Raxton Veritex was instantly awake. Someone had tripped an alarm only he could sense. Raxton had always been cautious, but for all of the countless times he had set such magical wards before, rarely had his vigilance proved necessary. No one was supposed to know he and his companions were travelling in the west. Indeed, they had taken every precaution to avoid inhabited areas and to hide their identities when necessity forced them to interact with others. Of late, though, those efforts had proved lacking as they had already been assaulted by shadowy, inhuman figures who seemed to know them. These same beings, though apparently destroyed, had returned to slaughter a whole village, with the only possible motive being one of spite towards Raxton and his companions.
Raxton’s ward told him, though, that this being was likely human, and that he had entered the ward alone. That didn’t mean that the person didn’t have companions further out, hidden by trees and darkness. One of Raxton’s companions, a hulking minotaur known as Octavius Maximus, was snoring loudly just a few feet from him. Raxton touched the bull-man softly on one arm and was rewarded with instant silence. He knew the survival-attuned minotaur would now be fully awake and alert. “Maximus,” whispered Raxton, “We have a visitor. Stay here while I check it out. Make sure the Lady is safe.”
“The Lady,” Rowena Karlion, daughter of Tazukar Karlion, Emperor of the Known Land, rested peacefully on Raxton’s other side. As the most trusted member of the emperor’s Praetorian Guard, Rowena’s safety was his primary responsibility on this mission. As Raxton arose silently, Maximus rolled to his other side to shake Captain Aegilis awake. Though capable of remaining alert while sleeping, the Dreamwalker known as Deltus Aegilis only did so in battle, as it was mentally very taxing. At rest, the man slept like a stone. It took a couple of fairly rough shakes, but once roused, Aegilis was canny enough to keep his voice low. “What’s going on, Maximus?”
“Sir,” whispered the minotaur, “We have an intruder. Be ready for action at Lord Raxton’s signal.” Aegilis nodded and remained still.
Raxton cursed silently at the light put out by the campfire as he made his way around and to its other side. Though not large, the fire had been left burning to ward off the chill of the night. Though he had welcomed the heat earlier, he now regretted how difficult it made stealth. Their visitor, however, made no efforts to conceal his approach. Though he showed no sign of having seen Raxton, the old man- for that is what he appeared to be as his face gradually became illuminated by the fire- also did not start when Raxton finally called out.
“Stand and state your name and purpose,” commanded Raxton in his most booming voice. Maximus and Aegilis were instantly on their feet, weapons readied. Rowena began to stir and sit up, as did her various retainers and the rest of the soldiers the group had brought with them.
“My name is Marel, and I mean you no harm,” said the old man in a calm voice. His hair- what little of it he had- was short and gray and seemed to inhabit only the sides and, presumably, back of his head. He had a well-trimmed gray beard just under his chin and no moustache. His black cloak made him appear as a disembodied head in the night. “Might I share your fire? It’s quite cold.”
“My companions and I are weary from travel, sir Marel,” Raxton said slowly, clearly trying to decide what to do with this unexpected and unwanted guest, “perhaps you should return in the morning.”
The old man smiled wryly at this. “You seem awake enough to me,” he remarked, gesturing towards the two tense figures on the other side of the fire. “Aside from that, there is actually a matter I wished to discuss with you.”
Not wanting to arouse Marel’s suspicions, Aegilis quickly entered a dream state and projected his thoughts. Maximus, I can’t believe that one old man would enter a camp full of strangers alone and seemingly unarmed. Can you check to be sure he is what he appears to be?
Maximus, accustomed as he was to Aegilis’s mental intrusions, only nodded slightly. Having the innate abilities of illusion that some of his people possessed, the minotaur could also use that same magic to pierce similar illusions. Muttering softly in his ancestral language, Maximus made slight gestures with one hand which remained in shadow. Though he should not have been able to see, Marel instantly looked away from Raxton to make eye contact with Maximus. At that moment, pain bloomed in the minotaur’s head, and he dropped heavily to his knees. The enormous great axe he had been holding in his other hand fell heavily to the ground, ironically not unlike a small tree.
Aegilis was at his side in an instant, though he remained standing as with the enormous bull-man on his knees, Aegilis’s head was now roughly even with his. “Maximus!” he shouted, “Maximus- what’s wrong?”
Rowena, who was now standing, also hurried over. Instantly angry that any of her men might be hurt, she glared at Marel. “What have you done to him?” she spat. Maximus, for his part, shouted something unintelligible, his head searching about wildly, his eyes seeming to see things that were not there.
“I am assuming your friend there must be a minotaur illusionist,” Marel replied, his face remaining unreadable and his voice polite. “Doubtless he’s experiencing a power backlash. It’s fairly rare with experienced magic users, but it does happen. Why he should be creating illusions just now, though, I cannot fathom.” The old man spread his arms and took a step forward. “Do I threaten you?”
