroundings and shook his head. Tall white buildings apparently made from the same material as the outer wall lined the street and they all had a blockish quality with square holes for windows and arched openings for doors. Everything looked the same with one street very much looking like the last. With some dismay, Velar realized he couldn't have found the main gate again if he tried.

He had been traveling north when he entered the city-

"Lost?" came a booming voice. Velar looked up and saw a knight approaching on a large black stallion. The knight was huge with a round face and a missing eye that was partially covered by a mane of shaggy black hair. His armor shone brightly and, seeing the circle/sword cloak pin Velar wondered, what to do.

"I-" Velar began. "I guess I am."

The knight nodded knowingly, snorted and spat into the surrounding mass of people. "Happens to me quite a bit. Everything looks the same." He urged his mount forward and extended his hand. "Name's Olad. You're new."

Velar took the knight's hand and, for reasons unknown, a wave of relief washed over him. "I'm Velar and yes, I am."

Olad smiled a toothy grin. "Welcome to the Order."

"Thank you."

"Now, " Olad snorted again and the people around him scattered. "You need the compound." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "This road will take you through the main square and eventually to the west wall. Turn right and follow the wall. The compound is in the northwest corner of the city."

"Alright," Velar said.

"I'd take you there myself but I'm in the middle of a little errand. But I should see you tonight at the Blue Anvil."

"Blue Anvil?"

"It's a tavern on the square."

"Oh."

"You'll be buying of course."

"But-"

"Take care." Olad smiled again and started off. "Outta the way, ya' feeble lizards!" he roared and merchants once again scattered.

I don't have any money, Velar thought as he watched the massive knight leave.

The square seemed to be close to the center point of the city. Vendors screamed for attention as farmers and merchants delivered and received goods. Herd animals stood tethered at various points and people streamed in and out of the stores and shops. Velar made his way across slowly weaving through occasional pockets of open space to find the road on the opposite side. The way cleared somewhat and Velar started his mount forward at a trot.

Eventually he found the wall, turned right and, as Olad had said, soon found the compound which lay sectioned of from the city by a tall wooden palisade. Above the simple gate a sign hung with the painted symbol of the sword and circle.

A lump formed in his throat.

What now?

Through the open gate he could see knights training with wooden weapons, some on horseback, others standing about observing.

Velar thought for a moment. He should report to the colonel of his strike, but, of course, he would have to ask someone where that colonel would be. His heart sank. He doubted everyone would be as friendly as Olad.

Nonetheless, he had no choice. He must ask someone.

Dismounting, Velar adjusted his cloakpin, checked his boots and started in, leading his mount by the reins.

The spectators. He would ask one of them.

"By the gods!" a voice came and Velar stopped. A knight approached, lean and bald with a sharp goatee and dark eyes. Velar saw a red star within the knight's cloak pin.

"Fine looking animal," the knight said. "Fine looking, indeed. What's his name."

"Akeil," Velar said with a touch of pride.

The man snapped his fingers rapidly and looked to the sky as if trying to recall. "Ancient god of wind. I imagine he runs by the look of his muscle." The knight made a circle appraising the stallion. Akeil arched his neck and set his hooves. "Legs straight. Fine, fine animal." The knight finished his circle in front of Velar and extended his hand. "I'm General Elite Colmar. You must be Velar."

Colmar. Commander of the Order.

"S-sir!" Velar stammered and pulled his heels together. "Yes, Sir, I am Sir." After a moment he realized the General's hand was still out, juggled the reins and finally gripped Colmar's hand.

"Relax," Colmar said. "Thing's are fairly informal within the compound." Releasing Velar's hand, he reached up and patted Akeil's thick neck. "Welcome to the Order."

"Thank you, Sir."

"You'll need to speak to Colonel Akis. Third door from the left over at the barracks. I've assigned you to his strike."

"Thank you, Sir."

General Colmar’s lips pressed into a grim smile. "Don't thank me yet."

Velar didn't know how to respond.

"But the Colonel is eager to speak with you," Colmar said quickly. "And I have business at the citadel. A pleasure to meet you Velar."

