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Book Four Pt 1 - The Eastern Pass

Written by - Aethelwulf Page 9 Book 4

Alaric's brow furrowed as he watched Vylia hurriedly follow the Guard. He wondered how quickly others would realize exactly who the young lass really was. He smiled wanly, as he turned to the somber elf beside him.

"Well then sir, perhaps your services are needed in the infirmary as well." The smile fading, Alaric lowered his voice and spoke in a dark tone. "Perhaps, for the moment, we should seek to keep the Abbess' identity to ourselves . That is, until she is well."

Written by - Tempyst

Kaya got dressed after her bath and wandered about the grove, waiting for Dorve to finish up her rituals. She watched Ariana wander off, then watched as Ardwen and Vylia, even Alaric, wandered after her. She dozed off under a tree and was awakened by Dorve. "It's time to go." The dwarf said. Kaya looked up at the sun and could see several hours had gone by. She looked around but could see no sign of the ones who had wandered off.

"Let me go find the others and we shall be off." Kaya stood and walked around the grove, but found no sign of her new friends. Then she decided to wander in the direction she saw them wonder off too and soon found herself at the statue once more. But there was no sign of them, sighing she was about to head back when the hoot of an owl caught her attention. "I don't suppose you know where they went do you?"

"They went through a stone portal to the citadel, least that is what he is showing me." Dorve said, making Kaya jump. "Seems like we will have to go on without them." Kaya nodded and trod behind Dorve back to the grove. The druid then went to the great oak and spoke loudly. "Any who would like to go the citadel please come over here, I can only take 10 at a time, so those left behind the first time please wait here." Dorve then turned to the tree and began her magic. Kaya watched as the trunk of the tree seemed to soften and swirl before her eyes and soon there was a door sized portal within the trunk of the tree. Dorve motioned for the first 10 to come forward and step on through. Kaya was first and the sensation of walking through the portal was like the first time she did it, warm, comforting, and filled with life energy.

Soon the first people were inside and Dorve then entered. Taking the lead she walked through the hazy landscape and Kaya with the others, followed. They walked for a few moments , then another portal appeared in front of them. "Here we are." Dorve said, her voice muted by the energy all around them. Kaya walked through the swirling mass of energy and had to cover her eyes from the brightness of the sun in the grove she just entered.

"Welcome to the sacred grove, please come this way and sit down. You will be oriented soon." Kaya felt a hand at her elbow and followed the lead of the man who spoke to her. She sat down on a log and waited, and soon her vision cleared and she could see herself within a grand grove, filled with people, many of which were naked. Kaya smiled and went over to Dorve to tell her she was going to go look for the others. Dorve nodded and disappeared back into the portal for the next group of people who wanted to come to the citadel. Kaya turned, looked about once more, and then headed for the keep.

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen felt something bump into his back, the Elf craned his head around to look behind him and saw Vylia rubbing her face from where she had collided with his back. The Elven warrior said nothing and returned his attention back to the two approaching guards when a third and final figure emerged from the portal; it was the human commander known as Alaric that Ardwen had met from the first tower siege. Impressively, Alaric managed to snap off hasty orders regarding the care of Ariana, commending her to the care of the Citadel’s healers.

But of course, Alaric couldn’t understand the full implications of the situation at hand. The commander of the Queen’s division proved this with his invitation for food and drink. Ardwen said nothing, but his hands curled into fists at his side. Vylia declined first, citing her dislike of ale and her need to stay beside Ariana. Once again, Ardwen said nothing, but then Alaric turned to him. The Elf couldn’t help but notice the somber tone of the human’s voice as he spoke the necessity of keeping Ariana’s true identity a secret for the time being. For Ardwen, however, it was the third and final insult.

The Elven swordsman curled his lips up into a sneer and made a soft “tch” sound. “Useless,” Ardwen said, “All this gods damn feasting and drinking! There’s a war that needs your attention. You have your duty, and I mine.” Without another word Ardwen walked away from Alaric, but the warrior did not head to the infirmary where Ariana was being tended. Instead, the Elf asked for directions to the mages’ quarters, and with a bit of walking and more asking Ardwen found himself outside a place called the Scholar’s Tower. The Elven bladeweaver was stopped at the entrance by a ranger who identified himself as Elemir.

“I just need some time with one of the mages inside.” Ardwen said simply. Elemir bobbed his head, opened the tower door, entered, and then closed it leaving Ardwen standing outside waiting. The Elven warrior took the opportunity to lean up against the wall next to the door, but he had just settled his back against the stone when the door opened once again. An Elf in deep crimson robes trimmed with silver was walking next to Elemir and the two were sharing hushed words.

The wizard looked at Ardwen and did not bother with an introduction, the impatience written across his face told Ardwen all he needed to know. “Well,” the warrior said, “I need you to help save a life, a very important life—“

“That’s what the acolytes and the priests are for.” The mage interrupted. “Why do you need me?”

Ardwen let the question hang in the air for a moment, more to irritate the sorcerer than anything else. Right when the mage was about to open his mouth to speak again Ardwen said, “Because the wound is not physical, but mental, and none could think of a way to help – I have.”

The mage placed a hand upon his chin and drummed his fingers, his brow furrowed. “Sergius.” He said at last.

Ardwen blinked and said in return, “Ardwen.”

“Good,” The mage said with a nod, “now I know who to blame if something should go wrong. Elemir, continue your vigil over the entrance until my return. Ardwen . . . lead on.”

Ardwen did as he was bid, staying a few steps in front of Sergius. During their walk back the mage made it clear that he could promise nothing definite. Magic dealing with the mind was a delicate and complicated matter, and to further frustrate matters he did not know the condition of the one Ardwen was leading him to. Ultimately, it was surprisingly easy to find where Ariana had been taken, there was talk and rumor about the “strange lady” spreading already, and Ardwen recalled with irony Alaric’s admonishment.

