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Book Four Pt 2 - The Eastern Pass

Written by - Ariana Page 18 Book 4

Mavigan, at Wilhelm’s behest, lead the small party in the direction of the port. With each step, her familiarity with the area grew. It felt good to be on familiar turf, and as they walked she could feel the hated trappings of royalty fall away; there was less Mavigan and more Brell. By the time they reached the exit to the highway and emerged under the cover of night into the balmy sea air, her eyes positively glowed with excitement.

Stalking from shadow to shadow, the small group avoided two bands of Beridane’s soldiers before Brell brought them to a halt in front of an abandoned and decrepit shack on the outskirts of the Docks. The door, though nearly rotting off its hinges, curiously made no sound as they entered. Dust liberally covered the contents of the shack which consisted of a broken table, a rickety chair that might or might not support the weight of an occupant, and a few broken pieces of pottery.

Brell walked with sure steps to one piece of the broken table. She crouched down and felt along the underside with sure fingers. One quick push was all it took for a small compartment to pop out of the side of the table. Her eager fingers reached in and pulled out a piece of parchment.

“A small light please Willy,” she said with a grin.

Wilhelm complied and she scanned the list quickly, her smile turning into a frown. She stalked over to the far wall and again repeated the process she had used on the table. This time, the compartment revealed a pre-inked writing stylus, one of the many magical items Jonan liked to steal. She hunched over the paper in the dim light hurriedly scrawling on the parchment. When she was finished, she replaced everything as she had found it, then turned to Wilhelm.

“Jonan hasn’t checked in for some time. The last message was months ago. That usually means he has been arrested again. So, unless we want to stage a jail break my contact will not be useful. Shall we try yours?”

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus noted the long pause after Ardwen’s question to Ariana. Slowly the young Elf looked up to glance at the face of the Abbess of the Hands. Ardwen had often spoken of his lost and beloved Abbess, painting her in flowery but melancholy language as more an angel than a mortal woman. Elerus had heard much, how Ariana had trusted him, how she sought to inspire him and help him move beyond his life as a mere weapon, and finally how she had listened to Ardwen’s regrets and worries – always without complaint and always without mocking.

Elerus straightened from his bow but kept his gaze fixed on the leader of the Hands. Even standing straight Ariana was far taller than he. Elerus couldn’t help but think of how he must look to the Abbess; a small boy who had appeared out of nowhere, an elven child with an odd white wing on his right. “Um . . .” Elerus muttered softly when he noticed Ariana was staring at him with rapt attention. The young elf broke the gaze first and studied the floor with sudden intense interest. Then, without warning, Ariana reached a single finger forward and stroked one of the large feathers on the outer edge of his wing. Elerus felt her touch, and he looked back up to see a broad smile on the lady’s face. Then, without warning she reached down to grab his hand and started walking.

Caught off guard, Elerus’s training made him brace his legs as Ardwen had to resist what his body thought was a throw. Unfortunately, his instincts had not accounted for the now vast difference in his weight and size. Ariana did not seem to notice and kept walking, and Elerus nearly toppled over as he was pulled along. The young elf managed to avoid smacking into her back as he caught up and simply let Ariana hold his hand as she guided him through the Citadel’s halls. The Abbess of the Hands shouted back at Ardwen, urging him to get moving, but she needn’t have yelled – with the matter of if his friend could tag along or not settled Ardwen had adopted a pace that kept him a few steps behind.

As the trio walked onto the roads that lead them to the outer reaches of the Citadel, Elerus couldn’t help but notice the number of people pointing and staring. Perhaps stories of the strange occurrences in the innermost part of the Citadel had already circulated, or perhaps the sight of an Elven warrior who kept most of his form cloaked in deep purple, a woman who seemed oblivious to the world around her save the direction she was going, and a small winged child sounded as bizarre to others as it did in Elerus’s mind.

