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Book Four Pt 2 - The Eastern Pass

Written by - Ariana Page 29 Book 4

Mavigan tried hard not to fidget as High Priestess Korella bore down on her like a fat troll hungry for its breakfast of human meat. “OK Mavi,” she thought, “you can do this. You are Queen; she is just a bitch. Queen trumps bitch.”

The internal monologue continued until she stood face to nose with the High Priestess. A mask of regal tolerance dropped over Mavigan’s feature, and many in the crowd would later exclaim over the resemblance to her mother.

It was hard waiting for the initial formalities to be completed. There was the announcement of their approach, the interminable listing of titles and honors, and the official proclamation of support from the Temple of Nagarren. If she were honest, Mavigan would have to admit to a substantial amount of satisfaction at seeing the woman who had made so many of her years painful having to bow before her in humility. And judging from the grimace on the face of the old battleaxe, Korella was not pleased, which only made Mavigan happier.

By the time the formalities had ceased, Mavigan was in a very good mood, and when she was finally allowed to speak, she did it with a smile on her face.

“I bid you greetings High Priestess. It is apparent to me that in my new role, it is incumbent upon me to further my training so that I may successfully serve as an Avatar, as my Mother did before me.”

There was a spark of glee in the eyes of the High Priestess. To be named as tutor to the newest monarch would be an honor that could potentially increase her standing in the church hierarchy. It would also put her in a place to influence the policies developed in the kingdom.

Korella opened her mouth to reply, to no doubt accept the responsibility without hesitation, but Mavigan kept speaking. “And since you are the High Priestess and have many duties, I know it would be selfish of me to ask for tutoring from you specifically. For this reason, I request that you appoint Allandra as my tutor to the divine arts.”

The spark in Korella’s eyes died, replaced by a hard glare directed at Mavigan. Mavigan noticed and tried hard to restrain herself from dancing a jig. Finally, she had gotten her own back! Realizing it would be inappropriate to stick her tongue out at the woman, she bit the inside of her lip instead, resolving to laugh about this at length with Allandra later.

Korella glanced at Wilhelm, a silent petition for interference, but Wilhelm stood resolute behind his Queen, affording Korella no more than a blank expression. She then glanced at the newly appointed Mayor, whose shoulders were shaking with poorly contained mirth. Realizing she was trapped, and that the silence was getting longer and longer, she drew herself up to her full height. Schooling her own features, she inclined her head, a signal of her defeat.

“It will be as you ask, your Majesty.”

Allandra left the flock of Nagarren groupies and came to stand behind Manuel.

As the Nagarren contingent moved away, Mavigan waved her hand. “OK folks, we’ll do more of this later. Dismissed…or something.”

Turning, she grabbed Allandra by the arm and practically dragged the girl behind her into the manor house.

Written by - Ariana

The pair dashed up the stairs with the speed and exuberance of youth, Mavigan leading. The sound of their hurried footsteps resounded through the house, mimicking a stampede as they ran down the hallway to Mavigan’s room. Bursting through the door, Mavigan slammed it shut behind them.

Bending over to catch her breath, Mavigan beamed a smile at her long-time friend. “Did you see the look on her face?”

“Oh, yeah,” replied Allandra. “It was priceless!”

The two girls soon dissolved into laughter. It was a joyous sound fueled by the joy of being reunited and the relief of a common ordeal overcome. Once breath was exhausted, they flopped on the bed.

Allandra spoke first. “I was really worried about you, ya know. You disappeared without so much as a word, and then we heard about your family….”

Green eyes darkened at the mention of her dead family. “Sorry to make you worry. Things were…chaotic, really.”

“Its OK. I understand.” Allandra sat up, her blonde hair tousled from their headlong dash. She reached over and clasped Mavigan in a tight hug. “I’m just glad you are safe.”

Mavigan put her arms around her friend, and they shared a companionable embrace. When they parted, each bore a broad smile and a twinkle in the eyes.

“So,” Allandra said, “I’m supposed to teach you to channel the goddess, eh? You, who could only manage to work the levitate spell after two hours of meditation.”

“Yeah,” Mavigan replied in all seriousness. “Things have changed since then.”

The look Allandra gave her was assessing, as if she was cataloging all the things that were different. Silently, she raised one hand and held it in front of Mavigan’s chest. Her hand glowed momentarily, and then there was a responding glow from Mavigan.

Allandra looked surprised. “But that’s…It’s wide open!”

Mavigan nodded solemnly.

“But how can you stand it? Being that open all the time? All that power just churning?”

“Well,” started Mavigan, “it kinda burns. A persistent ache just below my ribs.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Allandra bit her lip, thinking. “Have you tried to discharge it?”

“Discharge?”

“Yeah. Use it for something.” Allandra’s eyes scanned the room looking for something suitable. Spotting it, she added, “See that vase over there. Levitate it and see if the pain in your chest lessens.”

“But, I haven’t prepared,” said Mavigan doubtfully.

“Girl, with as big as that channel is, you shouldn’t need to prep. Go on, try it.”