It helped also that Vylia was standing her promised vigil inside the infirmary. As the two Elves neared each other Ardwen spared her not a glance, and brushed frostily by. Ariana was surrounded by a gaggle of pestering healers and holy men. They had managed to sit her down on a bed, but she was not exactly taking their prodding with grace: she poked at some, grabbed the ears of others, and kept trying to stand up. The entire vista annoyed Ardwen and only strengthened his resolve that he was doing the right thing. It was then that he felt a tug at his sleeve, turning around slightly he saw Sergius had gripped the cloth and was staring at him.

“A moment please.” He whispered and took Ardwen aside from the group of healers. Glancing around he returned his attention to Ardwen and said, “I see what you mean now. Symptoms? Remember, anything that you can tell me will help her and your chances.”

“Well,” Ardwen said softly, she lacks her memory almost in entirety, and cannot distinguish friend from foe. She has forgotten even speech, and at best acknowledged gestures or beckoning. I’m not sure how to describe it; I’ve never seen anything quite like it either.”

“I see,” the mage said with a nod, “and who exactly is she?”

“I . . . “ Ardwen hesitated. He thought of Alaric’s warning, then thought of Sergius’s advice. “Ariana,” he said finally, “a . . . servant . . . of the All-Father.”

Sergius raised an eyebrow at this and said, “A common enough name, but you’re not being entirely forthright. But I’m not running an inquisition here, though it is good you mentioned she has a possibly active channel to the divine.”

“Oh,” Ardwen said flatly, “it’s more than possibly active.”

Once more Sergius nodded and the two Elves headed over to Ariana’s cot. Together they managed to convince the healers to stand aside for a moment. “Now,” Sergius said, careful to keep his voice even and calm, “you said you had an idea on how to proceed about this?”

Ardwen nodded slowly and said, “Yeah, we had a mage do some sort of mind-walk thing to her earlier, and it seemed to help.”

Ardwen noticed that as he spoke Sergius’s eyes widened with each word. At the end of Ardwen’s sentence he sputtered out, “He just . . . entered her mind? Like that? What kind of mage does such a thing?”

“A warlock?”

Sergius sighed and rubbed a hand over his forehead. “I’m afraid,” he began at length, “that what you ask of me I cannot do. This goes beyond my expertise, and to both enter her thoughts and maintain any measure of control over the spellweave is too risky, I’m sorry.”

Ardwen simply crossed his arms and said, “Who said anything about you doing the mental jaunting? I intended to go all along. It is I that she knows after all.”

Sergius raised his hands in a helpless shrug before saying, “She has latent memories of you, does she? Then maybe, just possibly, there is a chance to do this correctly. I must warn you though that there can be dire consequences for even the slightest error. The darkness that veils her mind and soul--“

“You worry about your part, and I mine, Sergius. Whatever darkness is in her world is not enough to stain me.” Ardwen retorted.

Sergius repeated his earlier shrug and asked pointedly, “Are you ready?”

Written by - Talonmane

Kildef and seven of his father's Wardens travelled with Dorve on the second trip. Even the greater nearness to Braialla could not alleve the terrible panic he experienced at times like this, where his normal perception was stripped away and kept in an endless dark for moments too many. Druids had always attempted to explain how he should relax and embrace the event, but for the Ranger the environmental shock was always too awful. At the other side, he tripped out of the event horizon, staggering and striving to put at least a half a league between it and himself. Feeling half blind and sick all over, he finally fell to his knees against a retaining wall in an unknown corner of the new location, and threw up in convulsive heaves into the edge of a tiny garden.

He had forewarned the Wardens that this would happen, and they helped explain to the various Elves - especially guards - whom Kildef passed in his flight from the portal. Some of the inhabitants of the Citadel appeared amused, but most were fairly disgusted by such a display. As Kil always found to be the case in the past, the Druids had no patience for his reactions, utterly rejecting the notion that a person - especially a trained Ranger - should experience anything other than tranquility in the journey. They never wanted to understand. Even Salvorah.

After the nausea passed, he used his hands to dig into the earth of the garden and buried the mess he'd made at least a foot down. Between that, a rag, and a minor blessing enhanced with dried rose petals he kept in one of his many pockets, he cleansed the evidence of his sickness. At least the Elves appreciated this last gesture of courtesy and tradition.

He bid the Wardens to proceed as their normal course, which was to present themselves to the Scout Captain of the Citadel, request updates on the local and regional security situation, and offer their services during the Ancoran's stay. Kil then insisted that a guard take him to their healers, sure that Ariana would have been brought to them. He felt, smelled, and looked like crap; was far from his time and any home he'd known. But these things were of no real concern. He stood again with the Hands, and Ariana's life was endangered. They would go to any place, take any action to change that. But even as he came upon her room as Ardwen discussed a plan of action with an Elf caster, Kildef's mind also wandered to thoughts of his father and of Turin.

At least his somberness was interrupted as Ollawahoo alighted on the sill of the room's main open window. Don't worry, olde bird, I know you'll mock my sickness after the danger to the Abbess has passed. I wouldn't think for a moment you'd forget to... Their mental fencing was an easy pattern to fall into, covering the deep concern they both felt for the woman before them.

Written by - Vylia

Vylia stared at Ardwen as he pushed past her, conflicting emotions of anger and sorrow warring within. She knew she had acted out of turn in the grove toward him, and cursed her foolishness at refusing to talk to him, but at the same time she stubbornly refused to back down first. He would have to apologize first before she would say anything beyond necessity to him.

