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Fight fire with fire

This story was written for the STSC Fiction Symposium.

You can find part 1 here.

The smoke curled from his pipe as merchant baron Ruvin gazed at his new ship, the Crimson Quest, setting sail. Meridian Islands were the destination, and while the ship carried a good amount of his precious stones, his young captain Akkar had a specific objective to achieve. Would he learn more about the artifact that the last voyage brought?

Ruvin absentmindedly fished it out of his pocket and flicked the small metal box open in his palm. Partially to reassure himself, and partially to see if the entity within could somehow sense what he was thinking, he pressed the lever. A flame appeared out of the small metal nozzle, unusually steady, given the wind.

A sense of barely contained aggression filled Ruvin's mind. It was almost overwhelming, and by now, Ruvin understood that the longer he went without unleashing the power within it, the stronger that unnatural need for destruction became. He stared at the flame in contemplation then shut the lid and the hungry flame vanished.

He turned to walk home to his estate and found a man watching from beneath a hood, from mere five strides away. What little of his face remained unobscured by the hood was covered in a wild-man beard. Ruvin could have easily confused the man for a beggar, had it not been for the confidence and poise with which he held himself, and held Ruvin's gaze, unblinking. His blue eyes bore into Ruvin. Once upon a time, he'd have put his hand on his dagger in such a situation, at dusk in the docks. Now he merely kept his hand on his lighter.

The man spoke, in a low growl.

"You have no idea of what's in your possession, Baron Ruvin."

"What are you talking about?" asked Ruvin, trying to not sound as startled as he felt.

"We know about you and your... companion", the man responded, gesturing idly to the lighter. "You are careless and selfish. You don't understand what you hold in your hand."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," responded Ruvin. "Who are you? What do you want?"

The man ignored the question. Then he chuckled.

"Well, they will find you soon enough. It doesn't matter. You're as good as dead."

He seemed to have made up his mind and turned away, taking several steps in the direction of the city center.

But Ruvin had become far more familiar with his new abilities over the last several months and he was not done with this conversation. This man knew something about the strange entity made of conscious fire, contained in a small metal box, and controlled by the ring lined with ruby on his finger. This man had answers to his burning questions. This man was the key to the mystery.

Ruvin looked around. No witnesses in the immediate vicinity. Excellent. He pulled out the lighter and pressed the lever, focusing his mind on the idea of a small ball of fire directly in the stranger's path. That should make him talk.

As the flame burst into existence out of thin air, the man stopped dead in his tracks. The would-be beggar turned around.

Ruvin's question died on his lips. The man not only seemed to not be afraid, he looked amused. Without a word, the stranger took out a flask, took a long swig, and chuckled

"Oh, no, you don't, Baron. You have no idea what and who you're playing with."

Ruvin saw movement to his left, and as he turned, a giant wave of seawater crashed into him, flattening him to the dock like the fist of a god. When he got up, the man was nowhere to be seen.

Who was looking for him? What do they know? What do they want from him? Ruving was contemplating that as he smoked his pipe. He eyed the box of matches he used to light it, annoyed. He didn't dare to use his magical lighter now.

After he made his way to his mansion, sopping wet, a couple details about the encounter clicked into place. First of all, the flask the stranger took a gulp from must have been akin to his lighter, enabling the man to control water. That brought other implications. What about earth and wind? Presumably, there were other people like him, people with the ability to use the elements as an extension of their will. Ruvin suddenly felt much less special. He had thought that the lighter and the ring were unique, ancient artifacts, but now he knew there were others. But how many? How many people in the world possessed these powers? Who were they? Where did they come from? More and more questions flooded his mind, akin to the wave of salt water that washed over him yesterday.

