Jerryck tossed and turned. Tired as he was, the reminder of his wayward childhood had caught him by surprise and thrown him off kilter. Halfway through the night, he finally floated in and out of dreams. Some of them restful. Some of them chaotic. All of them awash with color and sound. He dreamed he was a child again, pulling pranks, some of them accidental. Then he was an adult, still pulling pranks. He reverted in age again, reliving his apprenticeship to old Heldavio. Then Leanne entered the tower and all his dreams shifted. A baby cried. She sang a lullaby. The baby wouldn’t stop crying. It got louder and louder, clanging, jarring, tolling like a large bell. He woke with a start. The bell was real, not part of his dream. The ward he’d set up that evening was ringing. He leaped out of bed and into his clothes. Garret nearly ran over him in the hallway. Cade was already outside. Men sauntered slowly into the square carrying lanterns and muttering uncertainly to each other. They rubbed their eyes, mumbled sleepily, and milled about with their night clothes peeking out from under heavy winter coats. “Everyone calm down,” the mayor of the village said. He strode to the center of the gathering, right up to Jerryck. “I heard the stories about you last night. Did you play a trick on us and make a faulty ward?” Jerryck took offense to the very idea. “Of course not! A portal’s been opened!” The mayor looked around. “Where?” “It’s somewhere out of town.” Jerryck waved his arms vaguely. “These raiders’ pattern is to open a portal about mile or less from the village,” Cade said loud enough for everyone to hear. “We’ve got minutes at most.” “Where’s your defense trainer?” Garret demanded. “I’m here.” A man with graying hair and a limp hobbled forward. “How many do you think we’ll face?” “About a dozen or two,” Cade said. “We don’t have a solid number.” “We’ve all trained for this!” The mayor put his hands on his hips, puffed out his chest, and scanned around at the crowd of men. “All of you, go get your weapons!” Someone screamed in a building on the southern edge of the village. It burst into flames. Pale men wearing Chemwanitz warpaint on their faces darted around the building. They headed for others, whooping and shouting wordlessly, brandishing weapons and torches. One of the villagers screamed, sprinting to the burning building. “No!” An attacker jumped in front of him and cut his throat. The village trainer drew a short bow from under his coat and knocked an arrow. The raider threw himself to the ground. The arrow whistled by him. He scuttled away to cover. Other buildings caught fire. Screams from women and children cut through the night. The men scattered, racing to protect their homes and families. Garret and Cade waded into the raiders, mounting a counterattack. The defense trainer kept shooting. They always kept out of his line of fire and evaded. Jerryck stood frozen. Such carnage. Such violence. Time slowed down. Still, he couldn’t take it all in. The iron reek of blood seeped into the back of his throat. Smoke choked his nostrils and blotted out the stars. A raider approached the inn. The innkeeper stood in the doorway, framed by the light within. He held a meat tenderizer like a club. He swung at the raider and missed. The raider laughed, raising a knife. Jerryck threw magic at the icicles on the eaves above. They broke off at the point of contact and rained down. Most of them missed. One of the larger ones speared into the raider’s arm. He cried out in shock and pain. He dropped his knife. The innkeeper swung again, bashing his head with the meat tenderizer. Leaving the innkeeper to take care of it from there, Jerryck turned elsewhere, his stupor clearing. He took hold of the flames from one of the burning buildings. He drew it around himself, reshaping the element. Warmed by the fire, surrounded by it like a shield, he used it to send pellets of flame shooting away from him faster than any crossbow. Garret and Cade slashed through the raiders, driving them back. Jerryck had to aim carefully to avoid them. It helped when the village trainer directed him, pointing out raiders that avoided the two guards. He could shoot them easily. Most of the flame pellets missed their targets, pelting the ground or nearby buildings. The raiders reacted to him so fast, they couldn’t possibly have any time to think about their actions. They always dived for the ground and the nearest cover. Only when they had something to hide behind did they peek out to see who shot at them. Then they shouted at each other, the same word, over and over, “Zauberer! Zauberer!” One of them shouted to all the others something different, “Rückzug! Schnell! Schnell! Schnell! Rückzug!” With that, the raiders fought to disengage from the defenders. They picked up their wounded, struggling to retreat with them. Garret shouted, “We need one alive!” Jerryck looked around, his stupor creeping back up on him. The raider the innkeeper had bashed still lay in front of the inn. He stirred and moaned, his hands holding his head. Jerryck flung sleep magic at him, and raised a wall of flames so the man’s cohorts wouldn’t see him. They backed away from it. He pushed it at them. They ran, limping back in the direction they’d come. Jerryck ran after them. Garret grabbed hold and tackled him to the ground. “You’re not going after them!” Jerryck squirmed, trying to get loose. “I can study their portal!” Garret held fast. “They’re running desperate. They’ll turn on you like a cornered animal.” Jerryck stopped resisting. The last of the raiders disappeared into the dark. # The crackling of fires in the village, the weeping of the people, the groans of the wounded, all wrenched Jerryck’s attention to them. Garret helped him up. They spent the next several hours dealing with the aftermath. Fires were extinguished. Wounded were tended. Dead were counted. Messages and pleas