She listened intently to the conversation between him and the robed elf that had followed him in, who turned out to be a mage after a moment of listening. She agreed with the course of action, but there was one problem that had to be pointed out before he did anything. Vylia promptly walked over to the two men and glared at Ardwen, "I'm not about to let someone as incapable of emotion as you go crashing through Ariana's mind by yourself. If you're going to do this, then I'm going with you."

Written by - Lucant Dolvan

Hours had passed since the man had first taken his post in front of the Citadel’s massive doors. Though the beating sun was beginning to take its toll in exhaustion, he was still locked in thought.

“I do believe I’m getting a far bit ahead of myself. I must, or at least, must attempt, to think rationally on this. “ He began to pace back and forth in front of the door in short, quick steps.

“Even with the point-ear army and the Westgale remnants as a diversion, albeit a rather large one, it would be neigh impossible to sneak into the southern kingdom alone. The dwarves have undoubtedly put presented a stalwart defense, but surely the orcs must hold a large portion of the mountain passes, if only due to the sheer numbers of them.”

“And if, by chance, I did somehow make it into the passes alive, I would have nothing in the way of support – no supplies, no safety – I’d be entirely on my own in hostile territory. And I have no guarantee of how the dwarves would react if I managed to reach them.”

He stopped pacing finally and leaned back against the stone wall next to the door. “For the life of me, I can’t even think of how I came up with this foolish idea… I’m not usually given to such rash thought. I wonder… if this is similar to what Ricimer was talking about…” His eyes drifted down towards the sword at the thought. “I wonder if your claws are in deeper than I would like to believe…”

He sighed a deep, exasperated, defeated sigh. “There’s only one real course here if I really want to find out what’s going on, no matter how much I don’t want to follow it. The problem is… how do I get there? I don’t have another month to waste. I could be raving mad by the time I reached the capital and not even know it.”

A human soldier came running toward the Citadel. “Have you heard yet!?”

“About what,” the other door guard said quizzically.

“The… the refugees…” the first man blurted out as he tried to catch his breath. “The refugees down at the druid grove. Also about the portal opening at the inner walls – a strange woman and several others came through, including Lord Ardwen and Lady Vylia. Reports say that General Alaric has also returned. Things are really quite abuzz in town at the moment.”

“I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity,” the man thought to himself. He walked up to the solder. “Really now? I wonder if they need any help? I’ll go see I suppose,” he blithely said as he walked off towards town.

Ignoring the other guard’s pleas for him to return to his post, he again resumed his thoughts. “I wonder if Uncle Haswal would have any ideas on how to get back?”

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen looked at Vylia. The warrior closed his eyes for a second and gave a "hmph" of derision before opening his eyes to regard Vylia again. "You forget your place again, woman." Ardwen said.

However, before the situation could deteriorate further, Sergius waved both of his hands and hissed, "Enough!" Ardwen spared Sergius a glance and saw the mage had crossed his arms and was tapping one foot rapidly on the ground. "I don't know what you two have against one another," Sergius said, "but if either of you are stupid enough to start fighting now I won't send either of you!" The wizard let his threat sink in for a moment before continuing, and he ceased tapping his foot, "Besides, your argument is in vain. I can't send two people into another's mind at once. It would be too difficult to control, and we'd basically be doubling the risks involved, and if both of you care so deeply for this woman then I'm sure that's something neither of you want to see. You have then one option: to proceed one at a time. Now, decide between you who is going first and do so peacefully."

Without missing a beat Ardwen interjected, "I say I go first. It's obvious Ariana needs someone with power to drag her out of the darkness. Whatever she has been through will not make me flinch. As I said, you'd need thrice that amount to stain me."

Written by - Vylia

"The wizard is right, now is not the time for this argument. I may not have the authority to order you around, but you do not have the authority over me either. I wasn't giving you an order, I was merely telling you how things are going to work, whether you like it or not. If he can only work his magic on one of us at a time, then so be it." With that Vylia walked over to the bed Ariana sat on, shooing the healers gathered around her away. "Poking and prodding her won't solve this issue. Thank you for your assistance, but let us try another method."

With that she brushed a stray lock of hair in front of Ariana's face back behind her ear and kneeled before her, lightly taking Ariana's right hand between her own and squeezing it lightly. She turned her head to look at Ardwen again, a tear running down her cheek, "If you're going to go first, that's fine. Who goes when doesn't really matter to me, so long as she gets better."

Written by - Aethelwulf

Alaric shook his head in wonder, as the Elf turned and followed after Vylia. Ardwen's acerbic attitude was beginning to irk him. No matter, he muttered to himself, there was work yet to be done. He gritted his teeth, and stalked off to the Barracks of the Royal Guard.

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen watched impassively as the single tear traced its way down Vylia's face. "That being the case," Ardwen said, "I think we'd best get this over with. Sergius?"

The wizard nodded and said, "First and foremost it will be you and you alone that will act as the catalyst within her mind. I cannot do anything more than view memories or thoughts. More specifically, I cannot project anything beyond the 'mental landscape'. What I do is create an ethereal landscape that is a representation of the recipient's mind; that alone is draining enough. Therefore, Ardwen, you must work as quickly as possible to establish some sort of common medium - a memory, a shared emotion or thought, something that you both have in common. It was because you mentioned that you know her that I believe this has any hope of success."

Ardwen simply nodded once, slowly and somberly. Sergius turned to face Vylia and said, "Your pardon, Vylia, but I will need brief physical contact with the host to begin the spell." With that the mage reached forward and brushed his hand against Ariana's forehead, it was all he needed. "Ardwen," he said suddenly, "you'll be both inside your body and inside her mind at the same time, so don't worry about sitting down or falling once the spell begins. All that aside, you'll need to focus your mind and attune yourself out of your own sense of self. Understand?"