He looked at a pin, made of the same dark metal as the lighter and the ring, lying on his table. He found it in the rubble following the moment that changed his life. The gem that once sat flush with the metal was cracked and somehow dim. When his attacker threw it into the fire and the stone split, it must have released the something within. An entity that was fire, and controlled fire. One of his ship captains brought him the lighter, the ring, and the pin over half a year ago. These artifacts allowed him to thwart an otherwise fatal ambush and changed his life since.

His reverie was interrupted by a knock on the door. His two servants were off for the day, so that left him to answer it. He was reminded of another time when he answered a late night knock. He felt better prepared this time.

Few moments later, he cautiously opened the door.

Lord Lerian stood there, alone, waiting with a polite smile. Ruvin, relinquished his hold on the dagger hidden in a sheath on the small of his back, below his overcoat.

"Lord Lerian, what an unexpected pleasure to see you here," Ruvin said, in an amiable tone the one of the men who not too long ago plotted to bankrupt his business and divide his property between them.

"Good evening, baron Ruvin." There was a brief pause. "I ... want to propose an allience to you."

Ruvin led him to his study and negotiations followed. Diamond tariffs, restrictions on selling of precious stones, particularly rubies,... All business as usual.

Several hours later, Ruvin led the man to the front door in good spirits. A new alliance had been formed, and this time, he was not the target of it.

He closed the door with a contented humm. And as he turned, three men stood before him, as if they appeared out of thin air.


That was the only thought in his mind as he took them in, silently standing several feet in front of him, clad in black, with only their sharp eyes and sharper weapons visible.

Then the man in the spoke, his voice slightly muffled by the fabric covering his mouth.

"You are at the end of the journey, thief."

The hell he was. He looked around, only half-trying to seem panicked, assessing the exact possition of the men in the room. While Ruvin's heart was threatening to escape his rib cage, his mind was calm. This was not the first ambush he'd ever experienced, far from it, and he thought he was better prepared this time in this place, in particular.

"Who are you?" He asked, trying to get more information before the bloodshed began.

"Servants of gods, pagan. Now you die."

Talking was over, it would seem. There we go, Ruvin thought

The men advanced, slightly curved swords pointed at Ruvin's throat.

He took several steps back. He pulled out his lighter in a flash and lifted his finger to press the lever. As quick he was, the man on his right had been quicker. Something went flying through the air and he felt a stab of pain in his fingers. The lighter clattered to the ground.


The middle man lunged for him at the same time. Ruvin was only saved by his instictive duck to get the lighter, but it slid away as a with a metallic clang and a flash of flying steel.

Now, this was serious.

Fortunately, his last ambush encounter led Ruvin to invest into some improvements to his mansion during the reconstruction following the fire damage.

As the man on the left attacked, Ruvin jumped to the side and put all his weight on the sconse right beside his door.

For a horrible moment, Ruvin thought that his precautionary measure had failed. Then a series of metallic twangs sounded in the hall and the three men screamed in unison as metal spikes six inches long buried in their flesh. They fell to the floor at the same time.

Relief washed over Ruvin as he assessed the fruit borne by his caution.

One bolt caught the man on the left in the throat, he wouldn't rise again. The man on the right, however, got up with a dagger in his hand and took halting steps towards Ruvin. His right hand was limp and the black fabric covering his abdomen clung to the bolt embedded in his gut. However, he seemed not disconcerted by that in the least.

Ruvin had doubts about taking that man in a fair fight, but as it happened, this was far from it. He unsheathed his hidden dagger and parried the first two attacks. He glanced at the third man and as soon as he was sure he was alive, but not in the shape to fight, Ruvin attacked his immediate opponent and drove his dagger into his temple. Done.

Ruvin walked over to the last man. Bolts struck his thigh, torso, and grazed his head. Blood was pooling around him fast. He threw something at Ruvin's head, but his aim was off and Ruvin heard something thud into the door behind him.

Ruvin walked closer.

"Who are you? Who sent you?" He almost shouted, putting the dagger to the man's jugular.

The man gritted his teeth and said nothing. His pupils were wide with terror. Then as fast as lightning he grabbed Ruvin's hand and instead of pushing away, pushed the dagger into his own neck.