Raxton put a hand to Marel’s chest, barring his forward motion, his other hand resting on his sword hilt. The fire in Rowena’s eyes cooled somewhat. “Your words have the ring of truth,” she said. To Raxton; “Is what he says possible?” By this time, Maximus had begun humming a minotaur war tune and waving his arms rhythmically.
Raxton glanced from Marel to Rowena. “Your M-,” Raxton began before stopping himself. Raxton cursed himself silently, hoping their guest hadn’t noticed his indiscretion. “As you and I well know, it can indeed happen to ordinary magic wielders. Less is known about illusionists, however…” Raxton’s voice trailed off as he furrowed his brow and glanced back at the ailing Maximus, considering. “Yes, it is possible,” he finished, dropping his arm and allowing Marel to proceed.
As Raxton accompanied the old man to the fire, he inquired; “Perhaps, since you seem to know so much, you might be able to help him?” Colorful song birds, of varying kinds that only appear during the day, appeared suddenly and flitted noiselessly about the camp. Raxton looked to the minotaur who he could see was now staring up and gesturing at the sky with his hands. “Beware, though,” cautioned Raxton. “I will be watching, and I am not untrained in the Arts, myself.”
Marel shook his head. “There’s nothing to be done for it,” he stated. “He should be fine in a few minutes to an hour.” As if to belie the old man’s words, Maximus pitched forward onto his face and began to snore loudly, each breath blowing out clouds of dirt.
Rowena opened her mouth to speak, but Raxton shot her a look, prompting her to close it again. She might be in charge of this expedition, but Raxton wasn’t about to draw further attention to her by allowing their guest to see that. Recognizing her intent, however, he turned to Marel. “Perhaps you might now elaborate on who you are and what business you have with us?”
Marel smiled, though the cheer did not seem to touch his eyes. “Certainly,” he replied. “My master, a local lord, was told of some wealthy travelers passing through his land and sent me to offer you his hospitality.”
Indignant that all of his precautions had been so easily thwarted, Raxton asked; “And how exactly did your lord know of us? We haven’t exactly been noising about from town to town.”
“All too true, no doubt,” Marel’s cool smile returned. “My lord’s sentries, scattered throughout this forest, have been monitoring your progress for the last few days. He likes to know the goings-on in his domain.” As Marel spoke, several lightly armored men appeared out of the forest as if summoned.
Raxton looked at the men with some dismay. Even without their soldiers, the sentries would pose little threat to skilled warriors such as himself, Aegilis, and Maximus, despite the latter being useless at the moment. Even the Lady Rowena was far more dangerous than she appeared, having been trained in the druidic arts by Bleys, possibly the greatest druid alive. Despite that, Raxton and Rowena wanted to avoid any unnecessary confrontations.
As if able to read the Praetorian Guardsman’s thoughts, Marel spoke again. “This is but an honor guard, here to escort you safely to the manor house,” he soothed. “Some rather unsavory creatures- trolls and the like, you understand- have been known to inhabit these woods. The choice remains yours, of course. I can tell you wish to remain anonymous, but since your presence here is already common knowledge to many who inhabit my lord’s house, there can be no harm in accepting a roof over your heads and a comfortable place to sleep for the night.”
At this, the minotaur sat up and glared at the old man, but remained silent. His eyes were bleary, but the light of intelligence was returning to them. “I suppose you’re right,” Raxton said at last. “Since my minotaur seems to have recovered,” he glanced an apology at Maximus, “we thank your lord for his hospitality and we humbly accept.”
Marel requested that they not overburden his lord with too many people. He asked that they only bring two soldiers and no servants as they would not be needed in a house full of servants. Raxton, of course, chose Maximus and Aegilis. The dreamwalker, captain of Raxton’s guard, choose Lieutenant Damius to watch over the camp in their absence. Not long after the four had packed what they needed onto three horses they were on their way to the manor house. The seven-foot bull-man was too large for any mount they had tried thus far, but it mattered little as he easily had the endurance of and could run as fast as most horses.
As they made their way, Rowena found herself unable to remain silent. “Marel,” she began, ‘what did you say your lord’s name was?”
Marel took a moment to respond. “I didn’t,” he stated flatly. “His name is…” again, he paused, “Lord Justin.” The corner of his mouth twitched, as if he found something amusing.
“Justin?” mused Rowena aloud. “I don’t believe I am familiar with that family.”
Marel nodded agreeably. “I’m not surprised, my dear,” he continued. Rowena bristled a bit at being referred to in such a familiar manner, but held her peace. “It is a small family, and our land is rather remote. We have few dealings with outsiders.”
As Marel and Rowena spoke, with Raxton occasionally adding comments and questions of his own, Deltus Aegilis and Octavius Maximus, unconcerned with the affairs of their superiors, reminisced on past exploits.
“But that nest of dire rats we fell into was great fun,” Aegilis was saying, “wouldn’t you agree, ‘Mus?”