Ardwen kept pace behind Ariana and Elerus, and to those that stopped to stare he simply met their gaze, and none dared to keep Ardwen’s eyes on them for long, hiding their meekness behind feigned coughs and quickly resumed conversations with those nearby. Ardwen let out a small sigh and continued to match the brisk pace Ariana was setting. To his surprise Elerus had made no attempt to remove her grip, in fact his friend had actually moved closer to the Abbess and looked to be keeping his head down. Ardwen felt sorry for him, to be the object of so much unwanted attention, but there was nothing he could do about it now.

After a few more twists and turns Ariana had lead them to one of the Citadel’s minor gates. Minor being a relative term, the gatehouse was still guarded and had a thick set of metal shod wooden doors baring the way past. As soon as the gatehouse had come into view and it looked certain Ariana was heading towards it, Ardwen had rushed ahead and exchanged a few short words with the guards. While they had demanded some manner of permit, apparently security was heightened with the campaign for the second assault so soon; Ardwen simply informed them of who he was. Oddly, but not entirely unexpectedly, his name did much to put the guards at ease. A few more words later and the gate was swinging open and the three walked through with Ardwen bouncing a pouch of coins in his left hand. He quickly stashed the money away and looked over his shoulder to offer a quick nod and a parting wave of his hand to thank the two guards. The gesture was not returned, and the wooden door slammed swiftly shut.

“Ardwen?” The Elven warrior heard Elerus speak, “where exactly are we going? Did she tell you?”

“No, but if I had to guess,” Ardwen said, “I’d say we’re going to that path into the woods there.”

The two elves fell silent as they drew closer to the forest, and by the time they stepped amongst the trees each was straining their ears to catching any sound of threat or approach. So far the woods seemed peaceful, but both Ardwen and Elerus had taken far too many jaunts through the woods that had turned bloody in an instant to be fooled.

Written by - Sycon

First there were the sounds of birds as they jumped from branch to branch, calling to each other across the trees. Then several squirrels as they chittered away at the birds. She could hear them scampering across the ground, and if she concentrated. . . thump thump, thump thump, hear each beat of their little hearts. Then there was another, familiar but unique sound.

thump thump, thump thump

It was much slower than the rest. It was calm, very soothing. She listened to it for several mintues, letting the sound become more of a feeling. The feeling spread through her. First it was a tingling on the back of her neck. It spilled over her shoulders and down her back. It flowed over every inch of her small body until she came to the realization it was her body. It was her.

She opened her eyes for the first time, bright light filled them. She sat up slowly, feeling shaky, then squinted towards the horizon. It hurt a little, but it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen and she coud not turn her eyes away. She looked out across the trees and saw the morning fog slowly lift. She watches the events unfold before her eyes, watching each beautiful moment. Before too long, she realized the cold stone beneath her. It didn't bother her, but it was still a new sensation. She ran her hand over the rough surface. It was dry.

She drew herself up to her feet, wobbled once and fell flat on her butt. She giggled a little, as she tried once more. She wobbled once, then steadied. It felt good to stand on your own. She stretched to the sky, then down to her feet. "What a gorgeous morning." She stated to herself. "Now to get down from this rock." She peered over each side, trying to find a way down into the dense forest below. Finally she decided on the least steep slope and started down. She fell once or twice, dirtying her little white dress, but she made it down without a scratch.

She walked through the forest, mostly watching the birds play with each other. They didn't seem to mind her at all. She smiled constantly, loving the fresh breeze that swept through her hair. She was in mid-thought of how cool it was, when she heard voices in the distance. Smiling, wondering who it was, she ran in the general direction. She barely left a sound as she moved.

It wasn't long before she was upon them. She still couldn't see them, but she could hear them on the other side of the bushes that stood in her way. She parted the bushes slightly with her arms, which rustled them, as she pushed her way through. Her hair caught several twigs, but she easily brushed them loose and was out the other side. She stood only for a second as she looked at the trio.

There was a small boy with a pretty fluffy wing, a woman with a streak in her hair and, "UNCLE ARDY!" She squeeled and ran to him, grabbing his waist in a hug. She had never seen the man before in his life, but still, she knew him, and for some reason, loved him.

Somewhere in the back of her mind there was a chuckle.