Silence reasserted itself.

Ruvin stood there, frozen for an indiscernible period of time.

Almost absent mindedly, he walked over to his lighter, picked it up.

Well, that could have gone much worse, he thought.

He was feeling strangely calm despite his heart hammering the clapper of a bell. Some part of his mind knew this was due to shock. It was the same state he had experienced seven months prior.

He looked at the three men in front of him. These were no ordinary thugs like the last time. These were killers of extreme skill. And he still didn't know who sent them, though he knew exactly why.


Disposing of bodies had once been hard, but Ruvin decided to use his lighter once more, despite having a hunch that whoever it was that tracked him down could somehow trace it to him. He had nothing to lose, they clearly already knew where he lived, and presumably had no way of knowing when exactly the attack happened, so him creating a superheated pyre that incinerated the bodies in a few seconds was not a huge risk.

It took him longer to clean up the blood of the hardwood floor, put back the bolts and reload the springs hidden in the walls.

He was exhausted by the end of it, but he knew that he would not sleep that night, so instead, he set out for the docks with a large satchel over his shoulder. One hand on the dagger at his hip, the other on the lighter in his pocket, he went in search of a man who might have some answers.

It took him almost an hour to track down Dag in the Serpent's Horn, one of the seedier establishments in an already seedy part of the capital. He waited another half hour for the woman Dag was talking to to leave. She had the strong build of someone who works in the docks or on the deck, and the conversation looked serious enough for Ruvin to decide not to interrupt it, despite his distress.

When he finally sat down in front of Dag with two mugs of whatever passed for beer in this pub, the man's brows furrowed and then he let out a quiet laugh under his bushy beard.

"Well well well, it's been some time, m'ster lord." He said in his rough-hewn baritone.

"I've been busy."

"So I hear, so I hear." Dag paused and examined Ruvin with shrewd eyes. "What happened to your lordship?"

Ruvin decided to start the negotiation with a little gift of information.

"I was attacked tonight."

Dag raised an eyebrow.

"A bunch of lazy layabouts decided to get some coin off a wealthy lord again? Ha!?"

Ruvin looked around to make sure no one was in the vicinity and further lowered his voice.

"No, I was attacked in my own home. And they weren't normal cut-throats, but trained killers."

"Huh," replied Dag, with his eyes narrowing. After a brief pause, he said: "Well, your recent rise to prominence has caught some people's attention, even though I know you're trying to be sneaky about it."

It was Ruvin's turn to pause. It would seem he had not been as sneaky as he had thought, but then again, he supposed it had been unrealistic to think that no word got out, given the number of workers in the mines.

"Hm, whose attention are we talking about, exactly?"

Dag laughed, and it sounded more like a growl.

"Come on, lordship, you know me better than that."

Ruvin thought about it. He slid a small ruby out of his pocket and put it behind Dag's mug under the pretense of clinking it. Best not flash wealth in here.

"Give me at least one name."

Dag eyed the stone speculatively.

"Lord Lerian has been keeping tabs on you."

Ruvin smiled.

"I know that. Who else?"

Dag shrugged. "I gave you a name."

Ruvin made to get the ruby back, but Dag pocketed it before he could.

"Fine. The chief guard in Nasurus is selling information to Lerian and who knows how many other people."

"Noted," said Ruvin.

There was another pause.

"So, what else you want?" Dag asked after a gulp of beer.

Ruvin pondered his question.

"Listen, Dag, do you have a place where we can talk without prying eyes?"

Dag raised his eyebrow, then got up and Ruvin followed. Dag exchanged a couple words and flinged a coin to the barkeep and waved at Ruvin to follow him through the door behind the bar and down a stairwell. They entered a small musky cellar with kegs of unknown, but likely poor-quality substances lining the walls. Only a faint murmur of the clientele, if it could be called that, reached the cellar.