“You fell into that disgusting nightmare, sir,” Maximus replied, shaking his head, “and I had to cut my way through at least thirty of the vermin before I could rescue you. You were more chewed up than your armor is now.” The minotaur’s voice was deep and serious. Despite his gruff manner, he did occasionally reveal a sense of humor, though it was impossible to tell by his expression or voice. “I had to assume that the only man-sized chunk of meat still moving was you.” Aegilis’s armor had been badly damaged in their recent and near-fatal clash with the shadow creatures.
“That’s not fair!” Aegilis shot back. “I totally killed at least a dozen of them. It was pretty good considering I was bloody surrounded and completely unable to concentrate.”
“You might have been able to concentrate better had you not first convinced them you were made of cheese.” Maximus snorted and shook his head, his great horns swinging about as he did so.
“Moldy cheese!” Aegilis stomped. “It was moldy cheese! I thought if I got in their heads and made them think of me as unappetizing, they would leave me alone.”
“I doubt they appreciated the distinction,” Maximus reasoned. “Not one of your better ideas, sir.”
“I’d never even heard of dire rats!” the dreamwalker retorted, scowling. “What am I, a scholar? Fine- let’s change the subject.” He folded his arms and kicked a nearby stone, striking Raxton in the back. The man only grunted and did not turn around.
“Very well, then,” Maximus replied. “How about that time you lost 200 gold to me in a game of dice?”
“Oh, you are the funny one, Maximus,” Aegilis grumbled. “Did I ever tell you how funny you are? I told you I’d pay you when we get paid next.”
“The lady paid us yesterday.” The minotaur thumped his bare chest with a fist. “I’m hoping to buy some armor.”
Aegilis feigned looking around. “I don’t see any merchants handy. I think perhaps it can wait. Now I need to get my own armor repaired. I doubt anything can pierce that thick hide of yours, anyway.”
When Maximus only grunted, Aegilis changed the subject again. “What’s this I hear about you being ‘Raxton’s minotaur,’ now?”
If anyone else had asked Maximus that question, they would have very promptly found themselves bleeding on the ground- and then only if the minotaur were in a good mood. Maximus, however, owed his life to Aegilis, and would not only never harm him, but would go to any length to protect him. Thus, attempts at goading the minotaur to anger were something that brought the dreamwalker no end of amusement.
The Praetorian Guardsman, who by this time was trailing Marel and the talkative Rowena, turned suddenly. “Quiet, fools!” he hissed. “If I can hear you, there’s a chance one of them can as well!” Raxton gestured towards the various sentries. “Remember to call me ‘Gwengadd.’” He paused and turned to Maximus. “And Phobos,” he said, lowering his voice even further and using the minotaur’s Greek name, which none but they or Rowena would recognize, “I hope you understand I was just trying to avoid using your name. We never did come up with an alias for you, and I’m starting to think that may have been a mistake.” Maximus nodded, much to Raxton’s relief. As a former slave and gladiator, Maximus hated any reference to himself that could be construed as ownership.
“Sir,” said Aegilis, “while you are here, Max- er- Phobos and I would very much like to discuss a long overdue raise.”
Maximus glared at the dreamwalker. “I would advise against this, sir, but I know you won’t listen. At least leave me out of this.”
Raxton rolled his eyes. “Ben-Hur,” he began calmly, using Aegilis’s alias, “you’re an excellent captain and tactician, but your insubordination is without equal. I can’t be seen to show favoritism. More than I do already, at any rate. I have a hard enough time explaining why I haven’t had you court-marshaled several times over. Besides, you and I both know that if I were to give you more money, you would only lose it all to your illusionist friend, there.”
With that, a light went on behind Aegilis’s eyes. “Hey,” he said slowly, becoming agitated and turning to the minotaur, “have you been using illusions to cheat? You have, haven’t you!”
Maximus only snorted and shook his head again. “I have no need to cheat to beat you, sir.”
Raxton nodded. “I would have to agree with Phobos, friend. You have some of the worst luck I’ve ever seen. Perhaps you used all of your good luck when you managed to survive betraying the rest of your kind in the fourth legion.”
The dreamwalker looked sullen. “Friend?” he grumbled, “I thought you were my friend, cheap, misbegotten…” his voice trailed off with a few more words no one else could hear. “Anyway, I don’t believe in luck any more than I believe in your silly ‘leylines.’” A twinkle returned to his eye as he added this last jab.
Raxton signed as he moved to return to his place in the column of travelers. “You’re not dragging me into this again, my friend,” he replied.
Maximus perked up at the mention of leylines. “I would be eager to listen to more on this subject when you have the time, sir,” he said.
“Not you, too!” Aegilis put his hands to his head, feigning disgust. “Honestly, I thought you were a smart minotaur.”
“I’m sorry sir, I just have a strong desire to learn what I can about the world around me.” Maximus seemed earnest- though that was his default expression. “I received very little education as a slave. This subject is of special interest as it may hold the key to increasing my skills as an illusionist.”