Mavigan concentrated on the vase, trying to direct the energy from inside her towards the object she wished to affect. The difficult part was the concentration. Mavigan had never been good at meditation; it was a skill that required sitting still for very long periods of time, and she was much too active an individual to enjoy sitting still.

It took several minutes before they saw any change in the vase. It rocked slightly, and then rose a few inches above the table before exploding into a pile of dust.

Mavigan gaped openly at where the vase had been. “Did I just do that?”

“Oh, dear,” said Allandra. “I can see that the first order of business is to work on your control. Control should help you close and open the channel at will, or when Nagarren wills it.”

Mavigan looked thoughtful. “Are you sure? ‘Cause being able to blow stuff up would certainly come in handy. At the very least, it should certainly be more fun.”

Allandra looked at Mavigan. Mavigan looked at Allandra. And then the two dissolved into laughter once again.

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus ran the towel along the matted clumps of long hair which dangled from his head to his waste. The little elf muttered and then shook his head from side to side, droplets of water flashed like tiny flipped coins in sunlight before vanishing. The young boy appraised his head of hair in the mirror, and also checked to make sure he’d removed the dirt and grime gained from playing tag in the city. He had been surprised just how much had clung to him, he’d also been surprised to find the sticky tar he’d wiped from the barrel lids on the lower part of his tunic – Elerus did not remember getting it on his hands.

Deciding that he looked well enough to escape any further plunges in a tub for one day, Elerus went over to the clothes that a household servant had laid out earlier. It took one glance for him to immediately wish that he had given more precise instructions to the tailors. The clothes he had received earlier from the Citadel were present, but every other garment was new. True to Ariana’s words, there was none of the formal clothing that had been promised; instead the selection consisted of everyday wear and utility. Including a pair of blue pajama bottoms that looked to have some sort of stylized yellow duck pattern stitched into them. Elerus swallowed with an audible gulp that sounded loud in the empty room. “I guess I’d best get used to it.” Elerus whispered to himself. No sooner had he finished speaking than another, much louder noise cracked through the air – the sound of shattering glass. The white-haired child trained his ears to the noise; it sounded as if it came from where he had left Ardwen.

With a wince Elerus slipped on the pants and the accompanying shirt, which was thankfully devoid of pattern or ornament of any kind. Rushing out the door the little boy swiftly zeroed in on the source of the noise; he realized when he reached the room that it could not possibly be Ardwen because there was laughter coming from the chamber. Curious, Elerus regarded the closed door for a few seconds before reaching up to knock.

Written by - Teran

Teran sat in silence after Ariana had departed. Time passed and minutes stretched into hours. Teran's face was blank, almost completely emotionless though he made no overt attempt to hide what he was feeling. He was certain that the Raven could read him in this state, certain his conflict, pain, and anger.... fury even showed through his mask. Teran didn't even blink when his unfinished meal was removed. After more than two hours of silence his mask shifted and he looked to the Raven.

Teran knew his silent request would be understood and he knew the Raven would move to get him parchment and quil. He studied the man as he moved, admiring him in a way. He had come to power, built up so much, survived... it was uncommon for humans to rise up on a sharp mind and good instincts alone.

The items were set down for the assassin and he nodded his thanks before taking the quil in his hand, he wrote quickly already knowing exactly what he wished to say... a bittersweet message. He did not use flowery language, he didn't even put down her name or sign the paper when he was finished.

He set down the quil and slid the parchment away from him, inviting the Raven to pick it up. He didn't fold it or try to conceal what it said in any way.

The note read:

"Strength does not come from the sword or war. Neither does it come from good wishes. We are not all blessed with the optimism you possess. While you were hiding I witnessed events set into motion that would destroy this world if something was not done... if the people were not prepared.

I regret that innocent people were killed and I do not seek to absolve myself of responsibility. I would have acted differently if I had been aware of your impending return however I saw only one path to avoiding the destruction of this world and I chose to take it rather than sit idly with mere hopes that someone else would take the responsibility upon their shoulders.

The pain I have caused Mavigan and her family... the pain I have caused you will ever be a burden on my shoulders. I do not seek forgiveness, such a request would be selfish and I have caused enough pain however know this: My loyalties are unchanged by the passage of time."

Teran had left the message vague so that it would be clear he had no interest in further manipulations. He would follow her command and lend his skills to whatever plan she might hatch... or he would accept punishment and remain imprisoned or worse if that is what she desired.

Written by - Wilhelm

The Raven quickly read the note than then took it in hand.

"I will deliver this. It will be interesting to see what Mavigan and Ariana decide. But for Mavigan's order to place you here and Ariana's confirmation, you would no longer be alive. Mavigan's father and Wilhelm and I were the closest of friends."

The Raven nodded to the guards at the door, who stood opened the door and closed it after he left, remaining vigilant. The guards and mages outside the door maintained their watch as he left.

The Raven proceeded to the Ancoran Mansion to deliver the note, exchanging greeetings to those he met.