Dag turned to Ruvin once again.

"So, what's this about?"

Ruvin opened his satchel and one by one took out the objects from it and unwrapped them from the black fabric, taken off the assassins.

"Well well well, huh," said Dag, "that's a nice collection you have there. Into weapons now, m'lord?"

"No, I'll stick with stones," replied Ruvin.

Dag examined the objects one by one. An amulet depicting the sun, made of some sort of steel, almost black; a star shaped weapon the size of a palm with acutely sharp edges; a dagger of high-quality steel, with a handle wrapped in black leather, and a slightly curved sword of similar build quality, the length of an outstretched arm.

Dag grunted under his breath.

"Do you recognize any of these weapons?" Ruvin asked with suspense.

Dag tilted his head. Then he took a bit of the fabric and studied it between his fingers, smelled it, and stretched it.

"Recognize them? I'm assuming you're not asking me whether I put them in the hands of those killers, ha?!... No, no, I don't. All I can tell you is that I haven't seen anything like this around here and the steel is of better quality than the king guard's."

Ruvin was somewhat surprised. It was not often that Dag came up short.

"I need to know where these came from."

Dag looked at him, calculating.

"Tell you what, m'lord, I'll take the amulet, the star thing, and the dagger, and I'll ask around. For a price..."

A negotiation followed and hands were shaken. Dag conceiled all three objects on his person with practiced dexterity.

Before they exited the cellar, Dag turned to Ruvin and looked him in the eyes.

"Listen, things of this make don't just fall into people's laps. I'll keep an eye out, but you watch your steps, it'd be a damn shame to lose such a good customer."

Ruvin noted the absence of derogatory m'lord and nodded.

"Got it, Dag."

"I hope you do."

The following weeks passed without a single incident related to magical matters. Business as usual. And yet, day by day, Ruvin's sense of unease increased, and with it, his paranoia.

He suspected every shadow, every fast motion, every subtle sound. The stress took its toll on his daily life. For the first time since acquiring his magical lighter, he looked at the object as a double-edged sword. Yes, it had saved his life, but now it was also threatening to take it. He used ordinary fire now to light his pipe, and felt worse for it.

At least his new fortune allowed him to post guards outside his door. Even so, this measure did not bring him as much comfort as it should, because the swift silent manner with which his would-be killers moved made him think that his new guards would not proved that effective. All he hoped for was that they would buy him more time. This was a grim realization. Moreover, he was sure that the next time the killers would come, there would be more of them.

Days passed, as he waited for the return of his ship sent to the Meridian Isles, the place where the mysterious artifact plaguing his life had come from. Questions were on his mind into the early morning hours, and people started advising him to get some more sleep or go for a holiday in Therakia district, in case of some lords in the Merchant Guild.

Lord Lerian came one afternoon and informed Ruvin that their plans were proceeding smoothly. Several lesser merchants were beginning to feel the stress of the new alliance and at least one, merchant Harrus, would shortly be bankrupted. This lifted Ruvin's spirits, briefly.

His mood turned thunderous again when a short note from Dag arrived, simply saying:

No idea where they are from, m'lord.

Shortly after that, a messenger arrived from his most profitable mine. This was not a good sign. Good news and bad news alike came via letter, only the worst news was delivered in person. What's more, the messenger turned out to be Alus, a stocky man who was in charge of the mine.

Ruvin greeted Alus as he entered his study.

"Good morning," Ruvin said out of habit.

"I wish it were, my lord," said Alus, as he shook Ruvin's hand.

Alus sat down opposite Ruvin, who offered the man watered-down wine as was customary. The man smelled of horse and sweat, but Ruvin did not complain. He had a hunch this would be the least of his worries in a moment. And he was correct.

After a brief exchange of pleasantries, the man took a significant swig of the wine, and said:

"The main tunnel has collapsed, my lord."