Raxton nodded. “When we have time. I’m always glad to indulge those who show interest in more…” he paused, eying Aegilis while doing a poor job of hiding a grin, “…intellectual pursuits. For now I must return my focus to our host and his men. You might also speak with the ‘Edith.’” He gestured to indicate Rowena, emphasizing the name to remind them to use her alias. “She knows a bit more than I about that particular subject.” With that, he returned to following Rowena and Marel.
Maximus and Aegilis continued on a moment in silence. Finally, the dreamwalker bounced a rock off of the minotaur’s right horn. “Way to have my back, leatherhide,” he said sourly, though his face looked amused.
Maximus shrugged. “I am sorry, sir,” he said. “Perhaps next time I shall cast an illusion on you to make you more attractive.”
Aegilis rubbed his chin. “You know, that just might work,” he said slowly, “if I happened to be courting him!” The man laughed.
Shrugging again, the minotaur let out a massive sigh. “I don’t really understand how humans think,” he replied. “Perhaps if I make you both more attractive, you’ll stop arguing.”
“Well, allow me to educate you on these two humans,” the man declared. “We don’t argue- we banter. There is a difference.”
In less than an hour, the party arrived at the manor house. Though certainly not a palace, the house was nonetheless the largest building they had seen since leaving the imperial city. The house was also not without some minor fortifications- no doubt to defend against the sorts of creatures Marel had warned them of.
Marel assigned a servant to show Aegilis and Maximus to their temporary quarters on the lower level of the enormous house while he tended to Rowena and Raxton who would be given rooms more befitting their apparent station on the upper level. Before parting, Raxton- ever the cautious one- charged the two soldiers with verifying the location and condition of their horses which had been taken by two of Lord Justin’s stable-hands.
The two hurried through the menial task, not out of fatigue, but more so that they could then harass their poor attendant into helping them clean the kitchens of any food left over from that evening’s supper. Aegilis often complained to Raxton that he was far too stingy with the rations. “Dreamwalking,” he insisted, “burns a lot of energy.” Then, pointing a thumb over his shoulder at his companion, he said, “And they don’t call him ‘Maximus’ for nothing.”
As the two greedily consumed their comestible loot, Maximus noticed that some of it must have been around much longer than the previous day. Still smarting from his earlier failure, Maximus decided to test his power on Aegilis. It was the nature of illusionary magic that it didn’t always work as intended. Different individuals had senses that were all attuned differently. Still, the minotaur illusionist was far too experienced to have had such a catastrophic failure. He would try something simple- making a slight alteration to the appearance of a particularly moldy piece of bread. He would have to alter the scent as well. That was something most didn’t know about illusionary magic. It was actually capable of manipulating more than just sight. It could manipulate any sense, though the more senses being manipulated at once, the harder it got. Doing two senses on such a small scale, though, should be very easy. He wouldn’t bother altering the taste- he didn’t want to make his friend sick, after all. He waved a hand and muttered a few words.
When the dreamwalker eventually picked up the bread, he opened his mouth and then paused, lowering the bread to look at it. “Nice try, ‘Mus,” he said, grinning, “but the color’s a bit off, and it still smells terrible!”
Maximus only frowned and shook his head, his confidence wavering in himself and his abilities. Had the old man really done something to him? Was his power abandoning him? Had he offended Triton? He would have to think long and hard on the matter.
After filling their bellies, the two warriors fell asleep almost as soon as their backs hit the pallets that had been provided for their beds.
In the morning, after a rather light breakfast, (the cooks complained that a great deal of their food stores had gone missing,) Rowena, Raxton, Aegilis, and Maximus were brought into the manor’s massive great room to finally meet Lord Justin. The man sat upon a dais, on a large, ornately carved chair, as a king would sit upon his throne. Despite his advancing age, the man sat straight and appeared in excellent health. A keen intellect was obvious behind his piecing gaze as he studied each member of the party in turn. His eyes rested for particularly long time on Raxton Veritex. His smile seemed genuine as he welcomed them and gestured for them to come closer.
Both walls of the long great room were lined with armed guards, ten on each wall, stretching from the large double doors leading outside on one end of the room to the dais on the other end of the room. The soldiers did their best to remain inconspicuous, but Raxton was keenly aware of their eyes on he and each of his team as they approached the dais. Marel stopped them about fifteen feet from where Lord Justin sat before taking his place standing behind and to one side of his master.
“We thank you, Lord Justin, for your hospitality,” Raxton said, bowing slightly, “and for allowing us safe passage through your lands. My name is Lord Gwengadd, and this is the Lady Edith.”
Lord Justin waved a hand dismissively. “Think nothing of it,” he said. “I’m just glad to meet individuals as interesting as yourselves.” He leaned forward in his chair, seeming to scrutinize something at Raxton’s waist. “I am eager to know; what brings you to my humble lands?”
“Well, my Lord,” replied Raxton, “we are but pilgrims passing through on the way to the Spring festival of the goddess Freya.” He realized that Justin must be examining his sword and suddenly became nervous. He should have disguised Carindale! The ancient Atlantean sword would not be recognized by most, but it was unique and any who knew enough to recognize it would be able to quickly deduce who he was!
