Peter chuckled. He looked at the human fortress with a smirk. “It is
a fortress, isn’t it? My, uh, sponsor takes security pretty seriously. I tried to tell him it would be better not to draw attention to ourselves.” He shrugged. “But so far it seems like nobody important ever comes back here.”
“And what kind of a name is Camp Highway Robbery?” Draevin asked.
“I only said it as a joke, but Alex took it seriously. He likes to tell customers his prices are so low it’s practically—”
“Highway robbery,” Draevin finished. “Yeah, I get it…” He didn’t laugh.
“Come on,” Peter said, “I’ll show you around.”
A spiky wooden gate blocked the camp’s only entrance. The wooden stakes had ribbons of purple cloth draped over them that were nailed into place: cloth with runes of warding inscribed on them. Once Draevin noticed them he saw that most of the rest of the palisade had similar rune-inscribed ribbons pinned in place at regular intervals as well. One of the two guards behind the gate waved familiarly to Peter when he saw them walk up and wheeled the gate out of the way so they could pass. “Hey Pete,” the guard said. He had a shaved head and a lumpy burn-scar on his forehead. “Great match today. This guy with you?”
Draevin bristled at the casual disregard the human had given him, but before he could comment Peter gave him a warning glance. “Yeah, this is Draevin the cryomancer.” “The
Draevin?” the guard asked. He gave Draevin a second glance and looked star-struck. That was more like it. “Wow! Peter’s mentioned you before but I almost didn’t believe he knew you! I didn’t recognize you without the flashy robe and hair.”
“Yes well…” Draevin didn’t actually want to admit that he was currently completely out of mana. “Sometimes it’s nice to not be recognized.”
“Right,” Peter agreed in a flat tone. “Nice to see you, Paul, but Draevin and I need to get some food.”
They passed the front gate and entered an orderly space of lined tents. The smell of latrines that normally accompanied the campgrounds dropped away as soon as they crossed the threshold. As Draevin looked around he was shocked at the size of the camp. The humans normally congregated into one section of the audience stands during arena matches, but it looked like more humans were living in this camp than Draevin had ever seen attending a match. “Gods, there must be thousands of you!”
“Not quite,” Peter corrected. “Most of the tents are still empty. Alex accidentally ordered more than we needed but we decided to set them up anyway.”
They were walking down a path that headed for the center of camp. Draevin could see a cleared area ahead with some fires going and it looked like there were several dozen humans bustling around over there. Peter was right that the tents seemed empty. He looked at one of them as they went past and noticed a shine to the fabric. “Wait a second, are these tents made of Treen
Peter shrugged. “Yeah. Alex said he got a good deal by ordering in bulk.”
Draevin’s eyes bulged. “You’re not even supposed to be able to buy
this much Treen silk! They’re used to make airships, for god’s sake! What do you think the Trenal War is being fought over?”
Peter kept walking. “With enough money you can buy anything. Alex has been doing well recently.” Peter looked up as they entered the central gathering space of the camp. A human with a hint of grey in his balding hair saw them and headed over. “Speaking of…” Peter said.
The older human reached Peter and wrapped him in a hug that lifted him off his feet. Compared to Peter, this other man was shorter but wider and had thick arms. Peter squinted through one eye and tried to talk while enduring the older human’s hug. “Draevin, you remember Alex from the other day?”
“I seem to recall meeting back in the woods the day we picked you up,” Draevin said.
The older human, Alex, finally released Peter and gave Draevin a more formal introduction with one hand outstretched. “Name’s Alex, like Peter said. Owner and proprietor of…” he leaned over and shouted across the camp, “What were we calling ourselves these days?”
A figure sitting at the nearest campfire with his back to them shouted back, “Haevish Family Mercantile.” Draevin noticed that the man had pointy ears. He was an elf. Draevin did remember that there’d been one elf among the humans when they’d first picked up Peter. The elf had a pile of bread rolls next to him and between bites he was in the process of painting runes onto ribbons of purple cloth. The ribbons looked like more of the type he’d seen nailed to the fortifications at the edge of camp.
