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 After a week of intense discussion with Patrick and the other skilled laborers, the Cantrip Clan came up with the development plan of their main valley and assets. It was an ambitious project that would take years to complete but each increasing step would bring new revenue and interest to the barony. The whole first year of which would do little to enrich the valley but make it livable and prevent tragedies like the goatherd's family from happening again.

All said and done, at the end of four years, the barony would have a lakeside summer retreat to the west and a hot springs getaway to the east. Those would only be the draws, however. The first money earner would be transforming the trails to wide and safe roads capable of being used well into winter and as soon as early spring. These roads would be border taxed with an affordable flat rate not dependent on goods.

For safety and long term defense, the northern and southern sides of the valley attached to the trails would bottleneck to a large gate. Portions to the left and right of the gates would be bolstered on the inside while being dug out on the outside to create wide 'death drop' gullies. Over time, the outer areas thus created would turn into additional land for agriculture as well.

With such a small time window ahead of him, Orison saw the days sift through his fingers. A few days were burnt on discussions about possible future business partners. A few days melted away under a plan to create an undergraduate institution that focused on useful applications of magic to serve people, tentatively called The Centerland Corp of Magic Engineers. Two weeks that extended past first thaw were spent creating a stack of golem and horse summoning scrolls. another week passed on novice magics with a few 'purple fireballs' to be stored in the clan for emergencies.

It was nearly the end of early spring when Orison finally broke the news to his mother about his forced leave of absence. Being that she had discovered two days prior that she was pregnant, he thought it was the best time, if there could ever be such a thing. It registered almost immediately that she wasn't surprised. It wasn't that anyone had broken confidence, she just knew.

Droya said sadly, "I was waiting for you to tell me. I had caught on the day you suddenly changed your whole plan. One minute you're involved in every single aspect then the next you send a will of inheritance and become completely hands-off, as you say."

Orison said, "I'm keeping some gold but here's everything else I can't really take with me. A good deal of it will need-"

Droya pulled Orison to her chest and said, "I know, I know but I don't want to talk about that. I don't want this to be another discussion or plan. Just let me have one more time to hold my son before he's gone."

Neither of them knew how long they had stayed that way. Droya felt that after she let go, Orison would no longer belong to her. Orison felt that as soon as he let go, the last small part of his childhood would die. For both of them, this was the true goodbye. The planned formal one might not even happen if he ended up being stuck somewhere else but even if it did, this was the moment his heart and eyes were no longer focused on this world and this life he had tried to make.

An hour before dawn the next day, while the young mage and Marshlander watched Gan stealthily slip out of Corvinus and Yulian's cabin with boots in hand, Orison said, "I'll try to make this as quick as possible. Rithus, the beacon can't be moved or covered. If it is, we'll have to go straight to White River without you."

Flush faced, the scout hurriedly put his boots on and said, "Sorry I'm running late. It was hard to get untangled fr-"

Orison interrupted, "In truth, you're right on time. I'm just glad you don't have a hangover. I can't believe you had the discipline to hold off on drinking your stash this long."

Gan looked back at the cabin with reluctance in his eyes. "'Good friends' like that are hard to find, Little Boss, but I would have always been just a guest in that house. Guests have to leave eventually."

Rithus said, "An hour's ride from South Bloom to the village. No more than an hour to find her and no more than a half hour before you return after that, for two and a half hours total."

Orison nodded and then began constructing the teleportation model. With a certain sense of pride, Orison watched as the two of them were covered in a curtain of light. When the light faded, Gan and Orison found themselves staring at dingy walls.

A mussy haired older gentleman said, "Welcome to the southernmost mage's guild in Centerland. I can't even begin to imagine what's so important that you'd pay 400 gold in correspondence but I don't want to know. It's fifty gold for upkeep."

Orison handed a small leather pouch to the old mage and said, "Extra ten for the early morning."

The man smiled and said, "Nice to be appreciated. Pleasant journeys."

Once led outside, Orison summoned two horses after he donned his mask.

"These early morning runs aren't as enjoyable when I'm not free to watch the scenery," Gan said over the rushing wind between them as the two horses gave all they had to help their riders reach their destination.

Orison snorted. "Unless I need to conserve my magic reserves, just woke up Gan and a little tipsy Gan gets their own Enbarr from now on for the same reason lonely for awhile Gan would get one."

