"It doesn't look any different," the young Rogue said, standing hands on hips at the bottom of a narrow defile. On either side of him were two innocuous looking piles of red rocks.
"Looks can be deceiving," I smiled, nodding at my tall delicately boned wife. She raised an eyebrow at me, and then smiled.
"Do you have any idea what he means, Muse Blaster?" she asked the brown-robed man, who was carefully examining the walls of the defile. He probably expected cowled Ninjas to pour down on us like a waterfall.
"What?" the healer, who had seemed eternally youthful, was finally starting to show some gray, perhaps unhitching the belt of his robe a bit, too. "He probably is talking about you. A very powerful Mage, yet you appear to be more of a highborn Lady. Or maybe he means something mystical. He reads far too much, you know."
"I think he means that just because Nagnang opened its borders," Pyran, the young, but not stupid, Rogue said. "Don't stop looking for those Ninjas."
I laughed, but the boy was completely right.
We were an innocent looking party, certainly no Nagnang spies would ever suspect we were other than four adventurers exploring a newly opened realm.
As we remounted and moved up the pass between the red boundary markers, I weighed our group's strength.
My oldest friend in the kingdom, Blaster, quickly took the lead. Headstrong and proud, certainly, yet his healing skills were almost without equal. Although he was also adept at animal magics, his greatest attribute in my eyes was his courage. Whether holding his ground surrounded by Zibong, or charging into the lair of an insane laughing Mage, he never faltered.
Pyran was the youngest member of the group and the only obvious fighter. As quick as only a young Rogue can be, he was also endlessly curious and had an exceptional memory. More for that then his sword was he chosen for this ride. Perhaps just a bit because he admired my cooking, too.
My wife rode third and on horseback you certainly understood Blaster's comments. The scarf wrapped around her short hair suggested more a regal crown than a sun shield. She rode with perfect posture, gazing off into the distance. Some would think she was distracted with some small problem governing her homelands, but those of us that knew her guessed she was probably sorting through some research into the higher magics, or how to wring more space for her research out of the Prince of Kugnae. He had her assigned to a small corner in the Palace. Her studies had granted her an uncanny control of great power, at a cost, perhaps of some distance to the world around her.
Still, I loved her with all my heart, and if she occasionally treated the Realm's Nobles like naughty school children... well, years of teaching does that to you.
That left only me.
"What's so funny, Gareth?" Blaster wanted to know. "We are riding into recently hostile... heck, recently deadly lands, for no good reason but nosiness. The King's protections don't reach this far, you know. We might all die. I don't see much humor there."
"I was just weighing the merits of our party, old friend," I replied, glancing over my shoulder and casting a quick spell to hear the invisible. There was nothing around us. "When I started to weigh myself, I chuckled."
"It would have to be a large scale indeed, Sir Gareth!" Pyran piped in.
We all laughed, although Pteri was frowning. My notable girth was cause for more than a few jokes. I didn't mind. Though I didn't really look like it, I was a remarkably gifted warrior. A little extra weight never hurt in battle, although it did make running away difficult.
I chuckled again.
"What this time?" my wife asked, turning slightly to peer over her shoulder.
"I was just wondering how many battles I would have run from if I was lighter."
"Same as now... none," she replied, very seriously. "You've stayed in battles while others ran and by staying, turned certain defeat into victory. Young fighters are more terrified of letting you down than any enemy and I think you trained half the Mages in the Kingdom in everything from how to work with Warriors to how to greet the Princess."
"I know one Mage that forgot that lesson... ," I said quietly.
"She deserved it!" Pteri was getting heated. "Imagine the nerve! Asking us to investigate Nagnang so close to our Anniversary!"
Anniversary!?!?! Oh, no!
"Yes, Dear, but..." I continued smoothly. "Your protests merely made Lasahn change her 'request' into an order."
"And here we are. Heading south in the height of summer..." She spun around, turning her back to me. "Did you notice all the bugs?"
She was silent for a long time.
Anniversary? That meant presents! How could I forget?