Written by - Ardwen

Ariana, Ardwen, and Elerus continued their silent trek through the forest. Ardwen had taken point in the group, a position that was made all the more difficult by the fact that he was not actually leading. The Elven warrior had to constantly glance over his shoulder to make sure Ariana was still heading in the same direction he was, and the rest Ardwen simply left up to guesswork and anticipation. The Elven swordsman knew that this close to the Citadel the chance of an ambush was practically nonexistent, but he wanted to remain on guard and impress upon his Abbess how he intended to run the small group. After all, for all he knew Ariana was as apt to lead them to a dragon’s den as a humble inn, and if they were to walk into danger Ardwen wanted to be the first to step into it.

“Ardwen,” Elerus said quietly, “when is she going to let go of my hand?” Ardwen glanced back to see Elerus looking up at Ariana. The young Elf had tilted his head to the side, but Ardwen could see a slight blush in his cheeks.

“El,” Ardwen said while returning his attention to the path ahead, “you need to get used to people treating you like that.”

“Absurd!” Elerus hissed in response, “If Ariana treated you anything like this you’d be up in arms.”

“The many advantages to looking older than eight.” Ardwen quipped.

“Yet you don’t act it.” Elerus retorted quickly.

Ardwen stopped walking and stared ahead for a few moments. He turned his head to the left and regarded Elerus out of the corner of his eye, “Congratulations,” he said slowly, “you finally won a round. Superb.”

“Oh,” Elerus said calmly, “I didn’t think we were joking.” Ardwen merely gave a dismissive “hmph” in response and resumed his pace at the head of the group. No sooner had Ardwen found his stride at the front than he heard a noise from the undergrowth near the side of the trail. The Elven bladeweaver threw out an arm in a quick single to halt and listened intently. The noise repeated itself, and Ardwen was certain something was moving in the bushes at the edge of the trail. But the noise was too soft for something large, or rather, something large without a considerable amount of skill.

All at once the brush parted and something darted from the greenery. Ardwen nearly had a copy of a blade in his hands before his eyes caught up with his instincts. The form running toward him was that of a young girl, and within the span of a few heartbeats the energetic child had wrapped his waist in as tight a hug as she could manage. The real surprise for the Elf came when she chirped out his name and the appellation “uncle”. The first thing Ardwen did was look to Elerus, but his winged companion simply shrugged his shoulders and turned his head in a likely intentionally failed attempt to hide a smirk. The next thought Ardwen had was that the young girl had silver hair and pale blue eyes, while the later was possible Ardwen had never seen silver hair on a human before. The closest color he could think of was Elerus’s hair, but her hair was almost metallic in sheen, whereas the normal color amongst Elves was a snowy white.

Then, of course, the blue-eyed girl had called him by name, and Ardwen was certain that he had never seen the girl before. So many minor coincidences, but Ardwen was certain they added up to something, however, the Elf was unable to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. Fortunately for him, Ariana had stopped walking and was staring at the scene the female child had created, and Ardwen decided to use the pause. The Elven warrior gently pried the girl off him and knelt down, placing one hand on the child’s right shoulder Ardwen said, “Good to see you. But, it's been so long I'm afraid I've forgotten your name, young one. Why don't you remind me, and then tell me why you are out here in the middle of the woods, alone?"

Written by - Sycon

She looked up into the old elf's eyes as he spoke. She moved her shoulders from side to side, giving in to her excitement. "My name?" She put her finger up to her mouth in thought as she swayed back and forth. "Hmmm." Her eyes caught on other child's wing. All fluffy and cute, and... "Angel. My name's Angel." She chirped with a smile. "And you're Uncle Ardy. I know because," she paused, "because I just do."

She peeked around Ardwen once more to stare at the little winged elf. She screwed up her face slightly, thinking hard, then composed herself. Confident and poised she walked several steps toward him until she stood eye to eye with him. Well, she thought, perhaps she was a little taller. "I love your wing. What's your name?" She wondered if they knew how much she just wanted to give the winged boy a hug and fluff up the wing, but was too afraid.

Written by - Dartanian Merquise

The demon’s sickening presence seeped into Tarelias’ brain, forcing itself through what meager mental defenses he could offer to combat it. Before long Tarelias felt himself losing grip on his senses and his sanity.