"The honor is mine, Sir."

Colmar nodded, patted Akeil's flank and strode quickly out of the compound.

The spectators and combatants ignored him as Velar crossed the compound. No jeers or insults. Everyone's attention seemed fixed on the battle. Velar hurried to the third door from the left of the two story structure, once again feeling profound relief. This was going much better than he had ever thought it would. Securing Akeil's reins to a tethering post, Velar once again checked his boots, straightened his cloak, stepped forward and knocked on the rough hewn door.

"Enter," came a muffled voice. Taking a breath, Velar pushed the door open and stepped in.

The interior was cramped and dim. The only light came from tapers set in sconces on the wall. In the center of the room sat a desk littered with paper and behind the desk was a knight. Velar closed the door.

The man behind the desk rose. He was tall with short blonde hair and quick eyes. A branching scar marked the left side of his face. Velar stepped toward the desk.

"You must be Velar," the knight said.

"Yes Sir."

"Defend yourself."

His hand came up trailing red light. Velar imaged his shield and when the knight cast a sparkling beam of energy at Velar's chest, a disk of blue light deflected it away. Fire danced in Velar's veins as he set his mind to another state for possible counterattack.

"Outstanding," the knight said as he stepped around the desk. "I am Colonel Elite Akis. I am your strike commander."

Velar did not let his mind-set dissipate but he took the man's offered hand. Another test. Like Teacher's tests.

"An honor to meet you, Sir," Velar said. What next? A physical attack?

Akis returned to his seat at the desk. "There's a chair in the corner," he said. "Take a seat. We have much to discuss."

Velar stood his ground. Something was coming.

The door behind him crashed inward. Velar spun and brought his elbow into the face of the charging intruder, followed through, gripped the man beneath his arm and rolled him across his hip to the ground. Another came through the shattered door bearing a sword. Velar ducked beneath a high swing and drove his fist into the stomach of the assailant, gripped an ankle and pulled out the knight's feet. Velar touched the wooden floor, focused and imaged one of the planks to smoke. A billowing cloud of white instantly filled the room. Holding his breath, Velar rose and stepped toward the rectangle of light that was the door. Another attacker entered and Velar stepped to one side and crouched again, leaving his leg extended across the man's path. The knight cursed and tripped, landed hard and Velar vaulted out the door and into sunlight.

Akeil nickered nervously as Velar found his footing, drew his sword and scanned his surroundings. The knights that had been training now formed a large semi-circle in front of the barracks with Akeil and Velar at the center. Smoke poured from the door behind him and coughing and cursing could be heard within.

General Elite Colmar stood a short distance in front of the other knights, arms crossed. Blood rushed like wind in his ears as Velar watched the crowd and held his stance.

"Bokril," Colmar shouted. A short knight drew his sword and charged. Velar stepped forward, parried away two wild swings and brought his knee into Bokril's midsection. A back hand swing with Velar's free hand met the gasping knight's chin and sent him sprawling.

"Quanain," Colmar barked. A mounted knight charged raising an axe high overhead for a downward swing. Velar waited until the final moment before twisting away while curving his sword beneath the horse's neck. Quanain windmilled the arm and hand that held the severed reins fighting for balance and control. The horse whinnied in confusion and reared slightly. Velar stepped in, deftly gripped the man's ankle and lifted and Quanain fell crashing to the ground. A murmur passed through the surrounding spectators.

"Coxlar," Colmar ordered. "and Hagmarand."

Two stepped forward.

"Hold!"

The knights stopped. Velar spun on one heel and resumed his stance. Colonel Akis emerged from his chambers, trailing smoke. "Sir," he stated in a loud voice to the General. "This knight has been tested and proven. He is of my strike and should the test continue, me and mine will stand with him."

An unexpected surge of pride filled Velar's chest but he did not relax. It was a test and no one said it was over.

Colmar uncrossed his arms and took several steps forward. "I believe it's my prerogative to declare when a knight is proven."