Ardwen smiled wanly for a second and said, "Abnegation of self."

Sergius raised his eyebrows and said, "Yes, I'm surprised you know of the concept."

"Any good warrior knows of it, Sergius. Now, on with the spell." Ardwen said.

Without further delay, Sergius pressed his palm to Ardwen's forehead and instructed the Elf to close his eyes and steady his breathing. For Ardwen the immediate sensation was one of darkness, but initially he felt like he was doing nothing more than meditation drills. That changed all at once, and without warning Ardwen found himself standing next to a small sapling on a hill that overlooked a ruined coastline. But whatever terrible liquid had etched that shoreline was not water, for the area beyond the faint shore seethed with bubbling black pitch. Ardwen narrowed his eyes part in consternation and part in concentration as the smells from the ocean brought back more than odor - they smelled of emotions.

As impossible as it seemed to the Elf, each scent called up an immediate feeling. There the caustic and searing scent of anger, there the sweet almost rotten scent of despair, the fleeting biting smell of hope, and finally the bitter and acrid fragrance of fear. "Ardwen!" A voice rang out in the Elf's mind. "Her condition is far worse than I expected, I can barely act as a conduit and won't be able to keep contact, it's up to you alone now. Reme...ever...ere...ood luck." Sergius's voice died out in a strained choppy tone, and Ardwen knew he was now on his own.

He imagined the tree to be the area Archeantus had secured on his previous effort, and probably the one stable place Sergius could find to allow him into Ariana's mind. Regardless, Ardwen knew he was no warlock, and he had no tricks or incantations to spirit himself off the island, nor did he even know how to access one of the "shared" mediums that Sergius had spoken of. The Elven soldier knew he was at the mercy or whim of fate, and the thought caused him to put a hard frown on his face. Still, what he did know was that he was not likely to accomplish anything by standing near what Archeantus had already done. Nodding grimly, the warrior took a single step forward.

Everything changed. Gone was the tranquil setting of the little sapling. Instead, Ardwen found himself standing in shallow brackish water that stood stagnate between dead gray mounds. All around the Elf were rotting trees, broken husks of bloated wood that stood like the age-worn skeleton of a forest. It was a fen, a marsh, and one of the most rank and corrupted Ardwen had ever seen. The water was moving, a sloshing sound as it parted, and as the Elven bladweaver watched a woman in a white dress, stained by the surrounding muck, emerged from behind one of the corpselike trees. It was Ariana. "Finally," Ardwen said with a sigh of relief, "I thought I'd never find you. Do you have any idea how much trouble you're causing outside? You were almost fed on by demons, censured Vylia, and opened a portal to the Citadel without telling anyone! But all that is at an end now. Come Ariana, it is past time you returned to the Hands and led them, for they're all but lost without you." As Ardwen spoke he walked forward, confident strides parting the dirty water. Right as he reached out a hand to grasp Ariana's, he had to twist aside as a lance of light shot by him.

From behind he could hear as a tree exploded, sending slimy shards of wood that were too rotten to pierce anything tumbling through the air. Ardwen had already backed up and assumed a swordsman's stance, for it was Ariana who had thrown the bolt of light. "Oh," Ardwen said with an oily smirk on his face, "you've decided otherwise, have you? That's fine. The truth is, I wasn't happy with such an ending either!" The warrior reached to his side and clasped - nothing. With a nervous glance he saw that he did not have the blades he had lost earlier at his side, even in this false reality. Ariana's hands glowed again as she primed another censure. "Well," Ardwen muttered, "Nothing to do for it, I'll have to stop playing with toy swords."

The next ray of holy energy shot out, but Ardwen was not standing there, the bolt thudded into the ground and detonated, spewing black and rotted matter into the air. As the repulsive rain met the ground, Ardwen at lost crossed his sword with Ariana. To the Elf's surprise she held a pike of some sort. Ardwen had come down in a diagonal slash, holding the grip of his blade with only one hand. The sword was like a T'lanarion, but exceptionally long and with a more uniform curvature, the hand guard was rectangular and a dull metallic gray in color. "Let's get this straight Ariana," said Ardwen, "I hate you."

The ground seemed to moan and shake, and the spear held by his Abbess begin to glow, Ardwen leapt backwards but Ariana was already giving chase, practically flying through the air with unnatural speed. Her spear thrust forward, aiming at the Elf's chest, Ardwen turned aside and it brushed by, the next stroke was blocked by a downward swipe of the sword, and Ardwen circled to get to the side of his opponent. The spear moved in again, and this time Ardwen brought his sword up inverted so that the blade was facing down and blocked. He could feel his Abbess trying to press the edge home, but he held the blow back and spoke again, "I always have. I could never, and can never, forgive you for what you've done to me."

Ardwen broke the deadlock by whirling to the side and bringing the blade up in a circular slash from below, but it was not aimed at Ariana, rather it sliced through a nearby tree, which began to slide towards the ground as the blade's edge felled it. The tree never touched the dirt. Another shock of light illuminated the air and it burst into pieces. Ariana looked around, trying to find her intended murderer, and had to dodge as the point of Ardwen's blade came in. The Elf had turned the blade around, and as he passed his target he flipped his grip and brought it down in an overhead strike. The two were once again in a stalemate. "There was a time," Ardwen began, "When all I ever desired was power. I thought that with enough strength I could grind the world to dust, make it bow before me. Am I not born of twilight, am I not of the blood of the gods, is not all that I desired simply my birthright?"

