Chapter One

5 Dryland, YK 26

"...and then it lunged at me even as I thrust my sword clean through its chest!" The man who spoke illustrated the maneuver with the fork in his hand, then brought the fingers of his free hand up and touched the two shiny, silvered, parallel scars that slashed across one of his cheeks. He sighed a bit. "But the little rascal managed to do this before he died."

The speaker and the slightly older man sitting at the table laughed heartily, but the girl who sat across from them narrowed her eyes intently. "When will you tell me the real story behind that scar, Shane?"

The younger man smiled brightly at her. "Whatever do you mean, dear Tem? I have told you the real story."

Tem rolled her eyes at him. "Whatever you say. Liar."

The older man chuckled softly. "Oh, come now, Tem. Be kind to his little wounded pride. There are some things men simply should not talk about." He nodded sagaciously.

"Yeah, right," Tem replied in a tone full of biting sarcasm. "Things like losing girls and losing to girls, right?"

"Precisely," Shane quipped right back.

The girl glared at him, then turned her attention to the older man. "And don't you ever try to tell me that he has wounded pride. I don't think anything could wound something so egregiously large."

The man nodded solemnly. "Of course you are right, dear sister." His voice dropped down to a conspiratorial whisper. "Sometimes, his pride and ego grow so large that he no longer fits through doors. It is the only reason the Captain keeps me around--to deflate my baby brother every once in a while."

"Morry!" Shane protested as his siblings collapsed into a fit of giggles. He huffed in irritation for a moment, then skewered the last bite of roasted meat on the plate before him. He chewed and swallowed the morsel and was about to say something more when a sharp knock on the door in the next room over snagged everyone's attention. "I'll get it," Shane offered, setting his fork down beside his empty plate.

The man rose and passed into the front room of the little farmhouse, then crossed it and set his hand upon the latch to the front door. He hesitated and cast a quick look at the sword and sheath hanging on hooks set into the wall nearby before opening the door.

A boy in a dusty green and gray uniform stood on the step outside. He bowed hastily. "Th-the king and the captain have requested an audience with Ranger Hanson," he stammered, clearly a bit nervous.

Morry's voice drifted in from the kitchen where he still ate. "Which one?"

The boy's brow furrowed as he considered briefly. Then his expression cleared and he nodded once. "Shane. Shane Hanson."

Shane stepped back into the room and lifted the sword and sheath and the harness it sat in from the hooks, shrugging into it as he stepped into his boots. He bent to lace them up and tugged his shirt back into place as he rose, then inclined his head to the royal messenger. "Lead the way."

The boy jumped as though startled by the words, then dashed down the short walk to where two horses had been tethered to the rail of the fence. Shane followed more slowly, closing the door firmly behind him. He took the reins the boy offered and swung up into the saddle with practiced ease.

Shane and the messenger boy rode off at a quick canter, following the dusty trail to the King's Road that would lead them right into town. It did not take terribly long to reach the city gates and enter the South District, but the roiling masses of people within forced them to a painstakingly slow walk. The afternoon sun had only just begun to sink in the west when they sidled past the last few pedestrians and crossed into the South Quarter. Once there, the lack of traffic allowed them to urge their mounts back into a more lively pace. Moments later, they passed beneath a raised iron grill and into the Inner Circle, and shortly after that, the pair of them drew up outside the palace gates.

The messenger swung down from his horse and drew the king's token from a pocket, showing it to one of the gate guards. The man nodded, tossed Shane a curious glance, and turned to shout for the gates to be opened.

The massive wooden portal creaked alarmingly as the wizard on the other side bent his will to manipulating it. Even just one of the two double doors was so heavy that no normal man could have even so much as caused it to budge. The young messenger waved Shane through as soon as the opening was wide enough, his anxiety obvious.

Picking up on the sense of urgency, Shane trotted his horse right up the paved walkway to the polished marble of the palace steps before hopping down and taking the stairs two at a time. He paused as the enchanted doors swung open to admit him, then strode swiftly across the length of the entrance hall, a huge, circular room with a mosaic of a half-curled sand drake in the middle of the floor. He climbed the four steps to the audience chamber with a bit more dignity, carefully smoothing down his shirt before he approached and the door opened for him.

Even since his career-launching escapade with a pair of young baeleen'kar from Ellys'ghymn six years ago, Shane had been called to meet with his king and captain rather frequently. These audiences usually entailed the assignment of particularly delicate or important missions, or the bestowing of honor or gratitude upon the successful completion of such. Because of this, nearly all of Shane's audiences in the palace had been attended by all sorts of important people. So the empty rows of padded benches leading up to the raised dais at the end of the long hall took him completely by surprise.