"Of course it is, Sir," Akis replied. "I merely state that he is accepted by me and I will fight with him."

"I want to know his limits."

"Quite frankly, Sir, I'm not sure we can afford to know his limits. He has taken down five of us and is one of only three to ever escape the chambers."

Colmar sighed. "Akis, he is the one."

Velar frowned and stepped back.

One what?

The Colonel's face hardened and he stepped forward. "I would discuss this, Sir."

Colmar nodded and drew closer.

"Sir," Akis began, "he shows so much to be so young. It would be a waste-"

"No, Colonel. It would be a waste to send another veteran. The Chancellor has requested another agent and by contract I must provide him with one."

Akis spat. "A fool's quest."

"Perhaps. But we have no choice. And make such a statement outside this compound in earshot of commoners and I'll kill you."

The Colonel stiffened only slightly. "Of course, Sir."

"Anything further, Colonel."

"I can think of nothing, General," Akis said. "At least nothing that wouldn't be considered traitorous or disrespectful.

"I appreciate your honesty," Colmar said, his tone softening. "And I appreciate your feelings. But I've held the Chancellor off this long and did so by promising him the next one through the gate." He turned. "That happens to be Velar."

The General met Velar's gaze.

"The test is over," Colmar said. "I accept you as one of mine." The General looked to Akis.

"The test is over," Akis said, shifting his eyes slowly from Colmar to Velar. "I take you into my strike. And relinquish you to the Chancellor of Sareon." Colonel Akis spun and marched off.

Velar sheathed his sword. His heart still pounded. His muscles twitched. He felt sweat trickle down his back beneath his armor. He looked from the departing Colonel to Colmar and back again.

"I-" he began but Colmar held up a hand.

"Silence," he said, gently. "At least for now." His eyes seemed sad or disappointed. Frowning, Velar looked once again to the Colonel until he walked into what appeared to be the stables.

"Velar," the General said. "It will all be explained."

Colmar sighed almost dejectedly. "Come with me," he said, turned and walked towards the gate.

After only a moments hesitation and a glance at the stable door, Velar turned and followed the General out of the compound.

Chapter Three

Colmar hurried through the streets and Velar matched his pace.

"Sir," Velar offered. "If I may-"

"We go to the see the Chancellor, Velar," Colmar interjected. "He has a task for you."

"Actually, Sir, I was going to inquire of Akeil."

Colmar stopped. "Your mount?"

"Yes Sir."

Forward again. "He'll be taken care of."

They made several turns and Velar noted that he was lost once more. The mass of population still astonished him. Open space was rare but Colmar weaved through the congestion with ease.

"Sir?" Velar said. "This task ?"

"The Chancellor will explain," Colmar snapped but again abruptly stopped and Velar slid to a halt behind him.

"No," the General said flatly then worked his way to the edge of the street. "I'll have an ale with my newest knight before I do this." He stepped through an open door. Velar followed.

A tavern of sorts Velar judged. The interior was dark and musty with haggard tables strewn about and occupied with a sparse amount of patrons. A portly woman waddled forward, dusted off an empty table with a greasy rag and patted its scarred surface.

"They you are, Lords," she said. "Ales good enough?"

"Yes," Colmar answered and sat down. "and food. You will eat, Velar. Your gut shouldn't make noise before the Chancellor."

Easing onto a rickety bench opposite Colmar, Velar nodded. The strangeness of it all began to materialize before him. He was drinking with the commander of the Order before meeting with the Chancellor of the Regent Aylos who obviously had a task that Colonel Elite Akis and General Elite Colmar considered foolhardy, dangerous or both. Velar was unsure how to react or respond. What should he feel? Fear? Betrayal? Disappointment? Perhaps even elation? Nothing seemed justifiable without knowing more about the situation. One of Teacher's favorite axioms was that emotional reaction was valid only after all factors were known. Otherwise over-reaction or under-reaction became more likely than not. Velar knew nothing. Therefore, he could not react.

He had been accepted by the Order and, for the moment, everything else seemed trivial.

The woman returned and placed food and drink on the table.