This time Ariana broke the deadlock, hee spear twirled in her hands, and Ardwen found himself dodging. But the Elf was as arrogant as ever, he deflected strokes meant to kill with sweeping blows of his own, using the edge of his sword to deflect and parry. Sweeping cuts, broad cuts that passed through the ground and water, and where he swung the blade the earth was sheared as well. Still, Ardwen spoke on even as they fought, "Then I met you, and you saw in me something more than a weapon. Throughout my life, that was all others saw in me, and in all my long years I had met only one other person that I dared call friend. But you, you treated me as a . . . human. When I was angry, you calmed me, when I was scared, you fought away my fears, when I dreamed of a life beyond war and beyond death, in those idle daydreams where before I had vainly elevated myself to something other than a blade for others - you listened."

The spear came in low, and Ardwen leapt. The jump carried him into the air and onto the halfway fallen trunk of a dead tree suspended between two others. "Do you see?" The Elf finished, "Just as you flourished in serenity so I devoured the starlight for sustenance, but no longer. When the Hands departed, the pain was unbearable." Ardwen paused here and reached his hands up towards the black sky. "I did not know the reason, you should have been nothing to me. Why did loss tear into my heart with every beat? I'll tell you why . . ." The Elven warrior jumped, pushing himself forward with his feet. As he fell he slashed at the trees, and every cut sliced through them as if they were not there. His blade met Ariana's pike; he had both hands on his sword's grip, his face was hovering inches from his Abbess's. "Because there is nothing in my heart that can replace you."

Ardwen focused his mind, the memory he sought, the first time he had felt that yearning to know himself, and to know others, beyond the point of a sword. Around them the world changed, they were inside a small, cramped clerical room. Books and papers were stacked on a worn wooden desk, polished to a high sheen after years of use. Ardwen sat in a chair, leaning over the desk with a quill in his hand. He was writing on a sheet of vellum, glancing constantly up at his Abbess. With a last furtive glance he finished his writing, stood up and began walking backwards, knocking over the chair he had been sitting on. With a start he spun around and nearly ran out of the room.

In the memory, Ariana picked up the paper, on it were three characters written in a language older than time. Ardwen knew those characters, and Ariana was one of only two people other than he to know their true meaning. It was his name, his real name, and not the broken rendition given in the new tongues. The little note had a translation scrawled next to each character:

"This one means swallow, like the bird - not the verb."
"This character has several meanings: among, between, inside of. It is usually rendered as amongst in names."
"This last one is . . . flower, cherry blossoms. So, together they mean "a swallow amongst the cherry blossoms."

"P.S. Don't tell anyone - ever. Please."

Ariana's spear ripped into Ardwen's chest, drove him back, and pined him to a tree. He looked up, expecting to see Ariana's face a mask of rage, but the Elf could not read the emotions in her face. He did not care. Ardwen reached forward his hand and held the side of Ariana's face. "They say I cannot feel." he whispered, "But, they do not know what it is like to be a comet that has strayed too close to the sun." Ardwen faded, his body turning into uncountable sparkling minute motes as they dissipated into the air.

The warrior's body jerked forward and he fell to his knees, gasping for air. Sergius helped him to his feet. Ardwen could see the mage's face was compressed into lines of concern, and the wizard's eyes were firmly fixed on him. "What happened?" He said hurriedly.

Ardwen let out a racking cough before waving Sergius's supporting arm away. He clutched his chest, expecting to find a messy hole where his vital organs should be, but he felt whole enough. Ardwen said only three words in answer, "She stabbed me."

Written by - Ariana

Mavigan was certain that her shaking hands and the resultant noise would be the end of her. Like a rabbit caught in the glow of a lantern, she froze as several pairs of eyes turned towards her. And then Teran reached forward and shoved her out of the way.

She could only stare in outright horror as spell after spell slammed into him, driving him into the wall and leaving him a limp shape on the ground. The aftereffects of such a discharge of power charged the very air and made it crackle. She attempted to shield herself from the crystalline shrapnel, but wasn’t fast enough. Several shards cut the flesh of her cheek and her hands, and one rather large shard lodged itself into her thigh. Though she cried out, her voice was swallowed by the cacophony of the explosions.

Crouching down, she tried to peer through the fog of blood mist as she worked the shard free from her leg. She could see Teran, but he wasn’t moving. She didn’t know if he was still alive. Both Sabbatine and Keeryn had charged into the fray and were now obscured, though the sounds of battle were quite evident.

Tossing the now free shard of crystal onto the ground, she stood, only to dodge to the side as a frost spell penetrated the red haze and exploded where she had been standing. As the spell faded, she glanced again at Teran. He was still not moving, and Mavigan began to wonder if he was dead, a thought that caused her insides to knot painfully.

Knowing what she had to do, she shifted to the left, determined to make her way to where Teran lay unmoving on the floor. Entering the chamber fully, it was the matter of a few seconds before she again had to dodge – a fire spell this time. Mavigan could not see who was hounding her, but could tell from the direction of the spells that the spellcaster was nearer to Teran’s location than she liked. Ducking low, she charged towards Teran, hoping to reach him before the mage could cast again.

She had nearly reached him when she saw a reddish glow that burned brighter than the surrounding haze. She attempted to dodge, but her feet got caught in something unseen on the floor. Falling on her right side, her shoulder dislocated with a wet pop, and she screamed as the fireball whizzed over her and exploded close behind her, singeing a few strands of her hair. Turning on her back and struggling to regain her feet, she glanced down to see what had tripped her. It was a head.

Giving a grimace, she kicked the disgusting thing back into the main fray, hoping it would trip one of their enemies. Pushing herself painfully to her feet, she grabbed her right arm with her left, gave a huge wrench, accompanied by a scream, and felt the bone pop back into place. Her skin was slick with blood and cold sweat, and she choked back the nausea. Cradling her arm as best she could, she finally reached Teran. Leaning over him, she quickly checked for a pulse and breathed a sigh of relief when she found one. She was given no time to rest, however, as a cultist emerged from the blood fog and advanced on her position. This one bore an actual weapon – a short sword – and it gleamed wickedly in the faint light as her bore down on her with murder in his eyes.

