Pahwon took his place as look out, nonchalantly leaning against the doorframe. A rubber ball rolled up against his leg. He looked down, tapping it with his foot. A small silhouette emerged into the entry way.

“Ball,” the small child said, pointing at the round object.

“Ball,” Pahwon repeated, rolling it back to the youngster.

“Ball.”

It rolled back his way. He blinked, looking uneasily at the approaching foreigners. He needed to not be noticed, so placating the child seemed like a good idea. But Pahwon knew if he was distracted then he wouldn’t be able to see anything across the street. He kicked the ball away from him, not wanting the child to make a scene. The ball returned. He rolled it back. Several volleys continued as he searched for a way out. At last he spotted an opening, a young attendant walking through a nearby room. Carefully he gave the ball an expert kick.

It rolled just past the small child, who followed it instinctively. He chased it into the kitchen, right in front of the attendant. Pahwon smiled at his handy work, watching as the girl raised the boy up, asking him about food and rest before carrying him off. Satisfied that he could now wait, Pahwon returned his gaze to the bridge expectantly.

They crossed the bridge, marching in a disorganized mass. In the center of the ruffians walked a man with a cane, wearing formal attire. He carried a parchment folder under his arm. Pahwon concluded that he must be the new administrator. A gust of wind caught the black banner, revealing the embalm of the pirate admiral Giorgio Montague.

“W-what is this?” Pahwon breathed, horrified.

He had always feared his father would be claimed by one of their ilk, if not the great black heart himself. But a government official now walked under his banner. He instinctively ducked inside, unsure of his next move. He tried to think clearly, looking around the entry room.

At the top of the stairs he spotted Kuhhal, inching half way down. Not daring to go any further, he beckoned Pahwon to follow. After a glance out the door, Pahwon dashed up the stairs. They arrived in Tossmek’s quarters. She was already waiting.

“That ensign,” he breathed, “It belongs to the Pirate Admiral Giorgio Montague.

“The scourge of Iber?” Tossmek said incredulously. “That-that can’t be right.”

“Red and black flag, with a heart being impaled.” Pahwon said, nodding insistently. “That’s his flag, I’m certain of it.”

“Master Zaltheid, the special announcement,” Kuhhal said quickly, “has Kassar been overrun? Or perhaps the new king betrayed our nation to the pirates?”

“This is crazy,” Tossmek said, shaking her head, “something has to be missing.”

“Letal,” Kuhhal said slowly, “We might need your help in today.”

“Wait, what are you talking about?” Tossmek asked concerned. “What help are you talking about?”

“Helping our nation” he retorted angrily, “These foul criminals are a disgrace.”

“B-but, we don’t even really know what’s going on yet, right? Maybe we should just calm down.”

“No, this is the time for action,” Kuhhal said firmly. “Master Zalthed will lead the knights against these invaders,” He reasoned, “Come, Letal, I hope you’ve learned a thing or two.”

“Yeah, I learned a few things,” Pahwon murmured.

“I hope you mean more than just how to take beatings like a champ,” Kuhhal snickered.

“Hey, I gave beat Tahhum the other day.”

“That’s cause he was laughing so hard at you using that damn bat of yours. Now come on.”

Tossmek twisted her head as the two walked out of her door and rounded left, towards the back stairwell. She slid off her bunk and was at the door in four strides.

“What do you think you’re doing?” She hollered after them.

“Saving our land, from them.”

“You’re not leaving me here!”

“Whoa, calm down girl,” Kuhhal said dismissively, “this is going to get dangerous.”

“Tossmek you jerk-and I may have just cleaned up after your meals, but I wanna know what this is all about too.”

“Well if you insist,” Kuhhal muttered.

“That’s the spirit, Tossmek.”

They descended the rear stairwells and hurried into the orphanage’s back yard. The area was covered in short, green grass, interspersed with tufts of weeds and a few Emru flowers. Not wanting to risk trekking through the street, Pahwon began trying to think of a different way across the river. A breeze blew through the yard.

Without warning, Tossmek took the lead and marched toward the fence. Pahwon and Kuhhal walked after her, wondering what she had in mind. After hopping the ancient wooden fence, they walked down an incline, the orphanage vanishing behind them.

“I’ve used this to get out of here all time,” She assured them.

She lead them to the riverbank, stopping beside a small pile of debris. The two stared at her for a few moments, Tossmek looking over the collection of drift wood at her feet. It was only after she began moving it that Pahwon realized the thing was lashed together. He stared at the ramshackle raft, realizing that it was their destination.

“D-did you build that yourself?”

“Sure did,” Tossmek confirmed proudly.

She floated the contraption onto the water, the planks shifting with the small river waves. Pahwon and Kuhhal nervously boarded the craft, the raft rocking under their weight. The two nearly fell into the drink, waving their arms to regain balance. With Tossmek aboard, they cast off, already regretting not trying the bridge. Oblivious, she guided the craft towards the opposite bank, looking quite pleased.