“That’s right,” Alex continued, “owner and proprietor of Haevish Family Mercantile.”
Draevin met the man’s grip and found it strong. “And what exactly does your company do?” he asked. It was no secret their security was quite a bit tighter than any of the other campsites. He suspected they were probably smugglers, but he was curious if the human would admit to it or not.
Alex winked at him. “Officially? Or unofficially?” he asked with a sly smile.
“So you’re admitting you—”
Peter grabbed one of Draevin’s arms and pulled him away. “Don’t engage with him,” he said. “He’ll be buying the boots off your feet by the end of the night if you let him.” Peter guided Draevin to a seat by one of the fires and told him, “Just sit tight right here and we’ll have something ready to eat in no time.” He turned to Alex and said firmly, “And don’t you dare try to sell him anything!”
Alex chuckled to himself, then ruffled Peter’s hair as though he were a child. “Whatever you say Peter.” The older man crossed his arms and studied Peter more seriously now. “So, how was your little adventure then, did you get it?”
Peter eyed Draevin sideways and pursed his lips tightly. “Yeah, I got it.” He pulled a small leather sack that was etched with runes out from inside his robes and handed it over. “I even managed to break out a few prisoners while I was there. I don’t think anyone even noticed.”
Draevin’s mouth dropped open and just hung there for a moment.
“And how long will the illusion last?” Alex asked next.
“I bound it to a full mana potion of the same size and shape. The tournament will be over by the time it wears off.”
“Wait just a second!” Draevin interrupted the exchange. “Are you saying that break in—saving Grrbraa and Sylnya—was just a front so you could rob the place?”
Peter furrowed his brows. “Rob
is a strong word, I only took one thing. And besides—they stole it first. It’s not like if you steal something and then wait three hundred years you magically become the rightful owner.” Peter held up a finger when he saw Draevin was about to respond. “I would have saved Grrbraa regardless. Taelshin was pretty insistent about that.”
Draevin frowned at him. “So everything was arranged? Is that why Taelshin and that other mysterious ally showed up? How did
your ally blow out the gate, anyway? You never explained that.”
“I wouldn’t go as far as saying everything was arranged, no,” Peter answered. “Things didn’t exactly go to plan, but Taelshin was
waiting nearby to make sure—”
A human ran up to Alex in a panic and panted out, “Alex, sir, there are slave catchers at the front gate!”
“Dammit!” Alex cursed. “Don’t let them in. That’s why we put up those barricades in the first place.” Alex pointed at the elf sitting by the campfire. “Tripla!” he barked. “Time to earn your pay.”
The elf stood at attention and gave the human a mock salute. “Sure thing, boss!”
Draevin didn’t know what to think seeing an elf taking orders from a human, but that was beside the point at the moment. He jumped out of his seat to stop Alex from walking away. “Alex. You’re in charge here? If there are really slave catchers here you’ve got
to tell your men to stand down.”
Alex shook his head grimly. “Nobody is getting into this camp without a god’s damned army behind them, so don’t worry about it.”
Draevin groaned involuntarily. “Slave catchers aren’t going to come at you with swords, they’re combat wizards!
I don’t think you quite understand how serious this situation is. If they have a contract for a slave and you prevent them from retrieving their target they’re going to start killing
“I’ve taken in a lot of ex-slaves. I told them they’d be safe here and I intend to keep that promise.” Though he was just a human, Alex spoke with an iron conviction.
“One slave can’t possibly be worth—” Draevin was cut off abruptly by a loud explosion. A bright flash of light lit up the camp from somewhere behind Draevin’s head. He turned toward the front gate in time to see a massive ball of fire hurtling through the air towards them. When it reached the threshold of the front gates it splashed against a barrier of violet light. Whatever wards the human’s had put together didn’t look like they could compare to those of the arena or Eldesian embassy; the fireball fractured the barrier into cracks from the point of impact.