Ruvin frowned, his mind filled with the image of the sturdy support beams that were in place when he last saw the mine.

"How is that possible?" he asked, with incredulity.

"That's the problem, my lord." Said Alus, and after a brief pause, he added. "I haven't mentioned this to others, but I believe some must have tampered with the beams."

Ruvin frowned more.

"Go on."

Alus complied.

"It wasn't in an obvious spot, but I see those beams day in day out. One day, they were fine, and the next day, there was a crash and the whole thing caved in at exactly the right location to stop our operation."

Ruvin's thoughts went to half a dozen lords and merchants, Harrus chief among them, that could have become more desperate enough to try dirty tactics like that. He didn't expect that so soon, but that was the nature of plotting. Sometimes there were unintended consequences and unpleasant costs to going on offense.

"We can't get to the stones, and the other main repository is also inaccessible... though I set the men to work on an alternate tunnel before I set off."

He hesitated, slightly uneasy.

"However, it might require your lordship to help with that in person."

Ruvin understood what he meant. Only a select few of his most loyal men knew that deadly underground gas was now a problem Ruvin could solve. Of course, he still kept from them how he did it.

Ruvin drank his wine and nodded. He was afraid, he couldn't afford to not use his gift for taming fire. This mine had recently become the backbone of his business. While his coffers were not stretched now, given his expansive investments into new ventures, it was critical for his future that this mine be restored to operation as soon as possible.

Ruvin took a long breath, and a brief logistics discussion followed.

It took him and his four selected guards most of the next day to arrive at the mine. He felt the need to bring more, now that he abandoned the safety of his mansion, but an extraordinary amount of armed soldiers would attract an extraordinary amount of attention from the many eyes watching from the streets and alleyways of the capital. Ruvin knew that, because one of his recent investments was a small but growing web of informers, dwelling in the many dark corners of the city.

Grim thoughts were at contrast with the pleasant weather. On ride like this, his mind was often calmed by influence of the scenery unfolding as he rode. But not today.

He couldn't help but glance backwards frequently. There was no one following them. Only once he thought he glimpsed a figure on horse in the distance, but afterwards, he told himself that a lone wanderer hardly posed a challenge. Four men with crossbows and swords, and Ruvin with his own assortment of weapons, hidden and visible alike, would surely suffice to deal with a man, even if it was a supremely skilled killer.

When he finally arrived at the site of his most recent misfortune in the late afternoon, his mood darkened still. Ruvin's investigation of the collapsed tunnel under the guidance of Alus indeed proved that someone had tampered with the supports. The only silver lining was that the other tunnel Alus had mentioned would be ready for Ruvin to exercise his abilities the following day. The problem was that it might still take weeks to get to any sizable precious stones or connect it to the existing uncollapsed tunnel network. The miners were certain there would be highly flammable gas in the new tunnel, because that had been the issue with this mine. Explosions had killed many a man before Ruvin could control them.

Despite the exhausting journey, it took him several hours to fall asleep and his dreams were full of black-clad figures creeping around him. Nightmares woke him up early, which was unfortunate, since all Ruvin could do for most of the day was wait, which left more time for rumination. He tried to convince himself that it was highly unlikely that assassins traveled from the capital in pursuit, but his subconscious mind was not convinced by rational arguments.

He was glad when the time for action came at last. The miners cleared out and Ruvin strode into the mine, under the fearful gazes of the men. Alus bid him good luck and Ruvin thanked him. As usual, he made a show of drenching all his clothes in water beforehand, to add a bit of credibility. He strode into the tunnel with a large satchel over his shoulder. In it, he usually carried a random assortment of rocks, metal, and wood, but today, it also contained weapons stolen from his assassins. No one, not even Alus, knew what was in the satchel. He merely told them that it contained a new contraption he had developed that allowed him to burn out the dangerous gas without causing it to explode. In reality, the actual contraption rested comfortably in his pocket.