“Indeed?” the lord raised an eyebrow as he sat back in his seat. “Just a pair of nobles and their entourage off to celebrate?” He seemed amused. It was then that Raxton noticed that the man was wearing a sword of his own. The hilt of the sword bore the insignia of the Praetorian Guard. Raxton began to feel very uneasy. Something was clearly out of place. No one who was not in the Guard would dare carry such a weapon. If the man had been in the Praetorian Guard, what was he doing here, posing as a minor noble?
Despite his sinking feeling, the Guardsman had to know. “My Lord,” Raxton said, “I wonder if you might share with us where you came by that fine sword?”
“I might ask you the same question, ‘Lord Gwengadd,’” Justin countered, sneering Raxton’s alias.
Raxton knew he had made a mistake. His eyes wide, he muttered quietly to his companions, “Run!”
“It was your father’s, wasn’t it?” Lord Justin continued. “You’ll have to give my old friend my regards when you see him next, Raxton Veritex.” Raxton’s father was long dead, and by the look in Lord Justin’s eyes, this man knew it perfectly well. It was also apparent that, “when you see him next,” would not be long in coming if this man had his way.
“I said run!” Raxton screamed, turning and pushing his friends away as he drew his sword. By this time, though, half a dozen guards were already lifting the enormous beam into place that would bar the doors shut. The smaller doors leading into the manor house were also sealed. The companions had nowhere to go. “You knew who we were before you even called us here,” Raxton accused, turning to face the man on the dais. “How?”
Lord Justin laughed softly. “I really only suspected,” he replied. “When I heard reports of a lord and lady traveling with a minotaur and a dreamwalker, I became very intrigued.”
Aegilis looked startled at this. “Yes, Deltus Aegilis, I know who you are,” Lord Justin continued. “My spies have watched Lord Veritex for some time. All who associate with him are known to me. As to how my spies knew of a dreamwalker in your group? Let’s just say that your precaution in not bringing that distinctive helmet of yours into my presence would have been wise had it not been for the fact that others had already seen it on you in your travels. You really should be more careful.” Aegilis suddenly regretted having left his magical dreamwalker helmet with the horses, as it allowed him to better focus his abilities while also shielding him from some of the dangers of his craft.
By this time, Maximus and Aegilis had both drawn their weapons and were standing back to back perpendicular to Raxton’s own back, studying the guards and their surroundings. Aegilis took note of the hide-covered windows about six feet up from the floor on either side of the main doors.
“Minotaurs,” Justin continued, “are not much more common than dreamwalkers once were. It is known to me that Raxton Veritex’s band employs a minotaur illusionist. Those are not so common, even among Minotaurs. When Marel confirmed for me last night that your beast was, indeed, an illusionist, well…” the man’s voice trailed off as he shrugged. “I suppose it goes without saying that yours is the only band in the known world with both a minotaur illusionist and a dreamwalker.”
“I should say so,” replied Aegilis, indignant, “seeing as I’m the only dreamwalker left!” Exasperated, Raxton could only put a hand to his head and heave an angry sigh. He wished he were a dreamwalker himself so that he could mentally command the man to shut up!
Justin shared a confused look with Marel at this last statement. “As I am given to understand, you had a large hand in that,” the solid old lord, continued, “I could really use a man of your talents in my service. After all, you did betray your own once- something you’ll find I understand quite well. I’ll double what he’s paying you.”
Aegilis smirked at Raxton, and paused as if to consider. What he really did was project his thoughts to Raxton and Maximus. Play along, to the former and, play dead, to the latter. With that, he turned and rammed his sword straight through the minotaur’s back. Maximus dropped heavily to the floor, bright red blood pooling around him. “I accept your offer,” the dreamwalker replied. Both Rowena and Raxton stared at him in disbelief.
Lord Justin just stared for a moment before smiling and beginning to clap. “Excellent performance,” he laughed. “I should consider hiring both you and that beastly friend of yours as entertainment. My men don’t often get a show like this.” The three still on their feet turned to face their tormentor, their faces grim. “Oh do have your minotaur get up,” he almost yawned. “As a devout worshipper of the god Loki, I think you’ll find me difficult to fool.” He gestured to where the old man stood, grinning wickedly. “Marel is as well,” he said, addressing the minotaur as he got back on his feet, “and you’ve no doubt discovered what can happen should you decide to apply your powers directly to ones such as we who enjoy his favor.”
“What do you want with us?” Rowena demanded, finally breaking her silence. “I don’t understand why you have brought us here, or why you have such a special interest in Raxton Veritex.”
Lord Justin’s eyes widened. “Oh, how rude of me,” he said. “Did I not introduce myself? I’m quite sure you’d have never accepted my invitation had Marel told you my real name. You should address me as Lord Galetar.”
Rowena gasped audibly. “That’s impossible!” she exclaimed. “Lord Galetar was executed twenty years ago for treason!”