Shane stopped and blinked before hastening down the aisle and kneeling before the trio of ornate wooden thrones. Only two of them were filled, and the Ranger felt something within his belly loosen with relief. Even after all this time, Shane felt uneasy and a bit skittish around the first duke of Crestil, a man of many names and vast magical talent. Luckily, only King Quin Wildwind and Duke Jory Rills presided today.

The king made a faint noise of exasperation. "Get up, Hanson."

Shane rose quickly, smothering a little smirk. Very few people ever got to see King Quin's irritable side. It was his way of showing affection, really. "You summoned me, Your Highness?"

Quin pushed himself up out of his chair and began to pace the width of the dais. Shane sobered up immediately, recognizing the signs of true concern. "Tell him, Jory," Quin snapped.

Duke Rills rested both elbows on the arms of his throne and placed his fingertips together, fixing Shane with an intense stare. "There has been a jailbreak."

Shane blinked. The prison here in the palace fell under the jurisdiction of the Guards, not the Rangers, and surely anyone unimportant enough to be detained outside the palace would not merit his involvement! "Who?"

The king's face twisted into a grimace and he jerked his head toward the door behind the dais. Jory followed him out into the courtyard beyond, Shane trailing close behind. Once the door was safely shut behind them, Shane glanced from one solemn face to the other. "Who?" he prompted.

Jory hesitated, looking almost reluctant to say, and Quin made a rather uncouth sound of disgust and tore the simple iron ring from his brow. He massaged his temples and shook his head wearily. "Arie."

Shane went cold. Between one moment and the next, a deathly chill crept up and down his entire body, and he shuddered violently. "I...I see." He took a deep, unsteady breath. "Do we know where he is?"

"Still in the city, I imagine." Quin sighed and shook his head. "It happened late last night, and I've order all of gate guards to keep a close eye out and search carts and wagons and the like. I've hidden wizards at each gate with orders to scan people going out for hostility. So far, we haven't heard anything." The king heaved another deep sigh. "I don't know whether that's good or bad, truly. I'd rather have him loose anywhere but in my city, but I don't like the thought of not knowing where he is, either." He fitted his crown back over his graying auburn curls.

Shane glanced from king to duke and licked his lips nervously. He recognized their expressions all too well. "What's your plan?" He almost grimaced, knowing he wouldn't like the answer.

Quin's smile was only slightly crooked. "I thought you'd never ask, my boy." He clapped both hands down on the Ranger's shoulders, staring at Shane with his disturbingly pale green eyes. "You are going to find him."

Shane bit off a little sigh of his own. "Not to be rude, but I had pretty much gathered that bit." He flicked a glance at Jory, then slumped a little and took a deep breath. "I'm not going to like the method, am I?"

One corner of Quin's mouth quirked up into a humorless smile. "You're going to go undercover."

"As what?" Shane demanded, suddenly wary.

"A dwell."

Shane stifled a groan. Honestly, a dwell, of all things! His mind began to hum with activity. "Why me? Wouldn't someone less well-known be a far better choice?"

Jory smiled thinly. "Perhaps. But you have crossed paths with Arie before, and we need him captured swiftly and silently. If the Killeen'ghymn hear of this...well, the peace talks have hardly progressed at all in the last five years. Something like this would be just the excuse they needed to undo everything we managed to accomplish before that."

"But..." Shane groped about. "But I don't..."

Jory shook his head. "Forget it, Shane. I've already considered every possible argument you might make. You're the best man for the job--the only man for the job."

Shane stared at the duke for a long moment. Then he sighed deeply. "All right. But I've never been a dwell before."

Quin nodded, a tiny smile turning up the corners of his mouth as he released Shane's shoulders. "Don't worry, we've got just the thing."

Shane was about to ask what he was talking about when the door behind him opened wide and two hulking guards hauled a scrawny, cringing man into the room.

The king straightened up to his full height, though he stood just a tad shorter than Shane, and clasped his hands behind his back. He took a handful of slow, measured steps toward the trio, his expression stern. He eyed the ragged man with obvious disdain before sniffing slightly and addressing one of the guards. "What is this?"

"A thief, You Highness." Shane swore he caught the tiniest hint of a smirk in the man's expression, but he kept his voice carefully solemn and formal.

Quin scoffed in a very un-regal manner, then turned away. "A few years in the dungeons, I think. Be off with him, then."

"W-wait!" the pitiful man cried as the guard began to haul him back out the door. He caught the doorjamb and clung to it like a drowning man. "Wait, please don't! Please! I'll do anything!"

Quin turned slowly, his sea green eyes flashing with bright interest. "Anything?" He caught Shane's eye briefly, one brow quirking up.

The Ranger felt his whole body slump in resignation.