His vision blurred, the image of his cackling half-brother and the surrounding countryside quickly fading to a black and menacing mindscape. Tarelias could not tell whose mind he was in. Was he facing a deadly invader in his own, or was he a hostage in Valdaris’? In either case, he faced a desperate situation. Dealing with the mind attacks of his warlock half-brother had never been easy for him.

Before he could take stock of his situation, Tarelias found his surroundings shifting. Where before there was nothing but a chaotic expanse of blackened wasteland, there was now substance and form. In moments Tarelias found himself in a great hall. Cold stone walls adorned with blue and gold banners rose to a high vaulted ceiling. A massive oak door framed an entire wall of the room, while rich carpeting led to a throne on a raised dais. What appeared to be a normally opulent setting was at that moment in utter chaos. Expensive tapestries lay in tatters, torn and covered in blood. Wooden chairs which had once lined the room lay smashed and splintered. Dozens of armor clad bodies littered the room, staining the floor red with their blood and entrails.

In an instant, Tarelias recognized the main hall of his father’s castle. He had not seen this room in such a long time, but the memories flooded back to him as if he had been gone a mere day. The carnage confused him however, who were all these slain warriors? Then it dawned on him, as he recognized many of the blue clad men, many of whom he had known well as a child. Lying among them were the bodies of countless Templar Knights in distinctive red plate mail and wielding claymores, as Valdaris had. Tarelias’ heart went cold.

Quickly scanning the room, he saw what he hoped he would not. Near the foot of the throne was his father, struggling to breathe and lying in a pool of his own blood. His features, once proud and noble, were now broken and beaten. His fatherly smile was nowhere to be found, replaced instead by the look of a man who saw his end at hand.

Standing over him was a small boy clad in blood-red chain mail and wielding a long dagger. The boy could not have been older than six years of age, but he wore a wicked grin that betrayed a bloodlust and brutality unfit in one so young. His straight brown hair was drenched in blood and sweat, and Tarelias could make out the sickening glisten of more blood all over the child’s armor.

Before Tarelias had time to react, the young Valdaris advanced on the helpless man at his feet. Desperate to stop the boy, Tarelias struggled to command his legs to move. After what seemed an eternity he was able to get his body moving in a mad dash to put himself between his father and the boy. It was too late. Before he could take more than a few steps, the young Valdaris mercilessly plunged the dagger to its hilt into the man’s chest. Opening his mouth, Tarelias tried to yell, only to find his voice failing him as well. Inside his mind he was screaming.

The room spun, fading away into blackness even as Tarelias tried desperately to reach his father. When he was finally able to regain his focus, Tarelias found himself naked and chained, suspended in a black void. Tears formed in his eyes, the memory of his father’s murder still fresh in his mind. From beyond the dark fringes of the void he heard the cackling of a dozen sinister voices. Scanning from left to right as far as the chains would allow, he was unable to detect the source of the evil laughter.

“Did you enjoy the little show, dear brother?” the voice of Valdaris echoed inside Tarelias’ head.

“You filthy bastard.”

“Wrong again!” the voice said with glee. “You were the bastard child. You and your brother were the product of that disgusting pairing of man and elf. It was because of that unholy union that my birth was necessitated. Had I not cleansed the world of your family’s vile taint, you would have spread your disease throughout the land. You, my dear brother…are an abomination!” The voice went silent for a moment, and Tarelias could faintly make out the silhouettes of at least a dozen figures advancing on him. The sound of their laughter sent a shiver down Tarelias’ spine.

“But I know how do deal with abominations like you,” continued Valdaris. “The pain will cleanse your soul of its wickedness, and destroy the vile taint of your body, and then the world will be free of yet another of your kind forever!”

As Valdaris fell silent, the figures emerged from the blackness, dozens of hideous demonic creatures wielding hellish tools of torture. Their faces were twisted and grotesque, with hunger in their eyes. Creatures of all shapes and sizes approached, each more vile and unholy than the last. Tarelias’ heart quickened as he saw the black instruments of death they carried; blades, saws, and stabbing objects of every conceivable type were brought to bear against him. Struggling against the chains as they came, there was nothing he could do to stop the demonic onslaught. They advanced on him. A dozen hellish tools of torture bit deeply into his naked flesh. Tarelias uttered an unearthly cry that emanated from the very depths of his tortured soul.