Raxton, however, was less surprised. “How did you escape execution?” he asked, his face darkening and his free hand balling into a fist. Lord Galetar had been a member of the Praetorian Guard with Torvand Veritex, Raxton’s father, who had been the previous wielder of the legendary sword Carindale. Galetar’s jealousy of the Torvand’s prominence in the Guard had led to both of their downfalls. Galetar had led the Praetorian Guard into a battle of little importance. He engineered the situation to ensure the demise of his rival. Despite the ambush, Torvand’s leadership and relentless fighting in the heart of the battle to rally the troops turned the battle in their favor.
Though more than half of the Guard was wiped out in this one horrific battle, they were victorious. Raxton himself was killed in the fighting, but not before he sent a courier away with a message for the Emperor. The message revealed what he had discovered about Galetar’s treachery. Galetar, pleased with himself at the accomplishment of his heinous goal, returned to the imperial city, expecting to be greeted as a hero and claim his place at the head of the Praetorian Guard. Instead, he was clapped in irons and thrown into a dungeon to await execution.
Galetar smiled again. “Gwalchmar, who was one of mine, let me go,” he replied. “It wasn’t a coincidence the man volunteered to be my executioner. Did they really think I was the only traitor in their midst?”
Raxton stood in stunned silence. Gwalchmar had been his mentor and friend. The older man had taught him almost everything he knew about being a Guardsman. Raxton thought about calling Galetar a liar, but knew he would just be lying to himself. It was true that Gwalchmar had been the one chosen to execute Galetar. If Galetar were alive, then nothing else made sense. The man had been like a father to him. The man he trusted and respected most out of any man alive was a traitor. Rowena, who was furious by this point, opened her mouth to speak, but found herself too angry for words.
Galetar seemed further amused by this. “My dear, I must confess that my spies are not as good as I could wish,” he said in a soothing tone. “I should very much like it if you would tell me who you are.”
Rowena knew she had to think fast, but she was just too angry. If she hesitated, he would know she was lying. “I am Thorava Veritex,” she stated. “I am Raxton’s half-sister.” It might not seem like the best choice. It put her in the same hot water Raxton was in. Still, it was far better than telling Galetar the truth and handing him an extremely valuable hostage with which to blackmail the ruler of the known world who had sentenced him to death. It also explained why she knew of Galetar’s past, which would lend the lie more weight. Galetar was clearly a very clever man and would not be fooled easily. Just to make sure, she decided to stoke the man’s ego. “Don’t pretend you didn’t know,” she added. “I may not get out much, but if you’ve been monitoring my family, your spies can’t possibly have overlooked me- even though my father did his best to, er, remain discreet about my existence.” Calling into question her legitimacy would quell the traitor’s suspicions about why his informants had made no mention of her
Galetar seemed to consider this. Finally he folded his arms and leaned forward, nodding slightly. “Indeed, I have been looking forward to this day for some time,” he said slowly, his eyes flashing with malevolent pleasure. “Oh don’t look at me like that- of course I didn’t plan this.” He sat back again and rested his arms upon the rests of his chair. “Imagine my delight, however, when after two decades of dreaming and wishing and hoping for a chance to enact revenge on a man already dead, his own children walk right up to my doorstep.” He let out a short laugh at this, looking terribly pleased with himself.
Raxton remained silent. He didn’t even seem to be listening. Uncharacteristically, it was Maximus who spoke next. “Though you are clearly a man without honor, I do not understand this vengeance you seek against a man you betrayed and murdered,” his words came out almost in a snarl as he was clearly disgusted. Though the minotaur was not versed in the details, Raxton had mentioned the battle in which his father had been betrayed and killed. Octavius Maximus was not known for his intellectual prowess, but though he had not known the name before, it didn’t take much for him to realize who this man was.
“Shut your beast up or I will have you all killed right now!” Galetar screamed, spittle flying from his mouth.
Raxton and Aegilis both had to restrain the massive minotaur from charging to an enraged death, likely to be followed shortly by their own. Aegilis supplemented this with calming thoughts, knowing Maximus would not likely hear much with the blood pounding in his ears. We need you to keep a clear head if we’re going to survive this, old buddy, he thought. Stop fighting us and take a look at the windows on the back wall…
“I lost everything!” Galetar continued, pounding a fist on his chair. “I was one of the most powerful and important people in the empire! I lost my lands, most of my fortune, my family. I lost my honor and my title.” He wagged a finger at Aegilis. “I lost it all because Torvand refused to simply die quietly and let the better man take his place! Your father was an arrogant, selfish man. I deserved more! I deserved better!”
When no one responded, and with Maximus having regained control of himself, Galetar quickly regained his composure. “I apologize,” he said, “that was very uncivilized of me. I have no intention of harming you, Raxton, or…” he paused, seeming to consider again, “Thorava. Not yet, at any rate. I have bigger plans for you both. The dreamwalker, I’m afraid, has made his choice clear, and I doubt the beast would ever cooperate.”