for assistance were sent to the district premiere and neighboring villages. The mayor strutted around, encouraging people, handing out orders, directing activities, never actually lifting a finger to do any of the work himself. Well after the late winter sun had risen, a band of trackers took Jerryck and Garret out to find the spot where the portal had been opened. There was so much magical refuse there, it acted like a beacon. Jerryck could have found it by himself. He didn’t have to do much examining to agree with Sakila’s assessment. This magic was performed by the same person who had made the poison in the river the previous spring. He did run some tests to try and figure out the location of the other side of the portal. The best he got was a far, southern direction. No specifics. Not that too many specifics would do him much good anyway. Only if he recognized the place, or could scry, would he be able to pinpoint it on any map. Upon returning to the village, the mayor greeted them and took them to the inn. He said, “I’ve arranged for an escort to take you and the prisoner to my premiere. You should probably rest today and start off first thing in the morning.” Garret shoved his face in the mayor’s. “You haven’t moved that raider, have you?” “No, no…” The mayor backed away. “He’s still down in the inn’s cellar with your other guard friend. What was his name? Cade? I was hoping you would let him know the plans. He won’t let anyone down there.” “He had us bring down their baggage,” the innkeeper corrected the mayor. “Good,” Garret said. He took Jerryck’s arm and pulled him to the stairs. The moment they put their feet on the top step, Cade called up from below. “I said no one comes down. Try it, and I’ll claim the broken leg you get is from falling.” “What broken leg?” Jerryck descended below the ceiling level of the cellar where Cade could see him. Garret and Kent were both right behind him. “Oh, it’s you.” Cade sheathed his knife. “Nevermind.” He stood in the middle of the single room. The raider lay bandaged to one side, still under the magic that kept him asleep. The baggage sat stacked beside him. Shelves with bins, jars, and crockery full of stores and foodstuffs all sat on the dirt floor. Jerryck looked around at it. “I thought the winter stores were all supposed to be locked up and guarded.” “These are the inn’s stock for tomorrow,” Garrett said with a chuckle. “They’re not going to use all this by tomorrow.” “Next week then. Look, just leave it be. The raiders have never struck the same place twice. Their winter stores are safe.” “Besides,” Kent said. “We’ve got other, more important concerns.” Cade pointed at the raider. “We need to get him to the palace. Immediately.” “Hmm,” Jerryck grunted, pulling at his lower lip with his fingers. “I can’t think of any magicians in this area who specialize in portals or travel magic.” “Why don’t you just open one?” Garrett said. “You keep that space in your tower just for it.” “You know about that?” Why was that surprising to Jerryck? He should have known they’d be aware of it. “Of course we do.” Kent snorted nonchalantly. “Can you do it? Or are we going to have to use other methods?” “We?” Jerryck looked at him askance. “Are you even supposed to be down here with us?” “He’s elite,” Garret said. “Trained to work outside the palace. Most of the guides we’ve hired have been.” Another thing Jerryck shouldn’t have been surprised by. “I didn’t know that.” “You didn’t need to know that,” Garret said. “Wait.” Jerryck turned accusingly to Kent. “You said you wandered around and this is where you ended up.” “Yes, well…” Kent shrugged. “I may have left out the part of the wandering where I went to the palace and ended up getting initiated into the elite.” “Why would you leave that out?” Kent grinned. “Why would I include it?” “He was following your sister,” Cade said. “Can you open that portal or not?” Jerryck clenched his jaw, his body rigid. “You were following Kendra?” “Now, see, that’s why I didn’t mention it.” Kent put a hand on his hip. “You’re still overprotective. I didn’t mention it because we were going to travel together. We had to get along.” “The portal!” Cade stepped in front of Jerryck. “Can you do it?” Jerryck turned away. “Yes.” He had to run through a couple of calming exercises before focusing correctly. Then he used all the care and precaution he’d used when opening a portal for the shamaness. When the spell was complete and stable enough to use, the warning bell tolled again in the square. Kent and Garret looked up at the ceiling. Feet scrambled above, moving for the front door. The innkeeper started shouting incoherently. Kent said, “Maybe we should have warned them.” Cade picked up some of their gear. “I did, when I had the innkeeper bring the baggage down.” “The mayor didn’t say anything.” Garret helped Cade toss the luggage through the portal. Every item tugged, tightening the strain on Jerryck. “The mayor was hoping to talk you into going to his premiere instead.” Cade picked up the last bag. Garret and Kent picked up the sleeping raider. “You’re going too?” Jerryck asked Kent. “I have to give a report,” Kent said. “Then I have get back as fast as possible, which will take longer than my wife likes me to be away. I’ll have to get her a damn good present to make up for this one.” “You can handle an extra person,” Cade said. “Can’t you?” Jerryck nodded, and braced himself for the drain. Garret and Kent carried the raider through. Cade prodded Jerryck until he stepped through. He just about fell over to the floor in the room at the bottom of his tower when Cade came through after him. He shut the portal down, drawing as much of its energy back into himself as he could. The raider was laid on the far side of the room. Cade and Kent both left. As soon as Jerryck finished, he sat and leaned against the wall, almost as tired as if he’d just had an accident.