Written by - Turin Wallace

Ithramir, lost in thought, continued watching the profiles of the army heading into the portal. It was then he felt a light touch on his shoulder, turning, he saw Catherin and she was motioning Kaya forward. With an almost inaudible whisper, she says,

"She wants an audience, milord."

Kaya moved forward and spoke,

"Lord Ithramir, Nyrondis sent me a message, and it is my duty to serve you in the upcoming battle. My sword and I are yours. But I would ask of you this. I believe among your soldiers are remnants of those who had once served under me. I ask your permission to seek them out and reband them once more. I feel there is need for our skills as a unit, and that we would better serve you as such."

As she spoke, Ithramir remembered the not so distant past and her role in the events. Glancing to Catherin he could see she did not forget either. However, Ithramir understood what had happened. After pondering a moment, Ithramir responds,

"You may seek out your comrades and reform your unit, but it is under one condition: You and your unit will be given the honor of the first assault inside the gates of Minas Uial. I will not lie to you, losses are expected to be heavy. This, Kaya, is not punishment, for I know your deeds were not your own. However, if you do this, you shall have my personal thanks and no one will ever doubt your courage and loyalty ever again."

Ithramir reaches out and places his hands on her shoulders. Looking into her eyes, he gives her a nod, then says,

"What say you, Kaya?"

Written by - Tempyst

Kaya listened to Lord Ithramir, and headed his words. She could see the concern in his face but was pleased when he gave her permission to reform her unit. She inhaled a quick breath when she heard the conditions, but quickly realized the honor Ithramir was giving to her. "Thank you my Lord, for the honor you give to me, I assure you, if any of my men are here, we will serve you till the end." She saluted Ithramir and then left, heading into the ranks of soldiers to look for those who had once served under her.

Written by - Turin Wallace

As Ithramir watched Kaya move away, he could almost hear what Catherin had been thinking, and so says,

"As hard as it is for some to believe, I see no treachery in her eyes. In order to regain honor, blood must be shed, and that is what will happen. Should she make it through the assault, there will be no more talk about her being a traitor."

Catherin nodded and understood. While she did not have anything personal against Kaya, she would be waiting and watching her every move. That is, until she proved herself to her.

Ithramir gently spurred his horse forward, saying,

"Come, Catherin. Time to enter the portal ourselves."

Now, back in Minas Aure, Ithramir began by entering the central Keep and making it his temporary home. Since the retaking of the fortress city, and subsequent absence, the troops had been busy clearing and repairing the city.

The streets had been cleared and just outside the gate leading to Minas Uial, funeral pyres of Orc bodies let the enemy know the fate of those who had dared defy them. Reconstruction of many damage buildings had commenced, keeping all the soldiers busy working and not lying about. The Keep itself has been repaired to such an extent that nary a trace remained of the fight that had raged there.

While Ithramir waited for the rest of the troops, he busied himself by gathering intelligence about the valley and troop strength in Minas Uial. It was then that Captain Varion entered, and after a proper greeting, asked for the Blue Knights marching orders. Ithramir responded,

"The Blue Knights will ride with the first line of the army. More specifically, the left flank will be yours to protect and hold. Your infiltrators will need the cover once we reach the walls. I have found soldiers fight better when they fight for those they know well, therefore, there is no one better to protect their rear and the hidden entrance than those of the same company.

You won't be alone, however. The entire army hinges on you, and your soldiers, ability to get through the secret tunnel and open that gate. Until then, the army will be stalled and we expect heavy losses. I trust you and your men will do what needs to be done with haste."

Ithramir gave Varion a chance to respond before beginning more preparations.

Written by - Dartanian Merquise

Catherin stared coolly at Varion while the young Captain received marching orders from Lord Ithramir. No doubt she was still wary of him after the incident that morning. Varion acknowledged her politely, and turned his attention to the Elven Lord.