Aegilis held up a calming hand. “Hey, whoa, let’s not get crazy here,” he said, his voice cracking a little. He and Maximus appeared to be easing their way towards “I thought you said we could be entertainers. That was totally a joke before. Listen, I’ve got a great idea…”
Galetar did not let him finish. “Take these two,” he said, gesturing towards Raxton and Rowena, “and kill the other two.”
Aegilis both fended off immediate attacks from five soldiers each. Aegilis sent more thoughts to his partner. There are too many to fight, and without my helmet it’s too dangerous to make sufficient use of my abilities in all of this chaos. You have to get me out so I can concentrate. You’re gonna have to toss me!
Maximus didn’t hesitate. He swung his massive axe in a long arc, not in an attack, but to force soldiers to jump back. He finished the swing by letting the axe fly towards a back window, some twenty feet distant. The axe tore a slit in the hide covering the window as it flew. He hoped it would be enough, because there was no time to change plans now. He picked up the dreamwalker, who stiffened and stretched out his body, and hurled the human javelin with all his considerable might towards the slit.
At first Aegilis thought the rapidly oncoming window would be the last sight he ever saw. He wasn’t sure he’d even make the window, and even if he did, there was that dangerously small hole in the hide to contend with, and then the landing on the other side of the window. The hide skinned his knuckles as he punched into it, but the force of the impact tore it open, allowing him passage. It even slowed him enough that he was able to tuck and roll on the ground outside with minimal pain and spring right to his feet.
Raxton, meanwhile, was having a somewhat easier time as the soldiers were not trying to kill him. Raxton, for his part, had no such compunctions as he quickly slew two of them with deft thrusts of his horribly sharp blade. They had thought that ten of them should easily be able to overpower one swordsman, but were now circling, unsure of how to accomplish their orders without getting killed. Rowena was moving to help him. The Praetorian Guardsman saw Aegilis fly through the window and realized what he would have to do. “Go with Aegilis,” he shouted, waving her away.
“We’re not leaving you behind,” she shouted back, defiant as always.
Raxton’s face darkened. “I don’t care what you think- ‘father’ left me in charge of your safety,” he yelled, referring, of course, to Tazukar, but not saying anything to tip off Galetar. “You’re leaving now!”
The princess’s face reddened, but she didn’t try to argue again. She turned to make her way towards the window.
Maximus was being surrounded by the rest of the soldiers who charged at the now unarmed bull-man. Maximus bellowed and swiped soldiers aside, taking several superficial hits in the process. He was making his way towards Raxton and reaching for his backup weapon- a wickedly-barbed eight-foot trident strapped to his back at an angle.
Raxton, seeing this, waved the minotaur back. “No,” he shouted, “You get her out of here- that’s an order!” When Maximus hesitated, he added, “If you stay, I’ll kill you myself!”
Maximus nodded and changed course, heading for Rowena instead. He left the three-pronged spear strapped to his back so that his hands would be free to help the princess.
Aegilis stood on the outside, entering a dream state and focusing on the enemies in the great room. He entered their minds, manipulating their thoughts and emotions. He couldn’t control them, but he could nudge their minds in ways that were almost as good. He took the fear they felt at confronting a vicious swordsman and raging bull-man and pushed it over the top. Some of them lost composure and dropped their weapons, shaking. The ones between Maximus and the window scattered, opening a path for he and Rowena to escape.
It was at this point that Galetar stood. He walked purposefully, and with a deadly grace that belied his age, drawing his sword as he approached Raxton. It seemed that the protection afforded to Galetar by Loki worked against mental manipulations as well as it did with hallucinations. The dreamwalker’s mental wave of fear did not last long, anyway. Raxton rapidly killed two more soldiers as they bent to recover their swords.
“If you do not surrender and stop killing my men, Veritex, I shall be forced to have them kill you,” he seemed to whisper, though his voice was loud enough to be heard above the sounds of fighting. “It may spoil my plans, but it will be a lot less trouble.” Galetar now stood before Raxton, his sword at the ready.
In response, Raxton looked Galetar in the eyes for a moment, hate smoldering, before twirling his sword and thrusting it straight behind him, catching an approaching soldier by surprise and running him through. “It looks like you’ll have to do the job yourself, old man.”
Galetar grinned only briefly before lunging with incredible speed. With one powerful slash, he knocked Raxton’s sword out of position and with the next, he sliced his own sword across the Praetorian Guardsman’s chest. Had Raxton not quickly jumped back, the attack would have cut him open. As it was, the attack had sliced open the front of his clothes and bloodied his arm. “As you wish,” the old man replied, smirking.
It was then that Raxton Veritex knew he was in trouble.
Maximus boosted Rowena out the window before following. Once outside, the princess saw Aegilis focusing for another mental attack. She interrupted him. “We don’t have time for this, Aegilis,” she said. “Go get the horses, and hurry!”
“What about Raxton? He’s in there alone…” Aegilis began.