Written by - Ariana

The knock at the door pulled the two girls from their revelry. Mavigan popped up from the bed and threw open the door. Elerus stood there with wet hair and clad in pants with covered in yellow ducks.

“Runt!” exclaimed Mavigan. She put a hand on top of his head and mussed his damp hair. “Cute pajamas,” she added with a wink.

With a sweeping gesture, she bade him enter. “Elerus, meet Allandra. Allandra, meet Elerus…my little brother.”

****

Ariana was still poring over the heap of documents on her desk when Raven gave a brief tap on the open door and walked into the room. Wordlessly, he laid his own piece of paper on top of the pile.

She grabbed the missive tentatively, as if afraid of what words it might contain. When she finished, she rose from her desk and crossed the room to stare out the window, her thoughts a tumult. Thankfully, Raven said nothing, giving her time to think.

Obviously, Teran was still convinced that his choice was the right one and he was going to cling to that belief tightly. Ariana understood what it was like to hold onto a belief so tightly because it was the only thing keeping you anchored.

She could not ignore her own culpability in the affair. She had left them all rudderless, and could not fault them for attempting to find their own way. Had she not done the same?

Blame and self-recrimination aside, did his reasons truly matter so long as his loyalty remained true? And she believed him on that score. If she commanded him, he would work diligently to fulfill the task.

Her main issue at the moment was figuring out what to do with him.

“He can’t stay,” she said. Not only would his own life be in danger, his mere presence could undercut Mavigan. An idea began to form and she turned from the window. The expression she gave Raven could only be called calculating. “Could you travel with him without killing him?” There was no recrimination in her question, merely a request for information.

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus felt color bloom on his face at the mention of his attire. It really wasn’t a fair statement; he had simply grabbed and donned what he had at hand. The little elf well knew that if it had been Ardwen smashing things delaying could prove costly, or potentially fatal. At the moment though, the winged child had a different set of problems to deal with – Mavigan had just introduced him to one of her friends. Determined to make a positive impression and repay the young queen for her hospitality and kindness, Elerus raised a hand in greeting and smiled at Mavigan’s friend. “Hello, Allandra.” He said softly. “Pleased to meet you.” The silver-haired boy lowered his arm and cast a quick nervous glance around the room. Odd that he should feel so nervous, it was a poignant reminder that he existed on the humblest of scales now. Yet, that did not mean he had to resent it, Mavigan and Ariana had both proven exceptional not only for this world, but the one that Elerus had known before. To be there for them when they needed him, there was honor enough in that.

Written by - Wilhelm

The Raven look startled for a moment, then his features returned to their usual mask. He considered the question for a time and then replied.

"The only reason that the man still breathes who slew my best friend and my king and the rest of the his family except Queen Mavigan is because Queen Mavigan herself ordered me to confine him safely until she could deal with him. Clearly I am capable of not killing him, as I have held off so far.

However, Lady Abbess, with all due respect to you, the only person who can determine Teran's fate is the sole remaining member of the family he slew. If Queen Mavigan orders his death I will carry out that decree and if he resists then everyone in this city will do their utmost to kill him or die in the attempt. I will be first among them.

However, if Queen Mavigan chooses to spare him or to postpone that sentence and instead send him on a mission vital to Ancora's interests then I will accept her decision. If she further orders me to accompany him and cooperate in that mission then I will do so to the best of my ability. I will also watch him vigilantly and at the first sign of any betrayal on his part I will strike.

Please confer with Her Majesty on this matter. I will await word of her decision. I concur that Teran cannot remain living in this city. He must either depart or die. Until then, I must take my leave and return to my duty to guard him."

The Raven made an elegant courtly bow to Ariana and then turned and walked swiftly out of the room.

Written by - Ariana

Allandra acknowledged the greeting with a bright smile and a nod of the head. “So cute!” she exclaimed. A look of confusion crossed her face. “Since when do you have a little brother?”

Mavigan tossed her wink and placed a proprietary arm around Elerus’s shoulders. “Since yesterday,” she said proudly.

Allandra gave her a look of disbelief.

“What? I’m Queen. If I want a little brother, I can have one. And I picked him.”

“Alright,” chuckled Allandra, raising her hands in defeat. Turning to Elerus she added, “Nice to meet you, Elerus.”

Before he had a chance to reply, Mavigan leaned down to whisper conspiratorially in his ear. “Hey Runt, you wanna see something really cool?”

At his nod, she pointed to a small white makeup bowl on her dressing table. “Watch that.”

Staring intently, Mavigan pulled on the churning power within her and directed it towards the dish. She expected it to explode into a cloud of dust. To her mind, the ability to blow things up at will was an impressive skill to have, and it wouldn’t hurt to show off to her little brother.

“Oh, neat!” exclaimed Elerus.

“Meow,” said the makeup bowl.

Instead of exploding, the power had turned the makeup dish into a small white kitten. The furry creature sniffed confusedly at the items on the dressing table.