As he descended into the tunnel, darkness enveloped him. He had learned from previous (and painful) experience to not go too near the gas repository. That lesson was hard to forget, since it resulted in his face being burned before he managed to command the flames to obey.

This time, he pressed the lever on his lighter well in advance. As ever, an unnaturally still flame appeared out of the nozzle. Ruvin sensed the consciousness of the flame. What was unusual was the wave of aggression that came with it, instantly. With some difficulty, Ruvin managed to separate his emotions from the supernatural anger.

The strength of the emotion was likely a result of not having used it in the previous weeks. Ruvin had noticed before that the longer he abstained from using it, the more anger filled his mind upon release of the lever. Hence his habit lighting his pipe with it, several times a day.

Ruvin focused all his mind on the task at hand. He breathed deeply to remain calm. The world seemed to shrink to him and the flame. Once he felt he had a solid grip on the power contained in the flame, he sent multiple tendrils of orange fire towards the supposed gas vents in the rock. For several seconds, nothing happened. Then he felt it.

One of the tendrils burst alive and an electric shock passed through Ruvin. At once, he commanded the fire to not spread as rapidly as it normally would have, forestalling the explosion.

Instead, now not a tendril, but a column of fire was channeled into the small metal container in Ruvin's hand.

Ruvin stood there, still, silent, sweating. The heat had no effect on him, as always, but controlling the explosion was not easy. The eerie column of fire continued to be devoured by the small metal box.

He had no sense of time. His mind was set on his objective. The malevolent anger seemed to abate, bit by bit. Instead, he had a sense of increasing satisfaction, which was contrasted by his own feeling of unease. He tried to keep his thoughts from drifting to why it was that the entity felt satisfaction and what it possibly meant or what it could lead to.

Eternity passed and then he finally felt the strength of the fire decrease and slowly, the infernal column crept back towards him, until it was once more a simple small flame. He judged that it had taken longer than before.

His clothes were still wet, and he now realized he had started to shiver. He had insulated himself from the fire so effectively that he was, in fact, cold. After a moment's hesitation, he formulated an intention and the air around him shimmered briefly, supplying his body with much needed heat.

He felt wrung out. The effort needed to keep the fire from escaping his mental grasp had drained him. He sat down at the side of the tunnel, reached inside his satchel, and pulled out a package wrapped in waxed paper and a lantern, which he lit and then extinguished with the supernatural flame. Now he could rest.

He absent-mindedly unwrapped the package containing dried meat and a small loaf of bread and started eating. He had also learned to bring food and water with him. When he felt replenished, he took a moment and sat there, by the light of the lantern.

Ruvin eventually decided to make his way back. Close to the mouth of the tunnel, he saw that golden light now shone outside. As he approached it, he could see a figure standing nearby.

"Alus, it's done!" He called.

The figure turned towards him once, but did not reply.

Something was off. He set the lantern down.

Now he realized that whoever was waiting there was dressed entirely in black.

Ruvin's mind kicked into overdrive, his heart started pounding, he instinctively found the lighter in his pocket and pressed the lever, not caring about singing his own leg.

Just as the flame's entity manifested in his own mind, he saw lightning of blue flame streaking towards him, illuminating the whole tunnel in odd light.

Panic now set in, as he realized several things at once. First, Alus, his stalwart servant, was most likely dead. Second, he was facing someone who had the same command of fire as him. Third, he could sense the heat emanating from the bolt of fire from a distance. And finally, if that fire reached him, he'd be dead.

It was the last idea that led him to shout "STOP!" and form the intention into his own bolt of fire that burst from the metal box and clashed into that of his foe.

When the forces met, there was an explosion that threw Ruvin several feet back. He barely managed to hold onto the lighter as he fell. The man advanced inside the tunnel and as he did, a wall of blue flame formed in the air before him and sped towards Ruvin.

Once again, Ruvin, now terrified by the superior skill of the attacker, thought it best to copy the tactic. Dripping with sweat, he focused, and imagined a similar wall, stopping the blue fire from reaching him.