The raft crashed into the shore, nearly throwing Pahwon into the river again. Kuhhal leapt over Pahwon, forcing him back to the deck. He sprang to his feet as soon as it was stable again and followed suit. Tossmek disembarked lightly into the shallow water and dragged the craft onto the muddy shore. He stared at it for a few moments.

“Tossmek, where did you get these logs?”

When no answer came, Pahwon turned around. They had already begun clambering up the levy. Pahwon jumped across the narrow beach and clambered after them. While still a foot from the top something grabbed Pahwon by the shirt. He was heaved aloft with ease and deposited next to his friends. A burly dockworker stood before them, shaking his head.

“T’ hell are you thinkin’?” he scolded. “Climbing up t’ levy after a quiet river crossin’, especially at a time like this. I thought your dad raised you better, Pah.”

“B-b-but.”

“Go home, t’ lot o’ you, ‘n’ stay there.”

The dockworker fell silent, staring at them for a minute. The three of them sat in uncomfortable silence, waiting for the man to leave. With a final sigh, he turned and walked off, leaving them where they sat. Pahwon looked over his friends, suddenly feeling foolish. He gazed skyward, realizing it was nearly midday.

“Time for the announcement.”

“Get moving then,” Kuhhal snapped. “Let’s go.”

They made their way back up river road, nervously looking for any sign of the foreigners. For a time they remained quiet, with only the clatter of Tossmek’s sandals to break the silence. The road before them was nearly empty, adding to their fear that something terrible was happening. They passed a couple not much older than themselves, the man comforting the tearful woman.

Both had large packs strapped to their backs. As they passed Pahwon wondered if perhaps he was going the wrong way. Near the edge of town he spotted Hiwei and her friend Ette standing by the road, leaning against an old crumbling wall.

“Hiwei!” he called, dashing forward.

Hiwei did not react, instead staring at the ground. Pahwon slowed as he approached, noticing that She and Ette were shaking slightly. Neither spoke until he was within arm’s reach.

“Good bye,” she said softly.

“Wait, what? What? Where are you going?”

“The guild master and the more skilled Magi are going to lead our entire class through the Golib Marshes to Al-ness-mah,” Hettej explained sadly. “We and our families are leaving, going to take out chances there.”

Hiwei nodded. Pahwon shook his head in disbelief; certain this could not be true. Desperate, he turned to Kuhhal and Tossmek, who had just caught up. Hiwei started to speak before Kuhhal cut her off.

“We heard,” He snapped, “And you’re not going.”

“Excuse me, what do you mean we’re not going? Our guild master has already spoken on the matter.”

“Well, has she confirmed with our master? He has a plan to deal with these invaders.”

“Really?” Hettej asked raising an eyebrow. “He told you this?”

“Not yet, b-but he will, you’ll see.”

“That’s right,” Pahwon chimed in, “and he’ll lead us to victory.”

“He’ll lead the knights to victory,” Kuhhal corrected, “you’re just tagging along, Letal.”

“Uh, ok…”

“Erm, right, uh, you should come with us Hiwei, regardless,” Tossmek said quickly, “It won’t take long.”

Reluctantly, Hettej and Hiwei followed them up the road. They arrived at the open gates to the sight of nearly all the students gathered in front of Zaltheid hall, milling amongst the various dummies and pull-up bars spread across the yard. The doors were apparently bared, though that didn’t stop a few younger students from attempting to force their way in.

Pahwon looked around the crowded field, feeling a bit out of place. Kuhhal marched into the crowd, already starting to assert his authority. As he watched them fall into line behind Kuhhal, the dockworker’s warning surfaced in Pahwon’s mind. He tried to push it aside, hoping that this announcement might finally clarify what was going on. He balled his right hand and punched it lightly onto the left. After waiting for a few minutes he started to lose focus, and took to pacing. A murmur passed through the crowd as the old sword master emerged onto the field. The grey-haired man cleared his throat, appearing quite distressed.

“My pupils, I must first commend all of you for the prowess you have shown. I know how much this has meant to you and your families, each of you preying and working to one day become a knight of Kassar. It is with great sadness that I must inform you that I can no longer offer my services as a trainer. Know that this is because of events beyond our control. I hope that you are all successful in your further pursuits.”

A cry of dismay spread through the crowd. Pahwon closed his eyes, all his fears seemingly confirmed. Many in the crowd began calling for action, though none knew where it should be directed.  Kuhhal took his chance and began shouting about all he had seen, adding his loud voice to the cacophony. It was only the booming voice of Zaltheid who quieted down the restless crowd.

“Silence,” Zalthed demanded. “I know this is not fair, but none of you would stand a chance. Return to your families, speak to them, the truth will soon be known to all. I wish each of you luck.”

Without a backwards glance, Zaltheid turned and reentered the hall, slamming the door behind him. This was the end, Pahwon realized, a weight falling in his belly. Whatever was happening would not be stopped, he realized. He looked helplessly at his friends, and Kuhhal, expecting to see similar looks of dismay. Disconcertingly, Kuhhal had a huge grin across his face. Perhaps he had gone mad, Pahwon reasoned, taking a step back to be safe.

“Uh, Kuhhal, you alright?” Pahwon asked cautiously. “You look, odd.”