“What the-?” demanded Mavigan. “How do you explain that?” she pointedly ask Allandra.

Allandra shook her head. “No control at all.”

Mavigan had the grace to look sheepish. “Runt, how do you feel about a pet?”

“I think a pet is a great idea,” came an amused voice from the doorway.

Mavigan whirled around to see her Nana standing there, her eyes crinkled in a smile. “Nana. I didn’t see you standing there.”

“I noticed. Glad to see you found yourself a tutor,” she nodded at Allandra, “and have been practicing." She raised a hand and covered a small smile. "I’m sorry to interrupt, dear, but I need to speak with you.”

“Oh, Ok. Runt, why don’t you take the cat to the kitchens and be sure she gets a food and water dish, eh? Allandra, I’ll find you later.”

With a wave, Mavigan followed Ariana down the hallway and stairs to her office. She watched anxiously as Ariana shut the door behind them.

Written by - Ariana

“Nana, what is it?” Mavigan asked quietly.

Ariana closed the door with a click, turned and walked to her desk. Pulling one piece of parchment from the large stack on the desk, she held it out to Mavigan.

Puzzled, Mavigan grabbed it, eyes quickly scanning the contents. It was an old document, the ink faded and the paper crinkled. The contents were technical, but seemed to detail the forming of a secretive fifth sect of the Hands of Providence called the Hidden Hands. Mavigan duly read the dry document all the way to the end.

There at the bottom of the parchment were two signatures. The first was her Nana’s. Mavigan had seen her signature on other historical documents, and the small flowing script was familiar and comforting in a strange way.

When she read the second signature, however, her stomach clinched painfully even as her eyes widened in disbelief. Teran Witherblaze. Though faded, the strokes were bold and confident, much like the man himself.

The hands holding the document trembled. “What does this mean?”

Ariana did not reply immediately. She walked to the nearest window and stared out at the dwindling sun. When she finally spoke, the words were soft and Mavigan had to strain to hear them. “It is him. Impossible though it seems, the man currently under guard is my Teran.”

Rage swamped through Mavigan. The document crumpled in her fist and she trembled with the effort of not hitting something or someone. “What are you saying?” she demanded. “He deserves to die for what he did. Are you asking me to spare him?”

Silence descended between the two women; one quivered in anger, the other stood quiet, the only evidence of her distress was the droop of her normally proud shoulders. Finally, she turned her head to look at Mavigan with sad gray eyes. “No. By my reckoning he owes you three life-debts. And some debts can only be paid with blood.”

Mavigan deflated slightly, robbed of the immediate cause of her righteous indignation. The crumpled paper dropped the floor, forgotten.

“Can you kill him?” Ariana asked softly.

“What?”

“Can you look him in the eyes and stab your dagger into his heart? Will seeing his life extinguish satisfy you?”

“I –“ Mavigan started, suddenly unsure. The opportunity to serve justice had already been presented to her once. She had stood before an unarmed Teran, dagger in hand. Teran had been willing to accept any punishment she wanted to mete out, and when she had struck, she had purposefully missed.

Her legs suddenly weak, Mavigan went to the nearest chair and collapsed in it. What did it mean that she had been unable to kill the man who had murdered her family? She knew she hated him, he had betrayed her in the worst possible way. Everything in her knew that the only proper repentance for this was to take his life.

“You can go right this minute and execute him,” Ariana continued in that soft relentless voice. “No one would stop you, not even Teran himself. You could hang his head in front of the castle, and the people would cheer you for avenging the royal family.”

Mavigan closed her eyes and tried to picture it. Dagger in hand, she advanced on the man who had slain her family. He stood there calmly, dark eyes fastened on her own willing to accept the death blow from her hand. In her mind’s eye, she thrust the dagger forward again and again, her teeth clenched, grip tight on the hilt.

She missed each time.

Swallowing hard, she looked at Ariana with haunted eyes. “I can’t kill him.” The words tore from her throat in a harsh whisper. “He betrayed me and I hate him, and I still can’t kill him. What’s wrong with me?”

Ariana moved forward and placed a comforting hand on Mavigan’s shoulder. “Nothing. The heart wants what it wants.”

“But what do I do?” Mavigan wailed. “He can’t stay here. Once word gets out the people will tear him apart. Of course, that would save me the trouble.”

Ariana sighed. “I have considered that. He owes you three life debts. Why not send him on three different dangerous missions? His skills have proved useful to me in the past.”

“Put him to work?” Mavigan asked incredulously. The thought had never crossed her mind, but then again, Wilhelm had given her a really long list of things to do. And maybe, just maybe, if he was out of sight, she could also push him out of mind.

Her eyes narrowed as a possible snag crossed her mind. “What if he betrays me again? He could put the whole kingdom at risk.”

“Send someone with him. Someone strong and whom you trust. I believe the Raven would be willing.”

Mavigan found herself nodding along with her Nana’s words, a plan forming. “So, I should send Wilhelm to tell them…”

“No,” interrupted Ariana.