"The finest I got, Lords," she said.

Colmar nodded and produced several small coins. The woman accepted the gold with a broad, decaying smile.

"Many thanks, Lord," she gushed and, bowing repeatedly, backed away as she counted the coinage with stubby fingers.

Velar waited. Colmar took a long pull from his tankard of ale and nodded to Velar.

"Eat," the General said. "I can't say I have much of an appetite but you should be hungry." He shook his head. "Five of my best," he muttered. "We heard good things about you, Velar but I never imagined."

Velar frowned as he forked a slab of beef onto a trencher of bread but said nothing. Colmar studied the froth of his ale in silence as Velar bit into the succulent meat. Juices instantly coated his chin and he leaned forward to drip on the table.

"Damn honor," Colmar said. "Akis is right but, gods be damned, Velar, I promised the Chancellor the next new knight that came through the gate and that-" he pointed at Velar "-was you."

"I understand, Sir," Velar said through a mouth stuffed with meat and bread. "And I'm read-"

"Don't talk with your mouth full, boy. It's rude."

Velar gulped. "Apologies, Sir"

"Never get a woman if you're constantly showing her what's going on in your mouth."

"Yes, Sir."

"And with that scar there."

Velar blushed.

Colmar shrugged. "Then again some would say it adds character. Never know with women and I would personally rather not know. It only confuses the situation."

"Yes, Sir."

"You have a woman, Velar?"

His mouth was full again so he merely shook his head.

Colmar nodded and drank.

"And to the hells with the Secultariates as well," the General stated. "Do you know of the Secultariates?"

Velar swallowed. "Yes, Sir. They guard and keep civilization--"

"Ha!" Colmar interjected. "They guard and keep themselves. But the Chancellor believes in them and therein lies my dilemma."

"I thought the Secultariates were well respected."

"They are. That's what makes them dangerous."

"But-"

"More ale!" Colmar shouted.

"But, Sir-"

"I should dissolve the contract and light towards Eshlex. Let Chancellor Rolarik waste his own men searching for the Secultariates' pretty cup."

Velar frowned. Pretty cup? Secultariates? "The Chalice, Sir? Will I be sent to find the Chalice?"

Colmar smiled grimly. "Excellent, Velar, excellent. Yes, the Chalice. Will you speak the legend or should I?" The woman came forward with a pitcher, filled the General's tankard and scurried away. Colmar drank long.

"Sir, I only know that the Secultariates have always spoken of the Chalice as a savior of civilization and that great things would happen if it were found. I know nothing else of the legend."

The General belched and swiped white foam from his goatee. "Then allow me to enlighten you, Velar. I can't preach this as well as a Secultariate but you'll get the idea. Let's see . . . " He looked to the ceiling in thought. "How does it go?" He dropped his gaze to Velar. "Before the last cataclysm that brought destruction from the skies by gods unknown, the Secultariates, knowing the end approached, imbued a chalice with the essence of the last warrior king so that his experience and wisdom could someday be recovered when civilization again found itself. The end came and man suffered and the Chalice was lost. The Secultariates have searched continuously since believing that if the Chalice is found and the wisdom of the last warrior king is delivered into a host, civilization and man will enter a glorious age." Colmar sighed. "That's it. Almost word for word. I personally think the entire concept is a cartload of horse shit but the opinion of a hired soldier means little. More ale!"

"So I must find the Chalice," Velar stated.

"Yes, you must." The General met Velar's eyes. "I will tell you. Three others have gone before. Two did not return. One came back in pieces."

Velar slowly nodded as a spur of excitement pierced his chest.

"I am honor bound to provide an agent to the Chancellor, Velar."

"I understand, Sir."

"You are honor bound to serve as I tell you to serve. We took you from the streets. We have made you into something unique. But if you cannot serve in this capacity, remove the armor, give me your sword and leave."

"I wish to serve, Sir."

The General leaned forward. "Then I tell you now, young knight, that you can serve me best, not by bringing back the Chalice, but by coming back alive." He stabbed the table with a finger to emphasize each word. "On your honor, Velar, come back alive."