“Tripla!” Alex shouted authoritatively.
“I’m on it sir,” the elf replied, “but my magic’s not really ideal for combat.” Despite his protests, Tripla started weaving a many-fingered spell just the same. It looked too painfully complicated to be anything but lithomancy.
Draevin was suddenly keenly aware of how little mana he had. He spotted several abandoned meals of half-eaten corn bread and some kind of soup on a table. There was no time for permission; he ran to the table and started shoveling food down his throat as fast as he could. In his haste he accidentally swallowed a spoon. He had to smack his throat to get it down and while he did so he silently cursed Peter for inviting him here. If his tournament career ended over accepting the wrong dinner invitation he would strangle that human.
Another fireball crashed into the barrier around Camp Highway Robbery. This time the defenses gave in and the remainders of the spell rained down on the camp in burning flecks. Fires broke out all over the camp everywhere the flames landed. Draevin twisted his gut until he could squeeze a few drops of mana out of his stolen food and refreshed his Frost Armor defenses. The front gate was blasted inward a moment later.
“Where’s that bloody dryad?” Alex cried.
“She already got her son back,” Peter reported. “I don’t think she’s going to bail us out this time. I can try to signal the Telnarim Emperor again though.”
“Do it!” Alex ordered immediately. A golden flare of light shot up into the air out of Peter’s outstretched hand. The signal looked very familiar. Alex pointed to a random thug who was in the process of donning a leather helmet. “You! Fetch Rashad and his men. Run!” The man took off at a sprint for the far side of camp.
There was too much going on for Draevin to keep track of everything. He instead focused his attention at the front gate and he saw a squad of half a dozen slave catchers blow down the front gate and make straight for them. They were dressed in full military regalia with the falcon of their order emblazoned on their breastplates and were swathed in defensive wards so powerful their bodies were actually glowing with purple light. Draevin had thought for sure they’d be eldrin, but they weren’t. They were elves.
A dozen humans wielding a haphazard mix of clubs, spears and swords descended upon the slave catchers. The man in front made a few quick hand signs and tossed them aside with an explosive blast of flame. The troop didn’t even slow their pace as they walked straight down the main corridor towards the center of camp.
“Steady,” Alex told his men as they approached. “We just need to buy some time.”
When the troop of slave catchers reached the edge of the central gathering space their leader stepped forward and held out a scroll. “We are bound by a lawful contract from the king of Caldenia to recover a runaway slave. If any of you continue to resist our efforts you will die. Turn over the—”
“We aren’t in Caldenia!” Alex interrupted. “You have no jurisdiction here.”
“This is not a negotiation!” the head slave catcher replied. “We have been granted permission by the Guild to retrieve our property and we only came here for one person.”
“Is that what your paper says?” Alex asked. “You wouldn’t mind if I asked to see it, would you?”
The slave catcher scowled at Alex but he held his scroll out. “If it will convince you to cooperate, you can go ahead.”
“Great.” Alex stepped forward and grabbed the scroll. As he unfurled it he walked back towards his men. “Hmmm,” he said thoughtfully as he read. “It says here”—he dropped the scroll in the nearby fire—“that you fellas can go fuck
“Insolence!” the leader shouted. He waved his men forward. “Seize them! Kill any who resist!”
Draevin had been burning mana like mad but had only gathered enough for a small Icicle Spear at best. That would do little against enemies protected by armamancy wards. He took a step backward as the slave catchers surged forward. All he wanted was to get out of this situation alive. He’d been in enough
combat for one day.
Tripla darted forward with red light burning in both hands. “Shield your eyes,” he hissed to his companions before releasing some kind of spell. Draevin didn’t get the message in time and as the elf’s hands flashed with energy he saw the word “runaway” appear at the forefront of his vision. He tried to look away but the word followed his eyes wherever he looked. He tried to close his eyes but he could still see it pulsing in his mind’s eye with every beat of his heart. Draevin felt the overwhelming urge to run away. It burned through his mind. Runaway. Runaway. Runaway.