“No?” Mavigan glanced sharply at her Nana. “What do you mean, no?”

“You are deciding a man’s fate. You hold his life and death in your hands. Take responsibility for it and look him in the eye when you make your pronouncement.”

Arms crossed over her chest as she glared. “I don’t want to see him.”

“I know,” replied Ariana softly.

A contest of wills ensued in the following silence. Mavigan glared at her Nana, chin tilted haughtily, no small feat considering she was seated and her Nana was standing. Ariana merely returned the stare with calm acceptance.

Mavigan cracked first. “Oh, alright!” she said angrily, leaping to her feet. She stomped her way to the office door, propelled herself through it and headed to the front door. The soft shush of Nana’s slippers across the floor told her that Ariana was following behind.

Shoving herself outside, she surprised the guard outside. They scrambled to form up around the two ladies, but Mavigan paid them no mind. Anyone brave enough to approach immediately backed off once they got a glimpse of her scowling face.

They crossed the distance between the manor house and the castle at a fast trot. Refusing to slow, she brushed past all those who stood between her and Teran, finally bursting in the room unannounced.

Her first reaction was to glance around the nicely appointed room. “This doesn’t look like a dark, dank hole to me.”

The moment allowed her to gather her courage, and with a deep breath she looked at Teran, staring into his eyes. She concentrated on looking fierce in the hopes he wouldn’t call her bluff. “Let’s get this straight. I hate you. But Nana seems to think you can be useful, so I’m sending you on some missions. The first is to go to the Shrikefield and figure out what my other Uncle is up to. I’m sending the Raven with you, and if you try to betray me, he has permission to kill you on the spot and bring back your head to decorate my mantle.”

“If you refuse, I will kill you right here and now. Clear?”

Written by - Ardwen

The kitten purred softly as Elerus cradled it in his arms. The little boy pressed his face against its soft fur as he carried the cat down the hallway and a short flight of stairs to the kitchen on the manor house’s ground floor. The winged child recalled his sister’s words. A pet, I’ve never owned a pet before – I never had a home to keep one in, either.

As Elerus turned the corner into the kitchen, he could see serving staff scuttling about seemingly at random. An older lady with hair fringed gray and deep lines bracketing her mouth waved the kitchen’s staff about. While it looked like an elaborate dance rehearsal to the little elf, from what he could catch of the senior maid’s comments there was some trouble in deciding what to fix for supper later in the day. Suddenly the head maid’s eyes fixed on him, and Elerus could see the lines at the corner of her mouth tug up into a precisely angled smile.

“Need some help?” She asked with another tight smile.

Elerus nodded in response and held the little ball of fur out.

“Food and water, right? It seems that’s what everyone around here needs, and we’re having trouble getting it . . . .”

The matronly head of the kitchen’s words fell to an inaudible mumble as she went right to the cabinet where the dishes were and pulled own two small saucers. Within the span of a few heartbeats, Elerus’s new pet had broken up chicken to eat and clean water. The winged child was impressed by how quick everything had been provided, despite the fact that the manor had apparently not seen use in some time, the serving staff was sparing no effort in acclimatizing to it.

“No, no, no!” The grey-haired lady said as she watched Elerus looking at the kitten while it ate. “No animals in the kitchen please, and no children while we’re preparing food. There’s knives and fires and – Ceda! Please see our young guest and his friend back to his quarters, they’re marked. Back to work, everyone! This is a place of the culinary arts, not a nursery!”

Before Elerus could voice a protest he was being shuffled out of the kitchen, kitten in arms, as the serving woman who had been picked out earlier carried his cat’s dishes. “Malia’s really nice once you get to know her,” Ceda said idly as they walked, “she’s just busy right now and stressed, your room’s the one with ‘Elerus” on it, right?”

Elerus bobbed his head once in answer. Once he and the cat were in his room Ceda stopped to spare him a smile and asked, “What’s its name?”

The silver-haired boy blinked and shook his head; he had not given it any thought. The kitchen assistant crouched and placed a hand on the top of his white locks. “I know it must be lonely,” she said, “there’s not any children inside the manor right now. Things’ll settle down soon. I’ve got a little nephew who’d probably love to play with you – how old are ya’?”

The white-winged child shook his head again, another question to which he had no honest answer.

Ceda pressed a fingertip to her lips and hummed. “Well, you look about his age, and he’s around five – I think – so I’d say that’s a good guess.” When Elerus did not respond Ceda sighed and stood, with one last glance she said, “We could all use some more smiles around here, times are tough, but cheer up. If you need anything I’ll be in the kitchen down the hall – Malia’s probably throwing a fit already about how long I’m taking.”

With those words the assistant left, and Elerus sat on the floor, legs crossed, a hand tucked under his chin. He was, so far as he knew, stuck like this, but for some reason Mavigan and Ariana made it seem like it didn’t matter. Here though, alone, the silence seemed to press in on him, and his small frame felt more like crushing armor, a gilded prison. Elerus shuddered suddenly, his thoughts turning to Mavigan. She had brought something to life out of nonliving substance, and she had done so casually with no ritual or even prior knowledge. It was a feat that would have had many Elven archmages wide-eyed with envy and greed. This same young lady, whom he would have called a girl but a few short weeks ago, had declared herself his older sister. She was formidable, and he had no doubt that Ardwen had underestimated her and written her off already – in this his ancient friend was probably not alone.