She rose to meet him, armed with one dagger clasped in her left hand and her right arm dangling uselessly at her side. When their weapons collided, Mavigan found herself hard pressed to keep pace with him. Her dagger flew with as much speed as she could summon, blocking his thrusts and trying to get in a killing shot of her own before he wore her down.

It didn’t take long for Mavigan to realize that her attacker had skill that was greater than her own. Her forehead was beaded with sweat and her breaths were short and labored. The exertion of simply defending herself was taking a toll, and Mavigan knew it was only a matter of time before she made a mistake. Her muscles screamed in protest and fire burned up her arm as she deflected a sword thrust aimed at her neck. She immediately made a quick half-turn and deflected another strike aimed at her thigh.

The situation was becoming desperate, and Mavigan was rapidly losing room in which to maneuver. Her concern for Teran had already placed her near the wall, and after a particularly sloppy parry, Mavigan felt her back hit unyielding stone. Gritting her teeth with determination, she managed to deflect another strike to her side while attempting to turn away from the wall. Exhaustion made her movements slow and sluggish. She managed to deflect the next strike aimed at her head, but the one aimed at her gut glided smoothly past her dagger.

White hot pain engulfed her and her hand dropped her weapon, instinctually rising to cover the deep wound. Blood poured out from the hole, flowing over her hand like water. Her legs felt weak and her body slumped against the wall. It was sheer stubbornness that kept her on her feet, but when she felt the world begin to tilt, she scrambled to the side in order keep her feet beneath her.

Only, she didn’t.

Mavigan watched with horror and confusion as her body slid down the rough hewn wall and crumpled on the ground at her feet, lifeless. She glanced down with alarm, and slowly removed her hand from her torso. No blood. No wound.

Unbelieving, she blinked several times and then desperately pawed her skin, searching frantically for the point of entry for the sword. She knew she had been stabbed! The overwhelming pain still shook her form.

Nothing.

Turning horrified eyes to her likeness sprawled on the ground, she could plainly see blood welling out of the very clear, very apparent hole in her gut. The assassin who had been her downfall also stared at the pitiable form, a grotesque smile decorating his mouth.

Mavigan’s mind was screaming with terrified confusion. How could her body be lying at her feet? Panic began to clutch at her throat as she observed the assassin raise his eyes. She prepared herself to run, convinced he would see her and realize his mistake.

Only, he didn’t.

He turned from her and advanced on Teran, still lying on the cold floor, advancing on him as if Mavigan was not there. “What the f***?!”, she thought. She glanced down at her body again and her brow furrowed with the effort of making sense of it all.

“I…”, she thought hesitantly, not wanting or liking the alarming conclusion that was eating its way into her brain. “I…”, she started again, “Am I dead?”

The word functioned as a trigger causing her eyes to grow wide and her body to tremble. In her shock she leaned back, only to rest on something hard. Jerking herself away from the wall, she turned haunted eyes to it and hesitantly touched it with a shaking hand. It was solid. Something about the situation didn’t seem right to her, but her thoughts were interrupted when a body slammed into the wall near her. The victim merely picked himself up and headed back into the fray not giving Mavigan so much as a glance. He did, however, purposefully step over the corpse at his feet. Her corpse.

Her heart began to beat furiously and suddenly the only sound she could hear was her own blood rushing in her ears. Small tears ran down her face and she began to run. She did not know where she was going or what direction she was headed in. She only knew she had to put as much distance as possible between herself and the thing on the floor.

As she allowed her feet to carry her wherever they willed, she took special note of each person who passed her, friend and foe alike. Each brushed past her unseeing and each caused a fresh rush of panic to tear through her. When she could finally run no longer, she dropped to the ground and sobbed. All the tension and unhappiness and grief of the past few months poured out her in large drops of saline and gut-wrenching wails.

When the storm finally passed, she sat quietly for a few moments and took notice of her surroundings. Familiar horses stood nearby, seemingly unaffected by her fit of emotion. She glanced upward and saw nothing but sky. In her panic, her feet had retraced her route in the caverns below, and she was now sitting in the exact same spot she had started this ill-fated journey.

Relaxing a tiny bit, she tried to make some sense of her situation. She was convinced that she was dead, but the actual experience was completely different from what she had expected. There was no bright light or tunnel to guide her. She scanned the horizon quickly just to be sure. No, there was definitely no guiding light.

She could touch things, but she had always thought ghosts were able to walk through walls and floors and were not able to affect things in the physical realm. She patted the ground she sat on and then grabbed a nearby rock, tossing it away and watching it tumble. No, she was quite solid.

The afterlife didn’t appear to be any different from normal life, in fact, except that living people couldn’t see you. Is that what the afterlife is? Were all the stories about the paradise that awaited you after this world simply fairytales told at night to hold the fear of death at bay? When you died, weren’t you supposed to be reunited with your loved ones?

Mavigan’s thoughts ground to a halt. Wait a minute. If she had appeared where she had been slain, then…. Mavigan quickly got up and dusted herself off. She scrubbed her face with her sleeve. Her eyes were red and swollen and felt rather gunky, and her shoulder hurt like a son of a bitch, but Mavigan paid it no mind. She approached Argent and hesitantly touched her. Argent made no response except for the flicking of an ear.