The scout chuckled in embarrassment before lapsing into silence. That silence was broken by a grunt close to sunrise. When Orison turned to see why Gan had made such a noise, an arrow glanced off his mask, leaving a scratch down the side of his horse's neck.

The young mage rode low as he edged his horse over to Gan's as quickly as he could. Not for a moment did he have either horse slow down. Once he noticed that the scout's injury was an arm flesh wound, he let the horses keep running for a few miles before bringing them to a stop.

With practiced speed, the young mage broke the arrow after pushing it out the other side of Gan's bicep. Ignoring the scout's cursing, Orison removed the two pieces of the arrow and doused the wound in grain alcohol. As Gan let out a muffled scream through clenched teeth, Orison hit the wound with a 'presto' before slapping an improved heal on it.

The scout looked back at the road behind them with murder in his eyes. "Have we made good enough time to go back there and rip those little pieces of sh*t to jerky?"

Orison shook his head and said, "Sadly, we're going to have to swallow this insult. They might have not been as good as Morrel but this is their home turf. We might not be able to track those Marshlander's down if we had all day... Remind me to pick you up a buckler. If you're good enough to block your face with your arm, it might give you a better alternative.... Looks like you're going to get your way after all. You're on arrow catcher duty again."

Orison dismissed Enbarr Two and brought out a modified tower shield with shoulder straps then handed it to Gan.

Once Gan was seated behind Orison, the scout complained, "This damn thing makes me feel like a turtle."

"Tell me that again once your back is tough enough not to spring leaks from a longbow shot," Orison retorted.

The precaution had ended up being unnecessary. Both of them sighed in relief once the Centerland sentries just outside a small village that resembled a wooden fortress came into view.

The right sentry said, "Halt. Lead rider, remove your mask. I need your names and purpose for visit."

Orison gave his name and title then asked after Lithis.

The left sentry denied having heard of a Highland baron and looked ready to start trouble but the right sentry stopped him and said, "Keep your visit as 'silent' as possible, Baron. These are troubled times."

Orison nodded and replied, "Despite what my reputation may paint me as, I'm a better friend to 'order' than any have right to expect. After this, I'm heading far north by beacon. Since you've showed me some courtesy, if you have any messages for family, I can swing them to post via White River."

The undercover Order member gave a surprised smile and said, "I have a brother up that way and it takes ages to get in touch with him. I'll be relieved in about a half bell or so."

Orison and the sentry shared a few more pleasantries, including the whereabouts of Lithis. Since the Marshlander had taken up a job as a server in the local tavern, Orison would wait for the sentry there. When the young mage and scout arrived there, they discovered that Lithis wouldn't be on duty til that evening. After assuring the matronly Marshlader of the establishment that they were only inquiring to deliver a package from her father, she gave them directions to Lithis' home.

Upon seeing the hovel she lived in, the young mage sighed. He didn't have a good impression of Lithis' husband when they first met and that impression didn't improve when Orison saw the man trying to use the Danann Key to rob a house. Reigning in the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Orison knocked on the door. It took three tries before a bleary eyed Lithis answered. In the background, a baby wailed but there was no other noise in the house.

"Stranger, please tell me this is important. It will be some time before I can get my little girl back to sleep again," she said wearily.

Orison smiled and said, "Is it that hard to recognize me after growing a few inches and not having a dirty face?"

Clueless, Lithis said, "If I've showed you some kindness before then I'm glad to see you doing better. If it's not much trouble, I have a spare silver if you'd be able to get a decent meal to my husband. I'm only able to visit the stocks once a week but I've heard that some Marshlanders have starved to death in there. I'd consider it good turn enough if you'd do that for me."

Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, Orison tried again. "I believe you lost the key I made you. Something else I made may have popped up and ate it. Apparently, magic is still surprising me with it's unpredictability as it did when we first met."

Lithis looked at Orison more keenly as her nostril slits discreetly widened a little. "You do not smell or look familiar to me. As for this key business, I have no idea-"

Irritated, Orison said, "I told an abyssal lord to suck his mom's spiky t*ts. You called me son of Ori confusing my name for a Northerner's... It doesn't matter. I've brought some things for you but I really don't want to give them to you out here. Please invite us in for like five seconds so I can be on my way if you don't feel like catching up on old times."

Still wary, Lithis backed away from the open door. Keeping herself between the visitors and her crying daughter, she gestured at a splintered wooden table with only three good legs.