Stop that thing! Ruvin thought.

And it worked. When the blue and the orange collided, the enemy fire was stalled. However, Ruvin sensed a flood of anger and a pressure bear down on his own wall of fire. After a moment, tongues of sky blue flame began to lash through, bringing with them surges of heat so intense Ruvin was afraid his clothes would soon start burning. Bit by bit, the enemy began to prevail. Ruvin's defence was beginning to crack and his skin started to smoke as his nervous sweat was vaporized.

If he stood there for much longer, he'd become unwillingly cremated.

With a push of effort and a wordless cry that echoed down the tunnel, he commanded the spirit of fire to burst forth with no regard to caution.

His own flames turned white the whole tunnel was filled with an inferno that assaulted the enemy and after a breathless moment, broke through the blue wall of fire.

The white flames gushed forward enveloping the other man. A few seconds later, they vanished and for the first time, Ruvin sensed a feeling of exhaustion from the entity tied to him via the ring on his finger. Only the flame of the lighter in his hand remained and it was flickering.

And yet, the man stood there, seemingly unharmed. His head was cocked to one side. Only his eyes were visible through his black clothing, but Ruvin thought he saw a look of slight bemusement in his gray eyes.

Ruvin also saw a thick wooden beam, half-burned right above the man.

Then a plan formulated in his mind. With a last push of effort, Ruvin sent three tendrils of flame forward: two towards the joints holding the beam in place, and one directly towards his enemy. At the same time, he pulled out his dagger.

His adversary waved the direct attack away as a cumbersome fly, but one side of the beam cracked and the massive wooden support swung towards his head.

Ruvin breathed in. The man jumped back. Ruvin held his breath, his sight tracking his enemy carefully. Just as he straightened back, Ruvin sent a burst of flame forth. And sent his dagger flying with a shout.

A shield of fire materialized before the attacker, easily dispelling the magical attack.

Time slowed down as Ruvin watched the dagger pass through the flame. For the blink of an eye, Ruvin doubted whether his dagger found his target.

Then the shield vanished. His adversary fell, the dagger embedded in his right eye.

Ruvin let out his ragged breath and knelt. Not out of respect, out of sheer exhaustion.

There was silence, but for the cracks of the support beams all around him.

Ruvin looked at his lighter and panic seized him. He couldn't see the flame. He cast his attention inward and he detected the barest whisper of emotion in his mind. Fear. Anger. Resignation. Only now it occured to him that the entity in the lighter could possibly die.

As he thought this, his eye caught a flicker of flame on one of the beams.

He commanded every single spark and flame in the tunnel to go inside the small metal box in the palm of his hand. And they did, though slower than before.

The tiniest orange flame came to life. Ruvin gazed at it for a moment, in relief.

Hunger filled his mind, a surge so strong he almost vomited. More on impulse than thought, he shut the lid of the lighter and the flame vanished.

He knelt in the tunnel, singed, spent, for an indeterminate amount of time. When he looked up, still in a daze, he saw two figures approach him.

This was the end, then.

He wanted to fight, but he could not.

He bowed his head, accepting his fate.

Let it be swift, he thought.

But when the end didn't come, he looked up again and saw two people, staring at him in a calculating manner.

The first was the man who approached him on the dock, a lifetime ago. He had the same scraggly beard and his blue eyes bore into Ruvin's soul.

The second was a woman, dressed in brown riding leathers. She had a pronounced jawline, a beaked nose, and eyes of brown so dark they were almost black.

Ruvin stared at them for a moment, his face blank.

At last, he lifted his feeble hand to his belt, but the dagger was not there.

The man laughed and it echoed down the tunnel.

"Still trying to fight."

He faced the woman on his right.

"What do you think?" he asked.

The woman stood there in silence.

Then she finally spoke, with a voice much deeper than Ruvin expected.