Velar blinked. "On my honor, Sir."

Colmar nodded and worked his hands together. "I'm sick of this," he hissed. "The enemy's blood should stain my hands, not the blood of my own."

"I won't fail, Sir."

The General sadly shook his head.

"That's what the last one said."

Chapter Four

The chamber was cavernous with tall carved pillars, polished stone floors and arched ceilings. Velar resisted the urge to stare but managed sidelong glances at ornate furniture, tapestries and burning braziers that provided light and a perfumed smoke. He had never seen such opulance from the inside.

"Velar, keep up," Colmar whispered harshly and Velar skipped forward and fell into step with his commander who, considering the volume of ale he had only recently consumed, seemed very focused and steady.

"Speak only when spoken to," the General hissed.

"Yes Sir."

Two men emerged from the shadow of the pillars. One was elderly and supported himself with a black staff. The other was tall, thin with white hair, dark eyes and gaunt features. Both wore robes of black trimmed with red.

Colmar stopped at a respectable distance.

"Lord Chancellor," he said. "An agent, as promised."

Velar bowed and rose quickly.

Chancellor Rolarik shuffled forward, his staff clicking sharply on the stone floor.

"He looks young," he wheezed.

Colmar almost shrugged. "It's a young man's quest, Sire."

The other man stepped forward as he gathered his hands into the sleeves of his robe. "I believe the Chancellor questions this knight's experience and abilities."

"So you speak for the Chancellor, Jocaris?" Colmar spat.

"You will address me as Lord Minister!"

"I will address you however I wish, Priest!"

Jocaris bristled and stepped forward. "You arrogant-"

"Enough!" Rolarik ordered. "I have no time for this. You!" He pointed a gnarled finger at Velar. "You will find me the Chalice."

"As you wish, Sire," Velar responded.

Jocaris turned toward the young knight, his expression smug. "Do you even know of the Chalice?"

Velar nodded. "Yes Sir."

Jocaris lifted a white eyebrow. "Really? Tell me of it."

Velar cleared his throat. "It is the vessel that holds the essence and experience of the last warrior-king."

"Is that all?" Jocaris' grin became feral. "You-"

"Lord Minister," the Chancellor interjected. "You will leave us now. You as well, General Colmar."

"But, Sire," Jocaris began. "I must-"

"I said leave, Secultariate. Both of you. Go to the gardens and bicker or something."

"Sire, I protest," Jocaris said.

"Continue and you will protest from a dark cell."

Colmar spun on his heel and marched away. Jocaris looked from the Chancellor to Velar and back again before offering a curt bow and a hiss of disgust as he stormed away.

"Generals and priests," the Chancellor commented sadly as he watched them go. "One offers method as the other offers reason." He sighed. "Could probably do without both."

Velar frowned. "An interesting notion, Sire."

The Chancellor snapped his gaze to meet Velar's. "Yes, it is." His eyes narrowed. "You have steel in your eyes, boy. How old are you?"

"I've seen nineteen harvests, Sire."

The Chancellor nodded. "And the scar?"

"A fire when I was young."

"Not by combat."

"No, Sire."

"Still it is interesting," the old man commented. "You stand before royalty." He rubbed his chin. "I may be sending you to your death. And yet." The Chancellor slowly nodded. "You may be the one."

Motioning for Velar to follow, Rolarik turned and hobbled towards a cushioned winged chair. Once there, he looked left, then right ensuring no one was near, then presented his free arm to Velar.

"Help me down, boy," he said and Velar gripped the frail, thin arm and eased the Chancellor into the softness of the short couch. Rolarik sighed.

"You may be the one, Sir Knight," he said. "You know others have gone before you?"

"Yes, Sire."

The Chancellor shook his head. "Colmar talks to much to be a soldier."

"I needed to know, Sire."

Rolarik looked up, apparently somewhat surprised. "Oh, really?"

"Yes, Sire." Velar folded his hands together behind his back. "Extreme caution is now warranted."

