Chapter Two

The getting out was the easy part. Upon making good their escape, Max led his companions through miles of sewage until the tunnel ended abruptly at the edge of a cliff. The water rushed past and plummeted into a rank pool far below. Above them, Max knew, the Ganelon Woods ran wild from the edge of town to the edge of the cliff, and the trees continued on from the base of the wall of stone to the horizon, occasionally broken by the odd village or town.

The two gladiators stepped forward to flank the smaller man on either side, squinting into the descending sun as they looked out in awe at a world neither of them had ever seen before. Max wondered if he had looked so ridiculously stupid the first time he had arrived here. He hoped not.

"Uh…right. So. Where are you two headed?"

The gladiators exchanged a bemused look. "Headed?" asked the male.

"Yeah…you know, where are going?"

"I don't…have anywhere to go, I guess."

"Me neither."

Max definitely did not remember being so clueless upon his first escape. He had made rapid progress to Teirfell, fallen in with the local street gang, worked his way through the ranks, and eventually earned the right to walk away. He had traveled the world from coast to coast since then, before finally falling into the clutches of the peace officers when he'd—unwisely—spent about a week in Vampiragon, a city of outcasts, without realizing how many of the wretched bastards took bribes from the neutral law enforcement.

"Well, if you're going to survive, you'll have to make money somehow, either through getting jobs, stealing, begging, or doing something else like hunting or trapping or mining or whatever."

"I'll not steal," the male gladiator replied stiffly.

The woman nodded vigorously. "Me neither. I don't want to end up back in the pits."

Good point. Though Max could hardly imagine a life on the right side of the law, he had to admit that it had its allures, especially if one was not already so deeply entrenched in a life of crime as Max himself was. Having no real wish to expose these two to the horrors he had gone through—as though they hadn't seen enough!—Max nodded his acceptance of the ultimatum.

"And I don't have any skills…besides fighting," the woman added.

"Then that leaves getting a job, I guess," Max hazarded. When he met with no resistance, he nodded once more and turned to survey the vast sea of green before him. He pointed out one of the smaller towns. "That's Redhold. It's a little place, but the people there are friendly and they don't ask questions. You two should get along fine there."

The pair exchanged yet another of those shifty, uncertain looks. "Um…What's a job?" the woman finally asked.

Max suddenly realized how very little these two knew or understood about the real world. They had both, it seemed, spent their entire lives in the pits, with little or no contact with the world outside their cages and the arena. And while a certain amount of ignorance could be accepted—was even expected—in a child such as Max had been upon his first escape, a grown man and woman would stand little chance of successfully mingling in any town with such stunted social skills as these two possessed. And, for some strange, unidentifiable reason, Max felt oddly responsible for these two lost little souls. After all, they had been merely innocent bystanders in his bid for escape, and had he not made it, they would both be, if not free, at least safe and sound in a familiar place. It was entirely Max's fault that they had been released into a world with which they had no experience.

With a sigh of reluctant acceptance of his obvious duty, Max shook his head. "All right. Come on, I'll stick with you guys. You know, just until you're settled in someplace." And then he could split and take to the wilderness, free as the wind and twice as slick.

"Where will we go?" the man asked as Max carefully lowered himself over the rocky ledge, his nimble toes scrabbling for footholds.

"Not to Redhold. I'm wanted by the king there. Ravenwood's out of the question, of course. Let's see…Vampiragon and Teirfell aren't the best places for me to be right now. We can't go someplace that's terribly small, there wouldn't be any room for us." Max thought hard as he made his way rapidly down the cliff face, moving from hold to hold with the ease of a squirrel in a tree. After a moment, he glanced up, only to find his companions far, far above him, proceeding at a pace more fit for a snail than a couple of criminals on the run. As he stared up at them, he was struck with a sudden idea, and a good one at that. "We're going to Quall!" he hollered.

"Where's that?" the woman called down to him.

"Don't worry about it! I'll take you there!"

It took a great deal of time for the duo of ex-gladiators to work their way down the cliff, but they made it eventually. Max helped the male one to solid ground, but the woman, seeing both of them ready and waiting—not exactly patiently—for her to finish, simply pushed off from the wall with quite a ways to go. She landed with a splash in the pool, sending up a geyser of murky, filthy water, and floundered about for a moment before Max dove in and fished her out.

Once they were all safely ashore, Max stripped off his shirt and rang it out as best he could. He wrinkled his nose in distaste—all three of them reeked of sewage and excrement. The effect was not very pleasant.

"We'll have to find someplace to clean up before we hit a town. And once we do, we'll need food and supplies to get us to Quall. It's quite a ways off, about three days south of here. We can swing by Marston on the way—we should be able to get there by nightfall if we hurry. Come on, then."

The two exchanged another of their unsure looks before following Max closely. After a while, Max attempted to strike up a conversation.

"If we're going to be together for any period of time, don't you think we should at least share our names with each other?"

"I'm Lyntar," the woman offered.

"Raylir."

"And I'm Max."

Silence.

"You guys will like Quall. It's huge. Almost as big as Ravenwood, but with more variety. We might even see a vampire or two. It's almost the full moon, so there won't be any werewolves about. They hide themselves away in packs deep in the wilderness so they don't hurt anyone. And there's a wizard's academy there, the only one around besides the one at Ravenwood. You guys ever heard of the Ferrin? They say they're dying off, but I've seen one, once. They're beautiful things. They look mostly like humans, I guess, but there's something different about them, and they have wings. But even when their wings are in, you can tell they're not quite human. It's like…the way they walk and move, more like grounded birds than men. Except, legend says, that every once in a while, you find one at home on land or in the air, and it's a wonderful thing to behold."

Still nothing.

Max glanced over his shoulder, but the ex-gladiators still followed close behind him. They were not, however, listening at all. Their heads swiveled back and forth as they took in the lush green forest life all around, the twittering birds, the scurrying wildlife, the full leaves that swayed and rustled in the light breeze. They both breathed deeply of the crisp, heady forest musk, trying to absorb everything all at once.

Max found himself stifling a fit of laughter at their antics.

What strange people these were, so well versed in the darker side of the world most often associated with experience, and yet so…immature. Undeveloped. They were like…like fields of freshly tilled land, cleared and worked and fertilized, but lacking the seeds required to grow anything worthwhile. They offered a strange mix of worldliness and naivety that Max found both appalling and strangely attractive, sort of like the life of crime he led.

"Come on, you two. If we don't hit Marston before the time it grows dark, we might fall prey to spikehounds or bunicorns or any of the thousand other dangers of the nighttime woods." This was true enough. Raylir had lost his sword at some point during their flight from the pits, so the little party had nothing by way of weaponry, and the wild beasts could prove to be a serious threat. And while they had as much money as weapons (which was to say, none), Max did not doubt his ability to acquire the necessary coinage. Only the leeriness Raylir had thus far shown toward activities of a shady nature worried him at all. He'd have to come up with some clever way of convincing the man that what he did was for the best, or else disguising his activities altogether.

For now, though, Max almost managed to convince himself that this was just another of his little romps, that he was wandering aimlessly about as he so often had in the past, searching for something that he would only know once he found…

Almost…