She said, "No offense, if you are who you say but life is hard here and I'm very tired. As you can see and have heard, I have an infant and a husband in the stocks. His family was not as welcoming as we had hoped and my job is the only thing keeping us from starving."

Orison only half paid attention as he opened the small sack of pearls wide enough for her to see the contents and set them beside a small carved wooden box filled with nearly all the gold Rithus had managed to save since he began working for Orison and Droya.

In spite of what he was requested, Orison said, "Everything on this table came from Rithus. Getting these to you was the only personal request he's ever made to me. He didn't even want you to know they were from him but I want you to know."

Staring at the money, Lithis said, "I apologize for the rudeness. If it's not much trouble, could you take fifty of that and redeem my husband before he's sold?"

Orison frowned. "Centerland soldiers are selling prisoners?"

Lithis said, "Oh, no. There is a Domain trade post southeast of here, not too far. You may have small trouble getting in but they'll respect your coin fast enough."

Orison shook his head. "One question, Lithis. If I get him out, what will happen to the rest of that gold? You were sent down here with a couple years worth of comfortable living but I find you in a hovel. I don't want to know why. I just want to know if I'll still see you in a hovel a few months from now if I get him out."

On the verge of tears, Lithis said. "He's the father of my child. What am I supposed to do?"

Orison stated bluntly, "Do what's right for the child and for yourself. That's what a mother is supposed to do."

She continued offering reasons she didn't seemed convinced of herself before Orison cut her off. "I'm going to guess that he didn't receive a warm welcome from his family because he's a trouble maker and a thief. Go back and see if they'll take you in without him or you can come back with me to the north if you want support. Droya will be more than happy to make room for you with our family and the Marshlander woman that lives with us would be glad of some familiar company."

Lithis stood stunned for a moment before she said, "Thank you for bringing me this. I- I'll take my chances down here. Tell my father that I understand better now and I appreciate this but it's enough."

The young mage shrugged and walked out.

As they walked back to the tavern, Gan said, "This is Rithus' daughter. Isn't there anything else to be done? You spent more getting here than was in that box."

Orison sighed. "She's barely surviving but she was going to give what little she had on a chance to get a meal to the man whose poor decision making skills landed her in this mess. I don't even trust her with what Rithus wanted her to have but that was his to give... We don't have much time but I'll see what I can do."

When they got back to the tavern, Orison ordered them both a breakfast and struck up a conversation with the matron there while he waited on the Order agent. The whole situation on the Marshland border was a hot mess and many of the surrounding native families had migrated deeper in. Rumors of a large militant group with ideas of kingdom building had started emerging. She intimated that if business started slowing down much more, she was going to be moving as well.

Orison had to admit that the meal was amazing, almost worth the subtle poison that was in it. After paying the woman and curing Gan, they lounged around for a few more minutes, nursing a poison free ale apiece. And handful of minutes past half bell and Orison stood up ready to leave as the soldier that they had been waiting on came in with false sheer on his face.

The man said, "Sorry for the wait. There's a few things that I needed to look in on before I came. I know it's a little untoward but is there a possibility that you'd help me look over my letter. I can write my name well enough but I've been told my writing skills are quite problematic."

In a more serious and sincere tone, he said, "I could really use your expertise."

Orison sighed but nodded. "A half bell is all I can afford to lend."

The man looked at Gan in askance but Orison insisted the scout come along or he wasn't going. The young mage explained that it would not be the first time Gan had been acquainted with Orison's dealings with extended family of friends. He got the impression the man would have balked if the need wasn't so great.

After being led by the man back to his home and brought past his 'wife', the soldier brought them to his cellar door. Behind it...was a cellar. At least, it was only a cellar til the man closed the door and reached for a latch in the dark. Orison would have no difficulty finding that latch himself because the cellar's entire interior had been splashed with blood at one time or another. No matter how well the cellar had been cleaned the blood's ghostly remnants shimmered in bluish-white florescence to Orison.

In a dimly lit environment, much like Portia's chapter house in aesthetic, the young mage saw an old man and equally old woman of Centerland descent rushing between over a dozen convalescing people of varying ethnicity.

The man said, "It's my job to know names and faces but I didn't really know anything about you beyond that. Gelphus did and urged me to invite you respectfully."

Upon hearing his name, the old man turned towards them and a faint scarlet luminescence shown in his eyes.

Gan muttered so low Orison almost didn't hear it. "Of course, it's a vampire."

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