"You don't consider defeat or failure as an option," Rolarik interrupted. "Do you?"

Velar stood silent for a moment before responding. "Sire, I was trained that defeat is never an option, only a possibility. Possibilities can be denied. Options must be considered on a strategic level."

"And it’s a waste of thought to consider defeat as an option?"

"Not only that, Sire, but foolish as well."

Rolarik laughed. "I could argue this, Knight and possibly argue well but I have no desire to douse your confidence."

"Sire, I would-"

The Chancellor held up a hand. "Enough. We haven't time. My enemies are posturing. I am aging. I need the Chalice not only to defend my regent but to bring all the regents together under one crown as they were before the First War of Kings. Not that you should even know that. Your sole purpose is to find the Chalice and return it to me. Nothing else matters. Help me up."

Velar gripped the bony arm as Rolarik rose to his feet, leaning heavily on the staff. Panting, the Chancellor lifted tired eyes to Velar's.

"I'm running out of time, Sir Knight," Rolarik said. "Swear to me. Swear to me on your life that you will not fail."

"Of course, Sire."

"Say it."

Velar squared his shoulders slightly as a knot formed in his throat. "I swear to you, Sire, that I will not fail."

The Chancellor nodded. "Remember that, Sir Knight. The honor and duty are yours." He turned to move away. "The Lord Minister and Colmar will give you the information you need."

"Yes, Sire."

Rolarik nodded and continued on, staff scraping against the stone of the floor.

"Your name," he said suddenly, but then shook his head. "No." His voice was nearly a whisper. "Perhaps it's best that I not even know."

Chapter Five

Did he know everything now? Could he allow himself to react?

A tremor racked his body, almost comically rattling his armor as a pent up wave of emotion exploded in his chest and swept downward into his loins. He had done it. He had passed their tests. He was a member of the Order.

Velar looked about the small room he had been assigned in the barracks and caught himself longing for star-filled skies and a canopy of trees. Room to breath. The air in the tiny room seemed thick and a bit rancid. He needed the comfort of a gentle fire and a thick pallet of furs and blankets.

But he was a member of the Order now. He had the small bed he sat upon and the warmth of the candle burning on the table.

He wanted to talk to Teacher.

Velar shook his head. He was on his own now. He was proven.

Proven? You sent five knights to the ground who were merely trying to subdue you. What have you proven?

And the Chancellor had entrusted him.

The Chancellor would have entrusted a stable boy if he promised to bring him the Chalice.

He felt so alone. At first light he would strike out on Akeil in search of the Chalice. Alone. Towards a spot the Lord Minister Jocaris had pointed to on a map, the same map that lay unfurled beside Velar on the bed.

"We believe the Chalice is here," Jocaris had said, indicating an area of mountains in the regent of Morcre which lay north of Aylos. "There are ruins there that date to before the creation of the Great Waste."

Ancient ruins. That meant little. Crumbling remnants of a lost age lay scattered across the continent from the southern jungles of Shipar to the northern plains of Eshlex. Velar wondered why the Secultariates suspected these ruins in particular.

Other questions abounded. The Chancellor thought the Chalice was the key to power over all the regents. Wouldn't others come to the same conclusion? Wouldn't agents of other realms be sent on this selfsame quest? What would he have to do if he encountered them?

So quick to question your abilities?

Velar sealed the voice away. He had to think. He had to contemplate. Three others had tried and failed. Caution was definitely warranted. Velar decided quickly that the best course of action would be to question people along the way in order to discover the fate of those who had gone before him. Perhaps he could discern the mistakes made and avoid them.

Someone rapped sharply on the door. Frowning, Velar stood.

"Enter," he said, a bit forcefully. The door swung inward revealing two knights. Velar recognized them from the test. The shorter of the two was Bokril. The other was Quanain.

Revenge, Velar immediately thought and steeled himself.

"Um," Bokril said. "We just-" He looked to Quanain who frowned a bit and held up his hands in almost a helpless gesture.