“This is it!” Kuhhal Exclaimed out of no ware, making all present jump. “This is clearly a test; the master wants us to use our initiative, now! Clever, very cleaver.”

“I think Kuhhal might not have heard that announcement correctly,” Hiwei whispered to Hettej.

“I heard it just fine,” Kuhhal roared, pointing at the snide talker. “You simply weren’t listening like I was. Now, we must organize and we have to strike, yes, this is our greatest test!”

“Uh, Kuhhal, I think you might need-”

“What we must do is mount an attack; we’ll drive away the invaders now sitting in the administrator’s office and prove ourselves to Master Zaltheid!”

“But that’s crazy!” Hiwei interjected. “Do you have any idea what a terrible risk th-.”

“Of course it’s a risk!” Kuhhal retorted. “What do you think the point of all this is? Training to defend our nation, of course there are risks involved!”

Hiwei shook her head, distressed at the stupidity unfolding before her. She looked over at Pahwon, hoping he would be able to talk Kuhhal down. To her dismay he seemed to be agreeing.

“Hiwei, it’s sort of true,” Pahwon said quietly, “What have we, uh, they been doing all these years, if not preparing for something like this? If we can attack quickly and in force, we might just be able to win.”

“Oh, oh this won’t end well,” Hiwei moaned, hanging her head.

“Yes, everyone, we shall strike at dusk, take them by surprise.” Kuhhal announced, looking elated.

Hiwei stared at her feet, the growing crowd around Kuhhal proof she had lost. A hand grasped her shoulder, reassuringly. She looked back over, at the owner of the hand. Pahwon gazed at her, trying to look confident.

“If you’re really going to try something crazy, I suppose I’m crazy enough to try too.”

“That’s the spirit Hiwei, erm, sort of,” Pahwon said approvingly. “We’ll defiantly need a magic wielder.”

“What? Hiwei what are talking about?” Hettej said quickly. “You’re not seriously going along with this.”

“Perhaps, but I don’t want to flee in terror, either,” Hiwei said quietly.

“Unbelievable,” Hettej fumed.

She turned and stormed off back to town, shaking her head in disbelief. As Hettej departed, the crowd surged around Kuhhal, everyone eagerly awaiting the next announcement. For his part, Kuhhal reveled in the attention, allowing some time to pass between statements.

“Once inside, those with swords shall split off and hunt through the building in pairs,” Kuhhal called. “Overwhelmed, victory shall be swift and momentous. But first, we must rest. Everyone shall meet at the Orphanage just after sundown, where we shall stage our attack.”

The forty or so remaining students nodded expectantly, many talking excitedly as they dispersed. Kuhhal beamed over the crowd, very pleased with himself. After the crowd had thinned substantially, Kuhhal forced his way through what was left in Pahwon’s direction. Pahwon looked over expectantly, wondering what Kuhhal would want with him. Kuhhal then shoved him to the side and stopped before Hiwei instead. Slightly crestfallen, Pahwon still listened in curiously.

“I need your help with something.”

“What is it?” she asked hesitantly.

“I need to get to the real weapons,” he said quickly. “They are in locked containers, but I know where those are. I can’t open them though, so that’s where you come in.”

“I’m not sure I follow.” Hiwei replied hesitantly.

“You’ll burn them open with some magic,” Kuhhal said impatiently. “You can do that, can’t you?”

“I think so.”

This was apparently good enough for him. Kuhhal grabbed Hiwei by the hand and pulled her back toward the hall. Pahwon watched them go for a few moments before looking over at Tossmek, who simply shrugged before strolling back down the road. Pahwon followed her, wondering what she could be thinking. He looked all around as they walked the river road, from the row of planted trees by the river to the grain field on his left. Then he looked at Tossmek.

“What’s on your mind?” Pahwon asked nonchalantly.

“Just thinking over a few things. I might have enough money saved to finally make my escape.”

“Money, escape, what?”

“A river barge,” Tossmek replied, “I’ll sail up and down the Dossiger trading stuff, hauling cargo, that sort of thing. I’ve been planning it for years now.”

“Hmm, my dad’s a trader too,” Pahwon said thoughtfully, “got me stuff from all over the world. He also introduced me to some people in the port, officials and a few boat owners. Perhaps I could introduce them to you sometime.”

“That would be good,” Tossmek said quietly, “you ever think about trading, seeing all sorts of new places and new people?”

“I have,” Pahwon replied, “But, I’m not sure, uh, I just don’t know.”

“Right, that’s sort of where I am too. You really think Kuhhal’s plan will work?”

“I-I have to believe it will,” Pahwon said, looking away.

They both fell silent, suddenly feeling uncertain they were doing the right thing. The two walked back into town, Pahwon looking around once more. The sun was bright, and the sky clear. Only the nearly empty streets revealing that something was amiss. Realizing that he needed to get home and rest. They passed several carts heading out down the road, some probably not intending to return. They arrived before Pahwon’s home where they exchanged a final glance.

“Right, see you later Pahwon,” Tossmek said quickly. “I’ve got some things to get together.”

“Good luck, see you tonight.”

“You too.”

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