"That was well done, Baron Ruvin."

Ruvin stared more, in confusion. She must have read it on his face.

"Today you killed a man, and also what some people believe to be a god, in a one on one duel, with no formal training. That is no small feat."

Ruvin was still confused, but he also felt proud, despite not knowing who the woman was. One thing was clear, however. She knew more about the hungry being residing in his pocket and she and the man beside her could provide him with information he needed. The woman seemed to be in charge, which gave Ruvin an idea.

He opened his parched mouth and with a significant effort croaked out:

"I want to join you."

The bearded man laughed again and looked expectantly at the woman.

She examined Ruvin again for a moment. Ruvin held his breath. He was at her mercy or lack thereof.

Then she nodded.

"Very well, Baron Ruvin, welcome to the Unfettered Souls."

With that Ruvin released his breath, and dissolved into unconsciousness.

When he woke up, he saw the ceiling of his own chambers in a house near the mines. For a moment, he stared at it in silence and then memories rushed in. With a start, he sat up, and then screamed, because his whole body reacted to the sudden motion with a wave of pain.

Ruvin collapsed back, and a moment later, a servant appeared with a tray and closely behind him, Alus followed.

"Lie still, my lord."

Ruvin was so taken aback by the man's return from the grave that he forgot to speak.

Alus smiled at him.

"Good morning. I'm glad to see you awake again, I was beginning to worry."

Was Alus one of them? Was he merely pretending to be Alus?

After an administered sip of water, he finally managed to say.

"What happened?"

Alus sat down.

"Well, you were taking longer than expected, my lord, and then we heard some commotion at the eastern perimeter and the horn rang out. You probably didn't hear it down below. We took up whatever weapons we had on our hands and rushed to see what was going on. We didn't want to disturb you. It took us a while to get to the palisade, but when we got there, we just saw a group of figures on horseback in the distance. We watched them, but they disappeared from sight after a moment. When we got back, we found you passed out at the mouth of the tunnel and we brought you here."

"Did anyone..."

But before he could finish his question, Alus answered his worry.

"No one saw the apparatus, it was safe in the satchel. I carried it here myself." He pointed to his satchel that did appear singed in several places. Which reminded him...

"Was the tunnel damaged by the fire?" Ruvin asked.

"No, my lord, you did a fine job, though your clothing was burned in places. Did something go wrong?"

How? Thought Ruvin. The tunnel was sure to collapse with so many beams damaged. How was this possible? Had the whole duel been a dream? His body said otherwise.

Just as he was about to ask more questions, there was a knock on the door.

Another servant entered.

"My lord, there are two people to see you. They say that time is of the essence."

Ruvin paused and then nodded. The sooner, the better.

"Bring them here."

Alus seemed mildly disconcerted at that, but he was never a one to pry into his lord's affairs.

Ruvin smiled at the man.

"Thank you, Alus, I value your service greatly. You don't need to worry about me, I'll be fine in a couple of days. Please, go oversee your men."

Alus inclined his head in acceptance of the dismissal and left, just as two people entered.

Ruvin almost didn't recognize them. They were dressed in clothing similar to what he, a merchant lord, wore when traveling. However, the woman's hair was now elaborately braided and the man's beard was neatly trimmed and combed. Ruvin barely managed to hide his surprise as he dismissed the servant. Once his footsteps subsided, Ruvin blurted out: "How?"

The woman smiled and spoke.

"My gift is earth, baron Ruvin. I restored the damage to your mine. Stealth is one of our principles, we don't like to leave traces that could be followed back to us, you should know that now."

Ruvin took that in and was, frankly, amazed. He thought his magical abilities were exceptional, but now he felt like he didn't know anything. How had the tunnel been restored? Had they been behind the alarm being called as well? Before he could ask again, the woman raised a hand.

"I know you have questions, so let me tell you a bit about who we are and what happened yesterday. Then, we will discuss your role in what is to come."