“The Blue Knights will ride with the first line of the army. More specifically, the left flank will be yours to protect and hold. Your infiltrators will need the cover once we reach the walls. I have found soldiers fight better when they fight for those they know well, therefore, there is no one better to protect their rear and the hidden entrance than those of the same company.

“You won't be alone, however. The entire army hinges on you, and your soldiers, ability to get through the secret tunnel and open that gate. Until then, the army will be stalled and we expect heavy losses. I trust you and your men will do what needs to be done with haste.”

Varion quickly dispatched the aide at his side to return to Dartanian with the orders. Turning his attention back to Ithramir, he spoke. “We will not disappoint you m’lord. Regarding the attack, have there been any other volunteers, or should I requisition additional Blue Knights for the task? Also, is there any other specific information or intelligence we should be aware of before launching our attack? The nature of the access hole perhaps or anything else we can expect to encounter once inside the sewer system?

Written by - Dartanian Merquise

Within moments of stepping through the portal, Dartanian found himself transported into the heart of Minas Aure. The stronghold was massive indeed, and bustling with activity. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers, smiths, healers, construction workers, cooks, and other support personnel swarmed over what was indeed a small city. Repair work on buildings damaged in the assault as well as the fortifications was ongoing, and dozens of command tents dotted the area immediately surrounding the inner keep. Smiths worked tirelessly, repairing armor and re-forging weapons for the multitude of troops. Surgeons and healers were busy setting up aid stations in preparation for the hundreds of wounded who would no doubt be flooding back to Minas Aure before morning. Dartanian could also smell the sweet aroma of cooking food, the army would eat heartily one last time before setting out, there was no telling when they would have the opportunity to have a hot meal again.

Urging his mount forward, Dartanian moved with his men through the massive east gates, making room for the thousands of soldiers still yet to come. Once outside the stronghold, the thick smell of burning flesh attacked his senses. Dozens of massive piles of orc bodies lay ablaze, with more being thrown on every moment. The stench was overpowering, but the vast number of enemy dead was a welcome sight. Surely they would slay many more before the day was done. Finally moving out of range of the powerful smell, Dartanian led his men to a place where they could briefly set up camp and eat their last meal before setting off.

Shortly thereafter, Varion’s aide returned with marching orders from Lord Ithramir. The men had been moved into the appropriate position among the tens of thousands of other soldiers, and ordered to make their last preparations for the coming battle. Consulting the field maps from the Citadel on a broken door they had found among the rubble stretched across two boulders, Dartanian held a meeting with his Lieutenants. Based on the number of troops in the first wave, Dartanian marked points on the map to indicate their approach to the walls and points of assault. The strongest push would come directly at the small access hole, allowing Varion and the other volunteers to begin their mission as quickly as possible. The other key point of attack was the Blue Knights’ right flank. It was vitally important that they maintain cohesion with the units next to them; otherwise the orcs could punch a hole in the lines and cause untold chaos, which would spill over into the second and third waves of the attack. Dartanian stressed the importance of this aspect of the battle as best he could. Finally, the left flank was important as well to the overall assault. The Blue Knights had the duty of protecting the entire army’s left flank. Dartanian’s plan was to have the central units attacking the access hole push the orcs to the walls, and then send some of them sweeping left to support the flank. If the maneuver worked, they might just be able to divide the defending orc forces and slaughter them piecemeal. Once Varion and his men had succeeded, the biggest objective in Dartanian’s mind was to seize and hold the gatehouse, allowing the army to pour in without being bottled up and harassed from all sides by the orc defenders.

Having issued his final orders, Dartanian dismissed his Lieutenants to their respective units. Letting out a sigh, he scanned the horizon. Hundreds of multicolored banners and flags dotted the entrance to the valley. Exactly how many men there were preparing to assault Minas Uial, he did not know for sure, but he guessed that there were at least a few hundred thousand already, with more pouring from the gates every second.

“Count Merquise,” a voice called to him from off to his right. Dartanian turned to see the face of Sir Johann, commander of the human forces fighting in Queen Mavigan’s name. Dartanian returned the salute as Johann approached.