Elerus leaned his head back against the side of his bed and stared at the ceiling. He didn’t understand the situation he had landed in. Life could be confusing, complicated, and bitter. Then he felt something crawl onto his lap, heard soft purring, and felt a dry raspy tongue lick his fingertips. Without warning he smiled and let out a cheery giggle, he couldn’t help it. It was the other side of the coin, of course, the things that made life worth living. Sometimes, just sometimes, it could be sweet as well.

The little boy looked down at the tiny kitten curled on his legs. His smile widened. “Sugar.” He said.

Written by - Wilhelm

The Raven stood outside the only door to Teran's room of confinement, remembering Ariana's words. Two soldiers stood guard at the door, and two mages sat alertly scanning for magic and maintaining the wards on Teran's chamber. The Raven stroke the hilt of his dagger as he considered what he would prefer to do with Teran compared to what he suspected he would have to do if the Abbess had her way.

Swift footsteps in the corridor outside caused him to turn to the outer door in time to see it thrown open to admit Queen Mavigan followed by Saint Ariana and the Queen's guardsmen. Mavigan had a determined look on her face. The Raven gestured and the two door guards opened the door to Teran's chamber in time for Mavigan to storm through, with Ariana in her wake. Mavigan's guardsmen stopped outside in obedience to another gesture by the Raven, who silently followed Mavigan and Ariana to stand in the doorway behind them.

Listening to Mavigan, it was clear that Ariana had indeed prevailed. As Mavigan concluded, the Raven drew his dagger, made a sign, and held it so Teran could see the dark flame that enveloped the blade illuminating the implacable look on the Raven's face.

Written by - Ardwen

Manuel watched the weathervane shift in the brisk wind, it was shaped like a falcon in midflight. The metal was corroded, shot through with streaks of red, like blood had dripped, ran, and dried on its surface. The once-Forlorn Hope ran a hand over his face and stepped back into his office. He still wore the golden chain of his new station, and he fingered it as he settled back into his seat behind a plain wooden desk. The desk was old, chipped in places and the wood had faded in uneven tones, there were dark stains on the surface so ancient as to be part of the wood. For all that, it was the desk used by the previous mayor of Westgale, who had been one of the first to die under Beridane’s purges. Manuel had known the man, when Beridane had asked for an oath of fealty he had spat at the Usurper’s feet.

“He was a good man.” Manuel muttered to himself.

“Lord-Mayor?” Manuel’s head snapped up and he studied the puzzled expression on Byrs’s face. His new aid, Manuel had found the man an exceptional help in settling into his new position and responsibilities. It was all the more remarkable considering that Byrs looked as if he belonged in a line of heavy infantry rather than at a desk job. Tall and heavyset, with thick eyebrows rested on top of a shelf-like brow, Byrs’s voice was a rumble so deep he had to strain to hear it.

“You ever think you’ve missed your calling in life?” Westgale’s new mayor said idly.

“Lord-Mayor?” Byrs echoed again, the look of befuddlement on his face deepening.

Manuel brought a hand down on the desk with a loud thump and said with a grin, “Byrs, how many times do I have to tell you to not call me that? I don’t want any godsdamned fancy titles. Call me Manuel or asshole, or whatever you want, but none of this flippin’ ‘my lord such-and-such’ horseshit.” Manuel’s grin grew as he watched the big man squirm; he seemed uncomfortable around the newly ennobled mayor’s rough tongue. That would have to change.

As if to cover his discomfort, Byrs reached one meaty hand out, clutching a sheaf of paper. Without a word Manuel took the report and scanned it. For several dozen heartbeats the Mayor of Westgale said nothing, silence reigned in the small office. All at once the man brought a fist down on the table. “All day you’ve brought me nothing but bad news, but this has to be the worst.” Manuel groaned.

Byrs began enumerating on the report, his voice detached and blank, “If we enact sharp rations now, Westgale will have a small window to avoid famine, but Beridane has decimated our food and grain supplies. What the Traitor did not take from our lands and make tribute to the Iron North, he put to the torch. The crown regalia is also missing, Manuel, we think he may have stolen them on his flight from the city.”

The Mayor of Port Westgale massaged his temples and slowly let out a deep lungful of air. “OK, have you got any good news for me, Attendant Byrs?”

“Some, but very little, Lord-Mayor Manuel,” he grinned at Manuel’s frown and handed him another set of papers from the stack he had tucked under his left arm, “the number of Ironskane dead from the prison break that, I have heard, freed you and many others.”

“Yes, I was biding my time for the right moment to . . . escape . . . Byrs, am I reading this right?”

“The figure arrived at was, assuming standard Ironskane deployment and squad strength, a little over a company and a half.”