The last few months had been hectic. It seemed no one believed that I had retired from questing. Sitting in my garden wasn't even good enough for an escape. Some went so far as tramping on my herbs!
The only good thing to come out of all this new attention started with a visit from an old friend. I hadn't seen Hanna since just after coming to the kingdom, many years past. Somehow she remembered me, though.
"A Do Guide? Wonderful news!" I jumped up and slapped her arm. She was probably a quarter my weight, but it was still like hitting a tree. "Congratulations!"
"Actually, I have been a Guide for some time," she seated herself on an ornamental bench, carefully not crushing the thyme plants growing up the legs and back. "Doing weapon's research, mostly. That was where I was reminded of you."
"Weapons? Marvelous! There is so much we don't know," I agreed, pouring a cup of tea for her. Now I wish I hadn't finished all the teacakes I made this morning.
"Your name came up several times in my research, linked to a rare item called a 'spirit sword'."
I raised my eyebrows.
"I am sorry. I don't recall that at all." Yet, somehow, it seemed vaguely familiar. As if it occurred in a dream.
"The only information we have is a description in the Shaman's diary of a 'SHORT SWORD-RAINBOW COLORED'."
"It is not something I can clearly recall," I admitted, wondering how she got access to a Shaman's diary. "Perhaps it happened, perhaps not. I feel you have wasted a trip, Old Friend."
Hanna sighed, and crossed her muscular legs. I hoped PteriDae doesn't come home early from the University and get the wrong idea!
"Not a waste, Gareth," she said, leaning forward. "My real reason for coming was to meet you again. I wanted to see if I remembered you clearly. I see I do."
"What do you mean?" Perhaps it would be better if PteriDae DID come home early.
"Gareth, I believe you are a Do," Hanna said.
I breathed a quick sigh of relief.
"I am honored," I truly was. The Do are a quiet, studious group of warriors of tremendous power. To be considered for them even after numerous interviews and applications is a great distinction. To have a Guide approach YOU... unheard of!
"I am, however, mostly retired from adventuring." I felt the need to explain. "And I rarely participate in any Bloodlust or Carnage events. Poetry is more my style."
"There is much in you that is Do," she said, "I can tell."
Just when you think nothing new will ever happen, something like this comes along!
I began to train with Hanna and the other Do Initiates. My age and other notable features raised more than one eyebrow, but everyone held their tongues. At least when they thought Master Hanna was watching. She always was.
Weapons research was a great joy. I learned more from Hanna in the weeks of my training than I had in my whole life. She seemed to know the strengths and weaknesses of every weapon in the Realm. It must have caused a real physical pain for her to know there was once a weapon named Spirit Sword that had been forgotten. I doubted that she would ever stop looking for it.
Some Do abilities came easily to me, learning to throw weapons and bond with your sword I got right away. Blending into your surroundings was another matter. Staff, the Do Spell-Master, was most patient with me, even if she did cringe every time I stepped into the Circle for training.
"To Blend, you must distract the eye," Staff explained to our group. "Hold perfectly still and assume the nature of your surroundings. Once an eye is distracted, it will stay so, and you can move freely."
Staff stepped in front of the first Initiate, a very young but very talented lad.
"Raven, behind you is a rack of swords." We all glanced at the wooden rack, filled with blade weapons of all types. "Concentrate and become the rack. Your Will can control other people's perception. When someone looks at you, let them see the rack."
Raven dutifully shut his eyes and concentrated. For a second, he seemed to fade into the background of curved and straight blades.
"Very good! Especially for a first try." Staff rarely complimented an Initiate; that boy had a future.
The next Warrior was tall and thin as a reed. Staff made him stand in front of a spear rack and concentrate. After several minutes, his form shimmered a bit and we all saw only the spears.
"Continue to practice, your control will grow."
Staff sighed quietly and moved in front of her last student: me.
I smiled at Staff. Although she was a Do Spell-Master, I really couldn't imagine her teaching me any spell that would hide my bulk.
"I sense a great Will in you," she said, seriously. "You bond effortlessly with your weapon, an ability all these Initiates envy, I am sure."
They envied me? That was a new thought.
.... There is more of this story ...