Taking Argent’s lack of response as further evidence that her conclusions were correct, she quickly retrieved her spare daggers, some supplies and her bedroll. Among the things she grabbed were her birthday presents - the short sword, the box of ointments, and the engraved saddle bags. She briefly eyed the horse bow and quivers, and then glanced forlornly at her useless arm. Sighing, she left them where there were along with her tack. She wasn't sure she would need all these supplies, but she felt better about having them. And among the supplies, were medicines for her aching shoulder and cloth which could be used to make a sling. She didn’t know if the dead could heal, but she was damned if she wouldn’t try to ease the pain.

Having fixed her shoulder as best she could and carelessly dropping a bloody cloth on the ground, she gave Argent one last sorrowful pat, and then trooped off, her eyes full of purpose. She retraced the route they had taken to arrive at this place forsaken by the gods until she felt that familiar tingling. She quickly uttered the words and entered the Shadow Realm. Taking a moment, she oriented herself, and then turned her feet towards her goal. Mavigan was determined to reunite with her family, and she convinced herself that there was only place in all the land where she could achieve that goal.

Mavigan headed home.

At the same moment Mavigan entered the realm of Shadows, her corpse flickered for a moment, then swirled and faded into nothingness. The only thing remaining was her bloody dagger.

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm and Resini finished their study of the blood pipes and their group moved down the hallway lined with the reddened crystalline pipes. The pipes branched and joined and formed patterns that Resini realized were demonic runes. Other pipes joined in from side passages, and the flow of blood seemed to be increasing as if drawn in from somewhere ahead. Finally they could see light coming into the darkened hallway from a large room ahead. Against that light they could see the forms of Mavigan, Teran, Keeryn, Sabbatine, and Jasmine. Wilhelm halted their advance with a gesture. He was relieved to see that Mavigan's heartfire showed she was not seriously hurt, however his tracking sense seemed to fade out in the room ahead, showing that it was shielded from remote senses.

Wilhelm's relief was short lived, however, when he saw Mavigan draw her daggers and heard the metal on stone sound when one dagger scraped against the wall. He saw Teran step in front of Mavigan to protect her and then all hell broke out as a barrage of spells from inside the room converged on Teran slammed him into the wall and brought him to his knees. There was a blinding flash and multiple explosions as the blood pipes began to explode sending crytal shrapnel flying. As the explosion front moved towards then Resini called out,

"Shield Link!"

The mages joined hands and a wall of force appeared in front of them just in time to stop the cascade of exploding pipes and deflect the flying shrapnel. When the explosions stopped the hallway and room beyond were filled with obscuring smoke. Willhelm's tracking sense told him that Sabbatine, Keeryn and Jasmine had run into the room, where he lost them in the arcane fog.

"Prepare for battle!"

Each member of the party prepared themselves for battle, activating magical weaponry, armor or magical talismans and casting protections. Quieting his thoughts, Wilhelm sought union with the All Father, surrendering himself to his god. He felt the rapture of the union as the power and attention of the All Father coursed through him. In answer to his prayers a shimmering green glow fell on him like a divine mantle, fortifying his armor. His shield and faith hammer glowed as they were consecrated to His name. Another green glow brought strength, and invoking his Knighthood oath inspired the group's spirit. He began a sacred battle chant and a red glow surrounded them as well as they felt himself moving faster. Focusing his will and attention upon the room ahead, he prepared to charge. Red, white and green swirling glows illuminated the corridor, adding to golden glows from the mages.

At a final gesture, the group charged forward and spread out into an arc in the large room, now filled with combat within swirling clouds of smoke. Sabbatine's blood-curdling cries could be heard ahead, along with Keeryn's growl and Jasmine's shout. As cultists emerged from the smoke the group members entered into combat, the rangers engaging in sword combat or firing arrows while the mages cast their own spells into the fray.

Wilhelm turned left along the wall and came to Teran's slumped and seared form. He could see from the black blood oozing out that Teran lived, no doubt due to the armor he wore that glowed to Wilhelm's magical senses. He heard combat ahead and the smoke cleared to show Mavigan backed against the wall, one arm dangling, the other hand wielding a dagger to fend off the sword of a cultist warrior. As Wilhelm began to move he was stricken with shock when he saw the warrior evade a block and thrust his sword through Mavigan's gut. Mavigan slid down the wall and off the sword and lay lifeless. Her heartfire vanished as if extinguished.

Just then a pair of cultists attacked him and he was forced to advance into the swirling mists to gain room. Blocking the attack on the left with his glowing shield he parried the right with his hammer and then brought the hammer overhead to crush the skull of his lefthand opponent. Gathering his will, he called Censure down upon his other opponent and a glowing column of holy fire engulfed the foe. Finishing him with a blow from his hammer, Wilhelm turned and emerged from the smoke.

He found Mavigan's body slumped against the wall, the blood flow stilled and no trace of heartfire confirming her death. To his left he saw the murderer approaching Teran's prostrate form. Blinding rage filled Wilhelm, as he called upon the All Father. His channels burned as he drew power at his maximum rate and his entire body glowed and grew. Leaping to the attack he shield bashed the foe, driving him into the wall, and then smashed his hammer into the foe's helm, followed by column after column of Censure until only a charred hulk remained.

Wilhelm then bent down to Teran, saying,

"No more resting, Teran, it is time to avenge!"

Wilhelm laid his hands upon Teran and a surge of healing flowed through Teran as the Lay on Hands ritual healed the damages from the many spells. Wilhelm then turned and strode into the mists like an implacable avenging angel of death, crushing and incinerating any cultists he could find.

Written by - Ariana

She sat quiescent upon the bed, head tilted forward so her long hair hid her eyes. Slowly, she stretched out one tremulous finger and hesitantly began to trace the symbols she had remembered upon the sheets. As she reached the end, her digit moved to the beginning and she repeated her action, this time moving more confidently, only to reach the end and repeat the series again.