“That’s not possible,” Manuel hissed, “you’re telling me over a hundred and fifty dead in the span of a single engagement?”

The Mayor’s aid studied his boss with hooded eyes, “If I recall, you made a study of the old documents of the Hands, both primary and secondary sources. Pallanon made sure his soldiers weren’t just pulled from the poor district and handed a sword, he gave them an education. What do you think?”

Manuel’s eyes narrowed as he held Byrs’s gaze, “What company?”

Byrs’s face split in a smile that showed off his teeth, “Third. Galefinder’s Brigade, and yes I was a slope-brow.”

“Well, well, heavy infantry.” Manuel said with a whistle. “I’m not surprised. Alright, here’s my take on it. As you know the original documents the Hands brought with them was in a foreign language, but under the reign of Abbess Ariana it was adopted as a hieratic script, at first for the convenience of the Abbess but it quickly caught on with the court. After Ariana’s disappearance the writing fell out of favor and was largely abandoned, very few bother to learn it today.”

“Good so far,” Byrs rumbled, “but lacking a point.”

“I was getting to that. My point is that the language brought over by the Hands of Providence was in and of itself derived from an even older script. There were hints of it scattered in the documents, mostly names, place-names, and titles. There are only a few references to Ardwen or his deeds in the texts that survive, or rather in the texts that I have read. In two separate instances I encountered a word I could not directly translate attached to Ardwen’s name, and once when it was apparently used synecdochically. That word was, near as I could puzzle out, elohim, divinitas, divine.”

“So, god-like?”

Manuel shrugged. “Perhaps, perhaps not. In any case, old texts exaggerate; time has a way of inflating people and events.”

Byrs coughed. “Take a look at the second page of the report, Lord-Mayor.”

Manuel did so, his eyes flickering over the writing. “Brys,” he said without preamble, “I have another assignment for you. Go fetch Ardwen and tell him to come to my office, immediately.”

Written by - Ardwen

The newly appointed Lord-Mayor of Westgale chewed on his lower lip, he stopped and tented his fingers. With a grunt Manuel unfolded his hands and placed them on his desk. He was restless, and it was showing. These next few minutes could decide Westgale’s future, and I made an oath that I would give everything to ensure Westgale has a future. The former Forlorn Hope’s thoughts were interrupted as the door to his office flew open, the door banged against the wall and shuddered, Ardwen had apparently felt the need to make his arrival known. “Not a good start,” Manuel said under his breath.

Byrs had followed the Elven warrior into the Mayor’s quarters, but Manuel dismissed him with a wave of his hand. The attendant watched as Ardwen sat himself without invitation, crossed his legs at the knees, and then knuckled a fist under his cheek as if to support his head. Byrs’s eyebrows rose at the impropriety, but Manuel coughed once, loudly, and the once-Galefinder infantryman departed with a slight bow. The door closed with a final protesting groan behind him.

Alone now, the two warriors stared at each other. The sable-winged elf’s gaze was detached and apathetic, as if the Mayor of Westgale’s official summons was nothing more than an interruption to be tolerated. Manuel let the silence drag on for a few moments, until Ardwen broke it.

“I assume you called me in here for more than a staring contest?”

Manuel drummed his fingers on the desk’s surface. “I had all these questions and answers planned out in my mind, but now that we’ve come to it nothing seems to go as planned.”

Ardwen scoffed and said, “Doesn’t it just? What do you want, Manuel? More importantly, how does it involve me?”

The Mayor of Westgale let out a small sigh and rose to his feet, pushing a sheet of paper across the table toward Ardwen as he did so. “Please read that,” he said, “while I pace. It helps me think.”

The ancient warrior’s eyes darted over the sheet of paper, the only sound in the small office was the steady rhythm of Manuel’s boots as he walked back and forth from a window to the desk in tight circles.

“So you’ve got a soldier shortage, Mayor. Are you asking me to join up? If so, then answer is no.”

Manuel spun around and faced the Elf. “You are already sworn to Ariana, and by extension all of Westgale, there is no need for that.

“Do not,” Ardwen snarled, “presume to tell me where my loyalties are. If you’ve nothing else-“

“Peace, Ardwen, please.” Manuel said while raising a hand. “I didn’t summon you here to ask you to join the military or campaign for us, I called you here to ask for your advice.

“Are you certain you want that, Manuel? Are you sure I am qualified? Perhaps I should take a guess at the current situation, see how close I am, and we can go from there?”

Manuel nodded.

“You’re concerned because Mavigan’s reclaimed Westgale, but nothing else. You’ve got a city that’s isolated from its farmlands, and even if you had an army to march out with we’re past the fall harvest. Beridane’s fled from the city, but he’s pissed in your wine already and now you’ve got this lovely image of the fat bastard sitting in the north laughing as you choke down the mess he’s left you. No food, no soldiers, no trade, all Beridane has to do is wait and Westgale will be his again, and he’s already forced our hand. The Usurper will return, and he’ll only be stronger from our efforts.”