Before he could stop himself, Draevin found his feet churning beneath him. He didn’t know where he was going, but he knew he had to run. He only made it a few steps before Tripla seized him by the shoulders and the compulsion left him as suddenly as it had come. One of the slave catchers had taken off at a sprint at the same time Draevin had but the rest had instead halted in their tracks. They weren’t fleeing, but they weren’t moving forward either and they seemed to be panting with effort to hold the compulsion at bay.
Alex grabbed a red-hot poker from the fire. “Wʜᴀᴛ ᴀʀᴇ ʏᴏᴜ ᴡᴀɪᴛɪɴɢ ꜰᴏʀ ᴍᴇɴ! Aɴ ɪɴᴠɪᴛᴀᴛɪᴏɴ?” He leapt forward and jabbed at the lead slave catcher’s face with his poker and his men followed his lead.
The fiery tip of Alex’s poker slid off the slave catcher’s defensive wards harmlessly. As the rest of the humans slashed and stabbed at the slave catchers their results were largely the same. A particularly burly human wrapped one of them in a bear hug and dropped his body directly in a fire but the four remaining foes were essentially unharmed.
Tripla released Draevin’s shoulder and held out his hands. They were wrapped in the same red glow as when he’d cast his spell, but he was panting with the effort of maintaining it. “I can’t… hold them much… longer…”
“Peter!” Alex shouted between jabs with his poker. “How’s that signal coming?”
Peter released three more golden flares into the air. “I don’t think he’s watching,” Peter answered. He sounded worried.
Something about Peter’s words snapped the head slave catcher out of his compulsion. He caught Alex’s poker with his bare hand and threw it aside while staring daggers at Peter. He pointed an accusatory finger in Peter’s direction. “Pᴇᴛᴇʀ Cᴀʟᴏᴍᴀɴ!” he roared. “Yᴏᴜ ᴄᴀɴɴᴏᴛ ᴇsᴄᴀᴘᴇ! Wᴇ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ᴀ ᴄᴏɴᴛʀᴀᴄᴛ ꜰʀᴏᴍ ʏᴏᴜʀ ᴍᴀsᴛᴇʀ. Tʜᴇʀᴇ ɪs ɴᴏᴡʜᴇʀᴇ ʏᴏᴜ ᴄᴀɴ ʜɪᴅᴇ!”
was the runaway slave. Draevin’s head started spinning.
Peter shrank away from the man’s words. He instinctively hid behind Draevin’s back. Draevin didn’t know what to think. Peter, a slave? It didn’t make sense. Was this another manipulation by Caelnaste? Kill Draevin, arrest Peter? It was possible.
Draevin took a step forward and held his wand out towards the slave catchers. “I think you’ve got the wrong guy,” he warned. “This human isn’t a slave; he’s a contestant in this year’s tournament. As am I. You sure you want to face off against a tournament champion?”
Rather than answer, the head slave catcher shot his arm forward and unleashed a lance of fire straight at Draevin. He wasn’t even sure if he had enough mana to completely block the attack, but he had to try. Draevin sliced the air with his wand and sent out a wall of snow to absorb the blast.
For the second time in as many hours Draevin’s attack took on a life of its own. The maw of a great snow dragon exploded out of the end of his wand. The dragon swallowed the slave catchers whole, then twisted around and faced the group of defenders next. Draevin tried to direct it away, but the spell was completely out of his control.
Great white wings of swirling ice descended on the remaining defenders. The dragon’s mouth opened and Draevin saw an impossibly vast whirlwind of ice and snow raging within. He heard the angry roar of a dragon… no, the howling winds of a winter blizzard.
His own dragon reached him and Draevin was engulfed. He felt the cold bite of ice on his skin and in his lungs. Everything went white. Index