Rowena cut him off. “You and I both know he’ll never back down from a fight- this one especially,” she said. “Your loyalty to your friend is admirable, but let me worry about him. We need those horses now if we’re going to make it out of here.” Much to her relief, rather than argue further, the dreamwalker nodded and took off at a run.
Turning to the minotaur, she said, “Maximus, see what you can do for him. Also, make sure I am not disturbed. I need to focus.” The illusionist nodded and turned to look back through the window. Rowena calmed her thoughts and controlled her breathing. She drew upon the druidic magics and focused them on Raxton, whose desperate struggle she could still sense within the great hall. She used those magics to turn fate in Raxton’s favor.
Raxton was fighting for his life. With most of the remaining soldiers on him, and with Galetar amusing himself with the occasional well-placed thrust, it was all he could do to keep from taking more than minor hits. He was also getting tired. Still, he had to ensure that his friends would have time to escape. He noticed that some soldiers were heading towards the window, but there seemed to be nothing he could do. Just then, as he danced about, he noticed two other figures identical to himself break off in different directions, dancing in a similar fashion. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Maximus waving his hands about.
Galetar sneered, recognizing the illusions for what they were. “Do you really think your animal’s parlor tricks will work on me?” he guffawed. “I really hate to repeat myself…”
It was Galetar’s turn to be cut off. “We heard you the first time, traitor,” Raxton said. “What you fail to realize is that it doesn’t have to work on you.” With that, he turned his back on Galetar and ran to the window. A handful of soldiers correctly guessed which was the real Raxton, but for some reason their attacks on him missed entirely. He didn’t even have to dodge them. He managed to cut off the soldiers who had been heading for the window. Instead of going through, however, he stood beneath the window and turned to put his back to the wall and face all fifteen soldiers and Galetar.
Deltus Aegilis arrived at the stables puffing. He really should run more, he knew, but his dreamwalker studies always took precedence. As he turned a corner, he skidded to a halt to find their horses guarded by four soldiers armed with swords. One of the soldiers demanded to know his purpose.
Aegilis grinned as he spread his arms in a gesture of concession. “My friends,” said he, “it is at times such as this, when I find myself at a loss for words, that I can only say…” In a flash he drew his sword and was upon them. “Cut the gab, just thrust and jab!”
Raxton continued to fight defensively, his sword and body both a blur as he deflected some attacks and dodged others. He knew he couldn’t keep this up for much longer, even if many of the attacks were still mysteriously missing him by uncannily large margins. He then both realized and sensed Rowena’s hand in his preservation. So she and Maximus were both doing what they could to keep him alive. Why were they bothering? They should be running. Even with their help, he could not keep this up much longer.
Then he noticed that he really was becoming a blur. He couldn’t make out his own hands or sword, though he didn’t need to to be able to fight. The soldiers’ attacks, however, got to where he seldom needed to block or dodge them, as all they saw were indistinct blurs of movement. Raxton mouthed a silent thank you to Maximus for the illusion and turned his attention more fully to Galetar, who for now was the only enemy who could still hurt him.
Upon seeing the confusion in his men, Galetar stepped up his attacks. He left another gash in Raxton’s leg, taking advantage of the man’s exhaustion. Raxton tried to counterattack, but Galetar was just too quick. Were this a fair fight, things might be different, but a soldier never complained about what was or wasn’t fair. A soldier did his duty, and right now Raxton’s duty was to die ensuring that Rowena made it to safety.
Rowena saw Aegilis returning from the direction of the stables. “Raxton,” she called, “we have the horses- get out of there!”
“I told you to get out of here!” he replied. “Maximus, get her out of here, I’ll hold them off as long as I can.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Rowena shouted, “we’re not leaving without you!”
“Maximus,” Raxton shouted back, “you will keep her safe at all costs! That is a direct order! If anything happens to her, I will see to it that you are sold back into slavery! Get out of here now!”
Aegilis arrived with the horses. “What’s going on,” he asked, breathing even harder.
“Lord Raxton is refusing to leave,” the minotaur replied.
“‘Mus, you know he’ll never leave voluntarily,” the dreamwalker said, “it violates some stupid code of his.”
Octavius Maximus paused before nodding grimly. “Mount up,” he said at last. He could hear the rumbling of several men slowly lifting the bar from the doors.
“But…” Rowena and Aegilis began at the same time.
“Do it!” the bull-man bellowed, leaving no room for argument.
Stunned at the minotaur’s uncharacteristic forcefulness, they both complied. Maximus then turned and, reaching through the high window and gripping a stunned Raxton by the shoulders, ripped the man from the great hall and planted him in the saddle of his horse.
Raxton’s face was red with anger. “I said…” he began before the minotaur interrupted him.
“You said, sir, to keep the Lady safe,” he replied calmly. “As we’re not out of this yet, I can think of no better way to ensure that than with you by her side.” With that, he swatted all three horses hard on their flanks before following as fast as he could run.