“My apologies Sir Johann,” Dartanian began, “that events did not turn out as you had hoped this morning.” He was referring to Johann’s attempt to rally the human commanders against Lord Ithramir.

Johann shook his head. “Nonsense lad. I had a feeling you would dispel the situation. I simply said what I said in order to rally the men behind you. I had no real intention of inciting a riot.” The knight chuckled. “However, I will say this, the reactions you garnered in there were absolutely priceless my boy!” Dartanian smiled slightly as the two clasped hands. Turning to look out at the army, Johann continued, “Lord Ithramir can be difficult at times. He is a hard man, and that’s just the sort we need to defeat Beridane. He doesn’t much care for me, that’s for sure. I hoped to prove a point this morning; he cannot walk all over us and expect our unconditional support. Yet while he doesn’t like me, you are an unknown to him. He still doesn’t know what to make of you. That’s why I suspect he’s given you one of the most dangerous and important parts of this mission, to see just what you’re made of.

“It’s unfortunate that we are sidetracked in our current endeavor,” he continued, indicating the army with a sweep of his arm. “But we desperately need the help of the Elves in this, and we cannot have them falling to the orcs, nor do we need the orcs opening a second front in this war. We have to quash the threat now so we may turn our attention to other matters.”

“Do you really think taking back Minas Uial will stop the orcs?” Dartanian asked.

“Hard to say,” Johann crossed his arms, propping up his left arm and stroking his chin as he considered the question. “The orcs and elves have been fighting for eons. Forays into one another’s territories are a common occurrence here. But the orcs have never pushed so rapidly and with such force until now. Our only hope is to secure Minas Uial, consolidate our position, and hope that the orcs have got a bloody enough nose that they won’t try anything for a while.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Dartanian answered, turning away from Johann to gaze out at the army once again.

“Count Merquise,” Johann said abruptly. “Your father…Robert…I had not heard…”

“Yes,” Dartanian said, looking down a moment as the realization that his father was not there suddenly washed over him once again. “After King Pallanon was assassinated, the Baron Hayner invaded. My father was killed early in the fighting.”

“I’m terribly sorry to hear that,” Johann replied, placing a comforting hand on Dartanian’s shoulder. “Hayner…I never did trust their lot. What of the Baron?”

“Dead.”

“I see. And his lands?”

“Under Merquise control, for the moment at least.”

“Well done my boy, well done,” Johann beamed. “When this mess is all over, we will head west with the rest of the forces loyal to Mavigan and help you consolidate your position. With any luck, we will be primed to launch our counterattack on Beridane from there.”

“That would be wonderful,” Dartanian said.

“Well then lad, you be careful out there, and good luck to you. A good portion of my own forces will be right behind you, so don’t feel like you have to do everything yourself!” Johann chuckled.

“Good luck to you as well Sir Johann, All-Father go with you.”

“And you as well, Count Merquise.”

The two men exchanged crisp salutes once more before departing to see to any last minute preparations. The sun would soon be setting, and shortly thereafter the hard march to Minas Uial would begin.

Written by - Wilhelm

Considering her statement, Wilhelm responded,

"Very well, then, it appears we will need to seek out the Raven."

The faint sound of moving cloth reached their ears and a deep male voice spoke behind them.

"That won't be required. Speak my name and I am here."

The foursome turned to see a tall powerful figure dressed entirely in black silk gliding into the room with the grace of a panther. Upon his head was a mask in the shape of a Raven's head. Behind him were two even larger men dressed also in black and heavily armed, who moved with similar grace and stealth. His hands flickered in a gesture. Wilhelm's hands flickered a response. The raven-headed man nodded, studied the four of them for moment and spoke.

"Good to see you again Willy, I see you are keeping well. And you have the most interesting companions. How is the big guy?"

Wilhelm chuckled and replied, "He is quite active and most interested in this event."

The Raven nodded. "I see. One can see from a group this diverse that the Gods would indeed be involved. And this must be little Brell. You have grown most becomingly, my dear, and I see you have some teeth now."

The Raven made an elaborate gallant's bow to Mavigan and her companions. His bodyguards scanned them and the room most alertly, but remained silent. More figures could be sensed moving outside the room.