“That was an unsurprisingly pessimistic assessment.” Manuel said flatly. “Yet, surprisingly accurate.”

“So what do you want from me?”

Ardwen watched as Manuel passed a hand through his hair. The former siege expert slid a veiled gaze across the room. “My duty as Mayor is to help Mavigan in her official court functions, and that includes seeing to the security and prosperity of the realm as a whole. Right now all I’ve got to work with is boot leather and bad language, what I want from you Ardwen, is to know what I do have to work with. You’re a Hand, you bloodied the Traitor King’s nose singlehandedly, and I’ve got a report from several cadre mages, as well as a tally of the dead, that suggests there was more to it than that. So, you tell me.”

Ardwen grunted. “What would you call me, Manuel, if you had to guess me race?”

“I would have named you an Elf, but . . .”

“That is a misnomer. Beware of xenonyms, because that’s someone else’s understanding applied to something that isn’t there’s to comprehend. My people’s word for themselves is Dar.” Ardwen saw Manuel’s gaze light up as soon as he said the word. “Yes, the humans of Aerynth called us ‘Elves’, but we paid little heed to a language that, so far as the High Court was concerned, was as sophisticated as a series of grunts and sharp blows to the head. Dar, it would mean “highest” or “greatest” in your language. Elerus and I, we are one of the first of our people, a people who continually sought ascension, a people originally born from the All-Father’s own blood.”

Manuel scratched at the stubble on his chin and said. “Then you and the boy, you are both Ascendants?”

“That is a complicated term, but the answer so far as it concerns this conversation is yes – to an extent.”

“A complicated answer.”

Ardwen shrugged. “Do not expect me to lay low a pantheon Manuel, or rip mountains up by their roots. We come from different worlds; our understanding of the term is doubtless mutually exclusive.”

“I will ask only one more thing of you Ardwen: if you know of any other Hands, any way to get them here . . . we could use the help.”

The venerable warrior rose from his seat. “You have my aid so long as Elerus and Ariana are here, my loyalty is to them first and foremost. I can speak for no others.” With no further words Ardwen walked from the office, but he did not slam the door as he exited.

Written by - Ardwen

The venerable elf breathed in the crisp fall air. It wasn’t cold enough to condense his breath into puffs of mist, but it was getting there. It was far too late into autumn, too late, like Manuel’s plea for help. The Hands couldn’t save this kingdom even if they were here. Ardwen heard faint scuffling, and glanced down an alleyway to his right. There were children huddled inside, they regarded him with wide eyes. “Where’s El? I thought he said he was coming back out?” One of the youths said.

Ardwen shook his head, grunted, and walked on. The ancient warrior breathed in another great lungful of air, brought up phlegm with it, and spat. No, the Hands could not do a thing, but maybe he could. The bladeweaver set his feet toward the castle near the Manor House, it would not take him long to find where Teran was being held, and since Ariana seemed determined to defy him, he imagined he would find her there. The woman had ignored him before, but now he carried the wish of an entire city with him.

It was as he suspected, guards lined up as if on parade ground duty in a practical corridor to where the living Saint and the last surviving member of the royal line had gone. For all their care and duty, they might as well have painted a large red arrow indicating where all the important people in the realm were gathered. Ardwen stopped outside of a closed wooden door with two men standing in front. They wore chain hauberks with the livery of Westgale emblazoned on surcoats, vambraces, greaves, their faces hidden behind gleaming Bevors polished to such a degree that the Elf could see his warped reflection in them. “Let me through.” Ardwen said.

“Sorry sir,” the soldier on the left said, “we’ve got orders to only let the Living Saint or Queen Mavigan pass. Can’t let anyone in here unless the word comes through the lips of my officer.”

“All-Father bite your balls and chew slow! I’m here by request of the Lord-Mayor, that high enough up the chain for you? Now, I’m not going to say it again: let me pass.”

The two helms swiveled to regard one another, a second later the body’s followed as one of the guards reached down to jerk open the door. Ardwen strode past into a crowded antechamber with two more guards and another closed door. No exchange was needed this time, the two Westgalers inclined their heads slightly and pulled open the door before Ardwen was halfway across the room. The ancient Elf found what he was looking for inside, Ariana Trueblood. The Elven swordsman was not surprised to see Mavigan was present as well. The warrior pointedly ignored Teran; through he cast a veiled glance at him as he walked next to Ariana. His features were as nondescript as ever, Ardwen felt his eyes sliding past him almost naturally, and his mind struggled to recall the assassin’s features already.

“Ariana,” Ardwen began, his voice low, “Manuel tells me that we’re short on soldiers, food, and resources of every sort. He’s put out a call to us begging if we can locate more of our kind, anything to tip the scales to our favor. You, and Mavigan, have an entire realm that’s screaming for help right now. There’s days, at most, to come up with a plan, and probably less time to do it in. You want to die? I’m sure we can entertain all sort of interesting and unique scenarios to go screaming through death’s gate.”

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