"We just wanted you to know," he said. "It was an honor to participate in your initiation. And,if your not busy, of course, we were wondering if you would care to join us for food and drink at the Blue Anvil."

Velar blinked, then slowly relaxed. "Well. Yes, I would."

Jocaris and Colmar had both given him small pouches of gold for the journey. And he owed an ale to Olad, the huge knight who had directed him to the compound. The Blue Anvil. That was where Olad had said he would be.

"Yes," Velar said again. "The honor would be mine."

He needed this distraction. A more rational part of him demanded rest and sleep before his journey began but Velar ignored it.

The Blue Anvil Tavern stood two stories tall on the edge of one of the larger market squares. Light and noise poured from its windows and open door and Velar felt his spirit lighten. He had visited such places before but and only during daylight hours.

"I was to meet one called Olad here," Velar said as they entered. Bockril and Quanain smiled.

"He's here, no doubt," Bockril replied, "and we will sit with him."

Tables filled the large room though most of the patrons apparently chose to stand. Knights and soldiers laughed and talked as they heaved huge goblets and snatched food from passing trays carried by serving girls. Minstrels played near the hearth at the far side room while a fight ensued and quickly finished with the help of the hefty fist of a rather plump whore.

"There's Olad," Quanain said, pointing to the center of the room. There the burly knight seemed emersed in conversation with one of the city guard. Bockril pressed into the crowd weaving his way between tables. Quanain and Velar followed.

"Velar!" Olad bellowed as they approached. Quanain and Bockril settled onto benches. Olad rose and extended his hand to Velar. "I heard of the initiation. Well done."

"Thank you," Velar replied.

"Have a seat." Olad looked to the guard who wavered, sullen eyed, on the edge of consciousness. Olad shrugged, pushed the guard to the floor and indicated the vacated place on the bench with an open hand. Velar carefully stepped over the snoring guard and sat down.

"They say you took eight," Olad said.

Velar frowned. "Who said?"

"It's the word on the street, man."

"But-"

"He took down five," Bockril offered. "And he can image."

Olad cocked an eyebrow, pulling open the lids of the missing eye. Velar fought down an impulse to look away.

"You know the powers of command?" Olad asked.

Velar frowned. "Don't we all?"

'We' felt strange to his tongue. Some part of him still seemed unsure perhaps because it all happened so quickly. The strangeness of it struck him again and a feeling akin to fear flared briefly in his gut. But it wasn't fear or apprehension. He could call it a kind of anxiety, an uneasiness at the thought that they might turn on him and point at laugh as the butt of an elaborate joke.

"No, we don't," Quanain said. "I would say at least a third of us do. But by no means all."

"But Teacher implied that everyone in the Order could at least a little."

"They all do," Olad interjected. "I know mine did. It's a way of pressuring you to see if you can."

"And even then," Quanain offered. "The initiates that arrive can usually manage to make light and that's all."

"You have to have the talent is all," Olad said and took a pull from his goblet. "Damn," he said. "We need ale."

They caught the attention of a serving girl and she quickly retrieved ales for all and left with a generous splay of coins across her tray.

"You haven't heard the best, Olad," Bockril said, swiping his lips dry with the back of his hand. "Young Velar here has a mission. From Colmar himself."

"So soon?" Olad looked to Velar. "And what would this mission be?"

Velar felt Quanain and Bockril watching, waiting.

"To find the Chalice," Velar said flatly and took a sip of bitter ale.

"What?"

"The Chalice. The sacred vessel that holds the essence of the last warrior-king."

"I know what it is, boy," Olad seethed. "What ignorance is this?"

"It's Colmar," Quanain said. "and the Chancellor."

"Gods, I'm sick of this," Olad said. "Sending good men after nothing."

"But if the Chalice does exist?" Bockril began.

"But it doesn't," Olad sneered. "Or if it every did it's long destroyed. Entire cities were obliterated in the First War of Kings and one pretty cup is expected to have survived? Nonsense. Utter nonsense."

Velar listened intently. This was what he needed. Opinions. Observations. Anything that would give him direction or insight.