They meant something, these arcane characters she sketched in linen, but saw clearly as if written in ink. Her repetitious motions became trancelike as she focused her entire being upon puzzling out the secrets hidden within those symbols. Eventually, a name bubbled up out of the murky depths, and she heard it, uttered in an unfamiliar tongue. It gained in timbre and depth until she felt it erratically bounce off the walls of her prison, making the structure shudder and vibrate violently.

“Ardwen,” she breathed in Elvish, the word no more than a slight releasing of breath. At the utterance, her finger stopped and the only sound was a sudden harsh intake of breath. Her eyes grew wide and distant, and a long-forgotten glimpse of a long ago era flashed before her eyes. Her world was crumbling around her, consumed by flame and hatred, with only one glowing beacon of hope remaining. But he was not there. He was not there because she had killed him – and unbidden an image of her brandishing a sword in one hand and Ardwen’s head in the other rose before her eyes.

And yet…. It didn’t feel right, the fit of the memory too large for the hole it was intended to fill. So she searched further, digging deep, sifting through the muck of her mind trying to find the piece of the puzzle that fit, sweat beading on her forehead with the effort. When she found it, gleaming brightly amidst the surrounding darkness, she wished she hadn’t. She had left him. She had left him and to her, that felt worse than killing him.

Her head turned towards Ardwen then, hesitantly, as if she feared what she would see when she looked upon him. He stood there, one hand clutching his chest, gazing at her with hazel eyes she knew. A choked sob escaped her, and then she was moving, clambering off the bed and slapping at the hands of any who tried to stop her. Once her feet hit the floor, she knelt before him, first one knee, and then the other, finally prostrating herself before him, forehead and hands on the hard floor.

“I’m sorry”, she said in Elvish, the words rough with tears. She repeated the words over and over again, not fully understanding why it was so important to say them, but nonetheless knowing she must.

And somewhere, within the depths of her mind, a tiny sapling grew just a bit, defying the surrounding darkness with its light.

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen's words did nothing to comfort Sergius. "She what?" He hissed. "You died in her mind! Why in the - do you have any idea just how dangerous . . . ." But the Elven warrior was only partly listening to the wizard, and the swordsman soon held out a hand for silence. Sergius looked on the verge of reaching over and smacking Ardwen in the head, but he had the sense to at least look to where Ardwen had waved his hand. When he did, he saw Ariana struggling up from her bed, pushing away the hands of the healers who tried to get her to remain still. Sergius fell silent and nodded slowly, stepping back a few feet to give the lady and Ardwen some room.

The Elven warrior had no idea what to expect from Ariana. In the brief respite he had between the time when the mental spell had broken and her awakening he had given the matter some thought. Ardwen had thought it best to speak his heart and soul while trying to help Ariana; he had thought it a sound plan. But, the more he thought about what he had done the more uncertain he had become. If his soul was so stained, did Ariana really need the burden of his salvation laid on her? Of course, Ardwen had wanted no such thing, he had wanted Ariana to understand that she was the entire reason for that redemption - however brief it had been. Now though, he was entirely unsure if he had accomplished anything useful.

Ariana's feet touched the cool stone floor. She knelt, first on one knee, then both, finally prostrating herself before the Elven soldier. Ardwen took a half step backwards, his arms partly raised in shock and bewilderment. All his reflections had not prepared him in the slightest for this, he tried to say something, but his tongue clung to the roof of his mouth like ash. He needn't have bothered, for Ariana was already speaking. It took Ardwen a fraction of a second to realize that she was using Elven, indeed, it was pure and venerable in form. However, the words were raw with Ariana's grief, broken and pitched erratically with her tears.

Ardwen finally managed to open his mouth, but the only sound that came out was a stifled croaking noise, as if the warrior had managed to truly swallow his tongue. Ariana kept repeating her apology over and over, as if it was some desperate ritual of contrition. Ardwen closed his eyes for scarcely more than a blink, his mind reeling. When he opened them to look at Ariana again, he knew what he had to do. A few long strides carried him over to his genuflecting Abbess, and with one swift motion he knelt down and grasped her gently by the arms. Slowly at first he raised her to her feet until they both stood.

Ariana was still repeating her apology, so Ardwen just cut in, letting his voice carry slightly, "You must not bow before me. Never in my life have I had such grace that could cause you to even bend your knee. Why? Why do you apologize? You have never wronged me. Please Ariana, please, stop crying, stop saying you are sorry. If you continue with that look on your face . . . I'll be the one suffering."

Ardwen just continued to stand there, holding onto Ariana. He had never had another rely on him for more than his role as a warrior, and he had certainly never earned such a startling apology. Ardwen's eyebrows were folded in concern and his eyes would not leave Ariana. He felt frustratingly useless, and his stomach felt as if it had blocks of ice inside it.

Written by - Vylia

As soon as Ariana began to stand Vylia froze. She wasn’t sure if she should run to the woman prostrating herself on the floor in front of Ardwen, or run at Ardwen and demand to know what it was he did inside her mind. The fact Ariana was in tears and begging forgiveness told Vylia that something important had passed between the two, and regardless of the current result she had obviously recovered something of herself to be showing any emotion at all.

As Ardwen held Ariana to his chest Vylia walked over to stand beside him, waiting for him to release her before demanding to know everything. When he told her he didn’t deserve her apology however, Vylia realized it didn’t matter. What was said between them was for their ears alone, it was what he had delivered that mattered. Did he merely fight her and hope to knock some sense into her, or had he actually tried to summon up a memory the two had shared?

“Other than the fact you obviously fought her, what kind of message did you use in there? Did you use an actual memory, or did you just try to kill her and hope everything would turn out okay? You said she stabbed you, was that before or after you had tried whatever it is you tried?” There was no malice in Vylia’s voice, the question obviously asked for knowledge and nothing else.

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