"The diamond in the rough has been cut." Replied Wilhelm, changing his posture from a bounty hunter's insolent slouch to one almost at attention.

"Has it indeed?" answered the Raven, examining Mavigan and her gear more closely.

"Yes, I see that the hidden jewel has been polished and may well come to shine in the sun. Perhaps it is indeed time it was properly placed in the crown. Very well, let the charade come to an end. A mutual acquaintance has told me that you were coming."

The Raven saluted Wilhelm with respect and then swept a deep bow towards Mavigan.

"Welcome, Lord Wilhelm and Queen Mavigan. The Shadows Guild acknowledges you. How may the Guild be of service to Your Majesty?"

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus watched with amusement as the young girl embraced Ardwen, but he couldn’t help feeling that something was amiss. The girl’s story that she was Ardwen’s niece was clearly false, Elerus knew that he was the closest thing Ardwen had to a brother – and Ardwen had no true living family besides. At first Elerus thought that the small girl was some orphan or abandoned child that Ardwen had decided to protect. However, the more Elerus thought about this, the more unlikely it seemed. As the exchange between the child and Ardwen progressed, Elerus decided quickly that not only did Ardwen not know of the girl, but that he shared the same questions and doubts.

Elerus was about to try and free himself from Ariana’s grip and approach Ardwen when the young girl walked over to him. Elerus took a step back almost by instinct; there was something about the girl that unsettled him, something he deeply felt he should be easily able to see. Regardless, Elerus felt a slight blush to his face when the child mentioned that she liked his wing and asked his name. Elerus took a brief moment to study Angel in turn before saying demurely, “Thank you, Angel. My name is Elerus, and I see you know Ardwen. The lady,” Elerus gestured with his free hand at Ariana, “is called Ariana, but Ardwen will have to tell you about her.”

“El, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go around calling Ariana by name. We should keep her identity secret.” Ardwen said. Elerus had not noticed that his friend had moved closer while he was talking to Angel, but the Elven warrior now stood at the edge of the forest path and faced the small group.

Elerus turned his head to the side to regard Ardwen and said, “Let’s not fool ourselves. If we meet anyone else on this little hike the last thing they’ll notice is Ariana.”

Ardwen blinked his eyes shut slowly and gave a wan smile, “When that happens I’ll deal with it, I don’t want any of you getting in a fight. That goes for you too, Angel. Stay close to us at all times.”

Without another word Ardwen turned and began walking down the forest path again. The Elven bladeweaver paused and looked over his shoulder to make sure the rest of the group was following him.

Elerus turned his attention back to Angel and muttered, “One more bit of advice: don’t let Ariana hold your hand.”

Written by - Sycon

"Okay," Angel said with a smile. Then she promptely reached down, grabbed Elerus's hand. Her focus shifted to Ardwen. "Wait for us!"

Written by - Tempyst

Kaya first went to the druid's grove to find Dorve. The dwarf was sitting with Tempyst and another young lady, making strange gestures with her hands. "Dorve, may I speak with you a moment."

"Most certainly Kaya, excuse me Purgartory, Tempyst." Dorve stood and followed Kaya over to one of the trees in the grove. "What be on yer mind?"

"I received a message from Nyrondis, and plans have changed. I am to go through the portal and fight with Ithramir, after finding my men from my homeland. I don't know if you have recieved any orders from him, but know this, I am to be on the front lines where there is the most danger, to assault first. I know you are a wonderful healer Dorve, but I cannot ask you to be there with me."

"Dorve placed a hand upon Kaya's arm. "Aye, you cannot ask it of me, but Nyrondis can. We be a team lass, good and bad, we be a team. Now, let me tell Tempyst and Purgatory they are on our own, and then we will go find your men."

Kaya smiled and placed her hand on Dorve's shoulder, "Thank you friend, I shall look forward to fighting with you soon." She watched as Dorve went back over to the two young humans. After a few moments and more of the hand gesturing, Dorve left them and entered the main building in the grove. Soon, Dorve returned, geared up for battle.

"Let us be off then Kaya." Kaya nodded and the two of them proceeded through the portal.

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