Bockril leaned forward. "But listen, Olad. What if on the off chance that the Chalice did survive and one of the other regent lords came to possess it. What then? The lands are divided but an ancient artifact of a glorious age would bring them all together."

"Politics," Olad interjected. "You speak of politics, Bockril."

"Precisely," Bockril said, slapping his hand on the table for emphasis. "And the Chancellor has a right to defend his lands."

"By sending us to die one by one?"

Bockril shrugged. "We are soldiers. What else would our purpose be?"

"To kill," Olad spat. "To conquer. To crush our enemies on an open field of battle. You would brand us to be sacrifices designed to enhance the Chancellors ambitions."

Bockril stiffened. "I would brand us to be warriors who willingly give our lives to the causes we owe allegiance to."

"Politics," Olad snarled.

Bockril threw up his hands. "I can't argue anything with so stubborn and-"

"Hey, now, watch your tone, pup," Olad warned. "Else, I'll be wiping this place clean with your politic-loving carcass."

"Gentlemen," Quanain said, extending his hand to the center of the table. "I don't think this is the time."

"No," Olad said after a moment. "It isn't. Apologies, Velar."

"Mine as well, Velar," Bockril said.

Velar smiled but said nothing.

"To success," Quanain toasted and they all raised their goblets.

"Good evening, lord knights," a voice said. A woman's voice. Velar slowly lowered his ale and turned to the source. The woman leaned on his end of the table, a slight, sly smile gracing her lips. She wore a shimmering black gown trimmed in red, much like the robes Jocaris had worn. And she was beautiful. Emerald eyes and shoulder-length dark hair that curled under slightly at the tips, carefully framing her neck and face. Delicate features and a wonderful smile.

Something very unfamiliar fluttered in Velar's chest.

"Oh, by the Sands," Olad groaned. "Not tonight, Shilandra."

"Oh, don't be difficult, Olad," she said. "All I want is information." Suddenly, her eyes shifted to Velar and her features fell to a frown. "What happened?" she said and the flutter in his chest exploded.

His scar.

Velar cast his eyes down at the table and tried desperately to stem the blush rising to his face. She would see it. See his scar in stark white detail and it would be all she could see.

Her hand came up and with long, thin fingers she touched the marred surface of his face. Her cool fingertips ran gently across the ridges and folds of the scar as Velar slowly lifted his eyes.

"It was a fire," she said, with an air of sympathy. "Wasn't it?"

Velar nodded, almost nervously. "When I was young," he managed and dropped his eyes again.

Her fingers fell away and he wanted them to return. Quickly, he took a sloppy drink of ale and tried not to look.

"Speak your business, Shilandra," Olad said through a mirthful grin.

"Oh, yes," she said. "Well, you see, well, I lied. I not only need information but I also need you to come along and be your intimidating self."

"No," Olad said. "I still got scars from the last time I came along 'just to be intimidating'."

"This isn't like last time."

"No."

"Olad," she pleaded. "I need help."

"No, I said."

Velar cleared his throat. "Lady, I might be able to help."

"Stay clear of this one, Velar," Olad said.

Shilandra smiled and her gaze dropped to Velar.

"You're the one."

"Run, Velar," Olad whispered. "I'll knock her on her pretty little ass and you run like all the fiends of hell were on your back."

"Hush, Olad," she snipped. "You've had your chance."

Velar looked from Olad to Shilandra and back again. "I don't understand."

"Your big," she said, looking him over. "You could do." She drew closer and he caught the scent of flowers. "I have information. Or I will have if you help me. It could aid you in your quest."

Velar shrugged. "I will help in any way I can."

"Excellent." Shilandra gripped his free hand and pulled him from the table. "We must hurry."

"Last chance, Velar," Olad called after, but he was laughing. "I swear, boy, we can take and maybe even hold her long enough for you to get out of the city."

Bockril and Quanain joined in the guffaws as Shilandra led him through the door and onto the street.

"Where are we going," Velar asked.

"I'll explain on the way," she said and, still gripping his hand, guided him deeper into the city.